Skirting the Surf:
The Beginning of a Marriage
By Joanna E S Campbell
I knit on the plane – a gray and white pattern of soft wool for my husband to be. I picture us wrapped in this blanket made by hand. Circling over Seattle, I see the Space Needle, Puget Sound, the islands, and the downtown cluster of buildings. The land, water, hills, trees, and people seem to join together as a puzzle. I don’t know about the havoc of earthquakes or that Pioneer Square was built on sawdust. There is no room in my mind for considering unforeseen instability. All I can see is a mysterious city by ocean water. My eyes widen as the plane circles closer to the landing strip.
The first time I visited the ocean was on the Alabama gulf coast. I wriggled out of my father’s arms and ran toward the water. I had no fear of the waves or the vast expanse of the ocean. Ecstatic delight filled my child body. Each time I am near seawater, there is a primal sense I am home. There are reoccurring dreams where I am held underwater at the surf. The waves roll me onto the sand continuously. My body is pounded against the coarse grains. Over and over, I am held and thrown by this little womb of water. Eventually, I let go of my need for breath, and realize I can breathe freely underwater. In my letting go, in being carried by this immense power, I am filled with peace. Infinite peace. I am grateful when this dream returns.
Walking through the SeaTac airport, I see Dennis midway on an escalator. At the foot of the stairs, he kneels down on the linoleum and slips a diamond band on my ring finger. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and he is still wearing his clerics. “Yes, I will marry you.” A thought flits through my mind, “How often do priests propose in airports? Will we get in trouble for our red cheeks? Kissing by the conveyor belt?”
The day after I arrive in Seattle, Dennis wakes feeling queasy and weak. We spend the next three days treating what we think is a stomach bug. By the fourth day, the symptoms worsen, and uneasiness seeps into my own body. I watch with uncertainty while he strains for breath, and excruciating pain runs up and down his legs. When Dennis begins to cry out for the pain to end, I call 911.
The paramedics are remarkably calm. Dennis’ blood pressure plummets, and the blue uniformed men act like our long lost buddies. Dennis is naked, having just crawled from the tub. The paramedics tell us that he needs some form of clothing. All I can find is my flannel pajama bottoms dotted with nesting Russian dolls. They slip them on and strap Dennis to a gurney for the ambulance. Cotton mouth strikes, but we can’t give Dennis any fluids. We are little children in this new city by the ocean after midnight. The wee hours of New Year’s Eve.
In his early thirties, the ER doctor has a pierced ear. A tsunami couldn’t sway his gelled spiky hair. He is focused on seconds remaining, rather than minutes, to make decisions. I run to the bathroom. When I return, Dennis is vomiting blood. He is too unstable for transfer to the larger hospital. Tests are done rapidly. It is confirmed: renal and respiratory failure. Septic shock. We are taken upstairs where I sign forms for procedures. Dr. Somebody explains the need. “No, we are not married. I am his fiancée.” This is enough, and a nurse named Josh puts a tube down his throat and a line in his neck. I begin to tremble and cry as I speak with my parents on the phone. It must be 3 a.m. for them. I blame myself. I remember my mother’s words. “That is not God talking.” I feel hands on my shoulders. A nurse with long auburn hair strokes my back and offers me juice. She looks like an angel. I can’t remember her name.
My mom calls a priest we’ve known since I was in elementary school in Arkansas. Andrea lives in Bellingham. Her mother, Dean, worked in the Episcopal gift shop at St. Marks on Mississippi Ave. Every week I walked the mile from The Anthony School to St. Marks for piano and choir lessons. I often arrived early, and Dean took me to the back office for instant soup. I loved feeling the warmth through the Styrofoam cup.
Andrea leaves her two daughters and husband after midnight to make the two-hour drive to Swedish Medical Center on Cherry Hill. When a nurse tells me this is the name of the hospital, I almost don’t believe her. Swedish Cherry Hill? That makes no sense. What is this place?
As I wait for Andrea, I hold Dennis’ hand. A machine breathes for him, and tubes deliver medicine to his heart. Fluids are pumped into his body to keep his blood vessels from collapsing. He swells and doubles in size. Within days, his skin will begin to weep from the fluid overload. I hold Dennis’ hand, and I pray. I pray for God to remove this mysterious illness from his body. To put the illness in me, let him live, let me die. Nothing can tear me from the room. I find myself entering a kind of meditation. A constant undercurrent of prayer. I can feel my whole body work itself to become prayer for Dennis’ wholeness. I am ready to leave this life if it means him living. I am ready to make a deal with God.
Andrea arrives. She teaches me about self-care. She gives me permission to sleep. Brings me yogurt and muffins. We make a quick trip to the rectory for clothing and blankets. I want to bring the blue globe lamp. It was our first purchase together at Metsker Maps in Pike Place. I gather home comforts and begin to settle in on the 2nd floor of the Swedish Cherry Hill ICU. The doctors tell me that Dennis has a MRSA infection. They have no idea how or why.
