The Empty Side Of The Bed takes the reader into the inner life of a woman struggling to come to terms with the death of her husband. She feels loving and loyal to him she she mires herself in despair about his eternal absence, a focus that keeps her life at a standstill. But her attempts to let him go arouse such intense self -loathing for abandoning him that she swings back to obsessing about her loss. Finally she finds a path leading out of these racking mood swings.
The Empty Side of the Bed By Dorothy M. Jones
When I woke this morning, first thing, my hand reached out for him--and landed on a cold, empty stretch of sheet. I rose, and as I made the bed by myself, an image floated before my eyes. Danny and I are making the bed together. He grumbles at me for laying the sheet right side up rather than on the reverse side as his mother did. I hurry the process. He smiles and calls me his impatient darling.
I collapsed on top of the bed, my shoulders twitching, my chest as raw as if it had been raked. How long, dear lord, how long? It’s been five months already. I’d faced the death of loved ones before, my brother and parents, but with them, I bounced back much faster. Didn’t people call me ‘Jenny the strong’? Of course Danny’s death was different. Though I missed the others, still do, their deaths didn’t shred my insides the way Danny’s does. Half the time I don’t know who I am or what I want. The other half I simply go crazy.
Take my evenings. I could read or listen to music or play chess with my computer, but what do I do? I sit in my recliner recording every single detail of the events during his last two weeks, events I knew by heart, but some will stronger than mine drives my hand to that tablet and pen and makes me repeat the exercise night after night.
I usually begin with that cold winter day, colder than usual for Anchorage, in Dr. Newman’s windowless examining room. Dr. Newman strides in, straddles a stool facing Danny, and says right out, “bad news; metastisis to the neck and throat.”
Danny’s face turns white as lime; his breath comes out in short gasps, but he manages to say, “what’s the next step?”
Danny straightens his shoulders. “When do we start?”
Newman looks away from him, and says: “After we put tubes in your stomach and throat.”
When I hear the word ‘tubes’ bile rising from my stomach to my throat gags me.
Danny puts his hand on my shoulder. “Jenny, it’s a lifeline.”
A raspy voice comes over the loudspeaker: “Dr. Newman, Dr. Newman, come to the emergency room.”
As soon as he leaves, Nurse Apple, who’s been present from the start, moves her chair close to Danny’s. “Do you want me to tell you what life on the tubes is like?” she asks.
Danny’s breath catches in his throat but he whispers agreement.
Speaking slowly and without hesitation, Nurse Apple describes every gory detail: “you’ll never again be able to talk or eat a meal; your wife will have to clean your tubes every day; the radiation will make you so sick you’ll pray for death.” The bib over her ample chest is soaked with sweat when she finishes.
Danny sits stiff as a fence post, stroking his drooping moustache, something he does when he’s thinking hard, and then, in a steady voice, says to the nurse, “Thank you, my dear.”
My heart stops. I know that thank you means he’s decided to forego treatment, which is what he tells Dr. Newman on his return to the office.
“How much time do we have?” I ask the doctor.
He hesitates, then says, “maybe two months.”
Danny and I drive home in silence. The air in the car is heavy with dread. I want to cheer him, cheer myself. I convince myself to pay attention not to his death but to the two months of living that lie ahead.
That evening, sitting in our recliners by a roaring fire and sipping martinis, I suggest we give a party at our Seward cabin to celebrate Danny’s addition of wind power, the latest in his ecological innovations. The tension seeps out of me as I busy myself making guest and food lists for the party.
The next day, I don’t think about Danny’s death but about the party. I busy myself inviting guests by phone and soaking beans and dicing pork and lamb for a cassoulet to serve. But the bubble burst that evening. Danny and I are curled up on the soft leather couch watching the fire. He reaches over and takes my hand in his. I turn toward him. His gaze penetrates to my soul. He speaks slowly. “Jenny, do you think we’re being too abstract about all this?”
“Are you suggesting I’m the one being too abstract?”
“Yes.” His one-word answer is as sharp and cutting as a sudden slap across the face.
At that, like a cloudburst, tears splash down Danny’s cheeks and neck and into his mouth. He drops to the floor, shaking and sobbing, and between sobs, his voice trembling, he moans—“the void, the dark endless void, nothing but eternal darkness.”
Silent screams rise from the pit of my belly and clog my throat. I gag and gasp until my throat is clear and then fall down to the floor, wrap him in my arms and rock him until his tears are spent.
