Her Still, Perfect Form

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They liked to sleep in. Emma’s breathing was not the best, and it took her a while to gather energy. Jack just liked to laze in bed. Emma was usually the first one up, walking barefoot in her long flannel nightgown to the sink to wash her face and brush her teeth. She looked in the mirror, patted her hair into place and pinched her cheeks for color. Then, padding over to Jack’s bed, she leaned down and kissed him awake.

Opening his eyes, he reached up, touched her face and said, “there’s my morning sun.”

“Oh stop that foolishness Jack and get yourself up. Breakfast is coming,” she said.

They ate all three meals together in their room at the nursing home. The dining room was just too crowded and they would have to share a table with other people. Somehow, in their sixty-two years of marriage, they stayed selfish enough to be an exclusive pair. They didn’t plan to be childless, but when no babies came, it was alright.

Emma knew how to arrange a dining experience; she had lots of practice. Forty-three years before, she and Jack met at the cafeteria in town. She set tables.

“I knew she was the one for me the minute I looked at that sweet face,” Jack told everyone who met them. “Just look at her. Could you have resisted?”

“Don’t you believe his stories,” Emma said, smiling. “He didn’t really know until the second date.” Then, they both laughed.

Emma pushed their over-the-bed hospital tables together in the center of the room, covered them with a white linen cloth, and placed the vase with a silk rose in the middle. Jack had given her the flower for her birthday. When the stainless steel cart brought their meal trays down the hall, Emma assumed the role of waitress, placing the plates, glasses and utensils in perfect order on the couple’s make-shift dining table. She unfolded the napkin and tucked it under Jack’s chin. His button-up shirts never had a stain.

Jack didn’t have nice shirts until retirement. He was a hard worker, did manual labor, got his hands and clothes dirty. He and Emma lived in West Virginia. He dug coal from the age of ten. Emma had the education. She could read, Jack couldn’t.

The couple enjoyed a small mountain cabin with a garden spot out back. Electricity and running water came later on. Family was close by, and their church was just down the road. They lived in the same small town, in the same house, until Jack retired. That year, their minister died. His widow gave Jack all of the pastor’s clothes because the two men were the same size. Emma liked seeing Jack dressed up, so did Jack. Wearing those clothes made him feel a little closer to God. When he and Emma moved into the nursing home, Emma only packed Jack’s “preacher clothes.”

In the afternoon, when Emma napped, Jack drew. He used colored pencils, and though his artwork was not learned by formal training, he showed natural talent. “My Mama used to ‘oo’ and ‘ah’ over my pictures when I was a boy,” Jack said. “She would take me outside with my paper and pencils and point to trees, flowers, mountain ranges, creeks and animals for me to draw, then she’d tack the pictures up on the wall at home. She’d show them off to anyone who visited. Weren’t for her, it never would have amounted to much. Heck, didn’t really amount to much anyway, but people from as far away as town came up to the house for me to draw them. I even made a little money sometimes.”

Several of Jack’s pictures were framed and hung on the wall in his and Emma’s room. The one of Popeye was his favorite. “I always loved ‘ol Popeye. He’d pick up that can of spinach and get so strong, nothing could beat him or take his girl away,” Jack said.

Some of Jack’s projects took days, some only hours. He drew cars, trains, mountains, birds and houses. Sometimes he sketched staff members’ faces to give away as a thank you for being kind. A nursing assistant asked him once, “Where are your drawings of Emma, Jack?”

“I never drew Emma,” Jack said. “Oh I tried. Just couldn’t do her justice. Look at her. Only God could draw something so beautiful, so I drew love birds instead. That one’s her and this one’s me,” he said pointing to the pair of framed birds on the wall.

When people came to visit, Jack looked over to Emma for all the answers. His hearing was not so good anymore, and of the two, he considered her the smartest. He always had. She smiled graciously, and carried the conversation, while he smiled and nodded. Emma’s steadfastness reassured Jack.

On Saturday afternoon Jack came out of the room looking for Emma. He wandered the long hallways, knocking on doors, peering inside to see if she was there. That night, his usual sound sleep was interrupted. He got himself up in the wheelchair to check her bed. She was gone. He wondered where she was, what had happened to her. It wasn’t like her to be out after dark, gone in the middle of the night. He walked to the door of the room and asked a nursing assistant passing by if she had seen his wife.

