Laura was the oldest daughter. I was the oldest son. One reason we clicked was that we were oldest children. Similar experiences. Like instincts. Oldest children, however, do not always play well with other oldest children. Only one per sandbox. Or per kitchen. Or per car. The sentence “we were oldest children” is not quite accurate. Nor is the sentence “each of us was an oldest child.” Nor, “both of us were oldest children.” These variants are all grammatically correct, but they do not convey the reality. We were each the oldest child.
Well before we had even become aware of this dynamic, Laura made an oldest sister move, a gesture that nearly ended the possibility of a longer-term relationship. She pointed at me with her index finger and crooked it to order me to come over. Shades of the nuns at St. Ann’s Grammar School. Or rather, even the most fearsome, Sister Raphael, had but a tinge of Laura’s imperious manner. I bit my tongue, and came over. I can’t remember if I said it then, but at least soon thereafter, I asked her to use words when she wanted me to do something.
A few words do not change a lifetime of habitual movements. Over time Laura’s index finger faded into the woodwork of our life together. I don’t think she stopped using manual mandatory gestures, as much as I just took them as part of life with Laura. For any friendship, companionship, or marriage to last, we have to make choices about behaviors that, in another person, would irritate or enrage us. We can talk about what is bothering us and why and ask that the source of irritation be stopped or modified.
If that doesn’t work, there are other alternatives. Sometimes you just never agree, or even agree to disagree, but you don’t make a big deal of it. Laura and I had completely different views when it came to rotating food stocks or dinnerware. Usually she did the food shopping on Saturday morning, while I did yard work. Then I’d help bring the groceries in and put them away. I always took the old food out and put the new food in the back of the shelf or underneath the old in the drawer. If Laura happened to be the one putting the food away, the new food just got put in front or on top. If there were clean dishes in the dishwasher, Laura would use those first for setting the table. I would always take the ones remaining on the shelf first. Every once in a while, Laura would snap at me for not using the dishes from the washer, and I would make a crack about rotating the food in the frig. But we never fought over such trivial issues. Perhaps I didn’t see much of the index finger any more was because Laura realized that ordering me about with a wave of her finger was not a trivial matter for me.
There are marriages that last a long time despite constant bickering over such mannerisms, or in some cases because of them. Some people feed on anger and fighting. Not me. And definitely not Laura. She could not bear my tendency to talk loudly. I wasn’t angry, just trying to make myself heard over six other siblings. For Laura, loud meant angry. For 15 years, she lived with frequent reminders to me to lower the volume.
During the first phase of her illness, Laura stayed home from work from mid-August until mid-March. I was working. Anne Mei was going to school. Our miniature poodle, Toto, became Laura’s constant companion. Toto had been used to staying at home while we were all away at work or school. Now she liked the constant attention and craved more. If Laura sat at the kitchen table to look at the paper or to eat, Toto would come up and put her legs and head in Laura’s lap to get Laura to pet her, hold her, or play with her.
This is when I realized that Laura’s index finger was still quite active. As soon as Toto put her paws on Laura, Laura held her hand over Toto and darted her index finger towards the floor. “Down!” Toto learned quickly that she’d better get down.
Later in this same first phase, Laura completed six weeks of radiation treatment. Particularly in the last week, her brain was blasted with increasing doses of radiation. She would come home from treatment nauseous and with splitting headaches. We had many friends and colleagues who were driving her into Philadelphia for her treatment. With increasing frequency they called me to come home from work because they didn’t want to leave Laura alone. In the last days of the regimen, I just planned on coming home to stay with her. Laura could only lie in bed. Some days she couldn’t speak at all. But she still had her index finger. However weakly, she would point towards her temple to tell me where she was hurting. Or point to her lips for something to drink.
A little more than a year later, in Laura’s last month of life, she was again confined to bed unable to move or to speak. She slept most of the time. But at times that index finger would creep out from under her covers and point to her lips. I would give her some ice to suck or some applesauce or yogurt to eat. When she’d had enough, that index finger moved, slightly, just a flick, but with that same commanding manner, to tell me to stop.
On the Sunday afternoon before she died, Laura had been in bed continuously for more than a week. To control her pain she was already on a fentanyl patch and regular doses of Percocet. She couldn’t talk. But her face became contorted. She started moaning. Her trembling index finger worked its way out from under the covers, vaguely pointing at her temple. More Percocet made no difference so I called the hospice nurse’s emergency number. We could start her on morphine. I used a dropper to measure out the dose. I squirted it into her mouth between gum and cheek. Soon, the contortions on her face finally eased. She let me put the index finger back under the covers.
Two days before she died, Laura stopped eating and drinking. Her index finger stayed under the covers.