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The scent of Jasmine
I never stopped believing in a miracle for my friend, Pauline. It didn’t happen and she was taken away. I had to believe now, for a miracle for Harold Stedman.
Harold had all but lost his speaking voice. I began to visit him on Thursday afternoons and, from week to week, I could see the encroaching deterioration on his person. His voice grew fainter and his spoken words were becoming harder to understand. He was mutating into a limp shadow of his former self.
I picked up my pen to write –
My friend looks frailer each time I see him. His frame is heavily stooped, his limbs stick out at awkward angles and there is a transparent quality about his dry, sallow skin. His cheeks are gaunt and his features drawn. The dear enormous nose that suited his face so well has suddenly become ridiculously larger than life.
I am becoming a very able lip-reader, though it is disconcerting to have to concentrate on a speaker’s lips all the time.
My heart breaks to see him this way …
I set the pen down on the glass-topped table and leaned against the padded patio chair. The wind chimes in the apple tree began to tinkle and I paused to remember the little things.
I asked Harold one day, if he was afraid to die. He shook his head and our conversation turned to God. He was facetious at first, but his eyes regarded me soberly as our discussion progressed. They brimmed over with tears, and his face became crumpled with emotion.
We had such wonderful conversations, Harold and I. His speech was invigorating, laced with wisdom, kindness and his own particular zany brand of humour. He made me giggle like a giddy schoolgirl.
I remembered as we sat together one afternoon, the gift I’d brought. I delved into the depths of my handbag and extricated a wad of Kleenex. With eagerness and great curiosity he accepted it, parting the folds of tissue to find a creamy, slightly wilted double-petal jasmine blossom lying exposed in the palm of his hand. The heavy fragrance rose into the air.
“From my garden,” I said quietly.
Harold raised the flower to his nostrils and inhaled deeply. I read the words swimming in his eyes, the gratitude for the sense of smell that remained unimpaired. He opened the top drawer of his desk and slipped the bloom inside.
“Have you been to the Dalai Lama this week?” I enquired.
He nodded, amused, and the imp of mischief waltzed into his eyes. Our laughter was cut short when he began to choke on saliva.
When someone hinted that the radiation from his cellphone might have triggered his condition, he stopped using it. He sought the ministrations of every quack brought to his attention. The latest in the parade was a Tibetan monk with a supposedly guaranteed-to-cure acupuncture treatment. Dalai Lama was the nickname I bestowed on the gentleman.
A lawyer without a cellphone is an oddity. A practicing lawyer without a speaking voice is a greater curiosity.
Harold spread his slender hands out for inspection. I squinted, fixing my gaze on the weakest finger. It didn’t look better, so I said nothing. He seemed disappointed.
“I promised my daughter we would go skiing together next year,” he rasped.
“And you will,” I responded with exaggerated heartiness. “I know you will.”
Neither of us believed a word I uttered.
I opened my journal and began to read out loud –
I walked to my Enchanted Woods yesterday, along a trail I discovered recently. I love to linger in the dim, dreamy,leafy world of quiet wonder. I feel a need to go to this spot each evening. It’s become a sort of pilgrimage now. I find myself leaning against a peeling tree trunk to whisper my thoughts to God, and I linger talking, sometimes crying, until the buzz of mosquitoes and their insistent sting on my bare legs, arms and neck, constrain me to head back home. I find that this is where I want to go, to talk to God about my friend, Harold, to weep, to plead, to question.
Sometimes the pressure within me gets so heavy, I have to get away and walk as fast as I can. I reach the little ornamental bridge, my heart stills and I’m sure I can hear God. I whisper my heart out to him and my universe, for the moment, teeters into balance again …
I snapped the covers of the book shut. Harold’s eyes, fixed steadily on me as I read, were soft.
“Can you see it?” I asked. I had experienced the moments in my head as I read.
“No.” His mouth moved, then he wrote laboriously –
But I can feel it.
I thumbed through an elderly copy of Time Magazine, oblivious to the murmur of voices coming from Harold’s room. The hum of weekday office noises drowned the sound of her descent down the narrow flight of stairs, so I wasn’t aware of Mrs. Stedman’s presence until she subsided into the chair next to mine. Her unexpected appearance startled me.
“Are you waiting for Harold?” Lorraine Stedman queried.
I nodded. “Yes, I have an appointment. Do you?”
She chuckled. “No. Did he tell you what happened last weekend?
Theatre tickets, and plans to go away with your sister and husband …
“No. I haven’t met him since the weekend.” I answered. “Did you enjoy the play?”
She looked grim. “He had a fall. We took him to emerg. He had to have stitches.”
My heart constricted. “What happened?”
“We were just walking around. He said he tripped, but I know he lost his balance.”
“Mrs. Sted … Lorraine,” I began, “my heart really goes out to you.”
“Thank you.” Her eyes grew moist, the muscles in her jaw tightened.
“I recently lost a friend to ALS. I spent a lot of time with her.”
“I know.” The voice was low. “Harold told me.”
I placed my hand on hers. “What can I do to make it easier for you?”
“You are doing a lot already.” Her smile was warm. “You spend time with Harold, you come over on Thursdays and you read to him. It’s exactly what he needs. He looks forward to your visits.”
“There are going to be times when you’ll need to get away. I’m willing to come and sit with him when you feel you must have a break,” I said.
“Thank you.” She didn’t flinch when her eyes met mine. “I don’t want to think about that time. Not just yet.”
The client left.
Terri stuck her head round the corner. “Mr. Stedman will see you now.”
Lorraine and I exchanged pleasantries before she climbed the stairs to her upper floor office.
I stepped into Harold’s room. My eye paused at the armchair by the door and I remembered an incident from some months back when I began to notice a large cellophane-wrapped gift basket of assorted nuts, abandoned and gathering dust on the chair adjacent to the door. I have a penchant for nuts — cashews in particular — and wondered why such bounty remained evidently despised.
I couldn’t resist, I had to ask.
“It was a gift from Terri and Fiona last Christmas,” Harold replied nonchalantly. A wry smile quivered on his lips
My jaw dropped. It was six months since Christmas.
“So why is it still here?”
“They are not the kind of nuts I like, so I just let them stay there. This way, they’ll get the message. They won’t buy me the same thing next year.”
My eyes widened. I had made queries about the basket some months before. Terri would only say, “Do you want them? No one does.”
It must have cost a pretty penny.
“How could you be so rude and unappreciative?” I demanded. “You could have thanked the girls and taken it home. And then given it away, or tossed it in the garbage. That’s called being gracious, you know.
Harold didn’t see the matter in quite the same light.
“But if I pretended to like what they got for me, they could get the same thing again,” he argued.
I responded with a perplexed shake of my head. It was none of my business anyway.
My thoughts rolled on …
For over a year, Harold lived and breathed his glorious dream home as it took shape under his personal supervision. I listened to detailed descriptions of the custom-made front door, the stained glass windows and the transparent stairway. He told me about the tree he’d had planted in the new garden. He described the antique urn his wife picked up at an auction, and how they were hunting for a second one to make a matching pair.
I sat quietly as he took a string of calls on his cellphone, yelling himself hoarse at some hapless contractor. He had just enough voice to verbalize his displeasure. His eyes flashed fire when he hung up and I chided him for getting irate. He cooled down immediately and looked sheepish.
He was running a mad race against time.
From time to time, Harold issued an invitation. “Come with me to the building site. I want to show you how the work is progressing.”
I always declined. “I’d rather sit here and chat.”
He responded one day in exasperation, “You are so protective of Lorraine!”
He understood my qualms.
Lorraine phoned one evening, to invite David and myself to the triumphant housewarming party. She changed the original date to accommodate our calendar.
I had to find a gift — something different, unique — not flowers or chocolates. A tough challenge to shop for folks who have everything.
I spent several evenings creating a pressed flower picture out of blooms saved from my summer garden. The result was not unpleasing, I thought, and put additional effort into elaborate gift wrapping. I whipped up some mango mousse to take along with us as well.
Harold’s eyes gleamed when he relieved me of the dessert in the glass bowl. He spent the rest of the evening eating most of it himself, scooping it up from the bowl with a spoon.
The gift, with its carefully colour-coordinated packaging and card, remained where I’d set it down by the front door.
The Stedmans conducted the gaggle of guests on a grand tour of the new abode. Lorraine’s sculptures were everywhere. The pieces were gentle, nurturing, devoid of the savage passion raging through the artwork adorning the office.
Harold opened the narrow cupboard on the wall by the kitchen sink to display a mini pharmacy of drugs which were his daily fare.
The food was cordon bleu, hors d’oeuvres and bite-sized dainties prepared by the chatelaine herself.
Harold never stopped smiling, and occasionally interrupted a conversation with some quirky banter. He was mostly silent, though. Verbal communication was arduous and exhausting.
I held both his hands in mine when we said goodbye. “I am so proud of you,” I said. “This is an incredibly beautiful home. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Eyes glowing with tears he looked at us both, swallowed a lump in his throat and whispered hoarse, tremulous words, barely distinguishable. “I love you both.”
Harold phoned the following week to tell me how pleased his wife had been to receive the thank you card I’d sent.
He never mentioned the gift.
December galloped in with winter weather on its back. Christmas was around the corner. I dropped in at the office with presents for Harold and his staff. There was a coloured-glass tree angel for Terri, tins of assorted chocolates for Ronald and Fiona, and for the Stedmans a sizeable container shaped like an old fashioned milk urn filled with different flavours of popcorn. I hoped the artist in Lorraine would find the packaging whimsical.
Dinner preparations were in full swing when the phone rang the following afternoon.
Harold’s voice dragged on slurred words. “What are you cooking today?”
A sauce bubbled on the stove as I chopped onions and garlic with the receiver wedged between my ear and shoulder. “Salmon. Salmon in a phyllo pastry thing-y,” I said.
I heard a chuckle. He relished the use of thingy – my daughters’ favourite word — and often bandied it around himself.
|“Lorraine loved the container. So thoughtful of you.” Harold’s effusion was lathered with rhapsodies about the popcorn tin, which I didn’t think was that special at all.
He made no reference to the handcrafted housewarming gift.
I squirmed inside and experienced a prickle of bitterness. My gift was of as little consequence as the basket of nuts from the office ladies. I should have purchased something more generic and predictable. Like flowers. I probably realized this the moment I stepped over the threshold of the grand new abode, when Lorraine’s magnificent artwork stared me in the face and my puny offering shriveled into shabby, homemade insignificance.
A huge wedge hung between us, but only I was aware of it. Harold didn’t have a clue. The thing grew in my head with each passing week, mutating into a nagging monster. It gnawed ceaselessly.
Tired of my murmurings David finally snapped, “If it’s bothering you so much, you should talk to him about it.”
I visited the office two days before Christmas to discuss new developments in my case.
Harold and I sat in the library. I loved the formal feel of the room. Wooden shelving lined one wall from floor to ceiling, crammed with volumes of dark leather or vinyl-bound legal tomes, their titles etched along the spines in gold leaf. A spiral fire escape-style stairway on wheels made the upper shelves accessible. Wide picture windows encompassed the wall facing the door. They looked onto the street, counteracting the somber effect of the dark wood paneling. Judicial men with hawk eyes and round eye glasses glowered down from ornate frames. A heavy carved conference table of dark wood dominated the space.
We dealt with the business at hand, and lapsed into desultory conversation.
Harold made a trite reference to the wretched popcorn. “Lorraine attacked it right away,” he said.
I replied, “I had a feeling the container would appeal her.”
The festering sore was ready to burst.
I glanced at my watch. Harold observed the gesture and leaned forward for a farewell hug. His chair rolled towards me on its castors.
Unbidden resentment oozed into my voice and leapt to my lips. “You hated my pressed flowers, didn’t you?”
The boil was lanced.
The moving chair screeched to a halt, inches away from mine. The look of blank non-comprehension in his eyes turned to stricken horror.
He had no chance to comment as I sped down the tracks on a runaway train.
The words came fast. “I wanted to do something special for you, and you didn’t even have the decency to acknowledge it.”
Harold began to bluster, slurring badly. “I was just trying to find the perfect spot for it. Maybe in the office.”
“It’s probably in the garbage by now, and I know how Terri and Fiona must have felt about those wretched nuts.”
I went to the hall closet for my coat. He followed unsteadily and hovered behind me.
Ronald looked up from his seat at the front desk. “Thanks for the chocolates. Nice of you,” he said.
Buttoning up, I muttered sourly, “Next time, it’ll be a potted plant.”
Harold reached for the phone as I turned to go, mumbling, “Where’s Lorraine?”
I stepped outside. The door beeped as it shut behind me.
David was right. It certainly helped to talk.
… … …
The house phone rang around seven o’clock in the evening.
“Selina, this is Lorraine Stedman speaking.”
Damage control. My hackles rose ever so slightly. “Hello, Mrs. Stedman.”
“Do call me Lorraine. I called to tell you how proud I am of you for speaking up.”
I experienced a needle of annoyance. “David suggested I talk about it. I was driving him crazy.”
“It’s very professionally done. And it has your signature on it.”
I felt patronized. “This was between Harold and me,” I replied.
“Oh?” her voice climbed half an octave.
“I really didn’t expect him to bother you with it.”
Not true. I knew he would. Why wouldn’t he?
“But he’s just sick about it.”
“Please, don’t embarrass yourself and me by saying something just because you feel you should say it.”
I had to put an end to the excruciating conversation.
“Oh, okay.” Lorraine sounded taken aback. She paused for a beat, then gathered her wits and queried briskly, “Do you celebrate Christmas?”
Just go away …
“Yes. Yes, we do.”
“Well, Merry Christmas.”
“Thank you. And happy Hanukkah to you, Mrs. Sted … “
“Call me Lorraine.”
The line went dead. Lorraine Stedman never said thank you for the pressed flower picture. I had no idea why she called.
Running shoes and car keys
I taunted Harold about being a typical man. “So your wife takes care of your messes for you?”
“Oh, you are such a woman,” he countered. “I knew something was wrong. You were so aloof, distant. But of course, you had to be a coquette and refuse to tell.”
“And how would you have dealt with me crying all over you? You’d have sent for Lorraine and her mop and smelling salts, I suppose!”
“I found a spot for your picture.”
“You can put it in the garbage or the shredder for all I care. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
My words were devoid of malice.
His voice was warm with affection. “You are so perfect, aren’t you?”
The thank you would never happen. The omission ceased to erode my peace of mind. Things were back to normal.
My lip-reading skills improved rapidly
… … …
I arranged to meet Harold at his home at eight o’clock on a Tuesday morning in August, almost three and a half years since my ordeal began. He would drive me downtown to the Federal Court to attend pre-trial on my case.
Harold was watching for me through the window. The ornate front door opened, he stood at the threshold as I pulled up and got out. Eyes sparkling when he saw what I had in my hands, he called out for Lorraine to come and get the bowl of mango mousse I carried.
Lorraine appeared in sports bra and spandex shorts, hot and damp from exercise. She wished us luck and reached for the glass bowl. I sensed from the tone and expression, her apprehension about the day ahead. It felt like a foolhardy field trip.
It was a long time since I’d seen Harold in formal attire. He looked frail in the lightweight grey suit with a yellow and brown-splashed tie knotted at his throat. Lorraine would have had to help him with the shirt buttons and the tie, and with the laces on the brown running shoes he wore. The latter struck a discordant note in the ensemble, an odd fashion faux pas.
Harold carried my legal file and his amplifier in a bag slung over his shoulder.
“You look eighteen years old,” he said. “What size do you take? A zero?”
My lips parted in a tense smile. The twins had recently turned twelve.
We were silent for most of the drive downtown.
“Let’s go somewhere afterwards,” he mouthed.
“Where? To the circus?”
He smiled and didn’t answer. Spoken words were a drain on his stamina. He used them sparingly.
The traffic was heavy and I was thankful for the early start. I was taken aback to realize that I wasn’t nervous about Harold being at the wheel. He made deft lane changes and drove, at times, with a single hand on the steering wheel. He took his eyes off the road from time to time and squeezed my hand. I kept my eyes fixed on the road ahead, blinking away errant teardrops.
The ache in my heart was a familiar companion.
Traffic crawled. The drive took longer than anticipated. We circled the block, hunting for a parking spot. Seconds ticked by and I cast anxious glances at my watch. Exasperated, Harold finally turned into a full lot, swung into an undesignated area, and parked across the path of another car. He staggered ahead of me to the booth. Responding to the grunting noises, the parking attendant began to talk down to Harold, assuming he was a mentally challenged. I ran to help. The man asked why my friend was unable to speak. Harold, unperturbed by the patronizing tone of the unwashed individual, handed the car keys over, gesturing to indicate that the vehicle could be moved if the necessity arose.
I was incredulous. “You leave the keys to an expensive car with a scruffy stranger?”
Harold shrugged. There was a dead look in his eyes. I resigned myself to a catastrophic day.
We walked out of the parking lot together. I adjusted my pace to suit Harold’s stumbling gait. I noticed how much weight he’d lost in the past few weeks and how transparent his skin appeared. His clothes were several sizes too large for him. They hung on him like an old sack flung over a clothes horse. I resisted the temptation to grasp his arm to guide him over the uneven surface of the sidewalk, but my hand hovered casually beneath his elbow. Just in case.
A grim sense of foreboding took possession of me and formed a knot in the pit of my stomach. Directly ahead of us, up a short flight of steps, loomed the Federal Court of Canada.
We made it up the steps to the courthouse, one-pause-one at a time. I was accustomed to the wide-eyed glances and rapidly averted gazes that our appearance aroused. We made a curious spectacle. A pair of ill-matched socks, an odd couple.
Harold’s briefcase and my handbag went through the X-ray machine, and we extended our arms for further scrutiny under a hand-held electronic device. It beeped as it swept over my friend’s belt buckle. The uniformed security officer waved us on.
Harold tottered forward and I followed, one hand protectively at the ready, lingering where he could pretend not to see it. A threesome bore down on us — a youngish man, an elderly woman, and Trish.
Trish ignored me pointedly when we stepped into the elevator together. I noted her careless attire with some surprise. She wore a nondescript dress and plain summer sandals. Her hair hung unwashed and lank about her face. Deliberately drab and dowdy.
The man was uninspiring, both in appearance and carriage.
He made an awkward half-bow and shook Harold’s hand deferentially. “Mr. Stedman, I am Paul Barlow. And this is …”
He introduced his second female companion. The name rang a bell. Of consequence in certain circles, I recognized it from conversations at my former place of work.
Harold nodded and smiled. Barlow didn’t acknowledge me.
Paul Barlow was a stand-in this morning for the head honcho of his firm. The boss would show up for the final curtain. Trish’s manner – reprehensible as it was – was remotely excusable, I supposed. Such ill-bred behavior from a lawyer, however, was unexpected. The man behaved as if he had a personal vendetta against me.
The atmosphere inside the elevator was chilly. The ride to the seventh floor felt endless.
The sight Trish triggered off loud memories. They played out noisily in my head.
… … …
The last time Trish and I talked was when I told her I’d been dismissed over the phone, the night before.
Our mutual employer’s stalwart henchwoman protested. “Surely not. It must be a mistake. Maybe you misunderstood.”
“No misunderstanding at all, Trish. She meant every word.”
“I don’t understand. You’ve been good friends. Why?” she persisted.
My erstwhile employer claimed copyright ownership and authorship of the musical play I created.
“Because I refused to sign over my rights to my play, in exchange for a cheque for three hundred dollars.”
Thirty pieces of silver, worth ten dollars each. Harold’s words.
Trish refused to believe me.
… … …
The woman accompanying the grim duo addressed me. “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?”
We hadn’t been introduced. I smiled, grateful for the kindness. A reluctant warmth slunk into the chill in my veins.
The elevator doors beeped and opened. We all filed out, an odd flock of sheep.
A court clerk ushered us into an informal meeting room. The proceedings were casual. Conference table, no robes or wigs, presided over by an impeccably groomed Frenchman with a hint of an accent. His ease and youthful demeanour were out of keeping with the lofty seat he occupied.
The callow Mr. Barlow went out of his way to insult me. His attitude of courtesy and respect towards Harold bordered on the unctuous and the contrast was glaring.
Trish, who until now had avoided eye contact, hissed, “You are wasting your time. You’ll never win.”
I met her flinty stare head on, never taking my eyes off her face until she squirmed and looked away. I maintained my unblinking scrutiny, not deigning a response.
It was evident from the outset that Harold would not be able to make himself understood, in spite of the amplifier he wore strapped around him. The agony of his plight was unbearable as he sat unruffled, smiling while everyone talked down to him and over and around him.
I had to speak up. “Your Honour, could I help?”
I was aghast at my temerity. The judge nodded.
The garbled grunts from my lawyer’s lips fell like leaden weights into the tense silence. The constriction in my chest grew.
My lip-reading skills failed.
In a courtroom with a voice-less attorney. Who but an idiot would find herself in this predicament?
