The White Line

Isabel Bearman Bucher

© Copyright 2003 by Isabel Bearman Bucher


Isabel with her daughter, Shauna.

Sometimes an experience changes us forever. Life falls to the right or left of the white line it paints right down the center of your life.

When I was 39 years-old, my husband had a routine dye test to check his shortness of breath and stomach indigestion. No one could have possibly known how sick he was because he had just turned 42 and was a young father of two daughters, five and nine. The test that day started a massive heart attack. I raced down a tiled hall beside his Gurney shouting into his blue face to stay alive. He was sitting up, leaning on one elbow fighting for life and breath. Our hands broke apart as he disappeared with four doctors through double doors to emergency surgery. When those doors slammed shut I experienced the loneliest, most bereft moment of my life.

LeRoy was a popular and well known sports editor for our state's largest newspaper, so his condition was broadcast daily in all the media. Nobody knew from one minute to the next whether he'd make it through whatever day it was. I moved through the days in numb slow motion, trying to keep some semblance of order at home. I made the girls' lunches. I made the beds. I brushed my teeth. I took a bath ... maybe. I came and went to and from the hospital taking the seven flights of stairs to Intensive Care for exercise, but later I realized it was a kind of penance because he was so sick, and I was well. One day at a time. One foot in front of the other. One-hundred- forty steps. Sunrise. Sunset. The phone jangled, letters and cards poured in. People gathered at the hospital and at our home. Dreadfully weak, LeRoy continued having attacks since the nine-hour surgery. I'd find people on my doorstep mornings, on the end of a phone or just sitting in my front yard or on my porch. The neighbors would come walking slowly down their drives and just raise a hand, or put it over their hearts. That gesture was the beginning of the painting job I came call "The White Line" and it ran smack down the center of my soul, my heart and my life. People asked what they could do to help and at first, I just mumbled this or that. One day, I returned to find the entire university football team in my back yard raking, clipping and bagging the fall debris. I vaguely remember telling coach days before that my yard was a mess. The girls were picked up at school by an organized group of women who fed and bathed them, who sat through their homework, who went to school things, because sometimes things were too bad to allow me to leave the hospital. How they knew, I never knew. One desolate, cold November night I returned home and found my next door neighbor, Lorraine, sitting on the couch with our two mutt dogs in her lap.

"They're lonely," she said with a smile, while her hands patted and tops of both their heads. "Everybody always takes care of the girls but the dogs are left."

There was one horrible afternoon when LeRoy was so close to death I could barely breathe because I was now so tuned into his condition. In the midst of the collecting, growing and milling crowd, Sally, a tiny woman, not taller than five feet, elbowed her way to the plastic hospital waiting room couch and sat beside me. She never said a word, and yet my world filled with her immense presence. Her clothes smelled lined dried and starched but they also carried the vague scent of cinnamon graham crackers She reached out with her eyes to mine, but it was her regular and quiet breathing onto which I was able to grasp. Breathing in and breathing out. In. Out. I went on that day on Sally's rising and falling chest. By sundown, LeRoy was rallying, yet another time. His doctors said he was fighting like a tiger with some inner something that was a pure miracle.

Nancy came daily and stitched an ABC border for her baby daughter's room which collected and grew throughout the long days she kept me company - twenty-six individual letters wrapped with vines, strewn with flowers, enclosed in pale blue x's. Somehow her stitching, dependable, patient, so forward going, threw me a lifeline, every time. I'd lost over 20 pounds because the thought of food made me sick. J.D. came bearing an enormous basket of fruit and placed a beautiful yellow, ovoid pear into my hand. I stared down at it, and then, finding I wanted it more than anything in the world at that moment, I began to eat gustily, greedily. Its juice escaped from my mouth and dripped down my arm, trickling off my elbow. Never before, or since, have I tasted such a delicious thing. Next came, piece by piece, a beautiful orange, which he peeled, segmented and cleaned of veins with the care of a surgeon. He cracked nuts under his foot and picked the nut meats out carefully offering them in almost perfect halves. He hand fed me large russet grapes; his snowy, pressed handkerchief wiped my hands and face. Looking into his kind eyes, so obviously happy that his gift was so right, all of a sudden I laughed. Along with that fruit which was then pumping into every capillary I had, his simple acts comforted me as surely as if I'd been lying in a cool river.

