The Widower's Notebook
Penguin Publishing Group
Copyright © 2018 Jonathan SantloferISBN: 978-0-14-313249-3
All rights reserved.
Nothing Out of the Ordinary
Joy went into the hospital on a Thursday morning in mid-August, a torn ligament or tendon of the knee, a torn meniscus to be specific. Outpatient surgery. No big deal, that's what the doctor said. She had torn it walking up (or was it down?) a flight of stairs at the Museum of Modern Art, and limped around for weeks until finally making the decision to have surgery.
The night before we binge-watched Episodes, the Matt LeBlanc TV series. It had become a favorite, and we loved watching and rewatching it when either one of us was in a bad mood or feeling anxious, and Joy was anxious, though I kept reassuring her everything would be okay. Why wouldn't it be?
I'm sure Joy went to sleep before I did; she always did. I stayed up with Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree, which I had been reading all summer, and did that night, until at least midnight, possibly later.
I can't remember anything specific or dramatic about the next morning, only being at the hospital, squeezing Joy's hand before she was led away to surgery, then settling into the waiting room. I don't remember what I did or what I read, so many of the mundane everyday things have been excised from my memory to make room for the awful ones.
When the surgery was finished we met up in recovery. Joy looked fine. Her doctor (whom I had not met before) breezed in for a minute, didn't say much, and seemed in a hurry to go. He had the cocky arrogance of an aging jock, and I didn't like him. I helped Joy dress and we took a cab home. We had already rented the prescribed ice machine (from the same doctor's office) that encased her leg under a thick canvas wrap that bulged and bloated with icy water pumped through the machine.
The rest of the day was normal other than the fact that Joy was mostly on the couch, leg up, ice machine doing its thing. She walked to and from the bathroom, from bedroom to living room, a good distance in the Flower Market loft we'd bought together more than thirty years ago, and she did this many times because she'd been told to walk.
For a while, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
It is late morning of the following day. Joy is on the living room couch and has been all morning, reading Wolf Hall, or going over notes for Food City, the epic book on the history of New York food she is writing, when she complains of her leg feeling "odd and twitchy" and I notice that her face is flushed. I put my hand against her cheek. She feels warm. I ask her if she thinks she has a fever and she says she isn't sure but doesn't feel "quite right." I suggest she call the doctor, and she does. She tells the nurse or receptionist her symptoms-flushed face, possible fever, odd twitchy feeling in her leg-and says that she is feeling "congested," having some difficulty breathing. There is some conversation back and forth, no more than a couple of minutes, if that. When she hangs up, she says she's been told to wait until her follow-up appointment on Tuesday.
It is a Friday in mid-August.
"That's a long time to wait," I say, and ask again if she feels okay. She says not really, but the doctor's office does not appear worried, so she isn't either.
"No one wants to be bothered on a summer weekend," I say.
I have a few errands to run, some food, computer paper, more ice for the machine. I tell Joy I will be back in an hour, and I am. Joy is still on the couch, reading. I refill the ice machine. Her leg, she says, is feeling "very twitchy."
I suggest we take the ice pack off and have a look, but she doesn't think it's a good idea.
Do we talk about anything else? Dinner, I think. But I can't remember. After more than forty years of marriage we communicate without a lot of talk.
When we were first together we talked nonstop.
We'd met as undergrad art students at Boston University. I was a painting major; Joy, the more practical one, studying art education. A blind date neither one of us wanted-a friend of hers knew a friend of mine. I remember going to pick her up at her dorm, watching her come out of the elevator and walk toward me in her beige mini-jumper, dark tights that showed off her legs, waist-long auburn hair, adorable pug nose and freckles. Irish, I thought (though it turned out she was Jewish). On the MTA trolley we talked easily and she smiled a lot and I noticed her perfect teeth (braces, I later learned), then her beautiful hands, long tapered fingers and surprisingly long nails, unlike other art school girls whose nails were usually cut short and crusted with paint, like mine.
I am in my studio at the back of the loft, too far away to hear if Joy calls-down a long hallway, past the kitchen, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and JoyÕs office, plus my studio walls are soundproof-but she has her cell phone in case she needs me, and I can be by her side in less than a minute.
In the studio, I get to work on a book I have been trying to finish about a cop who loses his family in a random shooting, a novel with a loose association to Crime and Punishment, which I had recently reread, and had become obsessed with. My novel was unresolved, though Joy, always my first and best reader, liked it, and encouraged me to keep going. I remember thinking that I had gotten something wrong, something very basic to the story, that the villain, a hit man at the end of his days, should be the stand-in for Raskolnikov, not my hero cop, which is the way I had written it. It seemed like a revelation and I made notes on how I might rewrite it.
Normally, Joy would be right next door in her office, also soundproof, though we shared a wall. We had been working at home together for the past decade. Though there were times I found the togetherness a bit much, there was comfort in it too, like having an artist's colony of two. In grandiose moments I could imagine we were Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman or Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne.
My Raskolnikov notes did not take long. I couldn't have been in my studio for more than a half hour before going back to check on Joy, though she had not called.
Halfway down the hall I see her face is pale and she is reaching out to me. In my head I hear her say, Where have you been? but I donÕt think she says anything, her ability to speak already reduced to a croak, her eyes wide with a look I have never seen before: something between terror and pleading. I rush to her side and get my arms around her. She is gasping for breath and I tell her to breathe slowly as I fumble with my cell phone-or was it hers?
