ERNIE AND ERNESTINA: The Writer, His Wife, and their Afterlife

Book One, Part Two, Chapter 29: Tears

Judy’s dressed in jeans and a black V-neck sweater. Her short hair is Ernie’s bright white. She leads me to a room on the second floor.

“Where do I sit?” I ask, looking at a gray sofa and two gray armchairs.

“Wherever you sit, I’ll be next to you.”

As soon as I take a seat on the sofa, tears drip down my cheeks. “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. So much for promises.”

Judy, in the armchair nearest me, hands me a box of tissues. “It’s okay. We can cry here.”

What disturbs me the most is my failure to respond to Ernie’s cries of pain. He told me four years ago that the fight had gone out of him. I knew he was getting older. I told myself that his death was coming, that it was inevitable. I thought I needed to steel myself for it. I thought I needed to make sure I could function on my own. I didn’t want him to worry about what would happen to me after he died. All this makes me sick now. He lived with bladder cancer for four years. How much longer do you think he would have lived had the tumor been removed when it first showed up?”

“Was he going to a doctor?” Judy asks. Her voice is soft.

“Sometimes twice in a month. He was getting so anxious. He called his urologist a lot. Tests for bladder cancer were coming back positive, but the urologist didn’t tell us this. Instead, he put in a stent. Then he blamed Ernie’s pain on either the stent or a urinary-tract infection. Ernie’s fatal mistake was to trust this doctor. But he liked the man’s gentle touch and the way he always seemed to listen to him. This doctor let Ernie down, and I let Ernie down. I didn’t fight for him. I didn’t protect or defend him.”

“You did the best you could at the time.”

“My best wasn’t good enough to save Ernie. Why couldn’t I know then what I know now? He was in tremendous pain, and I dismissed it or ignored it or ran away from it. When we finally did act, it was too late. All our heroics. Getting Ernie to Indianapolis for the radical surgery. Too late.”

I suddenly remember what Ernie used to tell me back in our race-track days. You always know the winner of a race after it’s over, Ernestina. That doesn’t count.

“Sometimes we need to experience something to know something,” Judy says. “You’ve never experienced death or dying before.”

“Ernie’s father died. My father died. His mother died. My mother died. Merlin ran away. I didn’t feel much of anything. I never even cried.”

Tears sting my eyes and slide down my cheeks. I brush them away. More tears come. They won’t stop.

My writer husband’s favorite nickname for me was Ernestina, so in this 3-book memoir, he is Ernie. This is his story, our story, and my story. I invite you in.