She Was Sixty-Four
by Michelle Kerouac
When I walked into the hospital room, it was chaotic with the transport team ready to go, and despite the commotion I was comfortable with the chaos only a hospital can elicit. The Critical Care Nurse in me felt at home. The smells of antiseptic soap and stale air and the sights that deter most from continuing down the hall drew me in. I followed closely behind as the team quickly and expertly maneuvered the bed through the corridors and up to the ICU. Only this time I wasn’t on duty, and this was not my patient. This was my mother-in-law. This was someone I loved.
When she was diagnosed with leukemia I was the first person she called. She asked me to tell her son, who was a world away, ten grueling months into what was supposed to be a fifteen-month deployment. I had to tell him her only chance for survival was a bone marrow transplant. His command allowed him to return home early.
His first few months at home, we spent days and nights trading off caring for our kids while the other spent nights in the hospital hours away, caring for his mom. We weren’t given any room to breathe as we went from living day by day, unsure if he’d make it home, to this moment, when we weren’t sure if she would.
As staff connected her to monitors, attaching tubes and machines to support her failing body, I stayed by her side. Her bone marrow transplant failed her. My husband was at home with our children. This was our turn to be together, where I was needed most, just as she had been there for me. She was strong, but the odds were against her.
Months earlier she’d been a source of strength for me, there when the bottom fell out from under me, when my husband deployed to Afghanistan. I had left my career to stay home and take care of our children. My youngest was just a few months old. My mother-in-law gave me space to mourn, knowing he’d never come back the same. She was quiet and observant. She offered her time and her help, no matter the distance or inconvenience it may have brought.
Now? She was frail. She was broken. She was beautiful. Now I was taking care of her.
Her nurse in the Critical Care Unit was kind and gentle. He came to bathe her and make her more comfortable.
At first when I reached out for the supplies he was so delicately preparing, he hesitated to let me help, but he let me assist with removing her gown, changing her soiled linens. We hardly said a word to each other, but I could tell he studied me to see if I knew what I was doing. I’d been a nurse for several years. I didn’t tell him this. I used to hate having outside nurses at the bedside.
After I prepared the washcloth, making sure the temperature of water was just right, I asked, “Would it be okay if I bathed her on my own?” Without any hesitation he slipped away.
I started with her face. Gently wiping the creases of her closed eyes. Tears had accumulated in the corners, and though she was motionless her face was not at peace. She was in pain. So was I. The tears welled up in my own eyes.
12 desperate months earlier, when I drove away from the send off for my husband’s deployment, my 4 children solemn and tearful in the back of the van, I didn’t waver. It was my job to stay strong. All I could do was tell them it’d be okay. We’d be okay. Daddy would be okay. If only I could have convinced myself.
From the outside it looked like I had it all put together. At least that’s what I tried to portray. With most of my friends in different time zones from having just left my own active duty career, and most of my family hours away, it was easy to hide my reality from those that knew me the most. I didn’t have to hide from his mother though. She made me feel like I could let my guard down, and it was only with her that I shared my failures. She never said anything when the kids told her we had cereal for dinner, again. She never questioned me if I spent days in my pajamas, or spent nights awake, unable to pick myself up off the couch.
During this deployment, my husband was part of a detail unlike any he’d ever done in his sixteen years with the Marine Corps. He and his British counterpart were part of an inspection unit that investigated any vehicular accident that happened on or around many of the military installations in Afghanistan through warzones.
Just weeks into his arrival to Afghanistan, he called to tell me he’d be going on a convoy and he didn’t know how long it would be before I’d hear from him again. Before we could say our goodbyes, he was cut off, but not before I heard the sound of an explosion saturate the empty sound on the line. I slumped to the floor. After that? I don’t remember.
I did remember spending those days waiting. I barely left the house. I never slept, and when I did it was fueled by bottles of wine. I just waited. I waited for anything, a call, an e-mail, something. Sometimes I waited for a knock at the door from his command, for men who would be there to inform me he wouldn’t come home, because I never knew if he would. In those moments, when silence from his end seemed to go on forever, his mother was there with me.
She picked up where I left off with the kids, when I felt I could no longer continue with the frustration, exhaustion, or anguish I felt trying to parent on my own. She gave me respite and never made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough. She took care of me when I didn’t know I needed her to.
