Me for You
Like a fool, Rudy spoke to his wife Bethany for probably ten minutes before he realized she was dead. It was a Saturday morning and they lay in bed, neither of them having to work that day. He awoke with the idea that they should go to the beach for a long, relaxing walk.
“We can wait until this afternoon,” he mused, when Bee hadn’t stirred at his first suggestion of the idea. He didn’t want her to feel rushed. “By then the traffic will have thinned. I’ll pack us a picnic and we can watch the sun set. When it gets dark I’ll take you to that little wine bar on South Main, with all the great cheeses?” He rubbed a bit of the soft cotton fabric of her nightgown between his thumb and forefinger.
Bethany slept on her back, which was unusual for her. Rudy rolled away from her onto his side, facing the wall. He backed into her, nuzzling her hip with his bum.
“I’ll do everything. All you have to do is grab your sunscreen, a book, hat, and jacket for later.”
They joked about it, but Rudy felt ashamed of the fact that—since he’d been downsized—Bee had maintained her higher-paying, full-time job as a hospital pharmacist, while he’d gone from CTO to a part-time department store pianist. He’d played all his life, given lessons while in graduate school. Now he wore a silly rented tuxedo and rolled out cocktail and Broadway tunes—Plant a radish, get a radish!—while shoppers considered the scratchiness of one pashmina over another. The only pleasant part was playing Chopin for his Hungarian friend Sasha, who worked in Fine Watches. (She made him blush. Blush! How mortifying. A married crush?) The department store was only a temporary arrangement, however, until Bethany’s hospital pension kicked in.
Bee was the one who put a positive spin on everything—even his being downsized, when his tech company was acquired by a bigger company. It had been good news for all—stock, cash, T-shirts (there were always T-shirts)—and most employees stayed on. The bigger company in the merger/acquisition had wanted the “brainpower” of the little company. But not Rudy’s brainpower. Bethany considered it the first step toward their mutual early retirement. “It’s going to be a great chapter, you’ll see!” They were both fifty-four, and soon she’d be eligible for her pension. Their IRAs were plump, unlike many less fortunate workers in America, she reminded Rudy.
And at least Rudy worked only with a baby grand. Bethany was strapped with training employees—some were lovely but one was
downright creepy. Meanwhile, Rudy did all he could to make Bee’s life easy, luxurious even, he hoped. He loved that she bragged to her friends about the lunches he packed or the extra housework he completed.
Rudy had been made redundant—in the words of Bee’s British brother-in-law. Rudy wished his brother-in-law would stop using this phrase. It made it sound as though there were a back-up, newer model of husband in the garage. This made Bethany giggle, but Rudy was serious—he couldn’t wait for her to retire and her pension to kick in. They were almost there: long trips, short trips, staycations, the opera, entertaining—all of which they both enjoyed.
Now he took a long, deep breath and reached around to give his wife a shoulder rub. Maybe Rudy should just shut up about the beach already. Clearly Bee was exhausted from her double shift the day before.
He turned and sat up. “I’ll fix you breakfast,” he said softly, in case she was just now beginning to wake. Funny, because no matter how tired she might be, she was usually the first one up. She liked to rise early and drink her first cup of coffee alone at the kitchen table with the crossword. But now she lay on her back, the eyelets of her pink nightgown perfect little crescents. Rudy thought of how beautiful she would always be, even as she aged.
“Well, now aren’t you the lazybones today,” he teased, shaking her gently. A jostling caress.
Then he realized Bethany wasn’t breathing.
His legs sliced through the covers as he leapt up and made his
way around to her side of the bed. Her lips were dry and unresponsive as he pressed his mouth against hers. His CPR training came to him in a hysterical jumble as he blew into her lungs and pumped her chest three times below her breasts. He was gentle at first, not wanting to hurt her ribs. “Oh, Jesus!” Someone screamed. It was his voice, an animalistic howl. He stumbled and fell backwards, tripping over his pleas and pajama legs.
“Bethany, honey, come on, now.” He peeled back the covers. For some reason the stupid acronym PASS ran through his mind PASS, PASS: pull, aim, squeeze, sweep. Idiot: That was for using a fire extinguisher. He punched out 911 on the cordless phone. Gave the dispatcher their address. Yes, UNRESPONSIVE! JUST HURRY!
