The phone rang. Bert stopped reading the newspaper article on yesterday’s weather aloud as Eve set her breakfast bowl of oatmeal to the side and rose to answer.
“It’ll be Kate,” he said. “I’ll finish later. Gonna go check the pumps.” He rinsed his cereal bowl and left the house as Eve picked up the phone.
" Good morning."
“You sound cheerful,” said the frail voice on the other end of the line.
“How are you today? You sound a tad subdued.”
“Me subdued? What else would you expect from somebody who’s been lying flat on her back for the last two months?”
Eve carried the phone to her own bed at the opposite end of the living area in the tiny prairie house and stretched out full length with a pillow bent double beneath her head.
The sun streamed through the front window warming the scene. All was still in the little town five miles from the Canadian border. The morning had dawned cool but clear, one of her favorite kinds of prairie days.
She responded to her friend, “I suppose, Kate. But, you’ve had positive reports from the doctors. I thought you might be playing with ideas for the next stage of your recovery.”
“You suppose. How could you possibly suppose? You have no idea how difficult this has been. Jamela, my primary nurse, and I were talking about just that yesterday. Everyone seems to think they can put themselves in my position, that they all know how it feels to be incapacitated. None of you do. None of you. I hate it when people suggest how they think they would act if they were me.”
“Of course. You are right. None of us knows. But all of us care. So, how’s your morning?”
“Oh, I’m so confused about what comes next. Doctors don’t know how things will progress. Dr. Hager’s been in this morning and he tells me that tomorrow they will transfer me to St Georges for the operation on my back.”
“What do you mean, ‘so soon’? I’ve been lying flat on my back for two months. How could anyone see that as soon?”
“Ok, you did call me so that you could vent? What’s up?”
More softly, Kate responded, “Yes, I suppose I did. You are the only one I can pick a fight with. I don’t dare do that with anyone else. Every time I talk with you, I seem to end up with adrenalin running through my system. I haven’t felt this way since the last time I talked with Simon.”
“Not precisely a compliment. What do Simon and I have in common that sets you off?”
“Nothing. I have to stop this. He said practically the same thing when I told him that both of you upset me way too much. I get myself all riled up, angry.
If you had to lie here for over sixty days with no one to visit you, you might end up looking for someone to harass, too. Neither of you, my bright and brilliant partner nor my best friend, have yet traveled to Bismarck to visit me. ”
“I might. Bert and I were just checking the weather, trying to decide which day would be best for us to head 200 miles south for a few days. I was going to call and see which days would be best for you and then make motel reservations. Kate, you weren’t ready to have visitors immediately. After a whole week of being in an induced coma, you needed to do some serious recovery. MERSA isn’t something to treat lightly.”
“And, you think you need to remind me? I almost died, Eve!”
“Usually, patients who almost died but were saved by an amazing emergency room physician are thankful, rather than pissed off at the world.”
“Usually? There you go generalizing again. I wish you’d stop that. You say stuff like all North Dakotans do this or usually…”
“Yep, that’s me. The great generalizer. As it happens, enough of you North Dakotans do act as born-again conservatives. It isn’t too difficult to generalize about your political positions. Nevertheless, you have so much to be grateful for. You are alive.”
“My dad was a progressive Democrat. I’m a progressive. What are you talking about?”
“Let’s avoid politics. My fault. Just teasing and you obviously aren’t in the mood to be teased. Do you think your mood is a result of your feeling especially lonely?”
“How can you ask such a silly question? Of course, I’m lonely. Here I am 200 miles away from everyone I know. None of you come to visit. I spend most of my days all by myself and you want to know if I’m lonely?”
“I just want you to say so. Sometimes you seem so strong, you have it all together so beautifully. Identifying how you feel out loud somehow makes a difference.”
“I live with my feelings 24/7. Why should I have to identify them to you?”
“Because you are my friend and you need someone to whom you can say what you are deeply feeling.”