“She’s still in the hospital Jack.”

“In the hospital? What happened? Why didn’t someone tell me?” he asked.

“We did Jack. You must have forgotten,” the nursing assistant said.

“How could I forget something like that?” he asked.

“You just woke up Jack. It’s easy to forget things when you’ve been asleep. I’ll call the hospital and check on her for you. Let me tuck you in and I’ll come back with the news,” she said.

“Thank you,” Jack said, letting the nursing assistant help him.

On Sunday, Jack fell. He had gotten the wheelchair stuck between the double doors leading to the parking lot. He was trying to pull the chair free. A nurse found him on his knees, struggling. When she asked what happened, he said, “I lost my balance. I need to find Emma.”

At lunch Monday, he wasn’t eating. “Just try a little bit Jack,” the nurse said.

“I’m worried sick,” Jack said. “I can’t take a bite of anything until she gets here. Emma is always here for lunch.”

“She’s in the hospital Jack. Remember? She fell and broke her hip Friday.”

Jack looked up, alarm on his face. “Oh, no. She fell and broke her hip?”

“Yes, on Friday. She was standing at the sink, lost her balance and fell. She broke her hip. They operated on Saturday. She’ll be home soon.”

After his shower on Tuesday, Jack stopped at the nurse’s station. “Can you tell me where Jack Arthur lives?” he asked.

“Just down the hall, Jack. Room 242. It’s the third door on the left,” the nurse said.

“Can you tell me where Emma is? I haven’t seen her this morning,” Jack said.

“She’s in the hospital, Jack.”

“In the hospital?” he asked, his voice rising, his eyes wide. “What do you mean she’s in the hospital? What happened? Why didn’t someone let me know?”

And so it went. Jack searched and asked. Staff members reassured and explained. Mid-morning, a housekeeper found Jack sitting with his head in his hands, sobbing. “I’ve lost the only woman I’ve ever loved,” he said. “Why would Emma leave me?”

A nurse called the hospital to ask someone to take a phone to Emma so she could reassure Jack. The staff there tried, but Emma’s voice was weak, and Jack’s hearing was poor.

That afternoon, the nursing home arranged for the facility bus to carry Jack to the hospital. He might not remember he had been to see Emma, but in the moment he was there, seeing her, being with her, he might find some comfort.

It had been awhile since Jack was outside. “It sure is beautiful out here. Look at all these colors. I don’t remember the trees being this big. Look at all these cars. Emma would love riding on this bus. I wish she was here. I want to tell her about this,” he said on the twenty minute trip to the hospital.

“Room 502,” the volunteer at the front desk said. “Take this hallway to the elevators. She’s on the fifth floor.”

“Fancy place,” Jack said. “Look at all these paintings. They’re beautiful. Emma would love them. She should come here and visit. Remind me to tell her about it and maybe you could bring us back here sometime.”

“Sure Jack, I’ll be glad to,” the driver said.

Emma was in the bed by the door, oxygen tubing in her nose, an IV attached to her bruised arm. Her eyes were closed.

“Oh my God, what happened?” Jack asked. “Was she in some sort of an accident? Emma, Sweetheart, can you hear me?”

Emma opened her eyes and gave a faint smile. “Hello Jack,” she said in a whisper.

“Do you know who this is?” Jack asked.

“Of course I know who you are Jack,” she said, before closing her eyes again.

He took her hand in his. “It’s cold as ice,” he said, rubbing it between his two. Then, he bowed his head and said to no one in particular, “Oh God, what happened to my baby?”

The driver put a hand on Jack’s shoulder, and said, “Emma fell last week, and broke her hip.”

“Oh my poor baby,” he said. “I know how that feels. I fell on a rail in the coal mines one time and dislocated my hip. It was so painful. Do you think she’s in pain? Emma, are you in pain, Sweetheart?” he asked.

Emma opened her eyes again and said, “Everything hurts.”