A jerk of the head from the bench. The court clerk rose and placed a sheaf of paper and a ballpoint pen in front of Harold.
The judge addressed me. “Madam, the court will hear you read aloud what he writes.”
I had difficulty deciphering the wayward scrawl.
The judge cleared his throat. “This session is adjourned. A trial date will be set for the spring.”
Harold’s lips moved. “Your Honour, I don’t expect to be alive in the spring.”
A strangely surreal moment. The words emerged impossibly loud and clear and rang out like a gunshot. Everyone in the still room heard him.
There was a split second of awkward silence before the judge spoke. “Mr. Stedman, we wish you well. We hope you will have a safe return to health.”
Necessary inanities. Harold smiled and bobbed his head in acknowledgement.
The session was adjourned. Harold jerked to his feet. I picked up my handbag and stood up. I couldn’t wait to get out of the place.
The hearing lasted no more than an hour. An endless, exhausting hour. The lump of lead in my heart grew heavier as Harold and I made our way back in silence to the vehicle.
The parking attendant handed the car keys over. He made inconsequential remarks regarding the rest of the day that I barely heard and didn’t acknowledge.
Harold looked pale and drained. “Let’s stop somewhere for lunch,” he said.
I could barely make out his words.
Food was the last thing on my mind. “We could have a drink, if you like,” I suggested in compromise.
He nodded and stuck the key into the ignition. The engine obliged and roared to life.
I sank into the passenger seat. If only I could shut my eyes and wish him well again. The way he used to be.
Harold pulled into a plaza, parked and stepped out unsteadily. He allowed me to help him across the threshold of the restaurant, which was not a good sign.
“Try the pineapple juice. You’ll like it,” he mouthed when we settled ourselves at a table by the window. I read his lips without difficulty.
“Sure. Sounds good,” I pretended to peruse the menu. I didn’t feel like a drink.
I understood him now, so what happened in the morning? I had to make a conscious effort not to relive courtroom experience.
The waitress placed two frosty glasses on the table. I was accustomed to the looks. I barely noticed her curious glance.
I allowed myself to relax and pressed my lips around the drinking straw, my eyes resting on the man who sat opposite me. Harold took one sip of his juice and began to splutter. An anguished sense of déjà vu gripped me by the throat. I remembered Pauline. It was as if I was watching her suffer all over again.
Harold gesticulated with his finger towards his neck. I fumbled with the tie and hastily undid the top button of his shirt, thrusting a wad of paper napkins into his hand, and patting him weakly on the back. I realized I wasn’t helping and sat on the edge of my chair tense and helpless, while he retched and coughed himself to exhaustion. Yellow juice and saliva spattered all over the rumpled shirt.
A burden of desolation and grief settled inside me like a ton of granite. I was losing this vital, clever man who had become my friend.
Harold stood up to find the men’s room. He approached the waitress and made flailing gestures as he attempted to enquire where it was. I hurried over to help. The woman asked if I was with him, as if I were his caregiver.
There didn’t seem any point in lingering. We abandoned our almost untouched drinks, and Harold drove me back to the Stedman residence where my car was waiting. He parked in the driveway and we sat quietly for a few seconds, to collect our thoughts.
“Would you like to pop in and see my garden?” I enquired on impulse. My home was on his way back to the office.
Harold nodded gleefully. His eyes lit up. For just one moment, the wan look vanished and he became a schoolboy plotting to play truant.
I experienced a sudden pinprick of anxiety. What if he didn’t think the garden anything special, after all?
I drove on ahead, Harold followed.
We stood side by side in the drowsy mid-afternoon, lulled by the babble of fountain water. Harold feasted his eyes on the riot of purple petunias, pansies and morning glory splashed all around us. A restful smile gentled his countenance and set my fears at rest.
I was the kindergartner who got to usher her favourite teacher home. I pointed out my treasures — the copper squirrel’s tail sun dial, the rocks, sea shells, and driftwood I had gathered on my rambles over the years.
Lines of exhaustion clawed at his features.
“It’s cooler inside. Let’s go in and sit for a bit,” I said. “You look tired.”
The twins were at school, the house was silent. I could hear Harold’s breath rattling into the stillness as we sat for a while on the couch in the family room. David phoned to find out how the morning had gone. I told him Harold was visiting and I’d call back later. I hung up and the dam burst. The tension of the day punched me in the guts, and I wept as I’d never wept before.
“I can’t bear to see what’s happening to you,” I sobbed. “I’m sorry you had to endure this morning.”
He looked helpless and uncomfortable. Too weary to make an attempt at speech, he pointed vaguely in the direction of the box of tissues on the coffee table. I grabbed a fistful of Kleenex, scrubbed my face with it, and blew my nose.
“We have to discuss what’s to be done with the litigation. We can talk about it when I come to the office on Thursday,” I mumbled.
His lips moved and through a froth of bubbling spittle he mouthed, “What are you going to do after I leave?”
Again, I understood what he said. If only the morning had been like that.
Don’t go there …
“A mountain of laundry. And I have to cook dinner.”
“Not very romantic.”
“There’s romance in everything.” I sounded despondent. “It just depends on how one views the situation.”
We walked outside into the driveway.
Harold wound his stick arms around me. He held me close for some seconds before thrusting himself awkwardly into his vehicle.
I looked into the glumness in his eyes and a familiar frog leapt to my throat. He shouldn’t have been behind the wheel of that behemoth. He shouldn’t have been driving at all.
A vigorous wave of my hand, a fabricated smile and I headed back into the house.
I needed an hour by myself to weep my heart out, pound the walls, howl, yell and scream why?
Two sheets of paper
I took myself off to sit on my Crying Rock by the stream in the woods. I needed the walk to ease my pain.
David and I sat together after dinner in the fragrance of the twilit backyard, soothed by the gurgle of fountain water and the woody notes of the bamboo wind chimes when the breeze played with them. The laughter of neighbours’ children rose in the air.
The anxious silence grew loud until David spoke. “It’s only money after all,” he said. “We need to get on with our lives.”
Words I never expected to hear
An unbearable burden rolled away. Walk away from the lawsuit. Yes. My husband had given voice to troubled thoughts I couldn’t have dreamt of speaking out loud.
I hurried inside to dial the Stedman residence worried, perhaps, that a delay might induce a change of heart on David’s part.
Lorraine picked up the phone. “Hello …”
“Lorraine, it’s Selina. How is Harold?”
She sounded surprised. “He’s doing as well as can be expected, I suppose.”
“We had a grueling morning. It took a huge toll on him,” I said, then blurted out, “We’re walking away from the lawsuit, Lorraine. I thought I’d let you know first. Don’t mention it to Harold. I’ll tell him myself when I see him on Thursday.”
There was an instant’s silence.
“You have to do what you have to do,” she said indifferently. “We had the mango mousse for dessert tonight.”
That’s all she has to say …
“I don’t think the mango I used for garnish was quite ripe. I hope it wasn’t sour.”
That’s all I have to say …
“It was delicious,” Lorraine replied. Her voice became tinged with warmth. “Selina, Harold told me about your garden. I’d love to see it.”
My spirits rose. “I’d love to show it to you, Lorraine. Let me know when you’re free.”
I hung up feeling oddly deflated.
… … …
Thursday was two days away. It felt like an eternity to wait now that I’d come to a decision. I called Harold’s office the next morning, to make an appointment for the same afternoon.
A vice gripped my heart — as always — when I stepped into his room.
We were in the garden just yesterday …
Two monitors were hooked up to the hard drive on his desk, one turned towards him, the other facing his visitor. Harold typed with two fingers and the comments flashed across both screens. My dessert bowl sat in the armchair by the door.
We exchanged a few remarks before I spewed out an emotional torrent of words. “No more litigation. I told Lorraine last night. We are done. We’re walking away!”
Harold heard me out and began to type. Lorraine had not betrayed my confidence, but (he wrote) he guessed as much from the tone of my conversation the previous day.
“Wait and we’ll make them an offer in a few months,” he spelled out.
I leaned back in my chair. Harold reached into the wastebasket, retrieved two discarded sheets of typewritten paper, and wrote assiduously on the blank sides. He laboured with furrowed brow and faltering hand. I imagined I heard the ticking in his brain as he attempted to keep up with his racing thoughts. He looked up when he was done, and held out the sheets of paper. The spidery scrawl was surprisingly legible, the statements numbered one to six, three on each piece of paper.
I read –
- We don’t have to give her the play. The Lord owns it if you and she cannot agree on whose it is.
You’re telling me to let God to take care of things?
2. I have two lawyers starting soon. I prepare and attend at no charge, one of them whom I coach, speaks. I will sit with you, no charge. They would charge. I would be both coach and spectator.
3. Offer to take the other ½ of the play, $50,000.00 + my costs on solicitor-client basis.
4. If you first quit they would assess their account for $60,000.00 to $70,000.00. Don’t first quit!
5. The reason I like to do law is:
– It occupies me
– Someone else’s problem takes my mind off mine
– I enjoy it
6. At the first trial date we can back out to the judge conditional on no costs.
Lorraine popped her head in to let Harold know she was going home.
She said cordially, “We really enjoyed your dessert, Selina. Oh, and don’t forget to take the bowl back home with you.”
I folded the two pieces of paper and slipped them into my handbag.
I trusted Harold.
There was a problem with the car, I had to walk. The sun sweltered at its zenith when I set out to visit Harold on Thursday afternoon.
I snatched a moment to cool off in the air conditioned comfort of the foyer before taking a deep breath and stepping into his room. I watched unobserved until he grew aware of my presence.
Harold looked up at the sound of my voice. He was hunched in his chair in what looked like an uncomfortable position. His eyes sparkled when he saw me. He rose shakily to his feet. His belt was pulled in several notches to keep his pants from falling down, and I was struck — all over again — by the reed-like fragility of his frame. The enormous nose that once lent such character to the quirky countenance seemed longer and larger in a face whose cheekbones, jawbones and eye sockets had become exaggeratedly pronounced.
I got into the habit of reading to my friend as we sat together each week. This way, he didn’t have the burden of verbal communication thrust upon him, and we could still enjoy each other’s presence. Sometimes I took my journal with me, to read from my backyard musings.
I had a poem and a short script for him today. My heart swelled as I read, observing the glow of appreciation in his eyes. I played all the roles in the script, never bargaining for the effect the performance would have on him. Jeweled tears shone in his eyes, lingered on his lashes and threatened to spill over. He made no attempt to brush them away when he leaned forward and took the stapled sheaf of papers from my hands.
“That was powerful!” he murmured. “How could you know of such despair and desperation?”
From time to time I was actually able to understand his words.
“There’s a little bit of Pamela in every woman, I suppose,” I answered, referring to the main protagonist in the short play. “Or maybe I was writing about myself.”
He smiled quizzically, folded the sheets, and indicated that he’d like to keep them. I nodded. He half opened the top desk drawer and slid them inside.
Words limped across the screen when he stabbed at the keyboard –
I’ll take these home to read aloud to Lorraine
An imp of mischief flared in his eyes. I laughed out loud — I couldn’t help myself. His lips quivered with wry amusement and then — unexpectedly — the power went out.
The lights flickered and died, the computers shut down with a queer moan.
The new secretary came in. Her face was expressionless. “The phones are dead, Mr. Stedman,” she announced.
She made me uncomfortable. I didn’t know why.
Harold’s lips moved. “Go home, Chrissy,” he grunted hoarsely. The keyboard and screens were useless now.
“Don’t forget to turn the machines off, Mr. Stedman, and drive carefully. The traffic lights won’t be functioning. There’ll be chaos on the streets,” she intoned in a thin, reedy voice devoid of inflexion.
The main door shut with a click. Chrissy was gone. The office sounds faded away, an unaccustomed silence hung over the building.
My cell phone was dead. I couldn’t contact David for my ride home.
I turned to Harold. “Would you mind ..?”
Before the words were entirely out of my mouth, he smiled a delighted acquiescence. We stepped out into the corridor and my gaze alighted on the narrow flight of steps leading to the upper floor.
“Is that Lorraine’s office?” I asked.
Harold was two steps ahead of me. He inclined his head and mouthed, “Do you want to see it?”
He reached for my hand and led me unsteadily upwards. I supported him as best I could. Faltering at times we made a laborious ascent to the upper floor, and entered a pleasant room through a door directly off the compact landing.
Lorraine’s office was small and uncluttered. The furniture was outdated, discards from home upgrades, I supposed. An old table set against the window served as an office desk, with bits of bric-a-brac and assorted family memorabilia scattered all over it. The window faced the parking lot, which explained how she was always seemed to know when I visited.
A piece of inexpensively mounted artwork hung on the wall adjacent to the door, with some lines of poetry in free verse. The sentimental title was in larger print. Too personal in a professional setting, it I thought. I wondered if he’d given it to her.
Harold lowered himself into the armchair by the couch, holding on to the polished wooden arm rests. He observed as I stood perusing the poem.
Absorbed, I almost missed his words: “You have so much energy.”
I did, with plenty to spare, perhaps. His eyes were wistful, resigned. I felt almost guilty about being the way I was, brimming over with health and vitality, as if I was being selfish and not sharing.
I took the hand he proffered and helped him to his feet. Together we retraced our journey down the shadowed stairway.
I followed Harold as he tottered around the office, shutting off machines and locking up. I climbed into the passenger seat of the silver Acura, and watched as he fumbled with the knobs on the dashboard to find a local news station.
A voice blared through the speakers: “The power outage is province-wide and could be indefinite. Investigations are being made …”
A somber thought lurked uppermost on our minds. This could be a terror attack.
The traffic lights were not working, as Chrissy had predicted, but there was no untoward mayhem on the streets. It was still broad daylight, of course.
Harold took my hand and held it while he steered with his free hand. His skin felt like paper, a road map of blue veins rioted all over it. The fingers I held loosely in mine were barely more than bony claws. He didn’t look fit enough to drive.
I dropped a peck on his cheek and climbed out. “Thank you. See you in two weeks.”
We were booked to fly to Disney World the next morning to celebrate of the twins’ twelfth birthday.
Harold backed the SUV out of the driveway. He drove with confidence. From where I stood, no one could know there was anything the matter with him. I hadn’t felt unsafe sitting at his side in the passenger seat.
I swallowed hard at the wicked lump in my throat, and waved until the vehicle faded out of sight.
A fortnight was a long time at this stage in his illness.
Lorraine in the Garden
Power was restored late the next afternoon. An unforeseen glitch caused by a plant malfunction, created a domino effect and blacked out the entire province of Ontario for several hours. Nine eleven was still relatively fresh on the nation’s mind. The authorities leapt to reassure. Canadians heaved a collective sigh of relief and our family made it out to the airport on schedule.
Roller-coasters and wild water rides are not my cup of tea. I am predictably prone to motion sickness, but in spite of the minor irritation we had the time of our lives. David and I allowed ourselves to shed the unwieldy weight of litigation and financial strain we’d borne over the past four years. Neither of us referred to the lawsuit. We deliberately steered clear of the topic.
I wondered over the next two weeks, as my mind wandered away from Disney several times a day, how Harold was doing. I couldn’t wait to see for myself that he was all right.
… … …
Harold was in the reception area to welcome and usher me into the office. I was stunned to see the changes a fortnight had brought. His gait was a lot less steady and he teetered backwards as he walked, in order to maintain his balance.
It’s progressing at breakneck speed …
The iron hand descended and clamped around my heart as I began to wrestle the frog in my throat. A mist rose unbidden to my eyes. His smile was dazzling when he reached out and enfolded me in a skeletal embrace. I smiled back, lacing my arms loosely around him. I could feel the knobs on his backbone.
We settled into our usual spots, he behind his desk and I in the client’s chair. Harold’s hands lay idle in his lap. He made no effort to type his thoughts out today. The screen facing me remained blank. I filled the conversational vacuum with every detail of my time away. He was eager to hear. When I finally stood up to leave, he leaned forward and punched on the keyboard. The words rose on the monitors –
Call Lorraine. She wants to see the garden
I picked up my handbag. “I will,” I promised.
His eyes met mine and his mouth moved: “Thank you. I love you.”
I contacted Lorraine that night. She was pleased to hear from me.
… … …
The doorbell rang at one o’clock on the dot the next afternoon.
Lorraine Stedman had walked down from the office. She looked hot and bothered as I’d expected. Her car was out of order, but she’d declined my offer of a ride. She thought the exercise would do her good.
The day was warmer than the forecast predicted. Pregnant clouds rolled away the moment we stepped out into the backyard. An arrangement of sunflowers, rushes and ivy in a wicker-encased wine bottle, adorned the glass-topped patio table. Orange juice in a sunflower-spattered jug, a tray with matching cups, and a plate of warm walnut chocolate chip banana bread, completed the repast.
Lorraine was effusive in her praise of my bower and I knew she wasn’t being insincere. We sat outside amidst the barrels of flowers, blooming baskets and twittering birds. The drip-drip of the fountain water was a soporific backdrop to our conversation. A stiff breeze suddenly tipped the patio umbrella, whipped it around and toppled my sunflower centerpiece.
The ensuing laughter reached deep into our hearts, warmed our souls, and drew us closer to one another in spirit.
Lorraine looked thoughtful. “Tell me – what is your relationship with Harold?” She seemed curious, a little puzzled.
She turned ever so slightly, adjusting her position so she could wallow in the glory of the garden and still look at me as we conversed.
“I never really thought about it till last evening,” I replied. “He reminds me of David – except his nose is larger and his ears not so large. I love his mind. And he makes me laugh.”
Her eyes grew soft and I read understanding in them: “He knows how to laugh all right. Tell me about Pauline,” she continued. “How did she cope with ALS? How far do you think Harold has progressed in the disease?”
She listened intently as I talked about Pauline’s courage, her inner strength and dogged belief that she would be cured one day.
How far had Harold progressed in his disease? I dared not tell her what I thought.
Lorraine’s brow puckered. “I think he has had it for years. There were things I noticed. My son did too.”
I spoke gently. “Are you preparing yourself for the ultimate finality?”
“Does one ever?” There was the tiniest tremor in her voice. “Who knows where he’ll be? He may end up in your garden.”
I didn’t think she was being flippant.
“There’s another shore,” I heard myself reply, my eyes fixed on the bee hovering over the orange juice in my acrylic cup .
“How do you know?” There was yearning anxiety in her voice.
She’s looking for reassurance …
“I know. I just know,” I answered. Lorraine seemed taken aback by the conviction in my voice.
What else is there to say? You either believe, or you don’t …
“Harold admired my father,” Lorraine said, after some seconds of silence.
“I know. He’s talked about him.”
“My dad died of cancer,” she went on. “And he always said he wanted to go out laughing.”
I remembered. Harold had shared several affectionate anecdotes about his father-in-law.
She grew soft and subdued, delving further into the past: “He was very ill towards the end. I sat at his feet, put my head in his lap and said, ‘Daddy, you have to let go.’ He died shortly after that.”
Lorraine was lost in her memories, my presence ceased to matter. She needed to talk and I let her. Her voice was heavy with remembered loss.
What did he say?
At least once in a lifetime, one experiences a sense of being in a space where time stands still. It is a drunken feeling of craning one’s neck and peering over the cusp of eternity. Such was that purple-petal afternoon with Lorraine.
There was a somnolence in the hazy air, as if the garden stood on tiptoe to eavesdrop on our conversation. Sparrows jostled and shoved one another in Bird Café. An avian orchestra performed all around us, the raucous symphony punctuating spaces of silence with caws, chirps, and a dull drone of cicadas.
I turned to address my companion. “I’ll give up my friendship with Harold if God makes him well. I told him that.”
“Told whom?” She looked puzzled. “Harold? Why?”
“No – God. I told God,” I said. “And Harold, of course.”
“Why? What did he say?” Her eyes widened with curiosity.
Okay, so you probably think I’m a crazy woman …
“God?” I asked.
“No, Harold. What did Harold say?”
“Harold? He just smiled. And God? He’s been silent. He says nothing.”
“But why would you make such a sacrifice? Why would God demand it of you?”
Okay, this is a weird conversation, and with Lorraine, of all people …
“Oh, God never asked it of me,” I answered, “I offered because I felt I had to do something. Because that’s how important Harold’s well-being is to me.”
She probably thinks I’m completely cuckoo…
I guess I made her uncomfortable. Lorraine changed the subject. “Did Harold tell you about the surgery?”
The spell was broken.
“He told me he was leery about having the feeding tube inserted into his abdomen. He also said, ‘Lorraine wants me to live,'” I replied.
“Well … duh!” she answered, and rolled her eyes. “He has to get as much nourishment as possible into him. I’m tired of the endless chewing. It drives me crazy. He goes on for hours and hours.”
“There are going to be times when you need to get away,” I reminded her, “I’ve told you before: I’d be glad to come and sit with him. Two evenings a week. Or more.”
