One More Mile
No one is ever prepared for the guilt. Take me, for instance. I thought I had a handle on it. My wife was dying inch by inch. One day as she thrashed in her hospital bed, raspy breathing, waxy complexion, her voice shredded with pain, I realized that I didn’t hate her sickness, I hated her. I hated her for doing this to me as if it were her fault she’d gotten sick.
Guilt smashed into my gut and I told myself over and over that that it wasn’t her I hated, it was her illness. The miserable, soul-sucking thing that came between us and turned us both into shadows of what we once were, but the truth was inescapable. I hated her. I wanted her to die so I could have a life again.
I tried to remember the good times, but there were so few before the sickness grabbed her by the throat and began to squeeze.
It’s not like we spent years together. There was only the one -- and not even a whole one -- before we saw that look in the doctor’s eyes as he pronounced her death sentence.
My friends told me it was reckless to get married three months after hooking up one drunken night at the bar, but we both thought it was forever.
Forever? What a joke.
Before I realized I hated her, my guilt was directed at me. Why did I get to walk around pain free while she was confined to a hospital bed, wracked with agony?
How could I possibly continue on with my normal existence? Everything I did was a reproach. Every book I read, every song I heard, every exchange with coworkers, every normal moment I had and she didn’t, I thought I felt guilty about.
Then I realized I hated her. That was terrible guilt, right there. Yeah, I thought I knew what guilt was until, of course, she died.
The night she died, it rained. A torrential downpour soaked me to the skin beneath my suede jacket as I dodged puddles in the parking lot and ran to the hospice doors. A part of me – a huge part – had wanted to stay home that night and watch a movie. Maybe pop a bag of microwave popcorn. Six months of sickness had come and gone and we’d been deep into the seventh by that night.
Every time I had to go to that damn hospice, I dreaded and resented it. Why couldn’t she just die already and let me have my life back? I wanted to believe I had some compassion for her so she’d be free of the pain, but I knew most of it was for me. I wanted to be me again. I wanted to be normal. Was it so much to ask to be normal?
She was dead before I ever reached the hospice doors. So I wasn’t there when she died. All she’d wanted the last few weeks was my promise I’d be there holding her hand when she passed over. That’s how she put it – passed over. As if she were going someplace that required a graduation or a special ticket. She couldn’t say die like a normal person.
I’d promised. The thought of holding her wasted, skeletal hand was anathema to me. But I’d sworn I’d do it. And I would have. I would have. But death doesn’t work by a schedule or send an invitation so how was I to blame for the fact it was raining, I was tired and I just didn’t get there in time that night?
Guilt doesn’t pull any punches. It goes straight for the KO.
I thought I knew guilt before she died, but it was pale in comparison. I didn’t know how to handle it at first. I thought it would go away the more time I put between me and that rainy night. But it chased me. It hounded me.
Normal life was impossible because of the guilt. I’d wanted her to die and she had. I hadn’t been there as I’d promised. If I’d been there with her, I could have absolved myself over the fact I wanted her dead. But I hadn’t been there.
Sleep was impossible, so I drove the nights away in the Mustang GT I bought with the insurance money.
Oh, but the guilt chased me, and one night, it found me.
Until then I’d believed I could outrace the guilt, I could drive away the guilt with my car.
One more mile. One more mile and the debt will be paid. One more mile and it will be over.
One more mile. That’s what she’s told me, night after night since she used my guilt to find me. Every night when I drive, my dead wife rides shotgun in her hospital johnny, her shriveled thighs exposed.
“One more mile, Carl.” She wouldn’t stay in her grave. Guilt dug her up and guilt kept her in my car and I couldn’t outdrive her. “One more mile.”
I’ll reach the bridge abutment in a mile and a quarter. So I know what I have to do if after one more mile she’s still there. Just a twist of the wheel and it will all be over.
One way or another, I’m driving away my guilt tonight. One more mile.