Our first date was the last day of his life
When we met online, it was as if we’d known each other forever. Then came the tragedy I’ll never forget
A photo of Yves.
I woke up when Yves thrust himself off the mattress. “My head is killing me,” he said. “I’m going to take some more Tylenol.”
I heard him open the cabinet door, turn on the water as if pouring himself a drink. Then a loud bang startled me from bed.
Yves slumped on the floor, his back against the wall, his side against the bathtub. Tylenol was scattered on the tiles.
“Help me stand up,” he said. But when I wrapped my arm around his waist and pulled him toward me, we both fell forward, my back hitting the vanity as I struggled to cushion him from the fall. His eyes fluttered. He was clearly in pain.
“I think we should call a doctor,” I said.
“No, no,” he said. “I just need to get back to bed. Give me a minute.” Then he closed his eyes.
“Yves,” I said. No response.
I sat beside him, stroking his back, letting him know that he was not alone, while we waited for the ambulance. I had only met Yves in person that day. But it felt like we had known each other for a lifetime.
I’m not sure what made me get in touch with Yves when I saw him on Salon personals. How can we untangle the mysterious calculus that is attraction? I liked how he playfully listed the languages he spoke as “French, English, and Body Language.” I liked the description of the woman he was seeking: “sensualist a must. a self-confident goddess too. a mermaid is also welcomed.”
I’m sure other women looked at his profile and thought “nope.” But I read it and saw a kindred spirit. He lived in Montreal, and I could tell from the way he wrote that he was Quebecois. I liked the idea of the two of us communicating in two languages. “This online dating thing is well ? difficult,” he e-mailed me early on. “And I’m a bit ‘clutsty’ at it.”
It was the “clutsty” that clenched my heart.
E-mails turned into phone calls that went way past my bedtime. Each time we talked, we seemed to find another point of connection. His desire to live in a big house out in the countryside, “somewhere the leaves would crunch under my feet when I walk with my love” (I owned such a house). Our intense devotion to our daughters, our aspirations that they grow up strong and independent and fierce. Rrrrriot grrrls, he called them.
The approaching weekend was Veteran’s Day, and after much haggling about where to meet, sleeping arrangements, who would pay for what, we agreed on a plan. I would drive to Montreal to meet someone who already felt like a part of me.
I’ve never gotten over my apprehension about meeting in person: It doesn’t matter how much communication you have with someone via e-mail or phone. Physical chemistry will not be denied.
And what did I see? A man who looked much younger than his 43 years. A dark man — his hair charcoal, his eyes almost black but welcoming and open. He was smiling, and the only thing I wasn’t expecting was that his teeth were crooked — in every photo he had sent me, his mouth had been closed, but after the initial reaction of “I haven’t seen this before,” I almost immediately forgot it.
I had dressed carefully: black hip-hugger pants and thick-heeled boots that gave me a little height, a scarlet camisole and a cardigan. It was unseasonably warm for November. As we were climbing the stairs to his apartment, Yves was behind me, and he made some comment about enjoying the view as I mounted the stairs. I didn’t take offense. I was already feeling a buzz from him, too.
We sat on the couch and began to talk. I turned my body toward his, one of my knees pulled up on the couch. We talked about what to do with the afternoon. He had not had time to go shopping for food, so we decided to take a trip to the market to pick up groceries. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, and when I came out, he was standing in the middle of the living room. I walked toward him, and he pulled me near and kissed me.
We kissed as if we were drowning. I threw my cardigan on the floor, unzipped my boots, kicked them off. Everywhere his hands touched, his mouth followed.
“Do you think we’re going too fast?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “But I don’t want to stop.” He picked me up and carried me to his bed.
I know the difference between lust and love. I’ve had more than my share of sex dates in my life, dates in which I know the only thing I’m after is mutual pleasure. I knew what was happening between Yves and me in that bed was something far different. And he knew it, too. Yves had been alone for two years, had not gone on a single date since his divorce.
“I think I’ve won the lottery,” he said.
“How did this happen?” we kept asking.
I was breathless with happiness. As the sun went down, and my stomach started to rumble, we set out for the market. We had only walked a couple of blocks when Yves made a slight change in direction.
“That’s my daughter,” Yves said.
We stopped in front of a stroller and the woman pushing it. The little girl clambered out. “Papa,” she said, and Yves crouched down so that they could hug each other. Speaking Quebecois, she displayed her banana popsicle triumphantly.
Yves spoke to his ex-wife, and then introduced me. We said “hello” to one another, and then Yves gave his daughter a big squeeze and told her that he’d see her soon.
Yves beamed as we walked away. “Running into my daughter has made my day even more perfect,” he said. “She is everything to me.” He and his ex-wife had been having some issues; he had not seen his daughter for two weeks.
Earlier in the afternoon he had mentioned feeling a little off. He also said, maybe about 4 o’clock, that he had a mild headache. So it didn’t seem strange to me when he asked to skip the market and head home.
