Posts Tagged ‘Couple’

Her Still, Perfect Form (part 3-fin)

March 10, 2013

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Part 1 here: https://trainswhistle.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/her-still-perfect-form-part-1/

Part 2 here: https://trainswhistle.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/her-still-perfect-form-part-2/

Part 3

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 had 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.

Her Still, Perfect Form (Part 2)

March 3, 2013

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link to Part 1:
https://trainswhistle.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/her-still-perfect-form-part-1/

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 wheeled 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 likes my drawings, but they aren’t nearly as fancy or pretty as these. 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 as she pushed his wheelchair toward Emma’s room.

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?”

TBC

Her Still, Perfect Form (part 1)

February 24, 2013

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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.

One 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 wheeled to the door of the room and asked a nursing assistant passing by if she had seen his wife.

Part 2 here:

https://trainswhistle.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/her-still-perfect-form-part-2/

Homemade Rolls, Pound Cake, and a few Cats

December 30, 2010

Georgia called the other night.

“Hey, when is that boy of yours coming home again?”

“He’ll be home tomorrow,” I said. “Goes back Saturday.”

“I’ve been promising him some yeast rolls for months now. What time do you get off work Friday?”

“Four-thirty,” I said. “Ben wants to go by the Verizon Store to get a new phone and we’re meeting my parents for supper at Teresa’s Café at six o’clock though, so we’ll be on a pretty tight timeline, why?”

“I’m making Ben some bread and I have a chocolate chip pound cake for him in the freezer as well. I’d bring it by, but Earl’s been having some heart problems and I don’t want to leave him here by himself.”

“We’ll be going right past your house on the way to Teresa’s,” I said. “We can drop by to pick up the rolls and cake. That’s awfully sweet of you to do Georgia.”

“You know when Mama was in the nursing home, Ben visited her every week and she loved your boy better than she did cookies, and she loved cookies. He’s a good boy. I want to do this, and I want to see him.”

“Sure we can come by. We’ll see you a little before six then.”

I called Ben to relay the news. He loves Georgia and Earl. They are a married couple who argue and fuss with each other most of their waking hours. They never had children, but take care of everyone around them. Georgia wrote the cookbook for the Volunteer Rescue Squad Auxillary fundraiser, and Earl ran with the fire department until his legs gave out. He’s a long time member of the community Band. He plays the tuba.

We’ve never been to Earl and Georgia’s House. We either see them at the nursing home, or bump into them at the grocery or hardware store in town. Sometimes, they stop by our house on their way to or from Charlottesville. We spend forty-five minutes listening to their bickering banter, not being able to get a word in edgewise, just listening and laughing, before they reach in a bag and hand us a homemade goodie. They hug and kiss us before they leave. It may be a cliché, but Georgia’s baked goods melt in your mouth. We have fought over the last brownie or piece of spice cake.

On Friday evening, when Ben and I pulled into Earl and Georgia’s driveway, cats scattered. There must have been five or six, all colors, all sizes. Three small dogs jostled for position in the bay window facing us and one jumped up and down at the storm door on the side porch, his head, reappearing in the glass every few seconds. All the dogs barked, non-stop.

Ben and I got out of the car and headed to the front door.

“Back here,” Georgia called from the side porch.

She opened the door for us and when we stepped into the house, both of us stopped. The stench was overwhelming, a combination of cat pee amonia, dog poop, stale urine, canned cat food, moth balls and wet dog. Ben and I exchanged a glance. We turned to the couple and we smiled. They reached out, arms open and hugged us tight.

“Well, look at you, young man. How much taller have you gotten?” Earl asked, clasping Ben’s hand in his and slapping him on the back.

Ben smiled and coughed, his eyes watering. I knew it was the smell, not his emotions. Georgia opened the window over the sink to let a cat in. It walked over to the plate of moist gray meat on the counter and began to lick the food. Georgia petted the tabby absentmindedly.

“What time do you leave to go back to college tomorrow?” she asked Ben.

“Have to pull out pretty early in the morning,” he said. “I’ve got a staff meeting in the afternoon I have to be back for.”

I knew the staff meeting was at 5:00 in the afternoon. It takes two and a half hours to drive back to Ferrum. Ben was warding off a second invite.

While Georgia wrapped and bagged the bread and cake, Earl took us on a tour of the house. There were dogs and cats, litter boxes, balls of fur and chew toys in every room. Cats perched on shelves, under cabinets, acted as centerpieces on tables, padded across counter tops and lazed in window sills. All the dogs followed after us, barking.

“Shut up dogs,” Georgia yelled from the kitchen.

Earl introduced us, “This is Yellow Cat, Bingo, Jeff, Mutt, Punkin, Spot, Dribbles…” On and on he went, picking them up petting and kissing them. Ben and I petted, patted and cooed to them. Earl showed us his framed goodbye poster from his 30 year anniversary party at GE where he spent his working years. We marveled at Georgia’s salt and pepper shaker collection, her cookbook collection and got to see Earl’s computer where he emails forty lonely old ladies around the world, just to keep them company.

“Shut up that barking,” Earl yelled at the dogs. They didn’t listen.

We walked back into the kitchen. Georgia stood beaming, holding out three packages, each with a dozen homemade yeast rolls. Cats had collected at her feet.

Earl pointed to the rolls and said, “I didn’t get anything but a smell. She didn’t even give me one to eat.”

Ben offered him one of the wrapped ones, but Earl laughed and said, “I was only funnin’ you Ben. Those are yours. She made me some of my own.”

Georgia handed Ben the rolls and he leaned down as she stood on tip toe to kiss his cheek. “We love you boy. You know that don’t you? You were so good to my Mama. She loved you too. You take these rolls and this cake back to college with you and share if you want to, but if you don’t want to, that’s ok, you can eat them all by yourself.”

“Thank you Georgia. I appreciate these. That was awfully nice of you to do. Not sure whether I’ll share or not. Your cooking is the best,” Ben said.

Earl walked us out to the car. He showed us where he’d moved six azalea plants that week and where he’d decorated the hay bale with black and orange ceramic cats for the children in the neighborhood. He picked up another cat, Dumpy, and introduced us. “There’s about six others you didn’t get to see,” he said. “They’ll show up tonight when it starts to get cool. They like to come in and sleep with us where it’s warm.” I imagined all those cats and dogs in Earl and Georgia’s bed.

Earl hugged us. We got in the car, waved to him and Georgia as they stood on the porch, smiling, their arms around each other’s waists. Ben and I were silent until we reached the end of Apple Lane.

“Mom,” Ben said. “have you ever smelled anything so bad in your life?”

“No, Ben, can’t say as I have.”

“If I count right,” Ben said. “they have twenty-two cats and six dogs.”

“Sure felt like that many to me,” I said.

“Do you think Earl and Georgia know how bad it smells?

“I doubt it. They’re probably used to it by now.”

“My head hurts,” Ben said. “Do you have any Advil?”

“Sure, right here in my purse.”

He dug around in my purse, pulled out the bottle and threw two of the pills back with some bottled water. He was quiet during the rest of the ride. We rounded the corner onto Three Notched Road and drove toward Teresa’s Café. We were almost there when Ben said, “Mom?”

“Yeah,”

“You know I love Earl and Georgia don’t you?”

“Of course Ben, I love them too.”

“As much as I love them,” he said. “I don’t think I can eat those rolls or the cake.”

“I don’t think I could either Ben. It’s alright.”

“What should we do with them? I hate to throw them out. She spent a lot of time making them.”

“I know,” I said. “Georgia did say you could share. I think that might be a good idea.”

Ben smiled, “Staff meeting tomorrow,” he said.

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.