“Can you help me?”
My husband’s voice was still his voice, despite everything. There was comfort in that.
“Of course,” I said. I couldn’t remember if I was an agreeable wife before pneumonia capsized one of my husband’s lungs and tried to float him away, but I was an agreeable wife afterwards.
I walked to the small bathroom attached to his hospital room and retrieved his razor and shaving cream from the canvas bag I packed them in that morning. I set them on the skinny sink ledge and half-filled the sink with warm water. It was the middle of the night, but time stopped meaning much to me on the day my husband was admitted.
When I returned, my husband was sitting on the side of the bed. He was down twenty pounds, which disappeared from the most unusual places: his neck, his forearms, his calves. He looked like a patchwork version of the man I brought to the hospital three weeks ago, a delirious stumbling man with a 105-degree fever.
Before he stood, he tested his legs, making sure they’d hold him. He didn’t want to fall like the last time, crumpling like a piece of paper. This time, his legs held, a sign that he was gaining some strength back, although he still resembled the wooden boy who was granted the gift of life by a fairy godmother. Maybe that’s what happened to my husband. Maybe his fairy godmother appeared in the middle of the night and turned his fate around. Maybe that was how he survived.
Once he was on his feet, he swayed a little. When I reached out to steady him, he accepted my help, which was how I knew that he still felt bad.
Since he no longer needed around-the-clock meds, he was free to stand and move around unhindered, which may not seem like much, but to move without an IV rack was a freeing experience, we learned.
Slowly, he inched towards the bathroom. With each step, he leaned closer to me, resting his weight against my arm, then my shoulder, then my side. I maneuvered myself so that I avoided pressing on his PICC line and he maneuvered himself so that he wasn’t directly leaning on my belly, which had swollen over the last eight months to accommodate an eight pound baby girl who would meet us in a few short weeks.
When we stumbled into the bathroom, I deposited him on the closed lid of the toilet, where he sat like a bent constellation and caught his breath. The fifteen feet we traveled might as well have been a half marathon. The two weeks he spent unconscious and on a ventilator had eaten away at his body, atrophying everything he’d ever taken for granted. I wanted to tell him that he did a good job, but I didn’t know how to make it sound un-patronizing, so I stayed silent. Our first five years of marriage already taught me how to give gifts such as these.
He remained seated while he lathered his face with shaving cream. Red whiskers poked out from beneath the foam like crocus buds in early spring. I’d never seen him go this long without shaving. After one week of growth, maybe two, he usually clawed at his facial hair like some dogs dig at the soft earth. It’d been over a month since he last shaved and I knew that if he didn’t shave tonight, he wouldn’t be able to do anything else until he did; he would be stuck like driftwood on the sea. It was one of his most frustrating qualities.
Using the sink for balance, he steadied himself in front of the mirror and began to hack through his pseudo-beard, exposing the soft flesh of his face in thick lines. I watched him closely, like a mother watches a child, although I couldn’t yet spot the resemblance. In my head, I thought I was watching to see if his youth returned, if the thirty-year-old that I’d spent the last decade with would re-emerge, but he didn’t. Trauma had aged him in the hard way that it does, carving sharp angles where soft curves used to be. The husband I knew a month ago was gone forever and the wife I was left, too, I suppose, tripping behind him as we were pulled through life.
With every stroke of the razor against his skin, my husband’s body dropped a little against the sink like a balloon gently deflating. Five strokes in, he sat again, breathing hard. Like so many things that month, I found it hard to watch, so I moved back to his room and started straightening the bed. Once I blew out the sheets and rearranged the pillows, I spent some time looking out the window into the parking lot below us.
Even in middle of the night, there was a handful of cars in the lot, and I wondered who owned them, why they were at the hospital so late. I wondered if any of them belonged to the families of the two people who shared the Intensive Care Unit with my husband before he was moved to the general wing.
My own car was easy to spot: a dented red station wagon almost as old as me. I left the hospital every morning at six a.m. to shower at home, change my clothes, and return in time to talk to my husband’s team of doctors, who started doing rounds at nine, I’d learned. I parked under the same slender maple tree every time. There was comfort in that.
At night, I tried to sleep as much as I could, which was hard between my pregnancy, the barely-cushioned bench that I’d claimed as my bed, and my husband, who hadn’t slept at all since being removed from the ventilator. Some nights he laid awake and talked to me, asking me an endless stream of questions about what happened: how long he was sick, how he got to the hospital, how long he was unconscious. He didn’t remember a thing since he woke up with a 105-degree fever a month ago.
Some nights he didn’t talk, he just stared up at the ceiling. On those nights, I slept sparingly, shaken awake every hour or so by the cold hands of panic, worried that he stopped breathing again. Sometimes, I wondered what this stress was doing to our baby.
When I returned to the bathroom, my husband was almost done shaving but too tired to finish. I draped a towel over one hand and used the other hand to shave his neck, following his instructions. He tilted his head up like a baby bird begging for food.
Doing something like that normally made me feel nervous but I didn’t then, which was how I knew that I was still in survival mode.
My husband waited for me to drain the sink and clean his razor. He didn’t thank me, a sign that he was still not himself either. I wondered how long we’d stay like that, shelled versions of ourselves.
Our journey back to his bed reminded me of a game called Ragdoll that I used to play as a child, where one person fell as limp as a doll and the other person dragged them around. I played it with my husband once. He found it annoying.
That night, he stared silently up at the ceiling; no questions, just labored breathing that the doctors insisted would amend itself in a week or two, but I kept a close ear on it. The doctors had been wrong before. I tried not to think about that too much, about what would have happened if I had just kept my husband at home instead of bringing him to the hospital. About what would have happened if he’d stopped breathing at home, rather than the hospital.
I considered asking him what he was thinking about, except I already knew. There was nothing else to think about but the days we already passed within those white walls. They repeated in my mind like high tide pounding a rocky cliff.
Even as I searched for sleep, the baby inside of me kicked against my abdomen. I rested my hand against my skin, trying to soothe her, even though I wasn’t sure that was possible. She kicked again. It was mesmerizing, the strength of a person. There was comfort in that.