Authors: Jodi Picoult
“Okay,” he says, “how are you doing?”
“Not bad. I’ve only fallen once and I’m pretty sure that the burn on my hand is second degree, not third.”
“Kidding,” I tell him. “I’m fine.”
I do not tell him that I have been reading obsessively about other Covid survivors. Or that I am trying to figure out how to get to The Greens safely, given that I can barely walk the length of a city block without resting.
He tells me that he will check in again later, but he doesn’t. I don’t hear from him again till his keys jingle in the lock a full hour after he told me he’d be home. Immediately I get up and start toward him—I’m not even using Candis, just cruising on the furniture when I need a little extra support, and I want to show him—but before I can reach him he holds out his hand like a stop sign. He proceeds to strip off his clothes and stuff them into a laundry bag that he’s wedged underneath the table by the door where we keep our phones and keys and wallets. When he’s wearing only his boxers and a surgical mask, he edges past me in the hallway. “Just let me rinse off,” he says.
Five minutes later he reappears, dressed and smelling of soap, his hair still wet. I am in the kitchen, awkwardly dragging a Clorox wipe along the wax paper of the two deli sandwiches he’s brought home. I wonder if we will all die from ingesting cleaning solutions.
I scrub my hands thoroughly and bring the plates to the table. Finn immediately takes a giant bite and groans. “First thing I’ve eaten since this morning.”
“So I shouldn’t ask how your day was.”
He glances at me. “This is the best part of it,” he says. “What did
“Skydiving,” I tell him. “Then a little light lion taming.”
“Underachiever.” His face lights up. “Wait. I have something for you.”
He goes to the entryway and digs inside the backpack he carries to work, coming out with a sealed Ziploc bag. He pulls out a fabric mask, printed with sunflowers. “Thank you?” I say.
“An ICU nurse made it. God knows the last thing I’d want to do after a shift is sit down with a sewing machine, but it was really nice of her. I haven’t had a chance to buy any reusable masks yet, and you can’t wash the blue surgical ones.”
“How does she even know about me?”
“She’s the one who snuck me in to see you.”
“I don’t want to take your mask—”
“Oh, it’s okay. Athena made me one, too. Without sunflowers.”
His cheeks have gone pink.
“Athena,” I repeat. “That’s a real name?”
“Greek mom. Dad’s from Detroit.”
I wait for him to say,
She’s been married longer than we’ve been alive
. Or even to be amused by my jealousy. But Finn doesn’t say anything else, and I put the mask down carefully beside my plate. “You seem to know a lot about her,” I say.
“I guess that’s how it is, when you’re fighting against death together every day,” Finn answers.
I am resentful of a woman who may have helped save my life. I am suspicious of Finn, even though I cheated on him in my dreams.
I force myself to swallow. “Please thank Athena for me,” I say.
While Finn finishes his sandwich, I tell him about a tutorial I saw online today on how to make a homemade mask from the cup of a bra.
Finn smiles, and I achieve my goal: to see his shoulders relax and the tension release. I was the one who made this happen, and that’s who Finn needs me to be.
If there’s one thing we are both good at in this relationship, it’s being predictable.
“I’ve been trying to remember getting sick,” I say. “I know you said you’d tell me anything I want to know. Did I have a headache, before things started getting bad, or—”
“Diana?” Finn cuts me off, rubbing his temples. “Can we…just…not?” He looks up at me, his eyes pleading. “It’s been a
I abandon everything I was about to ask.
“How about a movie?” he says, realizing that he’s shut me down. He stands and yanks me into his arms and buries his face in the curve of my neck. “I’m sorry,” he whispers.
I comb my fingers through his hair. “I know,” I say.
We settle onto the couch and turn on the TV, looking for something completely escapist.
is on and we are quickly absorbed. Well, Finn is. I mostly pepper him with questions like why Captain Marvel can’t just use the gauntlet by herself. I do not realize at first that Finn is crying.
It’s the end of the movie, and Pepper Potts is bent over Tony Stark, who’s sacrificed himself to save the universe. She tells him they’re going to be okay, and Tony just
at her, because he knows that’s not true, and she kisses him.
You can rest now,
Finn’s shoulders tremble and I pull away to look at him. He sinks forward, burying his face in his hands, trying to stifle his sobs. I do not think, in all the years I’ve known Finn, I have ever seen him fall apart like this. It is scary.
“Hey,” I say, touching his arm. “Finn, it’s okay.”
His hand shakes as he wipes it over his eyes. “They asked me to sign a DNR for you,” Finn says. “I didn’t know what to do. I came in and I sat with you and I told you that if you needed to go, it was okay.”
You can rest now.
Maybe, in my sedated haze, I heard him. Maybe I rested, then fought my way back to the land of the living. But Finn, he hasn’t had any time to rest.
He takes a shuddering breath and looks up at me sheepishly. “Sorry,” he murmurs.
I lay my palm on his cheek. “You don’t have to apologize.”
He grasps my hand and turns his face to kiss it. “I didn’t think this was going to happen quite like this,” he says under his breath, and then he looks me directly in the eye. “I knew I wanted to spend my life with you. The thing is, I didn’t really understand what that meant until yours nearly ended.” He ducks his head. “I had a whole plan for how to do this—but I don’t think I can wait—”
I rocket off the couch, yanking my hand from his. My fingers feel like ice. “I have to…use the bathroom,” I blurt out, and I stumble away from him, closing the door behind me. Inside, I run the faucet and I splash water on my face.
I know what Finn was about to do. It is a moment I’ve dreamed about. So why can’t I let it happen?
I am sweating and I am cold and shaking. I’ve known what I wanted for years. And now that it’s here—
Now that it’s here—
I’m not sure I’m ready.
I turn off the water and open the door. Finn is still on the couch, watching the television. His eyes are dry, and they track me as I sit down next to him. “What did I miss?” I ask, looking at the screen.
I can feel his stare on me. I think I hear him say,
There are topics, I guess, that neither of us is ready to talk about.
I settle myself under Finn’s arm and lean into him again. After a long moment, I feel his words whispered against the crown of my head. “Maybe you should talk to someone. Like…a shrink.”
I don’t look at him. “Maybe I should,” I say.
I focus on the television, as Tony Stark’s ashes are set adrift on a lake.
I know that you can’t run a marathon without training. And I can’t get to The Greens if I can barely make it to the end of the hallway. So the next day I gather all my courage and go for a walk. The streets are empty. I move deliberately and slowly to the end of the block, where there is a wine and liquor store around the corner.
To my surprise, it’s open. But then again, what business could be more essential?
When Finn comes home that night, I am nearly bouncing with excitement. “Guess what I did,” I say, as soon as he finishes stripping and showering. From behind me on the couch, I hold up a bottle of red wine. “I walked all the way to the liquor store. And now we get to celebrate.”
To my surprise, Finn doesn’t seem happy. “You
My smile falters. “I didn’t break lockdown,” I tell him. “We’re allowed to go out for food.” I look down at the bottle in my hands. “This counts, right?”
“Diana, you shouldn’t have gone out by yourself,” Finn says. He sits next to me, looking me over like he’s expecting to find a bleeding head wound or a broken bone. “You just got out of the goddamn hospital.”
“I got out of
” I say gently, “and I’m supposed to be challenging myself. Besides, I had to do it sometime. The toilet paper isn’t going to buy itself.”
This is not going the way it is supposed to. Finn should be pleased that I’m getting stronger, that I was brave enough to venture out alone. But at the same time, I realize that when Finn kisses me now, he always presses his lips to my forehead, too, like he’s checking for a temperature. He watches me when I get up to go to the bathroom or into the kitchen, in case I fall.
I nestle closer until he’s holding me. “I’m fine,” I whisper. I wonder when he is going to stop treating me like a patient, rather than a partner.
“Promise me you’ll wait for me if you need to leave the apartment?” he murmurs.
I hold my breath for a moment, because I can’t take that oath. I’m heading to The Greens tomorrow, no matter what. “One day,” I say gently, “you’re going to have to let me go.”
