A Blue House

by Kyle Heger

Today I chose the house where my son and I will live after my wife dies.

It is a 105-year old, wood-frame building with two stories above ground and a spacious basement. The outside is painted blue, the color of a robin's egg, the color of a summer sky unbroken by clouds, the color of peace. The trim looks like old ivory.

Taking up two-thirds of the front is a porch with more than enough room for a green metal glider, several chairs and a checkers table. A large picture window overlooks it from the living room.

Inside, the floors are wooden and uneven, bearing the paths of generations that have passed there in stocking feet, the kind of paths that deer wear in meadows on their way to watering holes or salt licks.

It is not a place of right angles. The doorways are arched. Walls meet ceilings not in corners but in curves.

The fireplace in the living room is made of stone, and the stove in the kitchen is made of white porcelain. In the summer, light breezes dance through the place, led by the slowly swirling arms of courtly ceiling fans. In the winter, radiators alongside walls purr like contented cats. The smell of the earth comes up from the basement but there is no dirt, no dust, to be seen anywhere. The entire place is a pleasure to touch, like a lover's skin, so the people who live there are always cleaning it just to enjoy the opportunity of giving it caresses.

I was paged at work today while I was in a meeting, trying to wrap up loose ends about our company's "Web Presence" before I start my family-leave time. I keep my pager in my breast pocket so I can get it as quickly as possible instead of having to fumble it from my belt as I did in the past. Whenever it goes off, whether it vibrates or rings, I feel as if I am having a heart attack. Each time, it stabs me: ugly, full of bad news, sending bolts of electricity through my chest, twisting sweat from my palms, turning my face red.

When I called home, my mother-in-law told me she was going to drive Linda back to the hospital to be hydrated. This is what they do to her when her bones leach too much calcium into her bloodstream. After a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation treatments, a three-week long stem-cell transplant procedure and a short-lived remission, the breast cancer is back full force, devouring her systemically and determinedly.

I knew that each step of the way, each mile she was on the road, each movement out of her reclining chair at home and into the bed at the clinic, each tap of that damnable walker with the tennis balls on its feet would send pain through her body.

She is only in her mid-forties but she now looks old enough to be my mother. She has gone through premature menopause. Her back is hunched, her eyes sunken and staring in a rigid mask. I am unable to uproot from my imagination a picture of her heart as a bright yellow canary being slowly crushed as the cage of bones around it crumples inward.

I tore down the freeway, feeling that my presence at her side was indispensable. During long procedures, the only thing that stops her muscles from tightening up like wrung wash rags and that calms her fears as she stares into the future is for me to massage her hands and feet. The anti-anxiety medicines only skim the surface of her suffering. Only the touch of flesh on flesh makes a real difference.

Normally a timid driver, I pushed the van to eighty, ninety, miles an hour, tailgating, switching lanes desperately, clinging to a half-belief that the odds would all be against a fatal traffic accident claiming me, depriving our five-year-old son of one parent while the other is on her way out.

Two-thirds of a continent separate us from the blue house.

We now live not far from where the Sacramento River flows into the San Francisco Bay.

The blue house is located in the town of South Haven, where the Black River flows into Lake Michigan.

Picture Michigan's Lower Peninsula as a right hand turned palm-up toward you. There, at the bottom left edge of the meaty palm, just above the wrist, South Haven nestles against the Great Lake from which it derives many of its charms: long beaches, picturesque piers and lighthouses, a drawbridge, a marina.

The town benefits also from its ability to retain something of each of the phases through which it has passed over time. A kind of gentle, living history breathes through it, speaking of decades past.

My attachments to South Haven are intimate. I spent summers there with my sister and parents when I was two and three years old, the age at which we undergo that marvelous flowering of the brain that neurologists called "exuberance." I returned to the town to spend portions of several summers during another period of exuberance, my adolescence, and again, several times with Linda after we had adopted Miguel. Watching him take some of his first colt-like steps through the dark and dewy grass and through the golden sands, breathing in the fresh lake air, I knew complete happiness for a while.

It was during one of these later visits that I noticed the house out of the corner of one eye. I didn't think about it much then but over time its significance sank in.

The house is in a friendly old neighborhood high up on some bluffs. Across one street is a playground containing an enormous wooden play structure that Miguel loves to explore. Across another street, a long, wooden staircase leads to the beach. From the porch you can hear the surf.

I had to tell Miguel the latest news about his mother's condition today. We have tried to be honest with him throughout this ordeal, to give him the chance to prepare himself in whatever way a five-year old can for what is to come. He needs to know that he can depend on us, on me, to tell him the truth. He already knew that she was very sick, that she wouldn't live long. But now he knows that she has only a matter of weeks. At least he knows the words.

On the advice of a child psychologist, I timed it carefully. If I told him on a weekday morning and then sent him off to school, he wouldn't have me around to reassure him while he "processed" the information. But if I told him too close to bedtime, he would have to drag the newly ingested information into the solitude of sleep. I was careful to tell him in the middle of the afternoon so that I would be around to offer him my solidarity.

There were also spatial considerations to take into account. I wanted to tell him at home, where he would be surrounded by the comfort of familiar surroundings. But I also wanted to tell him as far away from his bedroom as possible, again, for fear of contaminating his sleep with nightmares. We all need our sanctuaries.

I ended up giving him the news outside on the patio with the green-and-white tiles that Linda painted last year, out in the sunshine and open air.

His big, black, beautiful eyes grew wide as I spoke. His face was solemn. He nodded his head. Then he was off, running and playing and I was grateful that the meaning of it all would only slowly seep through him, like a poison that he might learn to tolerate over time, instead of flooding him all at once and plunging him into a toxic state of understanding.

