Dave bends over one of four turkey-baster-like bulbs suspended in white cotton sacks from the imposing fifties-style bra that protects my new scarred, but implant-enhanced, breasts. Each rubber globe is attached to a two-foot long drain that snakes from my side. It is Dave’s job to “milk” the tubes and measure whatever fluid has collected. This will be an exciting new phase of our relationship.
Some men might shirk from such a task. Not my husband. A failed chemistry exam his junior year in high school crushed his hopes of being a doctor. He is positively giddy about exercising those untried medical skills.
His eyes are bright behind wire-rimmed glasses as he extracts bulb #1 from its pouch. He has drawn up a chart, to be typed later, with blocks to be filled in with dates, times and fluid amounts. My plastic surgeon is a babe – a babe he’d like to impress – and surely his attention to detail will not go unnoticed. Of course, he wants to take good care of me as well.
As he squeezes the tubing through his thumb and forefinger, I wince, anticipating a tug, but he is very gentle. He holds the bulb, trailing its accompanying drain, up to the light so we can study the level of liquid.
“What do you think?” he asks.
“Maybe it’s closer to 34,” he says, writing down that number on the chart.
This is not an exact science.
He repeats the process three more times. Our heads are bent close together, both of us watching his fingers and the movement of pink fluid through the tube.
I love Dave’s hands. Where both of us show our age in graying hair and lined skin, his hands haven’t changed in the thirty-seven years we’ve been together. They are strong and boyish, olive-skinned, and I have kissed those hands many times in the past few days after they’ve plumped my pillows, placed on my lap a tray of juice and melon garnished with a green sprig of fresh mint, helped me dress, washed my hair.
“I wish I could do this for you,” he has said of the cancer and surgery. “I wish it were happening to me instead.”
I know what he means. I know he hates the fact that he could not protect me. But, oh, I am grateful for the roles Fate has allocated. I can do this. I could not stand to watch Dave or one of our children endangered.
Many people, after asking how I’m doing, will ask, “and what about Dave? Is he okay?”
He has a good game face, and I think it’s sincere for now. My prognosis is excellent and now that I’m home, he can contribute to my well-being. “I can’t have the disease for you, but I can keep the house clean, cook, and take care of you.” He is the best of men.
When we were younger, often he’d wake to the sound of me sniffling into my pillow because I’d brought myself to tears in imagining him lost to some disaster. “How did you kill me off this time?” he’d ask in a voice of kind resignation.
I’d bawl, embarrassed that I’d bothered him, but glad, so glad, to have him with me, alert and well and whole, in our bed. “A car accident,” I’d sob. “The police had just called and I asked Steve to go with me to the hospital.” This happened more times than I care to confess. Dave would always pull me close and nuzzle my hair, kiss my cheeks, and say, “It’s not going to happen. I’m not going anywhere.”
It was as if I were practicing, hoping that if I lived through enough of the calls and funerals in my mental-movies, I’d be able to deal with it better when I had to. I’m not sure what made me stop those sad fantasies. As we got older, perhaps I worried I was putting too dangerous a possibility out to the Universe.
After the bulbs are empty, we go downstairs and Dave sets me up on the back porch. He arranges a backrest of pillows on the wicker loveseat and brings me a glass of ice water with a wedge of lemon on the rim. I write a few thank you notes while he does a crossword puzzle. I read a little. Some friends stop by. After an hour or so, I feel as whiny and petulant as a child needing a nap. It’s all I can do not to cry. I look desperately at Dave and catch his eye. He rises from his chair saying, “Great to see you! Lea needs to head in for a rest now.”
A new phase of our relationship indeed.
After I give good-bye hugs and kisses, Dave walks the guests to their car while I head inside and upstairs. I stop in Casey’s room to fetch her pink bunny from the top of her closet. I’d put him away soon after returning from the hospital in the belief that I didn’t need him anymore. Guess I was wrong. It still hurts to stretch my arms, but I want Pink Bun, so I stretch anyway and then shuffle to my bed clutching the flannel rabbit just like sleepy Casey used to do as a toddler.
Our bedroom is brilliant and aromatic with the colors and scent of countless flowers. Yellow roses, lavender irises, sunflowers, delphinium, lilies, snapdragons. A garish royal blue feather boa is draped over one window – a gift from my friend Gail who demonstrated with a flourish: “When people ask how you’re doing, flip the boa dramatically over your shoulder and say, ‘I feel marvelous!’”
A photograph of a sandy beach, with cobblestones arranged to form “LEA,” is on my bureau. I cried when Hallie gave it to me. So thoughtful, so enduring, my name in stone.
A teddy bear from our neighbors sits in the window, a healing angel from Sharon on my bedside table. I’ve received books, pajamas, meals, pies and brownies. Every day, Dave serves me a plate of daisy-shaped melon and pineapple, remnants of several “Edible Arrangements” from dear friends. A wooden bucket next to my bed is crammed with cards, not only from those I love, but some from my sister’s friends, from Carey’s friends, from relatives I rarely see, from acquaintances I know only from committees and meetings. I have been embraced and buoyed by waves of kindness.
But right now, I feel lonely and sad. I wish Dave were here.
He is downstairs, playing the piano ever-so-softly. Is he playing for fun or a lullaby for me? The song is Tom Waits’ “Serenade,” one of my favorites. I think of this song as the sound track of our lives: it is beautiful and poignant and Dave plays it often. I hold Pink Bun close and sniffle at my good fortune in all the love that surrounds me, and in this dearest of men at the piano.
“Serenade” ends and he shifts to something else. The melody is familiar; what is it? He’s playing it slower than usual, soulful, heart-felt. Ah, it’s The Beatles’ “She Loves You.”
Since my return from the hospital, as Dave has bustled about, joyfully bearing the newest lovely arrangement to my side, vacuuming, or making the bed, I have said, “Honey, do you know how much I love you?” He always says yes, but too often in taking him for granted, I’ve been snappish and dismissive. Does he see beyond that?
The piano is quiet. I hear footsteps on the stairs. As if he’s felt the pull of my loneliness, Dave has come to me. We smile at each other as he enters the room.