January 8-12, 2003
It happened like this: Henry’s footsteps on the old wooden floorboards. The toilet flushing. More footsteps, perhaps on the stairs. Silence. Then the thud.
I was working downstairs in my office on a bitterly cold Wednesday afternoon. My work space was an enclosed sunporch off our living room, the small-paned windows on three sides framing a view of the snowy hills across the road. Wrapped in a shawl, wearing fuzzy socks on my chilled feet, I continued studying the project on my computer screen. At forty-three, I had been a graphic designer for nearly twenty years, a freelancer, specializing in cover designs for book publishers. Today’s project was a novel about hard-luck cowboys, due yesterday, as always. I stopped fiddling with type design possibilities as I glanced at the computer clock --- in an hour I would have to make a dash out to the car to pick up our six-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Liza, just before school let out at 3:10. Henry had been sick in bed all morning. There would be the freezing cold wait and the daily social milling with the other mothers on the school playground, then the quick drive home to finish my work. I’d wear my new sheepskin coat today and feel guilty about its expense on a warmer day. On second thought, the distressed sans serif type worked better with the moody image of a cowboy leaning against a split-rail fence.
Suddenly my brain rewound sharply.
It wasn’t a package dropped outside by the UPS guy.
My office phone rang. Instinctively, I answered. The photographer on the line asked me how I liked the images he had e-mailed.
It wasn’t the cats knocking groceries off the kitchen counter.
“I can’t talk now --- something bad is happening.” I ended the call abruptly.
The rooms were silent as I ran up the stairs, calling for Henry. Two of our four cats skittered out of my way, their nails clawing the wooden treads. The bedroom was empty. I raced back down the stairs.
I found Henry on his back, spread-eagled on the kitchen floor, his head a few inches from the oven broiler. He was still breathing. His body was silhouetted against the sea blue of the painted floorboards. I imagined a police chalk drawing of the outline of the victim at a crime scene. I was overcome with the feeling that I was in the scene and watching a scene on television—an opening sequence of an episode of Six Feet Under, our favorite show that year. Usually some minor character dies in the first five minutes.
Henry inhaled with a shallow breath; small dribbles of saliva on his curved lips, the skin on his face now sallow and ashen. He exhaled with a feeble sigh. His eyes flickered half open. I spoke to him to let him know that I was there with him, but for once in our life together he could not speak back.
A long, elastic minute stretched out and snapped: Is this when people call 911? Or is Henry going to sit up and tell me to stop fussing, like he did yesterday after he passed out? This must be the same thing. He came in after taking out the garbage and fell down flat on the floor. The doctor said all the tests were normal ---
I called 911. I sat down on the floor next to him, stroking his forehead, watching him breathe. A hissing sound, as spittle pulsed between his lips.
I wish I had a notepad and pencil. Henry would want me to take notes. The EMS guys will come. They’ll check him out. He’ll be fine. He’ll be telling people about his near death at our next dinner party. “The report of my death was an exaggeration” is what he’ll say. Everyone will laugh, and I’ll feel pathetic for having worried so much. I’m happy to feel pathetic if everything will just please, please turn out okay.
I called 911 again, just to be sure. I called Emily, who lived five minutes away and was usually home at two in the afternoon. Anna was more reliable --- I knew she wouldn’t freak out, no matter what happened today—but she lived twelve minutes away. Then I called Matthew, Henry’s best friend, who lived with his wife in a nearby town.
Every minute will make a difference. The EMS guys will come; they will bring oxygen tanks, defibrillators, and IV bags. All will be well. Emily will help me find a babysitter for Liza, then she will go with me to the hospital, and we’ll get there and Henry will be awake, smiling and joking as usual.
I sat back down next to him on the blue floor, stroking the familiar wrinkles, the scar over one eyelid, the small mole at the crest of one cheek.
Inhale. Exhale. A blue gauze curtain passed over him. His skin turned to wax.
“Breathe!” I screamed at him. “Start breathing now!” I pounded him on the chest. He wasn’t listening to me. I placed my mouth on his and blew my breath into him; the blue briefly faded into rose like a watercolor wash. But the flush faded back to blue. He was still. The man who for sixteen years had loved me, driven me crazy, fought with me, fed me, made love with me, made a baby with me, exhaled one last breath, the air I had blown into his lungs.
I looked up, distracted by the sound of the sliding porch door, followed by a blast of cold air. The EMS guys had arrived with a gurney and gear and gently hustled me out of the kitchen. Emily followed right after them.
You’ll know it’s bad when they take you to the little waiting room. Emily held my left arm. Her face was pale, her lips still rosy from the cold, her dark bobbed hair peeking from under a familiar blue cloche hat. Matthew sat on my right. Matthew was tall, built like a tree. The sad-eyed young doctor told us it was a pulmonary embolism. A blood clot, formed in the leg, had moved upward and lodged in the lung, causing cardiac arrest. They had tried everything they could to revive him.
But everything moved in slow motion as I processed his words. This couldn’t be right. He was only forty-four. Whenever we’d watched Six Feet Under together, the main characters had made it safely to the next episode. I slid off my chair to the floor and screamed.
“You can lie next to him if you want,” Emily said. She was calm, amazingly, looking at Henry’s lifeless body on the gurney. “Go ahead, it won’t bother me at all.”
