It was an idyllic summer in small town Maine; warm and sunny, the chilled air rolling off the nearby harbor. Maine’s slogan of “The Way Life Should Be” seemed so true.
True, but also mocking me slightly, given the circumstances.
At the center of that pretty picture, Sam was dying. Sam was my father-in-law. After a year of battling cancer, he had retired from the fight. Sam chose to spend his remaining days at home in his 100-year-old farmhouse, with the woman he loved, the people he enjoyed, and the food he liked.
I told myself I was just going to Maine to hang out with Sam and my mother-in-law, Karen, but I knew there was more to it. I was going to say goodbye.
The following entries are adapted from my “journal” while in Maine – less a proper journal and more a few chicken-scratched lines I’d scribble in my notebook early in the morning, late at night, or when I’d go to my attic bedroom to stare at the ceiling and breathe deeply.
Got into town around 11pm. Karen came to pick me up at the airport. I felt terrible that she had to come get me so late. I never sleep, but I know they do.
We got to the house at a little after midnight. Karen and I sat at the table and drank tea. I kept telling her to go to bed, but she didn’t. We heard footsteps upstairs. “It sounds like Sam is up, he’s probably coming down to see you.” I heard the whir of the chair elevator coming down the stairs.
Sam appeared in the kitchen doorway and told myself to BE NORMAL. Sam was so thin. I’ll never get used to seeing him with a walker.
I should be used to it. Every time I’ve seen him in the past year he looks thinner and grayer in the face. But this time it made my chest ache.
“One of the childrens is here!” he grumbled and smiled. Such a relief to hear Sam’s voice in that body. I hugged him as tight as I dared. He was all bones. I’ll never forget how that hug felt.
I made some joke about Sam’s fancy pajamas. He laughed and told me I was a pain in the ass.
Sam didn’t sit, he stood in the kitchen doorway with his walker. He talked in circles a little, because of the meds, Karen said later. It was distressing to hear him speak in non sequiturs.
Somehow he got to joking about his muscles. “Talk about a six pack? I got a sixteen pack!” He was talking about being able to see all the bones in his body.
I laughed at his joke, but my I wanted to cry a little, too.
Jet lag hits me so hard in Maine.
Got down to the kitchen around 10:30. Felt like I was in soup. Karen was working at the table. Sam was still in bed.
I made coffee and eggs and I made Karen eggs, too. She likes hers over easy.
Heard Sam coming. Why was I nervous?
I feel like a crap person for being startled at his thinness again.
Sam and I sat around the kitchen table gabbing about my move to Japan. Sam talked about coming to see my and my husband in Yokohama. I allowed myself to talk with him about the things he wants to do there — food, gardens, geisha. The whole thing had the same sensation as a lie. I felt like a crap person again.
He said, “Though I don’t know if I’ll actually get there, but I’d really like to get there.”
I can’t be a weepy mess. HE WOULD HATE THAT.
Sam hates it when I try to help him. So I don’t. It feels like a dick move to not help him as he cooks oatmeal, but how can I treat him like an invalid when he still roars at me?
I did something dumb, and he snatched the spoon away. “Over my dead body,” he said. And we laughed for real.
He told me I was a pain in the ass again. I told him “takes one to know one.”
I gave Sam the multitude of weird SPAMs I brought him from Hawaii. Eight cans. He was so happy! I love hearing him make plans about food. He has his tasting powers back [while Sam was in and out of the hospital, undergoing radiation, he was on a medication that made it hard for him to taste much of anything besides sweets] so food is a pleasure again.
He was really excited about the Hickory Smoke SPAM and the spicy SPAM.
We are watching The Food Network, and Sam starts to doze. I watch him breathe.
I went downstairs at around 10, and Sam is already up at the dining room table on his computer. Karen was in the living room curled up on the couch staring at the TV.
The house felt tired.
I started to make my breakfast and Sam came into the kitchen.
“Did you know you can order SPAM on Amazon?” he asked.
“I didn’t, but that makes sense.”
“I ordered seven cases of SPAM!”
“What are you going to do with all that SPAM?”
“I think the bigger question is, what is Karen going to do with all that SPAM! I mean, I plan to eat a good portion of it, but both you and I know that I’m not going to be here to eat all that SPAM.”
Damnit. I laughed, was delighted by the weirdness of it all, felt nauseous, and afraid all at once. It must have been on my face.
He called me sweetie or sweetheart. I don’t hate it when Sam calls me that.
He told me he was so happy I was there. He told me that Jeff was a really good kid, he didn’t know how good of a kid he was until all this happened. [My husband, “Jeff”, was 35 at the time – I didn’t, and don’t have, a child-husband.]
“You’re a good kid too, you know. You eat me out of house and home, but I think we’ll keep you.”
He talked about feeling good these days, but knowing that he looked “like this.”
He talked about making plans for travel and adventures – how much fun he had in Hawaii with Jeff and me two Thanksgivings ago. But then he rounded out his thoughts with something like, “if I don’t keep planning, then that’s it. Goodbye.”
The temperature in the room changed suddenly. I needed something to do so I picked up Sam’s mug and asked him what kind of tea he wanted. It was like a thunderclap of anger in the room.
“If I want tea, I’ll get it myself, now PUT THAT DOWN.” I put the mug down on the kitchen table. I felt guilty.
