I watch a team of cardiologists parade into my husband’s hospital room. A waft of cedarwood and bergamot follows them into the “no scent zone,” softens the edges of the antiseptic air. Still laughing at a private joke, they fall silent as they form a semi-circle around his bed. My husband is stripped to the waist, illuminated in a triangle of light from above in the otherwise dimly lit room. The delirium that kept him awake last night has left him in a stupor, eyes half-closed staring straight ahead. I hope his brain is not recording any of this.
The head cardiologist pulls a pen-shaped instrument out of the pocket of his dusty rose shirt. Bends in towards my husband, head tilted to the side as if he were going to kiss him on the cheek. Or maybe bite his neck to draw blood. He prods my husband’s carotid artery with the pen-like thing, waits a few seconds, then stands upright shaking his head. He reels off something inscrutable, the team all nod like bobble-head dolls. The leader turns on his leather soles and they follow him into the hallway. Not a word spoken to me, the person holding his hand at the bedside.
I want to get up from my chair and follow them into the hall, break the boss’s Cartier-framed glasses with a piercing scream, demand their attention. But my whole body feels like it’s weighed down by a lead x-ray apron. I sip some cold water to soothe the burning in my esophagus, to drown all the words that I have swallowed over a lifetime that are threatening to claw their way out.
While in the hospital cafeteria eating a soggy tuna sandwich for dinner, I listen to a voicemail from Sally, my friend who has been taking care of our three old dogs. One of her kids is sick and she had to leave before she could take them out to pee. The two mini-Dachshunds, Isabelle and Dexter, are willing to wear diapers. Hannah, our 15- year-old Lab, a retired assistance dog who can push elevator buttons, open doors and pick up dimes off the floor with her teeth, hides in the bathtub every time the diaper bag comes out.
Being an assistance dog, she has always had a rigid code of conduct. To pee anywhere but outside was unacceptable. A few months ago, she dribbled a little on the tiles in the entranceway of our apartment and for the rest of the evening padded from bedroom to living room, bringing us shoes, toques, scarves. After each gift she would sit and hang her head until we said good girl and made a big show of modeling each item of clothing.
In the elevator Hannah looks up at me every couple of seconds, as if I have some control over her bladder situation. I engage my pelvic floor muscles and imagine my urethral sphincter squeezing tight, like this will help. As the elevator door opens, I hold her up under her belly, trying not to put pressure on her bladder. I didn’t have time to put her grippy booties on, so she skates across the tile foyer. I let her go, to pull the front door open, and that triggers the release. The yellow pool spreads quickly across the tiles. A young couple walks past the front door, stops talking to watch us. I can’t read their expressions. Hannah scoots out the door, away from the offending puddle. My face blooms red.
I lean my head out of the living room window, take several long drags from my cigarette. Mount Baker’s icy white blanket reflects the final blaze of sunset. On a clear day it hovers behind the skyline on the east side of Vancouver. A craggy silhouette at sunrise, a fiery backdrop at sunset. After one last drag, I pinch off the burning head into a shot glass half-filled with water.
When I was 9, a neighbour told me Mount Baker is an active volcano. I didn’t believe him because it never did anything spectacular, it always just looked like a giant ice cream sundae. I looked up “active volcanoes in North America” in Encyclopedia Britannica, and the first thing I saw was a picture of a volcano erupting. I could never get that picture out of my mind.
In yoga class, we learn Tadasana—Mountain pose. The teacher suggests visualizing a mountain to help us feel solid and unshakeable. When I imagine Mount Baker’s serene façade, I start to feel a pressure in my chest, like heartburn. Within a couple of minutes, the mountain erupts in my mind, spewing ash, rocks and rivers of burning lava.
When I walk into my husband’s hospital room at 6:35 the next morning, he is lying in the same position as the night before. Head of the bed at 45 degrees, eyes closed. All the machines attached to him are blinking and buzzing. He is still alive. When the nurse comes to check the IV, I look down at my hands, and ask, “Can you tell me why the social worker called me at 6:00 this morning to tell me to get here as fast as I can? She said to take a cab, not to drive myself.” She looks at me blankly and shakes her head, her high ponytail swings back and forth. She tells me the same thing I am so tired of hearing — she just came on shift, she doesn’t know anything yet, she will know more when the doctors are finished rounds.
