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Coming to Terms

ISSUE:  Spring 1990

In the hospital Mac told everyone he worked in advertising. “A desk job,” he liked to explain. “I have to sit on my butt all day.” His tone was wry. People would laugh uneasily.

When Mac was out of hearing, the first thing anyone who didn’t already know asked was how did it happen.

“Automobile accident,” I’d tell them.

“Oh,” they’d say. They’d hesitate, but their curiosity always won out. “The waist down?”

I’d nod, knowing they still wanted to know, for instance, how he peed. (“Bladder management” was how his doctors referred to it.)

“He empties a urine bag every eight hours,” I’d volunteer.

As for what I suppose they really wanted to know, that was still an unknown. When it was clear I’d said all I was going to, they’d pat my arm and tell me how lucky we were. We ought to be grateful, they’d say. It could have been worse.

From the first, Mac went out of his way to give the impression he had the situation under control. “Pardon my not getting up,” he’d greet anyone who came to see him. He’d be smiling, all blinking innocence, and whoever it was would shoot me a stricken look.

Mac had always been able to make people do what he wanted them to. He did it with the ease and ingenuousness— the power politics—natural to an adored only child. In fact he had a brother. But Harris, the only reminder of their mother’s first marriage, was a sullen 14-year-old when Mac was born.

Losing control of his body had made Mac even more manipulative. Invariably, visitors left the moment any distraction—say a nurse with an enema syringe—gave them the chance. Which was how he wanted it. In his misery, the last thing Mac wanted was company.

After about a week, the first crisis occurred. “He’s had a breakdown,” the nurse at the desk informed me. Rushing to Mac’s room, I heard her call out that it was minor, only a minor breakdown. I stopped outside, afraid to go in, and put my ear against the closed door. All I could hear was a loud, whirring sound. And a sharp, acrid smell I knew well. Peroxide. I called through the door to ask if it was O.K. for me to come in. Mac’s answer was muffled, affirmative. I pushed open the door. He was on his stomach and Hosea, one of the attendants, was blow-drying his coccyx. Mac’s whole backside was red. “It’s only a superficial breakdown,” Hosea explained. “Thing is, we gotta keep it from worsening to bed sores.” I was so relieved that I laughed. It was his skin—not his mind—they were talking about.

One look at his face, though, and I saw Mac was miserable.

“The reason I said to come in is my feet itch,” he said. “Could you put on some cream please, Meredith?” I thought he was imagining it the way an amputee has sensations in an arm or leg that’s no longer there, but when I got closer I saw that the hard, yellow calluses on the soles of his feet were beginning to peel.

Like the princess and the pea, now everything got under Mac’s skin—even a single crease in a sheet. They tried everything. He wore elbow and heel protectors, there were foam rolls under his ankles, and pillows and pads at pressure points, bony parts. There seemed to be no way to avoid irritating him. The prevention itself was often the cause. Each time he was basted and turned like a roast, every two hours, his skin scraped across the coarse hospital linens. The next day I brought his air mattress from home, which I’d encased in a smooth percale sheet, and he said that it helped—which made me, anyway, feel somewhat better.

He turned his attention back to the television, and I took out the book I had brought. These first evenings together established a routine. Neither of us was really “there.” Mac watched television, I read. When we did speak, it was in whispers. Mac’s roommate, an irritable old fellow named Busch, complained any noise caused him headaches, and Mac was using ear phones to listen. Mr. Busch had broken his hip and now he refused to get out of bed, even for therapy. Fear of falling, his doctor explained. Next thing they knew, he had pneumonia. Being in that room with the two of them was like being alone: small sounds were magnified all out of proportion. A faucet somewhere, ticking. The clicks when Mac changed channels. The sighs of the pages I turned. Mr. Busch’s raggedy breathing. During what Mac referred to as his “stomach shift,” he would often fall asleep. The flickering of the silent screen made me nervous, but if I turned off the set, he’d wake up. By mutual, if unvoiced, consent, we barely spoke. There was little to say, anyway. Mac had lost all interest in what was going on in his absence. At home, at work, in the world. His only distraction was the television and he didn’t seem to care what he watched—as long as it wasn’t the news.