“You just can’t take a hint, can you?” He was joking a little bit, but there was an edge in his words. “I can get my own tea.”
We’re so quick to try and steal life from those who are holding on tight to it. Life isn’t just the big adventures, it’s also the normalcy of making your own tea.
Sam had SPAM on toast for dinner. He cooked it himself. Karen and I told him it looked like cat food and kind of smelled like it too.
“And you think you smell like roses?” he said to me.
I cleaned the kitchen after dinner. I think it really annoys Sam, but Karen likes it.
The house is different at night. After nine o’clock it’s like death and sickness gets to take over for a little while. Everyone’s tense.
The lights never go off upstairs. Sam watches TV all night long, dozing for an hour or so at a time. Karen can’t sleep so she plays on her iPad.
From behind my bedroom door I hear talking and footsteps all night long. Light comes through the gaps between the door and the frame, slicing through the dark.
I dragged my ass out of bed at 10am and took a shower.
Sam was watching TV when I came downstairs. “Well look who finally decided to grace us with her presence.” It felt so normal to see him in his chair, calling me lazy. For a moment it was like a few years ago when vacations in Maine felt carefree.
I’m so f**king tired of mourning what was, and feeling like I’m pre-mourning what will be. It feels like a betrayal to Sam.
As I made breakfast, Karen worked on her computer. She asked if I wanted to play cards with Violet [her best friend] and her that night. “We’’ll have drinks in the parlor and play cards in here.” She seemed cheery over the prospect.
I was so glad she suggested it. it’s something a little out of the ordinary to look forward to.
I see Sam’s state reflected in Karen and I can’t even begin to imagine how she feels.
One of the hospice workers came to the house. When I answered the door, she gave me a hard look, like I might be a burglar. Luckily Karen swooped in and introduced us. Then she was all sweetness and spunk. Like Kathy Najimy in Sister Act.
She asked Karen if she needed any sweeping or ironing done. Karen said no. She went upstairs to work with Sam. I could hear Sam laughing with her. She brought ease with her.
What a difficult job. She was like a walking, talking sun shining light into the gloom.
I hadn’t realized that a patina of gloom had settled over the house, until “Kathy Najimy” came in.
Watched more Food Network with Sam. The late afternoons are the most unpredictable.
We were having the most average conversation about how to properly cook scallops, when the switch flipped.
When this happens there’s something frantic about him. It’s like the tape on his life gets fast forwarded, and he’s trying to slow it down.
He coughed hard and I asked if he was OK. “I’m OK, are you OK?” there was a whiff of a challenge in there.
Dinner was stressful. The family came over. We ordered Thai food. Food was spilled. Feathers ruffled. I felt like I was in the way.
I gave the kitchen floor a good scrub. Sam told me to knock it off when I started to attack the baseboards.
I know I shouldn’t do it. My attempt to be helpful is just a reminder that things aren’t what they once were. I’m like a little angel of death flitting around the house with a mop.
But I can’t stop. I really should. I will.
Violet didn’t come over and the card game didn’t happen. Karen and I just sat in the dark kitchen and drank wine and talked. She seems lonely.
I threw myself out of bed early – 8am! – to have breakfast before going to the airport around 11am.
Sam was already at the kitchen table. He was eating SPAM on toast. He seemed chatty and in high spirits. I thought he was angry with me, he didn’t seem like it today. He seemed downright chipper.
It was cruel how normal the morning felt. I was mad that now, whenever good things happen with Sam, I think about how unfair everything is. I’ve never characterized death or dying as truly “unfair” until I’ve been so happy in the face of it. Damnit.
Karen came in and out of the kitchen asking for eggs and messing with her new cell phone. I think I set it up for her. Or I totally destroyed it. One of the two. Time will tell.
I started to do the dishes after breakfast and Sam barked, “Drop it! Sit down, and shut up.” I literally dropped the pan in the sink with a clank. “Atta girl,” he said. I sat down at the table.
Sam asked why I had to go so soon, that I just got there. It wasn’t his mind playing tricks on him, he always says this.
When I joked offhandedly that I’d finally be out of his hair, he cut me off. “Don’t you ever think, for one second, that I don’t want you here. I always want you here.”
I couldn’t answer properly, I just said “Thank you.” Then we talked about French food and how amazing the food was in Paris. He told me I should go. I said I’d work on it.
I felt terrible, as usual.
I hugged Sam, and for the hundredth time in just a few days I felt a surge of rage at how thin he was. His spine poked up through his thin t-shirt and met my hands.
It was all so unfair in that moment. Death was stealing Sam from us piece by piece, pound by pound, thought by thought. It’s brutal. Greedy.
To have to watch your loved ones watch you die. To see fear and worry – the same fears and worries you are living with – written on their faces, and then feel obligated to put them at ease. Because that’s what Sam did. He didn’t have time to fret too much about his own death, he was worrying about what it would do to us.
“I’ll miss you, kiddo. Come back soon.”
Sam died two months later. There’s a lot of SPAM in Karen’s pantry.
(All names have been changed to respect the family’s privacy.)
Louise Hung is an American writer living in Japan. You may remember her from xoJane’s Creepy Corner, Global Comment, or from one of her many articles on death, folklore, or cats floating around the Internet. Follow her on Twitter.