EARLIER IN THE WEEK, they made plans to visit a winery that frequently hosted music events. Sharing mutual enjoyment for wine excursions, Mag and Drew had visited Santa Rosa’s L’uva Bella Estate in the past, but never for an outdoor concert. Since the winery welcomed dogs, Popper would enjoy the day with them. According to L’uva Bella’s website, an entertainment stage behind their main building, overlooked the vineyard. And a buffet of hors-d’oeuvres with wine tasting stations scattered the area grounds, promoting L’uva Bella’s premier varietals and types.
At 9 a.m. they packed the car with lawn chairs and enough clothes to keep them comfortable on a sunny September day. Next, they loaded Popper’s essentials. His food. Water bowl. Personalized blanket. Finally, they set off.
Approaching the mouth of San Francisco’s Bay, morning fog enveloped the Golden Gate Bridge like billows of avalanching snow. Funneling between crevices of clouds. Disappearing across waters swarmed with sailboats, dispersed kayakers, and the occasional freighter creeping by. The bridge walkway teamed with weekend exercisers, weaving obstacles of vacationing bicyclists and walking tourists. The latter, ogling and posing every few feet for group selfies. Mag had crossed the bridge countless times. Each traversion encouraging serenity and meditation.
Anticipating a worry-free day of indulgence with Popper and Drew, she turned and glanced at her dog. Reminiscing on his ability to smile -the way dogs do- whenever a stranger cradled his jowls in their palms. They spoke to him as if he were an infant, cooing… “Awww. He’s so beautiful,” while Mag stood beside him like a mother. Doting. Proud of her accomplishment.
FOR FIVE YEARS, THEY TRIED AND FAILED to conceive a child.
Wondering… are we having intercourse at the right time in the fertility cycle?
Debating… maybe there’s a problem with eggs?
Surmising… maybe the issue is sperm?
Upon visiting a fertility doctor, each concern was removed from the list.
They were having sex at the right time in Mag’s fertility cycle.
Mag’s eggs were fertile.
Drew’s sperm count was in ‘expected’ range.
Two months later, Drew surmised the reason for their difficulty might be Mag’s stress; an accusation Mag resisted fighting at the time. Since one year into marriage, stress reared its ugly head.
LOUNGING IN THEIR APARTMENT, nearing bedtime. She felt a jagged pain in her abdomen. Having experienced mild abdominal discomfort ever since arriving in the United States, Mag usually treated it with over-the-counter medicine. But this sensation was different. Its pain more severe.
She ingested Tylenol. But an hour later, the pain multiplied.
Witnessing her distress, Drew demanded they visit the Emergency Room. Checking-in, Mag’s condition worsened. She panicked. Shaking. Imagining the worst… maybe I have cancer? Or some strange disease no one’s ever heard of?
Pale and weak. She whispered to Drew, quivering,
“I feel like I’m dying.”
They’d traveled to the Emergency Room, checked-in, and waited for assistance; only to be ignored by hospital staff for what seemed an eternity. That’s enough!… Drew stood, confronting the ER attendant, “This is taking too long! My wife’s in pain! She needs to see a doctor right now!”
The attendant gazed at him, “Sir. The Emergency Room has limited staff. As a result, we prioritize attention toward life-threatening conditions first. Please have a seat and…”
Drew’s voice raised, “Listen! I don’t care how you get it done, but I’m gonna keep requesting a doctor until we get one!” He angled toward Mag and waved in her direction,
“Look at her!”
She bent over, swaying back and forth in pain. All conversation ceased. Everyone in the Emergency Room staring at her. Drew slowed his words, enunciating precisely,
“Her condition is severe! And when it becomes life-threatening, I’m holding this hospital legally responsible for making us wait!”
“Sir. Like I said. We’re attending to…”
“For God’s sake!” He scanned faces in the ER and yelled,
“Someone! Get her a doctor. Please!”
A nurse guided them to a private room, checking Mag’s blood pressure and heart rate. By the time a doctor arrived, Mag was incapable of responding to questions.
“When did this pain begin? Is it constant? Do you suffer from ulcers? Have you had appendicitis?” She pressed her hands against Mag’s abdomen, noting unusual rigidity. After ten minutes of additional questions, the doctor consulted Drew. Admitting, “At this stage, I can’t’ diagnose the issue with one hundred percent certainty. However, it’s possible your wife is suffering from appendicitis. Or a perforated ulcer.”
Drew approved the commencement of an X-ray and upon completion, the doctor confirmed Mag’s diagnosis, “She’s suffering from a perforated peptic ulcer. If unresolved, it will likely worsen and lead to life-threatening complications. With your permission, I recommend immediate surgery.”
An emergency laparotomy allowed a surgeon to close the perforation and Drew informed Mag’s parents of the ordeal. It would be hours before they arrived, but what impressed Mag was his attentiveness to her needs. Drew watched everyone and everything like a hawk. Monitoring the nurses during surgery preparation. Asking progressive questions about the procedure. Constantly reassuring Mag,
“Everything’s going to be fine.”
By the time it was over, she’d gained new appreciation of Drew’s affection. Having witnessed an empathetic ‘take-charge’ side of him, Mag never knew existed. But… two days after her release from the hospital, his unconditional caring and affection had changed.
