The cost of grad school is steep. In exchange for a small fortune, we immerse ourselves in a world full of ideas, strongly marinated with our love and the company of others similarly in ardor. And a free backpack. One free, very inexpensive backpack from our school’s corporate partner, Kodak. It’s garbage, but I don it as evidence of a new life, one far from the family that endeavored to grind me into dust, to prove I was no one of consequence. This backpack, however flimsy, tells another story, and so, I proudly wear it.
Very few of us wear them, but he does. He’s boyish in the extreme, younger than me, certainly. Decent seeming. Wholesome. Corn fed? Decidedly not the type of man I attract. But he is awfully cute. And tall. And that dimple in his chin makes him difficult to ignore.
“Hey, nice backpack.” He says.
My feminist soul is not proud of myself as I smile, giggle a little and say,
“Thanks, you too.”
We talk for a minute and go our separate ways, but that’s the moment when we ignite.
Now, more than twenty years later, there are no lukewarm quips, just the sound of his wet, sucking breath. My husband stands before I understand I must stop him. He pushes against my hands. They are a farce, grasping and unsure. In theory, I could push him back down, hard, but the imagined sound of the back of his head meeting the hardwood floor. No.
He groans with effort. I scramble to reposition myself, to hold him from behind, just as I did with our son when I led him back to bed in the middle of the night. They list. They lose their balance, stumbling. Their bodies trust my hands. Believing them to be capable of holding them and keeping them safe.
Time does indeed slow, seconds stretch themselves to feel like minutes or hours. And suddenly his foot finds an extension cord.
I cannot hold him up and disentangle the cord.
I shove him forward onto the nearby couch. There can be no indecision. I must know that his body will cover the distance. So I push with forceful intent. With love. Face first.
The sound of his weight meeting an unforgiving surface. I don’t expect it. I’ve never held something so large in my hands.
“Oh no, oh no, oh no.” I think, did I hurt him?
He rolls over and tries to stand again. He can only grunt at this point. Speech comes later.
He can’t stand.
No, he can, but he should not.
I cannot guarantee his safety if he stands, though it seems to be the only thing he wants at this moment.
“Sit down.” I command, imitating an authority I can’t access.
“Please, please don’t stand.” I cajole, trying a different tact.
His eyes roll around in his head more like pinballs than the eyes I know and love. The eyes that spark every time they glance my way. The kindest eyes. Ones that taught me I was worth seeing and ultimately, loving.
I can’t get him to look at me. I can’t get him to sit down. I can’t do anything.
*Correction. I can be here.
I consider, not for the first time in these endless minutes, calling 911. But last time, they fractured his shoulder.
“Calm down, brother, we got you,” they’d said as they forced him, without love, into our chair.
He flinched and struggled when they placed the blood pressure cuff around his arm. Only my voice could bring him back.
“It’s gonna be OK. Sweetie, it’s going to be OK.” I pierced his consciousness. My love did that.
When he left the house, he was walking, seemingly on his way to recovery. When he arrived at the hospital they said,
“Check his right shoulder.”
This time I won’t call 911.
“Honey, Cody, I’m right here.” I remind him.
“Just stay with me for a minute, OK?” I beg him.
I will my voice to bring him back, remembering how his voice led me through the birth of our first son.
“One more push. You can do this.” He said it so many times it felt like a mantra or a cruel joke. But he didn’t give up on me.
I will sit here. And hold you even when there’s no guarantee you will return to me.
Suddenly his head whips towards me, under his control.
“Why? The windows and the places and then we open it, up, up and I stand up?”
The words mean nothing but his cadence is eerily, just like him.
“Honey, you can’t stand up.”
“Whhhhy?” This word is like molasses, stuck in his throat.
“Because your legs don’t work. Not yet.”
I remind myself, this takes time.
Last time, it took at least thirty minutes.
Last time, I didn’t know what this was.
Last time, our children were home.
Our older son ran out to the kitchen. “Mom, there’s something wrong with Dad.” I sprinted back to the bedroom. I took one look at my husband, at his face, white as death, and keened.
