A Long Dark Staircase Down by David Hirzel


The last of the doctors to give us the final word said, “. . . a year, maybe two” and escorted us to the door.  We left, in shock.  Out in the hall, we weren’t even sure.  Could a final diagnosis be given in such an offhand manner?  With such ambiguity, when if it is, is it final?  We went back in, and asked him:  Did you mean, she can expect to live a year, maybe two, and that is it?  No one used the words death or dying, certainly not us for whom it meant a final parting, before two years had passed.

 And not the doctor.  A senior oncologist, yet, who was squeamish about saying to his patients face-to-face:  you are going to die soon.

We went out to the hospital parking lot and sat down in the car.  And broke down in tears.

And went about our business.  Unschooled in these matters, we went back to our life, a life now clouded with a certain knowledge that it would come to an end before long, whether or not we could make ourselves ready for it.  Back to work, until that became untenable.  Back to fretting over the kids, trying to keep the bills paid, trying to think everything would keep on as it had been.

That illusion didn’t keep well, coming to an abrupt conclusion a few months later when she sat on the couch and wordlessly gestured toward her mouth, mouthing the words:  I can’t breathe.  I was surprised when I dialed 911, how the nearby fire department siren went off immediately, how the EMTs were at the door within minutes, how they hustled her out into the back of the ambulance and told me to meet them at the ER, and she was gone. 

I drove the sixty-odd miles in a daze.  When I got there, she was already unconscious, tubes down her throat and wires off her wrists. 

She remained that way three days.  When she awoke, the trach was still down her throat, so she had to write notes to me.  During the helicopter flight, they had not turned on the oxygen.  The trach was in her throat, but there was no air going through it and with her vocal chords obstructed that way the only thing she could do was thrash, and point, and after a while they understood and turned on the oxygen.  I kept her notes for a long time, but I don’t have them anymore. 

In the end, the oncologist was right.  Twenty-two months I sat by her bedside, watching with her endless hours of cooking shows and Judge Judy. Every day she got more beautiful.  The more she wasted away, the more withered and pale she became, the more she glowed for me with an inner light, the voice and peace of an angel.

For me it was like going down a darkened staircase, into a pitch-black cellar.  Every day another step down, as the light grew less and less. Knowing that somewhere ahead in the growing darkness, there would be one last step, but never knowing if the next would be the last step.  The next?  Or the next? Only that one day there would be, that one last step.

She couldn’t breathe if she wasn’t propped upright in the bed, so we kept her propped up against the wall, under the window, looking toward the mirror on the wall opposite so she could see the hummingbirds coming to the feeder just outside, just above her head.  When she slept, which was often, given the massive amounts of painkillers required every day, I would stand at the bedroom doorway beside that mirror, looking at my bride, so pale and drawn.  Watching her sleep, propped up like that, under the window.

One day—it was twenty-two months from the first diagnosis—that final step down into the abyss came.  She breathed her last.  I closed her eyes for her.  When the hospice nurse came, she helped me prop my dead wife up under the window again.  She looked like she had for all those months, like that.  Only no longer breathing.  I turned off the oxygen generator.  Silence in our bedroom, for the first time in a year.

I put one last rose in her hand, and there she lay until the mortuary came and took my wife away.

And now sixteen years on, I still have that rose, all dried and kept in a ziplock bag.  That, with a few photographs and a thousand memories, is what I have of her now. 

I relive all that from time to time, as I write these words tonight, but other times too, just to keep in touch with those precious moments when, as she became more and more ravaged by the cancer, she became more beautiful every single day.  To me.


All rights reserved. Please ask permission of the author to reproduce or use this work in any form.