My first novel is called The Vanishing. It’s a heart-breaking story about an older woman who is pushed to the brink of murder-suicide by her husband’s debilitating disease. The story is told in first person and explores the mental breakdown and recovery of the main character as she struggles with feelings of isolation and desperation when the man she has loved for so many years slowly disappears before her eyes, a victim of frontotemporal dementia. While the plot is glum, this is not a story of a grisly murder-suicide, it is a love story told from a different angle and a story about choices and the random imperfections that permeate our lives. Every literary fiction writer hopes to hold a mirror up to the world and show it as it is no matter how grim the reality, but he also hopes to show the humanity of it all and demonstrate the amazing perseverance that exists in all of us. That is my hope with Vanishing. Below is the first chapter of the book. I’m currently working through revisions based on the feedback I’ve received.
My father was fond of saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’ve always hated that trite proverb, but he was a true believer in it. He had to be. He suffered more than most in his life, but that attitude defined him and gave him a surreal sense of strength that both sheltered and propelled me in my own life. But I’m not my father. I have only a fraction of the strength that he had, a strength that seems to be diminishing day by day. Eventually, something does kill you. Eventually.
I never imagined it would come to this. I really didn’t. I’ve been to hell and back, and I thought I had survived, but I really hadn’t. I’ve simply been suspended in a purgatory of sorts ambling my way back from despair only to be pushed back down into the hole of hopelessness once again. It’s unbearable really. I think about my father, long gone from this world, and the twin tragedies he endured. I don’t know how he did it. I don’t think I can go on like this. Not this way. Not without my husband, my real husband, not the one that’s asleep down the hall from me now.
I stand on my tip-toes stretching to reach the tan metal box on the top shelf of the closet. My fingertips barely touch the cold metal as I finger walk the box down to the palms of my hands. I can feel the weight of the box shift abruptly to the thickness of my palms. It feels unexpectedly heavy, maybe more so because of the significance of its contents. My weight shifts back to my heels. My tired, old legs feel overstretched and exhausted after only a few seconds of exertion. That’s the norm for me these days. I feel so old.
I walk gingerly over to a chair and plop my aching body down upon it placing the the box carefully on the desk nearby as I do so. I sit up on the edge of the chair and look forlornly at the box. It’s been a long time since I’ve opened it. I’m fearful of what lies in it. I feel like I’m in a car speeding toward a collision and I can’t find the brakes. Instead, I just watch the impending crash come my way in slow motion. It’s a very disorienting feeling. I wish I could stop it, but I can’t.
I sit back in the chair completely and look away from the box. My senses are attuned to everything around me. A dim strand of sunlight dances across the wall in front of me brightening the dull light of the early morning. The blinds behind me are shut tightly squeezing out the prying eyes of the rising sun save for this lone strand. I stare at it for a bit longer. It’s the only bright spot in an otherwise semi-dark room. The pale blue color of the walls is barely discernible, but the beautiful, white crown molding glistens slightly in the morning light. This bedroom once held my hopes for the future, but it has long since been delegated to functional purposes, mainly as Marty’s office, but he has no use for it anymore. Not in his condition. I frown at this thought.
My legs dangle from the side of the chair protruding from my nightgown. They are pale and splotchy and have the puffy look of someone who is too sedentary for her own good. These legs were once smooth and beautiful, but like everything else they have given in to the ravenous appetite of time. I wince at the thought of considering myself old even though I don’t think that sixty-one is that old. I often look in the mirror and wonder where the younger version of me went. I can’t believe it’s me in that mirror. My smooth skin has given way to wrinkles and skin that sags around my eyes and chin. My long, brown hair barely hangs down to the nape of my neck, not by choice but by acquiescence, and it’s no longer brown but gray. There’s no fullness to it – at least not naturally. It just drapes around my head flat and hapless as if it too has given up on life. I’ve secretly wondered during my solemn fits of despair if my hair is an unconscious expression of how I feel, beaten and lifeless.