“There are plenty of people who’ll want to do that. His nieces and nephews love him.” She added as an afterthought, “Of course, you’ll be there because you want to be there.”
I won’t read anything into it. I’m sure she didn’t mean to snub me …
Lorraine glanced at her watch. “It’s been an hour already.” She sounded surprised. “I have to get back. I’m expecting a client in the afternoon.”
“I’ll drive you, Lorraine,” I offered.
She didn’t object.
We stepped into the kitchen. The subject of siblings came up while I wrapped the left over banana bread in aluminum foil and slipped it into a bag.
“I had a pretty sister and a brainy one,” Lorraine said. She looked wistful, a little lost. “I was just the middle child.”
Just the middle child …
She took the doggy bag from me saying, “I’ll have to hide this from Harold. I’ll share it with the staff. “
I pulled into the parking lot outside Stedman & Associates, and stepped out of the car. Lorraine reached out and hugged me. I breathed easy. We were now friends.
… … …
Harold and I exchanged e-mails over the next few days.
I wrote –
I truly enjoyed my visit with Mrs. W. Would you tell her? We had a nice chat in the garden.
I hope you are having a good weekend. I went to my Enchanted Woods today, to bid a formal farewell to the summer. It was a bit emotional – I don’t relish this time of year. The landscape was looking rather bedraggled and “fall-ish”. The trees are beginning to weep – there are actually leaves on the ground … horrors!
I returned home with a beautiful, mossy rock that must have weighed all of twenty pounds.
Shall I pop in on Tuesday for a little while? I need to be back by 3:15. I could come any time before 1:00 pm, if this is all right with you. If not, we still have an appointment for Thursday, don’t we?
My love to you both,
Harold wrote back –
What kind of mule are you to carry twenty pounds? Stubbornly determined, presume.
Lorraine spoke highly of your garden and you. She agreed that I could retain you as a friend.
Relish what fall and winter have to offer.
We discussed my living until and beyond the locked in stage. I told her I need 12 people to take 2 hour shifts if I ever need full time care.
I now have her and you.
She agreed that he could retain me as a friend …
I replied –
I am as stubborn as someone else I know, I suppose. Are we on for Thursday? I could come by tomorrow too, for a wee while, if you would let me know early if you are free.
Actually, I told Lorraine I would be willing to do two full evenings a week if you needed me. That would be two four-hour shifts for sure and anything in between as required.
Let’s pray it won’t come to that.
Harold responded –
Tomorrow, but between 4:00 and 5:00 if convenient. I am so pleased. We’ll talk through my screen.
… … …
Terri called some days later to say thank you for the banana bread. “We all got a piece. It was delicious, Selina. Could I have the recipe?”
I said I would be delighted to share my recipe with her.
The office buzzed with activity that afternoon. Furniture and filing cabinets were being moved around and shoved into different rooms. Files piled up in every corner awaited boxing before being sent away for shredding. An atmosphere of urgency prevailed. As if there was no more time to waste. Two raucous Asian gentlemen handled the proceedings.
A sense of desolation grabbed me in the entrails. I felt very much in the way.
What’s going to happen to my files?
Harold looked helpless. Lorraine stuck her head in time and again, to get instructions regarding the mountains of miscellaneous documents. I waited for a lull in the general commotion before speaking. I was eager to discuss the germ of an idea simmering in my head since the weekend. I unzipped my handbag and took out a dog-eared card. Harold’s eyes were alive with interest as he read computer-generated invitation I handed him –
Alpha: An Opportunity to Explore the Meaning of Life
“A friend lent me the videos,” I said. My voice throbbed with enthusiasm. “Would you like to come over on Tuesday afternoon and watch some of them with me? There’s one on the topic of healing I’d love you to see.”
He nodded and smiled.
“You’ll enjoy the speaker. He’s a lawyer, educated at Oxford and Cambridge. His name is Nicky Gumbel. Shall I pick you up?”
I paused to catch my breath. Harold shook his head and used his hands to indicate that he would drive himself.
I contained my excitement. “Okay. See you tomorrow, then.”
He shouldn’t be driving. Are they all blind?
The visit was short. No more than a few minutes. Tomorrow – Thursday – I could look forward to some worthwhile quality time.
… … …
The office was deserted when I walked in at four o’clock the next afternoon. A hum of voices came through the closed double doors of the library.
Chrissy stuck her head out of her cubicle window. “The meeting has been going on forever,” she said. “It shows no sign of adjourning.”
I waited for five minutes, then decided I had to leave. He wouldn’t be in the mood for company when he was done. He’d be exhausted.
I stepped outside with an inexplicable feeling of relief. Things had changed, I was beginning to feel redundant in the office setting.
… … …
The phone rang around nine o’clock that evening. I felt a chill of anxiety when I heard Lorraine’s voice.
Something’s wrong …
“Selina, Harold is so sorry he kept you waiting,” she commenced. No preamble.
“I suspected he would be very tired at the end of the meeting,” I offered.
“He was disappointed to find you gone.”
“It’s not just that, Lorraine. I’ve begun to feel a bit uncomfortable in the office.”
“I don’t see why,” she interjected before I could go further. “After all, it’s his time, his office, and you are visiting a friend. Anyway, you discuss it with him.”
Lorraine’s manner was brisk, a little tart. I was crestfallen and wondered why.
She added, a little hesitantly, “He wanted to know if you could come tomorrow. At 3:30.”
I said I would reschedule my afternoon and be there.
I picked up an e-mail the next morning –
I wish you had waited. I excused myself from the meeting at 4:05, announcing I had another appointment, and found you were gone.
Our conversation the next afternoon was brief. Harold jabbed halfheartedly at his keyboard. He was tired. I offered to read and he agreed readily. This way, he could listen and not have to make any verbal contribution towards the process of communication.
I pulled out my Complete Works of Oscar Wilde and flipped through the index of short stories to The Nightingale And The Rose. The words of the poignant tale — like precious old lace and priceless pearls — slid off my tongue. Harold listened intently, unspoken thoughts trembling on his lips. His eyes brimmed over with moisture he made no effort to brush away. I paused a couple of times to swallow a lump that threatened to strangle me.
Harold made no comment when I was done. He began to type laboriously while I put the heavy volume away in my bag.
Phrases floated across the computer monitors as he tapped –
Lorraine enjoyed her visit. She was full of praises for your garden.
I was blindsided by what came next. A single line flew out and flung itself like acid in my face –
I will never embrace your Jesus
A wild wave of anger washed across his face. Shock and horror churned within me, and then a deep sadness. My throat tightened and my eyelids burned with tears. The atmosphere in the room underwent a sinister change.
“What made you say that?” My voice was barely above a whisper. “Where did it come from?”
I didn’t recall any previous conversation that might have precipitated this outburst. He wrote –
From your writings
I felt stupid and vulnerable. Harold was one of the few people I’d felt free to share my journal thoughts with.
The crooked fingers stabbed at the keys. More words leapt out, ugly and furious —
God has to earn my love
“Has he?” My voice was small.
I couldn’t be sure if he nodded or shook his head. Then the venom fell away from his eyes. He looked sheepish and deflated. An impotent sense of foolishness seeped right through me.
“We were talking about Lorraine,” I persisted. “So where did this … barrage come from? I trusted you, you know, with precious thoughts from the quiet places in my heart.”
I could see Harold was as stunned as I was. The thing had crept up on him like a tidal wave. We were both overwhelmed.
In my bag was my Bible from which I’d planned to read Psalms 23 and 91 because of their depth and power to strengthen and comfort.
“I’ll never share my garbage with you again,” I said frostily, picking up the binder of poems and scribbles I’d brought with me.
He’s spoiled everything …
I felt I had no choice but to gather my tattered dignity and leave.
Words once spoken
Harold never expected such a reaction from me. Neither did I, for that matter. He prodded at the letters on his keyboard as fast as two wasted fingers would move.
His words sailed like a banner across the screens –
I am clumsy in body and in my ways. That comment came from far left field. I never meant to hurt you.
My heart melted, but my face was like stone. I refused to meet the sorrowful eyes.
Why am I so upset?
“You are a man, I guess you know no better,” I heard myself say. “Why do men find it hard to apologize? Why do they find it so difficult to say those little words … I’m sorry?”
Knotted fingers attacked the keys with unexpected vigour –
I’m soooo sorry, please forgive me.
My cheeks burned. Tears rained down fast and furious. “Apology accepted,” I said icily.
He wrote –
I admire your intellect.
For some reason, these last words upset me more.
He opened a drawer and pulled out the two sheets of my writings from some weeks back.
“Give them to me,” I whispered harshly. The hardness in my voice horrified me.
I think Harold guessed my intention seconds before I was aware of what I planned to do.
He mouthed, “No, please.”
I reached across the desk and took the white typewritten sheets from his limp hand, tore them into four pieces slowly and deliberately, and thrust the scraps into my handbag. I didn’t recognize the wicked woman operating through my body.
In wounding a friend, I was injuring myself more.
You mean, melodramatic diva! Just look at his face …
“I have to go now,” I said in flatly.
It was barely twenty minutes since I’d walked into the office.
“Please..” His lips shaped the word and I heard the thin sound emerging from his throat. Harold tried to stand up, his body sagged and he fell back into the swiveling chair. He turned to his keyboard and began to type.
Words staggered across the screens –
Please don’t go …
I couldn’t bear the thought of making a whimpering ass of myself. I picked up my feet and ran out of the office into the parking lot. The binder of writings landed on the passenger seat of the car. Oscar Wilde followed, then my Bible in its zippered case. I had to restrain myself to keep from head-pounding the steering wheel.
“You stupid woman,” I heard myself yelling over and over again.
You wicked witch! Who flounces out on a man with no power of speech and no strength in his body?
No KIeenex in the car. I scrubbed my face with the back of my hand and took a deep breath. It took less than ten minutes to collect myself. Picking up my handbag, I retraced my steps, took a deep breath and walked into Harold’s room.
Harold was deep in conversation with Terence, his law school buddy, who had recently joined the practice. He supported himself against the edge of his desk as he stood standing directly in front of the wide picture window. He looked up from the discussion, startled by my approach.
I gave a foolish grin.
The air crackled with nervous energy. Terence excused himself and left. Harold and I sat down and looked at each other. It took me awhile to muster my words.
I was tremulous and contrite. “I’m so, so sorry for throwing such a horrible tantrum. Will you forgive me – please?”
He refrained from comment and pointed to the Tupperware container of almonds sitting on the desk.
I shook my head and answered without thinking. “No thank you, I have enough nuts in my life, as it is.”
You … witch!
I had to respect his restraint. He didn’t retaliate. Harold kept his unwavering gaze on me. I refused to meet his eye.
Seconds ticked by. A suffocating tension shrouded the room. I had to break the unbearable silence.
“Something’s been destroyed, you know.” My voice splintered the stillness like shattering glass. “It’ll never be the same again.”
We sat in futile wordlessness for another half hour. I licked my wounds in silence, fragile and bruised.
Harold held out his arms for a hug when I stood up to leave. I avoided his eye. An iceberg might have responded with more warmth.
“I suppose I’ll see you next Thursday. Unless something else turns up,” I mumbled, and left without a backward glance.
I sobbed and yelled, “You stupid woman,” at the top of my voice, all the way back home. I cried when David got home in the evening and took myself off for a walk after dinner, to sit by the stream in the Enchanted Woods. The pain pouted and refused to leave. I sat on my Crying Rock and wept.
There was an e-mail from Harold when I went home –
You went out of your way to see me today, and you were as mean spirited in a comment you made. I am punished in not being able to take joy in your accomplishments. I am devastated. Will you reconsider? Whatever your decision, I’ll respect.
Have a lovely weekend.
My eyes began to burn.
Words once spoken and eggs once broken can never be repaired. Mom used to say that.
My thoughts raced, my fingers flew –
You were kind in saying ‘a comment’. I think I made several mean-spirited statements and I do ask you to forgive me.
I am not angry with you. I respect and admire the person you are and value our friendship far too much to bear petty grudges. I am just sad that you misconstrued my motives when I was simply sharing my heart with a specially dear and treasured friend. I know I am going to be guarded around you in future – that doesn’t do much for spontaneity and defies the true definition of friendship, doesn’t it?
The girls are going away to their uncle’s for a sleepover, so David and I can go out dancing on Saturday night.
Have a lovely weekend and enjoy the kids and grandkids. Don’t forget to give the plump baby a kiss from me.
PS Of course I will reconsider. I just need to stop feeling bruised.
… … …
I didn’t get much sleep that night. Or the next. My world had morphed into a grey and empty place. I was haunted by the look on Harold’s face.
I look forward to sleeping in on Saturdays, but slumber evaded me that morning. I had to catch Harold before Lorraine got him out of the house.
The short hand of the clock barely grazed nine when I picked up the bedside telephone and dialed as fast as my fingers would punch the numbers.
After an eternity I heard a click, then a voice. I couldn’t make out the greeting.
Harold? How on earth?
He must have seen the name on the call display.
He sounds like Pauline …
No time for platitudes and niceties. I dived right in. “I said a lot of unkind things yesterday,” I began.
Contrition pricked at my eyelids. “I am so sorry. Would you find it in you to forgive me? Please? It would break my heart to lose your friendship.”
A second click and a woman’s voice came on saying, “Hello?”
Lorraine. On the extension.
“Lorraine, it’s me, Selina.” I reacted as pleasantly as I was able. “There was an urgent matter I had to discuss with Harold.”
“Oh, okay. I’m sorry. I thought the call was for me.” Her voice was crisp, she sounded irritated. I felt a worm for intruding on their weekend. A third click and she replaced the receiver. The twinge of discomfort expanded and flowered violently.
Who cares? Keep going …
I resumed my impassioned monologue. “I overreacted. We have been coming under a lot of pressure from our family and friends about the lawsuit. I never mentioned it to you. And I have been feeling under scrutiny in the office. I don’t like coming there. I am not going to come anymore.”
Slow down idiot!
Harold interposed when I finally paused for breath. “Then I’ll come to your house,” he said.
I almost dropped the phone. His words were clear and precise.
I barely paused to consider how Harold managed to articulate like a normal person. “Whatever you want to do is fine by me,” I answered. “And if it’s any consolation, I didn’t get a single wink of sleep last night, so we are quits!”
A ghost of a chuckle at the end of the line and my lips twitched in response. I could picture the imp in his eyes.
My heart bounded. A tender cocktail of joy, relief and affection gushed all through me.
“I’ll see you next week, my friend,” I said gently. “’Bye!”
… … ….
Harold’s reply to my e-mail came from his office on Monday afternoon –
There you go again, a typical female, dwelling on the expression ‘a comment’. I wish I could only use words that please you. I guess I’m only a man. It’s too late for that surgery.
A continuing relationship while you withhold from me the pleasure of your work is hurtful. You hurt me more by tearing up the works that you had left with me, than by your words. Sticks and stones …
I want to see you on any terms, but limiting your openness would be hurtful.
Where can we begin again? I don’t want a completely selfish agreement where I only take from you and never give back. That’s what I believe distinguishes me from others – I care.
Joy poured over me like rain. My heart sang as my fingers found the keyboard. I wrote –
Let’s start over again. I would like that.
I am free most afternoons, but I don’t feel comfortable sitting in your office any more. I’ve mentioned this to Lorraine.
Until we meet again,
P.S. If it’s any consolation, I’ve punished myself as much as I punished you. I’m sorry, I can’t help being a woman. That’s what makes us unique – petulance and pettishness!!
I hit send and added an afterthought in a follow-up message –
One last post script and we will put this whole miserable episode behind us.
I am not given to histrionics. You know me well enough by now. There was no earthly reason for my irrational behaviour. I think I was reacting to the fact that you seemed to think my writing was propaganda. That hurt badly.
Would you like to come over tomorrow? The twins get home at 3:30 and I get busy after that, but any time between 1:00 and 3:00 pm is fine.
Only if Lorraine is not uncomfortable about it, though.
Will you bring your laptop with you, so we can chat?
The clouds rolled away. The sun began to shine again and I was deliriously happy.
I checked my e-mail several times over the next couple of hours.
The cold shoulder?
I took myself off for a walk and ended up in the Enchanted Woods, sitting on my Crying Rock by the stream. I listened to the gurgle of the brook tumbling over the stones, saddened by the first awareness of browning leaves rustling in the boughs above me.
I remembered a line from one of Harold’s e-mails –
Relish what fall and winter have to offer …
Everything in me shrieked against these harbingers of colder weather. I couldn’t enjoy this pretty time of year which reminded me that I was going to have to watch my garden die.
I resented the light jacket I had on.
… … …
I found the e-mail late into the next afternoon.
It said –
Where were you? I miss you.
A worm of worry gnawed at me. Maybe something happened. Something awful. I picked up the kitchen phone and dialed the office number. It was almost closing time.
I was giddy with glee to hear the grunt of greeting.
“You don’t seem to have received my last e-mail,” I said. “I’ll re-send it. I thought your silence meant you were still annoyed. Or something worse.”
It didn’t matter that I had no idea what he was attempting to say. I barreled on, barely pausing for breath. “Come tomorrow at one o’clock.”
Before I hung up, I added, “I hope Lorraine doesn’t mind,”
He didn’t have a chance to respond.
I re-sent the e-mail, and spent my evening editing Pauline’s Journey, a diary of the times I shared with my friend during her last days. The journal was Pauline’s idea. She wanted me to record every detail of my visits to her bedside so I would have an album of words to remember her by when she was gone. I never knew, scratching at the pages of a notebook two years before, that I would tread the same path of agony once more. So soon.
I picked up an e-mail the next morning. The date and time indicated Tuesday afternoon. Today was Thursday. Odd.
I came to your house at 1.00 pm. I rang five or six times, but you were not home.
I was desolate. If he’d only let me know earlier, I would have done the weekly groceries some other time.
I had to take a walk. The long promenades helped ease the coil of pain and tension inside. Temporarily.
The red light on the answering machine blinked when I walked into the house. I retrieved the voice message and a prickle of alarm raced along my taut nerves. There was an indefinable note in Lorraine Stedman’s voice.
I returned the call with a sense of heavy foreboding. “Lorraine … I’m sorry it’s late. I just picked up your message.”
I was on edge. On my guard.
“Harold and I were planning to make the call together,” Lorraine said. Her words were clipped. “But he had to leave.”
Oh Lord, what now?
My heart sank.
“I have serious concerns about his driving skills,” Lorraine continued. No kidding! “He can barely make it to the office and back. I’m not comfortable with his coming to your house.”
I gathered my scattered wits.
“I understand, Lorraine. Of course.” Okay, you don’t beat about the bush, I won’t, either. “I don’t feel comfortable in the office any more, you see and …”
“I don’t see why,” she interrupted.
“There doesn’t seem to be a lawsuit pending. I feel like a silly, idle woman who has nothing else to do with her time.”
A deafening silence at the end of the line.
No comment? Help me here.
I pressed valiantly on. “The office is not entirely his anymore. There are two other lawyers working there now. Terri’s gone, and Chrissy doesn’t really know me.”
“You are there to spend time with your friend. I really see no reason for you to feel the way you do,” she argued. Crisp and cool.
She’s making me sound stupid …
A moment of frozen silence while I desperately sought to gather the tremulous thread of conversation. “Harold and I had a bit of a falling out last week. I called on Saturday morning because I felt terrible about getting upset with a sick man.”
She softened slightly. “I heard about it. True friendship is about being able to share anything – not just journals. I have all sorts of friendships. I’m sure he was able to handle what happened.”
All sorts of friendships?
I made up my mind.
“Lorraine,” I said firmly, “Would you tell Harold I’ll be down this afternoon at the usual time?”
Lorraine reverted to being aloof and businesslike. “Oh, okay. That’s fine.”
She never addressed me by name. Not once.
… … …
Harold was with a client and I had to wait. Again. For quite awhile. It was four o’clock before Chrissy told me I could go in. My contrite heart swelled when I set eyes on my friend.
He looks so frail …
He opened his arms. I dropped my handbag on the nearest chair and ran to him. He almost toppled over backwards, taking me with him.
My throat grew tight. My eyes misted over.
I whispered, “Shalom, my friend. I am so sorry.”
His Adam’s apple jerked as he beamed through the drops glistening on his lashes.
We sat down in front of the large desk. His chair faced mine. I crawled on my hands and knees under the desk to locate the connecting wire, and placed the keyboard on his lap.
Harold’s face puckered as he punched the keys with unsteady fingers, turning his thoughts into brief sentences. I tried to spare him the effort by attempting to guess what he might be saying. I was invariably off, and realized I could be irritating him.
He wrote –
The procedure to have the feeding tube inserted is scheduled for tomorrow. I am ready for it now.
On the desk was the ever present glass of blended fruit. Always the same combination. Always the same viscose consistency and same dark purple-pink colour. Beside it, a small plate of sliced cold meats and assorted cheeses.
