Do Not Resuscitate
Copyright Lia Matera, 1995.
This story may not be reproduced, copied or distributed for commercial or non-commercial use..
"Do Not Resuscitate" was first published in Crimes of the Heart, edited by Carolyn Hart (Berkley Prime Crime, 1995).
She awakened with a prickle of dread like sharp-nailed fingers up her side. Then she closed her eyes again, closed them tight. One of her inner voices, sweet and coaxing, usually reserved for Hank, her husband of five years, chastised: Oh honey, don’t squish your face up. If Hank’s watching, he’s going to think you look like one of those dolls with dried apples for heads.
Not that Hank would think any such thing. But she always made sure he couldn’t think anything crueler than she’d already thought herself: that way, she was dejinxed, protected. No matter that she didn’t need protection.
She’d married Hank, seventy-three to her fifty-one, because he was absolutely devoted and uncritical of her, a big leathery old cowboy with a quick smile and a generous nature and, until his hard stroke three years ago, had a wonderful body for a man his age. Even with the stroke, his good conditioning and can-do attitude had brought him most of the way back. It had been a hellish few years, but except for kind of a pinched look on the left side of his face and some stiltedness in his walk, he was still her lean mean ranching machine.
Just thinking of him soothed her unattributed anxiety on this chill November morning. She reached a plump, languid arm across the bed, feeling for Hank. Nothing. She fanned the arm as if making a snow angel. How odd: the sheets were cold. Whyever would the sheets be cold?
In fact, her whole body was cold. That was the sensation she’d translated into prickling apprehension.
She realized she was uncovered. “Hank?” She could hear panic in her voice. This was too much like three years ago, when his middle-of-the-night stroke had sent him sliding off the bed, dragging the satin comforter with him.
She’d awakened then to find him on the floor, murmuring vaguely and disjointedly about having rolled off. But she could tell by the temperature of the sheets that he’d rolled off much earlier in the night. And besides, why hadn’t he gotten back up? She’d dialed 911 with trembling fingers, seeing that his right side was frozen into a fetal curve. And that he’d wet himself. And that half his face had collapsed into a slack mask.
She’d been scared to death, of course, scared of losing him. Hank was the only one in her endlessly dreary life who’d loved her right. Not that it had been perfect. Not that she hadn’t cried rivers over his first wife, whom she couldn’t bear to hear about even for a second. Not that she hadn’t offered to let him go the time that cute neighbor was making a play for him, or the time that his ex-sister-in-law was bawling on his shoulder because her boy got shot.
Every time she saw him with a pretty woman it was torture. He was so good and so wonderful. And she wasn’t much, no indeed. Not much on looks, not much on brains, disorganized, bad with money, always buying shoes that turned out not to fit or antiques that turned out to be fakes. And she didn’t get Hank’s jokes sometimes. And she couldn’t keep track of politics even when they affected ranch business.
It was like her brother always used to say: if she was a fish, anybody would throw her back. She used to try to tag after her big brother, she loved him so. But he’d play with anybody anywhere anytime to get away from her, and he took every chance to let her know she was ugly and stupid and boring. And her parents, though they tried to give her affection, couldn’t help but love her brother better. They showed off his report cards and athletic trophies, and they laughed at his quick wit, and later when he became a magazine writer, they kept a leather scrapbook of his stories.
They’d been good folk. It wasn’t their fault they couldn’t find anything to admire in their dumbish lump of a daughter who kept living at home even into her forties without much to say for herself, bringing around one mean-tempered boyfriend after another who used her for sex with one eye out at all times for a cuter prospect.
And then, just when things seemed hopeless, she’d met Hank. A temporary secretarial agency had sent her here to this sprawling house to help him catch up on his bookkeeping and paperwork.
She’d fallen for him at first sight. He had lines of good temper leathered right into his face. He was ranch scruffy and unpretentiously willing to sit and listen to her chatter. He even laughed at her lame jokes. And he told her the first time he heard her say it that she was absolutely wrong about being fat, he thought she looked just right.
From their very first date, she’d felt guilty. Oh lord, she was wasting his evening. She’d look around the restaurant and see all the women her age who’d kept their figures and had the most refined expressions on their faces, and she’d think, He should be with her, not me. She deserves him. If he wasn’t with me tonight, someone better would have him.
She brought it up a few times, but it seemed to make him mad. He didn’t understand at first how hard it was for her.
For instance, at first, he used to talk about his dead wife. They’d gotten married when they were nineteen and stayed married thirty years, until she was killed in a car crash. He’d never gotten over it, he told her.
She’d burst into tears. He’d thought then that she was just tenderhearted, but it wasn’t that. It was that Missy, the first wife, should still have him. She was clearly so far superior that it wasn’t even right she should be living in Missy’s house or riding in the four-wheeler Missy had bought.
