Archive for June, 2010

Too Late

June 19, 2010

Mama pulled me by the hand, as we ran to the car,  “Hurry Baby, come on, we’ve got to get home.  I didn’t realize how late it was.”

We’d stayed at the park too long.  The sun wasn’t hot anymore. The slide didn’t burn my bare legs when I went down.  It was the best time to be at the park, but we couldn’t stay. It wasn’t a good time to be away from home. I didn’t argue. I wanted to get there as fast as she did. 

She started the station wagon and we lurched into traffic. Cars kept getting in our way, stopping at lights, or taking a long time to turn.  The mailman kept putting mail in people’s boxes and Mama banged her hand on the steering wheel.

“Dammit,” she said.

My Daddy’s truck wasn’t home when we got there and Mama let out a long breath.  “Let’s hurry,” she said.

Pork chops sizzled in the skillet and Mama was washing lettuce in the sink when the screen door squeaked. Our heads turned at the slide of the key in the lock.  It happened every time the key slid in, even if Mama was humming a song or washing a dish in the sink, she stopped, turned, and watched the doorknob.  The key made a scratching sound, then a click, and the knob turned.

When my Daddy came in the house singing or whistling or carrying a grocery bag, everything would be OK. He might pick me up and swing me around, calling me his doll baby, or kiss Mama and dance her around the kitchen.  It didn’t happen often, but when it did, we had fun. Even Mama looked happy.

When he came in quiet though, I held my breath.  Tonight, he was quiet.  The door of the trailer opened into the living room.  The sofa faced the kitchen and the TV was between the two.  I was sitting on the floor watching the Roadrunner outsmart the Coyote.

“Shut that damn racket off,” Daddy said.

I turned the knob on the set way down so I couldn’t hear the “meep, meep,” and backed myself up until I was sitting in the hole between the sofa and the green chair.  There was a space just big enough for me to curl into, if I pulled my knees up real tight, and held them with my arms.  I squeezed my eyes shut, and waited.

“Where have you been all day?” he asked Mama.

“Here mostly,” she said.  “It was sunny, so I took Maggie to the park this afternoon, for a little while.”

“Uh huh, sure you did,” he said.

I heard the refrigerator door open and the beer bottles rattle.  He popped the top off of one and the cap rolled around on the kitchen floor.  He kicked it, and it hit the wall under the window.

“Must have had fun today,” he said, “going to the park and all.  That why you’re all dressed up?  That why you have on lipstick?”  He asked Mama.

“I’m not all dressed up,” she said in a quiet voice with a shake in it.

She wasn’t dressed up.  She had on a dress, but it was an old one with a hole at the bottom where she got it caught on a nail outside one day.  She always wore lipstick.

“Can’t I give my wife a compliment, tell her she looks nice without an argument?” He said, his voice getting louder, as he slammed the bottle down on the kitchen table. 

“I’m sorry, Honey,” Mama said.  She said she was sorry a lot.  Most of what she said wasn’t right or didn’t come out like she meant it to.

“You’re sorry alright,” he said.  “I should have listened to my mother.  She said you were no good.  She said you’d run around on me and lie.  ‘Too pretty for her own good,’ she said.  ‘Don’t go and marry her, you’ll regret it,’ she said.”

Then their voices stopped. I could smell hot oil in the skillet, hear water splashing in the sink. My heartbeat was in my ears. I opened my eyes. 

Mama turned with the lettuce in her hand just in time to catch the back of my Daddy’s hand with her cheek.  She spun around on the floor, letting go of the lettuce.  It smashed into the kitchen window and bounced off the table and ended on the floor.  Mama fell in a heap at my Daddy’s feet.  She was curled up, holding her face, and crying.

“Don’t lie to me again,” he said, picking up his beer as he slammed out the front door.

I waited a few minutes, until I heard the truck roar, back up, and take off again, scattering rocks against the side of the trailer.  I crawled out of my hole and over to my Mama.  I sat on the floor rubbing her back.

“I’m sorry I made us late,” I said.  “I won’t do it again.”

I looked at the TV. The coyote was pushing an anvil to the edge of the cliff, waiting for the roadrunner to stop underneath.

