Nonfiction: Home Care

While the dying woman sleeps, her husband shows me her obituary.

I’ve been on shift since 8 a.m.—a home care aide hired to sit with the woman for twelve hours, to moisten her cracked lips and change her linens, to spoon-feed her crushed pills for pain. It is now 5:30. The husband has fixed himself a cocktail and put on a clean shirt. He waits for his niece and nephew to return from their hotel. They arrived in Idaho this morning and insist on taking him to dinner.

The obituary is brief, the dying woman’s life condensed into a typed, single-spaced paragraph: she modeled for Estée Lauder in New York, then moved out west so her husband could open his dentistry practice. Married fifty years. Three children. No photograph. Her hospital bed faces the sliding glass door in the den and the golf green that gives way to gauzy valley sage and the Snake River. Loose waves of brown hair frame her face, a touch of silver at the temples. Her cheekbones are high, her skin smooth. The obituary doesn’t say her brain is full of tumors.

The husband waits for his company in the living room. He has arranged a plate of yellow cheese slices and Saltines on the coffee table in front of him. I tell him he must be proud of his wife’s accomplishments. 

“Are you married?” He holds his drink with both hands.

“Yes,” I say. “Five years.”

“Do you have your own home?”

I nod. We bought our first house a month ago.

“You save and save and—” He clears his throat and looks away. “Appreciate each other.”

They just moved into this house, their retirement home, and the remodeling is not yet finished. This morning the tile layers cut and glued the caramel-colored backsplash to the wall above the kitchen counter.

I return to his wife. I sit in a chair in the corner and watch her sleep. My husband and I had a fight last night, and I left for work before he woke. We’re also remodeling and argue intensely about all we need to do to make our house livable. The walls and vents, the cupboards and range, were infested with mice, and we had to gut the whole thing—ripping out all the carpet, stripping the wood paneling from the moldy basement walls. Nests rained from the ceiling. Now we’re running out of money, and the cruelty of our words is unforgivable.

Sometimes I really hate you.

Then why don’t you just go?

The woman coughs, the saliva white and thick on her lips. I wet a swab with hydrating solution and work it inside her cheeks and over her swollen tongue.

After the husband leaves with his company, I scrape the crackers and cheese into the trash. I’ve given the woman more medication, and her sleep is deep. I try to read, but can’t concentrate, so I go into the kitchen and wipe the dust from the newly cut tiles with a damp paper towel. Then when it nears 8:00, time for my shift to end, I tidy the medical supplies in the den, the swabs and bottles of cream. The house is quiet, only the woman’s breathing and the hum of the refrigerator in the next room, and I feel an aching for my husband I haven’t felt in a long time.

 Outside it is dark. The dying woman’s reflection is in the sliding glass door, and beside her, mine. Earlier she tangled her legs in the bedrails, frantically trying to get up because she wanted to brush her teeth, so her husband, the dentist, brought her a toothbrush. He cupped his hand over hers. “Open your mouth,” he murmured, and she closed her eyes and parted her lips as if waiting for his kiss. He guided the toothbrush over the tops and bottoms of her teeth and across her pale gums. He cradled her head so she could spit into a plastic basin. He smoothed her hair away from her face and kissed her forehead, her nose, her chin. Then he tried to tell her something, a whisper, but his voice broke. Instead he squeezed her hand, and we listened to the whine of the saw cutting through the tile, the scrape against the wall when a new piece was set in place, nodding each time the dying woman asked if the tile matched the linoleum, if the colors she chose looked pretty.

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Jennifer Anderson is an English instructor at Lewis-Clark State College. Her work has been published in The Missouri Review, the Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Cimarron Review, Brevity, and Open Spaces Quarterly, among other places. Two of her essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and she was an AWP Intro Journal Projects winner. Anderson has also co-directed four documentary films, “Bad Writing,” “Confluence,””Massacred for Gold,” and “The Act of Becoming.”