The tube would do away with the endless chewing and swallowing and terrifying episodes of choking on rivers of saliva.
A stream of letters marched across the screens to create a tangled tapestry of words –
I spend six hours a day trying to get food down me
“I know. You’ve made the right decision. You know that, don’t you?”
He nodded and tapped –
This way, I can also ingest my medication in liquid form
“How do you feel about it?” I asked.
We relaxed on a gentle island of quietness.
His fingers crawled over the keyboard. The answer unraveled on the screen –
I’m a bit leery about it
“And Lorraine?” I queried.
She wants me to live
Well … d’uh!
There is a prospective buyer for the business. A lady lawyer from the States
“That’s great news.” I glanced at my watch. The twins had to go to their piano lesson.
I took Harold’s outstretched hand in mine and something snapped. I burst into tears. Rummaging blindly in my handbag, I made a futile effort to dab my face with a threadbare fistful of tissues I found in my handbag. Harold lifted his chin to direct me to the box of Kleenex sitting on the desk.
I reached for it, trying to lighten the mood by saying, “Put it on my account.”
The unruly eyebrows quivered. His eyes danced.
He was reluctant to say goodbye.
I looked back as I crossed the parking lot. Harold was watching me through the wall-sized tinted glass window. I waved and dropped the car keys, shaking my head and laughing when he beckoned me to return for a last hug.
It would be another long week until next Thursday.
She remembered my name!
A quarter past one on Friday afternoon, the surgical procedure would be in progress, if all had gone according to schedule.
I dashed off an e-mail —
It’s just after 1.00 pm on Friday. Just to let you know you’ve been in my thoughts.
I was so happy to see you yesterday. You looked well.
He looked well? Come on, really? In a way, he did. Yes …
Harold wouldn’t pick up the e-mail until Monday, but I had to do something to ease the suffocating sense of impotence coiled around my heart.
… … …
I called the Stedman residence around nine o’clock in the evening. Harold picked up. He couldn’t make himself understood, of course, but the sound of his voice was sufficient to reassure me that he’d made it through the morning. The call lasted no more than a few seconds.
By Tuesday evening I was restless. I shrugged off a nagging sense of unease, and resisted the temptation to call the house.
Antsy, unable to remain inactive any longer, I sent off an e-mail –
I hope you are well and adjusting to the PEG tube. You have been in my thoughts. Are we still on for Thursday? What time?
All but hyperventilating by Wednesday, I hammered out a second message –
I haven’t heard from you and it’s worrying me. I am assuming you have been busy. I do hope all is well. If I don’t hear back from you, I’ll assume our Thursday afternoon appointment is cancelled.
Harold replied –
I had a bad weekend. We spent 6 1/2 hours in emerg. last Saturday, until past 3.00 am, but I have been getting progressively better since my fall on Monday. I fell backwards on the first step into the office. Scraped a bit and sore in my wrist and one bum cheek.
We have the feeding on a routine now. I can consume 600 calories in 10 minutes. The tube is great, now that I’m adapting.
Don’t worry and come on Thursday, if you can.
You’re correct. I have been busy with Joanne and work and didn’t get to read my e-mail. Please forgive.
A fall? Joanne must be the American lady, the prospective buyer.
He was okay. For the moment.
… … …
Thursday morning found me immersed in a vortex of literary creativity. My fingers sped over the keyboard and reams of words flooded the computer monitor. The phone rang. Pausing, I waited to identify the voice coming through the answering machine. I took a deep breath and reluctantly picked up the receiver.
Keep calm …
“Oh hello, Selina, you’re in. Screening your calls, are you?”
“Not really. Just busy, trying to catch up on stuff.”
Lorraine Stedman laughed. “I know the feeling. I was wondering … are you planning to visit Harold this afternoon?”
I went into defensive mode. “Yes, I am.”
“Oh, good.” She sounded pleased. “Could I ask you for a favour?”
“Harold needs help with feeding. Would you mind syringing a can of the liquid food into his tube?”
“Oh, I don’t mind at all, Lorraine. It would be my privilege.”
“Thank you. I knew I could count on you, Selina.” Her sounded was friendly.
“I’ll head out as soon as the twins get home,” I said. “The bus gets in around half past three.”
I hung up feeling dazed.
She remembered to use my name …
… … …
The other lawyers had left for the day. Chrissy was deep in discussion with an olive-skinned gentleman. The foyer was deserted. I tiptoed towards Harold’s room without waiting to be announced. A friend’s prerogative.
I stood at the threshold observing him while he remained unaware of my presence. He peered at his screen with intense concentration, his fingers tapping at the keyboard. He broke into a wide smile when he saw me, stood up unsteadily, and held out his arms.
Harold looked much better. His skin had lost the pallor of yellowed parchment. His hand, when he squeezed mine, was warm. The feeding tube had worked wonders.
Thank God …
I shifted to clucking hen mode. “You have to eat. Lorraine’s orders.”
He grinned ruefully. My eyes twinkled back.
She manages to be present, even when she’s not …
I knelt and squirmed under the desk to locate the keyboard and place it in his lap. He pounded the keys laboriously –
Lorraine came down at 12.45 and fed me two cans
“You’ve already had your lunch?” I was puzzled.
So why on earth did she call specifically to ask me to do it?
He wrote –
It had a disastrous effect on my bowels
I was concerned. “What happened?”
He tapped –
I could not undress fast enough to deal with the instant effect this particular thickness of food had on me
No! Oh, dear God …
He smiled and shrugged his shoulders, then continued –
The consistency of the liquid food will have to be adjusted. I won’t need feeding until I get home in the evening
I regarded him in silence. I had nothing to say. I couldn’t recall a time when I’d been at a loss for words. They evaded me today. It was as if I’d lifted a veil and entered a realm beyond weeping.
Harold bent once more over his keyboard. The tap-tap words swam disjointedly across the screens –
I would like a drink of water
I sprang to attention. “Of course.”
A bottle of spring water – half full — reposed on the antique table by the door. I noticed round water marks on the varnished surface. A large plastic syringe rested inside one of two glass tumblers.
Harold lifted his shirt. A white tube — bifurcated at the outer end – protruded from his concave belly. I filled the syringe with water. He checked to make sure it was free of air bubbles and handed it back to me.
“Am I hurting you?” I asked, diffidently injecting the water into the tube. My hands were surprisingly steady.
He shook his head, his eyes fixed on my hands. I was feeding water directly into his gut.
A bizarre feeling …
The process took five minutes at the most.
Harold adjusted his clothing while I put the syringe away. The tube stuck out awkwardly through the stretchy fabric of his shirt. He picked up the keyboard and recommenced our conversation as if nothing unusual had occurred.
He looked down at the protrusion from his abdomen, then wrote –
I tried to keep it in place using a velcro wrap. It kept slipping
“And so?” I offered encouragingly.
I tried wearing suspenders backwards
I leaned forward. “And?”
It didn’t work. I just tuck it into my pants. It stays in place better
He looked down at the offending contraption, then at me. His fingers resumed their task –
My first appliance
Fatigue clouded Harold’s countenance. I took the keyboard away from the perch on his lap and placed it at the edge of the desk. He pointed to a printed sheet. An e-mail forward. His mouth quivered and the irrepressible eyes began to cavort as I held the paper in my hand. A silly Jewish joke, seasoned liberally with Yiddish phrases. I read it out loud.
His eyes met mine, brimming over with mischief. He raised a crooked finger to his larger-than-Barbra-Streisand’s-nose.
The walls rang as my laughter echoed around the room. Harold grinned wickedly. His shoulders shook with mirth.
The heaviness vanished. A rainbow hung over us both.
I talked nineteen to the dozen to keep awkward silences at bay.
Harold tapped at the keyboard. The letters grew into words and sprang to life on the monitors –
How is Karl?
Karl was my neighbour, two doors down. His wife had Alzheimer’s disease.
“I went with Karl to visit Frieda at the nursing home on Monday,” I replied.
Harold’s fingers moved, the keys clicked in response –
How was she?
“I couldn’t bear to see the state she was in,” I said.
“Karl cried when he talked about her. She was the love of his life. He broke his back taking care of her.”
Broke his back?
“Yes. Literally. She tried to jump off the balcony when she heard the diagnosis. He managed to stop her, but seriously injured his back in the process. She’s a big lady. It never healed properly. He is in agony pretty much all the time. Painkillers don’t work anymore.”
We floundered for some moments in a cloak of grim silence until I said, “I thought of you as I watched Karl feeding his wife. I wondered which was better — to lose one’s mind, or the use of one’s body.” I glanced at Harold. “I think, for the patient’s sake, it’s better that he lose his sensibilities. Of course, from a loved one’s point of view, it’s the lucidity of mind that’s the vital imperative. Am I right?”
Harold’s eyes swam. His prominent Adam’s apple bounced when he swallowed hard and brushed away the constant flood of saliva. He nodded.
“You are blessed to have Lorraine, you know,” I said.
The fingers re-commenced their keyboard tap dance. He wrote –
I know. She’s a trooper.
Chrissy stepped in a little after five o’clock to announce her departure.
“Mr. Stedman, don’t forget — Fran is upstairs. Don’t lock her in,” she admonished in her little nasal voice.
The previous week Harold had absent-mindedly locked up while Lorraine was still in her office, and headed off home.
Chrissy glanced at me and caught my eye. We both remembered and began to giggle helplessly in a giddy, girl moment.
It’s not that funny at all …
The main door banged shut. She was gone. I rose to my feet.
Harold prodded the keyboard. He wrote –
Wait. I’ll shut down the machines. We can go out together
“Don’t forget poor Fran,” I said, casting my eyes upwards to remind him that Lorraine’s friend was still in the building.
A wry smile touched his lips. He held out his arms. I wrapped mine around him. I felt the brittle boniness of his frame.
… … …
David and the twins went rollerblading on Saturday with David’s friend Des and his children. Des had recently found himself reluctantly single.
I stepped through the front door into a golden fall day, intoxicated at the thought of an entire afternoon to myself. The toot of a horn called me to attention. The car slowed down, and my neighbour, Karl, stuck his shiny head out of the driver’s side window.
Karl was distraught. “They found Frieda on the floor. She went into convulsions. It doesn’t look good.” Angst accentuated his European accent. I kicked myself when he drove off, for not offering to accompany him to the hospital.
Harold, Des, Karl …
My entire being groaned beneath the burden of others’ sorrows. I needed this walk.
My heart leapt when the wrought iron bridge came into sight. I stepped on and entered a delicious world of quiet and serenity. I loved to think this was my own private spot. The occasional sound of barking dogs, walkers and cyclists, and the ubiquitous litter of newspapers, loudly denied my fantasy.
Someone who’s paid to deliver the paper is dumping it here …
I stared unblinking for several seconds, mentally photographing the image of my Enchanted Woods. I wanted to remember and savour its wonder when the bitterness of winter deterred me from coming to this place.
A breeze rustled through the canopy of leaves and golden splashes of sunshine cast dapples of light and shadow on the tarred path and in the undergrowth. The stream ran to the left of me. It rushed past, murky and swollen after last night’s storm. A downed tree was poised bridge-like across the waters, and several broken branches and twigs lay scattered about. Chattering squirrels – black, brown and grey – chased each other up and down the boles of trees, and across my path.
Who’d think that all this exists just yards away from urban backyards?
My stream churned angrily. I dared not set foot on the stepping stones to cross over to the other side. No losing myself under the trees along the far bank today. No renewed moment of indignation as I wondered how someone had the gall to abandon a hideous red couch in my hiding place and how in the world had anyone managed to haul such a huge thing to that spot.
I love the newly washed feel of the calm after the storm. The world had washed her face and put her make-up on. I ventured closer to the bank, choosing not to sit on the graffiti-besmirched retaining wall. The stream had overflowed under the pressure of the relentless downpour. Saturated soil squelched beneath my feet. I sat on the flat rock at the foot of the grand old weeping willow, exhaling slowly.
Nature has a catalytic, twofold effect on me. It soothes my senses and calms the aches in my heart, then sets my mind racing at breakneck speed. My legs crossed at the ankles, I rested my chin in my hand and began to talk to God. I whispered urgently, sorrowfully, angrily. I pleaded. The tears flowed unheeded.
Des. Karl. Harold …
My mind meandered over to that day in March last year — a year and a half ago — when Harold’s diagnosis was finally made official.
Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS. Death sentence. The worst kind.
God, please tell me … why?
The Best Wife In The world
My heart wept with the willow. The water gurgled and gushed past, mere inches from my feet. I leaned against the old tree and closed my eyes. As I relaxed, my thoughts morphed into pictures, and memories played like old movies in my mind. I remembered the day the sword of Damocles dropped.
The snow had all but gone, and disgruntled winter ghosts remained in the shape of ugly puddles. I went to the office that Saturday morning, to sign some documents waiting to be dispatched to court for the Monday afternoon hearing. I lingered for a few moments afterwards.
“It’s been confirmed,” Harold said. We sat in the book-lined library. The wall-sized window overlooked a bright urban landscape alive with spring fever.
“What?” I dragged my thoughts away from the busyness of the street outside.
“It’s ALS.” A harsh death knell tolled in the quiet room.
I braved the desolation on his face to look directly into his eyes.
No! It’s a mistake ..
“Have you talked to God about it?” I asked. I could think of nothing else to say.
His eyes filled, his voice trembled. He replied softly, “I asked him to take care of Lorraine.”
“But haven’t you talked to him about how you feel and why this has happened?” I insisted.
“I’ve been busy with your hearing,” Harold said, “but I will. Once Monday is over and done with. I promise.”
He was serious, he wasn’t humouring me.
Harold’s voice had begun to slur quite evidently and he was losing strength in his little finger. I thought of Pauline and the horrors she endured. I couldn’t bear to remember.
I can’t do this. It’s too soon …
… … …
There was never any doubt that Harold Stedman was an uxorious husband. Lorraine was the best wife in the world. The best cook. She made haute cuisine seem easy. His pride in the capabilities and achievements of the woman he’d been married to for decades was admirable.
I once heard it said that Lorraine Stedman kept her husband on a leash. It’s always safer to guard one’s tongue, so I refrained from offering an opinion in response.
Lorraine’s artwork in oils – bold, vibrant and pulsating with life – hung on the dark paneled walls of Harold’s office. There was a wild savagery about the framed pieces. Adjacent to one another, on the wall by his desk, were two photographs. Captured in the first portrait were a father, mother and children – an attractive couple in their prime and two teenagers. The second picture presented two young adults, more mature, sophisticated, sure of themselves.
I felt I knew the family intimately. I’d heard so much about the daughters and their children, particularly the new baby.
The baby was his smile machine.
Often, as I walked into the office, Harold would query, “Do you want a smile?” and point to the framed photograph of a pudding of an infant, serious and as contented as a broody hen.
The smile would come unbidden.
Once, Harold held out his hands to be inspected. The nails were painted blue. He glanced indulgently at the screen saver picture of two little girls holding each other in a sisterly embrace.
I smiled. “Someone with a Barbie make up kit visited yesterday, huh Grandpa?”
His eyes lit up. He grinned.
… … …
The Enchanted Woods recharged my batteries. I had enough to keep me going until the next time.
I logged on to my e-mail when I returned home. I re-read the message I received the previous evening.
It said –
I was calling on my e-mail to hear from a friend and you’re the best.
The dietician said the same food, but slower. Lorraine and I had decided to use the syringe, and with human impatience and control, it hit my stomach like a ton of bricks.
Just finished my lunch through an IV drip. It’s a bit slower and my stomach has no cramps.
Enjoy your day. I think the weather won’t be as bad as expected.
I smiled as I typed a response –
I am so glad the food situation has been sorted out. Will you look fat when I see you next week?? (Hooray!)
Karl’s wife has been taken to hospital. She was found on the floor and has gone into convulsions. I took some supper over to him. He has only the poodle for company and my heart goes out to him.
We are so blessed in those who love us, aren’t we? There are so many people who love you.
Have a lovely weekend.
Harold replied on Monday –
I feel bad for your neighbour, but glad for myself in what you say.
The thread of gentle back-and-forth continued until Thursday, my special day of the week.
From me –
I have had such an incredibly exciting week. My life is never boring, that’s for sure! There’s lots more to come before Thursday, I know. I can’t wait to tell you all about it.
Please keep well till then, my dear friend.
Hugs and lots of love,
From Harold –
I can’t wait.
Finally, on Wednesday night I wrote –
I’ll be there tomorrow at 3:45 pm unless I hear otherwise from you. The girls get in around 3:30 and I’d rather be around to let them in. Our address is a designated school bus stop and I’m not comfortable with some of the types who hang around waiting for the kids. There’s a man – probably some kid’s dad – who looks like a biker and scares me!
I feel like the witch in Hansel and Gretel – I can’t wait to see how fat you’ve got! Unlike that hag, though, I’ve no plans to stuff you in a cooking pot!!
With my love until then,
Harold replied –
Thursday afternoon finally came.
The office was quiet when I stepped inside. The door beeped twice as I walked through. Ronald was at the front desk manning the phones. Chrissy wasn’t in her windowed cubicle. I could hear Chuck (the younger of the two new lawyers) on the telephone at his front-office desk. Terence was gone for the day. I stood at the threshold of my friend’s space. His chair was vacant. My heart sank. I flew to the front desk.
Composing myself, I enquired as casually as I could, “Ronald, is Mr. Stedman out?”
Ronald ambled over to his employer’s room with me in pursuit. Harold was stretched out on the faded blue velveteen cushions of the two-seater couch. I’d never seen him lying down before. He was giving in. Finally.
Harold beamed as I draped my jacket over the back of my usual chair and bent down to kiss his cheek. It was a healthy shade of pink and felt warm, not dry. He stood up jerkily and pointed to the tube. He had to eat.
The portrait of the children had been taken down and rested on the low cabinet to the left of the office desk. An empty plastic bottle hung from the picture hook. A long tube dangled from it.
I knew what to do. I syringed a glassful of water into the PEG tube protruding from his abdomen. Then two cans of liquid food went into the bottle, and I connected the attached length of tubing to the stomach tube.
The nourishment began flowing into his body, and my friend approached his keyboard, eager to commence a conversation.
I sat on the steno’s chair by his side, keeping an eye on the contents of the bottle. Within minutes, I read the strain of exhaustion on his face. I pointed to the couch.
“Would you like to lie down?” I asked.
He made no demur and rose from his seat like an obedient child.
“We could take that thing down,” I nodded at a First Nations artifact on the wall, “and hang the bottle from the hook.”
I settled my friend at one end of the couch, then took down the ornamental drum, laid it on the antique table, and hung the bottle from the nail. Harold patted the spot at his side. I sat down beside him. No keyboard access. No dialogue today.
I’ll have to do the talking …
I noticed his eyes for the first time. Chestnut brown with dark pupils. My David’s eyes. I found myself staring for several seconds, lost in a profound personal revelation. I’d just realized that my friend Harold was an older version of my husband. His nose was longer, his ears not as large, his eyebrows more unruly. His hair had more salt than pepper, but all in all, they could be the same person. Down to some of the mannerisms and the slightly uneven teeth.
Why hadn’t I noticed before?
It took about an hour and a half for the bottle to empty. I chattered on, undaunted by the impediment of a one-sided monologue.
I began with an update on Karl’s situation. I shared my recent discovery that my friend Deanna had been to high school with his older daughter. I had to tell about the acquisition of a new – and very large – friend at the gym. There was a lot to talk about.
I paused to ask, “Am I tiring you out?”
Harold smiled and his eyes came alive. They danced with amusement and volumes of unsaid words. His head shook a vehement denial.
“A penny for your thoughts,” I said, teasingly. He shrugged and rolled his eyes.
I came to the end of my bulletin and fell silent. Harold closed his eyes and I sat looking at him. All that remained in the ghost of the man I once knew were the eyes. His wrists are almost as thin as mine. He had lost inches off his waist and the belt was pulled in several notches to keep his pants from falling down. His cheekbones were severely pronounced, his joints protruded at awkward angles. He probably weighed less than he did as a boy.
I was caught unawares when, like lightning, Harold picked up a fraying blue cushion, and placed it in my lap. With inexplicable dexterity, he flipped himself onto his right side, and laid his head on it. He crossed his arms over his chest and lay supine. He shut his eyes once more, and an expression of deep contentment and rest settled on his countenance.
I’ve seen this look on the face of a child on the first day of kindergarten. I’d hold him in my lap and soothe him till he stopped crying for his mommy. But I was not Harold’s teacher and he was not a child. Life is never that simple.
I cast an anxious eye at the door.
“Please,” I whispered, “I really don’t mind, but this is an office, you know. Your office …”
With a sigh of resignation he raised himself and sat slumped at my side. His eyes remained closed. He sagged like an ancient rag doll. Sorrow gripped my bowels like acid and tore at my heart. I reached out and stroked his head with my fingertips. The hair was rough. Like David’s.