When Johnny Carson came on one night, I got up to go and saw that the lace on one of my running shoes was undone. At the time I didn’t jog; I’d bought them for the subway ride home from the hospital late at night. I sat on the edge of the bed to retie the lace. Mac took the plugs from his ears and as Johnny was doing his monologue, Mac launched into one of his own. He said that if I felt compelled to come every day why didn’t I at least take driving lessons so I could drive there, instead of relying on public transportation. Our car was sitting in front of his parents’ house, he reminded me, depreciating. I didn’t really mind what he said. It was the first thing outside of himself that seemed to concern him since he’d been there. I told him that I’d think about it. On the subway ride home that night, I thought long and hard about what Mac had said. When we were first married, both in college, we couldn’t afford driving lessons on top of tuition, so Mac took me out for a lesson himself once. It lasted as long as either of us could stand—about 15 minutes. Well, there was nothing keeping me from taking driving lessons now. Except the thought of having to put up with his permanent back-seat status when he got out.

Several weeks later, one of Mac’s old high school buddies showed up. He was short and slight and wore cowboy boots with built-up heels that heightened my impression that he was a lightweight.

Predictably, Mac offered his excuses for not rising for the occasion. Instead of swallowing the line, his friend snapped, “Don’t tell me the Big Mac’s taking this lying down!”

I didn’t know what to make of this guy. It was the first time anyone even attempted returning Mac’s serve.

Still playing host, Mac introduced us: “Duke, Meredith.” We shook hands, then Duke pulled a T-shirt out of a bag and held it up: SUPER GIMP was printed across the front. I sucked in my breath, fearful of Mac’s reaction. The only thing in the room that moved was Duke’s Adam’s apple. Then Mac said, “That’s—” and he started to laugh. He laughed until his eyes got wet. “That’s funny as a crutch,” he said when he finally found his voice. “Give it here.” He was flat on his back.

“Need any help?” Duke asked.

Mac struggled to sit up. He’d wiggle into that shirt by himself if it killed him.

“Pull up a chair,” said Mac once the T-shirt was on. “Looking up all the time’s a pain in the neck.” Duke sat down and picked up the salt shaker from Mac’s supper tray. A sticker on it admonished, “HAVE YOU TASTED IT FIRST?”

Duke said, “Guess a lot of people do that. Salt before tasting. With some, it’s ketchup. I was in Burger King the other day? The woman next to me kept staring at my tray. “How can you eat fries without ketchup?” she finally asked.

“I thought about what I was eating, then. I mean, I really paid some attention to those fries. And the funny thing is, I noticed they didn’t really have any flavor. They felt right: crisp, you know? But they didn’t taste at all, other than salt. So I tried one of her extra ketchups and it helped. Ever since, I been noticing lots of things are like that.” He looked at Mac, his eyes bright and intense. “Or the flip side, like the line in that Joni Mitchell song, “Don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” She’s singing about how they cut down trees to put up a parking lot then put the trees in a tree museum, got to pay a dollar-and-a-half just to see “em.”” As he was speaking, Duke’s voice took on the beat of the song. I must have heard that song a hundred times. It was one of my favorites and I played it over and over. Whenever I heard it, I wondered what it was I wouldn’t appreciate until it was gone.

While Duke was talking, the dietitian came in to give Mac the next day’s menus to select.

“What’d you have at lunch?” Mac asked Duke, his pencil poised in indecision.

“Stopped down in the cafeteria before I came up,” Duke said. “But I kind of forgot to eat. See, all over the place there’s these signs. On top of the Coke machine there’s a cardboard tent, three-sided. Something different was written on each side. One said, “Orange juice costs the same.” Another was, “A day without orange juice is like a day without sun.” What was the last?” He squinted with the effort of remembering. “Oh yeah, “Things go better without Coke. (Either kind.)”“

“So there I was, about to pay for the orange juice and sandwich—”

“What kind of sandwich?” asked Mac.

