Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Earl Smith

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

She opened the door just enough. He was lying on his back snoring softly. She listened to the rhythm of his breathing. It was shallow but slow and steady. His hands were outside the blanket and folded across his chest. The setting sun sent shafts of light through the blinds and patterned the floor. The machines that kept him alive – that kept his heart beating and counted each success – made their soft sounds. Standing ready to alert the nursing crew of any emergency. The IV tower stood beyond the bed, providing the pain medication that, most times, successfully opposed the relentless assault. The roses next to his bed gave off a delicate aroma that seemed out of place.

On the way in, the head nurse had told her of his decision. That his time was near and by his own choice. That he wasn’t in any pain. Wasn’t likely to suffer. That he was aware when awake but awake less. Resolute. She knew what that meant.

It hadn’t occurred to her that she might know ahead of time. The news unsettled her. For two months, she had made the same journey. Opened the same door. Held her breath. Not sure what was waiting for her. In her mind, discovering that he was gone would happen in an instant. No forewarning. Maybe the door would be open, and the bed empty. Or perhaps she would find the nursing staff desperately trying to revive him and failing. But that was not knowing ahead of time. This was different. This felt far more sinister.

She stood looking through the narrow opening. Afraid to enter. As if something very frightening was now in the room. It washed over her. Her knees felt weak, and her shoulders slumped. An unanticipated grief. Helplessness and hopelessness. There was nothing left but a final talking and then goodbyes. He had decided. He told the nurses he would not leave while she was there. Only after she left.

The memories of her father passing flooded back. The urgent call from her mother. The flight from Boston to Cleveland. Arriving too late to say goodbye. She hadn’t been ready to say goodbye and was relieved. Three months later, the phone call in the middle of the night. Her mother had just faded away. Gone in her sleep. Seven months after, her younger sister died in a car crash. She did not attend the funeral. Her whole family gone in less than a year. Then her marriage turned south. Secretaries! Damn secretaries.

The head nurse touched her shoulder. “Is there anything you want us to do? Do you want me to go in with you?”

She slowly shook her head. The nurse moved away. The chair was next to the bed where it always was. He coughed and turned his face towards the wall. Maybe a bad dream about what was to come, she thought. Or a spasm breaking through the pain medication. Cancer was such a persistent bitch. It had come on so suddenly. He settled back, slow even breathing and then the light snoring. He seemed at peace.

She went in. Walked the few steps to the edge of his bed. There was a faint smile on his face. It rekindled a memory. A picnic they had gone on long ago. The Maine woods. Late spring. They had driven up from Boston for a long weekend. Stopped in Portland. Found a wonderful deli that sold meats and cheeses. Then to a wine shop. Right next to it was a bakery that exuded the most amazingly wonderful aromas. They sampled and overbought each time.

Larder stocked, they headed out Route 302 to the Mill Brook Preserve Trailhead. Wandered off the trail until they found a welcoming meadow. In its center was a large spreading maple. They shared the afternoon in its shade. After they had eaten and drank and talked, he laid back with his head in her lap and smiled that smile. Before they left, he carved their initials just below the lowest branch. They never went back. The memory brought tears.

“We are older, but maybe no wiser,” she whispered and slowly sat down. The aches and a sharp pain in her left hip echoed her. The years have been hard on us, but time has been kind. That’s what he liked to say. And she had come to know something of what he meant.

She caressed his hand. His eyes opened slowly as he turned his head towards her. They took a while to focus. “Hey old girl, how long have you been here?” His voice was weak and soft. She had to bend forward to hear him.

“I just got here. You were smiling. What were you dreaming about?”

“You remember that picnic …” He faltered trying to find the words.

“The one we went on in Maine?”

The smile returned to his face. He nodded. “Yes, that very one. Remember that old jalopy we had? Fiat five hundred, wasn’t it? Smaller than a damn VW bug. Didn’t even have a radiator. It was all we could afford. I was amazed it held together for the whole trip. Drove along, gripping the steering wheel. Willing that damn thing to hold together. But we made it, didn’t we?”