Interrogating her, he asked, “How did you get an ulcer? What are you doing that caused it?” Scouring the internet, he created a spreadsheet. Researching ulcers and symptoms. Relating causes to symptoms. Causes to cures. For three weeks he crafted a master thesis, targeting Mag’s case. Upon completion, he determined the cause of Mag’s perforation was her inability to control stress. He suggested it to their Surgeon during a post-operative check-up and the doctor informed them both, “There’s no way to assign stress as the definitive cause for the perforation. There’s also no way to rule stress out as a contributing factor.” This exception gave all the wiggle room Drew needed to plead his case. He was certain, Mag’s inability to control her stress was the definitive reason behind her life-threatening ulcer.
Years later, during their failed pregnancy attempts, Drew hypothesized similarly, “The reason we’re unable to have children is because of your stress.”
Arriving at L’uva Bella, they entered the winery grounds in the midst of live jazz. The front of stage area was uncrowded, making it easy to claim a spot on the lawn. Visiting a tasting tent, they sampled wines and purchased a 2000 Pinot Noir, and 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon. Fifteen minutes later an empty bottle of Pinot lay beside their blanket as the familiar sensation of alcohol eased into Mag’s afternoon.
“How is your dad doing?” she asked.
Grimacing, Drew gulped a mouthful of Cab, “Not very good.”
Placing her wineglass in a holder, Mag picked up her plate and queried… what should I eat, “Why? What happened?”
“I told you, he and my mom opted for a mixture of targeted and immuno-therapy, right?” “Because he doesn’t want radiation therapy?”
“Yeah. Well, now he’s having problems with the mixed therapy.”
“Worse problems than being disoriented?”
“Way worse.” He picked up a sesame cracker and spread brie on its surface, taking a bite, “Last time I spoke with her, she said my dad accused her of cheating on him.”
Mag’s eyes opened wide, “Why did he do that?!”
“Because the drugs are messing with his head, I guess. Or maybe the dosage isn’t correct? I don’t know! But I feel really bad for my mom.”
“I don’t understand. How did he accuse her?” Drew’s face scrunched, “What do you mean, how? He did it from out of the blue. From nowhere! Ever since he started therapy, he accused her of all kinds of things. First, he claimed she was talking about him behind his back. That was the first time Mom noticed something was wrong. She had no clue what he was talking about. Then last week he accused her of looking forward to his death. He said, she wanted him to die, so she could take his insurance and retirement money.”
Mag’s eyes rolled, “Oh, my God.”
“It gets worse. After that, he accused her of wanting to share the insurance money with her boyfriend so they could have sex in my parent’s bed!”
Drew leaned in close, “My mother doesn’t have a boyfriend! She never did. Dad’s sixty-seven years old. Mom’s sixty-four. They’ve been married for more than forty years! None of this makes sense. Why the hell would he think she’s cheating on him all-of-a-sudden!?”
Drinking slow sips of Cabernet, he refilled their glasses and the band’s saxophonist crescendo’d. Soloing. A cascade of notes amid audience applause. Drew grabbed a crab roll, nibbling it slowly, “You know the worst part isn’t that my dad accused my mom of cheating. The medication’s messing with his head. He doesn’t know what he’s saying.” His eyes filled with tears, spilling, “The worst thing is, when Mom told me this; she was crying. It took all her strength to explain the story without falling apart. I could feel her shaking through the phone.”
Mag placed her hand on his knee, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.” He wiped tears with the palms of both hands, “It’s the whole situation. I feel horrible for what my mom’s going through. And she’s handling it alone! She’s living in a nightmare.”
Unsure how to respond, Mag fidgeted with her wine glass. Rubbing her fingernail along the stem. She removed her hand from Drew’s knee and turned toward Popper. His head wedged between her knees. She patted it while Drew gazed at the band, “If I ever have inoperable cancer, I don’t want things to drag out for me. I hate seeing what this is doing to my parents. I’d rather have the doctor give me a pill or injection. Something that makes it all end.” Shoulder shrugging, he shook his head, “And that’s the one thing doctors can’t legally do! Sure they can make a horrible condition drag on forever, but they can’t end things when it’s hopeless? I don’t understand that.”
“Yeah. I’d want the same thing too.”
Midday passing. They discussed life. Old age, and the finality of death. Mag’s alcoholic buzz lost allure. The music of the band an afterthought, faded. Revealing. Reality. Somberness. Clouding her day.
DRIVING HOME, DREW PEERED AT THE ROAD. Thoughts focused on his mom, “I’m gonna visit Pittsburgh in a few weeks and stay with my mom. I’m not sure how long I’ll stay.”
“We don’t know how much time my dad has left. I mean… my brother, my sister, and I don’t know. If I’m there to support her, it’ll help a lot.”
“I think so too.”
His lips tightened, “Molly and Alex aren’t doing enough to help Mom.”
Coddled as a child. The youngest of three. He experienced pain and she relieved it. He vocalized desire and she satisfied it. When his dad threatened him, she protected him. Always.
Sitting next to Mag, he imagined the kindness of his mother… I have to return the favor.