I climbed up onto the narrow gurney and lay down next to him. He would have wanted me to note every detail for him --- the way his chest was still warm, while his arms were already stiff and cold and his fingers were curled and blue. He had a bruise on the left side of his face. It was comforting to rest there with my arm around him, touching him in a familiar way, relieved still to have a companion, even a quiet one.
He had beautiful feet, elegantly articulated toes, like the feet on a Greek statue. I peeled back his shirt to look at the distinctive scar on his chest. A bit of cornhusk had punctured his skin while he was working on a farm as a teenager. The healing wound had formed an inch-long raised keloid that I loved to touch in the dark. I touched the large dark mole on his left shoulder. I felt the scar over his right eye, received when he was a child in a hotel in Honolulu (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry always added when telling the story), when a window had fallen suddenly out of its molding as he passed under it with his family. All his scars and moles, so well known to me, like stepping-stones marking the way home through a dark wood.
Two nurses came in. “You should go home now and get some rest,” one said. She put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed me gently.
Emily took my arm, and we walked down the fluorescent-lit corridors and stepped out into the twilight, inky blue with low-hanging clouds. A flock of black birds rushed up into the sky, their wings moving in unison, a tragic banner.
I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck, Henry had joked two weeks before he died. We were on our Christmas vacation, visiting Henry’s college friend and his family on Bainbridge Island, off the coast of Seattle. During the short daylight hours under the continuous gray blanket of northwest cloud cover, the kids played and drank hot chocolate, while we adults planned meals, decorated the holiday tree, and prepared for the arrival of Santa Claus. Henry, who loved all parties but disliked Christmas, watched from the couch.
His quip was familiar to me. When he was sixteen, he had taken a spin on a friend’s new motorcycle straight into an oncoming white pickup truck as he came around a tight curve. He loved telling this story, with a new embellishment every time.
“I’m lying there bleeding, with my right leg broken in seven places, the guy is weeping and begging me not to die. I had to calm the guy down so he’d go get help from the neighbor.” Henry’s leg had been repaired, but he always had some pain and swallowed daily doses of Advil. He predicted that he would need a knee replacement by the time he was fifty, a wheelchair at sixty.
Jokes aside, I worried as I watched Henry --- dozing, reading a magazine, tapping away on his laptop, dozing some more. During these vacation days, he had barely gotten off the couch. When I asked him about how he was feeling, he said that he was just tired from all the traveling of the last year, that he couldn’t wait to get home, to begin writing his book.
The subject of his book was umami, a Japanese word that translates as “perfection,” usually as it relates to food. Umami also translates as “the fifth taste,” best described for Westerners as “savory.” The other tastes are sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Umami is the feeling of mouthwatering deliciousness during, and complete satiety after, a good meal. Umami is the taste of protein, caressed by fat --- the pleasurable viscous taste of a meat stew, a rich sauce, or a morsel of creamy cheese. There is umami in a piece of sun-ripened fruit, or a glass of complex wine. More crassly, Big Food corporations hire food scientists to add chemically enhanced umami to otherwise tasteless food --- Big Macs, snack chips, and those frozen dinners in your freezer. Umami is also the taste of the demonized flavor-enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG), favored by Chinese restaurants.
But Henry’s mission was to hunt down the real thing. He had gravitated to the West Coast, where the freshness of food, produce particularly, embodied the idea of perfection more than did the off-season shipments of unripe tomatoes and mealy peaches typically available on the East Coast. Under contract from a publisher, with half his advance paid, he traveled up and down the coast during 2002, sampling farm-ripened fruit, exotic varieties of seafood and seaweed, and regional wines.
He spent most of the year back and forth, making at least eight trips out West, some as long as three weeks. He ate meals at food temples such as The French Laundry in the Napa Valley and The Herb Farm in Woodinville, Washington. He tasted freshly harvested oysters and wild mushrooms in Oregon. He visited wine producers and experts up and down the coast. He wrote me a long e-mail about the now rare Marshall strawberries he tasted at one of the small family-owned farms in the San Juan Islands of Washington State on a trip with David Karp, a well-known fruit expert.
Henry returned from his trips with jars of Meyer lemon preserve, homemade salsas, and a nifty gadget called a Brix refractometer, which measures the sugar content of fruit. The produce manager of our local grocery store was impressed as Henry jabbed his pocketknife into nectarines and oranges to release juice for testing. FedEx surprised us with another treasure --- a box of organic peaches from Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood, California. Each drenching bite sent my salivary glands into almost painful overdrive.
Liza and I had joined him once during this long travel year, in May. We stayed at the Sooke Harbour House, a hotel-restaurant on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Liza, who already showed signs of having inherited the culinary gene, loved the seafood and the special tour of the kitchen. She and I spent our days enjoying walks and outdoor play while Henry and the proprietor went deep-sea diving for underwater creatures. They returned one afternoon with a story of a nearly exhausted oxygen tank, a large octopus, and several purple-hinged rock scallops. The octopus and scallops ended up as soup ingredients later that evening. The intense and complex perfume of the broth, like nothing I had ever tasted, was the essence of umami.
Liza, not quite six years old, finished that meal and announced her career goal of opening her own hotel-restaurant. Her hotel would have yoga classes for me and room service for her cats.
Excerpted from PERFECTION: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal © Copyright 2011 by Julie Metz. Reprinted with permission by Voice. All rights reserved.
Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal