“How Do You Ask the Hard Questions?” by Jessica Newman-Doubell

   Sitting at the kitchen table, I looked at the phone laying there. Taunting me. I picked it up.

   I set it back down. I picked it back up, and turned it over and around a few times in my hands, and then I set it back down again. Face up. The time staring at me. Mocking me.

   I was hesitant about what I had to do, obvious by my nervousness. I had to call her and we had to talk about things that no one wants to talk about with people who have dying husbands.

   I sat down at the table and looked at the picture I had laid there a few minutes ago. Just a happy picture of a happy couple sitting on a chair holding hands. It was from close to fifteen years ago, when we had all first met. Sometimes I feel like it was yesterday and sometimes I feel like it was so long ago.

15 years ago

   I walked into my new dorm room. Excited. Trepidatious. Ready to begin the adventure that would be my new life. I had already said goodbye to my parents and sent them on their way. I began to put away my stuff. Since I arrived first I decided that I would take the bottom bunk and started putting all my stuff away.

   In walked this innocuous girl. Someone I might have said hi to in high school, but we probably wouldn’t have been friends. I don’t mean that in a bad way, or a cruel way. That’s just high school, you stick with your crowd.

   She walked in and looked at me, and gave me the strangest look of pity. I got it a second later. In walked in the most garish person I have ever, or will ever see. Bright clothes and not a space on her face that wasn’t covered in makeup. The woman’s eyebrows wrinkled in annoyance and disbelief. It only got worse when she looked at me in my worn jeans and black, punk t-shirt, having stopped half way through making the bed to watch the train wreck that had entered my room. Suddenly her face changed and she put on the fakest smile I have ever seen on anyone in my entire life, short though it may have been at that point.

   “Well, hello there. Aren’t you a dear? Listen, my cuddlebug can’t sleep on the top bunk because she is afraid of heights. She won’t tell you this because she is too timid to stand up for herself. So I am telling you. Would you be a dear and take the top bunk?”

   I smothered, quickly, a laugh that was bubbling up. Of course she would have a southern accent. My mother had taught me to respect my elders and be polite. However, she also taught me to have a backbone and know when to stand up for myself.  “Ma’am, if your cuddlebug wants the bottom bunk, she will have to ask for it herself. I got here first.”

   “No, dear. She won’t. You will give her the bottom bunk. I won’t leave here until you promise she will have the bottom bunk.”

   From behind this formidable woman I hear, “Mom. Stop it.”

   “What, sweetheart?”

   “Just stop it,” she said again.

   “But, Chessie, I am just trying to help. You don’t like the bottom bunk.”

   “Mom. Just go. I can take of myself. Please. Just go and let me be an adult for once.”

   I thought her mother was going to cry. Luckily, she didn’t. They both left and only the girl returned.

   Humorously, I asked, “Cuddlebug, would you like the top or bottom bunk?” She just glared at me. Feeling like I might be looking a bit like a tomato, I said, “I’m sorry.”

   Then she looked at me and broke out into a giggling fit. “I’m free,” is what I was pretty sure I was hearing in between the hysterical giggles.

   Eventually she came to herself, we introduced ourselves and ended up being the best of friends. We roomed together all through college, and I was lucky enough to be the maid-of-honor in her wedding. It was to a boy that she met our senior year. The meetcute was just too cliché. We had gone to a party at a friend’s house and his downstairs neighbor had come up to join us for a little bit, having just moved in the week before. Our friend had invited him so that he could meet some new people. To say that cupid hit her with an arrow would be a fair assumption. The rest of the evening was the two of them smooshed in that recliner talking and talking and talking. I even secretly witnessed their first kiss; I  took the first picture of them together.

   I never told her that, about the kiss. Maybe I would now. If I could just pick up the phone and call her. I looked away from the picture to the one of them on the fridge. It was all of us in a happier time. Right before everything went sidesaddle.

   They married after he finished grad school. Had three kids and lived an idyllic life. He’d gotten his dream job and they were moving out to the west coast. He went over first to get them a place to live and get things set up. Chess and the girls would move out at the end of the summer, after all the school and summer activities were over. Six months after he left, he came back and we helped them load up the moving van and watched as they drove away. Well, he drove. She and the girls were flying out to meet the van.

   I cried. A lot. I was so devastated. She was my best friend. I mean, I was happy for her, but I was still devastated.

   We chatted almost every day, and texted even more. She was worried because Jim was taking forever driving across the country and at the end of every day of driving he was uber-exhausted.

   She texted me when he finally arrived. I knew I wouldn’t hear her voice much in the coming weeks, but I thought I would at least get a text. Nothing. It all stopped.

   I was about to hop on a plane when I got the call. Jim was in the hospital with pneumonia.

   A few days after that she called me again. It was more than pneumonia. They were doing tests. They had found something in his colon.

   They had to wait to operate because he was so weak from the pneumonia.