He plugged her nose, blew another three puffs of air, and pounded at her chest. Nothing. Repeat. Nothing. Her lips felt warmer. Didn’t they? The room buzzed with adrenaline. The walk on the beach—the sound of the entire ocean—was in the room now. He knelt beside the bed, his eyes even with hers, waiting for the ambulance. This wasn’t happening. It was one of those stupid TV dramas. Bee was as pale as the chalk-gray duvet. Still and chilly skin. He pulled the covers back up over her arms and legs and tucked them under her chin.
Right. All police cars in their town were equipped with those paddles now. There had been a fund-raiser for them. He should have called 911 sooner. His dumb outdated CPR! He raised Bee’s feet and put a pillow under them beneath the covers. He spoke to her, “You’re going to be all right, just—” Then the doorbell.
He did not want to leave her to let the paramedics into the house. He tugged on his khakis under his bathrobe. As quicky as Rudy charged down the stairs to the door, the ambulance workers sprinted back up. He made a U-turn to follow them.
The paramedics tried so hard for so long to revive Bethany. They were young and good-looking. Men and women with smooth, perfect muscles like Greek gods. They deftly steered her on a gurney down the hall, through the front door, and into the ambulance. Her knitting! Rudy stupidly thought he’d grab it from the hall chair; she might want to keep herself occupied while they waited for the doctors. The hospital always entailed waiting. That vest or scarf or whatever the heck it was she’d been making. She whipped through her woolly creations, plowed through novels with amazing comprehension, pruned the wisteria on a ladder all the way to the top of the trellis, and mowed the lawn herself, despite Rudy’s protests. If there were words to sum up Bethany, you really just needed one: capable. But kind, and funny, and smart, too. Certainly never one to correct people or show off her many abilities.
Here’s the kicker: Late the previous afternoon, Rudy had taken Bee to their family doctor, who had squeezed her in at the end of the day. She’d come home from work feeling off—minor chest pains, palpitations. Just not feeling herself. That dolt of a doctor sent her home, with Gas-X. And stress. Bee had pointed out that Rudy took wonderful care of her. Rudy would’ve been pleased if he weren’t so worried. She’d had an EKG in the office that “appeared to be normal.” So Einstein diagnosed her with gas. Bee didn’t go
to the doctor very often, and she was not a complainer—their guy knew that, and he should have examined her more extensively, listened more carefully. Not been so quick to wrap up his day. Gas! It annoyed Rudy that Bethany, a hospital pharmacist, had this reverence for MDs. She’d giggled on the way home, embarrassed by her diagnosis, burping and quickly covering her mouth as she laughed, her cheeks not rosy enough, if you asked Rudy. Now Rudy recalled with anger the doctor’s sanguine confidence. Could you have a normal EKG then die of a heart attack?
Bethany had held Rudy’s hand in hers as she told the doctor what excellent care her husband took of her. But dinners and wine, and massages, and bag lunches brimming with fresh fruit, and twice-yearly vacations couldn’t take the place of a decent doctor diagnosing heart disease.
That morning Rudy decided to follow the ambulance in his car. Maybe they’d need the car once they were at the hospital. Rudy bitterly regretted this decision. He could have been holding Bee’s hand in the ambulance, stroking her forehead, whispering to her. Yet he’d been afraid he would somehow hamper Bee’s rescue. Maybe he’d get in the way of these swift paramedics, who boiled over with youth and capability.
Besides which, he’d had to pee. It was the most absurd need, given the circumstances, but Rudy hadn’t relieved himself since the night before. He’d traded his robe for a shirt, buttoned all wrong, and hung on to the gurney until it was in the ambulance. They’d loaded Bee with simultaneous speed and gentleness that touched Rudy. Then his bladder shot off a final warning signal. He told the
medics he would follow. The woman paramedic looked at him a bit curiously—or at least he thought she did, later, going over the morning in his head. Over and over and over. All of the things he could have done differently. If only if only if only. All the way back to signs he might have missed the night before, beyond that to the doctor’s office, preceded by the days and weeks leading up to Bee’s death.