It was actually Linda who first gave me the idea of moving after she dies. Several months ago she suggested that if I sold the rather large house we now own, I could buy a smaller place in the nearby Richmond annex, free and clear, and send Miguel to a good elementary school there. I haven't told her that this idea has been gradually supplanted by the prospect of a house in Michigan. I don't want her to know that I will be going so far away or that I have put so much thought into what will happen after she is gone.

No mortgage payments, combined with the life insurance money and survivor benefits from Linda's pension and the Social Security Administration, should mean that will be on a fairly sound financial footing. I can quit my high-pressure corporate-communication job, give up this meaningless round of meetings and analyses and plans. I can do something real. Maybe I'll learn a trade and work with my hands. Or open a nursery to grow and sell native plants. Maybe I'll get a teaching credential and work in an elementary school so I can be surrounded by children all day.

Fishing will teach me patience. I'll learn to play the guitar, fly kites, sail a boat.

We'll watch the seasons roll by, reliable and comforting: frost etching pastoral scenes upon our windows, snow piling up so high we'll need to put a little orange plastic ball on our radio antenna to find our car in the drifts, spring days when we'll feel we're inhaling pure life with every breath, summer evenings made almost immortal by the serenades of drunken crickets.

Everything will be within walking distance. I'll bring home groceries in brown paper bags. We'll walk to town for ice-cream cones in the evenings. Miguel will go to a school around the corner, taking a lunch box with cartoon heroes on it, carrying home masterpieces of construction paper and glitter.

Now that hospice is involved and we are not taking any more measures to fight the cancer, Linda and I debated today whether or not she should go to the emergency room to get the fluid in her lungs removed so she can breathe more easily. Over the phone, her doctor said the procedure would make her more comfortable and might buy her a few days. But against that we have to weigh the trauma of getting her there and back. Our van is no longer an option. She is so brittle that sitting upright is a torture. So we decided to call an ambulance. What tipped the balance was the birthday party—the going-away party and family reunion—she has planned for next week. Many family members and friends will be there and she is determined to last until then. This procedure might make the difference.

The garden at the blue house will be magnificent. Crocuses will push their way up through the snow in the spring. A few weeks later, whole banks of forsythia will surround the yard with a yellow glow. Branches of lilac trees will hang so heavy with blossoms and bees that they touch the ground. They'll look like people bowing and curtsying. Here and there, in various heights and at different times of the year, splashes of color will come and go: daffodils, hydrangeas, pansies. Mulberries will stain the sidewalk. The house itself will be the recipient of a judicious amount of shade from a single giant maple. A few moderately-sized pines will scent the air with resin. I will use a hand mower to trim the thick, dark grass. I will wade through the foliage and flowers with pollen on my clothes. I will plunge my hands often and enthusiastically into the rich black soil, full of life, fertility, energy.

Linda died this morning while I lay in bed next to her, holding her hand. I watched the breaths leaving her body, one-by-one, and could barely believe it when the last one left and there were none to replace it. I put my ear to her chest and heard no heart beat. I felt, absurdly, like one of those characters in a cowboy movie who listens to the soil for hoof beats indicating the approach of a rescue party, the cavalry.

I now realized how unprepared I was to move forward without Linda.

Her greatest fear had been dying alone so I had promised to stay with her to the end. But it suddenly struck me that I didn't know what "the end" meant. Despite all the thinking, talking and reading we'd done, all the documents we'd signed in anticipation of her death, we hadn't focused on what to do in the hours and minutes immediately following that event.

Linda categorically denied belief in an afterlife. But didn't a certain amount of medical evidence suggest that consciousness can linger for some time after one's "vital sign" have stopped?

On one hand, if she were still conscious at any level, I didn't want to leave her side, making her think I was breaking my promise, abandoning her when she might be at her most anxious and frightened. On the other hand, I knew she would have wanted me to inform the rest of our family of what had happened so they could be included in this final intimacy.

I ended up by explaining to her what I was doing, leaving briefly to break the news to the family members staying in our house, then returning to her side as quickly as possible.

Only after consulting with a doctor over the phone and with a nurse from hospice, who assured me that Linda's brain had stopped functioning, did I let a call be placed to a morgue.

Two young women with bright teeth and straight spines, who, except for their white smocks, appeared to have just been pulled away from a junior-college volleyball tournament—essence of chewing gum, sweat socks and suntan oil—came to take her body away. They put it on a long, stiff board that knocked against doorways and corners.

It turned out that, despite all my talking and thinking about Linda's death, before it happened, I didn't have any more real idea of what it would involve then Miguel did as he solemnly nodded his head while wave after wave of bad news broke over him. I realize now that, somehow, I had imagined her death as another in a series of crises that we would pass through together. When I looked forward to it ending, I could no more meaningfully conceive of what it would really to be separate from her than I could conceive of my own death. Always, in the background of my dreams, she was standing there in the blue house too, relieved and peaceful.

Everything is ending in flames. I myself am burning, blazing bright yellow and red with flames that can never be put out, flames that torture but do not consume. I race to the blue house for shelter, for protection. As I walk through the rooms, tongues of fire leap up from my skin and clothes and touch the curtains, the furniture, the moldings. The place fall downs around me in great protesting pieces.

Now I wade amid ruins, knee-deep in ash and embers, surrounded by smoke so thick it blinds me and still I burn on, inextinguishable, inconsolable. No dream is strong enough to withstand the pain that I carry. No place ever will be. My son and I stand silent on the edge of a continent, staring out to sea.

BIO: Kyle Heger is former managing editor of Communication World magazine. His writing has been accepted by 35 publications, including: San Francisco Examiner, The Binnacle, Foliate Oak, Nerve Cowboy and The Santa Clara Review. He lives in Albany, CA with his wife and one of his three sons.