I nicknamed him The Linguist while we were lying in bed, fully clothed and holding hands. It was a sweet moment of tenderness. I think he was getting ready to leave to go teach or travel. Dreams have a way of fuzzing up some of the details, but the intent was clear. He was going, but he would be back and he was looking forward to holding hands again.
I’ve dreamt of The Linguist (he has no other name) a few nights in a row now. He’s not too tall, has black hair with some grey, a short beard. He flips between being biracial Mexican like me and being Asian or some other mix. His most dominant and frequent face has a strong jaw with a big, soft smile and large brown eyes shielded behind glasses. He makes eye contact. No, he thrives on it, often turning my head with his fingertips to face him as we talk. It’s both sweet and unnerving. I find talking to him face to face uncomfortable, since his face changes and morphs in front of me. I keep wanting to tell him to stay put, to pick one face and stick with it, but I don’t want to be rude. Maybe he can’t help it.
In the dreams I am a widow. The Linguist knows this and is kind and sympathetic, though he admits that he has no idea what the depths of my sorrow are actually like. He is The Linguist because he speaks a few languages fluently – Chinese, Spanish, French, Italian, and I think Portuguese. He slips between them all while we talk but I still understand him perfectly.
Nothing terribly romantic or libidinous has occurred in any of my dreams about him. It’s surprisingly chaste, truth be told, where the most physical contact we have is between our hands. It’s a very basic and uncluttered sort of interaction. You never know how many ways you can hold someone’s hand until it becomes the only form of touch you have.
So there you have it. There are a million fragments of things I’m working out in these dreams – intimacy, longing for partnership and love, finding words among myriad tongues to describe what I feel, needing a translator for it all, desiring tenderness most of all — but that last bit with the hand holding is undoubtedly about the days leading up to Steve’s death.
He stopped talking and making eye contact about three days before he died. He had lost control of his eyes and they stayed locked upward, like he was looking at the ceiling behind his head. To make eye contact when I spoke to him, I had to hover above the top of his head, craning my neck so he could see me. He couldn’t react much, but he would blink or make some motion to let me know he knew I was there. Often he’d reach for my hand.
I stayed fully clothed even while sleeping in those final days. There was a steady stream of people coming and going and I wanted to be ready for when I’d start calling people for his final hours. We slept side by side and he would reach for my hand and hold it. He’d squeeze and pull my arm closer to him. His head wouldn’t turn and his body stayed the same, but his hand would do all the talking. I’d inevitably fall asleep and turn this way or that and he would seek out my hand again, pulling me back to face him, even though he couldn’t see me.
That hand was his voice, speaking in the only language he could express. I think about it often, how even in his final moments he knew who I was and made sure I knew this. He knew that was one of my biggest fears, that he would forget me, that the tumor would wipe me out of his memory entirely and he’d have to confront every day with this complete stranger who kept sticking him with needles and making him take foul tasting medicines.
He squeezed my hand in a kind of Morse code. “I’m still here.” “I love you.” “Don’t cry.” “I know.”
The night before he died, he stopped reaching for me. So I reached for him, squeezing back and getting nothing in return. I should have known then that he was about to die but I knew so little about what was about to happen. Hospice tells you a few things to look for, physical signs that indicate death is imminent. None of their advice included this, that he would detach completely and start to float away. It seems obvious now, typing this out. But we had been through so many ups and downs in the previous five months that a part of me felt sure that he might bounce back and start squeezing my hand again.
His breathing changed dramatically the following morning, rattling with deep congestion that wouldn’t respond to the medication we were given. There was a flurry of activity around us — Stephanie corralling the hospice worker, Kristen making a frantic phone call to Larry, other calls, other conversations. I was barely aware of any of it until Larry arrived.
Call it a signal or a sign. When Larry came, Steve started to change. Larry held Steve’s right hand, I crouched on Steve’s left on the bed, holding his hand and stroking his hair, telling him it was ok to go, to let go. Crying my eyes out, of course, but marshaling everything inside me to say the right things to help him let go, to not linger and suffer.
And then he breathed his last. But it wasn’t until his hand relaxed around mine that I realized he had been squeezing it hard the whole time.
You never know how many ways you can hold someone’s hand until it becomes the only form of speech you have.