A Telling Time
By DiAna Hart Smith
“He won’t make it,” the doctors’ chorus cautions me. “Are you saying there is no hope; no promise of recovery?” I ask. The doctors don’t take precious time away from hooking my husband, Ewell, up to tubes, wires and monitors to discuss their stark prognosis.
Late on this Saturday night in October 2009 my son and I are fresh off the road from our ten-hour trip across unfamiliar mountains to reach Ewell in the Intensive Care Unit of a small rural hospital deep in Appalachia. My husband – my son’s father – is battered and broken, out of his drugged mind and in severe pain. He had fallen off a barn roof he was replacing and plummeted two stories to the ground on his family’s old home place.
I know somewhere in this wet sandbag of a body he resides. Somehow I will reach him…whisper in his ear. He’ll hear me. He’ll heal. I’m not ready to let go of him yet. I won’t let our two granddaughters be without this grandfather.
In each room of our snug home back in Northern Virginia, there is at least one clock blended into the décor that stoically tracks time, several even track the phases of the moon. Syncopated ticking of minutes, striking of hours and chiming of quarter hours provide a gentle foil for our lives. In Ewell’s workshop, clocks that have run out-of-time are being restored. Long shiny brass clock chimes and heavy metal clock weights hang from the rafters. Clock movements, mounted on testing stands, catch-up with time. Fine clock parts are sorted in sectioned boxes giving the illusion that time is under control. Now, for me in the Intensive Care Unit with Ewell, time is standing still.
Ewell is too fragile to wear his wedding band; I add it to the chain that holds the small gold filigree heart around my neck. And, I think of all the ways my life has already drastically changed as a result of Ewell’s one misstep.
My son and I are foreigners in this closed community of my husband’s birth. Neither of us resembles this population in speech, dress, or manner. We don’t know where anything is. We don’t know anyone. Ewell’s family deserted these remote hills over forty years ago. We don’t know how long Ewell will be in the hospital or how long we will have to stay here. A nurse makes calls identifying us as a family in distress and finds a farmhouse for us to rent while we watch and wait. The farmhouse is old; the kitchen linoleum is worn almost colorless. The shag brown carpet that covers the back room is powdered with the same dust that covers the linoleum. We stow our luggage in a corner near the two single beds that aren’t much more than pallets.
Cold murmurs as it slips in through every crevice of this creaky farmhouse. In the dark, minutes of this uncertain time tediously tick by on the luminescent face of the functional clock that sits by the window. Outside—even inside – it is darker than I’ve ever experienced. There’s not one street light or light of any kind to shine through the windows and dispel the darkness that signals that time may be running out.
How well I know that death is a part of life, but it’s impossible to wind down my mind. Death begins to flirt with me. It wants to sit beside me, get to know me, and hold me close. I’m not having any of it. I refuse to consider that my husband will die.
In early morning my son and I follow what becomes a drill of setting out for the hospital. The dark and the cold draw us up into an intense alertness that barely allows either of us to blink. Neither of us wants to be first in Ewell’s room. We each hesitate. We don’t discuss our fear…just try to wait each other out. My son and I are taking one step. . .one breath…at a time.
Out of the Intensive Care Unit window bright sunlight is shoving the dark aside and Appalachia glistens — on fire with reds and golds for miles of hills and valleys in every direction, softening and beautifying this rugged, jagged, impoverished area. This sudden stunning beauty signifies that those outside this window are living their lives in ordinary time.
I wonder how to carve out an escape route through the fall foliage back to the lives that all three of us left on the other side of these mountains. And, I am reminded that for everything there is a season. I am reassured that this time, too, will pass. For right now, I believe that I am fortunate — the world is round and I can’t see what lies ahead: two more ambulance rides with lights blaring and sirens screeching to increasingly better equipped trauma units and endless days filled with emergency surgeries and procedures.
My son and I don’t confer, all goes unsaid, but he and I do what must be done. I trudge by my son’s side – each of us terrified to break the silence for fear we’ll give death a path into our lives. We each keep one clean outfit aside in case we have to make — what is whispered to us — “arrangements.” I have signed sheaves of forms that say — bottom line — do not resuscitate if quality of life will not be improved. I have written out what to do with Ewell’s body. . .even his ashes.
Is anyone prepared when time slows way down and you can hear each minute tick by as if it will be the last? I think of how I’ll be the first widow among our group of friends our age. I think of how I will have to live on half my current retirement income. I think of how I won’t be able to turn to Ewell to ask him directions or even the day’s date. I think over our marriage; thirty-eight evaporated years aren’t enough.
My life then becomes a series of questions: Will death reveal that my priorities and principles are misaligned? Will regrets ever stop rolling over me? If death snakes Ewell away, who will change his collection of clocks to standard time? Will my life resemble his by now out-of-sync clock collection randomly bonging, ticking, and chiming in our home that feels so far away?
Twenty-five days pass. On the twenty-sixth day, Ewell is released from hospital care to home care. Gloriously, the doctors’ prognosis is disproved. Months later Ewell moves slowly from one stopped clock to the next, inserting the key, winding the clock, nudging the pendulum, setting and synchronizing the hands with the strike and the chime. Our syncopated rhythm returns.
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