The Sunday Magazine·Personal Essay

Sometimes, it's good to be a nuisance

We think of nuisance as a negative word. In this essay, Ruth Miller of Toronto explains how she discovered a whole new meaning for it, when she heard it uttered at a funeral by her rabbi.
Ruth Miller and her husband Eric. (Submitted by Ruth Miller)

Ruth Miller, special to CBC Radio

When a dear friend died unexpectedly three years ago, leaving her husband a widower, we gathered at the graveside. As the coffin was lowered into the ground, I was startled to hear the rabbi say, "Be a nuisance in his life." She meant, don't forget about this man, pester him, invite him, call him.

Rabbis say many things on many subjects, but to me, this was the most important and profound. And so, I heeded her command. I made sure to invite our widowed friend for dinner. My husband Eric and I continued to attend movies and theatre with him and to include him whenever we could.

Ruth Miller is the author of three picture books for children. (Submitted by Ruth Miller)

I thought about this as I cared for Eric in his last days.

Two years before, I had called my husband Eric the 87-year-old wonder. Good genes, modern medicine and having a wife had kept him going pretty well. He planned to live to be 96 as his mother had, but it was not to be. When he was 88 he got sick. One day, a year after his cancer diagnosis, he was nearing the end.

Eric's hospital bed had been brought into our bedroom a few days before. There were ports for administering medicine in both his arms and one in his abdomen. Despite the oxygen tubes in his nose, his breathing was laboured and no sound came when he tried to talk. But he wasn't in physical pain. He was wearing his favorite sweater over his pyjamas. Though he could take only small sips of water through a straw, the day before he'd drunk half a glass of Ensure — that was encouraging.

That day Eric was sitting up and our teenage granddaughters had come to visit with their little beagle Cocoa, who perched on the bed beside him. We took photos. You could see Eric's smile as his hand rested on Cocoa's back. That was a good day. But this day was different.

For the past several days he'd been hallucinating. When he could still talk, he'd tell me what he'd been seeing. "Old Jewish men," he announced.

"That's because we've been watching Shtisel on Netflix," I told him. We laughed. Shtisel is an Israeli series featuring an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem and Eric and I had been watching an episode each night in bed. He described other hallucinations: people, structures, things in the sky; he'd pull at imaginary objects in the air. None of these visions frightened him. They were just part of his world. "You're imagining things," I said, and he accepted that.

But this day he was pulling a real tube. I was in the kitchen making myself a cup of coffee when I saw the tube from the oxygen concentrator disappearing up the stairs. It meant that Eric was pulling at it.

I dashed to his side and grabbed the length of tube from his hands.

"You can't pull out the oxygen tube, Eric," I said. "You need it to breathe. We're trying to help you," I admonished. "You've got to leave the tube alone."

I realized that in my frustration I was almost shouting at him. He raised his hands as if to say, "All right, I'll do as you say." His eyes were smiling and I calmed down.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, I took his face in my hands.

"Do you want to keep on living?" I asked.

Here was a man who could hardly breathe, who couldn't speak, who couldn't eat, who was moving in and out of a world of illusion. Why did I even think he would reply? But he did. And the answer was a decisive nod of affirmation. Even in his weakened state, even in his diminished, quasi-delusional world, he wanted to live and he told me so.

He left us, quietly, a few days later. We thought perhaps he'd have more time, but two hours after he was given palliative sedation, he took his last breath. He had struggled so to breathe. And then, when the sedation calmed him, his body knew it could let go.

When Eric could still talk, he told our son John, the best thing would be for us to come at him unawares. In a sense, that's what we did. We came at him with palliative sedation. And he could go.

I think often about that leaving. I believe he left us the best possible way. But after nearly 57 years of marriage, he left me alone.

I have always been an independent woman. But it's easy to be independent when there is someone waiting for you at home. Now there is no one waiting for me at home. I've been called freakishly stoic, but there are times when I wonder if my friends and family realize to what extent life does not go on as before. It goes on, but differently. 

My mother was a widow for 30 years. She was an independent woman too; and never once did I feel the burden of her widowhood. Now I worry I didn't call my mother enough when she was alone. I regret that I can't relive those years and be a better daughter. I was a young mother, raising my children, being a wife. I worry that I wasn't a nuisance enough in her life.

I don't want to be anyone's burden. And I don't believe in life after death. But if I did, I'd ask Eric to help me in his quiet way, one more time. "Eric," I'd say, "Give everyone a nudge from wherever you are. Remind them that I am still here, carrying on. And although I am capable and will do my best to live well, tell them please, not to forget me. Tell them that if you were here, there would be no need, but you are not. And there is a need. Tell them, be a nuisance in her life."

Ruth Miller is the author of three picture books for children, all in rhyming text. She is currently working on another picture book.

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