God, I feel so helpless. Help me. Help him. Help me to help him …
I glanced at my watch. It was past five o’clock.
Harold perceived my movement and opened his eyes, reminding me with a finger on his watch that I’d promised to stay till five thirty. He jiggled the tube impatiently, willing it to empty quickly. At five twenty the drip spent itself. I unhooked the line and syringed a second glassful of water into him.
He all but ran to his desk – almost falling over in the process — to punch on the keyboard. His words flashed on the screen facing me –
“I have to go,” I reminded him.
He tapped his wrist to indicate that it was only five twenty five. His watch was slow.
The girls would be late for their piano lesson, but how could I leave?
He struggled to keep up with his thoughts, typing as fast as he was able. He wrote —
Rhonda had to have surgery. She’s in hospital.
Rhonda was Harold’s pregnant younger daughter. His baby.
I sat down reluctantly. “What happened?”
His eyes lit up with triumph.
“Five minutes,” I said.
We talked for a while longer in our own particular manner. He typed and I made verbal acknowledgements.
I waited all week for this time and it vanished like a mirage.
Harold stood up when I did, winding his arms around me. His heart thundered like a train in his thin chest. I could hear it pounding against my ear. I was afraid I might break something.
I didn’t want to go.
I wish there was some other way …
We stood in silence for some moments while the seconds ticked on into eternity.
I lingered while he shut the machines down and turned out the lights. He put the bottle and tube into a plastic grocery bag. I carried the bag for him and together we walked out of the building. I put my hand beneath his elbow when he faltered. We descended the short flight of steps.
He opened the passenger side door of the silver Mercedes. I placed the bag on the seat and waved goodbye.
Drive with caution, my friend …
I had jabbered my head off today, but the visit hadn’t been the same. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like for an eloquent man to be imprisoned in a cage of muteness.
I stepped into my vehicle and turned the key in the ignition. The engine roared to life.
Another long week until next Thursday.
Crimson Nail Polish
The days grew cooler. The garden looked pinched and lack-lustre, like a bitter, unloved woman. I donned gardening gloves to coax and shove the wishing well into its designated winter hideout in the garage. It had seen many summers and was a rickety treasure trove of splinters.
The task completed, I headed out to the Enchanted Woods. My fingers railed against the bite in the air and yearned to snuggle into a pair of woolly gloves. Still early September and I was freezing.
My enchanted spots were forlorn and bedraggled. Masses of shriveled leaves made a soggy mess on the banks of the stream. The water, a sluggish, murky brown, foamed churlishly at a bottleneck created by downed branches and debris from last week’s storm. I had no desire to linger.
I sent out an e-mail when I got home. I wrote –
I wish Thursday afternoons wouldn’t zip by so fast. I feel a bit cheated in that we weren’t able to chat much yesterday. However, I was happy to see you looking well and so much less frail. Not ready for the cauldron yet, though!
My mother would say, “Learn to be grateful for the small mercies”, so I will be thankful I got to spend some time with a dear friend. David caught me staring into his eyes this morning as he was rushing to get ready for work. I cannot believe that you both have each other’s eyes. I wonder why I never noticed before — I have been too busy laughing at your wicked statements, I suppose!
With my best love,
He replied briefly. Too briefly —
… … …
I gave up a valiant struggle against flu symptoms and took myself off to bed on Saturday afternoon. I was guiltily glad to huddle under the covers with a valid excuse to do nothing.
I couldn’t get Harold out of my mind. The too-short response to my e-mail overwhelmed me with an awful sense of foreboding.
I wrote an e-mail on Sunday evening –
I have caught the grandmother of all colds. I can’t imagine where I could have picked up the bug. This is the first cold I’ve had all year and I am trying not to feel sorry for myself. I am praying I will be OK by Thursday, because I can’t run the risk of you catching anything from me. I will not come if I am still hacking and sniffling by then.
I have been working on my Harold journal. It helps me not to miss you and worry about you.
Des was over for the weekend. I dished out hot meals and sympathy, but had a lot of time to read and write and nurse my cold, while David was lending a listening ear.
Be well, dear friend, and have a blessed week.
Harold replied –
I wish you a speedy recovery. Today began inauspiciously with no furnace working at home or in the office. Of course my signing hand is too weak to sign when cold.
A Monday morning call to the heating people gets no call back.
I responded —
I feel much better today. I’ve missed my gym time.
Is the furnace up and running now? Isn’t it an odd coincidence that both your home and office were out of heat? I hope you managed to keep warm.
I was wondering if I could come in at 3:15 on Thursday. I think the girls are OK on their own now. That way we would have a little time to chat after you’ve eaten. Only if your schedule would accommodate me, of course.
Until Thursday, with my love,
The answer was terse –
Can we please leave it as it is? The new bottles flow faster and can finish now in under 30 minutes. I’ll see you.
So much for my grand and magnanimous gesture of abandoning my children in the name of friendship. I was piqued.
I wrote back –
Of course, that is fine. Are you sure my being there does not tire you? Shall I come a little later and leave earlier? Or maybe we should just make it every other week. It’s you and your comfort that is of vital importance.
Take care of yourself.
I was being petulant.
I picked up his reply the next day –
It isn’t because you tire me, more because of my guilt in getting work done that a larger time slice might take. Let’s gauge how I look to you. I do feel better and better as I increase my food consumption.
I wrote –
OK – you know best! I’ll be there at the usual time.
Something had changed. I couldn’t put a finger on it.
…. …. ….
I leafed through a dog-eared magazine until Chrissy said I could go in. I asked myself, as I walked towards Harold’s office, why I was tip-toeing and realized I was beginning to have the visiting-Pauline-in-palliative-care feeling.
An awful revelation.
Harold sat in his swiveling chair facing the door, watching for my entrance. There was colour in his cheeks and his face had lost some of its cadaverous appearance. He was hooked up to a different bottle and, even from this distance, I could see the fluid was flowing rapidly. Wreathed in smiles, he stood up and stretched out his arms.
I walked around the desk, pushed the tube carefully aside, and gave him a cautious hug.
Watch out for the apparatus …
With his eyes he told me the drip was done. He had hooked himself up, I gathered, and the faded tea towel he kept handy to handle leaks and spills was relatively clean. No accidents.
I helped him disengage the bottle and syringed the required glassful of water into the protruding PEG tube. I was putting the bottle and length of connecting tubing away, when Lorraine appeared in the doorway.
Thursday is her day off …
She wore jeans with a blue turtleneck sweater and a harried expression on her face. Bright crimson polish screamed from her fingernails.
Elegant woman. Well turned out – always.
“There’s a sewage backup in the building,” she said, addressing me. “I had to come in to meet the guy from the municipality.”
She was coping well. No wonder he was so proud of her.
I nodded and smiled.
“I’ve lost track of the number of calls I’ve had to make,” Lorraine added, sounding exasperated.
I glanced at Harold. He rolled his eyes and pulled a face. My lips twitched in response. I had to look away to keep from giggling.
You’ve found some funny side to the situation, you wonderful man …
Lorraine fired a volley of questions at her husband. Her mind was on many things. Jabbing painstakingly at his keyboard, he responded.
I wondered how he knew so much about pipes, valves and general building stuff.
There were constant interruptions on Lorraine’s part. An endless barrage of queries pertaining to the sewage situation. She was too distracted to notice the mirth in Harold’s eyes. It wasn’t funny, but it was. We laughed together with our eyes, Harold and I, a happy Harold paradox that occurred often when I was in his presence.
I felt very much in the way. We didn’t have much of a visit that afternoon.
Lorraine sat down in the chair across from me. There was weariness beneath the businesslike facade. I felt sorry for her.
“What can I do to help ease your burden?” I asked.
Before she could reply, Harold jabbed at his keyboard. A single word appeared on the screen –
Lorraine’s eyebrows rose into a creased forehead. She wasn’t in the mood for jokes.
Harold chose not to notice and continued to type unperturbed –
I’ve put on some flesh on my rear
I chuckled. “That must make sitting so much more comfortable.”
Lorraine relaxed and leaned back in her chair.
How did he do it?
Surely, you must have moments when you just want to scream …
Harold was on a roll. He poked the keyboard and the words tumbled all over the screen –
Show Selina your piece
Lorraine angled her head so I could see. I bent to admire an avant-garde necklace wrapped around her throat. A black leather strap, held in place by two shiny buttons. She sat still while I examined the detail in the cameo work of art. The glasswork was exquisite. I had noticed it the moment she walked into the room.
“Rhonda?” I guessed.
“Yes.” The glow of pride on her face was reflected in his.
He comes alive when he talks about his family …
“She has inherited her mother’s artistic talent,” I remarked.
“Oh, she’s her father’s daughter,” Lorraine countered.
We paused as Harold fingers worked at the keyboard –
Rhonda is my devilish alter ego
He’d said that many times in our conversations.
Lorraine sat bolt upright in her chair. “I almost forgot,” she said, “I promised to drive Bobby to get something for Tom Jones.”
She ran to the phone in the corridor.
“Tom Jones is some kind of reptile,” Lorraine announced when she returned. “My grandson’s pet. Not a snake …”
Harold’s fingers moved on the keyboard to interject –
Lorraine nodded. She relaxed in the client’s chair across from me, and the two of us fell into conversation. Harold was forgotten for the moment.
“It’s wonderful to see the change a week has brought,” I said. “The PEG tube has done wonders.”
“The doctor assured us that we would see an actual weight gain in a few weeks,” she answered, then added, “It’s so easy to communicate using the computer.”
“So how do you communicate at home?” I enquired.
“Oh, I do all the talking. He writes on a piece of paper if he feels he has to.”
He’s consigned to total non-communication the moment he steps out of this office …
“You are a bad speller,” Lorraine observed, catching a typo on the screen.
Harold’s eyes laughed when they met mine. He knew I remembered the comment he’d made some weeks back. (“I barely manage to get by, and people say I’m a bad speller!”)
He began to tell his wife about the previous evening. I leaned back in my chair and observed them. Decades of matrimony hung over them like a warm cloak. For a few brief moments they were cocooned in their own private world and I was the intruder. They belonged with each other.
Harold wrote –
Sister snored all evening, and the smoke alarm went off
“What triggered it off?” Lorraine asked. “Not the snores, surely? What did you do?”
His fingers took up their laboured tapping –
I turned the TV up as loud as possible
and added wryly –
I wasn’t able to do much reading
He glanced at me, then typed –
My wife went to a party
I burst out laughing. I looked at Lorraine and spluttered, “He’s saying you were fiddling while Rome was burning!”
She threw me a longsuffering look. “It was my sister’s silver wedding anniversary,” she said sourly. “I had to go.”
Harold’s face gleamed with mischief. Once more his eyes began their delightful dance.
“It’s not what he says,” I gurgled. “You have to read between the lines.”
It was a delicious moment. She didn’t get it.
“I can’t believe she slept,” Lorraine persisted. She turned to me. “My sister-in-law babysat her little brother last evening. I think she was working this week. She must have been tired.”
Harold had had an eventful evening, and wasn’t physically capable of telling his wife about it — until now.
The main door beeped and announced the arrival of the repairman. Lorraine stepped outside to meet him. I sat still while Harold checked his e-mail. His messages – all in extra large print – popped up on the screen facing me. I felt like I was eavesdropping on a private conversation and kept looking away. I couldn’t avert my eyes, however, when I found myself eyeball to eyeball with an article about Lou Gehrig’s disease.
My eyes raced down the screen. The message ended on a grim note –
Patients usually die within five years of diagnosis.
Who in their right mind would send him such a thing?
“It’s from a friend,” he wrote dispassionately. He’d seen me reading it.
Some friend. Why, for heaven’s sake?
Harold and I looked up at the identical moment. He held my gaze steadily for several seconds. I could feel the heaviness of his pain. I found nothing to say.
I dropped my eyes and stared intently at my lacquered fingernails. The lump leapt back into my throat. I found myself at an uncharacteristic loss for words. I was all out. I had no more platitudes to offer.
I looked up when I heard the renewed tap-tap of fingers on the keyboard.
Harold wrote –
I know every inch of this building
I heaved an inward sigh of relief, grateful for the change of subject.
“How?” I responded obligingly. I was glad to shrug off the glum oppression shrouding us both.
At the end of the work day I put on work boots and hard hat. I worked alongside the contractors
“You did?” I was not surprised. Nothing about Harold could surprise me.
Lorraine ushered the municipal inspector into the office. He advanced with the same tip-toe hesitancy in his bearing I had recognized in myself a little while before. He sat down in the chair facing Harold.
Lorraine had obviously given the man a heads up. He was behaving like a mourner at a funeral parlour.
Without waiting to be asked, Harold unleashed a torrent of information onto the screens. Underground pipes and sewers – there didn’t seem to be much he wasn’t aware of regarding the building.
“It will be taken care of tomorrow.” The municipal gentleman rose to his feet, ending the conversation.
Harold smiled genially and wrote –
I’m glad we had this chat
The man leaned forward and shook Harold’s hand gingerly. “I’m glad we did, sir.” His voice was hushed, the tone deferential.
“I have to go,” I said. The clock reminded me of the domestic duties demanding my attention.
Lorraine reached out and hugged me with unexpected warmth. She was going out of her way to be nice.
An imp of mischief stirred inside me.
“The guy was quite smitten by you,” I whispered.
Lorraine simpered. We giggled in a shared silly moment.
Harold was slumped in his chair. He couldn’t muster the energy to return my smile and he didn’t respond to my vigorous wave. His eyes were wistful and pensive. The frantic activity of the day had taken its toll.
… … …
I sent out an e-mail on Friday morning –
Just a wee note to wish you a super weekend. It made me very happy to see you looking so well and halfway on your way to the cooking pot!
It was a bit busy yesterday, wasn’t it? I was glad to be able to chat with Lorraine. She is a wonderful lady. I do like her.
I feel conscious of taking your time when I know how busy you are. However, if you have half an hour to spare before Thursday, I will come down to say ‘hello’, even if I have to reschedule and cancel.
Take care of yourself and remember how many people love you and care for you.
God bless you, my dear friend. You are always in my thoughts.
PS: You asked about Des and then called him a shmuck! He’s not coming over to whine. David invited him, and I issued an open invitation. He is a gentle, kind, upright man and has had such a raw deal. Why is it that the swine of this world thrive and get away with everything? Life!
I picked up the reply late on Friday night –
The swine don’t, in fact, get away with anything. They are embittered souls. You don’t cause purposeful harm without paying the price on earth or afterward.
Tonight at 5:00, if that’s convenient.
You misread my import of why David’s friend is a shmuck. He is in pain over her loss and she simply isn’t worth the bother. Will his pain ever go away? It’s unjust and should be shaken off.
5.00 pm? Oh dear …
I replied –
It is now 8.30 pm. I had a busy day and just picked up your e-mail.
I have an adopted aunt who is a widow and has no children. I give her at least one whole day of my time each year. We went shopping, had lunch at our house, and I dropped her off at home this evening.
It so happens that David’s grandma lives in the same seniors’ home. She got wind of this rendezvous and felt peeved and left out. She is 90 years old and not up to tramping through stores and such, but somehow feels she has a monopoly on me. (She always enquires after you, by the way. Her mind is razor-sharp and she is the dearest little old lady; so genteel and soft-spoken.) I had to appease her by dropping in at her apartment for a chat first.
I couldn’t have made it today. I’m so sorry. Monday or Tuesday would be okay. Actually, 5.00 pm is a good, quiet time. I will make sure I check my mail early on Monday afternoon, in case we are on for Monday.
I’m still desolate about the time I was not home when you dropped by.
I think his pain will go away. He knows she is not worth it. It’s just the unfairness of the situation and the fact that he knows he is going to be taken to the cleaners and bled dry. He is such a gentleman. He will never publicly divulge what really happened. Everyone is assuming that he is the ogre and the reason for her leaving. That smarts … the salt-in-the-wound thing, you know.
I do look forward to seeing you again. I realize it is silly to wish you a lovely weekend when you will only pick this up on Monday!
Shalom, cher ami.
… … …
David bounced out of bed on Monday morning, beaming boyishly.
“Surprise, I’m not going to work today!” he enthused, “We’re going out shopping and to celebrate your birthday.”
David detested shopping.
You dear, sweet man …
I remembered. It was Yom Kippur. David’s employers were Jewish and the office would be closed for the holiday. Harold, would not be at work either. No visit today.
I planned to make the most of the unexpected gift of this day.
David was a model of patience while I tried and finally settled on a new winter coat — pure wool and cashmere, ankle length, with a velvety faux fur trim around the collar and cuffs.
It’s gorgeous, darling …
He made me feel like a new bride, a pampered princess.
We linked arms and wandered around the mall in search of ice cream. Simple, quiet pleasures.
I remembered to e-mail Harold when I got home in the afternoon –
Happy Yom Kippur. I forgot that you would not be working today. David surprised me this morning. His company was closed for the day, so I couldn’t have come down anyway. He took me shopping for a birthday present, we went out to lunch, and saw a movie.
Do you want me to come down on Tuesday, or shall we leave ‘as is’ until Thursday? Your call.
Lots of love,
… … …
Tuesday dawned bright and beautiful, a mellow, tawny kind of day, with flecks of golden sunshine splashed all over it. I didn’t feel a year older.
Happy birthday to me!
I picked up an e-mail message –
I didn’t come to work on Monday, being it was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. I had no strength to go to synagogue, but reflected at home and thanked the Lord for my blessings.
How is Tuesday 5.00 to 5.30? Short but …
I replied –
I will be there – half a loaf is better than none!
I arrived a few minutes before five o’clock. The office seemed deserted after the frenzy of the past few days. Chrissy looked up as the door beeped behind me. I understood instantly what her dismayed expression signified.
Not again …
“I have an appointment.” I made an effort to sound nonchalant as I attempted to brush aside the familiar feeling of foolishness. I responded to her brief nod with feigned breeziness. “Is he with a client?” I remembered how upset Harold had been the last time I made a hasty exit. “I’ll wait for five minutes.”
Things just weren’t the same since Terri left.
I picked up a large print Homemakers’ Magazine and flipped through the pages. I couldn’t ignore the overwhelming sense of discomfort growing in my belly.
Here I was waiting – again.
He might not be able to see me – again …
Why was I writhing inside?
Chrissy walked into Harold’s office after several minutes. I heard a low murmur of voices.
She’s telling him I’m here …
Harold emerged within moments. His gait was awkward and dangerously unsteady. He leaned backwards as he moved, to maintain his equilibrium. He was wearing what had now become a uniform, the long-sleeved, cuff-less stretchy top, hanging loosely over dark sweat pants. The shirt was a burnt shade of orange.
He was all bones and angles. A clotheshorse with garments flung over it.
Harold lowered himself into the chair by my side. Directly between and behind us was the square window behind which Kelly sat. She bent assiduously over her work. I had an odd feeling she was experiencing as much discomfort as I. I was greatly constrained by her presence.
Harold looked contrite.
“You have a client with you,” I murmured.
He nodded. His eyes brimmed over with words of apology he was unable to utter.
He took my hand as he often did. I was acutely conscious of Chrissy’s presence, and I began to gabble.
“You look well,” I said.
Liar! Liar! Pants on fire ….
“You’ve put on some weight,” I continued desperately.
Your nose is growing, Pinocchio …
I grabbed my handbag and stood up. Chrissy’s eyes bored into me. I had to get out of the place.
“I’ll be in on Thursday,” I mumbled, without pausing to say goodbye. It took a valiant effort to ignore the sadness in his eyes.
I bolted out of the office.
I was driving out of the parking lot when I realized I hadn’t acknowledged Chrissy in farewell.
What’s got into you, you silly woman?
He didn’t know it was my birthday.
… … …
I was peeved to find no e-mail message the next day. The least he could do was apologize. I logged into my e-mail and wrote –
I know you are busy, so I won’t come down tomorrow. We will meet next week, if you can spare the time.
… … …
Fingers of fall sunshine caressed my neck and shoulders as I stepped out through the front door. I was eager to walk.
The trees were aflame with orange and russet, gold, vermillion and beige. Sudden soft breezes sent bright leaves floating earthwards like so many spatters of blood and splotches of butter.
I came to my Enchanted Woods and crossed the wrought iron bridge, pausing to lean against the rail and peer down at the bubbling brook. If I squinted, I could make out the shadowy darting form of a fish – a minnow, perhaps. I averted my eyes away from the rusty bicycle and Shoppers Drug Mart cart half-submerged in the shallow water.
How dare they dump such things in this place?
Dry leaves and twigs crunched underfoot. My feet moved in rhythm to the song of carefree joy playing in my heart. I was grateful to be alive on this glorious autumn day. Nature did such things to me.
I really should be looking for another job …
I refused to entertain the thought of returning to work.
