It was all so perfect…..

12 Feb

It was all so perfect,

….the canal, meandering like a long, flat ribbon in piercing blue, the gentle ebb and flow of water streaming from the sea, splitting Clear Lake, spilling past jetties, filling inlets, rocking yachts and sailboats from side to side; halyards united in a symphony of sound, brass, teak, and double braid rigging stretching in the wind, humming deep bass in gentler breeze.  It was all so perfect, tree lined streets with brick or stone houses rising from pedigreed lawns.  Mail boxes on the curb shaped like Dolphins or Blue Crab.  Three, four, five car garages. 

A housekeeper met me at the door, shaking her head, brown eyes, a mirror of despair.  She led me across cold marble floors, past statues and museum quality art, over the landing of a staircase reminiscent of Tara, flanking walls lined with austere portraits of descendants of deliberate breeding, into a great room, greater than any I’d seen before, with cathedral ceilings rivaling St. Anthony’s in the heart of old Houston, where the neighborhood crowded closer and closer to its front door. 

The only imperfect artifact in the entire house lie sprawled across an over-stuffed leather couch, her grey-rooted hair, buzz-shaved institutional style, greyer eyes, sunken in deep hollows.  The last vestige of color was a fine pink sheen on her lips that snapped to attention in a glorious smile as I entered her line of vision.  

It took all she had to stand to greet me, extending a hand that looked thirty years older than it was, grasping my fleshy, pink skin.  I was almost embarrassed by the contrast, but she quickly closed her other hand around it with sincerity that surpassed disease and social standing, and before I’d set my medical bag on the carved mahogany table, I knew we would be friends.  

On my second visit, she reminisced, taking me down the long roads that led her from the deep woods in East Texas, to the mansion on the waterfront.   She’d been in love since she was14, with the handsome, dynamic, success-driven over achiever she’d married at 21.  They’d grown up together, exploring tall grass along narrow streams of clear, rushing water, climbing wild oak and magnolia trees, and running barefoot through acres of bluebonnet fields. 

He stole a kiss when he was 9, knowing she had no use for boys; but she said she never forgot his audacity, and she forgave him because she loved his mother almost as much as she loved her own.  It was a small, hard-working community with an unflinching focus on family and home.  She followed the only boy she had ever loved, one year after he’d left for college.  Her degree was in Education, his, in Architecture.  She confessed she never intended to work outside the home but changed her mind after discovering she had a flair for real estate. 

My third visit was an emergency response to a pain crisis. Her husband met me at the car, smoking and cursing under his breath. “I can’t make it stop!”, he said.  I patted his hand, pulled the cigarette from between his fingers, tossed it to the ground, crushing it with a shoe.  He led me past a nearly hysterical housekeeper who was rolling rosary beads so wildly, I feared they might burst into flames.  We sprinted through the breadth of the house, entering the master bedroom where I found my friend knotted in a small ball on the right side of a California King bed.

The husband hissed, “The God damned Vicodin didn’t work this time; it’s a complete waste!”  He collapsed on the edge of the bed, jumping up quickly when she began to groan, reaching for my hand.  As soon as we connected, she began to cry and her husband retreated to a far corner of the room. For me, this was rote, me, on autopilot; fixing other people is what I do best.

“It’s going to be okay; I promise”, I whispered while emptying a vial of morphine into a syringe.  I placed a warm, damp cloth on her forehead, turned on her favorite music, then focused on massaging her feet with warm lotion, speaking softly, as if she was a child.  Fifteen minutes later, the pain had not dissipated, so I followed the care plan we’d formulated with her physician, administering her first dose of methadone.  While I waited for its effects to begin, I massaged her hands. 

At some point during the process, her husband left the room.  From a window I watched him pace, smoking one cigarette after another, running his fingers through a shock of thick, dark hair, and crying. 

On my twelfth visit, I noticed a crack on the ceiling where a massive beam abutted the peak of the fireplace that ran two full stories up in the perfect house.  There was a rusty water ring the size of a baseball mitt spreading across the junction of the two, and beginning to seep further down the wall like a dark shadow.

We were sitting on the couch, eating ice cream and bananas, because that’s what my friend wanted to do.  Her eyes followed my gaze.

“I’ve been trying to get him to fix that for three years, but he’s always too busy.”

Sherry died of lung cancer two days later.  She had never smoked a cigarette in her life.  She left behind four beautiful, grieving daughters, two broken parents, two dismayed in-laws, a dozen or so cousins, hundreds of friends and business acquaintances and a devastated husband.  And me, her (hospice nurse) friend. 

Every year approximately 42,000 Americans die from second hand cigarette smoke.  That staggering number includes 900 infants.  Perhaps Sherry’s death was unrelated to cigarette smoke; we will never know.  But every year innocent bystanders are struck down by side effects of another person’s choice to inhale carcinogens, and to blow them out, into the environment.  

According to the CDC Fact Sheet, smoking and tobacco use results in 5 million world- wide deaths every year.  In spite of these astounding numbers, people continue to ‘light up’ believing they can escape the consequences of their decision. 

But what about the stranger, or loved one, standing next to them?  What about Sherry? What about our children?  What about you?




2 Responses to “It was all so perfect…..”

  1. Gypsy February 13, 2013 at 9:29 pm #

    I don’t know how long ago this was. It’s easy to judge in hindsight. But when you are a 16 year old boy sent in the Marines to Okinawa, like my step-father, or sitting on a Navy ship watching the Kamakaze planes hit the ship next to you, they give you cigarettes and candy in your daily food supply, you smoke them. You come home addicted for life, which is why the tobacco companies gave, and then sold cigarettes to the military. No one advertised or warned that it was addictive, or deadly, much less that second-hand smoke could kill your loved ones. Nor were they told the seemingly obvious fact that the smoke could cause asthma for your children. My father died when he was 60, and I was 30, of throat cancer. Now my husband is 58, and 60 seems very young. Knowing how bad it was, in law school, along with everyone else succumbing to the stress, I started smoking and was soon addicted. I had to stop practicing law to quit, and it took 3 tries. It’s a very hard habit to quit. It’s also a GREAT drug! Magic. If you are tired, it gives you energy. If you are nervous it calms you down. If you have to do something you hate, it seems more palatable after a cigarette. My father worked years supporting our family, doing a job he hated. I completely understand, and I hold no malice for the fact that asthma almost killed me in the third grade. My doctor told my paresnt that I would die, but I didn’t. It’s hard to watch someone die, but it may have been harder to live their life, and most people do the best that they can.
    As for whether tobacco should be illegal, I still say no. But now that we know, it’s great that we get rid of second hand smoke. I’m highly tempted by the electronic cigarette, but that would be like going back to an abusive ex-lover. It might be a bit better the second time, but you know, he’s no good for you!

    • ittymac February 14, 2013 at 10:09 am #

      Sherry was 51 years old when she died 10 years ago.

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