A few more forsaken months in, he called from his satellite phone. Before he could even speak I knew something wasn’t right. He rarely called me when he was outside of the wire, which was the only time he used his satellite phone. He was at an investigation site near a village, waiting for the all clear to return to base in the caravan. He described the scene to me in horrific detail, and ended the list of casualties with the name of his British counterpart. Just a flip of the coin, the call could have come from the Brit.
I couldn’t let him know how this news made me feel. I didn’t want him to feel like I couldn’t handle it or that I was too weak.
I could tell he was smoking on the other end of the line. We had both quit smoking a few years before the children. I scolded him. The line went silent. Our connection was lost.
I cried. Crying was something I seldom let myself do during these lonely months, especially in the presence of others, but I couldn’t hold back any more. She was next to me. All she said was, “Is he ok?” I shook my head, “yes,” and we sat there, together, in silence, waiting for the phone to ring again, but it didn’t, not for days.
I washed her neck and chest, lifting the tubes and wires from one side to the other. I watched the rhythmic movement of her lungs filling and exhaling with the air of the ventilator. The steady beats on the monitor and the pumping of the IV pole filled the room with sound, drowning out the silence.
Three months earlier he was given ten days R&R. We planned to go to Tahoe for the week. His mom came with us, and just like always, he insisted on being in the driver’s seat the whole way there. We were loaded up in our minivan with our bikes strapped to the back. It was dark. The kids were asleep. There seemed to be nothing but semi trucks on the road, and as we were passed by one we were nearly boxed in. He began to white knuckle the steering wheel and hug the shoulder closely. I could see the focus in his eyes. I tried calling his name, but he didn’t respond. He wasn’t in the same moment as us, driving 75 miles an hour, hugging the shoulder of the road. When he finally pulled off at the next exit he immediately got out of the car and walked away. I didn’t follow. My kids were still in the back seats sleeping. His mom sat behind me. She placed her hand on my shoulder. I reached for her hand. We sat in silence as he paced on the side of the road.
I washed her arms. Her shoulders down to her hands, sure to keep her covered and warm as I washed one side then the other. I reached for her hand. I didn’t want to let go.
I knew she wouldn’t recover. I knew I wouldn’t have her by my side again. She was dying. The thought of having to go through the next deployment without her by my side terrified me.
When my husband came home early to be with his mom, there was no preparing for what was ahead. His mom was by this point in and out of the hospital, receiving treatments leading up to her bone marrow transplant. Having him home was an unfamiliar feeling. He was still there. He never came back alone before without his Unit. He didn’t really come back. I was waiting for him to go again.
Before her final hospitalization, she stayed with us between her treatments. She sat with me as he got up from the dinner table abruptly and walked away. The noise or movement of the house would seem to be too much for him. She sat with me as he walked the streets, trying to find a way to return home. Even when he did return he wasn’t present. She watched and remained silent, calm as I walked on eggshells, watching every look or movement he made. Waiting. When the kids would run and yell and laugh and play in the house, I would stop them or send them outside. I watched the sound of laughs and screams send chills down his spine.
She was the only one I let see our struggles as we tried to regain our footing. She was the only one I felt I could confide in. I didn’t feel like I knew my husband anymore. I didn’t know how to talk to my husband anymore. We had become so disconnected in dealing with our own struggles. He felt like a stranger. I would only share this with her.
In the hospital that day, near the very end, by the time I’d finished bathing her, the family had returned. I made her as comfortable as I could.
I couldn’t stay any longer. I had to go back to my own children at home, so my husband could return to be by her side. She never knew what I had done for her the last night I spent with her. She never heard me tell her what she’d done for me. She would have known. It wasn’t our way.
She died a few days later, with just her children by her side. I was at home with the kids, waiting for their dad to come home.
Michelle Kerouac is a Navy Veteran and Nurse Practitioner for the Greater Los Angeles VA in Santa Maria. She has preformed in So Say We All's VAMP Showcases, and has a story pending production on the Incoming radio series on KPBS.
In her story "She Was Sixty-Four", Michelle captures the mourning that begins when her husband is deployed to Afghanistan, and her mother-in-law, the rock in their lives, falls ill. Michelle workshopped this story with So Say We All.