Every time he mentioned Missy, it tore her apart. She would cry in secret for days. She would try to harden her heart toward Hank so that the relationship would die out, and he could be left with the memory of that deserving woman instead of the reality of stupid, inadequate her.
When it finally dawned on Hank what was happening, he tried to talk it over with her, insisting that it didn’t lessen his feelings for her to have loved someone else once. But when he said that, it was like cold steel in her heart. She only wanted to pack her things and flee. She could see he tolerated her out of kindness, and that it must be torture to a heart that had known the love of Missy.
For a while, he was angry at her. He’d been married thirty years, he cried. Was he supposed to never mention anything that happened in all that time because it involved Missy? That was silly. That was unfair to him. She needed to get it over it.
He sounded just like her brother when he screamed at her that way. "Leave me alone, fatty! Tag after someone else for a change! Get a life!"
It hurt her even more when Hank finally accepted she’d never be able to deal with it. He stopped speaking Missy’s name. Talked about his past only in ways that made no hint of Missy’s presence. It was so artificial and obvious, it just about killed her. She’d wrecked part of his joy and happiness by being stupid about things. Knowing that was constant hell. And yet she couldn’t get past it, couldn’t hear Missy’s name—or not hear it when it should have been mentioned—without turning inside out.
She’d had some bitter cries over the years, wanting desperately to find the strength to release Hank, to give him the chance to find a saner, nicer woman.
Every time they met a woman she liked, in fact, it hurt her terribly. She should let Hank go, and she knew it. She didn’t deserve him.
And yet, selfishly, she was grateful he ignored her altruistic outbursts. But she watched him grow more and more wary of them, more and more careful of what he said and how he acted in company, because the least show of social warmth made her sure she should step out of his life right now. And feeling that way, she’d get all fragile and crazy, secretly searching his pockets and papers, or crawling to her corner of the bed and not letting Hank near her.
After Hank’s first stroke, when she had to nurse him and help him, and it seemed like another woman might not want to, then they’d finally found some happiness. For a long time, his speech had been slurred, so he hadn’t been able to blunder into emotionally mined territory. She’d helped him in every way she could then, feeling a ferocious sympathy for his torment. He’d always been so active, poor darling, riding the ranch, splitting the wood, mending the fences. It had been torture for him, a year in a wheelchair, another year with a walker. He’d only put his cane aside last month.
And now here she was, lying uncovered on the bed again. And she was scared, too scared to move. Because he’d begged her: if it ever happened again, she mustn’t let them save him. At his age, he’d never be able to come back to anywhere near the point he was now, not again. And he couldn’t survive the immobility, not again. For him, it was the worst claustrophobia.
He’d had a lawyer write him up a piece of paper saying if he ever got to the point where he was too sick to live productively, he wanted to die naturally. He didn’t want machines and chemicals keeping his body alive if he couldn’t use it.
In the abstract, she understood. She felt that way about herself, too. Especially after seeing all poor Hank had suffered, with a tube up his nose for food and liquids, and a catheter in him, and bruises on his body, and sores under his eyes because they teared uncontrollably.
But on the other hand, with her to help him, he’d made it back the first time. And for once, she’d felt really useful and special. Almost worthy of his love and company.
All this went through her mind in a flash when she made her snow angel arm sweep and felt the bed cold and empty. But maybe it was just a knee jerk of dread to ward off the jinx. She always did think the worst thing first, to get it over. Maybe Hank was okay, maybe in the kitchen having early oolong.
But this time it didn’t feel like she was just being silly. Nearly frozen with cold and fear, she scooted her size twenty-two pink pajamas across the bed, peering over the edge as if over the cliffs of hell.
Her heart felt like a hot rock in her chest: There he was on the floor.
“Hank! Oh, Hank.” Her voice bled.
She slid down beside him.
He looked so old, her wonderful Hank. His eyes were half shut and his mouth was open with his tongue tip protruding. His skin looked yellow, settling into deep caverns beneath his stubbled cheekbones. His breaths were the shallowest rasps, his lips were turning blue. She’d never seen him look so dreadful, not even that other awful morning.
With a thin wail, she reached a multiply-ringed hand toward the antique-reproduction phone by the bedside, the one that replaced Missy’s pink princess, just as she’d replaced all Missy’s furniture and fittings. She dialed 911, and cried for a while into the mouthpiece before she could even speak.
When she knew the paramedics were coming, she sank back beside Hank and stroked his cold face. He was barely breathing. He looked almost dead. His pupils, visible through half-open eyes, were different sizes.
Months ago, the doctors had warned her. The blood thinners he took every day since his stroke would keep Hank from having another stroke from a blood clot, but if he had the kind caused by bleeding in the brain, the anticoagulants would make the stroke worse. The bleeding in his head would go on and on, killing more and more brain cells, leaving only random sparks of consciousness in a paralyzed body.
