Going Home

Karen Greenbaum-Maya

Karen Greenbaum-Maya

Going Home was selected as part of MSU Library Short Edition's call for submissions on the theme of "Home," in coordination with the MSU Broad Art Museum's exhibition "Where We Dwell." Karen Greenbaum-Maya is a retired clinical psychologist, former German major and restaurant reviewer, and, two-time Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee. Her collections include three chapbooks, Burrowing Song, Eggs Satori, and, Kafka's Cat, and, The Book of Knots and their Untying. She co-curates Fourth Sundays, a long-running poetry series in Claremont, California.

In his last months, he couldn't bear to be alone. More and more, he became disoriented from the weird isolation of hospital rooms. Mostly I slept in those armchairs that pull out to make a bed. Every four nights I'd go home, so that I could actually get some sleep. He'd try to get out of the bed without disconnecting himself from the various compression and breathing assists, and he could easily have fallen. When I was there, I could soothe him out of trying to go to the bathroom by himself, but when I was at home, he'd get feisty with the staff, and they'd wrangle him back into bed, and then he'd call me. The staff set the pressure-activated alarm in the bed—Walter the flight risk. At best he slept lightly. When he was merely awake, and it was dark outside, he could see the early morning flights taking off from the nearby airport. He would call me and leave voice messages. Even when I was there in his room and had merely gone to the bathroom, he'd call my phone and leave aggrieved voice mail if I didn't respond immediately. I'm glad I had the intuition to keep those messages, so I can hear his voice again. Karen! This is Walter. I am your husband (as though I might have forgotten) and I am all alone! Why have you left me here all alone? Why have you left me here alone in this airport hotel parking garage? That one was funny, but also plaintive—few things more impersonal, desolate, than those gray concrete parking garages.

The Friday after Thanksgiving, he said, clearly, forcefully, I don't want to die in this hospital. I got him discharged under hospice care the next day. Once we were home, I basically gave up sleeping at night. I stayed up with him as long as he needed me to do so, and I slept later on. We watched movies, though who knew how much dialog or plot he could follow by then. I read to him from the journals we had kept when we traveled, and added in my reminiscences, my memories of how he had been. These made him happy, and happiness let him fall asleep. Sometimes I'd need to leave the room, to go to the bathroom. He couldn't tolerate that. Once I put on a Schubert piano sonata CD, told him I'd be right back. I was five minutes. He called my phone twice, yelled for me. When I returned, he snarled Why did you leave me alone with that horrible music?! I'll never put it on for you again, I said, grateful I had the understanding not to be offended.

We'd turned the bed so that he faced the window, with its view of trees and birds. A week out from his death, he started asking to go home. The first time, I thought he was disoriented. I tried to explain where we were, but he became only more insistent. About the fourth time, I finally realized that he was speaking IN METAPHOR. Some Jungian psychologist I was, right? and some lousy excuse for a poet. I felt like a real cluck. But at last I could answer the question he was really asking: I will help you go home. I will help you find your way. We'll make sure that you can go home. You're on your way home right now. And this was the answer he needed. On his deathbed, in his coma, as he struggled for air and fought to stay alive, I gripped his hand and stroked his arm and told him It's all right, sweetheart. I'll miss you for the rest of my life, but you need to go home. You can go home now and he did.

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