[From May 8, 2018: Psychological stress fractures plagued us for months, in ways great and small, but always unexpected.]
I had fallen asleep on the couch around midnight, following a quiet evening of “self-care” at the house, just Chelli and Stella and me, trying to catch our breath after an emotionally grueling day. Our Friday started with Chelli’s first physical appearance in court. The appearance went as well as it could have, in that the prosecutor agreed to allow Chelli to pursue a diversion program, which will take her mental & physical health into account (if not her experience in “the system”) and will see all charges expunged from her record. A lot of things could have gone wrong in court — there could have been another case of mistaken identity (it’s still bizarre that there’s somehow another person with the exact same name and a lengthy rap sheet just a county away), the substitute judge we were warned about could have been filling in for the retiring judge assigned to her case, or the prosecutor could have refused the bit of grace we were seeking — but none of that happened. Instead, the most challenging part of the day would come after we left the courthouse, when Chelli was told to report to the county jail for a bit of routine “fingerprinting and DNA collection.” At the jail, a place neither of us hoped to ever return, she’d have to wait in line behind several others there for the same purpose. The nearly two-hour process would leave her just a stone’s throw away from the very cell where weeks earlier she was kept nearly naked, humiliated and ridiculed, not to mention very ill. It was the cell where she thought she would die.
So, when she woke me from the couch — I’d been asleep a couple hours, just enough to make me disoriented and unaware of the time of day or circumstances that might have led to my unplanned nap — her voice was frantic, but oddly dispassionate. “Jeff, Jeff, wake up. Wake up now. I’m dying. This is it. I’m dying.” I struggled to find my glasses and reach for a light. “What?” I asked, confused. She never called me by name. Stella jumped off the couch and ran toward her. “I’m dying,” she continued, still dispassionate, “we need to say goodbye, I want you to know I love you.” I told her that I’d call 911, but it was too late, she maintained. “My nose has come off and my head is cracking open,” she insisted, even though I could plainly see that neither was happening. “It’s time. I’m dying.” She’d be dead any minute now, she maintained, so we need to say our urgent goodbyes. More than anything, she wanted me to know how much she loves me. She wanted me to know how sorry she was for all of this.
We try not to spend a lot of time focusing on it, but I imagine we talk about death more than your average 40-somethings. At this point, a few years into the ordeal with a thousand little deaths along the way, the topic often seems unavoidable. We try to focus on the time we have together, however long that may be — a year or two, ten, my god, more? — more than the end of it all, but we’re reminded of the reality of our situation every time her blood work plummets to “critical” levels, another health care provider asks if she has a living will, a physician talks about the desire to keep her more “comfortable,” or when she looks me in the eye and I know she’s tired of fighting. I try not to think about my life after she’s gone, but I also have trouble imagining this version of our lives lasting for another year, much less a decade.
For over an hour early on Saturday morning, we sat there on the floor of our living room, me cradling her head in my lap, with Stella at our side. Chelli continued to insist that this was the end, while I rubbed her head and quietly tried to talk her down from her exhausted, fractured mind’s cruel joke. I reminded her that she hadn’t slept a wink in four days and that the experience of returning to the jail that morning had probably caused some sort of stress fault line in her mind, but mostly I tried to answer every “I love you” with the same.
Eventually, she seemed to calm down, at least enough to realize the trauma we’d both just experienced. I convinced her that the best thing to do, the best thing for both of us, would be to get some sleep. This was a sign, I told her, a huge flashing warning sign that her mind, if not her body, desperately needed something resembling rest. We’d call her doctors in the morning, we decided, we’d figure it all out then, but not before a valiant attempt at sleep. She finally fell asleep not long after we got into bed and didn’t so much as move for the better part of the next eight hours. She slept through the morning, through lunch, and into the afternoon. Sleep couldn’t fix everything, for sure, but it was a start.