I look askew at the box as it seemingly mocks my determination, my doubts. I try to distract myself from these thoughts. I can hear the gurgling coffee maker down the hall finishing up its last ruminations. The aroma of the coffee wafts into this room and greets me, pulls me away from this moment. I love that smell. It’s very comforting and relaxing, feelings that are juxtaposed with the anxiety and despair I feel now. Such contrasts are not so uncommon these days.
The box can wait, at least for a moment. I need some coffee. I need to relax one last time before I take that step off the cliff. I deserve that much. I owe it to myself and Marty to think this through a little more. I’m normally decisive, determined, and strong-willed. I always have been, but today, the attrition of despair has chastened me and ripped away that fickle veneer. I’m just my unvarnished and raw self now, a fraud exposed.
I look down the hall at our bedroom door. It’s only partially open, but I listen for any signs that Marty is stirring. It’s still way too early for him to be awake. He doesn’t get up early anymore – he hasn’t in several years. I don’t hear anything, and I’m relieved. I have time. I can think about this.
I plod down the hallway toward the kitchen sliding my slippered feet along the smooth, shiny surface of the hardwood floor. Trickles of sunlight brighten the wall along my right side as it opens into the main living area. I love this house. This old, beautiful house was new when we moved into it almost thirty years ago, and while it’s not as pristine as it once was, it exudes more comfort than anything else in my life. The warm, muted colors on the walls shine in the morning light and flow so nicely from the hallway into the living room and the kitchen. The crown molding throughout the house gives it an elegant appeal, a sturdiness of craftsmanship that suggests it was built to weather any storm. There have been many storms. I’ve always had an eye for decorating, and I’ve put my heart and soul into this house. I’ve made it our home. It’s clearly an expression of the elusive perfection that I have sought in my life.
At the other end of the hall, our bedroom and the adjoining bathroom take up that entire side of the house. The hallway ends at the feet of the double doors to that great room, my favorite room in the house. Our cavernous bedroom with its light green walls has always relaxed me. An over-sized leather chair with an ottoman sits in one corner near the large window that takes up most of the wall on that side of the room. Like the house, the chair is old, but its large leather maw has often enveloped me in its comfort shielding me from the travails of my life. And the bed. The big, comfortable bed, the centerpiece of my bedroom, sits firmly in the middle of the room with its myriad pillows and brightly-colored, goose down duvet. The other furniture in the room, the chest of drawers and the nightstands, looks meek by comparison, but together they complete the essence of our home. I truly love this house. I love the memories my husband and I have here. The good ones anyway.
I can’t quite shake this melancholy mood. Even the smell of fresh, hot coffee, something I’ve always loved and that’s always energized me, fails to rid me of my dour state of mind even for a brief moment this morning. It’s not unusual for me to be sad nowadays. It permeates everything I do, but this morning the weight of the sadness seems unbearable. I’ve been down this road many times over the last few years. Losing Marty, or at least the Marty I knew, has been tough.
For some reason our wedding vows ring in my head. ‘Til death do us part. What does that mean exactly? I used to think it was so clear and certain, that we’d love and cherish each other until one of us, preferably both of us, stopped breathing, but now I know there are some worse things than the certainty of death. Death is forgiving. It’s exact and tangible. You feel it deep in your soul. You grieve. Life goes on for the survivors. For now, I’m a survivor only in the sense that I haven’t completely given up. But I want to give up. Now. This feeling of wanting the pain to stop just won’t go away.
The coffee doesn’t help and the beautiful sunrise that slowly brightens my entire kitchen and enshrines me in a golden glow does nothing to ease the burden that weighs on my soul. I pour myself a bowl of cereal and sit in front of the television to watch the Today show. I can see Matt Lauer and Ann Curry on the screen, but their words escape me. It’s like I’m under water watching the show and I’m unable to hear them or see them clearly. I chomp my cereal slowly as if my mouth is numb. The waves of the water I’m drowning in whip my body casually side to side. Much like a jelly fish, I can’t control it. I can only go where the waves take me. The waves have been relentless and I’ve endured about all I can take. The drowning sensation seems so real that I’m afraid to take a breath for fear that it will be my last. My breath hitches in between bites of cereal.