There is a theory of dementia called retrogenesis, meaning that we lose life skills in the reverse of the order in which we gained them. A doctor told me this when my mother was first diagnosed at age fifty-seven with early-onset Alzheimer’s. A person with dementia, he said, starts out like a ten-year-old. She can be trusted to follow directions on a note that you leave behind. Eventually, the patient will suffer mental decline until she’s at the stage of a toddler—she can’t be expected to remember to get dressed or to feed herself. The next skills that are lost are continence, speech. The very first things we master as an infant are the last things we lose: the ability to lift one’s head from a pillow. The ability to smile.
What I remember from that initial visit was asking the doctor how long my mother’s life expectancy would be.
Most people with Alzheimer’s survive from three to eleven years,
he told me.
But some have been known to live for twenty
And I had thought, at the time:
My God. What am I going to do with her for all that time?
All of this was before I lost her/didn’t lose her in a dream.
Although there is a lockdown in the city, I can easily argue why seeing my mother face-to-face is necessary. I know the trains are running, but decide to splurge on an Uber.
I haven’t told Finn I’m going. I haven’t told anyone.
When my ride arrives, the driver looks at me in my sunflower mask and I look at him in his KN95 mask, as if we are assessing each other for risk. He glances at my quad cane and I think about telling him that I actually just got over Covid, but that would be counterproductive.
At The Greens, to my surprise, the front door is locked.
I ring the bell, and knock a few times. After a moment, the door opens, revealing a nurse in a surgical mask. “I’m sorry,” she says, “we’re not open.”
“But these are visiting hours,” I reply. “I’m here for Hannah O’Toole.”
The woman blinks at me. “We’re closed by order of the
.” She says this with judgment, like I should know better.
Which, I mean, I do.
“I’ve been away for a while,” I tell her, which isn’t a lie. “Look, I don’t have to stay long. It’s kind of a crazy thing—I was under the impression that my mother had passed away but—”
“I’m really sorry,” the nurse interrupts. “But this policy is meant to keep your mother safe. Maybe you could…just call her?”
She closes the door in my face. I stand in the chilly breeze, leaning on my quad cane, thinking about her words. Normally, every few weeks, that’s exactly what I do.
I am about to dial my mother’s number when a car pulls into the parking lot. An elderly man gets out with a bag of birdseed. Instead of going to the front door, however, he walks around the side of the building. Near one of the patient’s screened porches there is a bird feeder. He pours a little of the seed into it and then notices me watching. “I’ve been with her for fifty-two years,” he says. “I’m not going to let a virus ruin a perfect record.”
“You’re visiting your wife?”
He jerks his chin in the direction of the porch. Like my mother’s, it’s a sealed box without an entrance—no one can enter the apartment from out here, but the resident can be outside in a safe way. A door slides open from inside the apartment, and an aide wheels out a woman. She has white cotton-candy hair piled on her head, and a blanket over her narrow shoulders. She is staring vacantly past the man.
“That’s my Michelle,” he says proudly. “Thank you!” he calls to the nurse, who waves and disappears back inside. He walks closer to the screen, pressing his hand against it. “How’s my doll?” he asks, and the woman doesn’t respond. “You have a good week? I saw a cardinal yesterday, at home. First one this year.”
He doesn’t even seem to notice or care that I’m eavesdropping as he talks to her. His wife is motionless, expressionless. It makes my heart hurt.
As I am about to leave, he starts singing in a clear tenor the Beatles song with her name as the title.
“Très bien ensemble,”
“très bien ensemble.”
Suddenly his wife sparks alive. “I love you, I love you, I love you,” she says.
“That’s right.” A grin splits his face. “That’s right, honey.”
I hurry away around the corner, toward my mother’s screened porch. I dial her phone number. A moment later, she answers. “Hi, it’s Diana!” I say brightly. “It’s so good to talk to you!”
Those sunny, bright inflections at the ends of my sentences, I know, are how she will figure out how to respond. It will have nothing to do with my name, or our relationship, which she doesn’t remember.
“Hi,” she says, tentative but upbeat. “How are you?”
“It’s such a beautiful day,” I say. “You should come out on the porch. I’m right here, enjoying the sunshine.”
She doesn’t respond, and to be honest, I don’t even know if she can manage the sliding door onto the porch. But a moment later, she steps out into the little space, looking around like she can’t remember why she went there.