The Surprising Words My Son Said To My Dying Husband

by Barbara Goldberg
Barbara Goldberg

After 22 years trying to figure out my son Paul, I now know one thing. He completely figured out his parents.

In little more than a year, Paul lost his father — my husband Mark — to prostate cancer on October 6, 2017 and nearly lost his mother — me — when a 4,000-pound SUV slammed into my 100-pound body while I was riding my bike on August 6, 2016.

You may have heard the old proverb that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. In my case, I confess the way to this woman’s heart is through her funny bone. My husband’s sly jokes averted many a potential screaming match in our 27-year marriage. Turning my frowns upside down helped our two kids reach adulthood and kept me free of homicide charges.

So when the weird side effects of my bike crash started to surface — including panic and paranoia — my son Paul knew just how to deal with them. That crash had upended our whole family’s lives just a month after Paul’s 21st birthday. It wasn’t clear at first that I would survive, having suffered a traumatic brain injury, twice broken jaw and multiple other fractures.

When I eventually gained consciousness in a hospital bed and was handed a pad and pen because I had no voice, I drew a question mark to ask what landed me there. I was horrified to learn that my beloved weekly bike ride with my girlfriends had been cut short by a distracted driver who nearly killed me and severely traumatized my family.

Weeks later, I was discharged from a rehab hospital to my family’s care. When it was Paul’s turn to babysit me, he drove me to the grocery store for an escape from the endless confines of our suburban home. On the drive home, the GPS took us on scary, heavily trafficked Route 22 headed toward Newark, New Jersey. As the white-knuckled passenger that I had become since my crash, I urged Paul to drive especially carefully because “I’m really sensitive to traffic now.”

He knew exactly how to respond.

“Mom,” he said, “when you woke up in the hospital, we should have told you that you were attacked by a bear. Then you would be completely comfortable in the car. And you would just freak out when bears come around.” Then he zipped into the passing lane. I swallowed hard, but I also suppressed a giggle, and I felt my fears melt away.

Next came Mark’s horrific struggle with prostate cancer. While I was laid up in the hospital, his oncologist told him he would live no more than two years. Once I was able to return to work, it was only months before Mark became so frail he started home hospice care. Our family shared the nursing shifts, with Paul, his 24-year-old sister Maura, and me each taking two or three days each week as caretaker.

Mark had surprised us by staying in the master bedroom’s high-rise queen bed. We knew it was a matter of principle with him, trying to maintain a shred of normalcy in a life detonated by cancer. But when he fell out of that high bed in the middle of the night and hit his head, risking a fracture since his bones were weakened, we knew it was time for him to move to a lower bed in the nearby guest room.

The problem was, he refused to leave his perch. I tried rational explanations and, when that failed, I begged and pleaded, at first teary-eyed and then angry. This went on for days. He wouldn’t budge. One day, frustrated and fuming, I headed for work and left him in Paul’s care. When I returned home hours later and climbed the stairs, ready to resume battle, something caught my eye as I walked past the guest room headed for the master bedroom. Paul was reading a book, seated in Mark’s wheelchair next to the low bed, where Mark lay resting. I was so relieved and, for a brief moment, I felt happy.

It has been months now since Mark died, and I recently asked Paul how he managed to convince his father to move to that lower bed. I learned that the move itself was excruciating, with Mark losing consciousness and nearly falling to the floor when Paul helped him into the wheelchair to make the 20-foot trip from bed to bed. “But how, Paul, did you persuade your father to get off that master mattress when I tried every conceivable argument and failed?”

Paul’s explanation was brief. He reminded me that throughout his childhood, whenever he or his sister balked at doing something I had requested, Mark always quietly approached them as his teammates in pursuit of a common goal: “Guys, we gotta keep the Mommy happy.” It was them against me under the guise of them for me. Brilliant.

After I left the house for work that day, Paul told me he quietly said to Mark, “Gotta keep the Mommy happy. And you know she’s not going to be happy if you stay in that bed.”

Not another word was needed. Brilliant.