Jesus, the same silent sobs were choking me now as they did that night, as they do every time I dwell in that memory. Why was I doing this to myself? Was I punishing myself for being alive when he’s got to be dead? Or was I just plain crazy—obsessing about every last fatal detail every night? I should stop, but I couldn’t. Oh, I could put it off for a few minutes, even up to a half hour, but without plan, I’d find myself again chronicling the details as if my life depended on it. I should distract myself, go out with a friend or to a movie, come home so late I’ll flop into bed exhausted. I went to the phone that minute before I weakened. “Lil, will you pick me up for dinner tomorrow night. And don’t let me change my mind, promise?”
For the next three evenings I stayed away from the house and—hurrah—away from my obsession. Was this a turning point? In a way, yes, but a backward turn, for I woke next morning in an unmitigated panic. Danny was gone, out of reach. I couldn’t revive his musty morning smell or the feel of his stubbled face against my cheek or the sound of his baritone laugh. I was as empty as if someone had sucked the marrow from my bones and the air from my lungs. I thought I’d die if I didn’t reconnect. I didn’t plan how or where to do this, but later that day while shopping for a parka at Sears, I found myself wandering in the men’s department checking out shirts for him. I picked one I knew he’d like, an orange and beige e striped sport shirt with a button down collar. I didn’t buy it, of course. I wasn’t that crazy. But just shopping for him brought him back to me. I could see his sleepy half-smile as he slipped into the shirt and turned this way and that in front of the long mirror on the back of our bedroom door.
I brought him close again later that day in a lunch restaurant with my neighbor, Mollie. Before ordering for myself, I poured over the menu trying to decide what Danny would want. When I found just the right thing, I said aloud, “Danny will have oysters on the half shell.”
Mollie’s right eyebrow shot up in the shape of an arch, but she said nothing, probably prepared for eccentricities from the bereaved.
I felt such a swell of relief in having Danny back, I didn’t hesitate that evening in resuming my recording, even staying with it until Danny’s final days. In those days, Danny is so weak we have to cancel the Seward party. Even the softest foods like poached eggs and toast soaked in milk make him gag and choke. The choking fits haunt me. Dr. Newman warns me not to revive him if he suffocates, for he’d be a vegetable. But what am I to do? Stand idly by while his eyes beg for rescue. Never, I vow. I’ll save him whatever the consequences. It will be easier to pull the plug after he becomes a vegetable than to have his last coherent sight of me as his murderer. But this resolution doesn’t stop me from murdering him in my mind, from wishing he would just close his eyes and die peacefully and spare me the anticipation of watching him choke to death. After one choking fit that is more severe than any before, he pins pleading eyes on me, eyes that say, ‘do something.’ As soon as the spell ends, I phone Dr. Newman. I scream: “he can’t eat; he must have intravenous feedings.”
“That will only prolong his misery Jenny. Let him go, let him go.”
“What’s the verdict?” Danny asks.
I tell him.
He, who has been so calm and measured through all this bangs his fist on the counter top and shrieks. “That sonofabitch. He’s telling me to sign my own death warrant, my own death warrant. He can go straight to hell.”
But Danny becomes resigned. He withdraws, speaks very little, dozes more frequently, sometimes nods off in the middle of a sentence. That’s what he is doing when his best friend, Dr. John, visits. John sits quietly observing Danny for a while, then motions me to follow him into my bedroom. We sit side by side on the edge of the bed. John’s head sags; his voice is hoarse. “Tell the family to come ASAP.” There it is, spoken and immutable. Like a robot I pick up the phone and call his sister and nephew and our kids and granddaughter.
They arrive the next day. So does the visiting nurse, Carrie. By then, Danny is either standing at the sink gagging and choking after having tried to swallow a morsel of food or dozing in his easy chair, mostly the latter. In a wakeful moment, Carrie says, “I’m going to start a morphine drip.” Danny understands the significance. I’m lying on the couch, too numb to move. Danny kneels beside me and plants a kiss on my lips as gentle as the touch of a feather. He returns to his chair and asks me to bring him the ruby ring I gave him for a wedding present. I fetch it. He slips it on and stares at it for ever so long, then, heaves a huge sigh and bares his belly for the injection.
This is a dream, I tell myself. I want to close my eyes and forget it’s happening. I don’t know how long I remain in that state but when I open my eyes, I see that he’s lost consciousness. I begin to shiver imagining how alone and frightened he must feel, if he can feel, and Nurse Carrie assures me he can. I go over and sit on the arm of his chair, rub his neck and shoulders, hold the back of my hand against his cool cheek and brow.
“How long will it take?” I ask the nurse.
She shrugs. “It varies.”