The Couple

June 1, 2010

 

I

Gillian saw darkness, felt it pressing on her chest. She heard voices calling for IV’s and stretchers, backboards and help. Above the blare of sirens someone said, “Ma’am, Ma’am, can you hear me?”

Gillian felt arms reach under her, lifting her onto something hard and flat. A man’s voice, very close to her ear, said, “It’s gonna be alright Ma’am. You’re gonna be fine. This is an oxygen mask – to help you breathe.”

A radio crackled with medical terms and Gillian drifted back. She was lying in a moving vehicle and couldn’t understand why. Gillian continued to fade in and out of consciousness until the ride ended. Then she heard the doors open and felt the stretcher being lifted and unfolded. Her chest hurt. The automatic doors of the ER slid open and bright lights blurred overhead. Gillian was in a hallway. Her glasses were gone.

“Patient name?” someone asked.

“ID says Gillian Hill,” answered another.

“Anything else?” asked the first voice.

“Several pill bottles found in her purse – Digoxin, Elavil, Lipitor, Toprol.”

“Bag that. Right now she’s critical. Surgery two, stat,” ordered the first voice.

Gillian could tell people were hovering over her, pulling equipment, lifting her onto a table.

She felt her shoes slide off, then her socks. The cold metal of scissors slid along her leg as someone cut through her pants. Then she felt John’s sweater lift. Someone was cutting John’s sweater from her body. She wanted to scream “No!” but couldn’t. She wanted to tell them they couldn’t take it. She needed his sweater. Then it was gone. John’s warmth was gone and Gillian felt colder than she ever had.

***

Gillian fumbled on the bedside table for her glasses. Their thick lenses magnified her faded blue eyes. She pushed the covers off and lowered her stiff legs over the edge of the mattress. Her knees creaked. John was standing there, with a steaming mug of coffee in his hands. Gillian reached out and her fingers covered his before she took it. 

“Mmm,” she said, “smells just like heaven.” The warmth of the ceramic eased the arthritic ache in her hands.

“Yep, good and strong, too.” John leaned down and kissed her softly.

She tasted the coffee on his mouth and smiled. He was tousled. His sparse, silver hair stuck up in all directions and his eyebrows needed a trim. He hadn’t put his teeth in yet and his thin face looked all the more gaunt. The treatments had taken their toll, though his blue eyes still twinkled – the same eyes that drew her to him fifty years ago. Their wedding picture on the nightstand was black and white, but Gillian remembered the colors.

“I’m going for a shower.  What time is your appointment again?” he asked.

“At 11:00 , but they want us there a little early to fill out more forms. You go ahead and turn on the water. Let it get warm and I’ll get us a refill. Be there in a few minutes.”

“All right,” he said.  “I could go for some –”

“Oatmeal? That would be good,” she answered.

“Good, I think we have –” he started again.

“Raisins, yes we do. I saw them yesterday when I was looking for your ginger ale.”

John shook his head and smiled. “Always amazes me how do you do that,” he said.

“Do what?” she asked.

“Never mind, here’s your robe,” he said, holding it up for her to put her arms in. She tied the sash and reached for her cane before shuffling out of the bedroom, heading for the kitchen. She heard his slippers scuffing on the floor behind her as he made his way to the bathroom.

Gillian followed John’s path of discarded clothes. For someone so organized, he never picked up an article of his clothing. It was harder and harder for Gillian to bend down and scoop up his underwear and socks. She had a good mind to leave them until he ran out of clean ones. “Raisins,” she reminded herself.

John was already in the shower, washing, when she returned. Steam fogged her glasses and she set the mug down on the vanity and slid open the shower door. John handed her a washcloth. He had already soaped it. She felt the hills and valleys of vertebrae along his spine as she rubbed him with it. She remembered when the muscles of his back were strong and supple under her hand. She remembered when her fingers were long and straight. Time had changed their bodies, but not their touch. She scrubbed the right side of his back, just under his shoulder blade.

“Ah, that’s it. You’ve got the spot.”

He turned, rinsed, and stepped out of the shower and into the towel Gillian wrapped around his middle. She hugged him tight, then slipped off her robe.  When she turned to face him, he waggled his bushy eyebrows and smiled a lecherous grin, growling low in his throat.

“I’m glad you put in your teeth,” she said. “A toothless tiger is not very sexy.”

“It’s not my teeth you like, Jilly.”

