I met Arlene’s father at the hospital. He had been there for a few days. “I can’t take it anymore,” he said. “I have to go home.” He was so unhappy, he just left.
When I finally saw Arlene, she was very weak, and a bit fogged out. She didn’t seem to know what was happening. She stared straight ahead most of the time, looking around a little bit from time to time, and was trying to breathe. Every once in a while her breathing would stop—and she would sort of swallow— and then it would start again. It kept going like this for a few hours.
I took a little walk outside for a while. I was surprised that I wasn’t feeling what I thought people were supposed to feel under the circumstances. Maybe I was fooling myself. I wasn’t delighted, but I didn’t feel terribly upset, perhaps because we had known for a long time that it was going to happen.
It’s hard to explain. If a Martian (who, we’ll imagine, never dies except by accident) came to Earth and saw this peculiar race of creatures—these humans who live about seventy or eighty years, knowing that death is going to come—it would look to him like a terrible problem of psychology to live under those circumstances, knowing that life is only temporary. Well, we humans somehow figure out how to live despite this problem: we laugh, we joke, we live.
The only difference for me and Arlene was, instead of fifty years, it was five years. It was only a quantitative difference— the psychological problem was just the same. The only way it would have become any different is if we had said to ourselves, “But those other people have it better, because they might live fifty years.” But that’s crazy. Why make yourself miserable saying things like, “Why do we have such bad luck? What has God done to us? What have we done to deserve this?”—all of which, if you understand reality and take it completely into your heart, are irrelevant and unsolvable. They are just things that nobody can know. Your situation is just an accident of life.
We had a hell of a good time together.
I came back into her room. I kept imagining all the things that were going on physiologically: the lungs aren’t getting enough air into the blood, which makes the brain fogged out and the heart weaker, which makes the breathing even more difficult. I kept expecting some sort of avalanching effect, with everything caving in together in a dramatic collapse. But it didn’t appear that way at all: she just slowly got more foggy, and her breathing gradually became less and less, until there was no more breath— but just before that, there was a very small one.
The nurse on her rounds came in and confirmed that Arlene was dead, and went out—I wanted to be alone for a moment. I sat there for a while, and then went over to kiss her one last time.
I was very surprised to discover that her hair smelled exactly the same. Of course, after I stopped and thought about it, there was no reason why hair should smell different in such a short time. But to me it was a kind of a shock, because in my mind, something enormous had just happened—and yet nothing had happened.
The next day, I went to the mortuary. The guy hands me some rings he’s taken from her body. “Would you like to see your wife one last time?” he asks.
“What kind of a—no, I don’t want to see her, no!” I said. “I just saw her!”
“Yes, but she’s been all fixed up,” he says.
This mortuary stuff was completely foreign to me. Fixing up a body when there’s nothing there? I didn’t want to look at Arlene again; that would have made me more upset.
I didn’t know how I was going to face all my friends at Los Alamos. I didn’t want people with long faces talking to me about the death of Arlene. Somebody asked me what happened.
“She’s dead. And how’s the program going?” I said.
They caught on right away that I didn’t want to moon over it. Only one guy expressed his sympathy, and it turned out he had been out of town when I came back to Los Alamos.
One night I had a dream, and Arlene came into it. Right away, I said to her, “No, no, you can’t be in this dream. You’re not alive!”
Then later, I had another dream with Arlene in it. I started in again, saying, “You can’t be in this dream!”
“No, no,” she says. “I fooled you. I was tired of you, so I cooked up this ruse so I could go my own way. But now I like you again, so I’ve come back.” My mind was really working against itself. It had to be explained, even in a goddamn dream, why it was possible that she was still there!
I must have done something to myself, psychologically. I didn’t cry until about a month later, when I was walking past a department store in Oak Ridge and noticed a pretty dress in the window. I thought, “Arlene would like that,” and then it hit me.
From “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”
Further Adventures of a Curious Character
as told to Ralph Leighton