I couldn't, wouldn't, was absolutely afraid to cry because I thought if I did, somehow my tears would be throwing in the towel, signaling the death knell for LeRoy and my fortitude. And, what would the girls do if I fell down? In the middle of my street, I reported the day's latest to my neighbor Alice. Alice's face had experienced the big bang, because freckles formed constellations all over it. Her great blue eyes filled, and I watched the water collect and run in streams down those stellar cheeks. Her simple tears washed some part of me that day because I was able to hug and try to comfort her because she was so undone - I could fix Alice.

"I've come all dressed in red!" announced Libby, a few days later, who'd arrived after I'd endured a particularly hard night at the hospital. She was a friend with whom I'd taught before I had the girls. Unable to find the energy to get dressed, I was wrapped in LeRoy's old blue terry robe and looked so terrible, she gasped, then held out her arms. I fell into those thin, old sticks, and she held me up as the tears that I had been desperately hanging onto broke the flood gates. They spilled off her narrow crimson shoulders and fell to the tile. Somehow that fragile, willing shelf propped me up and oh my, I just let-er-rip.

One evening close to Christmas, Toni, sporting a fat bottom lip, arrived at the hospital with candles, silver, china, a camouflaged bottle of sparkling white wine, her last, hoarded from a trip to Italy, and homemade minestrone. She'd pilfered one last rose from somebody's garden by sneaking over to the living room window and biting it off with her teeth, which explained her swollen lip. She'd called all the women in my life who now gathered round as she set a coffee table in the waiting room fit for a queen. Anybody on Albuquerque, New Mexico's Presbyterian Hospital Floor Seven who could be dragged out of bed that night, by nurses, visiting family or bystanders, paraded by our gathering, smiling, clapping and waving. Her act and our gathering lifted the spirits of the whole floor and mine too. Later we all got in a tight circle and sang "Home On The Range," of all things, which started a floor-wide song jubilee.

LeRoy never came home. His totally wrecked heart could not be fixed although he and his doctors fought a heroic battle. Two months after his surgery, he left this earth at sundown, the first night of Hanukkah, December 18,.1976, speaking his last word "shalom" to his Rabbi.

His bills soared over $100,000 and our bank balance was exactly $84.32, because while LeRoy was an well known journalist, his pay didn't match his renown. Months went by. The finances were worked out because by some miracle, the newspaper had instituted health and life insurance for its employees two weeks before his surgery. The deductible was written off by the hospital. I began the task of rebuilding our lives totally debt free. Social Security widow's benefits allowed me to stay home with the girls.

It was a year before the humanity of that time began to reach me. During countless, grief-stricken nights, I sat up until the wee hours with my dogs on my lap sorting through the opaque, terrible hours of that time, able to listen only to Judy Collins songs. Then, something else began to reach me - faces, eyes, people started walking through the fog into my consciousness. I began to remember all their charity and their compassion - all their simple acts of mercy and of love. That's when the white line blazed true and fine before and straight through me.

It's been many years since LeRoy died. The girls have grown into beautiful, vital young women. I've remarried very happily. But one thing I know - in this world, good is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, and somewhere, somehow, like a beautiful flower, this magnificence of the individual human soul survives through the worst of times, through wars, through terrible mayhem. It plants itself, grows and seeds again and again. It walks on through the smoke of sorrow and holds up a blazing paintbrush full of white paint. I take everlasting comfort in that and return often to the kindnesses of those people whose faces and acts pass before me, yet another time. In those moments of reflection I swell with gratitude for my life and everything in it.

To all those who were with me during those awful hours ... Thank you with all my heart. You changed my life, gave me brush and bucket and made me a painter of one straight white line, just like you.

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