I ask Dr.John the same question.
“Two days, three at the most,” he says.
Two days pass; three; five. I feel unmoored, as if I’m suspended in the air swinging, waiting. I couldn’t feel relief that he was still alive when he was brain dead. Neither could I grieve his death when his heart throbbed with a regular beat. I wanted it over. I upped his dosage of morphine. His heart keeps pounding. I up the dose again. Why am I not beating my chest, hating myself? I’m murdering my husband. No, no, no. he wouldn’t want to live like this. He’d want me to help him go.
It’s day seven. I lie on the couch near him when a vast stillness closes in on me. I know his heart has stopped. It’s what I want, isn’t it? It’s over. I can move on. But I feel not a flutter of relief. I feel nothing. My insides are frozen as if I, too, am dead.
The next morning we hold a small service in the front yard around the mountain ash he tended so carefully. Only the family and a few friends are present. Everyone memorializes him, but I can’t. My knees buckle; I’m on the ground. Neighbor Mollie and our son, one on each side of me, pull me upright until the service ends. After, they help me to my bed. I lie there wide awake but feeling as void as a stone.
Several years before his death, Danny and I confided our survival plans in the event we survived the other. Mine was to move to Seattle near our son and daughter. Now the time was at hand, but everything in me balked at the thought of leaving everything I loved—beach at Seward, my office with its view of Cook Inlet, the brilliant spring gardens in our neighborhood, the snow-covered mountains punctuated with ink blue lakes in winter, the woods where we hiked in the warm season and skied in the cold, and our house and cabin.
It was the house and cabin that held so many crushing reminders of his absence; the ragged tennis shoes he refused to part with, the anything drawer in the kitchen with his cherished screws, tacks, flashlights, batteries, keys, coins, and bottle openers, his vintage movie projector. Every sight of these odds and ends brought on an aching emptiness, like air in a ballon, until I feared I’d burst open or scream or bang my fists against the wall. So I flew to Seattle and bought a condo with a view like that from our Seward cabin.
Buying the condo was easy, but packing to move there was a horror. How on earth had we accumulated so many things? How was I to decide what to take with me, sell, give away, or throw away. One thing at a time, I told myself. I started with his clothes. Bad choice. Nearly everything I packed held a memory that tore a piece of my heart away. Take his tux and tails, symbols of the mystery and paradoxes in his nature—this outdoorsman in jeans and flannel shirts delighting in ruffled shirts and formal wear on theater nights, even if the theater was our home when we played opera recordings for our friends. Stifling tears, I packed his tux and tails in a box lined with tissue paper and delivered them to the Salvation Army. I lifted them from the box and laid them gently on the counter. The clerk swept them off, into a heap on a filthy, oil-tained cement floor. I ran from the store. That was my last effort to deal with his clothes. I turned the job over to my neighbor Mollie while I concentrated on carting throwaways to the dumpster. One day, after tossing an unusually heavy bundle over the high sides of a dumpster, I wrenched my back. By evening the pain was so severe I could barely walk. Next day the orthopedist discovered a ruptured disk and advised rest for at least two weeks. If it didn’t heal with rest in the next two weeks, then surgery. A major surgery at a time like this? “I can’t, I’m in the middle of move,” I told the doctor. But I had no choice. The pain became so fierce I could move about only by crawling. My relatives had returned home by then, and bless my neighbor Mollie, who came over every morning with meals and firewood, who shoveled my snow-laden driveway, and who chauffered me to doctor’s appointment as well as to the hospital the night before surgery.
You’d think major back surgery would have distracted me from my grief, but I was never free of it. I wondered if it, not my back, would be the death of me. I had to do something to get past this deadlock. Shift your focus away from the gruesome to fond memories, I told myself. But that effort, too, boomeranged. The fond memories aroused as mu ch anguish as the gruesome ones, especially those concerned with things we did together.
Take opera. It was at a Joan Sutherland performance of Lucia that we met. It was opera recordings that became our chief entertainment after we wed, especially during the years we lived in the bush. Now with long evenings stretching before me, you’d think welcome the chance to liste n to opera. Oh, I tried. The first attempt was Tosca, but the mournful tones gripped the deepest part of my grief as if they were claws. Next I listened to one of a lighter mood, La Cenerentola, only to be inundated with a memory of Danny massaging my head and neck through the entire recording, which made me feel like a fledgling in a nest, warmed and safe and tended so lovingly. I fell to the floor, sobbing and beating my fists. Small wonder I stopped listening to music.