Raised in the Episcopal Church, I never learned the practice of spoken improvisational prayer. I feel a desperate need to pray aloud, and yet I have no Book of Common Prayer with me. I had only just arrived in Seattle a few days before, and a prayer book was not on my packing list. The irony goes deeper when I realize that Dennis is a priest. He lives in a rectory. We are knee deep in books of spiritual significance, but alas, looking for these does not enter my mind as paramedics carry him out the front door. I intuitively pray through my breathing, through my heart, my spirit, but praying aloud, just making up words as I go along, feels like attempting a foreign language I have no familiarity with.
My mom comes to my rescue. Over the phone, in her soft-spoken voice, she recites prayers from the prayer book. I repeat them over Dennis. I recite the words awkwardly as I only catch every other word. Instead of saying, “What? Can you repeat that?” I speak the words I am able to hear, hoping this is enough, that God can hear me, even in broken prayer.
God…a tent….over your bed
God…support…holy family…God’s spirit
My parents fly out and keep vigil with us for a week. Never am I more grateful for their medical knowledge as physicians, but I still see a stunned confusion in their eyes. We take turns sleeping and eating. On Dennis’ birthday, my mom wishes him birthday blessings each time his eyes flicker. We say happy birthday dozens of times. I read Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems aloud. I make hearts out of cardboard Starbuck’s sleeves. In his twenties, Dennis earned money by repairing upholstered furniture on site. I use the curved needle still tucked in his wallet to create ornaments for his bed. Mom and I knit. She rubs my back. She peers over the shoulder of X-ray technicians while they check Dennis’ heart. Dad introduces me to Pho, which is served weekly in the cafeteria and is the best he’s had since Saigon in the 70s.
I begin to feel gratitude. For this room. These beeping machines and medicine. I hang Dennis’ lucky shirt over the hospital room window. Each time I see the it, I say, “We’re gonna get you in that shirt.”
I play his favorite music – Bruce Cockburn, The Be Good Tanyas, The Flying Burrito Brothers. There is a constant photographic slideshow on my computer. The nurses and doctors need to see Dennis is more than a patient on life support. The nurses say they do not recognize him with his mustache in the pictures. One of my favorite nurses, Karli, later tells Dennis he looks better without his facial hair and he should consider not having a mustache. Early in our stay, a respiratory therapist asks me how important the mustache is. “Oh my, it’s really important,” I say, “He hasn’t shaved it off for over thirty years. Picture Mark Twain with darker hair.”
“Well,” says the therapist, “Come over here and look at this X-ray of Dennis’ chest. You see the tube here going down his throat? Well, it’s not going down correctly and it keeps slipping because of his mustache.”
“Shave it off,” I say with perfect stoicism.
I leave the room to grab a snack in the cafeteria. When I return, Dennis is mustache free, and my mom hands me a surgical glove sealed in a clear biohazard bag. She tells me that when the nurse pulled out the razor, she exclaimed, “Oh, excuse me, ma’am, this is a really important mustache. My daughter would want to hold onto it. Collect it if you can in this glove, so I can give it to her.” I wasn’t in the room to see the nurse’s expression, so I can only wonder.
Another Gulf Coast dream visits often. I am standing at the surf. The water emerald green. I see a dazzling array of seashells through the clear water. I scoop handfuls of perfect conchs, whelks, scallops, moon shells, and sand dollars. My palms are covered in color. I wake filled by abundance.
Dennis’ phone begins to ding with Happy New Year text messages from friends back home. One message comes from his childhood best friend, Wendel. I have heard a few Wendel stories, but in the newness of a whirlwind courtship, the stories hang abstractly in my mind. I know Wendel is someone special, an iconic pillar of strength and steadiness. He and his two brothers grew up in government subsidized housing in Trumann. Their mom barely kept them fed with her paycheck from McDonald’s.
Wendel and I introduce our selves over the phone. Talking with him feels like slipping on a pair of comfortable shoes. It’s easy. I feel like I’m already part of his family. When Wendel says he is ready to get on a plane at a moment’s notice, I say Yes to a person I hardly know. My hope is for Dennis to hear a voice from his childhood, for him to know that he is surrounded by people who love him, that he is not alone. Wendel’s wife, Janis, gives instructions for what he should do when he sees Dennis. “Stand at the bed, and shout him back, need be.”
Wendel arrives at the hospital directly from the airport, hugs me hello, and moves directly to the bedside. He immediately prays aloud unlike anything I have ever witnessed. Wendel and Dennis were raised in the Assembly of God. His prayers sound like poems, and I marvel at his ability to connect with God, to speak freely about healing without having to follow along in a book. I wonder, “A Pentecostal church must be a great place to learn how to pray aloud.” I see the tent of prayers twinkling over Dennis’ bed.
I accept Wendel’s offer to buy me dinner in the cafeteria. Grilled salmon and roasted vegetables. Wendel shakes a sugar packet before emptying it into his iced tea. “Joanna, I don’t know how much Dennis has shared with you about how we grew up. You seem like the kind of person who’s been surrounded by good people. Dennis was such a good friend. I remember going over to his house during the school lunch hour, and he would make me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread. That was often the best food I’d eat for the day.” He goes on.