Gillian made a sneer, but John took her hands and held her close. For a full minute they embraced, standing in the bathroom, the shower running and the fan spinning. “We’ll always be together, Jilly, I promise.”

“Here,” she said, handing him the mug of coffee. “This will have to quench your thirst. We don’t have time for anything else this morning – and you have to eat your fancy breakfast.” 

She flashed a smile then stepped into the shower, soaped the washcloth and handed it to him before turning. He chuckled as he washed her back. It seemed he knew just the right spots on her, too.

Gillian dressed in a comfortable pair of pants and button-up shirt. Her gray hair was straight, cut short, in a bob that would have been a cute style, except this morning she pulled her bangs severely to the side and anchored them with a pin. Her thick ankle length socks were visible through the buckled sandals she wore.  The socks were loose from years of wear. Before she and John left the house, Gillian asked for the third time, “Did you turn off all the lights?”

“If it isn’t the coffee maker, it’s the stove, or the fan in the bathroom. Yes Jilly, I turned off the lights.” John sighed deeply, holding the front door open for her.

“Don’t forget to lock the door,” she said.

The appointment with Dr. Stevens was a referral from Dr. Davis. One day, not too long after John’s treatments started for the lung cancer, Gillian experienced a shortness of breath that was unusual for her. Small exertions winded her to the point that she’d have to sit down and rest before finishing a simple task like washing dishes or making the bed. John was concerned about her heart. 

“You are going to the doctor, Gillian. I’m worried.”

“I’m just a little winded, John.  It’ll pass.” 

But the condition continued, and John made the appointment.

Tests revealed no conclusive reason for Gillian’s difficulty breathing. Her heart was strong and her lungs were clear. She had no wheezing that would suggest asthma, and no signs of bronchitis.

During the check up, however, Dr. Davis noticed a spot on Gillian’s forehead.

“How long has this been here?”

“What?” she was puzzled.

“This spot on your forehead.”

“I haven’t noticed a spot. Where?” 

Dr. Davis pointed to the area in question.

“Oh, that. I’ve had it awhile. Just an age spot. I have them all over me. I tell John they’re my beauty marks. I should be gorgeous by now.”

“This spot concerns me, Gillian. I think it might be an issue. I want to send you to a dermatologist who can tell us some more. I’d like her to look at it.  I believe it needs to be removed.”

The biopsy was done three days later. Gillian received the call from Dr. Stevens’ office a week after that.

“The lesion is malignant. We need to schedule you for surgery to remove it.”

Gillian couldn’t speak. She handed the phone to John, and sank down into her rocker. She had cancer. She had been strong for John. Now, she felt her own strength start to slip away. She heard John say, “Okay Dr. Stevens, we’ll be there. Thank you.”

Today’s appointment was for the surgery. Here they were, facing another threat, and another worry.

At the parking lot, John circled, looking for a vacant space close to the front of the office building. All the handicapped spots were taken. 

“I know all those people can walk,” John complained.

“Just  park, John.  I don’t want to be late and you going around and around is wasting time.” 

This happened every time they went somewhere.  He had to search for the closest space. Male pride and territory, she thought.

“Look, there’s someone pulling out of a space, right there, in front,” he announced, whipping the car to the right.  Gillian braced herself, holding onto the door handle as the car careened, sliding her over toward John.  Words came up, but she bit her tongue to keep them from spilling out. 

They walked up to a metal and glass door marked “Dermatology/Surgery.” The entrance was tall, reaching almost to the second floor and wide enough for two couples to pass. They stood side by side, looking at the sign.

“Not the place for us, they must treat giants here,” John said. He grasped the handle and pulled, using his cane for leverage. His breathing was labored due to the tumor and his weakened condition. The exertion taxed him, but he held the door for Gillian.

The waiting room was almost full, and the only young people in the office were staff. They worked behind a glass partition, like the barrier protected them from age, or the skin cancer that dotted the assembly of ex-sun worshippers on the other side.  Staff busied themselves, not looking at each other. They seemed like drones in a beehive, scurrying. The waiting area was a contrast, people sat silently, staring straight ahead, or thumbing through old magazines, not really reading. They flipped time away until they were called for a prognosis. John and Gillian stood just inside the entrance and surveyed the room. It felt like they were on a precipice, waiting to fall into a world of worry.

