Nis & Hers: Won't let nobody hurt you

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Husband-and-wife journalists Bob Miller and Callie Clark Miller use this space to offer their views on everyday issues.

SHE SAID

I'd seen those eyes before. Dawson's chocolate-colored orbs, wide even in pain, flitted around the claustrophobia-inspiring room. They were settled on my face as strangers in bright scrubs held him down and inserted a needle under his delicate skin. I knew those eyes. I saw the torment within and the unspoken question. Those accusing eyes never left my face.

The last time I saw that look, it came from a much older set of eyes. To ease the strain of my grandfather's failing physical health, my family purchased am electric recliner in the fall of 2007 -- one that tilted with the touch of a button, lessening the burden of my grandmother lifting him up and down each day. To my proud, pillar-of-strength grandfather, the chair meant one thing: invalid. He fought its presence as strongly as he fought the Parkinson's disease that ravaged first his body and then his mind.

I sat alone with my grandfather in the sitting room of his rural Carter County home while other family members installed the new chair in the living room. He was silent for long moments.

I remember wondering, was it a good day. A day when he knew who I was, who he was, what year it was? Was it a bad day, when my sweet, diminutive grandmother -- his wife of 60 years -- was the devil and there were invisible snakes in the closet?

Then his voice, raw with age and disease, whispered to me. "Please. Please. Help me." Tears rolled from his eyes -- the first and only time I saw him cry. I still don't know what he begged for; if it was even me he pleaded with. Maybe he was just asking God to end his misery; it wouldn't have been the first time. It was nearly the last, though.

He died a few months later on Jan. 9, 2008. My grandmother followed two weeks after. And in his moment of heart-wrenching need, I did what any coward would: I fled the room.

I was just as powerless in that moment as I was last week, felt that same sting of betrayal, as I watched Dawson fighting viral pneumonia in a local emergency room. And in those long moments of pain, I couldn't help feeling like some level of infant innocence left Dawson.

I hope he doesn't remember the answer to the question in his 9-month-old eyes: That, no, momma can't always take the pain away, make everything better. I whisper to him that I can. I sing to him the same part of the Pretenders song "I'll Stand by You" I have been singing to him since before he was born: "Won't let nobody hurt you."

It's a horrible lie. No, maybe he won't remember that 2008 wasn't quite done with the Miller family; the four days in the hospital, the painful needle pricks, the restraining chest X-rays, the high fever and severe ear infection. But I will. It brings out the coward in me, inspires me to flee reality and keep telling the lie -- against all of life's odds.

Callie Clark Miller is the special publications managing editor for the Southeast Missourian. Bob Miller is Southeast Missourian managing editor. Reach them at cmiller@semissourian.com and bmiller@semissourian.com.

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