“I owe so much to Dennis. I’m here because I want to give back to him. If you need me to be in the room and pray, I’ll do that. I’m happy to do that. You also need to know that I’m a doer, and I can do things for the two of you.” It doesn’t take a minute for me to realize how needed his offer is. “Well, Wendel, do you know how to make bed frames? Dennis had plans to build a bed frame but never got around to it. We just have a mattress on the floor, and I don’t think he’ll have the strength to build a frame when he recovers, much less lift himself off the floor.”
“Joanna, I can do that. I can build you a bed.”
Relief and wonder wash over me. I am having dinner with an angel.
The next day, Wendel borrows Dennis’ truck to buy building supplies at Lowe’s. He spends hours measuring, sawing, and assembling the bed frame. The posts alone are massive pine 4x4s. When Wendel returns to the hospital that evening, sawdust still clings to his pants. In the dim light of monitors, Wendel looks down to where I’m sitting. “Joanna, I got it all built. It’s quite something, actually. The blueprint Dennis sketched out was a little hard to understand. You can park a car on this bed. It’s about four feet tall, so you’ll probably need a step ladder for Dennis to climb up.”
“Thank you, Wendel. Thank you so much.”
Just as sudden as the onset of his illness, Dennis turns a corner after four weeks. A respiratory therapist gently coaches him in his breathing for several hours. The therapist’s willingness to commit this amount of time feels like the greatest gift ever given. We are helpless, and a stranger named Ruben guides Dennis into wholeness. The breathing tube is successfully removed. Dennis’ first words are “Thank you.”
Emerging from sedation and breathing on his own, Dennis enters ICU psychosis, a common occurrence in intensive care. Surreal is a more accurate description. I watch Dennis tell stories in an altered state. In his hushed, raspy voice, he sounds like he is channeling a spirit. Adhering to a regular sleep schedule feels like a Herculean challenge. Dennis will not cooperate with the night nurse or me until we go along with his instructions. Pointing throughout the room, he directs us as if we are in church. “When I say, ‘The Lord be with you,’ you say, ‘And also with you. Okay!?’” When our attempts at rational dialogue fail, the nurse and I both say, “And also with you.”
“Good,” he says, “That’s good.” And he falls back to sleep.
On another sleepless night, in the height of his delirium, Dennis proclaims, “Into your hands, Oh Lord, I commend my Spirit.” I ask him what this means, and he whispers, “I am ready to let go.” My eyes widen, and I feel a surge of energy rising from my gut. “Nope. Sorry, that’s not an option. You are not ready, Dennis Campbell. You are surrounded by people who love you. You have so much more to do in this world. You offer so much. It is not time to let go.” With these words, he falls asleep and awakens the next day renewed. The delirium is gone. Suddenly, his baby steps turn to giant leaps. My first question to the doctor: “Is it okay if we kiss?”
The last week in the hospital feels like a honeymoon. There is the lost time we are trying to make up for. We cuddle in the high-tech hospital bed. We watch movies. Eat popcorn. Picnics in the bed. Talk for hours. We look at the letters and prayers people have posted on the Internet. The nurses try to give us privacy. We kiss. My laughter can be heard down the hallway. I sneak a contraband cheeseburger into the room for Dennis to enjoy while I eat his nutritionist sanctioned salmon filet. We share French fries and lick the salt and grease off our fingers. We are whole. We are complete. We are whole and complete in our brokenness.
On our two-year anniversary, Dennis and I drive to Moclips, Washington, to celebrate in a cottage on the beach. We arrive just after sunset. My first sound is frogs chirping from a shrub filled gulley leading to dunes, giving way to yards of hard peppery sand stretching on to the Pacific. Water shapes the land, but it’s easy to witness this marriage closely on the sand. Spring water rivulets sculpt little worlds across the beach. I see spirals, spinal columns, and fingerprints left by the wind. I count at least ten rows of waves crashing before they reach the surf. Wind blows the cresting water westward. The first half-mile of water must be white foam. Immense. High and low tide are new phenomena to learn.
I forget to do morning prayer on our anniversary. Dennis says not to worry. “We’ll do noonday prayer.” We forget to do that too. I think of going for a run on the beach. Instead, I eat Boudin for lunch and then for dinner. On the second glass of wine, I say, “We forgot to pray today.” Dennis smiles and says, “Not to worry. Today is a feast day.”
I walk in the morning. I sing hymns I can’t remember the names of but know the words. I improvise soothing melodies, not worrying about who can overhear. As I sing, my eyes scan the surf, and I am caught by a vision. Dozens of sand dollars peek from the surf. Whole, intact, the size of tea saucers. I gather handfuls. I find rocks bore through by a clam who creates a perfect hole in its turning. Waves absentmindedly leave kelp on the beach. Crab shells punctuate the sand with their purple, red, and orange bodies. Sometimes I see only the claws. Upturned razor clams show their pearly interior world. Dozens of sandpipers fearlessly skirt the surf. They have incredible faith. On several occasions, I catch a glimpse of the approaching tide just in time to move.