I close my eyes. Something red and hot is spreading though my chest, my ribs start to expand as if they are going to pop out of their joints from the pressure. I try to focus on my yogic breathing, inhale peace, exhale calm. Don’t think about the volcano.
I see the doctors gather outside my husband’s room, peering in. A jolt of energy screeches through my body. I begin to feel like the Incredible Hulk. Like I could pick up the refrigerator-sized machine that is filtering his blood and throw it through the glass wall. I close my eyes again. Inhale peace, exhale calm.
The vet picks Hannah up and gently sets her four legs on the rubber mat. “Hannah has had a stroke,” he says very slowly. “With all her other problems, it might be time to start thinking about making a decision.” Together we watch her try to re-arrange herself in her new lopsided world.
I think of how this morning, after sitting for hours at my husband’s bedside, I was taken to a small windowless room, and told, You have to make a decision. But neither situation feels like a choice. No.No.No.No.No, comes burning up my throat. “Not yet,” I say.
“Nobody should have to put down their husband and dog on the same day”.
It is getting harder to tamp down all those objections and exclamations that I’ve held inside for years. I want to hurl them at somebody, hard enough to leave a mark.
Just after my 10th birthday, my dad took me on one of his flying lessons in a Cessna 172. The flight path included circling Mount Baker several times.
As we gained altitude, heading for the top of the mountain, the crevices and jagged surfaces were slowly smoothed over by snow and ice, like melting ice cream. My stomach did a slow somersault when we got to the top and the left wing began to dip into the turn. The ragged edges of the mountain gave way to a giant hole in the center. The size of four football fields, it was created by a number of different types of eruptions over thousands of years. A year before we soared above this crater, I found out that Mount Baker was an active volcano. I read everything I could about what causes them to blow their tops, and what happens when they do.
As we circled the crater, small plumes of what looked like smoke twirled up out of the rock and ice. The instructor said it was the volcano “letting off steam.” I had so many questions but knew too well about being seen but not heard. Blocked them by clenching my teeth into their familiar grooves.
I carry Hannah from the van to our apartment. A neon pink post-it note is stuck on the front door. After laying Hannah on her side in bed, I go back and pull the post-it off slowly. The note reads:
For the last few days there have been times when your dogs have barked continuously for hours. I am very concerned about your negligent care of your dogs, which has caused me great distress. If you do not do something to fix the situation, I will be forced to call the SPCA.
I stare at it for some time, focusing on the shapes of the letters, identifying marks that might give some hint of who wrote it. There is no signature. Not that it really matters. But I hope that focusing on the letters on the page will distract me from the heat rising in my chest. I take a deep breath and huff twice. Imagine expelling the ball of fire from my body. Watch it burn the note to nothing in seconds.
I tear a sheet off the note pad by the fridge, with a red Sharpie write the following words:
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN, I APPRECIATE YOUR CONCERN ABOUT MY DOGS’ WELFARE, AND APOLOGIZE FOR THE DISTRESS CAUSED BY THEIR BARKING. MY HUSBAND IS GRAVELY ILL IN HOPSITAL, AND I HAVE HAD TO SPEND MOST OF MY TIME THERE.
HE WILL BE TAKEN OFF LIFE SUPPORT THIS EVENING. I DON’T THINK CALLING THE SPCA WILL BE NECESSARY.
Lucy, Apt. 406
My hands shake as I put the cap back on the Sharpie. Closing my eyes, I imagine plumes of smoke escape with every exhale.
Before heading back to the hospital, I zip Isabelle into my coat until only her head is sticking out. Since the note from the neighbour was not signed, I tape it just above the button panel in the elevator.
Once outside, I take a deep gulp of cool air. My jaw muscles stop twitching, my vocal cords quiver. I didn’t put Isabelle’s muzzle on. Tonight, we both get to express exactly what we feel. Turning the corner, I see Mount Baker shimmering in the light of the full moon. We both throw our heads back and begin to howl.
Lucy Wilde is a writer who lives in a cottage in the forest on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She divides her time between writing and communing with her erudite horse Magic, who lives on a nearby farm. She writes creative nonfiction and fiction, and her writing has appeared in several publications including Barren Magazine, The Citron Review and Atticus Review. Her hermit crab essay, “Release and Hold Harmless,” was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was included in the Best of the Net Anthology 2023.