She nodded and smiled back at him. “As I looked in on you, I thought about that picnic. You were smiling the same smile. I’ll never forget how peaceful and content you looked. I sat there with your head in my lap, stroking your hair and thinking about how lucky we were. How far we had come. Where we started out. You with your wanderlust and me with my broken family.” She stopped and grinned. “An itinerant and a refugee walk into a bar …” They both chuckled. “Even though we’d been together for almost a year, I wondered at how we got so lucky. I still do, you know.”

His hand started weakly towards his head, but he didn’t have the energy. “Well,” he said sadly smiling, “I had a lot more hair in those days, didn’t I?”

“And a glorious mane it was. I loved to run my fingers through it. And the color was amazing. Auburn became my favorite. But you know, I didn’t miss it when it turned gray then white and mostly disappeared. It was wonderful when it was there. But even after it was gone, you were there. And I was there with you. That’s what really mattered.”

“Wrinkles in the pattern,” he said softly.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about. All our years together. But when I think about them, it’s always those times. When things worked out. When they didn’t. When we talked. When we didn’t. Every once in a while, we found an oasis were none of it really mattered and everything seemed clear. Wrinkles in the pattern of us. Respites from …” His voice faltered and he turned inward.

She pressed his hand. “I wish it could’ve always been that way. But it wasn’t, was it? I’ll never forgive myself…”

His eyes stopped her. “Not the time for regrets. That has well passed. Neither you, nor I, can ever go back there.”

“Why do you do that?” Frustration invaded her voice. “You say things like that. As if saying them could do anything. I have my regrets. They are with me all the time. I’ll take them with me when I go. The times I let you down or turned away. The times you did the same. Are not so easily banished. Thinking about what might have been. About what I should have understood. What you didn’t. We wasted so much time. Lost so many opportunities. Thirty-seven years of marriage and most of it a wasteland of indifference and indolence. We can never make that up to each other.”

He waited until she calmed. “I say it because it works for me. I know it doesn’t for you. After all these years you’d think I’d have found a way…” He paused and then said, “Let me tell you a story. You listening?”

She wiped her tears. “Another story?”

“Yes, another story. But this one might help. It takes place at an interdenominational religious retreat.”

“Is this a story or a joke?”

“All good stories are, at least in part, a joke,” he said with a grin. “Now you going to keep interrupting?”

She settled back into the chair and sighed. “Go on Professor.”

“The participants were divided into teams of three. This one had a Rabbi, a Priest and a Minister. During one of the breaks in the program, they decided to take a canoe out fishing. It was a hot day. The sun beat down. After about an hour, the Rabbi said, “I forgot my hat. I’ll be right back.” He got out of the canoe, walked across the water to the shore, picked up his hat, walked back, and settled into the canoe. The minister was deeply affected by the sight. More so because the Rabbi seemed so matter-of-fact about the whole thing.”

“Half an hour later the Priest said, “I’m getting sunburned. Time to lather up.” He got out of the canoe, walked to the shore, and retrieved the sunscreen. Settling back in the canoe, he rubbed it over all his exposed skin and turned back to fishing.”

“By this time, the Minister felt both amazed and challenged. Nothing like that had happened for thousands of years, and these two were treating a miracle as if it was an everyday occurrence. He was determined to show that his faith was as strong as theirs. So, he prayed and built up his resolve. Finally, he was ready. “I’ve got some different bait back on the shore. Maybe it’s time to try something else.” After one final ardent prayer he stood up and stepped out of the canoe and immediately sunk. The Rabbi and Priests watched him desperately trying to climb out of the water. Then the Rabbi asked, “You think we should tell him where the stones are before he drowns?”

His smile grew into a soft laugh. “A string of oases?”, she asked.

“Something like that,” he said softly and smiled faintly. “Pearls on an uncertain and indifferent string. The product of delightful non-sequiturs. All the glorious result of us.”

They sat in silence until he asked, “So, what did Nurse Cratchit tell you on the way in? How long did the old bag give me? Did she go on and on about how difficult I’ve been? If she did, don’t listen. It’s all made up. I’ve been a model prisoner.”