His father had died of a heart attack at a younger age. And we lived with his family medical history and the accompanying thrumming mild dread, or it lived with us. We’d told ourselves with false bravado (or dogged hope) that Cody would be fine, he’d had tests, he was healthier than his father.
But in that moment I was sure my husband was dead. “We got 21 years,” I thought. “We were lucky.” Every day I feel lucky we found each other.
In marked contrast, the refrain of my childhood went something like this,
“No man is ever going to love you. Not the way you are. Never.”
Though twenty-one years is long, it wasn’t sufficient. I grabbed the phone and started CPR.
This time is different. When I first see him on the floor, I know he’s not dead. He’s having a seizure. My job is to keep him safe. To keep him whole until he can do the job himself.
“And then she says you can open it and I will do that, I need to stand up, OK?” More nonsense, but I am happy to hear the words; the dead space of his silence is worse.
“Honey, you can’t stand up. What’s your name?”
He looks at me. He doesn’t see me, not yet, but he looks at me. He hears my voice.
He thinks on my question.
“What’s my name?” I ask.
More thinking, like a child examining a pencil, trying to figure which end is up, how one holds this thing and uses it to make words. A mysterious implement.
I crack a smile. That is my last name.
“What’s my first name?”
He looks at me a bit like I imagine a prisoner looks at their jailer.
I laugh a little. He’s getting better.
“My name is Alyson.” I remind him.
I long not be a pro at this. Please let me remain a novice and nod my empathy when others share their experiences. I’ll graciously relate a quick tale about how that happened to us a couple of times and then mysteriously stopped. Please let this be a detour and not our journey.
I don’t get to decide. I know enough of life to know that.
We began at one end of our U shaped coach, Cody face first. We are now, at the other end of the U. I have him pinned against the arm rest, my body weight thrown across him. If he tries to stand, I push him back down.
Repeat. And repeat. We argue but he never gets angry or uses his size against me; he never has. Not once.
“Why you not let me stand?” He asks, full of an almost childlike curiosity.
“You can’t stand…yet.”
“Yes. I can.” This time full of childish defiance.
“What are our kids’ names?”
Like a miracle, he says them.
And he sees me. And the tears on my face.
“Why are you crying?” He says. His words, logical.
“You had a seizure.” I tell him.
“Oh, shit. I don’t understand.” Now he’s scared too. I can’t stop that.
But I can take it one step at a time. Call the doctor, get a friend to pick up the kids, cancel the orthodontist, pack a backpack and go to the ER for a scan. He’s here. He’s whole.
On the way home from the ER he says, “I’m sorry. You didn’t sign up for this.”
It reminds me of the early days of our relationship,
“I’m sorry. So sorry. This isn’t fun. This isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing.”
I apologize because I’m crying, again. We’re in my bed, my head on his chest, our Kodak backpacks tossed on the floor.
“I love you.”
Before and meant it, but the safe harbor Cody provides is brand new and I’m rudderless. I’ve never felt this cared for in my life, not really.
“You might die.” I sob.
He holds me, “Yes, but not today, not anytime soon.”
Cody’s love for me felt like a meteor shower, dazzling and otherworldly. I reveled in it, sure, but as children of divorce, we both feared the inevitable decline (if he didn’t die first) of looks and words laden with resentment, maybe even disgust. As many bestsellers extol, love requires a daily commitment, and that Tuesday it meant tackling him and holding him with my voice and my hands. Other moments appear less remarkable; when we lay on the couch, in the quiet of the late night, our kids finally asleep, and listen to one another, phones down, recount the intricacies of our days. Love is an opportunity to hold one another like we’re precious, and on most occasions, we succeed.
Alyson Shelton wrote and directed the award winning feature, Eve of Understanding. She created and wrote the comic, Reburn, which successfully funded the first arc (Issues #1-#4), on Kickstarter. Additionally, her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Ms., Hobart Pulp, Little Old Lady (LOL) Comedy Blog, and others. She is currently at work on a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @byalysonshelton where you can watch and participate in her IG Live series inspired by George Ella Lyon’s poem, “Where I’m From.”