“And you think you are that person?”
“Perhaps not today. I think we ought to talk again later, Kate. I wish you were feeling a bit better about your recovery. Talk with you tomorrow. Bye.” Eve hung up.
Every conversation was tough. She didn’t seem to be able to find any topic that was acceptable; one of the reasons she didn’t call. She allowed Kate to phone whenever she needed someone to harass or to vent to. That had become the pattern in the last month of hospital incarceration for her friend of fifty years.
Eve almost felt guilty for being pain and prescription free. Not quite. Usually she talked with Bert about the conversations. He was able to sort through Kate’s angst and explain away some of the bitterness that seeped through the phone.
Kate exuded a definite sense of entitlement. Illness seemed to give her a sense of being owed, as though this illness was in no way a circumstance over which she had any responsibility.
Indeed, the initial breast cancer was not her fault. However, her Tucson doctor’s treatment which Kate had followed since early December of the past year advanced her physical decline beyond anyone’s expectation.
MERSA had been introduced into her cancer drug shunt sometime in January. Suddenly the circumstances were life threatening as Kate found herself in the infectious diseases ward of the University of Arizona Medical School. Drug treatment for cancer was discontinued and the next two weeks were spent attempting to eradicate the existence of MERSA in her blood stream.
You’d think the nasty anti-biotic resistant bacteria would be killed by the same drugs that were busily killing the cancer cells but apparently not. Kate’s immune system had been destroyed by the cancer killing potion, leaving her immune system unable to defeat MERSA, the staph-infection that snuck into her system.
In February the doctor ordered radiation on Kate’s lymph nodes and she was dismissed from the infectious disease ward, sent home to take intravenous meds to kill the staff infection. A home nursing staff visited three times a week. Her partner, Simon, cooked, cleaned, and cared for Kate.
The entire scene was finally simply too much for both of them. A month into her new treatment, Kate decided to fly home to North Dakota from Tucson. Simon was relieved to let her go.
Bert and I picked her up at the airport. She had traveled with her sister, Jeanette. A flight on her own was out of the question as she could no longer walk the length of the airplane let alone hike up the stairs or along the boarding skywalk. While dealing with her home-recovery program, she slept in a chair, unable to stretch out flat in a bed. Jeanette pushed Kate’s wheel chair as she came down the companionway from the airplane.
After our eighty mile journey from the airport, we attempted to support Kate’s entry into the farm house that had been her home since she was born. It was necessary for her to climb four steps to reach the back door. A solid railing had been erected by Bert to give her purchase for what ended up being a daunting task.
As Kate stepped away from her walker, she collapsed. She fell to her knees and then into a difficult painful squat. She could not move. Her legs ,which she had used so little for the previous three months, would not hold her weight. Her grandson, Alec, who was waiting our arrival, and Bert, each on a side, lifted her to the top of the stairs where she was able to stand by holding onto the railing. She used a walker to move through the doorway and settled into a recliner facing the television in the west room of the farm house.
Once returned to her childhood home, Kate slept in the recliner-chair, walked hunched like a woman with osteo-disease, never standing upright, and stood only as often as was necessary to shower or use the toilet or walk to the kitchen table for dinner.
Together her grandson and her sister Jeanette, Bert and I attempted to provide her needs. On a daily basis, we spent two or three hours in conversation as she took her prescribed medications, drank her vitamin concoction, and allowed her remaining immune system to work on the MERSA.
Jeanette, Bert, and I fixed meals to share with one another; we watched our favorite television shows together; we prayed for her to be healthy enough to leave the recliner and join us in the world outside the farmhouse.
Eventually, it was necessary for Jeanette to return to her job as a high school English teacher in Tucson.
It was our turn to do the best we could to keep spirits high, encourage Kate’s activity, and share the angst of this once proud, tall, energetic woman.
And every now and again, Kate and I reminisced about how our relationship had started fifty years earlier.
(to be continued)