Friday, March 21, 2008

The Scream (And the Miracle)

That blood-chilling scream was a very long time in coming. It, and any other like it, had not been heard in the over fifty years I’d lived with her. Then one evening, its suddenly painfully piercing cry broke the silence of half a century.

We had retired early—eight o’clock as I remember. She in one room; I in another. It was strange sleeping alone; I missed the warmth of her body beside me. But sleep came easier since her restlessness had recently appeared. Her nocturnal tossing and turning was new. It seemed that a lot of different things were new lately, and they were happening with a distressingly greater frequency—like the day when she found herself in the middle of an intersection with a huge truck bumper but a few inches from the right front fender of our car. She was deeply troubled by that event, for she had utterly no awareness of how she had come to that fearful, dangerous moment. “What’s happening to me?” she asked. At that time, neither of us could answer that question which hovered over our lives like a ghostly demon. All that we knew was that we were entering into a new stage of our life together.

As I lay there, thinking about that moment in the intersection, the floor of my bedroom suddenly shook, as if from an earthquake. The bed trembled, and with it the sound of a loud crash—a sound that came from the other bedroom. I leapt from the bed and ran toward it.

What I found lay in a crumpled heap. She was sprawled on the floor, dazed and silent. As I knelt beside her cradling her in my arms, she said, “I think I fell.” A cold fear clutched my heart as the word ‘osteoporosis’ leapt to my mind. I’d known for years that she had that bone disease, was taking medication to hinder its progression, and that she dreaded falling. Images of fragile, eroded bones shattered lurked at the periphery of our minds.

“Let me help you to bed,” I said, and began to raise her body from the floor. With sudden ferocity, that long withheld scream burst forth from her lips, tearing my heart with it. “My G-d, she must have fractured a vertebra,” I thought. I knew that the only pain medication we had available that her body could tolerate was Tylenol—and what value would it, even at ‘double-strength,’ be with the pain she must be dealing with—a pain that could evoke such a scream as I had heard? But once vertical, she seemed to experience no further distress. A wave of relief swept over me as I helped her to bed.

But the relief was short-lived, for once I began to lay her down, that penetrating, horrible, heart-rending cry repeated. Louder than before, it emerged from deep within her, causing her every muscle to clench in pain—and my heart simultaneously to clutch in fear. I left her to get the Tylenol (for which I had little hope), and I returned with it. As she gratefully swallowed it I asked, “Don’t you think we should call 911?” “Oh, no,” she replied (typically). “I’ll be all right after some sleep.” Since I desperately wanted to believe that to be so, I somewhat doubtfully tucked her in, kissed her, and left her hoping that indeed, a good night’s sleep would help us both.

It was not to be. Barely two hours later, I heard her call. “Help me to the bathroom,” she said. I knew what that meant, for another one of those recent changes in our life together was her increasing incontinence, which involved constant changing of the paper underpants that absorbed the urine.

The trip to the bathroom, of course, involved my again lifting her upper body to a sitting position on the bed. It was this move that once again triggered that hideous cry of anguish from her lips. Thankfully, once again, when she was vertical there was no pain. The trip to the bathroom, the changing of the wet underpants and the return to the bed were all uneventful.

It was when I once again lay her back to lie on the pillow that the damnable, terrifying wail of agony burst forth. Its rasping sound thrust through my heart like a knife and along with it a thought: “I wonder how much of this horror I can endure?”

I was soon to find out. For despite my earnest hope that untroubled sleep might come to us both, the scenario I’ve just described repeated three more times in the remaining six hours before dawn.

When I heard the fourth call, it was with dread that I anticipated that which was about to follow. I did not wish to answer her call. But how could I not? Thus I arose from my bed the fourth time. And as I walked the twenty feet to her bed, a sudden and grotesque thought crossed my mind: “Oh, wouldn’t it be better if she were dead?!”—swiftly followed by the horror of what I had just thought. “My G-d, I just wished my beloved dead!” Guilt and shame flooded my heart, stopping me dead in my tracks. How could I go to her with that awful thought in my mind? The pain of the guilt was overwhelming. Now I could do but one thing. And that was to pray a desperate prayer for forgiveness for my insane wish to kill. So with sorrowful heart I raised high my right hand and silently, fervently cried out, “Gentle Jesus, take my hand. I need your help. Help me see my murderous thoughts through your kind eyes. Help me see I am forgiven for my dark wish for death.”

And miracle of miracles, in that very instant my prayer for the cleansing of my mind was granted…because my plea had come from my heart. So an instant peace had replaced the murderous hate; a calm compassion had replaced the anguished guilt.

As I returned to her bedside, I walked with lighter step, for I possessed a lighter heart. Of course two of the same heart-piercing screams were repeated. But this time as I lay her head on the pillow, she reached up and put her arms around my neck, kissed me and said, “I’m so glad I have you in my life.” And thus at that moment our hearts were joined. It was a brief and ‘holy instant’ in which, “An ancient miracle has come to bless and to replace an ancient enmity that came to kill.”

Copyright 2007 Frank West

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