“Tuna. Why?”

“Just wondered.” In the hospital, food had become an obsession with Mac. He ate everything they gave him, and then some, and he was still always hungry. I’d spend hours on buses and Els to get what he asked for: Italian beef from Carm’s, Sammy’s kosher hot dogs, Due’s pizza. I would have thought he’d be putting on weight, but worry and anger seemed to be burning it up.

“Anyway,” Duke went on, “a sign by the cashier said, “DO YOU REALLY NEED THE EXTRA CALORIES?” I put the stuff back and it wasn’t until I was out in the corridor that I remembered I’m ten, 15 pounds underweight.”

Mac made a sound. It was hard to tell whether he was grunting in response or groaning in pain. Duke leaped from his chair. “What’s wrong?”

Mac looked up, his eyes big with sorrow. “Chicken again.”

“No choice?”

“Sure there’s a choice. Breast of Chicken Divan or Batter-Fried Drumsticks.”

“Was me,” said Duke, sitting back down, “I’d take the white meat.”

“I’m a leg man myself.” Mac circled the drumsticks. “Yep. I always did have a special fondness for legs. How’s that song go again? “Don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?” I knew what I had, all right. I had a leg to stand on. An entire pair, as a matter of fact.”

Duke opened his mouth but before he could speak Mac said, “What are you trying to tell me? Am I supposed to be thankful they weren’t amputated? Like all those trees?”

Buds of perspiration sprouted on Duke’s forehead. “Yeah, sort of.” Anyone else would have been squirming out of his seat by now, but Duke stayed stubbornly put.

“I’ll walk you to the elevator,” I offered later when Duke finally stood up to go. In the hallway, Duke wiped his palms on the thighs of his jeans. “How’d you two ever meet?” I asked him.

“Went to high school together. Amundsen.”

“I went there, too. How is it we never met?” I asked.

“Dropped out my junior year,” said Duke.

“Oh. When I started Mac was already a senior.”

“You were just a kid,” Duke said. “Get married young?”

“We were both still in school. College,” I explained.

“You love him, Meredith?”

I didn’t say anything.

“It’s none of my business, I’m sorry. Really, I’ve got such a big mouth. I talk too much when I’m nervous. Boy, was I nervous.” He jerked his head toward’s Mac’s ward.

“I know. He makes everyone nervous.”

“I only asked because . . . well, I just wondered. Cigarette?” He took a crushed pack out of his pocket and held it out.

I shook my head. “We’d better go into the lounge.”

“Maybe I should shove off.”

“Come on,” I urged. “I could use a break.”

In the lounge, the smoke from Duke’s cigarette smelled so good I asked him for one.

He took out the pack again. There was only one cigarette left and it was bent. He straightened it, but I couldn’t draw anything when he held the match to it. “Must be torn,” he said. “Here.” He held out his own cigarette.

“That’s O. K. I shouldn’t anyway,” I told him. “I quit.”

“How’d you do it? My wife’s always after me.”

“When I was pregnant.”

His eyes, which seemed always brighter than normal, ignited. “My wife’s expecting. Yours is how old now?”

“Mine . . . my baby died.” That had been so hard to say that I’d stuttered.

I watched as the fire went out of his eyes. “Jesus, I’m sorry.” He put his hand over mine and squeezed it.

“I don’t think I ever did love him,” I said then. “I think I married him because my mother didn’t want me to.”

“Because you were still in school?”

“Because he’s Jewish. She never came straight out with it. She said we were too young.”

“Maybe she thought you were too young.”

I smiled. “Maybe she did. You know something? That never occurred to me.”