I think I hear a bump down the hall in our bedroom. This rouses me from my funk at least temporarily. My ears perk up listening for confirmation that Marty is awake. None comes. I’m not worried that he has silently risen from the bed and is wandering about the house. He’s incapable of such stealth movements. Besides, it’s just after 7 AM, way too early for Marty to wake. Of course, the real Marty would have been up for two hours by now and accomplished more than most people would have during their whole day. Instead, he just sleeps. He sleeps a lot lately, and when he’s not sleeping, he sits in his recliner staring unaware at the TV. I don’t even think he can comprehend the TV anymore. Maybe he just likes the visual ambiance, the flitting movement of colorful objects across a live picture frame. Maybe, somewhere in that deteriorating mind of his, it reminds him of a life he no longer has, one that has slipped away slowly and is now no longer recognizable. This thought does nothing to alleviate my sadness.
I try to ignore the drowning sensation as I drink more coffee and eat another bowl of cereal. I watch more of the Today show. A young couple discusses their wedding day and professes their undying love for each other as Ann smiles and pitches softball questions their way. I’m not sure how this is news, but I guess that’s not the point of the Today show anyway. I wish this couple the best of luck out loud to no one but these walls around me. Out loud is probably an exaggeration. It’s a mumble really.
“Watch out for that ’til death do us part bit. It’s not as definitive as you may think,” I say aloud. No one is there to challenge me or hear my comments. I feel faintly better for having spoken my mind to the ether.
My coffee cup sits empty on the coffee table. The appropriateness of that strikes me as funny, and I smile to no one in particular. I’ve earned this smile, but it quickly fades at the thought of Marty asleep down the hall. The nurse will be here in a little over an hour and my usual routine will commence. Taking care of Marty has become a regular, dreadful chore for me. The nurse makes it easier, but I still feel as if I’m stuck. We never had any kids, but I imagine this is what it feels like to care for an infant except this infant will never grow up and become an adult. And he can hurt me.
I take my cup and bowl to the sink, and just before I turn off the television, Ann cuts to wedding pictures from the young couple she talked to earlier. I stop with my finger poised above the power button and watch the progression of pictures across the screen. The young couple looks so happy. I can’t help but be jealous of the beauty of their youth. They have their whole lives ahead of them. At this moment the possibilities are endless. I wonder how happy they will be in forty years. ‘Til death do us part. I turn off the TV.
I remember my wedding day. I remember the promise of our future and the stunning beauty of our youth from that day. I remember our vows to each other. Yes, we meant them. I know we did, but we had no clue how things would turn out or how we’d respond to the events in our lives. There’s a picture from our wedding that still sits on our chest of drawers in our bedroom. In the picture Marty and I stand next to each other holding hands among the flowers in the garden of the courtyard where we were married. Our bodies are partially turned toward each other but we squarely face the camera with big, bright smiles on our faces. I don’t need to look at the picture to remember how handsome Marty looked in his tuxedo with his dark, wavy hair and chiseled good looks. He always looked good in a tuxedo. I remember how my flowing, white dress enveloped me projecting an image of purity and youth. We were clearly happy when the picture was snapped after the wedding. How could we not be? We simply didn’t know what the future would hold for us. You never do.
Another memory from years ago surges into my consciousness. Marty and I often talked about growing old together and what we’d do after we retired. At the time I was a few weeks pregnant, and we had gotten extra serious about planning our lives. We purchased life insurance and we began to talk about putting together a will. With a child on the way, we wanted to make sure the little one would be taken care of in the event either or both of us died or became incapacitated. It wasn’t the merriest of topics then, but we were determined to be properly prepared for whatever came our way. Marty made it clear that he had no desire to be kept alive artificially or to live in a nursing home. He made me promise that I’d pull the plug for him. It seemed so morbid and unthinkable at the time that I agreed just so we could push the topic out of our conversation, but he was adamant that I honor his wishes. Once our morbid desires were officially documented in our wills, we never discussed them again, mostly due to my reluctance to dwell on the unsavory nature of the topic, but that conversation stuck in the corner of my mind. I’ve been thinking about it a lot these last few days.
