By Christopher J. Bailey
Terrence Roberts opened his eyes as the first rays of sunshine shredded through the closed blinds, heralding the start of a new day. He glanced at his watch: six-thirty. He took a few moments to oust himself fully from sleep, then slowly turned over to gaze at the woman lying next to him. His wife of fifty-six years was barely visible under the blankets. Matilda breathed slowly, deeply; he could see the blanket rising and falling slowly with each breath. As he gazed at her his heart swelled with love for this lady.
Their marriage, like any other, had had its ups and downs but they had clung together through all adversities. Today was their wedding anniversary. They had met fifty-eight years ago and had courted for almost two years before Terrence had got down on one knee and asked her to marry him. She had said yes without any hesitation. They tied the knot four months later.
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Matilda had borne Terrence two children. Martin, their firstborn, had his own family now. He had married a sweet girl named Sarah. They had two beautiful daughters, both of whom were in their late twenties: Natalie and Amelia. Terrence and Matilda’s second child, Beatrice, had been born two years after Martin. Beatrice died at four months old. Matilda had discovered Beatrice dead in her cot one horrible, heartbreaking day. No reason was ever discovered for their daughter’s death. Nowadays, though, Beatrice’s cause of death would be labelled as SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Matilda was a nurse when she and Terrence had first met. In the late 1970’s hospice became an established thing for end of life patients, and Matilda had decided that was where she was most useful. Matilda had truly loved her job. She had looked upon hospice as a calling. The fact that she could help her patients and their families in the darkest hours of their lives uplifted her and brought meaning to her own life.
She would often sit with Terrence at the end of the day and tell him stories about her patients. These stories were not maudlin, but instead were full of hope for a future beyond death. Matilda sensed that in a dying person’s final moments, when they were almost free of the pain and suffering, a change would come over them. Matilda called it a spiritual awakening. She had come to understand that at the final moments of a person’s life they seemed to sense something, or someone, waiting to help them pass. The many end-of-life moments Matilda had witnessed over the years gave her total faith in continuation of life after death. Matilda only hoped that when it was her time, she would be able to accept death with the same strength that she saw in many of the people who passed under her care.
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Terrence had been a cop throughout his career. That was how he and Matilda had met. She had been on duty in the local hospital when Terrence had helped bring in a prisoner that needed patching up. Matilda had helped to clean the man up while waiting for a doctor. The pair had chatted and hit it off straightaway. They had been together ever since.
Terrence sat up slowly, so as not to wake Matilda, and slid his legs over the side of the bed, feeling all his seventy-eight years. His whole body ached. Forcing himself carefully up off the mattress he took another look at Matilda. Good, she was still sleeping.
Today, as he did on every anniversary, he would make her breakfast in bed. It was one of their rituals. Why should today be any different? He shuffled into his slippers, grabbed his dark blue robe off the chair next to the bed, and slipped it on over his striped pajamas. He made his way over to the bedroom door and pulled it open, slowly, trying to avoid the squeaking of the hinges. Matilda had repeatedly asked him to oil them, but he had never got around to doing it.
Entering the kitchen, he went over to the window and opened the blind, letting a new day enter the house. He gazed out the window for a few moments, looking at the small garden full of flowers in full bloom. The flowers lovingly planted by Matilda. The kitchen was painted a bright, sunny yellow. Matilda loved bright, warm colors, as was reflected throughout the whole house. She felt that when the sunshine splashed through the windows and lit up the brightly colored walls, the house truly became alive with warmth and life.
Whatever his wife wished for he tried his hardest to make sure she got. That was just the way he was, and they both felt the same way towards each other. Martin had said once, with the
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unkindness of a teenager, “For god’s sake you wait on each other hand and foot!” and Terrence had answered, “Just one of the many reasons our marriage has survived all these years. Nowadays, Matilda and Terrence often commented to each other, marriage just seemed to be another throw away commodity; couples would just cut and run to the divorce courts at the first sign of trouble.
In the kitchen, Terrence first started the coffee. Then he went to the refrigerator and brought out four eggs and the orange juice, one of their many shared pleasures. He added four slices of bread into the toaster. While the eggs were cooking he poured two large glasses of orange juice.
His eyes crept to a sheet of paper on the kitchen counter. Words written in Matilda’s now-shaky handwriting decorated the paper. The same handwriting which had once been fastidious now looked spidery on the paper. He let out a deep sigh and moaned, “Oh, Matilda.” Terrence picked up the sheet, read it over once more as he had the previous night, folded it and slipped it into the pocket of his robe. Tears came to his eyes, but he wiped them dry with the sleeve of his robe. He didn’t want Matilda to see him like this; he would be strong for her. “What Matilda wants…” he murmured.
The eggs went onto two plates along with the buttered toast. Terrence finished making breakfast by pouring coffee for them. One sugar in each cup along with a splash of cream. Any other day of the year they used milk, but on their anniversary it was always cream. The cups he used were made of fine china, another tradition.