Duke inhaled deeply and let the smoke curl out of his nose. “I didn’t listen to my old lady, either. She always said it would stunt my growth.” As he spoke, he stubbed out the half-finished cigarette. “Guess there was something to it. Mac and me, we used to play handball. The one sport your size shouldn’t matter.” Duke looked down at himself and then back to me, with a shrug of his narrow shoulders. He didn’t look so small to me any more. I’d begun to see that what he said carried plenty of weight. “Still,” Duke was saying, “most days, he could of won hands down, that’s how good he was. So he’d spot me points. A handicap. Thing was, he’d give me so many points that I always won. I hated him for it.”

“I don’t get it.”

“I never once felt like the winner.” Duke sat up in his seat. “I just thought of something terrible.”


“I used to think he set it up so’s to look good. See, if he let me win, he couldn’t lose. But what if maybe he meant it to make me feel good? It’s like with your mother, you know? Maybe it meant what it meant. Maybe I had him all wrong.” He stood up then. “Something to think about. Well, I really better get going. Got a long drive.”

“It was nice of you to come, Duke,” I said at the elevator.

“They don’t call me that any more. My real name’s Dudley. That’s my mother’s family name. Used to punch anyone called me Dud. That’s where Duke came from. Guess Dudley’s one of those names you have to grow into.” The elevator came, but he let the door close without getting in it. “The reason I stopped in the cafeteria was to work up my nerve, you know? I thought I’d really feel sorry for him. Somehow I kind of thought I’d like him more than I used to. That turning into a cripple would change him. I shouldn’t be saying these things to you. You’re stuck for good now, aren’t you.”

I winced; he’d put his finger right on the sore spot I’d been avoiding. If Mac was permanently imprisoned in his body, I’d been given a life term, too. I hadn’t let myself admit that before. Then I thought about that song and realized what I’d had was already gone. I’d lost the very thing Mac had lost: freedom of movement.

“Maybe, just maybe he wanted me to feel like I won,” Dudley said softly, shaking his head. “I have to think about that.”

“Why’d you come now, if you didn’t like him back then?”

“Then was then. Now he needs friends. Anyway, I’ve figured something out. People like people who like them. I would of liked him if he liked me. He didn’t like me.”

“Maybe he did but didn’t show it. Mac doesn’t spend time with people he doesn’t like. Something more to think about.”

This time Dudley got into the elevator. Before the doors slid shut, he said, “I don’t know how he did it, but just now? He made me feel like I’m the one with the handicap.”

When I got back to the room, Hosea had turned Mac over and was rubbing his back. I picked up the book I was reading, but I couldn’t concentrate. My mind was still stuck on what Dudley had said. I was only barely aware when Hosea stopped what he was doing and said, “Something ain’t right. Mr. Busch, he been like that since I come in.”

Mac raised himself on his elbows, glanced at Mr. Busch’s still form, then settled back on his stomach, facing away from the stare of the light over Mr. Busch’s bed. “He’s probably dreaming.” Mac reached back and jiggled Hosea’s hand to get it started again. “When you dream, something automatically happens to your muscles so they can’t move. Read that somewhere. It’s to prevent you from hurting yourself trying to do what you’re dreaming you’re doing.”

“That so?” Hosea’s hand stopped again. “He still ain’t moved.”

Mac said, “It’s when you’re not dreaming that you move a lot. There’s a dream lab at the U. of C. where they pay you to sleep. During the night they measure how much your eyes twitch. Guy I used to know paid for part of his tuition that way. My neck hurts,” he said.

“Sssh,” said Hosea. “You hear anything?”

I listened but didn’t know what I was listening for. It was hot and the window was open. From the court came the labored breathing of air conditioners.

Hosea took away his hand. “Gonna have me a look.”

I heard him move to the other bed. “Mister?” Then the murmur of bedclothes. “Mister?”

I looked up and watched him pick at Mr. Busch’s sleeve.

“Hosea?” said Mac.

Hosea started back towards Mac’s bed, or so I thought, but then he kept on going. He paused at the door. “He’s dead.”

I couldn’t believe Mr. Busch had died without our knowing it. We were only a few feet away. We should have heard something, sensed something. Within seconds, someone was running down the corridor. A nurse, the Indian one, whooshed in and felt for a pulse.