Some of the morning was a blur, but Rudy remained haunted by these two indignities among the events of his wife’s death: (1) He may not have properly performed CPR. (They told him he’d done fine, but still, he looked it up: the method had changed. His skills stank. Pounding his wife’s lovely chest!) (2) He took a whiz in his driveway. As the ambulance sped away, he clutched his car keys then stepped into the narrow passageway between his car and the neighbor’s hedge and hid behind the flaps of his khakis to relieve himself. “Good morning!” Rudy heard another neighbor bellow. (Had the dog-walking man not seen the ambulance?) Rudy hollered back “Hello!” too loudly before finishing and folding himself into his pants, climbing into the car and driving to the hospital.
He shuddered as he recalled the ambulance screaming down their street as he followed behind, stupidly thinking of the things he would bring her in the hospital later. Recounting the hours of that awful morning would always lead him to the same conclusion: He did not save his wife. No perfectly performed Mozart sonata could erase this fact. He could pound out the piano libretto for the Fifth Symphony at the mall until the startled shoppers
bought every pashmina in the place. This would not bring back his wife.
Trauma. Survivor’s guilt. These words from his family doctor were meant to make Rudy feel better. But he didn’t want the names of conditions or a diagnosis for himself. What he wanted was that goddamned doctor to have provided a medical explanation during their appointment for why Bee wasn’t feeling well—for him to have sent her straightaway to the hospital, instead of sending her home with a recommendation for Gas-X. In retrospect, Rudy could hear a condescending we’re-all-getting-older! tone in the doctor’s voice that irritated him. He should have taken her straight to the ER. Gas. Rudy should have been able to save his wife. Period. He should have been a more proficient husband. A take-charge guy. Hell, he should have been a star conductor at a major symphony in a big city. A dignified shock of white hair would have sailed around his head as he led a choral group and mass of musicians in the orchestra pit, swooping into the glorious last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Sweat would have flown from his forehead. He should have been the one to die . . . right there! A heart attack. Collapsing with a final slice of the baton, doubling over within the folds of a real, designer tuxedo. The women in the audience would have swooned. His wife would have beamed, not knowing he was already gone. He would have gotten one of those real obits in the papers. “He left us doing what he loved to do most,” Bethany would quietly have remarked, all dignity and poise.
Bee would have been a content, comfortable widow, set up with
all that she needed. Perhaps she’d have dated that widower in their neighborhood, the fellow who walked a golden retriever and complimented Bee profusely on her garden. He would have taken the place of Rudy on nature trails with Rudy and Bee’s beautiful granddaughter, Keira, identifying rare flower species left and right. Keira had no interest in the birds Rudy could spot from a distance, but she loved the colorful flowers that her grandmother pointed out to her. Rudy hated that guy now for knowing what ceanothus was, for admiring the blue flowers, which were, in fact, Bethany’s favorite, even though they hadn’t bloomed until four years after the shrub was planted. He hated that this guy knew the blooms were called dark star. The flower clusters had appeared for the second time just the other day.
Cecilia, who had joined her father at the hospital, and then followed him home, sadly, tearfully, at the end of the day, had cut a branch and put it in a small vase on the kitchen windowsill. “They’re not really cut flowers,” she explained to her father. “But Mom loved them so.”
CeCe’s husband, Spencer, was a doctor. He had met them at the hospital that afternoon, awkwardly patting Rudy’s back and saying that healthy-looking women, especially those who are slim and fit, were the “under-diagnosed.” Bethany wasn’t heavy, didn’t have high cholesterol or blood pressure, and so she’d been instructed to take gas tablets, walk off the chest pain, and “drink more water.”
Spencer hadn’t disagreed with these suggestions. As a doctor, he wasn’t particularly hands-on, touchy, or warm. Maybe that’s what he and CeCe shared—that all-business manner. So serious for young people. Rudy’s son-in-law was a neonatologist, a specialist
in a perilous field, yet his calm was irksome. It verged on aloofness during this family crisis. Bee had loved her son-in-law, teased him for his scientific nerdiness, worked crossword puzzles with him, tousled his boyish brown hair. If you asked Rudy, Spencer would certainly have to work on his bedside manner.
