I sobbed unrelentingly for three hours the night before friends came to help me move the last items out of our house on the Farm River.
Rosemary and I had rented this little house the previous May, when the pandemic was raging in New York City, before anyone understood much about the virus, and when I was terrified most of the time. At that time, Rosemary had been just beginning daily radiation treatments, which had been added to her weekly chemo sessions. I woke up and went to bed with two thoughts on my mind: Who would take care of Rosemary if I got COVID? How would I manage if Rosemary caught it?
Rosemary hadn’t been eager to leave the City. She loved our apartment on the 32nd floor and she didn’t want anything to interfere with her cancer treatment. We had found two potential rental houses on a website for academic people who were going on sabbatical or following other academic pursuits—one was a smaller house on a river and the other a larger house near the ocean, both in Connecticut. We had studied the website and talked to the owners on the phone and debated with each other whether either place would be suitable. Still, Rosemary was reluctant. I had decided to drop the subject and we hadn’t spoken of it in several days, when Rosemary came to me,
“I think I know what we should do,” she started.
“About what?” I asked.
“I think we should rent the house on the river.”
“Really?” I was surprised. We hadn’t considered that possibility for some time; when we had last discussed the idea of leaving the city, we had focused on the pros and cons of the larger house near the ocean. Because of the pandemic, we couldn’t visit either place, and Rosemary thought the photos of the living room in the river house were strange and dark.
“Yes,” she continued, “It will be smaller and easier to care for. I’m concerned about the stairs in the ocean house.” The owner had described the stairs as steep and narrow, the kind you might find in an older house.
“Well, that is a worry,” I agreed. Because of my Rheumatoid Disease and the osteoarthritis in my knees, I was having trouble climbing any stairs at all.
“But what about the Goth Room?” I asked. Rosemary had taken to calling the living room of the river house the Goth Room. The picture showed walls of dark paneling that, we were told later, had previously covered the walls of some Yale library, and a huge stone fireplace set at a strange angle, protruding into the middle of the room. Heavy green velvet drapes framed the only window in the room and admitted little daylight. A medieval-looking turquoise Turkish lantern with no light inside hung over the cushioned window seat, which in turn sat above an old-fashioned radiator. Beside the curtained window stood a gigantic chair which looked like a throne, but had a seat that was only inches off the floor, making it pretty useless for sitting.
“I won’t use that room.” She sounded determined, “I’ll spend all my time on the second floor where it is bright and cheery.” The modern second floor had clearly been added on to the creaky downstairs at a later date. The bedrooms and bathrooms were larger and light-colored wood covered the floors. Sky-lights opened the roof to let light into the bathrooms. The guest room, which became daughter Shannon’s room when she stayed, had an entire wall made of windows that opened onto the river. The master bedroom had a balcony that looked down over the river, and, in the picture on the website, light flowed across the king-sized bed.
“Well, if you think so. I wouldn’t mind living beside the river.” I wanted to support her decision quickly, before she changed her mind. I would have settled for just about any place if it meant getting away from the pandemic in the City and the long elevator ride to the lobby.
“Besides,” she added, often the more practical one, “It costs less.”
The following September we took possession of the house on the Farm River, and there we spent our last months together. I loved the location and was intrigued by the many tiny rooms; I have always been fond of small houses, but I had to agree that the Goth room was difficult. We ordered extra lamps to try to brighten the dark winter days.
Friends came and visited outside, in the gazebo at the river’s edge, until it became too cold. Shannon came from Colorado, quarantined, and then stayed with us for a month in the fall and again for a month in the winter. Her younger sister, Talmadge, also tested and quarantined, came for a week after Christmas, when she could get away from her teaching job.
Otherwise, it was just the two of us there, with a nurse who was seeing no one but us, and whom I deemed isolated enough and the risk of COVID low enough that I was willing to have her in the house. She came three mornings a week. When Rosemary was no longer able to make it up the stairs to our bedroom, she spent her days and nights curled up on the sagging couch in the Goth room, unwilling to have me order a hospital bed, not ready to face the inevitable.
Twice a day I changed her seeping bandages, for the cancer had metastasized to her skin and the wounds covered her torso. It was a difficult process, for Rosemary could not bear to have tape on her skin and each day the bleeding was more difficult to manage. I spent hours massaging her swollen arm, trying to keep the lymphedema at bay. She did her best to follow the exercises prescribed by the therapist, for her hands, her swollen arm, and her weakened legs. I gave her the prescribed morphine and other drugs which made her groggier and more distant.
There was a bed on the first floor, in the room we called the library, but the room was split into two levels, and the half that held the king-sized bed was on the raised part, accessed by a little step stool which neither of us could manage. The lower level held several bookcases. Kind friends hired a carpenter to build steps with railings to the upper level, and for two nights, Rosemary climbed them and we slept together in the king-sized bed. On the third night, Rosemary could not manage the three steps to the upper level, even though she tried for a long time.
When Talmadge came for a visit, she moved one of the twin beds from the second floor to the first-floor library, and Rosemary slept on the lower level of the room. From the king-sized bed, I could almost reach down and touch her in the night, but not quite.
After the hospice nurses began coming two mornings a week, Rosemary consented to a hospital bed, which we stationed in the tiny Goth room. On one of her more conscious mornings—for she slipped in and out of being present—a friend called. I was in the kitchen.
