Kate Kaplan: The Jasmine’s in Bloom

It’s supposed to be good for me to get out, and good for me to go for a walk, so I’m walking to the sandwich shop to buy my lunch. These days, a lot of what I do, I do because it’s supposed to be good for me.

I walk on the side streets, and given that it’s Los Angeles, there’s a lot of star jasmine in people’s front yards. It’s in bloom now, and the air smells good, which frankly seems cruel.

It’s June, 2020. We’ve stopped wiping down our groceries, but we don’t have a cure or a vaccine and we don’t know if we ever will. Grief, I now know, is a permanent companion, because the loss that gives rise to grief is a permanent loss. Maybe Covid will be permanent, too. We never should have trusted the air we breathe, and now, finally, we don’t.

Still, a quick trip to get a sandwich is considered safe as long as I wear a mask, which I certainly do. The ones who don’t? They must think that they’re exempt from the laws of nature. Or no, they must think that “nature” is a recreational category, and not something bigger than they are.

The only other customer in the sandwich shop is male, forty-ish, wearing scrubs. I’m not going to get close enough to check his badge, but UCLA hospital is only a few blocks away and that’s probably where he works. He’s asking the kid behind the plexiglass barrier about the price of a box of sandwiches. He says, “I want to buy lunch for my nurses.”

It’s obnoxious. He must be a doctor, but they aren’t “his nurses;” they’re independent human beings, probably women, though some of Bill’s nurses were men.

Still, he wants to buy them lunch. I hear that, and I want to cry. Then again, I usually  want to cry. Sometimes I wake up crying, and when I don’t it’s probably because I woke up wanting to scream. I don’t scream. I have neighbors who aren’t new widows, didn’t spend January  in a weirdly uncomfortable vinyl chair, in a glassed-in ICU bay, hunched over a bed occupied by the man who used to be, should have been, sleeping in the bed we shared.

I think I’m supposed to feel lucky that it happened before the pandemic. I ache for the people who are dying and I ache for the people who can’t sit next to them, but I sure don’t feel lucky.

But it wasn’t exactly a bed, the way our bed was a bed, messy and warm. It was more like a workbench for the people who were trying to keep Bill alive. And I don’t think he was sleeping, exactly. Is it sleep, when a patient doesn’t wake up after surgery? I could have asked one of the many scrub-wearing doctors and nurses and so on who were always around us, but why? The answer wouldn’t have been anything I understood. It wouldn’t have been anything that mattered.

What mattered was that Bill mostly wasn’t waking up and mostly couldn’t breathe on his own, and that even when he did and could, anesthesia and ICU dementia and the infection that brought him to the hospital made him not lucid. He’d tell the nurses not to touch him. He tried to eat the bedsheet. Like that.

Except that once, he recognized his doctor, and said “Thank you.” And once, when the nurses turned him, they turned him toward me and one nurse said, “Now you can look at Cindy,” and he said, “Beautiful.” The nurses laughed and so did I, because it was so nice, but now, when I think of it, it’s another thing that makes me cry.

“He’d have shrugged this off when he was twenty,” his doctor said. Bill was seventy-four.

I want to explain all of this to the doctor at the sandwich shop. Mostly, I want to tell him about the ICU, which, sure, is cold and alien like everyone says, but I want to tell him that I found the beeps and hisses wonderful; that I liked the lines and tubes that ran into, and out of, Bill’s body; and that workbench of a bed; and the doctors conferring in a complex language that I don’t speak, that must have been hard to learn.

When your husband is maybe dying, you can see that the cold, which is infection-control, is a kind of warmth; that the noises are something like music, and that the ICU is full of love.

It’s a wife’s love for her husband and a dying husband’s still-living ember of love for his wife, but not just that. I don’t think that any of those doctors and nurses and so on would have said that they loved Bill, or me, but they understood everything about me because they understood the most important thing about me, which was that I loved Bill. They understood Bill like no one else ever has, because they knew all the functions of his failing body. What I knew about them was that the way they’d lived meant that they were there, and ready, when we needed them, and that they did all they could.

I don’t care what they would have said or not said. I know what it is to be loved.

In the sandwich shop, I open my bag and take out all the cash I have, which is twenty dollars, and say, “Let me chip in. I want to buy lunch for nurses.” I don’t want to sound crazy, so I don’t say, please tell them that a stranger loves them.

Sometimes people give me a certain look when I tell this story, as if they’re about to remind me that the hospital didn’t save Bill and that the doctors and nurses were just doing their jobs. Those people don’t know anything.

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