We were kissing by the time we got in the front door. But I insisted that he take some Tylenol, and go lie on the bed. He did as he was told, took off his shoes, and lay down on his stomach. I wanted to make him feel better. I began to knead his shoulders and his upper back. I stroked his scalp, too, and he relaxed under my hands.
“Lorraine,” he said, “I’m really sorry, but I think I want to take a nap for a while. Would that be OK with you?”
I dug around in my bag for the book of Yehuda Amichai poetry I had brought with me. He came back to bed, and he tucked his head next to mine, closed his eyes as I began to read to him. I stroked his hair, kissed the top of his head, held him as he drifted off to sleep, his legs wrapped around mine. I read for a while before dozing off beside him. That’s when Yves woke me up. That’s when I called the ambulance.
Yves was quiet, although he had begun to seize. His legs were shaking. Even though I knew he wasn’t cold, I bundled him up in the duvet, told him that help was on the way. By then, I knew this was not a headache or a migraine; I somehow intuited it was an aneurysm. His breath was raspy and gargled, and I slowed down my breathing, hoping to set a rhythm he could imitate, as though he were a child and I was trying to teach him a hand-clap game.
Death was coming. I could sense it in the room. But I also felt something comforting, too. Something that told me that I could do this, that I could help Yves ease from this life to whatever was to follow. I had always thought I’d be a panicked mess in a moment like this, but all I felt was stillness. It was like watching a home movie of someone I recognized as me but didn’t know.
I’m not sure how long it was before the medics finally arrived. Time is fluid in extraordinary circumstances. How long is a minute when someone’s life is draining away? How long is an hour when you’re making love? How long was the week that Yves and I knew each other?
The ambulance crew loaded Yves onto a gurney, pointed a flashlight in his eyes. I heard one of them say to the other that his pupils were fixed. I knew what that meant: Serious brain injury.
Inside the E.R. the tobacco-stained light frightened me. I was numbed out and hyper-vigilant at once, waiting for some word, any word about what was wrong with Yves. Two young interns came out and explained that Yves had been put on a respirator, that I couldn’t see him. I felt Yves’ apartment keys in my pocket and went home.
Alone in Yves’ apartment, alone in his bed, I stripped down to my camisole and panties. I clutched his pillow to my face, smelling him there. The call came at 2:32 a.m.
“Is this Lorraine?”
“I’m afraid I have some bad news. The MRI revealed a massive brain bleed.” He was slipping away. “Do you know how we may contact his family?”
Once again, I became still. How could I tell her that I didn’t know Yves’ family, didn’t have a clue how to reach them? And then I remembered his cellphone sitting on the kitchen table. I fumbled through the address book until I found what I recognized as the name for his ex-wife. I gave it to the nurse and asked her to pass on my phone number to the family.
I lay in the bed, the light on the floor glaring up at me. The book of poetry I had read to Yves before he dropped off to sleep was beside it. I made a cocoon of the sheet from the bed, buried my head underneath it. I still felt nothing.
Shortly before 7 a.m., the phone rang again. It was Yves’ ex-wife. She was at the hospital with Yves’ mom, dad and best friend. She wanted me to come.
“I’m so sorry I couldn’t have done more,” I said over and over again, when I came to join them at the hospital. Yves’ mouth was covered by a plug, and unlike the panting that I had heard coming from him before, his breaths now were normal, peaceful. His skin tone was beautiful: He was a luminous pink.
Someone gave me a hug. Told me I had done everything that could have been done. And then someone explained to me that the doctors said there was nothing to be done for Yves. That even if he were to wake up from his coma, he would be “comme un haricot.” And I remembered noticing that where we say “vegetable,” they say “bean.”
The room emptied, and I was granted some alone time with Yves. I wanted to kiss him. But the medical-green plastic tube in his mouth blocked access. He had tubes in his arms, too, and I was afraid to touch him for fear of knocking something loose. So I leaned over the bed and I kissed his hand. It was warm. It didn’t feel like cold, about-to-die flesh. It felt vibrant.
How does anyone prepare themselves for a moment such as this? What is the right thing to say to someone when it’s the last thing that he’ll hear from your lips?
I suppose gratitude was an odd emotion to have at that moment, but Yves had shown me something I had never before understood. Death terrifies me. And yet, as Yves lay dying, I felt privileged to be with him. I was going to miss him, the possibility of us. But I also knew that all that fear had been taken from me. He had needed me to be with him that night as much as I had needed to bear witness.
I whispered to him, “Thank you.” I told him that his daughters would thrive and be loved. I told him not to be afraid. I told him, “Goodbye.”
I left the room and did not return. I wanted Yves to be with his family when the respirator was turned off. I had given Yves everything that I could, and now, it was time for me to learn to live with everything he had left to me.
Lorraine Berry blogs on Open Salon as fingerlakeswanderer. She has recently completed a book-length memoir manuscript.