“Where are you?” I heard the friend ask. There was a long silence. I peeked in and saw Rosemary studying her surroundings. The hospital bed filled most of the tiny room. The wooden chest that held the television’s cable box was piled high with clean bandages and pads. The several compression sleeves and gloves which she wore to deal with the lymphedema in the arm that she could no longer use lay on the sagging couch. A bench along one wall had become the place where I lined up the Vaseline and various ointments and powders which I had tried on her skin. A wheelchair, walker, cane, and commode, surrounded her bed.
Finally, she turned back to the phone, “I think I’m in a furniture store,” she answered. I never knew whether this was a confused, drugged response or Rosemary’s own dry humor. It sounded like something she would have said in earlier days.
Shortly after, with the help of the young nurse I had hired to come three mornings a week, I moved the hospital bed out of the Goth room and onto the windowed porch, where Rosemary could see the river and lie in the sunlight, although she no longer was able to focus on the views she had once loved. Still, I didn’t want her to end her days in a room she hated so much.
The porch was a mixed blessing, for the sun came in hot in the morning and I would get up early and pin fabric over some of the windows, to keep the sun out of her eyes. At night, the many panes of the windows reflected our images, and Rosemary often thought that there were people outside; they would startle her or would cause her to be reluctant to get on the commode.
Our last Thanksgiving together was there—an early Thanksgiving, prepared mostly by Shannon, with some help from Rosemary, who was well enough at that time to sit in the kitchen and offer advice. Shannon surprised us by decorating the house for Christmas while we were away at chemo, before she left to go back to her own home in Colorado, and Rosemary and I spent our last Christmas in this house. We didn’t have gifts for each other. It would have been impossible for Rosemary to conjure up a gift, and I didn’t want her to feel badly by giving her one. By then, we were both so fatigued and focused on health issues, this absence barely registered in my thinking. When messages appeared saying “Happy New Year 2021, better than 2020,” I inevitably thought, “Not for me.”
A video of Rosemary on New Year’s Day, 29 days before she died, shows her doing the exercises the occupational therapist had prescribed to keep her legs strong. She refused to believe that there was no hope.
In January, family members—Shannon, Adam, grandson Galileo, and his girlfriend Sarah—came to say good-bye to Rosemary. When I was alone and couldn’t get Rosemary to the commode, Shannon and her husband Adam, who had flown back East, arrived in hazmat suits, to help me. They had been tested, but were still quarantining, and wanted to take no chances.
We celebrated Adam’s birthday around Rosemary’s bed, with a cake and a song, and she smiled bravely amidst the gaiety, with her head on the pillow and her good arm stretched out to hold Galileo’s hand.
Rosemary asked several times a day where she was and where the various doors led. I thought, no wonder she is confused, she has slept in so many beds and in so many of the rooms in this house. I would try to explain, but she kept asking. Our grandson Galileo came and sat lovingly by her bed, and he drew her a map of the house and patiently explained over and over how the rooms were connected. The hospice social worker told us, “She wants to know she is someplace safe. Just reassure her.”
When the family had left and the part-time nurse called to say she had inadvertently been exposed to COVID and could no longer come, I spent a sleepless night fretting about how I would carry on. In the morning, totally weary and bewildered, I texted both daughters. “I think we have to consider the hospice facility. I just can’t do this without any nursing help.” Neither hesitated. “Absolutely,” they both said, and I could hear the sighs of relief in their words. Shannon, who was staying in a nearby town, managed to get Rosemary transfered out of the home hospice program and into a private room in a different hospice facility that same day. Talmadge made arrangements to come.
When Rosemary died after three days at the hospice facility just five minutes from our house, and our daughters left, and I was alone, I didn’t stay at the house by the river. I moved to my sister and brother-in-law’s house, about an hour away. From time to time, however, I went back and slept. I didn’t think it was fair to leave the house empty. I fretted about it when I wasn’t there. I didn’t want pipes to freeze. I didn’t want the snow to make it look as if no one was living there. I sometimes returned on a Thursday night, so I could put the garbage out for a Friday morning collection, but when I was there, I was haunted by the images of falling and failing.
So, on that last night, when I returned to collect the last of my belongings, I sat on the old green couch in the Goth room and remembered. The house was mostly empty of our things. In the days after Rosemary died, our daughters had removed her clothes from the house. The hospital bed, wheel chair, walker, cane, commode, and all the medical supplies had gone their various ways. The house held only what remained of my clothes, food, and linens. Friends were coming in the morning to help me pack these up.
Saying good-bye to the house would be a relief. But it was also sad. For, besides the hard times, before the nightmare times, Rosemary and I, and sometimes Shannon, sat each morning on the two little couches that faced each other on the glassed-in porch and sipped our morning beverages and watched the tides on the river and the birds at the feeder I had given Rosemary for her birthday.
Rosemary and I had slept our last night together in the bed in the library, when Rosemary could still climb up the three steps. We had shared our last kiss within its walls, although I honestly didn’t remember the circumstances. And on that porch, Rosemary had surprised me one night by rising slowly from the bed and making her way to the dining room table.
It had been some time since she had sat at the table to eat. She could only use one arm and her “good” hand had neuropathy, so it didn’t work well. I had bought various implements to help her feed herself – a small plate with a raised edge that she could push the food against, a fork and a spoon with padded handles, a child’s sippy cup for her beverages. I generally cooked something for myself and put a few bites on her plate, for she was eating little. It had been some time, however, since she had even tried to feed herself. Shannon was with us and we had been feeding Rosemary in bed. But on this night, Rosemary surprised us.
“I want to eat at the table with you,” she said softly, and Shannon brought us our meals and took a picture of our last brief meal together, in the shadows of the darkening day.
The house held those memories too.