The phone in the pocket of his robe buzzed, announcing an incoming text message. Terrence fished it out of his pocket and was prompted to enter the security code in order to read
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the message. 8869—his old badge number. Old habits die hard! It was from Martin, as he had expected it would be.
‘Hi, Dad. Happy Anniversary. Love you. Will call later. How’s Mom?’
Terrence was tempted to send a quick reply, but then shaking his head sadly he dropped the phone back into his pocket. There’d be time for that later. He fished out two wooden breakfast trays from the kitchen closet. The trays had handles and folding legs, convenient for breakfast in bed. On each tray he placed a plate of toast and eggs, the coffee, and the glasses of orange juice. He paused after completing this task—something was missing.
Of course! How could he forget? He went to the back door and unlocked it. The door led Terrence into the garden where he went to one of the rose bushes that were currently in bloom. The day was already warming up nicely; it was going to be a beautiful day. He selected two perfect pink Parfait roses, Matilda’s favorite variety, and carefully snipped them at the stem. He delicately carried the two roses back into the house and locked the door behind him once more. Terrence placed them very carefully onto her tray. Roses were the perfect finishing touch!
Terrence shuffled slowly back down the carpeted passageway towards the bedroom door, his slippers making swish-swish noises on the carpet. He didn’t look at the family photos hung along the passage wall as he passed them by. He didn’t need to; he had passed them thousands of times before. He had also lived each and every one of those moments that were captured for eternity. Finally at their bedroom door he carefully opened it, aware of the unoiled hinges.
Matilda was still sleeping peacefully, the rise and fall of the blanket announcing her slow, rhythmic breathing. Terrence went back to the kitchen to fetch the tray containing her breakfast.
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He placed it carefully on the same chair that had previously held his robe. The stronger sunlight was now trying to force its way through the closed blinds, and it was winning the battle. The dark of the night had retreated in defeat.
Terrence really did not want to wake Matilda, but he knew that this was only delaying the inevitable. So he went over to the bedroom windows and opened the blinds. The full force of the early morning sun entered the room with a suddenness that made him blink.
Terrence went back to the kitchen to fetch his own breakfast, this time leaving the bedroom door open while he went. Matilda would be awake soon, whether by his hand or by the noisy door hinges. It really didn’t matter anymore. He returned with his own breakfast which he placed next to Matilda’s. His joints and muscles creaking in pain, Terrence slowly lay back down on the bed he had just recently vacated. He faced his wife of fifty-six years, the only woman he had ever loved, and burrowed his hand under the blanket until he found her warmth. God, he was going to miss this! Terrence embraced his wife and he felt her start to stir beneath his tender touch.
“Good morning, darling,” Terrence kissed the side of her face.
Matilda’s eyes fluttered open slowly. He snuggled up next to her and held her tightly, waiting for her to fully awaken. She smiled the beautiful smile that transformed her face and made her look like an angel. This was the smile that Terrence had fallen in love with all those years ago.
“Good morning, my love.” Matilda turned over in bed to face him. She turned slowly and as she did so, a grimace of pain washed over her face, replacing the smile. Terrence saw this but chose not to say anything. Matilda embraced him with all the strength she could muster and
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stroked the side of his face. “Happy anniversary, Terrence. We made it through another year without you running off with a young swimsuit model.”
“I have to admit, darling, it was tough. I had to fight them off.”
They both laughed at this, and Matilda swatted him with her hand. A frown momentarily crossed her face. It stayed fleetingly, but was then gone. Terrence noticed it but once again didn’t mention it.
He got up and brought the breakfast tray over to his wife. “I made you breakfast, sweetheart.”
“I never doubted that you would for an instant, darling.” Her eyes fell on the two roses on the side of her tray. The smile returned to her face. “Terrence, you are the most wonderful man I’ve ever known. I have been so honored to be your wife.” Matilda picked one of the roses up and sniffed it. “I’ve always loved this variety of rose; it has such a beautiful fragrance.”
“I know, dear. Now eat your breakfast before it gets cold.” He fetched his own tray and sat with it on his knee.
While eating they reminisced. They spoke about Martin and the girls. They brought up Beatrice. Whenever they mentioned their daughter tears were always let loose. They would always wonder what would she have made of her life if God, in his mysterious ways, hadn’t decided that she was too good for this sometimes awful, but more often than not miraculous world.
Matilda spoke through a mouthful of toast, “You do know that our Beatrice is almost certainly an angel. She’s probably looking down on us right now, telling you not to be sad.”
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“I really hope so, because it’s so hard not to be.”
“Everything will be ok, Terrence. Please believe, like I do!”
Terrence found Matilda’s hand and grasped it tightly. She could feel his hand shaking, while hers was totally steady. She had the utmost faith. He continued on with the reminiscing, trying desperately to slow down time. While she finished her breakfast and her coffee, Matilda let him carry on their conversation. She knew it was something he needed to do, though it wouldn’t change anything. Her mind was made up.
