Apr/May 2006 Fiction

What It Is to Say Good-bye

by Peggy Duffy

You wake up in the middle of the night, a gasp of pain penetrating your subconscious. Your husband is sitting up in bed, knees pulled to his soft belly, head hunched over. You reach for the lamp on the night table. Light leaps outward, a yellowish glare. His face glowers sickly green, a film of sweat coating his forehead. Gallstones.

"I'm fine," he groans.

"This is the third night this week."

"It'll pass. It has before."

He inhales sharply. You grab the wastebasket and stick it between his knees. He leans forward, is deeply and massively sick. You dial the doctor's office, shouting above his coughing and gagging, the sound of vomit splattering against the hard plastic wastebasket. The doctor says to go to the ER. You dress yourself and wrap the baby in a thick blanket, despite the warm night. You want to feel you can shelter someone. He shuffles toward the bathroom to shower first.

The emergency room is a nightmare. This will become your favorite new word, nightmare, the sum of your memories, how you will later describe the endless wait to your sisters in the weeks to come, how you will explain that night to the baby when she has grown. You will wish you'd been nicer to him, more sympathetic, less annoyed, that you hadn't let doubts about his manhood creep in because he succumbed to the pain. You'd endured eighteen hours of hard labor with more fortitude.

He lies flat on the gurney, eyes closed, shutting you out, and you resent that too-his insensitivity to your presence. You squeeze his hand. He gives you a weak smile.

A few hours later, the baby stirs in your arms. You nurse her quietly, look around afterwards for any stowed diapers since you neglected to bring them. The surgeon arrives while you are rummaging through a drawer. Nobody bothered to tell you that surgeons don't do consults before daybreak unless the patient is in imminent danger. The surgeon prods and pokes at your husband's abdomen while he groans anew. The surgeon raises his head and sniffs the air. The baby has indeed dirtied her only diaper.

"When did you last eat?" the surgeon asks, and you are touched by his concern until you realize he's asking your husband. He explains that the gallbladder has to come right out. Anesthesia and food don't mix. You worry about the $2500 deductible on your husband's lousy health insurance policy, then feel guilty that he's about to have surgery and you are thinking this means no beach house this summer.

A nurse brings you some wipes and a fresh diaper. You clean and change the baby, then feed her again while a technician draws your husband's blood. Your back and arms ache from holding her for so long, and you haven't been this tired since the first colicky month after she was born. You think to hold the baby up to his lips for one last kiss before they take him to the operating room, but she has drifted off to sleep again and you don't want to disturb her. You rationalize that at five months old she doesn't understand what it is to say good-bye.

At twenty-eight, you don't comprehend it either.


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