   A few weeks later they operated and confirmed that Jim had stage four colon cancer.

   They decided to stay in California at first. Then it got to be too much for Chessie. The driving back and forth between the kids and the hospital. They decided to move back home, and live with her parents for a while. That was interesting to say the least. Chessie’s mom had never stopped being overbearing and still wanted to be in charge. Chessie was a lot stronger now and that wasn’t going to let that happen.

   I started a GoFundMe page for them. Something to help with the finances and to get her out of her mother’s house. Eventually they had enough to get out and they had enough to do some fun things together while he was still healthy enough to do them. They went to Disneyland with the kids and a romantic vacation for just the two of them. They even had a vow renewal on the beach. It was beautiful. For a while.

   After that, it all just went downhill.

   Traveling back and forth to see doctors. Chemo. Chemo sickness. Problems with tubes. Surgeries. I lost track of everything, and was in awe of Chessie’s ability to be mother and nursemaid. She would call me and cry about how she wasn’t a nurse and how was she supposed to do this. She railed at how everyone said, “G-d doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” and “G-d this and G-d that.” She hated G-d now and only went to church for her girls and her mother and for the time away from her misery at the fact that her husband was dying in the basement of her home.

   Hospice, they call it. What a horrible name for a horrible time in someone’s life.

   Now we wait. We all wait.

   I had gotten together with another friend of ours, Amy, yesterday. Amy is a social worker and she wanted to ask me a few questions about Chessie and Jim. She also wanted to give me some advice and to ask me to ask Chess a question.

   That brings me to now. To holding the phone. To playing with the phone and looking at pictures of happier times. To practicing avoidance. Avoidance because my husband wasn’t sick. My husband wasn’t dying, and I was so thankful that it wasn’t me going through the pain she was going through. I held her when she needed it and I listened when she needed it, but in the back of my mind, always, thankful that it wasn’t me.

   I felt them before I knew they were there on my face. The tears rolling unbidden from my eyes.  Then I was crying violent tears.

   Ugly tears.

   I was thankful that the kids were in school and no one would see me break down.

   Guilty tears making tracks down my cheeks.

   I loved Chessie like a sister. I loved Jim like a brother. And there was nothing I could do to help either of them except start GoFundMe pages and set up meal trains.

   Helpless tears traveled down the slopes of my cheeks, tickling my lips and they slid over. I wiped them away.

   “Dammit, Amy,” I said out loud to no one. “Why would you ask me to do this?”

   Blowing my nose and wiping away my tears, I steeled myself against the inevitable. This was a question that needed to be asked. Jim had been on hospice for over 2 months now. The nurses would say, “This is it. He will be gone by morning.” And then he would be feeling better and be ok for a little bit. This kept happening. It was horrible to watch and so hard on the littlest of their children who didn’t know if daddy would be alive when they got home from school, or when they woke up in the morning. They had stopped asking to visit him in the basement and had started acting up in school. Amy was hoping that my asking a simple question would help everyone.

   I opened up my phone and began to dial her number. I could have just gone to my frequent contacts and pressed it. It would have been quicker. This just seemed more formal. More important somehow.

   She answered with, “Ronnie, just the person I was thinking about. You must have read my mind.”

   “I did. It’s my talent. Always knowing when you need me.”

   “Well, perfect. I need to get out of this house and go to the store and I was hoping you would come with me. The nurse said she would be here in 15 minutes and if I don’t get away from my mother I am going to go mad.”

   Well, shit. I can’t ask her now. She needs to relax and get out. I don’t want to ruin that for her. I told her, “I will be right over. Oh, hey, or do you want to meet? I know how you feel about my driving.”

   “No, it’s ok. Pick me up. I think I can trust you with my life.”

   “Alrighty then. I will leave here in 2 minutes. I just need to freshen up.”

   “See you soon.” And then whispering conspiratorially, “please, for the love of all that is holy, get the hell over here. I am grateful for her help, but I need to get away from my mother.”

   I laughed, “I will get there as soon as I can.”

   I guess the question would have to wait for another day. Maybe I wasn’t the right person to ask because I am too close to the situation. I don’t want him to die either. I don’t want to see my best friend fall apart. I don’t want to ask her this sad question because I don’t know if I want to know the answer.

   I decide to test it out on my lips. Maybe saying it aloud will help me make a decision.

   “Chess, I have a question for you. I was reading an article and it said…ugh. No.”

   “Chesterfield Copperpot,” and I make a sound like a bark, but which I know is my version of a hysterical giggle, “Have you found One Eyed Jack’s treasure?”

   I breath in and out. In and Out. Slow steady breaths, I get serious. And I say,

   “Chessie, have you told him it’s ok to let go?”

   Wiping one stray tear from my cheek, I stand and grab my purse and keys. I head out the door to get my friend, to be there for whatever she needs me to be there for. To ask the hard questions and hold her if she needs me to hold her.

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