“Airway team, airway team to 414. Airway team, airway team to 414.” Even as the announcement was made, the emergency crew was converging on the room. Someone forgot to close the curtain, but as they did whatever it was they were doing all I could see was a wall of white backsides bent over the bed. Then almost as fast as they’d come they were gone. On Mr. Busch’s bed was a shrouded mound. I stood up to go.

“Stay,” said Mac.

I sat down again. He didn’t want to be alone with the body.

“Neck’s killing me.” Mac summoned a nurse. The same one came back right away. As she came in, she dug something from the pocket of her white pants and bit into it. Feeling Mac’s eyes on her, she walked around the bed and held something out to him. She handed one to me. I took it, thinking it was a macadamia nut, but when I crunched into it, it splintered.

“You eat only what is inside,” she told us.

I did what the nurse did, popping it open between my teeth and shaking out the contents of the pod into my palm: five or six brown grains.

“Cardamom,” said the nurse. “A common spice in Indian cookery. Also, it sweetens the breath. You should not be here,” she finally noticed.

I rose, only too happy to leave.

“Let her stay,” Mac said.

“I suppose it will not kill him,” agreed the nurse. “Just do not say I am the one who said Mrs. Kollman could remain here,” she told Mac. Kollman wasn’t my last name, but it didn’t feel like the right time to say so. She left, smiling.

I put one of the grains into my mouth. I found it unpleasantly bitter, medicinal.

Mac said, “Had he been complaining more than usual? I didn’t notice.”

“He was always complaining,” I complained. “If they came every time he had his light on, they’d’ve needed two extra nurses.”

“If I’ve learned anything,” Mac said slowly, “it’s that only the person in pain feels it. The rest of you don’t even believe it.”

It was hard not to look at the bed. No one had thought to close the curtain. I wanted to go. Instead, I got up and pulled the curtain shut.

“You’ve already crossed your threshhold,” said Mac. “You can’t tolerate my pain any more. You seem to blame me for it.”

“Well,” I said, “Mr. Busch is beyond pain now.”

“That sounds awfully pious.”

“Doesn’t everyone get religion when they’re near death?”

“They mean your own death,” said Mac.

“Isn’t it awful being glad it’s somebody else?” I asked then.

“It’s human,” said Mac.

I took hold of his hand.

“It’s like keeping vigil, isn’t it?” Mac said after a while.

I knew what he meant. Through the curtain we could see the light above Mr. Busch’s bed as if it were an eternal light.

At last Hosea was back pushing a portable cot and followed by another orderly, an Hispanic who had music coming out of him. His radio was nowhere in sight. He had a thin moustache that looked more like two eyebrows that had grown almost together. The gum he was chewing smelled of licorice and he cracked it in time to the music. Then I could hear them hoisting the body onto the cot. I didn’t turn around as they rolled it past me. Within seconds, two nurse’s aides had appeared and changed the sheets. On her way out, one of them looked into the mirror over the basin. She applied lipstick then grimaced, pulling her lips back, checking her teeth for lipstick stains. She glanced towards the bed and saw only Mac, still on his stomach. Then she rubbed her front teeth with the underside of the lapel of her uniform. When she left, I sighed aloud. It was the first time since Mac had been there that we’d been alone.

“I’d better go, too.”

“What time is it?” he asked into his pillow.

“After eleven.”

“Call a cab.”

“There’s a stand downstairs.” I stood up again and gathered my things.


“Why are we whispering?” I whispered.

“I want you to sleep with me,” Mac whispered back.

I wasn’t sure what he meant.

“Stay till it’s light out. I don’t want to be here alone tonight.”

I was standing at the door and he was looking at me, over his shoulder. I switched off the overhead light and felt my way back to the chair. “I’ll be right here,” I said. “Get some sleep.”

I was almost asleep when I heard Mac say, “Call Duke tomorrow, would you? Tell him I was glad that he came.”

“Dudley,” I murmured. “He wants you to call him Dudley.”


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