Let the Chips Fall

I was late.  I should have been there at 10:00, but the digital clock in the kitchen showed 9:55 and I was still gathering up my things.  I didn’t really want to go.  This was my 5th day in a row going to the hospital to visit Eric in ICU.  When I was in his room, I felt useless and bored.  But he knew I was there, and attitude is everything. I was his wife.  I needed to be there. He was counting on me.

I walked around the house quickly, closed the dog gate and doors to other rooms to keep Bart in the kitchen while I was gone. I refreshed his water bowl.  I picked up my computer bag, dumped out the detritus from the day before and threw away some papers.  I checked my purse for money, reading glasses and mints. I filled a water bottle.  I picked up my coat from where I had thrown it on a stool the night before.

OK. I glanced at the clock.  10AM. I really needed to get going.

Walking to the door, I stopped, returned to the kitchen and grabbed a family-sized bag of potato chips which hadn’t been opened yet. I would just snack on few as I drove to the hospital. I loved potato chips.  But I tried to limit how much of the high calorie, salty, crunchy rounds I ate. I dropped the chips in the passenger seat of my car and took off.

As soon as I turned onto the main road, I grabbed the bag, ripped it open, and shoved a handful into my mouth. Cheeks bulging, I crunched my way down the road, then licked my fingers one by one. At a stoplight I innocently looked forward and stopped licking my fingers, as other drivers pulled up next to me. As soon as the light turned green, I reached into the bag and grabbed another handful.

By the time I reached the hospital parking garage, I had eaten half the bag.  I curled the bag shut, disgusted, and threw it into the back seat.  No self-discipline! I scolded myself. I licked my fingers one more time as I maneuvered up the parking ramp.

The hospital was the same as always; this was Eric’s third stay (in addition to trips to the ER) and I had become familiar with all the hallways, elevators, café, coffee shops, and nurse’s stations. I knew which rules could be broken and which could not. Dazed visitors wandered in the lobby looking like they had slept in waiting rooms in their clothes; or whispered somberly, clutched together in seating areas. The marble floors gleamed. Elevators beeped. Medical staff in a rainbow of colored uniforms walked briskly in the hallways, chatting and laughing with each other. A well-oiled machine for caring for ill and decaying bodies.

If I had arrived at the hospital at 10:00, there would have been an hour or so when Eric would have already finished his breakfast, nurses would have changed sheets or given meds, and he would be alert for a while.  I missed the window of opportunity today; it was almost 10:45 when I was buzzed into the ICU hallway.

I entered Eric’s room quietly; his eyes were closed.  I tiptoed to the other side of the bed to the uncomfortable chair which I had occupied for the last four days.  White light poured in the windows and machines hummed. I put down my things, took off my coat and approached the side of the bed.

“Are you awake?” I asked in a whisper.

He opened his eyes and nodded. He had beautiful eyes:  grey-blue and intense.  Today though they were shaded and tired.  He attempted a smile, but the gauze around his neck and his chapped lips did not smile with him. He raised a hand in greeting just barely bending his wrist but keeping his arm on the bed. His emaciated legs stretched out under the white cotton blanket.

“How do you feel today?” I asked. It was a trite and lame question for a man with advanced cancer.

“Ph-retty good,” he replied, an inadequate answer for his true condition, a forced positive response to a routine question. His ability to form words had deteriorated during his stay, but I could still understand him.  We continued to act out our play.

“Did you have a good breakfast?”

He made a face. He was being fed mostly through a tube into his arm, but still tried to eat a bit.

“Oatmeal. Apphle sause.”

“UMMM! Yummy!” I forced a grin, then didn’t know what else to say. “Bart says Hi,” I added.

He nodded his head and gave me another half-smile.

“Isss he being gooh?” Eric asked.

“Yes, but he doesn’t like being left alone all day when I come here.” Eric nodded and gave a slight shrug of his shoulders. 

I gave him a kiss on his cheek and held his hand.  In a few minutes his eyes closed and he was sleeping again.  I backed up and sat in the chair, retrieved my computer and opened email.  It would be another long day.

Late that afternoon after he awoke, I gathered up my things to go home, but assured him I’d be back that evening.  I needed to go home to feed the horses, let Bart out for a few minutes, and run a load of laundry. I was tired, although all I had done all day was sit by Eric’s bedside, read magazines and work on my computer. I’d stand up, look out the window for a while, then sit down again. The nurses who breezed in hourly were a welcome break.

I left his room with a mix of guilt and pleasure. The freedom to walk out when I wanted to was something he didn’t have. Even if he had the freedom to leave, he’d be in a wheelchair. I walked out in strong, quick steps and breathed more deeply the further I got from the ICU. I pictured him in his bed as I walked the distance to my car.

Before I had even exited the parking garage, I grabbed the bag of potato chips from the back seat. Steering with my left hand, I reached into the bag with my right.  After pushing a handful of chips into my mouth, I let my fingers smear grease all over the steering wheel.  Who cares? I thought. I chewed at stoplights, ignoring stares from other drivers. Crumbs fell into my lap and down the front of my coat. My eyes teared up but I kept on chewing and swallowing. My mouth was dry and salty, and quivering.  I ate like this would be my last meal; handful after handful, until the bag was empty. When there were no more left, I breathed in with a jagged breath and blinked away my tears.  I carefully smoothed the bag flat and laid it gently on the passenger seat. My greasy hands gripped the steering wheel. This time I did not scold myself.

7 thoughts on “Let the Chips Fall

  1. Hey GinnyThis was so good!  I could feel your exhaustion, emotional turmoil and the salty grease on your fingers!  (As a potato chip addict, I can imagine myself having the same response.)I admire your willingness to share yourself!Thanks!Jill

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPad

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  2. Such a touching piece, Ginny. It brought tears to my eyes as I remembered all you and Eric went through at the end of his life. Thank you for this beautiful but sad story.

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  3. Ginny, I can certainly relate☹️. Tough place to be. I remember having the “who cares” thoughts as well. You have the ability to capture the process of caring for/about someone you love who is terminal. Thank you.

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  4. Ginny, I’m sending HUGS! I’ve been on both sides in your story. The nurse caring for those loved ones and seeing the families pain providing what little comfort possible. And then caring for my dearest sister and friend. I thought that I had it under control until the “sister’s heart” stepped into the equation. God fills our hearts with wonderful memories to ease the pain. Prayers that your heart is overflowing with those memories. Thank you for sharing your touching memory.

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    • Oh, Ginny, my heart aches for your past pain and current remembrances…while on vacation even.
      We are thinking about you, maybe writing helps. Bart says “Hi!”

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  5. Ginny, so heartfelt and bittersweet. We do what we have to do for those we love, even when it is so hard. I hope you have found comfort and peace. Eric was too young to leave but no one knows what life has in store for us. xxoo

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