Take Care of Yourself

“Don’t forget to take care of yourself,”
                 they say,
           looking pityingly into my dark circle-ringed eyes.
I see their
But I wonder,
           Do they think
                it was a reminder I needed?
          That it was
               lack of memory
                    that has caused me to spend the last
                           seventeen days
               by his bedside
               at the hospital
                    watching, waiting, worrying
                    eating cafeteria food, drinking cafeteria coffee
         going home only to
                   sleep and shower
         and even then,
                   worried throughout that I am missing something
                  being missed?

“Oh yes!”
                  (I might say.)
                  (I slap my forehead with sudden remembrance.)
“You know, I had the feeling I was forgetting something!”
                  (I shake my head, exasperatedly.)
“Silly me.”
                  (bashful grin)
“Thanks for the reminder. What would I do without you?”

I know that these folks are brimming with
I know that they mean well.
I know that my self-care is
the list
that its letters are
unable to be seen.

I’ve heard about the oxygen masks.
“If you don’t put on your own oxygen mask first, you won’t be able to help your husband with his.”
they say, complete with knowing looks and finger wags.
The store where they sell oxygen masks for caregivers is on the other side of the world.
To get to this store, heaven and earth must first be moved.
                  For they stand in the path
                                    Between here and there.
To move heaven and earth, one needs
Without my oxygen mask, I have none.
Perhaps you see the problem.

Does a teacher leave, mid-spelling test, walking out of the classroom to leave 23 first graders behind, to take a nap?
Does a chef put down her knife in the heart of the dinner rush, leaving to get a massage and a Frappuccino?
Why then am I expected to, commanded to, leave my watch, my position?
It is unthinkable to leave the children or the hungry customers
and yet
I am told to
leave my husband.

“Go to the store where they sell oxygen masks!”
                  they say.
“You need it!”
                  they say.

They’re quite convincing
         and also
I want them to leave me alone.

And so, I go.
I pull myself away from my post, from my love. 
I move heaven and earth to get to the store.
I buy a mask with a gift card someone has pushed into my hand.
I put the mask on
I inhale.

The air feels amazing! Life-giving! Fresh! I realize that I haven’t actually fully inhaled or exhaled in weeks! And now it’s all I want to do! I want to breathe this fresh, clean, hospital-free air…the hospital where my husband is lying…the husband who has no choice but to be there…who cannot decide to “take a break,”…for whom the oxygen mask store is too far for him to travel.

I run.
Back to the hospital.
I take my mask with me.
After all, I’ve already paid for it
I am hoping to hold onto its effects even as I cross back over
heaven and earth.

But by the time I reach the hospital
I realize that I have lost the mask
along the way.
Somewhere between the store and this hospital room,
I dropped it.
I glance behind me, but it is nowhere to be seen.                 

Which makes me wonder as I take my familiar place once again at the bedside:
                  Did that happen?
                  Did I actually leave?
But then I see the doctors’ notes from visits I missed,
Catching me up on test results, procedures scheduled, plans made.
I see the look of relief on my beloved’s face,
As if he’s been holding his breath the entire time I was gone,
worried I wouldn’t return.
I feel the extra fatigue from the trip I’ve just endured
and I realize
                  it happened.
                  I “took care of myself.”
And I wonder,
Why didn’t that work for me?
Why don’t I feel so much better now?

Oh, that’s right.
It’s not part of the job description.