To Hank it was the ultimate horror story. Don’t ever forget, he told her a thousand times. If the paramedics come, show them the paper in the nightstand drawer. Don’t let them do anything to save me. I couldn’t take it, honey, it’d be living hell. Even weak from his first stroke, he’d grabbed her shoulders tight and shaken them. Don’t let them keep me alive in hell, honey. Don’t let them.
She watched him now and felt the dark cold loneliness to come. She reached a hand to the drawer and withdrew the paper. DO NOT RESUSCITATE, it read across the top. She slipped it into her pajama pocket, lost in swirling memories of his kindness and maleness and devotedness.
“Oh Hank,” she whispered. “I always loved you so much, I always wanted you to be happy and have everything you deserved. I’ll never be happy without you, Hank.”
There was a sudden flutter in his breathing. “Pain,” he gurgled, his voice a wet, small croak of a thing. “Gone. Can’t feel body.”
She knew in her heart what he was telling her, what he was begging her. Begging her to remember the paper in the drawer.
“I’ll do what you asked, Hank. How could I not?”
“Missy,” he choked. “Aw, look what a gorgeous girl I married.”
She drew back as if slapped. What she’d always feared: Missy was the one, the gorgeous one love of Hank’s life. Missy’s name on his lips now. After she’d finally convinced herself he loved her. That her nursing had made her worthy of him.
“Coming, Missy.” His voice was a little louder. His eyelids fluttered open, and he stared ahead with mismatched pupils. “Coming back to you now, my beauty.”
She looked down at him, frozen in her vortex of rejection. It always came back to this: every man had left her for someone. As soon as there was someone else to be with, he was gone—every man starting with her own brother.
And now Hank, too.
“Remember...” His speech was slurring, fading. “Dancing in Paris?”
She’d refused to go to Europe on a honeymoon because he’d been there with Missy. Everything everywhere would remind him of Missy, she was sure. So they’d gone to Florida, which he hadn’t much liked because she was always too hot and tired to do anything.
“’Member? Alps? Walking?”
He looked at her and his face, so white and skeletally sunken, managed to wear the faint ghost of an old happiness.
“Coming back to you, Missy...” Then he stopped breathing. Just stopped. Grew more pale and almost blue.
For what seemed an eternity, she watched him. She imagined his soul rising to embrace the beautiful, fun-loving, intelligent mate of his spirit, the incomparable Missy. She saw them laughing and happy and full of tears and remembrances, with not a backward glance for her.
It tore at her. How wrong she’d been to tell herself she should let him go to someone who deserved him. It wasn’t true. It had never been true. She didn’t care who deserved him. She wanted him, fiercely and with her whole heart. And she didn’t care if she didn’t deserve him. He was hers. She had loved him and nursed him. She had finally earned him.
She screamed when she heard the doorbell. Then, walking as if with a twisting knife in her back, she stumbled to the doorway.
In their police-like uniforms, two paramedics stood before her. She waved her arm behind her, hot tears spilling down her cheeks.
She remained rooted in the doorway while they pushed past her with their bags and plastic devices.
She trailed behind them finally and overheard one of them mutter, “Not good.”
While his partner inserted a plastic tube into Hank’s mouth, he looked over his shoulder. “We’re going to try to resuscitate him. How long has he been this way?”
“Stopped breathing, oh God.” Her voice was a foolish twitter. “Minutes ago. Maybe five?”
The paramedic shook his head again. “There’ll be substantial deficits if he does recover. Permanent brain injuries. He could be a vegetable.” It was said kindly, for all the harshness of the message. “Do you know if he has a Do Not Resuscitate order on file at the hospital?”
She stopped breathing herself for that moment. She saw him dancing in Paris with Missy. It was wrong, it was too late; he was her husband now, not Missy’s. “I don’t think so,” she whispered.
“He doesn’t have a document around here saying he doesn’t want to be resuscitated in a situation like this?” The paramedic seemed to be appealing to her. Telling her Hank’s fate would be a cruel one if he lived.
Her hand went to her pocket. She could feel the stiff sheet of folded paper. I can’t give him up.
And yet she always thought she could and should give him up, give him to someone worthy of him, someone like Missy. It was he who had always insisted they remain together in spite of her “jealousies.” Now it was clear: she’d hung on as hard as she could every step of the way. And she’d hang on now.
“He’d want you to save his life,” she said. “He’d want you to try, no matter what.”
She watched the paramedic attach a bellowslike bag to the tube in Hank’s throat. She watched Hank’s chest rise and fall, rise and fall until a bit of color returned to his cheeks.
There would be no dancing with Missy today. Missy was not his wife anymore. She was.