I sat across the room from my wife as she struggled to tie the odd bit of open-backed
material masquerading as a hospital gown. I knew how difficult tying it
could be from my own experiences as a patient.
Eager to help, I asked, “Can I do that for you?” She responded with a nod and let her
arms fall to her side.
I crossed the room to her, took the strings of the gown in hand and made quick work of
securing them. For reasons I didn’t understand I fought the urge to lean forward and
kiss the back. It would have been
something we’d have expected me to do. She loved it when I did that and I loved her
response. But I wasn’t certain if neck kissing fit the situation we were in.
“There,” I announced and I stepped back dramatically to review my work. “I hereby
declare no hospital gown has ever been tied better!”
My proclamation yielded a slight smile from her. My thought was, Good, it’s okay for me
to be funny today. Humor was my go-to response to every stressful situation—with varied
outcomes. She was a good sport, an appreciative sport. The night she’d proposed to me
she named my “propensity for levity, however odd it can be” as one of the things she
most loved about me.
“Thank you,” she said quietly as she sat down on the edge of the hospital bed.
I sat down next to her. The air in the room felt heavy. It was gravid with worry and it
begged to be delivered. I wished I’d brought my asthma inhaler. I felt the need to lighten
the mood well up in me. I knew trying to be funny at that juncture would either be clear
genius or an abysmal failure.
I cleared my throat. She turned her head toward me. The solemnity in her eyes gave me
second thoughts and I wondered if it might be best to just let silence hang.
I put my arm around her shoulders.
She heaved a long sigh and patted my thigh. We both looked at the clock. Hospital staff
were due any moment to take her to the operation room.
Our twentieth anniversary was the next day and we’d planned a trip to Cancun. That
was before we knew about the cancer. Her surgeon had encouraged us to go ahead with
our plans because delaying the surgery by a week or two wouldn’t be harmful. We opted
to schedule the surgery as soon as it could be done done. Our thinking was a sooner
surgery might help ensure we had many more anniversaries to celebrate.
I pulled her close to me as I thought about our first anniversary.
A glass of Merlot in hand, she had said, “Honey, I can always count on you for three
things—great meals, great laughs and great orgasms!”
Having downed two or three prior glasses of wine, it wasn’t her inside voice she used to
say that. We heard a chorus of chuckles in surround sound in the restaurant.
“Oops, she’d giggled that night.
I had feigned modesty at the time and grinned across the table at her. I simultaneously let
her remarks about me sink in to the deep, self-doubting parts of me.
Then as we sat on the bed in the hospital room, I pulled her still closer and glanced at the
clock again. She let her head rest on my shoulder and sighed again. I kissed the side of
An hour earlier, I'd watched while she signed the surgery consent. Her signature,
usually close to calligraphy, belied her anxiety.
"Seriously," she’d asked, "who puts "simple" in the same freaking
phrase as "mastectomy” ?"
When she said that, I had reached to stroke her face and my hand had brushed across her
left breast. Something caught in my throat at the give of it—the particular softness. It
was well known between us that breast was my favorite for reasons lovers know. Our
first night sleeping together, she’d let me know it was her favorite breast too and a
myriad of other favorite things. Laughing she’d said, I think my left breast ranks highest
in terms of appearance and sensitivity. You do your own research.” We had both
Sitting there waiting for hospital staff to appear I wanted to laugh with her again. I would
have even counted another smile as success. I decided to go for it.
“If we ask nicely,” I began as I nodded in the direction of her left breast, “do you think—
they will let us take it home in a jar?"
Two hospital staff came to take her to surgery. They found us with my wife nestled
within the circle of my arms. Her face was buried in my shirt, her body convulsing with
what could have been laughter or sobs. The surgery staff looked at her and then at me as
if awaiting information about how they should proceed.
I held onto my wife and looked back at them—clueless.
Annette Hope Billings
Original story written 11/9/2010