“I’m going to the desk to find the nurse, Jack,” the driver said. “You sit here with Emma. I’ll be right back.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Jack said.

In a few minutes the nurse came into the room with a syringe.

Jack looked up. “I’m Jack Arthur, Emma’s husband. What happened to her?” he asked.

“She had surgery on her hip,” the nurse said.

“What?” Jack asked.

In a louder voice, the nurse re-stated, “She fell and broke her hip. She had surgery on Saturday.”

“Oh my poor Emma,” Jack said. “Why didn’t someone tell me she fell? When did this happen? I could have been here with her.”

Jack turned back to Emma and took her hand. He rubbed and patted it, watching her face. She opened her eyes and tried to smile at him.

The nurse looked at Jack and then at the driver. “I’m so sorry,” she said, shaking her head.

The nurse injected the syringe of medicine into the IV and left the room.

“The nurse gave her some pain medication, Jack,” the driver said. “She’ll probably sleep now. I think we should let her rest.”

Jack pushed up from the wheelchair with effort. His legs shook, barely holding his weight as he leaned over Emma’s frail body. He stroked her cheek with bent fingers. Putting his face very close to hers, he asked again, “Do you know who this is?”

Emma looked so small and fragile there in the bed with tubes running from her arm and to her nose with oxygen. Her usually neat, coiffed hair was in a tangle on her head and her face was so pale it blended with the white of the pillow case. She looked up at Jack and said again, “Of course I know who you are Jack.”

He had turned his good ear to her mouth after he asked the question. “Of course you know who I am,” he said. “I’m the man who beats you within an inch of your life every day.”

Emma smiled. They both chuckled at the long running joke between them. Jack moved his hand to Emma’s shoulder. It was bare where the faded blue and white hospital gown had slipped off. Her shoulder was thin and fit in Jack’s palm. He rubbed her skin before pulling the gown back up. He moved in close again, right over Emma’s face and said, “I need you to get better and come back to me. I miss you.”

Emma closed her eyes tightly, then opened them again. She lifted her hand with effort to Jack’s head and smoothed his white hair. She put on a weak smile again and whispered, “I miss you too.”

As he had done every night since they were married, Jack kissed her forehead, then, each of her eyelids, and finally, moved to her mouth. Emma lifted her lips to his and they kissed each other three times in succession, gently, with only a breath of sound. “I’m going now so you can rest,” Jack said. “You behave, no running after good looking doctors.”

Emma closed her eyes and shook her head, smiling again at her Jack. “You can always make me laugh Jack, even when I don’t think it’s in me,” she said.

Emma came back to the nursing home a few days later, back to room 242, back to Jack, but with a new diagnosis of bone cancer. Surgery to repair the hip was unsuccessful. Morphine kept her comfortable. She slept most of the time with Jack by her side, holding her hand. His worry was etched in the lines on his forehead. Emma awakened sometimes when he kissed her forehead. She reassured him with her smile.

Emma had no appetite and her disinterest in food carried over to Jack. Staff members encouraged him, telling him he needed to keep his strength up for Emma. That afternoon, Jack finally accepted a bowl of his favorite soup. He bowed his head over the bowl and sent up a prayer for his Emma.

As he brought the spoon to his mouth, soup spilled onto the front of his starched white shirt. He looked down at the stain, and frowned. As he unbuttoned his shirt, his hands began to shake and tears welled in his eyes. He finished stripping the shirt off and wiped his eyes with it, then threw it to the floor. He wheeled to the closet, pulled out a fresh one, struggled into it, and fastened the buttons. He pushed the wheeled table with the bowl of soup on it out to the hallway and closed the door.

Jack hadn’t taken his colored pencils out since Emma fell. His worry filled him and his inspiration had slipped away.

That evening, Emma opened her eyes when Jack leaned in to kiss her.

She lifted her hand to his cheek with effort. “You need a shave handsome,” she whispered, smiling.

Jack reached up and put his hand over hers, pulled her palm to his mouth and kissed it. They held each other’s gaze until Emma’s eyes closed.

A little while later, he wheeled over to the night stand and gathered his sketchpad. Going back over to Emma’s bedside, he took out his pencil and began drawing her still, perfect form.

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