Or take cooking, something we did together every evening, standing side by side in the kitchen, each producing our specialties. It isn’t that I didn’t try to cook our favorite meals and couldn’t. I didn’t even try. The very anticipation clogged my chest with unshed ears, and I’d settle for canned soups and sandwiches.
Or taking hiking in the woods. My new neighborhood was like a park, plush with fir, hemlock, maple, mountain ash. But I don’t hike there. When I tried, I was acutely and painfully aware that he wasn’t there to identify flowers by their scent, and birds by sight and sound, and animals by footprints and the size and texture of their scat. Oh, how I yearned for him.
So, I avoided these once precious activities. I numbed myself to them, which made me feel crazier than ever—that to stay alive I deadened myself. -
But I couldn’t deaden my dreams. Most of them concerned desertion. In the dreams, I have an urgent need to which . Danny turns his back or walks away or runs off with another woman. In a recent dream, he responds to my pleas for help by shouting accusations at me: “‘shrew, nag, idiot, get out of my face.” I roar back: “Asshole. You don’t know the first thing about love. I take that back. You do know something—you know how to murder it.”
On coming awake, I was astounded that my brain had produced such venom. What did it mean? Were those rageful feelings buried in some deep place in me? In the dream I hated you for deserting me. And dying, isn’t that the ultimate desertion? Damn you Danny; I’ve bused my back packing and lugging; it’s too hard for me and you’re not here and I hate your filthy guts.
The anger clung to me like a barnacle, so encompassing I no longer felt like drowning myself in details of his dying. But that relief was short-lived, overturned by a crippling self-hatred for being so irrational and unjust. How could I blame him? He couldn’t help dying. How could I be so mean and unloving? And those incriminations were followed by an aching awareness that in my anger I’d kicked you and your love out of my life, leaving me feeling as hollow ass the inside of a bone.
I dreaded that feeling more than any other, and before long I resumed my obsessive r replaying and recording. A regression, yes? But a welcome one for it restored something of my attachment. Yet, my emotions were like jumping beans, from obsessing about his death to raging at him for dying to raging at myself for abandoning him and back again to obsessing. Would these swings never end?
I had another fateful dream. Danny and I are living in a strange house; actually it is three separate shacks loosely tacked together, dark and in shambles. The place terrifies me. “We’ve gotta get out of her,” I beg him. He doesn’t answer. I repeat my aversion. He drifts off through window. I dash over to see where he’s heading, but all I can see is a mist vaguely shaped like a man. He has turned into a ghost.
I woke, feeling the stabbing pain of loss. Then I reminded myself, he’s a ghost, a wisp of mist, he no longer exists. He can’t hurt me. And nothing I do or don’t do can hurt him. My chest felt light, as if a heavy weight had lifted. Was I finally free? Would it last? Alas, my emotions still vacillated. But I knew something important had shifted inside me, a confidence that I could handle things differently, better. .Now, when assailed with grief or guilt or rage I’d stare at Danny’s picture on my dresser, at the twinkle in his eyes, at the upward curve on the right side of his mouth, and tell myself--those eyes and lips are no more than ashes ringing a tree. I immersed myself in photograph albums, and was able to experience the emotions it set off not as loss and deprivation but as part of the rich heritage Danny left me. The same memories that had felt like knife wounds now warmed my insides. I even caught myself laughing at some of them, like the time he released flying squirrels from their cage when we had a houseful of guests, or the way he turned a phrase—“raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock.” I smilled when I recalled his unflagging passion for the wilderness and creatures of the wlld, and his incredible honesty which sometimes came out as utter tactlessness. Even memories of his bad qualities, like his stubbornness, which served well his convictions, but drove me crazy when we had a dispute, gave me comfort.
I started to cook in the old way, the meals Danny and I concocted together, stews, soufflés, cassoulets, breads. I began to hike in the wooded areas in my neighborhood. I listened to opera, starting with La Boheme, one act at a time until I could listen all the way through.
Part of me yearned for this progress; another part agonized about the loss it entailed. There was no way I could keep him close and our love vital and encompassing without anguish about his death, his desertion, his absence from my life, a state of mind that kept me spinning in the same circle of torment. To get past it, I had to distance myself from the intensity of our love, another kind of loss, one I was reluctant to shed, but knew my survival required it. It wasn’t that my love for him died, but my attachment, now shorn of its intensity, lost its dominating grip on my soul, and I was able to experience the same memories that once tortured me as a gift.
I moved to Seattle, filled with hope for launching a new life. I slept soundly that first night.
On waking the next morning, a dark cloud passed over me as I stretched out my arml and felt the cold, empty side of the bed.