On a rainy day in spring, Marie juggled three paper grocery bags in her arms, fumbling to make her house key fit into the door lock. She finally heard the click, and kneed open the door. Her rental house looked pathetic. Dead, brown plants lay flat in their pots. Dishes stacked high in the sink. She hadn’t yet done laundry, which collected in a basket on the washing machine.
James’ backpack still leaned against the couch, full of school books, pencils, and his calculator. At the sight of it, Marie sighed while she put away groceries, remembering the very moment James had set it down before asking her to go on a walk. They’d discussed biology and spirituality.
Marie closed all the cupboards, and felt discouraged on her way out to her car. She was hesitant to visit James. She went to his room every day, and he ignored her every day. It was inevitably difficult to deal with his paralysis, but it became unbearable when he refused to communicate with her.
Marie pulled into the hospital parking lot, but didn’t immediately get out. In order to make this work, she needed him to acknowledge her in some way. To show her some kind of sign that he still appreciated her company; even if he could no longer offer mutual companionship.
She took the elevator to his floor and entered his room with a heavy breath. James watched her climb into bed with him. There, she kissed each eyelid. “How are you feeling today?”
James didn’t answer her, and Marie fought to ignore the sting of hurt feelings. “I talked with your parents. They said you’re ready for physical therapy.”
He blinked twice.
Most likely coincidence, Marie disregarded the possibility that James had attempted to communicate with her. She said, “I’d like to go with you, if you don’t mind.”
He blinked twice.
Marie propped herself up on her elbow and looked closely at her fiancée’s eyes. She pressed her lips together in uncertainty. “Are you talking to me?”
He blinked twice.
“Does that mean yes?”
Again, he blinked twice.
Marie’s furrowed her eyebrows, even though she felt flooded with relief. “Do you mind me going to your therapy sessions?”
“Do you feel guilty?”
Marie knew it was a stupid question the moment she asked it. How could he not? From his silence for half a year, she couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with his suffering. While trying to share her time with him, he festered.
She could almost hear his internal dialogue, ridiculing himself over his inability to offer comments on her mind, personality, and beauty. He couldn’t debate biology, philosophy, or society. He couldn’t share a smile with her, or pour his dreams and wishes and wants and needs to her. He couldn’t even share a moment with her. He barely existed. He didn’t even feel he was worth her time.
Marie was sure he felt guilty, and because of this, it had taken six long months for James to finally tell her with words instead of bitter silence.
“James,” she said, putting her hand to his cheek, “I don’t do this out of pity, or out of duty. I said yes to marry you, and whether you can fully or scarcely interact with me doesn’t change the fact that you’re my partner.”
James didn’t answer her.
* * * *
James blinked twice when his nurse wheeled an electric wheelchair into his room. He thanked God for an opportunity to get out of this hospital bed. Marie offered his parents a smile of hope, and they put their arms around one another.
James learned to maneuver his head in order to control his wheelchair, and Marie held his hand while he practiced, strolling around the hospital room. Sometimes, they went down the hall to see other patients, or even to the courtyard for fresh air. He couldn’t feel the light breeze on his skin, or the light sprinkle of the rain, but he could see her interaction with the world, and it was beautiful.
While Marie strolled the grounds, smelling the flowers or feeding birds, James sometimes stopped following in his chair and watched her from afar. Eight months of being a quadriplegic was a daily, draining burden, and he had not appreciated her presence; instead feeling like the bane of her existence. But each new day brought Marie with it, giving James a reason to move on from his despair and guilt.
Marie turned from flicking bread crumbs to a robin, and walked over. “We should get back inside. It’s almost two o’clock, and I’m already in trouble with your technician for making you late twice.”
He wanted to blink once for no, and remain outside with her for the rest of the afternoon. But he remained silent, and allowed Marie to stroll him back into the hospital.
* * * *
Even with Marie’s daily involvement, and the promise of living outside the hospital, therapy was a constant hassle. On a daily basis, a therapist worked with James to improve his breathing. Each session ended with him being hooked up to a ventilator to monitor progress, intensifying the reality that James was in need of a machine to help him survive.
His family also had tasks to learn. Marie memorized the intervals of turning James over in bed to lower his chances of bed sores. Three times a week, his parents stretched his muscles under the careful eye of the doctor. Their duty to help him damaged his pride, but no matter how much trouble it was to learn these tasks, James always saw hope and love in his parents’ faces. He always found relief from the kisses of his fiancée.
