The latest entry on Pilcrow is written by Robert Nortrup. Robert is an engineer and stone sculptor who lives in Frenchtown, NJ. He wrote “The Web” some weeks ago after visiting his sister, Helen, then in hospice. Helen died last week. Robert kindly gave me permission to publish this.
by Robert Nortrup
She’s tired, and has rolled over to take a nap–which can be fifteen minutes or fifteen hours. But in hospice, you’re free to do whatever. When we were young, occasionally my mother would tell me, “Go wake your sister, you’re going to be late for school,”… argh, maybe with a catcher’s mask in case she threw the clock (admittedly, this is much more family lore than truth, but still, it warms me to tell it). But now, for Helen, napping is her right, her day.
Last week, when I was leaving to go home from a visit with Helen, I went out to my car and found a perfectly formed spider web between the car antenna, the window, and the trunk. I have a VW Passat sedan, where the antenna is at the back of the roof just before the back window, and slanting up and back about a foot and a half. She had climbed up there, as high as she could go, and weaved magic in the air while I was inside. And now, I imagined, she was looking at me, wondering–what was next, from this giant shadow of a being, paused before her work. But all I could say was good luck, and hold on.
She tells me her short-term memory is gone, as her gaze wanders off into space, searching for an answer–lost somewhere between the extraction of the tumor in her brain, the follow-up radiation to the head, and the chemo. They tell me that the radiation stopped the growth of the tumors in the brain, and the chemo stopped the tumors in the abdomen and lungs. But nothing seems to have affected the cancer in the liver. When I mention to my friends that it’s in her liver, they just get quiet.
When I get home, after hours of driving, I look, and in the moonlight I see her, huddled down at the base of the antenna. She’s a big one, the web long ago blown away by the long drive. But she’ll find a good home here in Frenchtown, a small New England-ish town nestled on the banks of the Delaware River, an idyllic corner of an otherwise overly abused state, sandwiched between two great cities but possessing neither. The bridge
over the river, with its lights and endless swirling bugs, is spider heaven.
She’s lost all her hair, of course, again–the first time had been during the chemo following the breast cancer surgery. But that time, her hair grew back all fresh and curly. She called it her chemo-hair, and she loved it. But this time, her head is as bare as her arms and feet, cast against the deep blue of her hospital pajamas and the white of her bed linens—with the hum and exhausting huffs from the oxygen machine, the only sounds.
In the morning, Saturday, I walk out to the car for some morning errands, and there she is, sitting at the center of another perfect web, staring back at me, both of us recalling the last time we stood, gazing at each other. This ride wouldn’t be as long as the last, but my first stop was the carwash. I love a clean car, the tires all shiny. It was another beautiful day, with a strikingly blue September sky. She had worked all the cool night through, and if I had risen earlier, would likely have been treated to a dew-adorned web, all fresh and glistening, with her as a waiting star center. But now, I imagined she knew what was coming, there waiting patiently.
They tell me it could be three days, or three months. No telling how long the liver will last, as the cancer inevitably grows. I still see my sister in there, staring back at me, half here, and half there, with both of us knowing. But I can still crack on her, with a joke, as if we had all the time in the world. When she still reaches out to smack me on the arm, now just a hint of a motion, but both still feeling the contact – the smile hanging alive for a moment in her eyes, frozen in my memory from so many years. I’m filled with who she is.
Halfway to the carwash I think of her, out there, hanging on, her web blown away again. And I pull over next to a farmer’s field, and get out. This time she’s way out on the end, as if imagining her exit; we stare one last time. I unscrew the antenna and carry it over to the field, bending down and sweeping her into the grass, and she’s gone, so quickly out of sight–as if she where never there.
She’s still sleeping, the machine still huffing and humming.