Her grip on his hand tightened slightly and he looked directly into her eyes. “Oh, so that’s it,” he said. “Damn her. I wanted to tell you myself. Been practicing all day. Had a whole speech ready. I’ve decided and wanted to help you understand. It’s time for me to leave, old friend. I don’t want to continue this way. There’s no hope for improvement. I’ve decided to leave. They’re even going to let me throw the switch. This will be my last sunset. I wanted to spend it with you.”

A silence settled in. She struggled between a desire to talk him out of it and knowing that, once he’d made up his mind on something like this, there was no going back. So damn stubborn. Always been that way. Now outgoing and now reserved. Now funny and then serious. Now kind and then crude. But always that stubborn streak.

“I’ll accept but never understand,” she said quietly. “How can I? Neither of us ever believed that we would go on forever. Even before you got sick, we slowed down together. Growing old in synchrony. The dance of the aging,” she said remembering their talks about it. “Staying in. Sleeping late. Going to bed early. And not for the old reasons,” she said with a grin. “But we always thought it would happen naturally.” Tears came and she turned away.

She gazed at the wall then said haltingly, “But at least I thought you would be gentleman enough to let me go first.” Fear rose. Frustration. Then subsided. Anger then more frustration. Wave after wave. Came and was quickly washed away by another. Then resignation. This is not the time for this she thought. “If this is goodbye, then you have something to say to me. I know you well enough. You’re not one to leave without an exit line.”

They sat in silence until he said, “I was never much good at leaving without one.” He smiled weakly. “I’ve been thinking about the journey we’ve shared. Not assessing. Reliving. I know yesterday was hard on you. Me too. It was a bad time. I was thinking things that turned darker than I could manage. In ancient Egypt, Horus would cut out your heart when you died and weigh it against a feather. Lighter than a feather and up you went. Heavier and down you were sent! I was cutting out my own heart and looking for that damn scale. Only after you left, and I calmed, did I realize what a pile of crap that was. Stuffing in a teddy bear? It’s the teddy bear not the stuffing. The canvas behind an oil painting? No, it’s the painting. Sausage making. No, it’s the wonderful taste of the result. The medium is so irrelevant. It all comes down to loving. Having loved. Being loved. And keeping the memories of that stone pathway of oases.”

He paused and she waited. “Loving is not fantasy or fairytale. It’s knowing. Understanding. Being known and, if you are lucky, occasionally being understood. I have had that from you. And nowhere else in my life. Returned them when I could. But it’s also about losing and silence and indifference. Stumbling and falling and not being helped up. Loving is hating. Wanting it over. Then the thundering relief at finding it’s not. Needing without any hope of receiving. And then … Wasting and not realizing. And then … Remorse, regret, resentment. Persevering, sometimes blindly and without hope. And then … Then comes the occasional oasis. It’s those special places and times that defined us. The world is full of the disappointing. That afternoon under the maple tree is greater than all our disappointments. The lightness on the scale that lifts all the rest.”

He paused and she felt his grip tighten. “It isn’t about getting some grade. A teacher who hands out an A+ for our work. We lived through it, and we know what it was. We know what it wasn’t. And only we know. Like billions of others who have gone before and will follow, we walk our paths to the end. And share parts of our journey along the way. Life is, after all, a no-win scenario. A Kobayashi Maru training exercise. But with no purpose other than itself. The only truly no-win scenario.”

She dipped a cloth in the bowl of cool water on the table next to the bed and ran it over his forehead. He smiled. “That felt so good. Sometime early this morning, the darkness passed. I came to realize something. What’s about to occur doesn’t matter. Nor does what I’ve decided. We don’t die with the victory of a malignancy. The only meaning of my deciding is snatching victory from its very grasp. A way of honoring our string of oases.”

The silence settled in again. She saw tears in his eyes and gently wiped them away. Then saw to her own. “We are something, the two of us,” she said. “Here at the end. Crying because it won’t continue. After always knowing it never could. Mourning the loss of what we only now and then came close to. We didn’t celebrate enough when we had it,” she said with a stiffness in her voice.

She felt his grip tighten again. “We didn’t need to celebrate”, he said. “We lived it. And living it was its own celebration. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about before I left.”

The nurse came in and replaced the IV bag. Asked him how he was doing. Made some marks on his chart. Glanced at her, faintly smiled, and left.