John spotted the only two chairs available side by side and pointed them out to his wife. Eyes turned to the couple as they walked into the waiting room. Gillian was taller than most women of her generation. She was thin and had taken on the square look that comes to a woman as she moves into later decades. She had pilfered John’s dark cable knit sweater from his closet earlier in the fall. She wore it all the time now – since his diagnosis – and it hung on her frame. The sweater was too big, but cozy, and it made her feel like she was wrapped in John’s warmth.

John was also slim and not much taller than his wife. He wore a denim button down shirt, tucked into faded Chinos. His black belt was thin. His hair was silver, combed back from his forehead and neatly trimmed, but sparse from the chemo treatments. John wore socks like his wife’s and the same kind of leather buckle sandals, only his were heavier, dark and wide. Along with his cane, he carried an attaché case with handles and the round imprint of an insurance company’s logo.

The couple was a matching pair, like a set in Gillian’s salt and pepper shaker collection. People had commented for years that John and Gillian looked more like brother and sister than husband and wife. When Gillian looked back at their early photos as a couple, they didn’t resemble each other. Funny, how almost fifty years together could mold two people into one shape. Yet that seemed to be the extent of their likeness. John was the logical one. He balanced the checkbook to the penny, kept his tools organized on peg boards, and put up with her intuition but didn’t understand anything about it.

Gillian was the emotional one, an artist, disorganized and flighty. John often said, “I got caught up in the whirlwind of Jilly and ran behind her picking up pieces to save in my pockets until she needed them again.” He carried his cane in his right hand, she carried hers in her left.

The pair walked to the seats and John helped his wife settle into one. A minute later, he came back with a clip board. She took his cane and leaned it against hers.

“There are four pages here,” he said.

“Did you bring your glasses?”

He patted his front shirt pocket. 

“I must have left them on the kitchen table.”

“Here,” she said, taking hers off and handing them to him. He put them on and began to fill out the papers.

Midway through the first page, he reached for his case, opened it, and pulled out a flat wallet. He slid out several small cards, and copied information onto the forms. Every once in a while he would turn and study her, as if looking would help him remember the answers, then he went back to writing.

“Did you bring the medicine bottles?” he asked.

“Here they are,” she said, taking them from her purse. He looked at the four brown bottles one at a time and copied their names onto the form, calling them out so she could tell him what they were for, “Heart, blood pressure, cholesterol, depression.” 

He limped the clipboard back to the receptionist and returned.

“Jan called this morning while you were finishing in the shower,” he said. “She wanted to know if we needed a ride. She rattled off about twenty things she had to get done before the kids got home from school. I told her we’d be fine.”

“Those kids and that husband of hers are going to kill her,” Gillian said.  “It’s no wonder she’s so thin and doesn’t sleep at night. She worries too much. Why did you tell her we were even coming for this today?”

“Well, I think she needs to know. Wouldn’t you want to know?”

“Of course I would, but you know how she worries and frets. I just hate to add one more thing to her plate. She’s worried about Jim’s job. They’re downsizing, and Sam is failing something he has to pass to graduate. Ellie’s running around with that boy who’s too old for her with tattoos on his body and earrings all over his face, and that damned dog of theirs just had puppies. You just shouldn’t have told her, that’s all.”

The nurse approached and motioned for them to come to the examination room. John stood, took his cane and slipped his hand under Gillian’s arm.  She pushed up from the chair and rocked forward a couple of times before gaining enough momentum to get up. He steadied her and then slid his case under his arm and placed his free hand on the small of her back.

“Hello, Mrs. Hill. Good to see you again.” said Dr. Stevens, a young woman.

 “Hi, Dr. Stevens,” John said. “Thank you for scheduling the surgery so quickly. Gillian’s worried herself silly since you called.”

“It’s melanoma,” the doctor said. “It’s the most dangerous of the skin cancers. The cells that produce skin pigment start growing aggressively. We see melanoma more in fair skinned people with blue eyes, like you Gillian. This lesion is fairly large. I would say it’s been here awhile. Is that right?”

“Yes, but I just thought it was an age spot,” Gillian said quietly.

“The most important thing is that you are here. We can remove the lesion and treat the area,” said Dr. Stevens. The surgery shouldn’t take too long. Sit here Gillian, and let’s take a look.”