… … …
There was a message from Harold in my In Box –
I’m so sorry. I was with Lorraine and the reputedly interested buyer of my practice. The appointment was supposed to produce an offer, which would have been short. She came up with an airy fairy pro forma that gave the business no value. It took a lot of discussion to convince her that she ignored the fact of ongoing work. She is coming back on Friday. I’m no longer optimistic.
But I digress. I have abused you once again.
I’m off to the hospital tomorrow for more tests. Please call before you come.
He had also responded to my earlier message –
As you choose, but I had hoped that you would forgive me for my miscalculation of time. Tomorrow begins in hospital at 9.00 am. I fully expected to be back, but if you won’t come, then I won’t.
I regretted my hastiness and wrote back –
I should be used to feeling foolish by now – it has happened so many times. Maybe I will, in time. I dislike feeling like an intruder.
I will come at 3.45. I will make sure to call in future. It is always such a rush and juggle to get out there. I wish I didn’t have to come to the office.
It doesn’t matter if you cannot make it tomorrow. Don’t rush and stress yourself. Life never works out the way we want it to.
Karl’s wife is dying and I had planned to spend the evening with the two of them in the hospital. I’ll be able to get there a little earlier if you are not in the office as planned.
See you tomorrow (hopefully), if not, have a wonderful weekend and happy Thanksgiving.
It was past nine thirty in the evening when I realized Harold wouldn’t get the e-mail on time. He wouldn’t know I planned to come. It was not a genteel hour to make telephone calls, but I had to. I dialed the Stedman residence.
“Hello, Lorraine? It’s Selina.” I was hesitant.
She seemed happy to hear my voice.
It’s not like that
“I’m so sorry to bother you at this hour,” I tentatively commenced. “Harold and I have been having a series of miscommunications lately. Would you please let him know I will be coming tomorrow?”
“Of course. He’d be sorry to miss you. He enjoys your visits.”
Really? You think so?
“You charmed the man from the municipality, you know,” I ventured boldly.
You cheeky creature!
Lorraine giggled girlishly. I caught her in a good mood that evening.
… … …
I had mixed feelings about going to the office on Thursday. I was beset by an unidentified sense of discomfort and unease.
The bottle and tube were out of sight and Harold was working at the keyboard of his desktop computer. He looked healthier, though the aura of transparent frailty remained.
His smile grew broad as he rose unsteadily and he held out his arms for a hug.
The new liquid food had worked wonders.
Harold gripped the arms of the client’s chair beside mine, and lowered himself into it. I reached for the keyboard and placed it in his lap. Hunched over the keys, he began to tap. A shower of letters rained into the screen –
I’m so-o sorry.
“Oh, you know it’s not you,” I responded. “You put me on a guilt trip, anyway. I had to come.”
The corners of his mouth turned upwards.
That was not my intention, but I’m glad it worked.
I forced a smile.
I must talk to him today…
He tapped on.
The meeting with the buyer didn’t go well. I had to nip the discussion in the bud.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I replied. “Are you disappointed?”
He laboured on. The slow words snaked into phrases.
She was deliberately undervaluing the business. She is going to come in for more discussion next week.
“Isn’t that a good sign?”
I hope. But I do not expect anything much to come out of it.
Then the imp danced in his brown eyes when he wrote –
My lips twitched. “Did you mention that to Lorraine?”
He paused to look at me and grinned, then recommenced his painstaking task.
He stabbed the keys, and the disjointed words made a lackadaisical appearance across the screens.
I couldn’t resist. “Lorraine’s right, you know.” I said. “You are a bad speller.”
He looked puzzled, and slightly hurt.
He wasn’t himself today.
Surely he knows I’m only joking …
The stream of letters kept coming. Harold was going to great lengths to converse. I think he was trying to ward off the inevitable. I became tired of beating about the bush. I had to speak up.
“I really don’t want to come to the office anymore. Perhaps we could meet once every other week, then once a month, and then, maybe stop,” I said .
Harold shook his head vigorously and wrote –
I vote no
“Are you unanimous in this?” I attempted to lighten the mood. “Votes mean nothing, you know. Just look at who gets voted into office in every election.”
He looked intently at me, then down at the keyboard to write –
How about coming to my house a couple of evenings a week?
I shook my head. “No, that is family time.”
Bring David with you
I shook my head again. “You don’t really mean that. Why would he come?”
The fingers tapped an abrupt change of subject.
Do you have anything precious with you?
I pointed to the bangles decorating my wrist. “These are twenty two carat gold.”
I mean writings, musings
I knew what he meant, of course.
My throat tightened. “It’s all been consigned to the bottom drawer.”
His face was glum. He wrote –
With a few words I destroyed our talks.
Yep. You got that right …
I nodded. I couldn’t trust myself to speak.
We wallowed in a minute or two of silence – a bitter-sweet silence fraught with aching regret and yearning for the time of uncurbed, unfettered conversation.
The tap-tap recommenced –
Will you start reading to me again?
A bubble of joy exploded and splashed all over me. The childlike query was like balm to my injured spirit.
“I would love that.” My voice throbbed with enthusiasm. “What would you like me to read?”
“Chaucer? Why Chaucer?”
Harold gave his quirky shrug, and bent over the keyboard –
I was a science student. You choose what you like to read
“Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde, Coleridge, the Brontes,” I rattled off. “Have you read The Picture of Dorian Gray?”
He was happy again, so was I. We lingered in a gentle cocoon of contentment.
It was my turn to bring about an unceremonious change of subject.
“I am not angry about last Tuesday,” I said. “I just don’t like hanging around waiting for you. There is no activity in the law suit now. What must people think? Chrissy, for instance.”
A flicker of startled understanding flared in his eyes. He lowered his head to type.
You mean they may think there is something sordid?
Chrissy walked in.
“There’s a gentleman outside, Mr Stedman,” she said. “He says he’s here about the advertisement. The Harley. Shall I send him in?”
She stood impassive as Harold typed his responses to her queries. Her eyes remained fixed glassily on the screen.
Harold’s fingers moved across his keyboard. He was oblivious to the handful of words from our unfinished conversation, lingering at the top of the screen. They grew large and luminous – like an obscene gesture — before my anguished eyes. The wretched things stood on tiptoe, linked arms and thumbed their noses at me. They grew horns and tails, they shrieked –
Don’t you think I love Lorraine?
I thought we were good friends
I felt less than two inches tall.
She had to choose this moment to come in …
“Look what you’ve done,” I hissed under my breath when the secretary made her exit. “What is she supposed to think after reading all that?”
Harold probably assumed I’d leave in a huff. He looked relieved when I said, “I’ll wait outside till you’re done with your visitor.”
I picked up my handbag and stepped into the foyer. I felt sick.
Chrissy worked behind her half opened glass window. She wouldn’t meet my eye.
I made a desperate attempt to initiate conversation. “It must break his heart to part with his Harley. He loves that bike.”
She refrained from comment.
Look at me! Say something …
“I don’t like coming here anymore,” I persisted. “Things have changed a lot in the past months. The staff are all new. They don’t know me.”
Take the bull by the horns! Good girl …
Chrissy responded in her little, reedy voice, “What about the lawsuit?”
Not single muscle quivered on her countenance.
Look at me, will you?
I leapt to grab the slender straw of communication. “There’s really no lawsuit anymore.” I said. “We’ll probably have to drop it. We don’t have the money to start all over again.”
Why am I whispering?
“So there’s never been anything going on?” Her eyes never wavered from her work.
What? Oh, dear God …
“No!” My voice hit a shrill crescendo.
I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I lost a friend to ALS. I want to spend as much time as I can with Mr. Stedman before …”
“I remember you told me that.” She was cold, indifferent.
She doesn’t care, she doesn’t believe me …
I was unable to salvage the flailing conversation. Chrissy flipped through a file, concentrating on the papers on her desk as if I wasn’t sitting inches away from her. The next several minutes limped by in unbearable silence.
Harold’s caller made his departure and I hurried into his office. “I spoke to Chrissy,” I told him.
A look of relief came over his face. He nodded his head in approval.
My voice became terse. “She wanted to know if there’s been anything going on.”
His shoulders slumped as he stooped to tap on the keyboard –
What must she think of me?
“Exactly!” I responded drily.
… … …
Chrissy left a little past five o’clock. She was followed by Lorraine’s friend, Rose, who used the upstairs office.
Harold and I made desultory conversation for a little while longer. Our remarks were neutral and insipid. We lacked the emotional energy to deal with the elephant lingering in the room. It was easier to ignore it.
I heard myself uttering unintended words. “Do you want me to come in on Tuesday at five for a few minutes?”
His face brightened. His head jerked, and I read his lips when they mouthed –
Do you mind?
“It’s your comfort and happiness that matters,” I answered without hesitating. “I shouldn’t really care about anything else.”
His chest rose when he drew in his breath and exhaled. Harold reached continuously for fistfuls of Kleenex in a futile effort to staunch the relentless flow of saliva. A wastepaper basket sat close by, to receive the sopping wads he drew out of his mouth.
I remembered Pauline.
We sat for some moments on the sofa by the antique table. The vice around my heart tightened until the pain inside was unbearable.
I reached out and touched the back of his head. “Your hair is so rough.” I spoke softly. The moment was made for whispers.
He shrugged, as if to apologize for the texture of his hair, and his lips moved.
“I love you,” he breathed soundlessly.
“Me too.” I could barely hear myself. “I don’t understand it, do you?”
He shook his head and smiled.
Harold’s eyes brimmed over with tears and deep affection. The mischief had fled from them. The merriment had packed its bags and departed, leaving behind an unfamiliar veil of apathy. He leaned forward and touched my face with his hand. His bony thumb moved gently up and down my cheek. It felt cold and dry.
“God has no hands or feet or lips in this world, so he uses mine.” I still whispered. “When I hug you, He is putting his arms around you and holding you close, because He loves you so much.”
My voice broke, as the frog in my throat expanded to unbearable proportions.
Harold stumbled back to his seat at the desk. He bent over his keyboard to write.
Will you give me a hug and monitor my heartbeat?
He looked lost and very tired.
I walked over to his side, and wrapped my arms around the fragile frame. His heart pounded against my ear. We stood in unmoving silence for several seconds until the hands of the wall clock began to taunt me.
I murmured, “I have to go. I promised Karl I’d visit the hospital. His wife, she’s bad.”
Harold shut down the computers and turned off the lights. He set the burglar alarm and began to fiddle with the door key. He managed to pry it out of the keyhole before I could offer to assist.
He almost lost his balance on the front steps. I placed a steadying hand on his elbow.
The silver Mercedes — a hefty Goliath — loomed over its owner’s frailty. He had no business behind the wheel of the SUV.
Someone should have had the courage to take the car keys away from him.
I remained until Harold secured himself in the driver’s seat then headed to my vehicle in the rear lot.
I found myself reluctant to drive away.
The Bacon Story
On Friday morning I put together a program of poetry and prose to read aloud the following Thursday afternoon. I held in my hands books I hadn’t handled in years, old friends, the pages tissue-thin and yellowing. Many bore the faded names of the original owners, long deceased, scrawled across the fly leaf in elegant copperplate fountain-pen handwriting.
I couldn’t wait to share my bouquet of literary bounty.
I found it hard to sleep that night. I tossed and turned, tormented by the awkward conversation with Chrissy playing over and over again in my mind.
… .., …
Terri stuck her head in at the door. “Mr. Stedman, Dr. Oak on line two. Shall I put him through?”
Harold’s face lit up. He reached for the phone. “Matthew? Yes. Yes. Of course. Same time, same place. See you tomorrow.”
“Skateboarding again?” My eyebrows sped to my hairline.
You crazy man!
He rolled up his sleeves and trouser legs to show off the newest scars, and chuckled, “What better way to take risks than with a medical pal at my side?”
He glowed with boyish satisfaction.
Harold chose to embrace the rest of his life with feverish passion. His enthusiasm was infectious.
The chestnut eyes sparkled with mischief. “Did I ever tell you about Grandma Florence?”
“Yes. Once or twice.” I smiled in spite of myself and leaned forward in anticipation of another wonderfully tall tale. The abrupt changes of topic added immense spice and variety to our conversations.
“I was painfully skinny as a boy.” His lips twitched in anticipation of my reaction. I was laughing already. “The doctor advised my mother to fatten me up with bacon.”
My eyes grew wide. “Was your family kosher?”
The imp darted into his eyes. “Yes. But Grandma was determined to follow instructions. She fried the bacon in the basement.”
“And you ate it?” I gurgled.
“Of course. She was a force to be reckoned with.” His eyes were soft. “She loved me.”
“And no one protested?” I lapped up every irreverent detail.
“There wasn’t much love lost between my father and Grandma. Dad was an immigrant from Lithuania. A cobbler. He borrowed some money from her to buy a small piece of property.”
I grinned. “From his mother-in-law? Big mistake.”
“Like a prayer, every day for the next several years, Grandma asked Dad when he planned to return the money. She lived with us. There was nowhere to hide.
Harold’s shoulders shook as his laughter mingled with mine. “He rued the day he got into her debt!”
“Don’t you love the smell of spring?” My turn for a change of subject. I glanced through the wall-sized window at the budding skeletons of winter-weary trees. “I can’t wait to plunge my shovel into the ground. I love the smell of damp earth when the snow is gone. It intoxicates me.”
Harold remained silent for ages it seemed. There was a faraway look on his face when he said, “You are so full of joie de vivre. You sparkle when you talk of things you’re passionate about.”
My eyes smiled into his. “I love my life. Every second of every day is to be savoured to the maximum. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. It’ll never come back. I daren’t waste it. You know what I mean?”
A shadow crossed his face. I felt its chill.
My voice grew gentle. “Could I pray for you?”
Harold swallowed hard and nodded, a quizzical smile hovering on his lips. He reached for my hand. I held his in mine and closed my eyes. It was a tender moment. I became absorbed in what I was doing, committing my friend and his situation to God in my chatty, meandering way. I ceased to be aware of his presence.
He was watching me all the while.
I wrapped up with an “Amen”, and opened my eyes. Harold’s features were crumpled with emotion. His eyes were wet, moisture glistened on his lashes. He allowed the mist to remain, he wouldn’t brush it away.
“Terri’s back, and so’s your voice. I can hear you. You’re okay. Thank God ….”
I struggled to wade through the waves of consciousness rolling over me.
Daylight broke into Saturday morning. I had been dreaming of days passed. The early days following the diagnosis.
…. …. ….
I sat up heavy-eyed, with a pounding head. David opened an eye and burrowed deeper into the covers.
I recoiled at the memory of my last conversation with Chrissy. The thought of stepping into that office one more time filled me with revulsion.
I got out of bed and signed on to my e-mail. My fingers sought the keyboard. I typed —
I had another sleepless night.
I spent a lot of time putting together a pile of my favourite plays, poems and Bronte novels with the passages flagged and marked, to bring to you, but I will not be coming in on Tuesday or on Thursday.
My sense of fastidiousness is outraged that I have been constrained to get into discussion with one of your employees.
Please try to understand, and please, please forgive me.
I am so glad I kept my journal. It will keep me company on Thursday afternoons.
I am thankful I was able to share my garden with you. I wish you could have accompanied me to my precious enchanted spots.
You are the dearest friend I have ever had. You would never know how much our talks have meant to me.
I think our time is done. I think I knew it when we said goodbye last week. Perhaps you did too.
We will meet again. I will be there when Lorraine and you really need me.
It was a long weekend. Harold would not open his e-mail until he got into the office on Tuesday.
I stared at my screen. Tears blinded my eyes.
… … …
I signed on late on Sunday evening, not expecting to hear from anyone in particular. My heart leapt. I saw Harold Stedman in my In Box.
He must have gone to the office today …
I felt remote as I read, detached, as if some other woman were using my eyes.
Whatever you decide, I accept your decision.
I didn’t reply. There was nothing to say.
Another message on Tuesday morning. It simply said –
I will live with your decision and hope to see you anon.
I replied –
I wish there was some other way. I miss you. You are always in my thoughts.
A dry response on Wednesday morning –
I sent out an e-mail before heading off to bed that night –
I will be thinking of you tomorrow afternoon. I am having my grandmother-in-law over for the day — she hasn’t been keeping too well. I intend to work on my journal during “our time” and then will go to the hospital to see Karl’s wife.
Maybe we can work something out.
Lots of love to you, my dear friend.
Though it felt like the right thing to do, I was unable to dislodge the knife in my heart, no matter how much I tried. The pain was unbearable.
Barbra Streisand’s Nose
Harold rolled up his trouser leg to display a wicked scar snaking up his calf.
“Skiing?” I enquired.
He shook his head. He came alive as he remembered and his eyes sparkled. “No. Climbing accident.”
He launched into a detailed narrative of some harebrained feat, then rolled up the other trouser leg and proceeded to demonstrate how one set of calf muscles was better developed than the other. We embarked on a clinical discussion about muscle development and usage, until I pointed out how silly he looked in shirt and tie with his pants rolled up to the knee.
We laughed. Mundane things were hilarious when I was with Harold.
He straightened his trouser flaps and said, “We spent last weekend in New York City. Lorraine shopped. She bought some jeans in the new style, with laces. Expensive, but very youthful.”
“Lace? How pretty!” I exclaimed. I imagined a bridal gown sort of lace.
“No. Laces. Like shoe laces. Going down the sides of the jeans.”
“Oh, the criss-cross country-and-western look.” I felt obligated to offer a compliment. “I’m sure she looks nice in them. She’s an elegant dresser.”
She was. I didn’t have to lie.
“Your toes are coordinated with your fingers,” Harold observed, inspecting the coral sheen on my nails. (It was finally warm enough for open-toed sandals.)
“They are supposed to match. Surely you know that?” I teased.
He grinned. “What do I know? I’m only a man.”
We leapt undaunted, from topic to topic. The rollercoaster conversations were exhilarating, energizing.
“Will you attend a public performance of the play, if it ever returns to my possession?” I enquired.
Harold beamed. “I’ll sit in the front row and cheer!”
“Will you come if it’s on Broadway?” I persisted.
The lustre left his eyes. “Of course. Wild horses wouldn’t keep me away. You know that.”
But you might not be alive …
My light went out in an instant. A glum sense of gloom seeped through me.
Harold had his own droll method of dealing with the doldrums. He wiggled his eyebrows and contorted his features into a hideous caricature.
A giggle escaped my throat. “You look like Popeye the sailorman. Olive Oyle’s darling!”
“Olive Oyle is flat-chested!” he retorted.
“I know.” A geyser of glee welled up within me. “I wonder why.”
He tried to look serious. “I’m sure the artist did it deliberately.”
His lips twitched. “So all the attention would be on Popeye’s bulging biceps and not on …”
“Olive Oyle’s … bosom?” My mirth erupted and spilled all over us. “Good point!”
Harold flashed his uneven teeth. An entire library of laughing words lurked in his eyes.
How does he keep hanging on to the laughter?
My glance rested on the prominent feature dominating his countenance. I was taken aback to hear myself saying, “I love your nose.”
“Where did that come from?” The gentle amusement in his voice mirrored the affection in mine.
Guess I’m trying to memorize everything about you …
“It gives your face such character.” I added, “I’m not sure how good it would look on a woman, though.”
He chuckled. “My daughter inherited this nose. She had plastic surgery!”
“Good for her!” I cheered. “Brave of her! She did the right thing.”
That must be Rhonda, the rebel. The one who’s not coping too well with your illness …
“Her kids have had another man walk out of her life. She has a new boyfriend now.”
Your words are really slurred. It’s getting harder to understand you …
“Do you approve?”
A non-committal shrug. “His father owns a chain of shoe stores. He’ll join the business.”
“You don’t sound too enthusiastic.”
“You’ll find out soon enough that children are a life sentence.”
I expected him to say that.
“You say so all the time.”
“Because it’s true. Rhonda is like me. She’ll be okay. It’s Sandra I worry about.”
“I know. She’s your baby, isn’t she?”
The imps pranced into his eyes. “Why do Jews have long noses?” His words tripped on a tremor of laughter. He didn’t give me a chance to reply before he quipped, “Because air is free!”
My jaw dropped. “I haven’t heard that one before.”
I was still chuckling when I enthused, “I love Barbra Streisand’s nose. It’s her most attractive feature, I think.”
He agreed. “Yes. She is her nose. Do you know that Barbra Streisand is Jewish?”
“Uh huh.” I did. Of course.
A frown furrowed his brow. “I’m worried about Sandra. She hasn’t been herself since her recent break up.”
“Remember the day you came directly from the hospital to keep our appointment?”
You wore old jeans and a faded sweatshirt. You looked excited, carefree and so youthful …
He paused to reminisce “She delivered her fifth child that morning.”
“Remember what you said?” I prompted.
He inclined his head. “Yes. I said, ‘I’ll do the operation on my son-in-law myself, if the man does not take care of the business!’ ”
“And I said, ‘You wouldn’t dare to interfere. It’s their business. Not yours.'”
“Sandra is frail.” He looked grim. “She is my baby.”