In the start of fall, a little past their one year anniversary of the car accident, James worked with a bite valve to drink without assistance. This took several weeks to master, but James’ eyes flickered with dignity when his family hugged and kissed him, celebrating his success. He would never be able to feed himself, but self-reliant access to water was the tipping point of his rehabilitation.
James could finally go home.
* * * *
There were still patches of snow on the ground, but also buds on the trees and Daffodils springing up alongside the road. The sky was heartbreakingly blue; the air only slightly crisp, with the freshest scents of the Earth being reborn from the darkness of winter. It was a perfect morning for a drive into the mountains; to sit beside a gurgling stream, gushing and icy with the rapidly melting snow, while gazing across at the brilliant green of newly grown meadow grass.
But nothing was more beautiful than Marie’s hair falling across her shoulders, catching the golden ray of the sun. In the middle of a thicket, James listened to Marie’s voice flow over the pages of a novel he’d planned to finish reading years ago.
“We’re going to read every book you ever bought,” Marie said, finishing the chapter. She looked out over the stream, and squeezed James’ hand, though he could not feel it. “There’s about thirty of them in our bookcase. Does that sound good to you?”
James blinked twice. He remembered the nights he lay in bed before falling asleep, reading as many pages as he could before becoming too tired to concentrate on the meaning of the words. He missed the feeling of the roughness of the paper, and the feeling of Marie’s eyelashes closing against his chest while he read.
“Because we’re moving in with your parents,” Marie continued, taking in a deep breath of crisp air, “I can afford to decrease my hours at the law firm. And if I take a few extra courses, I’m only three terms away from getting my degree.”
Her subsided goals reminded James that his condition hindered her success. Marie could’ve earned her bachelor’s degree three months ago and be working toward a career by now.
He could have, too. He missed the late nights of reading textbooks, filling out study guides, reading PowerPoint’s, and absorbing such interesting material. Natural Resources. Yes, that was his degree. Now, two years behind from graduating, his potential to do well in life, to do right by others, and to help the world become a better place, was dead.
A wave of depression he hadn’t felt in weeks came over him, poisoning his mind with terrible thoughts. He couldn’t handle feeling this horrible for not finishing school, or for getting in the way of Marie’s brilliance. He wanted to roll himself into the creek and drown to the sound of the moving water. It didn’t matter that he was going home. He wanted to die.
* * * *
The morning after falling asleep in their new bedroom was not as Marie expected. She’d sung a song, an old favorite, to James while he fell asleep. In the morning, Marie woke to see him still asleep. She studied the new limpness of his facial features, and by lying next to him, she thought to wake him with a kiss, and ask him if he was ready to marry her.
But then she smelled the stale odor of feces. During the night, James had needed to use the bathroom, and with no physical or mental choice, he went in his diaper. Instead of discussing marriage, Marie called for his caregiver to help her lift James from the bed. Such a beautiful morning was met with the harsh bite of reality.
During breakfast, Marie caressed a mug of hot coffee at the kitchen nook, watching the middle-aged caregiver spoon feed James his own breakfast. Penelope had worked with James in the hospital, and had a very kind approach to the tasks needing to be done. Seeming to enjoy her time with James as he ate, Marie could tell Penelope would become a family favorite.
Penelope asked James if he needed to use the bathroom. He blinked twice, and she wheeled him into the other room to, yet again, change his diaper.
Marie felt another migraine from her heartbreak, and abandoned the house for a brisk walk around the block.
She made it to the end of the street, her head pounding in painful throbs, before feeling a small object crush under her shoe. Curious, she knelt down to discover a crippled praying mantis. She took him into her hand, its crooked body twitching in her palm, and watched it struggle. What could she do to give back this frail creature’s freedom? For a human of such awareness and opportunity, what else could Marie do but watch its new helplessness?
What else could she do?
She placed the praying mantis in the grass and ran back to the house. She dug through boxes of old class notes, newsletters, and class schedules. Uncovering what she wanted, she went into the living room and found James watching SpongeBob.
Marie snatched the “sip and puff” remote and turned off the TV. “James,” she blurted, out of breath. “Sorry for turning off the TV like that, but I have an idea. It’s going to be a lot of work, but if you’re willing to work, I will help you.”