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On a moonless summer night my husband fell nine feet from a sleeping loft to the floor and did not die.
He did not die, though he was seventy-five years old and the accident happened in a remote seaside cabin inaccessible by road, on a Maine coastal island that has no doctor on call, much less a hospital.
He did not die, though X-rays taken several hours later showed that he had broken most of his ribs and both feet; punctured both lungs, causing perilous internal bleeding; and suffered so many blood clots in his brain that each CAT scan of that precious organ resembled an elaborate filigree.
He did not die, though my neighbor’s husband fell from a tree and died in a week, and my doctor’s father fell from his roof and died in a day.
How did it happen, that near-fatal fall which he somehow survived? What mysterious combination of mistakes and miracles? He can’t remember it, and I, no matter how indelibly the details of that night are branded on my mind, still can’t fathom it.
Like everyone over a certain age, I sensed that some dreadful thing was coming, the more ominous for not knowing what form it would take or when it would come or whether, when it finally arrived, I would rise to the challenge or succumb.
Every couple who stays together long enough has intimations that a catastrophe is waiting; it’s right there in the wedding vows: For better and for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part. Having taken the oath, however cavalierly, you know that unless you separate, one of you is going to wind up taking care of the other, or one of you is going to wind up surviving the other. But which one it will be, when it will happen, how long it will last, and at what cost is unknown, though the odds predict that she will take care of him, then he will die, leaving her alone. But like a curse in a fairy tale, you don’t really believe it’s coming; you try to ignore it until it’s upon you. In the enchantment of life, you forget.
Middle of the night, July 22, 2004. Many hours earlier, we’d left the great island of Manhattan for the small island of Long in Casco Bay, Maine, where we have a summer place. In two backpacks and a wheeled suitcase we’d lugged some basic supplies and everything we’d need for a couple of months of work: I, my laptop and a draft of a short novel to polish; Scott, plans for a new set of sculptures.
After an all-day bus ride from Manhattan to Boston and from Boston on to Portland, then an hour’s ferry ride to the island, and, with our gear on our backs, a twenty-minute walk from where the road dead-ends at the ocean across a long beach to our house, we were pretty exhausted. Especially Scott, whose stamina has been waning for some time.
First mistake: to have taken the bus instead of flying.
By the time we reached the island, it was already late afternoon. Our nearest neighbors and closest island friends, Heather Lewis and Norm Fruchter, who, like us, live in New York in the winter, met our boat at the wharf and drove us in their truck to their house, which stands at the end of the road in front of the long beach that leads to our house. “Why don’t you come back here and have dinner with us? You don’t want to start cooking now,” Heather said as we started across the beach with our gear. I couldn’t figure out which would be more tiring: to rustle up a makeshift meal at home or walk back across the beach to Heather and Norm’s. I said I’d call her later and let her know.
As Scott and I began to unpack and attend to the essential chores of opening our house for the summer — lighting the small propane fridge; priming the pump that draws water from the rain barrel beneath the deck; checking the propane-powered gas lamps; sweeping away the winter’s mouse droppings; putting a roll of toilet paper out in the privy; and turning on the solar system I use to charge my laptop, printer, and cell phone in the separate studio Scott built for me — Heather’s invitation became increasingly attractive. When we took a break from our labors I called her on my cell phone to say we’d be over in an hour, and after washing up and changing clothes, we walked back across the long beach to their house.
Second mistake: we should have stayed home, eaten bread and peanut butter, and gone straight to bed instead.
Eating Heather’s delicious lasagna, catching up on island gossip, watching the sky take on the glow of sunset as we sipped wine (third mistake: allowing Scott half a glass, forbidden because it clashes with his meds) — I could have stayed for hours being cared for and amused at Heather’s table; it was a perfect transition from the dense throb of Manhattan to our quiet island life. Over dessert, Scott leaned across to me and whispered that it was time to go home. “But we haven’t finished our coffee,” I said, and turned back to hear the end of a funny story.
Fourth mistake: I should have heeded the distress signal and left immediately.
At least another fifteen minutes passed before Scott, uncharacteristically, stood up, insisting that we leave at once, and I finally got the message.
We had barely started the trek across the beach toward home when he began to complain of feeling weak and cold — so cold that his teeth were actually chattering. I suggested that we return to our friends’ house, which unlike ours has all the traditional amenities and comforts, and take them up on their standing offer to spend the night. A fog was rolling in, and though it was mid-July, there was a chill in the air. Why push it? Ever since he’d survived an aortic aneurysm a dozen years before, I’d felt protective of him, taking seriously each odd symptom. But he refused to turn back, even after some urging, so I took his arm and we pressed on.
Fifth mistake: I should have insisted that we turn back instead of crossing the long beach for the third time that day.