The son-in-law walked out. Your baby is left high and dry with a brood of young children …
“Did I tell you about the English teacher who was accused of being anti-semantic?”
Oh, for heaven’s sake …
I heard giggles. I think I giggled myself awake. I had been dreaming again.
A concrete block descended and slammed into my heart.
.. … …
I had a flash of inspiration on Thursday evening. I could pop in to find out how Harold was, before heading for the hospital to sit with Karl. The office would be quiet with the staff gone.
The Mercedes was not in its usual spot in the narrow corridor by the building. I felt sick with disappointment.
I hurried back home and reached for the phone.
Lorraine picked up after several rings. I was hesitant. “Lorraine? It’s Selina. How is Harold?”
She sounded harassed and tired. “We’ve been at the hospital all day. Just got home. I’m on another call. I’ll call you back.”
I replaced the receiver and set out on my weekly trek to the hospital. I could give my aging neighbour a break while I fed his unresponsive wife her liquid dinner. It would take my mind off things.
I realized I could have used my cell phone to call Lorraine. I needn’t have come home to do so. My head was all over the place.
… … …
“Back already?” David heard my footsteps in the hall and looked up from his spot on the couch. “There’s a message on the machine from Lorraine.”
I picked up the phone, re-dialing until the busy signal ceased and I heard her voice.
“Selina …” Lorraine replied. She sounded quite amiable.
“I thought I’d surprise Harold, though he wasn’t expecting me today. I was disappointed not to find him at the office.”
Slow down. Take a breath. You’re talking too fast ...
“He didn’t tell you about the procedure?”
“He did. I forgot about it. I decided not to go to the office anymore. Did you know?”
Her response was guarded. “No. Why?”
I changed my pace and charged nervously in like a demented bull in a china shop. “I had an uncomfortable conversation with Chrissy last week.”
The temperature dropped several degrees.
“I was wondering if you might like to take a break from time to time. I would love to spend an hour or two with Harold, one evening a week.”
Turbulence … red alert! Red alert! Back off, idiot! BACK OFF…
Lorraine’s voice was glacial. “May I ask what the conversation was about?”
“I told you I have been feeling uncomfortable,” I began.
She was wary. “Yes, I remember that.”
“I spend so much time with him, I think they think … well … that there’s been … some history.” I hesitated. “Some … hanky panky.”
Really, Miss Wordsalot? How about just stitching your lips together?
Too late to bite my tongue. I galloped on. “Harold asked me if I would read to him. May I come sometime?”
“Oh.” She sounded dazed. “What day of the week were you thinking of?”
“Monday evenings are good for me,” I blithely replied.
The feeling of foolishness abated. I felt free to breathe once more.
How naïve could a grown woman be?
She Changed her Mind
The phone shrilled within ten minutes. My heart leapt to my mouth.
Lorraine’s voice was brittle. “I changed my mind,” she said. “Harold and I agreed I was not ready for this. I wouldn’t know where to go anyway.”
A block of ice settled in the pit of my stomach.
“I’m sorry,” I quietly mustered every last ounce of dignity. “It was thoughtless of me. I should never have asked. Please forgive me.”
My voice broke and a flood forced its way down my face. “I’ve had a miserable week. I kept thinking of Pauline. He’s been a good friend and I missed him.”
Stop sniveling, you goose. She doesn’t care …
Lorraine’s tone was flat, devoid of inflection. Her words came like icy darts. “He has family, you know, and it was your decision not to go to the office.”
I felt less than a worm.
“He asked if I would come home some evening and read to him.” I vainly attempted to sweep up shards of shattered pride. “I checked with David and he didn’t mind.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, my voice small. “I apologize for my presumption.”
No response. I hung up.
I spent the rest of the evening by myself. David was at the gym, the twins were busy with homework.
I sobbed on my bed.
“God,” I said out loud, choking on tears, “I didn’t get a chance to read my favourite fragments to my friend, Harold. Could I read them to you? Will you listen?”
Cross-legged on my bed with sheets of paper and old books scattered around me on the counterpane, I gave the performance of my life. My voice rang out and bounced off the walls as I read aloud from A Streetcar Named Desire, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, A Picture of Dorian Gray, and savoured the sound of my favourite poems tumbling off my lips.
My spirits rose. I imagined Harold’s applause and the mist of emotion in his eyes. A smile took root and widened inside me, thawing the chill within.
… … …
I woke up in the gloom of pre-dawn and curled up in the armchair by the bed. I wept into the silence of darkness, the voice in my head screaming, “Why? What have I done?”
“Give me another chance to talk to Lorraine,” I whimpered. “So I can share my heart with her. I want to tell her what Harold means to me. I want to explain why I’ve been going so often. Because Pauline tried to kill herself many times. I didn’t want to frighten Lorraine by telling her about the suicidal phase that comes to ALS patients. I was worried about Harold’s state of mind. I had to make sure he was okay.”
Although my early morning conversations with God seemed one-sided, they were immensely comforting.
Dawn was breaking when I headed off to the gym and was able to pound the aggression and tension out of my system. The machines were a huge solace in those times of stress. David had gone to work when I returned. I found a yellow post-it note on the kitchen table. In neat handwriting were two short lines –
Lorraine called. She will call back at 9:00.
She’s had a change of heart. Maybe we can be friends …
The phone rang minutes before nine.
I picked up eagerly. “Hello?”
“This is Lorraine Stedman.”
Civil and formal. My hopeful anticipation was short-lived.
“I’m sorry I missed your call,” I said. “I take myself off to the gym as soon as I wake up,”
“Good for you,” she replied flatly.
We embarked on an excruciating conversation. “I apologize for my temerity last night,” I began.
“Oh, there’s no need to apologize.” She plunged in, catching me entirely unawares. “I hope you’re not going to be offended by what I have to say. I was going to ask you not to go to the office today. You see, Harold is limited in what he can do in the time he is there and …”
So you’re asking me to keep away from your husband …
My mouth grew dry. “I was not going to. I told him that already.”
Shouldn’t I be in tears or something by now?
Lorraine sounded uncomfortable. “I know. He has accepted that. But I thought you said you were going today.”
“No. I didn’t.”
She faltered, “Maybe, sometime … later … you could come to the house … ”
“Don’t worry about it.” I clung to my dignity. “I’m going to have to let it go and, again, I apologize for my presumption. I was planning to write a letter of apology and I will do so, although we have talked.”
“Well,” Lorraine said coldly, “I’m glad we were able to talk like this.”
“‘Bye, Lorraine.” I inhaled deeply and exhaled. The phone clicked and the line went dead.
My humiliation was complete.
A woman who once sat in my garden and told me how much her husband looked forward to my visits, how he loved being read to and how he appreciated my making the time to spend time with him, a woman who described how she wrote letters to herself when something upset her — and I told her how I talked to God – this woman ordered me to keep away from her husband, a man whose grandchildren were older than my children.
I had been dismissed me like a common trollop.
I pulled out a blank card from the box in my bedside drawer. I picked up a pen and wrote –
We just talked, but since I planned to write to you, I am doing so anyway. I want to apologize for encroaching on your personal space. It was preposterously presumptuous of me, and I cringe when I think of it. I wonder if I could have been so gracious if I had been in your shoes.
I am not going back. You need have no worry on that score again. David and I discussed it and this is what we decided.
I had to swallow my pride to make that call and ask. I hope you will find it in you to forgive me.
My love to you, Lorraine.
I stamped and addressed the envelope and dropped it in the mailbox at the corner. It would reach the office by Tuesday, at the very latest.
I signed on to my e-mail, hoping against hope to hear from Harold. Not a word. Not even a brief response to my last message.
I tried. Against my better judgment. For your sake …
I retreated into a state of inner numbness. No more tears.
Footprints in the Sand
I made myself busy with inconsequential tasks. I did what I could to overcome the raging battle in my head. I was running out of things to do when I thought of cleaning out my handbag. A miniature accordion telephone book fell out, accompanied by a tiny calculator and two slender pens, all engraved in gold letters –
With Compliments of Lorraine and Harold Stedman
I had forgotten about these complimentary gifts I had received over the months.
The items went into my bedside drawer. To look at them was to remember the giver. It was too painful.
I sighed and closed my eyes. The recollections marched in, despite my resolve to keep them at bay …
… … …
“It’s Ronald. Do you like your old computer?” I heard a muffled chuckle at the end of the telephone line.
Ronald assisted Harold in the hobbyhorse business he operated out of the basement of the office building.
“Not really,” I laughed. “Did you manage to fix it?”
He sounded amused. “Come and pick it up from my house. It’s ready.”
I pulled up on Ronald’s driveway and my jaw dropped when he emerged from the house. He carried a brand new hard drive, keyboard and mouse.
Ronald grinned and looked pleased with himself. “Mr. Stedman instructed me to build you a new one. Boss’s orders. It’s a gift.”
The boss was aware that my legal expenses left me without a penny to spare.
Sweet, kind man …
… … …
My eyes strayed to the laptop bag housing my hefty legal file. I was swept right back onto the memory-mobile …
“I have something for you,” Harold said out of the blue one Thursday afternoon, pointing to a handsome black bag on his desk.
He beamed when I thanked him, waved aside my words of gratitude and said, “We have too many of them in stock.”
Yes, but you thought of me. I’d never have bought one for myself …
My chest constricted. I became conscious of the pain that had recently taken up residence somewhere in my ribcage. I couldn’t halt the mind-movies. They kept surging in and rolling on …
… … …
“Do you play the piano?” I enquired, observing the length of Harold’s slender fingers. The nails were cracked and broken, yellowing at the tips.
He tapped on his keyboard and the letters tip-toed hesitantly onto the screens –
No. But I used to play the harp as a student
I was intrigued and enchanted. “The harp? How romantic! Like a medieval troubadour!”
Amusement sparkled in his eyes. He reached for the desk drawer and drew out a palm-sized digital camera. He focused shakily and the flash went off with a click.
I blinked. “What was that about?”
He tapped –
Now I can have your smile whenever I need it
We sat for some seconds in a cocoon of quiet. Priceless, cherished moments when words became redundant.
A shadow shoved aside the fleeting mood of joy. Harold’s countenance clouded over. He tapped –
Rhonda gave us a scare.
We got a call from Bobby on Sunday night asking if we knew where his mom was. He said she had taken off somewhere up north. She told the kids she’d be back on Sunday afternoon.
Bobby was Rhonda’s teenaged son. Harold’s grandson.
We were worried sick. We were that close to calling the police.
I leaned forward. “Did she come back?”
The fingers did a spider-crawl –
She finally showed up.
And you have to cope with melodrama on top of everything else …
“I am sorry.” A trite platitude. “Did she have an explanation?”
Harold wore a resigned look as his fingers laboured once more –
No. She said she needed to get away. She reminded me that she is like me. She is. That put an end to any further argument.
“Lorraine told me she wasn’t coping well with your illness.”
He looked sad. “She isn’t”
The difficult oldest child. Child? She’s my age …
His fingers limped across the keyboard. A corny joke snaked its way onto the screens. Our eyes met and gleamed in unison. We shook with shared merriment, until he began to gag and choke on his saliva. I jerked to attention and ran to his side.
Why was the camera in the desk drawer? Why did he take the picture?
That was my last Thursday visit.
… … …
The phone rang. My eyes flew open. I was jarred back to the present.
Ronald’s voice came through. “Selina, I’m sorry. I’ve been held up at the office. Harold needs some legal documents delivered and I’ve been kicking my heels all afternoon. They’re not ready yet.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s not an urgent matter. It’s just the Anti-Virus acting up. Come any day next week.”
“But I feel bad to keep you waiting like this,” he persisted.
“It’s not a big deal, really.” My anxiety spilled over. “Ronald, how is Harold?”
“Well good, but not good, if you know what I mean.”
I knew what he meant.
“Please, will you tell him I said hello?”
“I will,” Ronald replied. “And I’ll be there on Thursday afternoon.”
Ronald had been neglectful with conveying messages before. I wasn’t going to hold my breath about this one.
… … …
Thursday morning came. I opened my eyes on the edge of tears.
Ronald knocked at the door at four o’clock. We chatted while the computer rebooted. He nursed a mug of coffee and I bent over my needlework frame and embroidery floss .
“No,” he said, in response to my urgent question. “I haven’t met Harold since you and I last talked. I haven’t been able to convey your message.”
“It’s been two weeks since I last saw him. I don’t want to go down to the office because … well … his time there is limited and I can’t call … you know … because he can’t speak. Ronald, will you tell him I’m thinking of him and miss him? Please?”
“I will.” The lawyer’s techno-sidekick and general dogsbody blinked owlishly and nodded. He looked like a huge, unperturbed bear.
Please, please don’t forget …
… … …
The words of the poem Footprints In The Sand kept running through my head as I sat in the chair by my bed in the wee hours of the morning –
One night I dreamt I was walking along the beach with the Lord …
I wondered why.
The frenetic, self-imposed activity of the day kept my mind occupied and my thoughts on a tight leash. I kept myself too busy to be aware of the perpetual prickle of pain piercing my heart.
David and I attended a memorial service in the evening. As I sat in the packed church with soaring walls and hard pews and I heard the inner me say, “God, I have no more faith to believe for Harold’s healing. You’re going to have to inject a supernatural portion of faith in me.”
A sense of unease uncoiled and stirred within.
… … …
I kicked off my high heels some hours later, eager to bid farewell to an endless day. I glanced at the clock when the phone rang. It was past nine thirty.
“Yes, she is,” I heard David say, handing over the cordless receiver. His face was inscrutable.
“Selina, this is Norma from Mr. Stedman’s office.”
The bookkeeper. I turned ice-cold.
On a Saturday night?
“I called to let you know that Mr. Stedman passed away an hour ago.” Norma’s words sounded disjointed in my ear, as if they came from another plane.
A deep wail rose inside me.
No, no. Oh God …. NO!
“What happened, Norma?” My head felt light.
He had at least a year left …
“He wasn’t feeling well and Lorraine took him to the hospital,” the bookkeeper replied. “He just slipped away peacefully. Lorraine phoned everyone who was close to him. They were all at his side when he passed.”
Not everyone …
“Ten minutes after he died, she called me and said, ‘What about Selina?’ She told me to inform you.”
She waited till after he died?
“I didn’t get to say goodbye,” I said somberly.
“I didn’t either,” Norma countered.
“But you don’t understand. He was my best friend.” The veneer cracked. I broke into sobs.
David would have driven me to the hospital …
“Is your husband with you?” She was concerned.
“Yes. Yes. He is.” I choked back the tears. “What are the funeral arrangements?”
“The funeral will be at Ephraim’s on Main Street. You can call tomorrow. Or do you want me to call you with the details?”
“Please call me, Norma.”
The receiver hit the cradle and the dam burst. My teeth chattered and I shook like a leaf. My stomach began to churn. The wail escaped like a howling banshee. David held me silently and stroked my hair while I rested against his chest. The steady pound of his heart against my ear reminded me of the heart that would never beat again.
My body felt as if it could not contain the burden of sorrow this moment had thrust upon it.
… … …
I didn’t sleep much that night. My slumber, when I finally dropped off, was saturated with fragmented dreams of a crooked smile I would never see again, and a frail hand reaching for comfort. The wide-eyed hours in the dark were chaotic with shifting memories of jokes, laughter and the last awful visit.
“You are my best friend,” he mouthed, every time I closed my eyes. “I told Lorraine so. She knows.”
“You are my best friend,” I whispered back, my eyes flying open.
Best friend. My best friend. You are my best friend. Lorraine knows. Lorraine knows …
I was chagrined to realize I didn’t have a single photograph of my friend. I think I intended to take a picture while he sat on the couch in the family room downstairs — the day we returned from a traumatic morning in court, many months ago. I kicked myself for not remembering to do it.
… … …
I cried all through the worship in church on Sunday morning. The words and the singing tore at my heart.
My older twin tapped my arm. “Are you okay, Mom?”
“I’m sad,” I murmured. “I’m sad about Mr. Stedman.” My daughter wound her arms around me and snuggled close.
I walked into the pastor’s office directly after service. Pastor Jim was ready to facilitate a parents’ meeting.
The words tumbled out. “Pastor Jim,” I said, “I lost my best friend last night.”
Pastor Jim is a reserved man. He skirted his desk with extended arms, and put them stiffly around me. The awkward gesture meant a lot.
“It was my lawyer, Mr. Stedman.
“You liked him?” My pastor was taken aback. David stood behind me .
“I loved him, Pastor Jim.”
The reverend gentleman was at a loss for an appropriate response.
He was different. Really …
… … …
The answering machine was flashing when we got home. Norma’s voice floated into the room.
“Selina, the funeral will be held tomorrow at Ephraim’s Memorial Chapel at 3:00 pm.”
The recorded words aroused no reaction. I had retreated into a space of dull numbness, I think, the grief tightly bottled and sealed inside.
I signed on to my e-mail. I hadn’t done so for two days. I didn’t expect to find any message of
farewell. I wasn’t disappointed.
… … …
I had a strong sense, as I sat in my bedside armchair in the pre-dawn. gloom of Monday morning, that I should prepare a bowl of Harold’s favourite mango mousse and take it to the Stedman home. I recoiled.
No more humiliation, thanks …
Then the thought flashed unbidden: David can deliver it.
I went out in the morning to purchase the ingredients. On my way home, an urgent compelling drove me to purchase a card to accompany the dessert.
I fingered rows of sympathy cards in a long, many-tiered display rack. The wording in the ones I reached for left me cold. I stretched to pull out a card all but hidden behind several others. A shiver shot through me as I held it in my hand.
I had never before seen a card with the beautiful poem in its entirety –
One night a man dreamed he
was walking along the beach
with the Lord. As the scenes of his
life flashed before him …
A fragile finger of warmth seeped into my frozen heart and spread through my body, causing an inexplicable tingle in my extremities. I remembered the wee hours of last Saturday morning, when the lines of this very poem reverberated in my head.
I had been prepared that morning for the loss of my friend. This was the card I must send his wife.
A thought continued to gnaw at me-
How did Harold die? Did he do away with himself?
A second thought oozed like poison all over my lacerated spirits –
She didn’t let me say goodbye. She waited till after he died.
Iron-grey skies, a bleak day, with more than a hint of rain. A fitting backdrop for a funeral.
David got off work early in order to accompany me. I went mechanically through the day’s routine and was dressed and ready when his key turned in the lock at two o’clock in the afternoon.
Convinced the bubble of apathy might burst at an inconvenient moment, I made sure to stuff a substantial wad of Kleenex into my handbag before we headed out. The parking lot at the funeral home was almost full when we pulled up. A yellow cardboard sign with the word Funeral printed on it was offered to drivers who intended to join the cortege to the gravesite.
David looked at me questioningly.
“I would like to go,” I said. “It would give me some closure. Please?”
My husband nodded at the traffic director who attached the sign to the hood of the car, and waved us on to our parking spot.
I reached for David’s hand as we walked in. He looked every inch the distinguished gentleman in the dark suit. His black shoes were polished to perfection.
My knight in shining spectacles …
My husband paused to pick up a black yarmulke from the bin at the entrance, and set it on his head. I signed the open guest book on the wooden stand by the door.
We walked past Ronald and slipped into a vacant spot close to the front of the room. I had never seen Ronald in a jacket and tie before. I supposed my face was as sober as his.
I eagerly perused the Order of Service for a picture. There was none. A sense of desolation took possession of me.
A low hum of conversation broke the solemn hush. A middle-aged woman with too much make-up – sitting directly ahead of us – leaned forward and kissed the man at her side on the lips. She proceeded to get more persistent.
I looked away.
Is this the time and place, for heaven’s sake!
My head ached. My eyes, heavy from the sleepless night, alighted on the closed casket at the front of the chapel. Mellow burnished wood, with a raised Star of David at one end. A fine piece of craftsmanship. Simple and classy.
Harold lay inside.
Tall flames rose from polished wooden sconces at either end of the coffin. The chapel walls were of paneled wood. There was a feeling of understated wealth and refinement about the surroundings.
A door at the front of the room swung open sharp at three o’clock. The family filed quietly into their seats. I was able to identify every one of them as if I knew each one personally.
Lorraine was pale. She was attired entirely in black — pants and a plain sweater. A muted silk scarf was knotted at the throat. As always, even in mourning apparel, she was elegant. Her red lipstick made a bloody gash on her face. The strain showed. I noted idly that I’d never seen Lorraine wearing a dress or skirt.
I assumed the gangly youngster with neon-yellow and pink-splotched hair was Bobby, Rhonda’s boy. I forgot to look for the plump baby – her grandpa’s smile machine.
The service was sober and dignified. I recited the lines of Psalms 23 and 121 under my breath along with the officiating rabbi –
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want … Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills … Behold, He that keepeth Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps …
Lorraine’s sister delivered an eloquent eulogy. Her words unveiled a full and fulfilled life, revealing it in all its splendour. To know I’d been a pinprick somewhere on the map of this man’s earthly journey filled me with awe.