Marty loved life. He loved me, and I believe he still does deep down in his heart, but he hasn’t said “I love you” to me in several years. This is not how we envisioned spending our golden years. We often talked about moving into a condo in the city so that we could be closer to the city we loved. Now that can’t happen. There’s no way to tell if Marty even knows where he is now. While his body has not stopped functioning and he’s not on a machine to keep him alive, he’s been robbed of his life by a disease that has eaten away at him from the inside destroying the essence of who he was. In many ways, he’s worse off than if he were being kept alive artificially.
I feel like I’ve broken my promise to him. I’ve had these feelings for a while now, but they’ve become more prominent as his condition has worsened. If he could talk to me, would he say that I have betrayed his wishes and would he wonder aloud how I could do so after the promises I made? I will never know for sure, but I can’t stand the thought that I have disappointed Marty yet again.
The sadness returns in full force. I can physically feel the gloom squeezing my heart, and that drowning sensation strikes again except this time the blurry waves are tears welling up in my eyes. I watch as tears descend my cheeks and fall to the hardwood floor near my feet. As much as I have cried over the years, I’m still amazed at how many tears I can shed. The tears are truly endless, a soggy, slippery documentary of my suffering.
I use the sleeve of my nightgown to wipe away the tears as I regain some semblance of control. I need to think more clearly. The metal box in the office pulls me down the hall like the gravitational force of some heavenly body. I pass by the shelf at the edge of my living room and a picture catches my eye. I stop abruptly and stare more closely. It’s a picture of me and Marty with Bob and Carol, two dear friends of ours. Bob passed away a few years ago after a sudden heart attack. Carol is…was one of my best friends. My only best friend in reality.
In the picture the four of us sit in a booth at a restaurant in downtown San Francisco. We’re all smiling broadly unabashed in our closeness with our arms linking us together. Carol and I sit in the middle bookended by our husbands. I remember how tightly I pulled her next to me that night. I truly loved her like a sister. In many ways she filled the void my own sister had left. Another wave of sadness hits me. Carol and I drifted apart over the years after this picture was taken. Our friendship was tested and then severed by time and circumstances.
We’ve only stayed in touch sporadically as our lives have taken different paths. I can’t remember the last time I talked to her. I know I called her after Bob died, but I can’t remember if we’ve talked since then. We have exchanged emails occasionally since his death, but most of those conversations have been perfunctory and devoid of the tight bond we once shared. I miss her. I wish I had her here right now. Maybe she could help me make sense of this miserable mess. Maybe she could help me see past the cloud of gloom that engulfs me. I need someone.
I linger for a moment hovering above the picture lost in the fog of memories – good ones. I get the sudden urge to call her, but I’m not sure how I would begin the conversation. We’re just not as familiar as we used to be, and since we haven’t talked in a while, it would be awkward to call her suddenly one morning in a fit of despair. Carol has seen me at my worst, so my current state should not be surprising to her. She would understand. I know she would, but I can’t call her now.
I slide walk down the hall dragging my slippers across the floor toward the office and plop back down in the chair by the desk. I feel like my lifeline to world outside has been cut. I’m drifting alone out here. Just Marty and me. The wave of despair returns and I close my eyes to will those feelings away. When I finally open my eyes, the office seems brighter than it was. I look around the room hoping for a sign that will point the way out of this nightmare.
Marty hasn’t used his office in a few years. He used it daily for most of the time we have lived in this house, but once he was fired from his job, his assistant delivered his personal items to our house and he lugged his sad stack of boxes in here and left them in the corner next to the filing cabinet. They still sit here today unaffected by the passage of time or the erosion of his disease. He never made any attempt to sort through them, and I’ve not had the heart to do so myself. After a while, I started using the office mostly to get on the computer and manage the numerous medical bills that have since piled up. I gave up late last year and no longer bother to reconcile the medical bills we have. It’s just too much. I can’t bring myself to think of Marty’s illness in terms of dollars and demands. His life cannot be boiled down so precisely as the gibberish descriptions and large numbers on the bills. It just can’t.