From the time I speak to the 911 operator until the firemen and paramedics arrive seems like hours though it is only a matter of minutes. The whole time I'm cradling Joy in my arms, telling her to breathe slowly, her eyes open wide and she grips my hand tightly as I repeat, "Hold on."
Then there are sirens outside and the buzzer is sounding, but how do I answer the bell? I can't move her, can't leave her, her breathing is labored-the buzzer is shrieking-I'm talking to her, relax, breathe, relax, breathe, but how to take the ten, twelve necessary steps to the elevator, to press the button to let the firemen in, but then I'm doing it, leaning Joy upright against the couch, her head lolls to the side and I try to right her but can't, the buzzer is shrieking again and I'm up now, sprinting across the room, pressing the buzzer that releases the building's front door, and I see them in the security camera-firemen in full gear-in the lobby, then crowding into the elevator, and when I hear the elevator engage I dash back to Joy, who is close to tumbling over and I am just getting my arms around her, gently pulling her toward me, when the elevator doors open and the firemen burst into the room.
Everything is moving fast, firemen and paramedics in overdrive. Someone has tugged me away, my heart beating wildly, head light as if filled with helium, and I watch, a helpless man observing from the sidelines, though I see it in detail, every second of it becoming etched in my mind's eye, an endless movie loop, which later will become readily accessible at the flip of a synaptic switch, never something I do voluntarily but always with me and playing too often.
There is little talk other than the directions spoken quietly but urgently from one paramedic to another, over and under the pounding thoughts in my head: This can't be happening-they are saving her-they are losing her-she will be okay-she is dying.
I cannot say how long any of this goes on. The action is only a few feet in front of me, yet distant and far away as if I am watching through the wrong end of a telescope, in high definition one moment, blurred and indistinct the next, intensely real and unreal, all of it spiraling out of control just beyond my reach. My body is tingling though disconnected; I can't locate any feelings other than helplessness and panic, though I am trying hard not to show it, to act normal. Several times I ask what I can do, how I can help, but if there are any answers I no longer remember them.
I am the invisible man, there and not there.
The first paramedic team is replaced by a second, a woman, who seems more like a doctor, the others following her lead like Kabuki stagehands, in silence.
Finally, someone asks me a question: Is there another elevator, because the stretcher will not fit into the passenger elevator. I tell them there is a freight elevator and they ask me to get it and I am thankful to do something. I race down the stairs, six flights to the basement, then into the freight elevator, a dark, old device from the 1920s, where I flip the on switch and check the connections, things I have done countless times in the thirty years I have lived in the building, but cannot get it to work. Over and over I am flipping switches and checking contacts, sweating and cursing and crying without knowing it until I taste tears on my lips. After a dozen more frantic attempts I give up and race up the basement stairs, cursing the machine and myself.
In the lobby, a neighbor I hardly know, a fairly new tenant, asks what's going on. There are fire engines and an ambulance in front of the building, their beacons streaking beams of startling red light through the glass doors and across the lobby, and the firemen have stopped the passenger elevator on my floor, so no one can use it. I can't imagine what I look like or how I am acting, but I must say something that makes sense, something about my wife being ill and that I can't get the freight elevator to work, before I race back up the five flights to tell the firemen and paramedics that the freight elevator isn't working at precisely the moment the new neighbor brings it to a stop on my floor.
Back in the loft I take in the scene as if for the first time: a swarm of paramedics and firemen in the living room and my wife on the floor, oxygen mask over her face. They lift her onto a gurney, which they carry into the stairwell, then into the freight elevator. I follow the other firemen and paramedics, all of us crowded into the passenger elevator, no one speaking, walkie-talkie devices chirping.
Outside, the world has gone surreal, the streets and buildings, stores and pedestrians dissolving, everything a vague painted backdrop behind the high-definition foreground action-my wife, unconscious on a stretcher, ambulance doors opening, paramedics lifting her in. I can't say if the day is hot or cool, if the sky is clear or cloudy. Street noise alternates between distant and deafening, sirens far away and muted one minute, shrieking the next. I try to get into the ambulance. I think I am shouting that I must stay with my wife when someone stops me and explains that it's more important for the emergency crew to be with her, once again the superfluous man.
I stand in the middle of the street, watching myself: lost, shrinking, weightless, and porous, as if I could blow away. Then someone has me by the shoulders and directs me into a car with the fire chief. I think it's the fire chief; I'm still not sure. So many factual details are gone while so many others are etched, sharp and clear.
I sit beside him, a man with a grim, determined face that I could draw from memory, and see the ambulance in front of us, filling the windshield like an oversized video game, lights flashing, siren blaring as we speed through the city, going the wrong way down one-way streets, buildings blurring, everything gray, color leached as if sucked away by our speed, feeling as though I am floating somewhere above the scene while I grip my seat so hard my fingers ache, none of it real, yet intensely, horrifically real, even while I continue telling myself: This can't be happening-you are dreaming-you are going mad.
The car radio crackles to life with static chatter and I am startled into the moment. I need to say something, to ask a question, but my mouth won't work. I swallow; it feels as if there is glass in my throat. I open my mouth but no words come out. I try again. You know how to do this. I take a couple of quick shallow breaths and manage a sentence, "Just-tell me-she is-going-to be-all right." After a long moment the fire chief says, "They're doing all they can," the whole time staring straight ahead, his voice uninflected, never once taking his eyes off the road. It is a canned response, one I will hear again.