Today my mom, dad and I went with our close family friend Eve to the hospital/comfort care center to visit her husband Charlie. Everyone calls him Chuck, and I know him as “Uncle Chuck.” Hes not my uncle by blood or anything, but my brother and I grew up with them as our next door neighbors our entire childhood on Taylor Road in Groton, and we always called them “Aunty Eve and Uncle Chuck.” They were one of those couples that always seemed to be stuck in time; as if they both remained the same age year after year.They never changed. Same hairstyle, same type of clothes, same habits, same routine. Their yellow house next door looked the same every single Christmas, and they both seemed to revel in their sameness. It was wonderful, and comfortable, and they liked it. And then about seven years ago, something weird happened. Uncle Chuck started getting sick, and old. And sometimes, when you live right next door to someone forever and see them everyday, you dont notice them getting old. But because I lived in NJ and would come home to Groton Massachusetts every few months; I started to notice that the once quick-witted, funny, stubborn, nice as hell guy I always knew … was becoming a bit less quick, and a lot more stubborn.
He was also starting to forget things a lot more often; and this was someone who was extremely detail-oriented and self-sufficient. He got worse with each trip home I made with Don. And then when Don and I got married and Uncle Chuck and Aunty Eve made the 5 hour drive up to Long Island to be at our wedding, Uncle Chuck forgot to pack Aunty Eve’s suitcase in the car. They didnt realize this until it was too late, and the wedding was set to begin in less than an hour. I still remember Aunty Eve coming up to me and Don at the cocktail hour, whispering to both of us in her classic sarcastic way: “If only you knew what hell I went through to GET here Kelley! Don’t ever say we never did anything for you!” She laughed like hell. Turns out Chuck, Eve, and their daughter Cheryl had to drive around Long Island, a place they were all completely unfamiliar with, and search for a store so Eve could buy a dress, panty hose, and shoes to wear to the wedding. All they could find was a Wal-Mart. With no time to spare, they bought the first thing they saw, grabbed some pantyhose off the shelf, shoes, and got back in the car. Apparently Aunty Eve was putting her pantyhose on and her dress over her head as they pulled up to the wedding ceremony; and the pantyhose were way too small and continued to fall down to her shoes the entire evening. Don and I never heard the end of it from Eve on that one. And that was the beginning of Chuck’s downfall.
There was one time when Uncle Chuck slipped and fell in his house, and Don rushed over there to put his EMT-hat on and help get him into the car and to the hospital. I remember how good Don was that day at making Uncle Chuck feel comforted; like everything was going to be okay. “How we doin today Chuck? Not a great day, huh? Its not fun to fall down, is it? It sucks. We’re gonna get you to the hospital and take care of you okay? Then you can come back home and see your doggies. Here, grab my hand.” He did that with all his patients; whether he knew them personally or not. He had a gift for easing others pain and calming them down. If Don was around, you knew you would be okay. After that day, there were more trips to the hospital, until finally those trips became permanent and now he was staying in the “comfort care” section of the hospital, which is where we were headed to visit him.
Dad was driving, Eve was in the passenger seat, and I was in back with mom. I started getting that nauseous feeling again; the one Ive had in the pit of my stomach since Don died. It feels sort of like someone punched me in the gut about 50 times in a row, and then threw me on a roller coaster that never stops. It feels like Im on a boat, and the waves are slow and endless, and there is no shore. It feels like I want to throw up, except I dont have to throw up. I can feel another panic attack coming on, so I try and talk myself out of it. We sit on a bench outside before going into the hospital, and this old man comes out of the front doors and his spine and body are shaped like a boomerang. His head is literally facing the concrete and he is walking sideways. He has keys in his hand because he is walking to his car. This man cant see two feet in front of him, and can barely tackle walking; but he is about to drive home. He looks like death but he makes some lighthearted joke about the weather as he goes by us. I only half hear him. We walk into the hospital, and down several long hallways. We pass a slew of old people who have given up on life, or who have had no choice but to give up on life. Or life gave up on them. Their bodies and their minds stopped functioning, and now they sit, slumped over in metal chairs, being spoon-fed Jello and banana pudding by some overworked nurse named Helen. We go into a room at the end of one of these long hallways, and on the door it says “Chuck Wheeler.” He is one of these people now.
My parents and I sit in chairs at the foot of his bed, and Aunty Eve goes over to wake him. He is asleep and wearing pajamas. He jolts awake by her familiar touch, and they kiss each other on the lips in a very familiar, routine, immediate way. There is no thought behind it, and there is something very loving about it to me. They have had a lifetime together; and you can feel all those years in the way they talk, or dont talk, or look at one another. Eve sits at the foot of the bed, and Chuck looks up at us. His hair is all over the place like it hasnt been combed or cut in months. His eyes are exhausted, and his breathing is labored. He says hello to us, and then everyone begins talking around him and about him as if he is not in the room. This is what people have been doing to me lately too, and so I immediately feel for him. Everyone is acting like he is invisible, and he is a human being trying to reach out. He sits up fast and tells his wife “sit here.” She asks why, and he says, as if its obvious, “I just want you to be comfortable, that’s why.”
I start tearing up watching them. It is nothing romantic I am seeing. Its just the opposite. It is two people who have shared many years together, a marriage, children, a life. I am seeing the everyday workings of what happens when you have all those years together, and when you get old and sick. My eyes start to well up and I feel like I need to leave the room. I start thinking about how Uncle Chuck is probably so far from his right mind that Aunty Eve probably didnt even tell him that Don had died. And then I think about how sick he is and how he can hardly breathe because he has pneumonia on top of the Alzheimers and the bad eye sight and the almost full-hearing loss; and the strangest feeling comes over me.
Jealousy. I am jealous. I am jealous of the length of their union. I am jealous that they got to grow old together, to die close to each other, without having to live so many years without the other. I am jealous that when their loved ones died in life; they got to hold on to one another and get each other through that. I am jealous of every cup of coffee they had together each and every morning; and Im jealous that they held onto each others arm to help one another up the stairs. I am jealous of their years. Here he is, in a bed, sick as a dog, and Im jealous. It is the weirdest feeling, and it passes within a couple of minutes. When I leave the room, Uncle Chuck strains his eyes to look at me, and finally says “Good to see you Kelley. Take care.” I take his hand and tell him it was good to see him too, and I tear up again, realizing this is probably the last time I will ever see him.
(And it was. Uncle Chuck died peacefully on December 20, 2011. Rest in Peace Charles Wheeler.)