Day -175 she comes home from the hospital and gets oxygen delivered. He's asleep in an adjacent room, a heavy dose of pills, passed out. Day -174 he wakes up to machines and canisters and tubing that kinks but doesn't crush, slowly she uses less, quickly in single digit negatives she needs more again, she tells him to turn the dial all the way up just for a bit.
Oxygen thin air delivered through a tube, the machine fills the room with heat, scares the cat, many months she only turns it on at night she's fine strong young beautiful even without her salt and pepper hair a pageboy since forever always a little too long or too short.
Month -4 her hair begins to fall out, becomes a thin fuzz, she says she hopes it grows back in before she dies she doesn't say why she doesn't get her wish.
Negative year -28 maybe -29 maybe later she wears a blue bandanna when she doesn't like her hair he orders her a blue bandanna while she's still in the hospital just in case and maybe solace in memory and later orders another, gray. Her wardrobe green blue brown orange and gray. Her Packers sweatshirts. Her leather coat. Her St. Christopher medal given to her by his father Day -8 or -9 he asks if he can have it next and she says yes. He's not religious but carries it with him even if no protection charm, something formerly in her pale crimson hands enough to hold.
St. Christopher the saint of travel, he will protect you in yours.
No real protection, no such thing as protection, only trial remedy and rest. Only sit and wait. Infusions and transfusions. Only negative days getting smaller in number as they cross off each calendar day with a Sharpie X.
Every X closer to Day 1 every X a little darker. The X continues in positive days, in after days.
Months -5 through -1 she falls asleep in the recliner. He knows she's asleep when her mouth's open. She falls asleep watching brass-cheerful TV.
Recliner in the center of the room, almost, mother the center of the family, the iron core of forever comfort. Relentlessly selfless only asking for ears and peace in alteration.
Months -5 -4 -3 -2 an unusually hot summer of toxic chemicals in her bloodstream. Window units in three rooms.
Month -1 she says no to more chemo, no to more ruin to her body, enjoy what time she has left should be months could be a year.
Month -5 Month -4 Month -3 the idiot nurses at St. Francis. The three-hour waits to begin. The time-wasted infusions rush-hour traffic late afternoon panic and vertigo his alone she guides him home calm motherly wasted after a full day of miscellaneous injections. The nurses' facade of care has cracks. The bad oncologist Dr. Treisman takes personal phone calls during his visits with her and tells her she's going to live until she dies, and she wants numbers totals estimates and he smiles oily and makes plans for family dinner. A summer of bitter.
Later Froedtert the deserved excellence and care snapped into place, perfection too late, terrible choices, a world that tastes like cardboard and a constant falling away still unable to relax to calm down to be at pale blue peace. Her prognosis is good until it isn't the MRI results are clear but for how long the PET scan shows growth the scarlet crimson vermillion cancer in her bones the first thing she'll notice she's told is bone pain.
She notices pain not in her hip but her ribs, she takes Percocet the Oxycodone the Oxycontin, makes a molehill of an ache. The end everything as promised but swift, hawklike, eyes popping open 4:30am Day -1 as if surprised by still being alive surprised by him by life by not being left alone.
Years -10 to -1 they do little boxing matches, fist to fist, no contact, an occasional swing to the belly, no contact, both laughing.
Days -9 through -6 they box again after not having boxed for he doesn't know how long. She cooks her chili. She feels good. He thinks maybe she's finally over the chemo and will have a few good months and feels hope unfurl, sees possibility unfold, makes plans.
Days -9 through -6 known as the "second wind" when the body begins to shut down and epinephrine and adrenaline begin to leave the body the cancer patient seems suddenly temporarily better more themselves more alive.
Days -9 through -6 they make plans. She asks him to use her card to buy a sewing machine for his sister. They make plans for her to buy him new glasses because it's been seven years and she might not be around for his birthday in April seven months away.
The second wind bitter from curdled hope.
He thinks crimson scarlet vermillion skies, sometimes silver, never black. He and his sister drive home from the hospice in pre-dawn black. He wants to send a thank you to the completeness of the black.
He wishes the tinfoil and tar in him somehow alchemic. He has too many things on his list. He apologizes to her, Day 1, Day -1 a confession before sleep in the hospice room, he forgets to apologize to everyone else. He forgets everyone else.
Day 32 he tells her he's sorry there are going to be days like this sinking dead-eyed outbursts and rapid breathing a portion of panic too late but still a gift already unwrapped.
No field days no salad days no eternal summer only this sick or that, endless variations, endless exhaustion, he wants to trade places, magical thinking, take better care of both of them, rescue her, protect her, work the toxic chemo out of her veins after whatever good it may have done, work the tumor in her femur out of its pocket and crush it, render the tumors in her lungs a powder she exhales: pink clouds. A sunset. Forget that and live.
Day -5 at the end of her second wind she sends him for a McDonald's sausage biscuit, a ritual in Years -2 and -1, and then she crashes. In bed, in need of oxygen, in need of better care than he knows how to give even after six months of practice being there when she needed a there there.
The early morning of Day -4 she falls, dizzy, not breathing well, she drags herself to his bedroom door and he helps lift her, she never breathes the same. A quick inhale, a slow rattle sigh. Loud enough to mean something. From Day -4 on the oxygen machine dial turned up high.
Day -7 she's in good spirits, they go grocery shopping, their routine for -2 years.
Day -4 she falls in the dark she falls bad bruises on her left shoulder and the corner of her left eye. He tries not to look. He thinks about transient ischemic attacks. He thinks she'll bounce back and everything will be okay, if only for a while.
He thinks everything will be brilliantine sapphire and mahogany. He thinks his new glasses will have black plastic frames.
Day -4 he thinks she'll bounce back. Day -3. Day -2.
The closer Day 1 gets the more often he has to call the hospice hotline they give him instructions they send out a nurse. Day -3 he feeds his mother morphine for air hunger and thinks of his father gaunt in clinical sheets, comatose.
Unknown negative days she tells him not to take anything she says when she's on morphine personally. She makes him promise not to listen or remember. She rehearses and expects long slow declines.
On morphine she says thank you. She says I love you too. She looks him in the eyes even though he never looks anyone in the eyes. He says I'm sorry. He says I love you. He says goodnight.
Day 2, Day 5, unknown days he says I love you and goodnight. Negative months he wonders how many more I love yous and goodnights he has left.
Negative months she stays up late, he wakes up early, they each have an island.
Day 12 he uses money she left him to buy glasses. Black plastic frames. The clerk has the same name as her, is almost the same age. He blurts this out, tells everyone, the most important thing in the world the tidal wave the cities in ruins the streets ablaze. He gets new glasses. He thanks her in the car for the money and because they are so cheap on sale. He cries in the car after he picks them up. He cries for every corner turned in positive days to reveal another gift.