A big part of me died with her.
Millions of families around the world are suffering from the same, sudden loss. I am part of this tribe, a new global community of survivors trying to find order in chaos, grinding through the emptiness this virus has created. With every sunrise, we count the minutes ticking off through the day, wondering if we can hold it together through Zoom meetings at work and well-intended queries about how we are doing.
Caught in darkness, I have turned to pie to light my journey. I'm not eating pie. At least no more than usual. I use pie the way a student of meditation uses a mantra. To practice mindfulness. To soften sharp edges of the day. I carve pie slices from clay. I paint images of pies in acrylic. I photograph pie. I work on song lyrics about pie. I imagine writing murder mysteries where the plot turns on pie. I question the particulars of pie, wondering about the forces that shaped pie over the past thousand years. If pie could talk!
Pie makes people smile. Betsy's favorite was German chocolate pie from the local K&W Cafeteria. She'd frequently request a slice, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I would bring home a whole pie. Who buys one slice of pie? Coconut pie and chocolate icebox pie were back-ups.
Betsy found joy in food. In her last year, as pain increased from chronic diseases, she requested cake and ice cream each day. When store-bought cake would not do, we retrieved a chocolate pound cake from the local bakery. On special occasions, she'd order a hummingbird cake or Lady Baltimore cake.
Betsy loved biscuits, too. With illness limiting our travel options, we aspired to annual holiday retreats to Chapel Hill, NC --- a two-hour car ride away. Her favorite breakfast there was a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit and cinnamon roll from Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen. She would nibble at both, not finishing either.
Early on with Betsy, I learned not to reserve joy for special occasions. Turns out deprivation does not lead to salvation. It just leads to a hankering for pie.
Betsy and I tested positive for the coronavirus at the same time in August. Our best guess is she contracted it at a local medical center -- while waiting in a line for a Covid-19 test a pulmonologist required for her annual exam. Between tests administered during hospitalizations and doctor visits, Betsy had cleared four or five Covid-19 tests before the positive result.
For me, the illness was nasty. Loss of taste, cognitive disorientation, low-grade fevers and a level of exhaustion I did not know was achievable.
For Betsy, who suffered from what we call "underlying conditions," the diagnosis arrived at the same time as a blood infection. For the first week, doctors described her coronavirus case as mild. By day eight, they described it as deadly. The virus grabbed her lungs and never let go.
The terms "underlying conditions" and "chronic disease," brought into public conversation by the pandemic, mask details we avoid. When we say our loved one is suffering from cancer, asthma, diabetes and kidney disease -- which were all on Betsy's list -- it makes people wince. So, we hold our tongues and nod as acquaintances suggest certain fixes -- from yoga to Pilates to forest bathing
. Spousal caregivers become expert at helping partners suffering from chronic disease create an illusion that all is well. Now the ferocity of Covid-19 is tearing down this façade.
A spouse waiting in the car is one of the tells of chronic disease. When I would stop at a country store near Davidson on the pretense of buying organic eggs and artisan cheese, Betsy would put in her order and wait. The first things in my basket were ginger cookies and fried pies. Betsy would unwrap a fried pie and eat it on the drive home.
Now, I cry in the car. And I cry in the grocery store, at work, on the phone, in my doctor's office. I have cried writing, painting, sculpting, sending emails and pruning shrubs. I have cried in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Massachusetts and Montana. I am aggregating votes in the Electoral College of Crying.
The crying is more complicated than anyone knows. Grief is a source, surely. More often, the tears emerge when I recall how lucky Betsy and I were to write our own ending, more or less. I cry out of guilt when my fortunes turn positive. I cry because I don't know how to order dinner now that I've lost my dining companion.
I cry because I understand Roger Angell's commentary on aging, published in The New Yorker in 2014
when he was in his early 90s: "Everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing: just look at our faces."
I have not cried at the hospital because I was not allowed to see Betsy there. Managing Betsy's hospitalization by phone, one thing I learned is you never want to pick up a call and hear from palliative care. It signals the patient has slipped into a situation where life-or-death decisions are approaching.
Betsy's nurses, who delivered updates by phone, were as encouraging as the angels. Their kindness props up hope, even when conditions are not so great. After a few days, the hospitalist described her illness as "mild." Yet "mild" was still miserable for Betsy. The breathing supports hurt her face. Sleep was hard to come by. Her back pain flared. Out of caution, and worried about the need for emergency intubation, the hospital required a liquid diet. Betsy craved her own pizza creation -- thin crust, white sauce, pineapple and mushroom. She craved a Mr. Goodbar.
The hospitalist was so optimistic that he sent Betsy home to recover. I was still under quarantine and recovering from Covid-19 myself, so we were frightened by the burden of my having take on the role filled by the medical professionals who had been caring for Betsy around the clock.
When health workers lifted Betsy into the hospital bed we had rented for home use, we realized the doctor had not made provisions to supply the Covid patient's essential need: home oxygen. A nurse from the hospital called to check on Betsy, part of the "virtual" care the hospital provided to Covid-19 patients recovering at home. The nurse shrieked when I reported her oxygen level. "She needs to be in the hospital," the nurse said.