Column: Advice From Beyond

By Susan Parker
Tuesday October 24, 2006

The Alta Bates Emergency Room doctor gave Ralph 24 hours to live. An attendant wheeled Ralph, in a hospital bed, into the East Wing of ICU. The admitting doctor said Ralph probably wouldn’t make it through the night.  

Ralph’s eyes were open and he was struggling to breathe, but he wasn’t aware of my presence. “Take care of yourself,” everyone said, so I went home and lay down on the couch. The nursing staff promised to contact me if things got worse.  

At 11 p.m. they called and I went back to the hospital. I walked the six flights up to ICU, rang the security buzzer for admittance, sat beside Ralph’s bed for three hours and told him all the things I needed to say. He kept breathing, and his blood pressure rose. “Go home,” said the staff. “He’s gotten a little better.”  

Saturday went by and then Sunday. On Monday morning the doctors said they wanted to give Ralph a blood transfusion.  

I okayed the procedure, but issued a warning: “The last time Ralph had a transfusion, he almost got up and mowed the lawn. Be prepared for him to complain about food and cable TV.”  

“Your husband’s heart rate is dangerously high,” they said. “The transfusion could make him more comfortable, but the odds are 50/50 he’ll survive.”  

They didn’t know Ralph. By Tuesday he was asking for the sports page and preparing to watch the A’s on TV. The oxygen mask was removed from his face, revealing a huge, angry sore where the plastic edges had dug into his nose. He had a large black and blue mark on his neck caused by life saving measures in the ambulance. I couldn’t bear to pull down the sheet that covered the rest of his body.  

Late Tuesday night Ralph started to go down hill again. Wednesday morning Doctor Peterson said that Ralph would last only another 24 hours.  

Forty-eight hours went by before Ralph finally called it quits.  

But 26 days have passed and he still seems present. An autographed photo of Sandy Koufax arrived just the other day, an E-Bay purchase Ralph had secretly made when I wasn’t paying attention. Another package arrived soon after, a photograph of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, a small boy hoisted between them, all three smiling joyfully into the camera lens.  

Now comes the bills and the paperwork, the phone calls and the out-of-town guests, followed by cleaning and purging and a Social Security mess. I call the wheelchair people and tell them they are two weeks late on their follow-up appointment and the man who used the chair no longer needs it. Within record-breaking time someone returns my call and makes arrangements to pick up the chair. I wait around the house for hours but no one arrives. “Come get it now,” I shout angrily into the phone several days later, and they finally do.  

Funeral arrangements are made, credit card and bank accounts closed. The cell phone company needs an official death certificate in order to cancel our joint account. I’m not penalized for the closure, but I have to open a new one for myself, no breaks on the start-up fees.  

The Kaiser psychiatry department calls and explains they’ve gone through my records and notice that I haven’t seen a psychiatrist in over 10 years. Technically, they say, I shouldn’t be getting a prescription for anti-depressants without a yearly check-up. “You need to make an appointment ASAP before the prescription runs out,” they inform me. But the first appointment isn’t available until mid-January, and a quick glance at the pill bottle tells me I’ll need a refill long before then. “Can I get an extension until the appointment?” I ask. “No,” says the woman on the other end. “You can’t.”  

I decide not to argue with her. I can hear Ralph whispering in my ear. “You don’t need those damn pills anymore,” he says. I wonder what he’ll be telling me next.