“My life came in chapters,” he whispered. “Born where I shouldn’t have been, wandered through places I didn’t need to be, mostly chasing things I didn’t need. Learning the useless to avoid facing the important. So pitifully little that was truly honored.” He paused as a memory arrived. “I told you I suspected my mother of having had an affair while dad was in the Pacific during the war. A traveling salesman. Visiting professor, more likely. I was so different from any of them. Later I changed that to an alien. Whoever it was, he must have arrived in a circular, interstellar craft. I certainly felt like an alien for most of my life. Until we met on that train.” He managed a weak smile. She bent over to kiss his forehead.

“How many chapters? How many miles before we met? How many lifetimes before our chapter began? Such strange, meaningless things to ask about. The longest of my chapters was ours.” He coughed and shifted uncomfortably. “Damn bedsores. Their days are numbered. I remember hearing my grandfather, who was rarely an optimist, say, “You are born, find things to do, and then you die.” He did the same things over and over. I seldom did anything more than twice.” He paused. Wrestling with the thought; not having the energy for it.

“I remember our first trip to Manhattan,” she said. “You took me to this cabaret. We listened to Mel Torme. It was amazing. The first time I’d ever been that close to someone singing that magically. And then he started this one song. I remember the intro lyrics. “Wherever I go they call me by name. And that in itself is some kind of fame.” Then he got to the end of the introduction. The last line was, “But often my eyes show a different shine.” He launched into Yesterday When I Was Young. I looked over and you had tears in your eyes. It was the first time I began to understand the cost you paid for all that wandering. I didn’t know how to respond. Afterwards, it was like having dinner with a stranger. Five years in, and I didn’t know you.”

He gripped her hand weakly. “I knew you were struggling but didn’t know what to do. There were decades of my yesterdays. We had always focused on the here and now. The discovery of our newness. I knew about your yesterdays. I guess I was afraid, if you learned all the things that I had been and done, the charm would be broken.”

She saw he was perspiring and wiped his forehead again. “Is the pain bad?”

“Not that I’m aware of. I suspect a truck could run over me, and I wouldn’t notice. You remember, two nights later I took you to another cabaret?”

Her face brightened. “Oh yes. Peter Allen at the Paradise Room in Reno Sweeney’s. That was such a magical night. Our table was one row back from the stage. I’d never experienced that kind of energy. He was so incredible. Alive and full of spirit. And then it happened again. He started a song. Just Ask Me I’ve Been There. She softly sang. “Not many surprises left coming to me. But it makes me smile what I’m turning out to be. I still get something out of music’s charms. I still feel something inside someone’s arms. Any questions you want answered. Anything you want to know. Just ask me I’ve been there.” You were smiling that smile. You opened the door. We talked until dawn. You mostly. I listened. So many amazing stories. Wandering all over the world. First, I envied. Then I was sad because I missed sharing them. Finally, I touched something of the loneliness of the long-distance runner. I began to understand the price you paid for all you’d been through.”

He sighed deeply. “Something happens when you are on your own for that long. When it doesn’t matter who you are with. Even married to. You’re alone. You lose part of what you might become. The part that lets you open to others. You can lose it forever. I lost it somewhere in Asia. Only later did I realize it was gone. I was only able to get it back for short times.”

“The oases,” she said, and he nodded. “Why were you on that train and why did you sit next to me?”

He grinned. “I’ve never told you this. I was coming back from Washington. One of my professors at GW had invited me to dinner at his place. When he wasn’t teaching business courses, he was a pianist on the side and part of a jazz group. I took the train down. When I got there, I discovered that our ‘dates’ did not include his wife. It set me off. Later, back in Manhattan, I sent a thank you card to his wife. How nice it was to meet her and enjoy the hospitality of her home. I never heard back. I left the dinner early. When I got on the train at Union Station to go home, I felt dirty. Nothing had happened. But I felt soiled. I needed a towelette,” he said with a grin. “And there you were. Truth be told, I never thought I would see you again. But just sharing the ride was cleansing.”

“So, I was a disinfectant?”

“Of sorts. And you did the job. I was glad you reached out the following week.”