Dr. Stevens adjusted her glasses and snapped on rubber gloves.  She pressed on Gillian’s forehead and bent close to examine.  Gillian could smell mint on Dr. Steven’s breath. It was fresh, but reminded her of a medical office.

“What’s going to happen?” John asked.

“We’ll remove the lesion, freeze it and slice it into small sections, looking at the cells under a microscope for any malignancy. Hopefully, when we reach the bottom slice we see no more of the bad cells. If we do, though, we’ll remove more tissue and repeat the process. We only need to use local anesthetic, Gillian, you’ll be awake the whole time.”

“What happens after the lesion is gone?” asked Gillian.

“Well, depending on the depth of the tumor, we may need to follow up with treatment, radiation or chemotherapy, sometimes both.”

“Oh,” said Gillian, her eyes downcast.  She had seen the effects of the chemo on John and couldn’t fathom how they would manage treatments at the same time. She felt like the chemicals were killing John slowly, right before her eyes. He was brave and put up a good front, but his thin, bent body told the truth. Gillian wasn’t afraid of dying. She worried about not being able to care for John. She looked at him, tears welling in her eyes. He reached out, squeezed her hand and gave a smile. Gillian took a deep breath.

Dr. Stevens patted her shoulder and said, “Let’s get started, alright? 

“Can I stay with her?” John asked, not letting go of Gillian’s hand.

“Of course,” said Dr. Stevens.

When they left the examination room two hours later, a large bandage graced the middle of Gillian’s forehead.

“Do you have some aspirin with you?” John asked her as they approached the elevator. “My head is killing me.”

She opened her purse and rummaged around until she found the small white bottle. She opened it and spilled two tablets into his open hand. He threw them back and drank from the fountain by the elevator.

John pushed the button and they waited.

“You call Jan when we get home and tell her,” Gillian said.

“Okay,” he replied.

They walked out of the medical office and turned left onto the sidewalk. Gillian reached out with her free hand and grasped John’s. Their fingers tightened. Together, they walked slowly to their car, an older Chevy, its blue paint, faded like her eyes and his pants.

John opened the passenger door. Gillian put her cane and his case inside. Then shestraightened up and turned around to face him, backing herself up until she felt the edge of the seat behind her. She stopped and looked up at John. He rested his cane against the open door and lifted his thin hands to frame his wife’s face. He leaned close and kissed the bandage on her forehead.

“We’ll get through this together, Jilly, I promise. We always do,” he reassured her, gazing into her eyes. He helped her into the seat and closed the door, then walked around the vehicle and got in. “How about a cup of coffee?”

“Sounds like just what we need. We’ll share one.”

John pulled up to the intersection. He put on the left blinker and accelerated, proceeding through the turn that would take them to their favorite coffee shop. He glanced to Gillian, she was still smiling, even with the silly bandage.  He didn’t see the tractor-trailer coming. John’s light was green.

***

One second Gillian was smiling at John and the next she saw the square glass headlights and silver grill of the truck.  Her mouth opened as she lifted her hand to point. John turned to look just before it hit them. Gillian screamed.

Darkness. Darkness and then chaos. Sirens wailed and men yelled. The smell of gas so strong it burned her nose and throat. Heavy footsteps ran on the pavement. No focus. Blurry figures bending close. The sound of metal wrenching. She thought she heard John say, “Gillian.” But his voice sounded weak and then it was gone. Big yellow boots. Flashing lights. Gillian closed her eyes, trying to make sense of it. Where was she? What happened? Where was John? He always steadied her when things were confusing or chaotic.  His voice soothed her and his touch calmed her. Where did he go?

“He’s not breathing, his heart’s stopped. Give me those paddles,” Gillian heard a man say. “We’re losing him. Clear –”

Then a jolt. Pain in her chest stole her breath and Gillian knew. John was dead. She felt it. She didn’t need to open her eyes and see. 

Gillian could feel John’s spirit rising from his body and pulling hers with it.  “Don’t you dare leave me, John Hill,” she whispered. “We’re supposed to be together – you promised.”

II

He heard Gillian and she was mad. “Don’t you dare leave me, John Hill,” she whispered. “We’re supposed to be together – you promised.” He could hear her, but he couldn’t see her. If he got to her quickly enough, told her a joke, kissed her, he wouldn’t get the cold shoulder tonight. She’d forgive him.