“Drink more water is not medical advice!” Rudy shouted, so irritated it felt as though something in his neck might burst. “That imbecile doctor! I should have sensed something was wrong. Taken her to the ER.” He was surprised Spencer didn’t chime in to defend his profession.
“Oh, Dad,” CeCe insisted later that treacherous afternoon, her worried eyes searching his face, “there’s nothing you could have done. You must understand. Nothing. Even if it happened before bed.” She squeezed his hands in hers. For the first time ever—even though Rudy’s thick fingers could span entire octaves of piano keys—he felt that his little girl’s hands might be stronger than his. “She was asleep. She died peacefully.” CeCe closed her eyes, clearly comforted by this notion. Spencer gave her a light, brotherly hug.
Peacefully, perhaps, Rudy thought. But it should have been when Bethany was ninety.
They were back at the house by then, putting off the funeral home until their nerves were less jangled. Rudy felt that he and CeCe were suddenly all alone in the room, in the world. Tunnel vision made his distracted son-in-law seem far away, a stranger almost. Spencer kept checking his phone, and Rudy was sure it was not because he was checking on the sitter who was watching Keira. His son-in-law rubbed CeCe’s shoulders absentmindedly, got Rudy
a glass of water. Again with the water! Then he declared there was an emergency at the hospital, and picked up his jacket.
“Seriously, Spencer?” CeCe asked. “Right now? You can’t get someone else on call? Are you fucking kidding me?”
Rudy had heard his daughter swear so rarely that he choked on his water as it went down, coughing and spitting into his hand. He agreed: Going in to work? On the day of Bethany’s death? While that afternoon was a blur, Rudy remembered this unusual coldness from his daughter’s husband.
“CeCe.” Spencer looked at his wife pleadingly, squeezed her upper arm.
What was he, the goddamned next-door neighbor? Rudy knew that CeCe felt that being married to a neonatologist meant that everyone else’s children were more important than their own. That she often felt abandoned. Yet the two had always seemed so well matched. With their mutual studious, almost-solemn demeanors, they had always seemed devoted to each other. CeCe was certainly well provided for.
“I’ll bring back dinner,” Spencer declared hopefully, quasi-heroically.
“Right, because we’re starving right about now,” CeCe uttered in a low growl.
She crossed her arms over her chest, clenched her jaw, tears silently streaming down her cheeks. She turned away from her father and husband, wobbled and faced out toward the backyard, clearly not seeing anything she looked at.
If only Bee had been there, to settle this odd lover’s spat. As the
front door closed behind Spencer, Rudy took his daughter into his arms, kissed the silky top of her head, smelling the clean honeysuckle scent of her shampoo. Not for the first time that day, and not for the last time in the months to come, Rudy wished that his wife had lived rather than leaving him alone in the world without her.
Less than a week after her death, Rudy couldn’t imagine ever moving away from their house. The navy-blue flowers still graced the ceanothus bush. Every time golden-retriever guy passed by, he stopped to admire the flowers, shaking his head glumly at them. Had he had a crush on Bethany? Bee, who was as friendly and chatty and beautiful as her garden? You had to admire a woman who didn’t mind dirt or aphids or weeds. But who was this neighbor to pine after Rudy’s wife?
Rudy found himself in the upstairs bathroom, peeking out at the golden-retriever neighbor as he admired Bee’s ceanothus. Get your own damn flowering shrubs, he thought, as he scuttled to the side of the open window.
“Get out of here!” Rudy shouted down at the man. He felt mortified, but also enraged and excited. Across the street, another neighbor rolled his garbage and recycling bins to the curb. Trash day, dog walking. Rudy’s nerves were raw with resentment for these people who just carried on as though life were normal. He heard no sound from outside, noticing only that the window screen was caked with dust. Bethany always hired landscapers to wash the screens and windows once a year. Rudy didn’t even know where
their number was or the name of their business. Nice husband. He’d let his wife work full-time and coordinate much of the maintenance for their beautiful home. For some reason this made Rudy hate the flower-identifying neighbor even more. That guy was probably a great husband.
“Get out of here!” Rudy hollered again, not even sure if the man and his dog were still on the lawn. Rudy collapsed to sit cross-legged on the cool bathroom tiles, tears rolling down his face, their salt making his chapped lips sting.