I grab the box from the desk and put it in my lap for a moment before I flip the latch and open it. The tan metal immediately looks fragile in contrast to the black metal of the gun that rests against the belly of the box. I take a deep breath. I can feel the pit in my stomach ache. I don’t know if I can do this, but I must do something. I can’t go on like this. There’s only so much one person can take, and at some point, there’s only one way out of the depths of misery. I’ve reached that point. I really have.
I stare at the gun for a moment. It seems so solid and strong, unlike me. I can remember holding it in my hands so many times and feeling its power reverberate through my bones as I fired it at one target after another. My husband and I used to enjoy our guns. We had many at one point in our lives, but all that remains is this one, yet another cold remnant of our previous lives. I’m not sure why I kept it when I sold the others. Maybe I subconsciously knew this moment would come and I would be forced to put an end to the misery. I shudder to think that I had some morbid premonition about us. I could have never imagined we’d come down to this. Never.
I look away from the gun and sit back in the chair. It creaks as my weight shifts and my body tenses at the loud noise. I look at the door to the office expectantly. I don’t want Marty to know I’m in here. I don’t want to wake him. I need time to think this through. I relax a little and stare vacantly at the wall in front of me. The dim strand of sunlight has brightened considerably and now illuminates the pale blue wall. I realize the light is peeking through a part of the blind that is misaligned. The imperfection bothers me. Normally, I’d get up and try to fix it, but at this point, I just don’t care. I no longer live under the illusion of perfection. It’s just not possible.
The handgun sits there with a small box of ammunition pushed into one corner of the box. The dull black metal of the gun somehow glistens in the broken sunlight that streams through the blinds. Tears suddenly cloud my eyes once again as I feel overcome by sadness. Hopelessness. That’s what I feel. I feel so alone. I also feel like I’ve let Marty down. I didn’t pull the plug like I had promised. Instead, I’ve kept him alive as a shell of his former self. That’s not Marty in the room next door. That’s a demented old man who has taken up residence in Marty’s body torturing me with his presence and mocking my unusual lack of fortitude. I let that happen. I didn’t do what I had promised.
The sobbing subsides and I lean forward to look at the gun more closely. I reach in and grab it by the handle and pull it out slowly as if it is loaded. Marty never kept the gun loaded. He only fired it at the range and most of the time I was with him. He always felt that it was important that I knew how to use it. “You may have to protect yourself one day,” he used to say. It seems like so long ago. Practical, protective Marty. He always looked after me even though I didn’t feel I needed it. I’m sure he never intended for me to use this gun on him.
The weight of the gun in my hand feels just like I remember it. The first time Marty took me to the firing range, I was unsure how I would react. I had never fired a gun in my life at that point. In fact, I had never even touched one until that day he placed it in my hands to show me how to use it. At that moment, I hadn’t imagined I’d become enamored with guns and love the feel of one in my hand. I certainly never thought we’d take it up as a hobby, an activity that we did together in the little free time we had. The gun feels solid, dependable, unlike me. I remove the ammunition from the metal box and open the container. The bullets are not as shiny as they used to be because they’ve been sitting in the box for so long. I pop the clip from the butt of the gun and insert the bullets methodically just like Marty showed me. Now, the gun is loaded. It feels more powerful knowing that it could potentially do some harm or good depending on how I look at it. I lay the gun on the desk and sit back in the chair. Decisive power emanates from it. The gun provokes my confidence, yet I struggle to gain any clarity about what I must do.
‘Til death do us part.
The clock on the wall is not working. The time is stuck near Noon or midnight. I don’t know how long it’s been stuck in the middle of the day or night, but it’s somewhat symbolic of my life these last few years. I’ve been stuck in limbo not knowing if it is day or night with time standing still yet methodically ticking away. The sadness returns in a gush and I bury my face in my hands. The heaving sobs come in waves. I’m not sure how long this episode lasts, but I feel like I know what I must do. It is time. I have a promise to fulfill. He won’t feel a thing. It’s not really him anyway. That’s what I tell myself over and over. I know what I need to do. Him and then me. It’s the only way out of this nightmare. God help me see this through.