Sometimes I wake up in the early hours of the night with an idea, and sometimes I get up and write that idea. That is the genesis of a file in my documents named "Drafts Night Stories." These are stories that wake me up and command me to write them--no matter what the time. They are different stories, some strange and some bathetic (although perhaps I should plead guilty to the lesser charge of sentimental).
This last Sunday, 10/10/10, was the birthday of my first wife, who passed away in 2003. This story below was my first "Night Story," and I opened the file this last weekend for the first time since writing the story. I'm posting it today, after some revision.
It's odd how a story can take so much from a writer's life yet still not be autobiographical. I am not the person speaking in the story; "Gloria" is not my first wife. What can I say? The experience of two people is in the story, but not the actual people? Details yet not the wholeness? Here is the story, anyway, less scholarly and more personal than usual. A fiction--truth garnished with a light sprinkle of fact.
Late in Life
We married late in life, Gloria and me, everyone surprised because we were so set in our ways. The thing is, those ways matched so much we didn’t have to change, not important things, anyway. We just kept on, comfortable together.
No children, not to say we didn’t try, I’ll tell you that right now. But mostly we spent our days doing, side by side. Never mind the Gaudy Gras, just earth tones and a joy in the eyes.
And then Gloria was sick and then thinner and then didn’t want to walk so far. Fool that I was, I didn’t see a thing till she asked to see a doctor. She didn’t fuss about it, but she knew, and knew I didn’t know. So we went on about our business, except I got the tea and dusted the house, our walks shorter, Gloria leaning on my arm. She never wanted a walker or a cane; my arm was better. Finally she had one beside her—a cane, that is—used it when I was gone to work.
The neighbors helped during the week—five ladies, Gloria’s Monday-through-Friday Angels, she called them. Alone, all of them, widows or never-married, but comfortable. Some on pension and some with a bit and helped a bit by family (moved off to a good job in Colorado) and one her own money, thank you very much. They'd come over and sit in my chair and later beside the bed. Washed her, cleaned the house. Oh, I did my part and more, as some told me, but they’d come over, sometimes two together “just for a chat.” I knew what they were up to, but that had nothing to do with us. Gloria, we always supported each other: sick in bed, the other helped, hand and foot. I remember the flu one year, how she bathed my face and brought me broth when I could keep it down.
Then Gloria asked me to take her to the hospital; she could tell, even with the pills. I called next door, and we lifted her to the wheel chair and got her to the car. After she couldn’t move, the doctor had told us how to keep an extra sheet on the bed. We could lift her up like a hammock or a sausage rolled in a piece of bread—lift to the chair, wheel her to the car, lift her again, and off to the hospital. Why not call the ambulance, you might ask, but two-mile ride cost hundreds, so we did it ourselves, even with insurance. I cleaned her myself at the end, always me. She wanted it that way. Massaged her cold, pale feet, calluses peeling off because she couldn’t walk, couldn’t move. I never told the ladies, and they never brought it up. We had our ways of making it easier, they thinking of me, me thinking of Gloria—nothing wrong with that.
My routine was work what I could and then walk to the hospital. It was spring and the walk across town eased the tension—that’s how I felt about it. The oaks were budding and the grass was green, daffodils and hyacinths in bloom. Gloria never could stand daffodils in the house, too much onion smell, but she loved them outside, so bright and cheerful. I’d sit by the bed, and she’d make sure I poured myself some tea from the Thermos. Then we’d sit and talk, or just sit. I was sitting, anyway. She’d ask me what was blooming and budding, what smells were in the air. She told me to change my shoes before walking, checked if I’d watered her philodendron and fed the cat. I kept my routine—had to—people don’t figure it, but dying doesn't kill a routine, just changes it. She kept a close eye on me. That’s how she lived, some through me. Otherwise, it was just hospital stainless steel and what the nurses did. I was her feet, tired as they were. I talked about whatever, did anything, just a garden tool that fit her hand, there in reach. I left behind who I was in a good way: woke up and thought, what needs to be done? Never considered what I wanted to do, didn’t want anything, just stuck to the routine and did what needed doing.
She passed one evening in May when I was walking. Robins were flying, twigs and grass in their beaks, starlings enjoying their arguments. Tulips cupped bold colors in their hands, a lawnmower growled. Sam Jenkins’ garden was a beautiful sight, raised beds straight and clean, four by twenty feet, the spinach and chard up, peas on the trellis. The Franks’ dog was loose but knew how to get home. We knew it could happen anytime, but never thought it would. Not me, anyways, not really. She’d gotten by and through it for so long—damn if I didn’t think she’d get through this one too. It’s strange she didn’t, and just plain odd I didn’t see it.
I still hear her voice, change my shoes. Small steps, maybe, but I’m on my feet, I’m walking.
Copyright 2010 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved