by Mark Tulin
I reluctantly wake her up. “Good morning, Grace,” I say, hoping for the best. I go to her closet and get out her blue house dress and a pair of large panties to go over her adult diaper and remember briefly what our life was like before the accident.
“Let me wheel you into the bathroom,” I say.
“I need time to get my thoughts together first,” she says.
She thinks that I’m not concerned about how she feels. But, over the years, her disability has created more pain in her body, and she thinks I don’t understand. But I do. It’s just that I can’t get emotional about it.
"Anything hurt today, Grace?" I ask.
"Everything,” she says. “My back aches, hands crampy, jaw hurts—you name it."
She could never get comfortable in her wheelchair because of her pain.
“Grace, please take the medicine like the doctor says.”
"That stuff makes me sleepy. I deal with it in my way."
I crouch before her, get my balance, and take a deep breath. I slip my arms under hers and lift, careful not to injure her sore right shoulder. Grace doesn’t like it when I grunt, but she’s gotten so heavy over the years that I can’t help it. To think she was once a skinny woman who could fit into a slender-fitting dress. Now, she’s as large as a house. All I could do was raise her off the couch and onto the wheelchair without breaking my back.
"Thank you," she says, knowing I am trying my best not to hurt her. So, I figured out the safe places to touch. I adapt to her worsening condition. Sometimes, she doesn't tell me how much she's hurting, but I could tell by the pained expression on her face.
Twenty years ago, we were on Highway 101 going to her parent's home in Santa Rosa. I didn’t know what I was thinking. I must have been in a daze. I turned into an off-ramp in front of an oncoming tractor-trailer. I swerved to the left, and the truck rammed into Grace on the passenger side. I was virtually untouched—a couple of bruises and broken ribs, but nothing compared to what had happened to Grace. Since that accident, I've felt guilty, wishing it were me who sat in the passenger seat. I was the one not paying attention.
"Not too hot," she says.
"Yes, I know, Grace. Tepid."
As I check the water for her daily bath, I see the scars on her body from all the operations, still red and swollen, some blue with stitch marks along her spine. She has minimal use of her lower extremities, and her torso is spasmodic and twisted.
"Don't forget to clean my ears, Phillip."
"No problem, Grace."
"Make sure you use the dandruff shampoo," she says. "The one with the blue cap."
"Yes, Grace. I know."
Then she turns to me and smiles. "You have the patience of a saint. Mother Theresa has nothing on you."
I lather in the medicated shampoo and leave it on her scalp for a few minutes before rinsing it off.
"My scalp feels good already. Thank you, Philip."
After the accident, she was in the hospital and rehab for almost two years. When she came out, I became her primary caretaker. I quit my job as a nurse and devoted my life to helping Grace. We live off her disability and a small inheritance from my uncle. My role has changed—hell, my life has changed. I became Grace's private nurse and am glad I can do it for her. I wouldn’t let a stranger touch her when she has a nurse for a husband.
"Could you rub that conditioner in my hair, Phillip? That’s it—the one in the gold bottle. Make sure you get it in there deep, good. My scalp was starting to burn again."
Despite being disabled, she still cares about her looks—and I’m glad. I give her all the credit in the world. She still has the strength to get up in the morning and go through her day. She struggles with aches and pains most days but manages to get through it without breaking down in tears. If it were me, I wouldn’t be so positive. I would hope I would, but I know I would be hell to deal with.
I rinse Grace off with the shower hose and put my hand over her eyes to prevent them from stinging from the shampoo.
"This feels good," she says. And I could see her body relax, and I felt like I was doing something helpful. I enjoy making her happy—it motivated me to keep going.
"I'm glad you like it," I say and lean forward to kiss her.
"Yes, I do. It feels like a soothing waterfall," Grace says. "It's my favorite part of the day to have a warm stream of water flow over my face."
"Make sure you dry my hair well, Phillip. You know I catch a chill easily."
I shut off the water and wrapped the towel around her head.
"Like this," I say, drying her hair like I'm buffing a shoe.
She laughs. Sometimes, she laughs too much, and her side hurts, but I've learned to stop joking when it hurts more than it helps.
We move from one chore to the next, and soon, she is dressed, her hair combed, and in a wheelchair. I put water in the teapot and poured her green tea. I add four teaspoons of sugar because she wants it to be sweet.
“Here’s your medication,” I say as she takes it with a sip of tea.
“Give me a kiss,” she says, turning her cheek slightly towards me. She is still beautiful despite her disability. Sometimes, I still see the passionate lover with a model-thin body when I look at Grace. I still love to touch her when she's feeling well, running my hand along her smooth face and the curve of her back.
She could never get comfortable, constantly squirming around in her chair. She watches every episode of The Waltons, her favorite TV show. She must have watched it a hundred times but never gets bored. It always has a happy ending—life’s problems are resolved at the end of each episode.
"As long as I can breathe and watch my show,” she says, “I'm happy to be alive."
While Grace sips tea and watches her show, I clean the fish tank, wipe the counters, and mop the kitchen floor. I do it quickly before I go outside for a smoke. I never thought I'd enjoy lighting up a Marlboro and feeling the warm sunshine against my face. I am only out there for one cigarette, but it allows me to clear my head and remind myself that there’s a world out here.
"Phillip!" I hear Grace calling me from the living room. I stamp out the cigarette with my heel, accepting that this is what it means to love someone—to sacrifice part of ourselves for another person. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Mark Tulin is a former family therapist who lives in California. His books include Magical Yogis, Awkward Grace, The Asthmatic Kid and Other Stories, Junkyard Souls, Rain on Cabrillo, and Uncommon Love Poems. Mark’s been published in Still Point Journal, Red Wolf Editions, Parousia Magazine, InScribe Journal, Ariel Chart, and others. His website is www.crowonthewire.com.