This dream was like one of those new 3D movies where things and people floated out of the screen and over the audience. John was up, not in the sky, but above everything going on.  The colors below him were bright, but the sound was brighter. John couldn’t remember the last time he could hear this well. Sirens wailed and rescue people called out.

“Hurry, there’s a woman in the passenger side, on the floor,” came a voice from under a scuffed yellow fireman’s hat.

 “He’s gone,” another said, in a defeated tone. John looked over to the rescue worker and saw the man pushing himself up from the side of a body covered in blood.

The smell of the gas spilling on the asphalt assailed John’s nostrils, but didn’t burn his nose and eyes. A firefighter in heavy bright yellow pants was spraying foam under and around the car and truck. Others were working feverishly to get the passenger side door open.

“Get that door off, there’s gas all over the place,” said a deeper voice.

“Use the Jaws,” yelled another.

A firefighter came running with a large metal tool. He and another squad member wrestled with it at the passenger side of a car. John could see clearly, every color, every shape, even the tiny pieces of gray gravel scattered on the pavement. The painted white and yellow lines on the road were bright and clear. The truck was pitched to the side yawning over a mashed car. The car was a faded blue, 70’s model Chevy, just like his. The car even had a dent on the right front fender. Then it dawned on him.

“It’s my car. Oh No!  Not my baby.”

Forty years ago, John had saved every extra dollar he could find in a Dutch Masters cigar box to buy that car. He’d walked onto the lot and handed the salesman a wad of cash, leaving the man open-mouthed. John smiled thinking back to that moment. Those keys in his hand, that motor under his command was almost as good as –

“There, got it,” the man’s voice interrupted John’s thoughts. The sound of metal wrenching made him want to cover his ears. He looked at his car, his baby, ruined. He washed and polished the Nova every week, vacuumed the interior religiously and changed the oil more often than the owner’s manual instructed. His car was under the wheels of that huge truck. No one ever drove that car but John. Who had stolen his car?

He noticed that the rescue worker covered the bloody body he had been working on with a blanket.  John’s first  thought was, “Served him right, for stealing my car,” Then he admonished himself. No car is worth a man’s life. “Grab that backboard. Be easy, watch her neck,” another cautioned,

“Get me an IV.”

“Ma’am, Ma’am, can you hear me?” asked another.

John wanted to move to see who the worker was referring to. He was interested in seeing this “she” who was with the man who stole his car. He kept trying to move, but this dream had him suspended in one spot.

The rescue squad workers pulled the stretcher and a backboard from the van and hurried over. Gently, they lifted the woman from the wreckage and onto the backboard. As they moved the body, John’s body moved in tandem.  The woman’s feet came into view. Her sandals looked like Gillian’s.

A squad member bent over the woman with an oxygen mask. “It’s gonna be alright Ma’am. You’re gonna be fine. This is an oxygen mask, to help you breathe,” John heard the young man say.

John yelled, “Get out of the way so I can see,” but no one seemed to pay attention. The man with the oxygen stood up and John recognized his own cardigan sweater, the one Gillian had been wearing lately.

“Oh my God, it’s Gillian on that backboard, under that oxygen mask. She was in the car.” John wanted to wake up. “Wake up, Dammit!” he yelled to himself. He pinched himself, slapped his own face. Nothing worked. “Gillian!” he called loudly.  She didn’t open her eyes, no one looked up. He continued to hover over his wife, helpless.

It was as if he were an invisible helium balloon attached to Gillian by an invisible thread. They loaded her into the ambulance and John floated in the ceiling of the van right over her. They rode to the hospital together as the squad members inserted an IV and applied a neck collar to his wife. The workers talked back and forth, never noticing John suspended there right above them.

“Hey, you with the red hair, that’s my wife. Be careful. Hey, you with the needle, she hates needles. I need to hold her hand when you do that. Wait a second, I can’t reach.”

No one paid any attention to his directions. John heard everything clearly. No one heard him.

He hovered over her as she was taken from the ambulance, wheeled through the hallway, as they sliced off her clothes. They cut away his sweater from her body. She was cold; he could feel it and he couldn’t warm her. His heat had risen.