She put her now empty tray on the end of the bed and asked him, “Terrence, what do we always say?”
“I don’t know,” he remarked. But of course he knew. He just wanted her to continue talking.
“What Matilda wants, Matilda gets!” She smiled that smile at him again.
His heart broke. The tears came. His voice broke as he said simply, “No!”
“Yes, Terrence.” Her voice was firm.
“You have to fight it, Matilda.” Terrence was holding her hand tightly again.
“There is no fighting it, I’m too far gone. We both know that, darling.”
No matter what Terrence thought, he instinctively knew that Matilda was right.
“Do you have the letter I wrote last night, sweetheart?”
“Yes.” He fished it out the pocket of his robe.
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“Please read it to me. I want to make sure there’s nothing I need to add.”
He unfolded the letter and, in a faltering voice, began:
As you know I have been fighting lung cancer for some time now. Despite the chemo it has developed to stage 3. What started out as a spot on my lung is now killing me from the inside. The doctors have been honest with me and told me that due to my age and health they do not give me much chance of surviving. They say I have six months at most. Morphine isn’t helping the pain anymore, and I know it is only going to get worse. The doctors have urged me to start thinking about alternatives. I have spoken at length with your father, and although he tried to talk me out of it, I have decided to go out of this life on my own terms. I write this letter to you, my son, in sound mind. Please give Sarah, Natalie, and Amelia big kisses from me. I love you all, and will forever. Please look after your father for me; he will need your help and support. I will see you all again, I promise, when it’s time. Please do not blame your father for this. He doesn’t know I’ve come to a decision.
Much love, always, Mom.
Terrence finished reading, and folded the letter. He handed it to her, she took it and put it on her bedside table.
Matilda looked at him and said. “I can’t think of anything to add, can you?”
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“Then it’s time, my love!”
“Please think about this again, there has to be something we can do. Other experts we can see, or other remedies we can try.”
“Shh! Terrence, we both know there will be no reprieve. And I’m not putting myself or any of you through needless pain and suffering just for the sake of another few months of life. If you can even call it life.” Matilda shook her head, as if to shake that thought out of existence.
“But, darling, as you’ve always believed: isn’t it God’s decision to make whether a person lives or dies?” Terrence looked almost pleadingly at Matilda as he asked this question of her, “And isn’t it His decision, and His alone, to decide when that life will end?”
Matilda slowly cupped his face between her hands, a grimace of pain washed over her as she did so. She stared sorrowfully into his eyes as she answered him. “Terrence, I know what you’re trying to do, but my mind is made up. Where was our God when I got this cancer? We’ve devoted our lives to Him; tried to do right by Him—”
“Terrence, please let me finish,” she cut his interruption short. “and yet…yet…He took our Beatrice from us without our being able to get to know her,” tears clouded her eyes at the mention of their daughter. “now he’s taking me in one of the worst ways possible. What would you have me do, Terrence? Suffer in agony until God has decided the matter of when my life must come to an end?”
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Terrence had no possible retort to this. He knew now that nothing he could say would change her mind. He covered her hands, still cupping his face, with his, took her left hand and put it to his lips and kissed it tenderly. Releasing her hand he reached over to the bottle of sleeping pills on his bedside cabinet. He had given her two every night since her sleep had started to become disturbed. This was a new bottle; he had taken the first two out last night. There were still thirty in the bottle. Opening the bottle for her he passed it to Matilda who took the bottle from him with a tremor in her hand. She looked in. “The pills won’t kill me you know, but they’ll start the process. The hospital will not resuscitate me due to the notice I signed. There’s enough pills?”
“More than enough.”
“Good. Now walk out the bedroom door, and don’t look back. Then you can truly say to the police that you didn’t see me do it.”
He kissed her on the lips, and felt her respond. “I love you, Matilda. I always have and always will.” Then he stood and headed for the door. As he opened it, this time not caring whether the hinges squeaked or not, she called back after him.
“Please remember that we won’t be apart for very long. I will be waiting for you on the other side, Terrence.”
He closed the bedroom door and padded back towards the kitchen, his slippers making the same swish-swish noises as they had earlier. He made it only halfway down the passage before
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the shock of what was occurring in the bedroom hit him. He had to put both hands on the wall to support himself. If this was shock, what would grief be like when it finally arrived?
The plan was simple: he made his way into the living room, sat down in his favorite chair and turned on the television. He was supposed to watch the news for an hour, then go get the breakfast dishes so they could be washed. He would then discover Matilda, alive but unconscious. He was to phone 911 first, and then Martin.
After an hour had passed, Terrence made his way back to the bedroom, dreading what was waiting for him. His gaze rested on his wife, the sunlight washing over her, breathing faintly. An overwhelming sadness washed over him. Terrence called 911, then Martin. He sat beside the bed, took Matilda’s hand in his, and waited. Terrence sighed sorrowfully…What Matilda wants, Matilda gets.