“I almost didn’t. My marriage was about over. But I was still married. It seemed I mattered to you. That was a newer experience. Thought about it a long time before I called. Seemed risky. Still wasn’t sure until we met for that lunch. I still mattered to you. Didn’t know why but I knew I did. Ignorance made it possible. If I had known why you joined me, I probably would not have.” She grinned and winked.

He smiled. “Our lives together have left behind a string of beautiful tropical islands scattered across an indifferent sea. Islands in the stream of our time together. And they will always be there. We are always there. Even now. Will always be. Young. Swimming naked. Sleeping in a hammock under swaying palm trees. Sex on the soft, warm sand. Feasting on the abundance of it all. All that is loving about us. That’s where I came to this morning. Out of the darkness. Out of the irrelevancies and into the oases. For me, everything else has gone away. Before I go, I want to help it go away for you. Now only that string of beautiful tropical islands remains for me. That’s what’s left and it’s more than enough.”

She heard the desperation of one last wish rise in his voice. The last offered gift of decades together. Held out in the hope it would be received. That it would be enough. That it would be for her what he hoped.

“You always understood things that I never even thought of,” she said after a while. “I was always busy doing things. You busy thinking things. It was our strength together. I the practical. You the dreamer. Me arranging and you …” She trailed off and tears came.

“I do not have the strength to take those from you,” he said sadly. “All the times I did are past now. Please forgive my infirmity. For I wish I still had the strength, if only for one more time.”

She wiped her eyes and smiled at him. “Isles in the stream. All those times you did. Enough stepping stones to make a path. From one tropical island to another. All the way through our lives together.”

He smiled. “Echoes down the canyon. It’s a strange thought to me. New from this morning’s light. An understanding of what has meaning and what lacks it. All that we strived for. Planned, pursued, achieved, fell short of. In the end, what does it matter? Not really at all, does it? We could have been masters of the universe or a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas. Caesars or Prufrocks. In a few decades, it will all be completely forgotten. The fading echoes of our having been here. Our little string of islands and isles will melt into time, and no one will ever know of them. Something Orson Welles said in that old movie F for Fake about Chartres.” He paused under the effort. Sighed.

“I remember it,” she said. “Let me.” He nodded slowly and watched her face. “Welles was standing outside the cathedral on an overcast day.” She paused, remembering and then began to recite. “And this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole Western world, and it’s without a signature: Chartres. A celebration to God’s glory and to the dignity of man. All that’s left, most artists seem to feel these days, is man. Naked, poor, forked radish. There aren’t any celebrations. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know, it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand, choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish.”

He squeezed her hand and took up the narrative. “Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life. We’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced – but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”

He smiled at her and gripped her hand. “The purpose of life? The answer to the biggest question is forty-two. The journey to zero. The progression to non-existence. But, along the way, such a glorious and complex journey is to be had. To have been is not so very important. To be while being is there to live, that is the very reason for existence itself. Posterity is such a sad, delusional destination. To be forgotten is a matter of no consequence. I have loved you as I could and been loved by you as you could. That’s all that matters.”

They sat together in silence. The light through the blinds and the pattern on the floor faded. The machines beeped their quite reminders. The aroma of the roses filled both their senses. He looked up at her and said, “There is nothing more for you here. Everything that I am, and have been, is now yours to keep as you can. Go home and sleep in our bed.” She bent over and kissed him. Then left the room and hospice without talking to the nursing staff.

As the taxi took her along familiar roads, she wondered when it would happen. Or if it already had. Then she remembered and stopped wondering.

Sometime in the early morning hours she felt him slip into bed and press against her back. His arms slipped around her. She sighed and pressed back against him. His slow soft breathing became the gentle snoring she had come to love.

In the morning she woke alone. Showered with an old friend in the warm embrace of an oasis. Swimming young, naked in a tropical sea. Anticipating the warm, smooth sand.

1 COMMENTS

  1. Chief, wow. This was an enlightening and touching story. I wasn’t sure what to expect at the beginning but as the story went on, I couldn’t help but be entangled in it and wanting to hear the end (although I knew how it would end). Very interesting and captivating. Another great story full of inspirational messages. Thanks for sharing this story with us….
    Dan

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