In 1868, German physician Karl von Vierordt published a book on his experiments into the psychology of time perception. In it included what became known as Vierordt’s Law “a robust phenomenon in time estimation research that has been observed with different time estimation methods.” Essentially, it states that “short” amounts of time tend to be overestimated and “long” amounts of time tend to be underestimated. This has been the basis of our summer. The clock has barely moved while the calendar has flown.
The kids are heading back to college in 20 days. These interminable hours belie the fact that they have been home since mid-May and have known the awful fact that Lisa will no longer be fighting this awful disease. They are terrified to leave her knowing it may be the last time they ever see her. I tell them they must go, they cannot forestall their own futures, they must continue on their own paths. It is the truth. I also know that the routine of school, with friends around them, and classes to occupy their time will distract them from the cruelty the universe is throwing at them 150 miles away.
Sitting here day after day at my desk watching my wife slowly wither away in bed; watching my son and daughter sit with their mother doing the same as me is heartbreaking. No amount of preparation can prepare you for the monotony and sheer terror of watching someone, anyone, much less someone you love, slowly suffocate to death. Cancer is a suicidal disease bent on killing its host at the cost of its own existence. Watching it happen with no more arrows in the quiver is akin to watching Captain Smith walk into the wheelhouse of the Titanic, lock the doors and wait for the ship to sink. With no more options, one seeks the course of action with the most dignity. Don’t get me started on whether there should be better options for better dignity.
Sleep used to be easy. I could roll over, shut off the world and be out in a minute, and wake up in the morning (if not refreshed) ready to go. Now sleep is like a cruel joke. I am exhausted from running all of the errands of the day, worrying about Lisa and the kids and watching a clock that does not move but terrified of a calendar that will not stop because I know that each day that passes brings me closer to a day I know is coming and one I dare not consider. Lisa does not sleep well now. She wakes me because she cannot breathe well. I give her meds and turn up the oxygen concentrator. I rub her back, hoping she will calm down, that her heart rate will return to “normal” and her body will be lulled into a false belief that it is generating enough oxygen to fuel the system. If I’m successful I’m awake. My mind goes to dark places so I read. It usually takes a good hour to flush the dark thoughts in order for me to attempt sleep again. Sometimes this happens two or three times a night. The clock stands still. The calendar whirls.
Vierordt had no idea how easy his experimentation could have been had he simply gone to any intensive care unit at any hospital and found the waiting room and talked to the family members and friends of the terminally I’ll patients. They would have told him how long minutes last and how quickly weeks fly.