- Susan Cox Is No Longer Here
This is something that happened during a long, dry summer, and if I don’t write it down now I fear it might haunt me forever. My hope is that the woman from the hospital room will eventually let go of my thoughts, so that I no longer see her peeling fingernails and the black bandanna tied around her head, her ruby slippers and that blue monkey with beads for eyes and a single black stitch for a smile. I can still hear the last thing she said to me, in her tired, smoker’s voice, and I wish to God I could forget it.
It all began in the middle of August, with a phone call from Wishard Memorial Hospital, the city hospital of Indianapolis, informing me that I needed to hurry to meet a woman who was dying. She didn’t have much time left. A few weeks before, I had inquired about visiting a patient in the hospital’s months-old No One Dies Alone program, NODA for short, essentially a bedside vigil to provide a loving environment for people who otherwise have no one else. I wanted to write a story about the NODA volunteers, what brought them to the bedside of a dying stranger, and also, what it was like for that person to die. The phone call could’ve been about anyone, but this particular woman was named Susan Cox. [End Page 89]
I first saw her through a sliding door, a reflection on the glass. Frail arms folded on her stomach, two red socks pulled over her feet. She lay in a bed tilted up at a forty-five-degree angle, her back against a small mattress, some wires curling around her wrists, part of her legs covered by a blanket and a single cotton sheet. A Zenith TV above her bed was tuned to Everybody Loves Raymond, on mute. I approached the metal railing of her bed and took her hand.
Susan had been diagnosed with Stage IV small-cell lung cancer, which had spread to her liver and into the bone of her skull. She had no family and only a few friends. I didn’t know anything else about her and had no idea what to expect, whether she would even be able to speak. Before I could enter her room, she needed to sign papers giving her consent, and I wondered if she would have enough strength to hold the pen. But when I offered my hand, she squeezed.
“Hello,” she said. “By the way, this is Walter.”
She took her index finger, encased in a red pulse oximeter, and pointed to the plush monkey clutched close to her left breast, bought from the hospital gift shop and given to her by a nurse. In the coming days I would learn that she clutched Walter while she was awake, while she was asleep, while chemo dripped palely from a bag into a port in her chest; that she talked to him, confided in him, asked him questions and then played up the funny silence to those of us in the room when he didn’t respond, while Walter just stared at her, smiling. At a certain point she refused to let go of him at all. That first day, she revealed that she wanted Walter cremated with her, mixed into her own ashes, and sprinkled into the Gulf of Mexico near Florida’s Sanibel Island. “I’m fifty-two, but I don’t care,” she said, laughing. “He gives me comfort.”
An oxygen machine chimed every ten seconds, so there was never a true quiet in the room. The nurses in the hallway outside the door, sitting in front of computers, talked about their plans for the night.
“I know that I’m dying, and I’m at peace with it. I’m not afraid anymore,” Susan said. A NODA volunteer named Leslie McDonough sat in a chair beside Susan’s bed, reading to her.
Leslie asked Susan if she needed anything, if she’d like to be read a poem, if she would like the air turned down. [End...