Thirty-One Days After

Peninnah Curtis

The fox was waiting at the side of the road. We were no more than a mile from her house. Just seeing it standing there, in full morning light, seemed like a bad omen. My first thought was, “This isn’t good news.”

Then, “She’s not coming home from this.”

I stopped the car and waited to see what the fox would do. It hesitated, then, slowly, crossed the road in front of the car.

I don’t believe in omens. I don’t believe in signs or portents. The fox was just an animal, a small carnivore, moving from one side of an open space to another. I do have an imagination and an active brain. Brains make thoughts like a heart pumps blood or the lungs draw in air. My brain made thoughts. Her lungs were laboring. She’d needed extra oxygen for months. I said nothing about my thoughts. That would have been rude. That would have been saying that she could not beat this. That would have been telling her that I had given up. I hadn’t given up.

It was a Friday. We went to Denver for what we thought would be a simple procedure: draining fluid from her chest cavity. There were x-rays and a CAT scan. Fluid was drained, less fluid than had been removed only four days before. The process took longer.

The doctors said, “Either the cancer medicine has caused your lungs to be inflamed or the tumors have spread. Either way, that means that the cancer medicine is ineffective. We have no other treatments available.”

We stayed in the hospital through the weekend while the social workers made arrangements for her to have hospice care. On Monday we were told that she could be moved to a hospital in Woodland Park, nearer to her home, until the necessary equipment was set up. Her husband was told that the necessary equipment didn’t exist and that she would be staying at the hospital. That was unacceptable. He called the oxygen suppliers, the hospices, the administrators, the ambulances, anyone he needed to.

On Tuesday an ambulance brought her home to Divide.

Her friends came by, singly and in groups. They invited her to a movie night at a friend’s on Friday. It was suggested that the movie night occur at her house instead.

By Friday it seemed likely that she wouldn’t have the attention to watch a movie but we decided to have the gathering anyway. She loved parties. She loved her friends. Her mother and sister arrived from California and Hawaii that night.

At about 2 am on Saturday morning, her husband woke me up. Her oxygen levels had dropped. He’d turned up the oxygen flow but it wasn’t making any difference. We did our best to make her comfortable. He woke the rest of the family.

She passed away a little before 4 am. I noticed the time on the clock of the stove as I went into the kitchen to get a glass of water. I thought, “I should remember the time. Someone is going to want to know.”

Brains make thoughts.

We called the friends and family that we felt needed to know immediately. We waited until after the sun came up to call anyone else. People started arriving about an hour later. Friends who had been there the night before came to cry and clean and organize and to just be available. The hospice nurse came to fill out the official paperwork and start the necessary wheels turning. The nurse asked when she had passed. The nurse asked why we hadn’t called at 4 am. I thought, “Why the fuck would we? She asked me to be sure that she was gone before anyone came for her body.” I said, “We wanted to wait until dawn. It seemed like what she would have wanted.”

A memorial celebration was held on the following Thursday. Her friends and neighbors dressed in tie-dye, cooked favorite dishes and filled a community center. As the night wound down, some of us even danced.

The next evening, the Friday two weeks after we had gone to the hospital for the last time, I drove her older son to a football game in Woodland Park so he could videotape it. He slept for most of the drive.

I drove back to the house alone. Her son would call when he was finished so that someone could come and pick him up. It was the first time I’d driven the car since taking her to the hospital.

Her ghost rode with me all the way back.

I didn’t say anything. I hadn’t expected her to be there. I hadn’t been prepared for the presence of her absence.

I don’t believe in ghosts. I didn’t see one on that drive. I kept my eyes on the road. The brain makes thoughts and serves up memories and then we make meaning out of them.

Two hours later, when I drove back to pick up her son, I expected her to be there. It felt comforting. And sad. So very sad. She’d been a part of my life for thirty-six years. We’d known each other for three quarters of our lives.

Saturday night I drove her boys to a late Halloween party. They were to call me to pick them up when the party ran down. They’d been going to school, doing their homework, mostly living life as they had before she’d passed. Kids do that.

The party was close to the house so drive back was shorter than it had been the night before. She was laughing. She was happy. I told her that her kids were going to be alright. I told her that her husband would be alright eventually. I told her that I missed her. She laughed.

Three hours later, when I headed back to pick up the boys, I looked, really looked at the passenger seat for the first time. I looked directly instead of via my peripheral vision. It made me nervous to do that. I don’t like taking my eyes off the road. It drives me crazy when driver characters in movies spent long minutes talking to their passengers and not looking at what’s ahead of them. I think, “In real life, you’d be driving into a telephone pole or over pedestrians. You’re an idiot.”

The seat was empty.

That Monday, her husband drove me to the airport in Colorado Springs. I’d been in Colorado for most of three months. We stopped briefly at the offices of a propane supplier, located at the head of the road to her house, so that her husband could pay a bill. As we pulled into the parking lot, her husband pointed out a roadkill a short distance from the driveway.

It was a fox.

I could not think what that might mean.