A single statement seared my saddened spirits: “Everyone who loved him was at his deathbed to say goodbye. Lorraine made sure of that. My sister even called his one-time doctor. She rushed down from a family celebration, to kiss his hand and say, ‘I love you’.”
Not everyone …
The chunk of granite in my throat expanded to ominous proportions. I brushed away the prickling beneath my eyelids.
“Lorraine and Harold took in a family of Cambodian refugees. They embraced them as their own …”
I allowed my thoughts to wander. If I didn’t, I’d cry.
“They set up a business together earlier on in their married life. They were high school sweethearts … ”
I ceased to exist. As if I never was …
Harold’s older girl broke down as she paid verbal homage to her parent. She choked on her words, pausing time and again to scrub her face and blow her nose. She bore an uncanny resemblance to her father.
I know so much about you all …
There was a pre-arranged police presence at the major intersections. The procession sailed through unhindered as the funeral cortege wound its way to the cemetery.
Trees wept flaming leaves all over the glum fall landscape. The firmament was leaden, sagging with pregnant clouds. I slipped a folding umbrella into my handbag when I stepped out of the car. The bag would not zip back up and the handle protruded like an obscene appendage.
About a quarter of the mourners at the chapel appeared to have made their way to the gravesite. The earth was dark from recent showers. Not muddy enough to create an inconvenient mess, thankfully.
My high heels will be alright …
A rectangular hole yawned in the ground. A mound of yellow-beige soil was heaped at its side. The coffin was lowered into its maw.
A gap opened up through the milling mourners and I saw Ronald clutching two enormous umbrellas.
“Ronald!” I was almost breathless. He turned to look. “Did you convey my message to Harold?”
There was a sweet gentleness on his countenance as he regarded my tear-stained face.
“I did,” Ronald answered. “I conveyed your message word for word.”
The pressure in my chest eased. “Did you tell him I missed him and was thinking of him?”
He nodded. “I did.”
“What did he say, Ronald?” My voice quivered.
What could a voice-less man say, stupid?
“He just smiled.”
Bless you, bless you …
Ronald must have met his employer on Friday. Harold would have known — the day before he passed on to the next world – I was thinking of him .
Ronald didn’t forget. Thank you. Thank you …
The mourners moved out and formed a circle. Lorraine stood ramrod-straight. Her family flanked and formed a wall around her.
One, two, three, four … seven grandchildren …
Lorraine and I found ourselves standing directly opposite each other, at either end of the grave. I hoped she didn’t think I’d contrived it.
The rabbi spoke the final rites over the dead.
I felt broken and tired when Lorraine’s eyes met mine. A ghost of a smile flickered on her lips. It was gone in an instant.
My body became racked with sobs. David’s arms enfolded me as clods of earth plopped on the coffin. I hid my face in his chest. I needed his quiet strength.
Don’t embarrass David. Don’t embarrass yourself …
The mourners talked quietly amongst themselves and began to drift away towards the parking area. A grey-haired man approached us. It took me some seconds to recognize him as Terrence — Harold’s law school buddy – who worked at the office.
I smiled tremulously and quavered, “He was my best friend.”
“I know,” Terrence replied gravely. “And you were his. He told me.”
He told you?
My eyes spilled over. I sniffed, hanging on to my composure with all my might. “I never got to say goodbye.”
Lorraine stood a few feet away from me.
Banana Bread and Mango Mousse
Mourners approached the widow to express their condolences, shake hands and embrace her. I hurried over and David followed directly behind.
Standing inches away, I reached out to touch her arm, murmuring, “Lorraine…”
My hand dropped to my side when she turned abruptly away and moved towards her family. Several pairs of eyes bored into me.
Maybe she didn’t see …
A handful of youths — the older grandsons, I supposed — shoveled what was left of the mound of earth into the grave.
It didn’t rain after all.
… … …
I hugged my thoughts to myself during the drive back home. David’s face was soft with wordless compassion. He kept his eyes fixed on the road.
I walked into the house and straight to my writing desk. Picking up the card I purchased that morning, I wrote –
I thought my heart would burst with sorrow as I watched my best friend being laid to rest, and then I wept for you. I cannot even begin to fathom what it must be like for you to lose the beloved husband that Harold was.
I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to put my arms around you. I came hurrying up as fast as I possibly could, but just as I reached out to touch your arm, you turned away.
I want you to know, Lorraine, that my thoughts and prayers have been with you constantly. Over the past fortnight, I have thought a lot about what you and I talked about on that beautiful, breezy summer day, sitting in my garden such a short while ago.
I know we will all meet again on another shore.
I felt I knew your family so well, as they formed a loving, comforting shield about you. You, the children and the grandchildren were often the main focus of my conversations with Harold. I know you have family and friends with you at this time, who love and care for you. Please know, Lorraine, that we are supporting you with our love, our thoughts, our sympathy and our deep sorrow.
As I told Harold in my last e-mail a little over two weeks ago: May the Master hold you close in his comforting arms.
God loves you so much and I know he will carry you through this dark valley.
Take care of yourself.
With loving affection,
(David &) Selina
P.S. Thank you for asking Norma to call me. It meant more than you would ever know.
I thought I was having a heart attack. I didn’t know that grief was the cause of the stabbing pain in my chest.
… … …
The sun rose on Tuesday morning. The world carried on and took me along with it.
I whipped up cream for the mango mousse, assembled the ingredients in a bowl, and put the concoction to set in the fridge. I used the coloured glass bowl I had taken to the housewarming party at the Stedman dream home just under a year ago.
I prepared several loaves of walnut chocolate chip banana bread for my weekly ladies’ Bible Study, and set one loaf aside for the Stedman household.
The staff enjoyed it, remember? Terri asked for the recipe …
The digital clock on the stove glowed at just past nine when I picked up the phone and dialed.
Norma’s voice came through. “Good morning, Stedman and Associates.”
“Norma, it’s Selina. I just wanted to say ‘thank you’ for calling me on Saturday night.”
Bright and cheery. Excellent. Good girl …
Norma replied cheerfully, “Oh, it was Lorraine who remembered you. She told me to call you.”
Yes, ten minutes after he died …
A tremor crept into my voice. “I feel sad every time I drive by.”
The response was brisk. “We have to be thankful he’s not suffering anymore.”
Right. Count your blessings …
I made an effort to be positive. “Of course. I lost a friend to ALS a short while ago. It was awful towards the end. Harold didn’t have to wear a diaper. He wasn’t paralyzed. He worked till the very end.”
Way to go Pollyanna. Keep playing the Glad Game …
“There you go,” Norma chirped. I gritted my teeth.
You don’t get it, do you?
I ventured cautiously, “What really happened, Norma?”
I held my breath.
“He wasn’t too well on Thursday. It was his lungs. By Friday Lorraine was concerned and made an appointment for him to be seen by the specialist.”
“You mean he came to work on Friday?” I queried.
“Of course. You know him.”
I knew him so well …
“She called later to say they were admitting him,” Norma continued. “He refused a tracheotomy. I think it was then that reality hit him. He had decided, you know, that he wouldn’t have any machine keeping him alive.”
I remembered Harold looking down at the PEG tube protruding from his stomach and saying laconically, “My first appliance …”
“Yes, I know,” I interjected. “He was definite about that.” The pointless platitudes began to irk me.
There’s nothing more to say, I guess …
“It was nice knowing you, Norma. I don’t suppose we’ll meet again,” I said.
“Not unless you come down to the office to visit.”
Not a chance …
“Would you please tell Lorraine I appreciated her thinking of me?”
I was glad to hang up. The conversation was done. It felt as if an immense season in my life had come to a close.
… … …
I wondered if Harold had left a parting note or message for me. Lorraine’s sister mentioned in her tribute that he’d written letters to his daughters the previous Saturday morning asking if they thought him a coward for refusing the tracheotomy.
Had he left instructions about my file?
The pain continued to claw at me. I feared I would have to live with it indefinitely.
… … …
David walked through the door around six o’clock in the evening. He held out a printed sheet of paper. The on-line death notice from the newspaper. There was no picture.
Stedman, Harold – peacefully, surrounded by his family, after a heroic struggle with ALS, on Saturday …
I couldn’t bring myself to read.
My husband rushed through his dinner and headed out. The shiva service — according to the notice handed out at the funeral chapel and the newspaper announcement — was to commence at 7:00 pm. The delivery had to be made before that.
The ache inside lifted the moment David stepped out of the house carrying the plastic film-wrapped bowl and the bag containing the loaf of banana bread.
A sense of release washed over me. I was both puzzled and relieved.
Two o’clock Tomorrow
The phone rang less than half an hour later.
“It’s me.” David was on his cellphone. “I’m on my way back.”
“Did you make it on time?”
“Yes. Just. There were about twenty cars parked outside and the place was milling with people. The door was open, so I walked in.”
“I stood there not knowing what to do till Lorraine walked by. She thought I’d come to sit shiva. She seemed happy to see me.”
“Uh huh. I gave her a hug and told her we were sorry we hadn’t been able to talk to her yesterday, and the loaf and the dessert were an expression of our affection for Harold. And for her.”
“What did she say?”
“Her eyes brightened when she saw the bowl. She said, ‘Mango. My favourite.'”
“She said that?”
“Yes. Oh, and she said we were welcome to come tomorrow. I told her you were probably not up to it. I’ll be home in a couple of minutes. See you in a bit.”
The residual constriction in my ribcage disappeared. There was no logical explanation. I didn’t look for one.
… … …
I printed off all the e-mails — mine to Harold and his to me — the little notes and humour we shared almost daily during the final weeks of his life.
Harold wrote –
I signed on hoping to hear from a friend, and you’re the best.
I wrote –
See you on Thursday.
He wrote –
I can’t wait.
I put three dozen printed sheets — give or take a few — away in a folder, to read when the grief mellowed and the memories became sweet again.
… … …
I had lengthy conversations with Harold-in-my-head.
“Remember the time I told you about Karl’s wife when they considered turning the machines off because there was nothing more to be done for her?”
“You lifted your shirt and gazed intently at the plastic protrusion piercing your abdomen. Your eyes welled and you bowed your head. I had to look away. I didn’t want you to see the agony in mine.”
He smiled lopsidedly.
“She still clings to life, you know. And I continue to go every Thursday evening to sit with Karl at the hospital. I never expected her to outlive you.”
He looked apologetic.
“Remember when you got your diagnosis?”
Harold-in-my-head nodded again.
“You told me, ‘My father-in-law always said he’d go out laughing. That’s what I’m going to do.’ You loved him, didn’t you? He would have been proud of you.”
The chestnut eyes came alive.
“You rarely referred to your own father.”
The light in his eyes dimmed. He shrugged.
“Remember what your dad said when you introduced Lorraine to the family? You told me he said, ‘It’s easy to love a rich girl.’ I was horrified. And sad for you.”
He wiggled his eyebrows.
“We never had a problem picking up each other’s thoughts, did we?”
I smiled. He beamed back at me.
“Remember that horrible day in court? Your amplifier was useless. No one understood a word you uttered. I was in court with a lawyer who had no voice. It was a nightmare. And on the way back you insisted we stop somewhere for lunch.”
His gaze remained fixed on mine.
“I found a napkin from the restaurant in my journal. You have written on it: Do you feel safe when I drive? Your handwriting is all spidery and shaky. We didn’t get to eat, remember? You took one sip of juice and began to choke. I insisted we leave. You refused to let me drive.”
Harold was too weary to tap-tap on his keyboard. He remained silent, his hands idle at his sides.
“You wouldn’t let us close the case, and now you’re gone. And I’m left high and dry with the trial coming up next year. For the first time I’m beginning to wonder if you had my best interests at heart.”
He didn’t reply.
“The only pictures I’ll ever possess are the ones etched in my mind. My journal will be my photograph album. I’m so glad I kept a journal.”
Harold-in-my-head disintegrated and dissolved into nothing. I sighed and opened my eyes.
Stop it. Be thankful he’s not suffering anymore. Like Norma said …
The conversations grew briefer with each passing day.
… … …
The answering machine was flashing when I got home late one afternoon.
“Selina, it’s Lorraine. Call me back, please.” The voice grated on my ear. I was startled to discover how raw my emotions still were.
I waited till David was home before I returned the call.
She said, “I have to return your bowl.”
No superficial preamble.
I’m glad you enjoyed the mousse …
“I’m sure David won’t mind picking it up,” I answered too quickly.
Not anxious to see you …
“No, there’s something I have to discuss with you as well. Could I come over?”
Dear God, what now?
I hesitated. “Could I come to the office?”
“No. That won’t be convenient.”
My heart thumped. “Sure, Lorraine. I’ll work around your convenience.”
“How about tomorrow afternoon?”
“Okay. Two o’clock is good.” My hand shook as I replaced the receiver.
I called a friend and cried my eyes out.
“Do you want me to be there for moral support, Selina? Or as a witness?” Kathy asked me. I
I loved and trusted her.
“No, Kat. It wouldn’t be fair by Lorraine, don’t you think? It would seem like an ambush or something, wouldn’t it?”
She made me promise to call her if I changed my mind. I said I would.
A dreadful sense of doom descended on me.
The doorbell rang at noon. Katherine stood on my doorstep. She reached out and wrapped her arms around me.
“I thought you needed some support, Selina. A shoulder to cry on, perhaps,” she said.
She offered, again, to be present at the afternoon meeting.
A lump leapt to my throat. My knees sagged and I leaned against my friend, teetering on the edge of tears. I became suddenly aware of how tired I was.
“Kat, you are a darling! Thank you, but no,” I declined. “My insecurities say ‘yes’, but common sense argues that I have to do this alone. You understand, don’t you?”
She did. Such a comfort to know to someone cared.
… … …
The living room was aglow with tea lights and taper candles. Instrumental Christmas music played in the background, and potpourri simmered on the stove. A batch of fresh-baked curried meat buns beckoned from the oven.
My eyes flew periodically to the clock as I tried to shrug off the fist of angst pressing into my chest.
The doorbell chimed at one fifty nine by the digital display on the bedside radio. I descended the stairs, my heart in my mouth.
“Hello, Lorraine. So nice of you to come.”
Good job! Sounds genuine enough …
Harold Stedman’s widow stepped into the house. Her trademark red lipstick created a garish slash on a pallid face. I was surprised to find myself able to put my arms around her. We stood in silence for some seconds.
“Christmas music already?” Lorraine commented brightly.
Okey dokey, here we go, then …
My contrived laughter came out a tinny giggle. “Well, we’re heading into November, and heaven knows it’s cold enough already.”
“It smells wonderful in here,” Lorraine declared, sniffing the yeasty fragrance coming from the kitchen. Her heartiness rang hollow in my ear. She handed me the bowl and sat down on the deacon’s bench by the door to unlace her fashion boots. I groped for a hanger and hung the tea-coloured jacket in the coat closet.
“Norma told me you were very upset. I expected that,” she said.
Oh, goody – why beat about the bush? Take the bull by the horns …
I yielded a sliver of a smile and refrained from comment.
“That mango mousse was delicious. Thank you,” she pressed on.
I held her gaze for some moments then answered in measured tones, “It came with all my love.”
Lorraine followed me into the kitchen. I set the bowl down on the counter.
“That’s a pretty bowl,” she commented.
“It was a wedding present,” I said. “I baked a snack for you, in case you haven’t had lunch.”
She sat down at the kitchen table. My fine china tea set preened on a wooden tray. Two cups and saucers, a milk jug and sugar bowl, sugar tongs, silver teaspoons, a white lace tablecloth.
I had to keep busy.
She probably thinks it’s over the top …
“Tea or coffee, Lorraine?”
“No coffee, thanks. It’s too early for coffee.”
She reached for a tea bag.
I slipped on a pair of oven mitts and pulled the tray of out of the oven.
Lorraine bit into a bun. “These are great.”
The electric kettle shut off with a snap. I poured boiling water into her cup.
“No. No sugar.” She waved away the sugar cube. “And no milk.”
I picked up the tray and we walked into the living room. The candle flames cast dancing shadows on the walls.
Lorraine looked around. “It’s almost too pretty to sit in here,” she said.
This is excruciating …
We settled into the sofa cushions and I dived in. My words tumbled over each other and rushed out. “I’m so happy to see you.” Fibber! “Because I never expected to see you again.”
“Why?” She sounded puzzled.
Oh, come on …
“Because our last conversation ended on such an uncomfortable note.”
“You are too hard on yourself,” Lorraine Stedman countered airily.
I lapsed into stubborn silence. Seconds ticked by. The onus was on my companion to keep the conversation flowing.
She plodded on. “I really had no place to go. I didn’t know where to go and that was it.”
Ok, so you didn’t want me to come to the house, but what about the office, huh?
I inhaled a great gulp of air. “What I should have said was, ‘Lorraine may I come and read to Harold and you?’ I didn’t think to do that, because I didn’t think you’d be interested.”
Help me, God, I’m suffocating …
“You take life too seriously,” she replied. “What can I do to help you?”
Don’t patronize me …
“I’m wary of saying anything,” I hesitated. “I blundered in like a bull in a china shop, and brought a lot of pain on myself.”
“I read your e-mails,” Lorraine announced dispassionately. “If you are so hard on yourself, you are going to have pain all your life.”
You … WHAT?
She went into her deceased husband’s account to read my e-mails. I was stunned by the nonchalant revelation.
Why, in heaven’s name?
My voice remained steady. “I didn’t get to say goodbye.”
“No one did.”
That’s not true …
Lorraine’s face was stony. Her skin, stretched taut over her cheekbones, looked yellowish in the glow of the table lamp. The eyes were like flint.
“He asked if I’d come and read to him. I feel I’ve failed him,” I faltered.
She grew grim. “I think you misunderstood the importance of your relationship in his eyes. He enjoyed your company, but he had a lot of friends. You overestimated it in your own mind.”
So you’re saying I’m like a teenager with a crush on the teacher …
Harold-in-my-head made an unexpected appearance. He typed on his keyboard –
Lorraine knows and understands how important your friendship is to me and she respects that.
His eyes sparkled and he placed a wraith-like hand on mine. He tapped with one finger –
You are my best friend. You and Lorraine are my best friends.
Harold-in-my-head vanished. The unsought memory brought on a fresh sense of confidence.
I regarded the woman who had been widowed for little more than a week. A strident battle cry resounded from within. Every muscle in my body tensed, and I braced myself for more.
I was on my guard.
Too late for coffee
Barely twenty minutes had ticked by. It felt like hours.
I allowed my mind to wander as Lorraine’s lips continued to move. Harold-in-my head was a welcome diversion when he made another appearance, sitting in his swiveling office chair with the keyboard in his lap. We began to chat.
“I stopped wearing my glasses in my early teens,” I told him. “I was convinced they made me look hideous. I ruined my eyesight when I was a kid, reading in poor light. I was as blind as a bat. My dad got me contact lenses. He was fed up of me walking into things.” I giggled. “It’s a woman thing, you know. We are vain creatures.”
Harold-in-my-head nodded and began to type. A haphazard chain of letters slid onto the screens –
Lorraine has a scar on her arm. Climbing accident
“Really? So that’s why she always wears long sleeves.”
He continued –
She will not wear her hearing aid.
“So how do you communicate at home?” I questioned.
The chestnut eyes commenced their wicked dance. My lips quivered in response.
No wonder she’s kept asking me to repeat myself …
… … …
The widow’s voice jerked me back. “There’s something I need to discuss with you,” she said. “I wanted to tell you about it myself.”
Oh God …
My eyes widened when she queried blandly, “Did you know there’s a bill coming to you?
Her face was inscrutable. “You knew there was a bill coming, didn’t you?”
I froze in my seat. My heart hammered wildly in my chest.
“You mean to say you didn’t know?” she persisted.
He said there were no bills. I asked him a month before he died ..
I shook my head.
She was all steel and polished granite. “There is a bill for twenty eight thousand dollars plus taxes. I have inherited the debts, you know. I wanted to tell you myself and not let you have the shock of getting the bill in the mail.”
How considerate of you …
Lorraine piled on the pseudo-sincerity. “Are you okay with this? I know you mentioned that cash wasn’t flowing. We could talk and negotiate.”
But there’s nothing owing …
I struggled to regain my composure. “The last bill was for ten thousand dollars, Lorraine, and Harold accepted post-dated cheques. This lawsuit has been a burden on us for four years, and I’m not working now. I’ll have to find the right moment to tell David.”
Oh God, oh God …
I made an abrupt subject change. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“It’s too late for coffee.” Lorraine followed me into the kitchen and sat once more at the table. “I feel as if I haven’t got through to you.”
I chose to be flippant. “In what way?”
I’m ready to tango, if you are. Two can play this game, lady …
I refused to be goaded into another demeaning dialogue.
For the first time since I had known her, Lorraine was at a loss for words.
I took charge of the conversation.
My turn to talk, okay?
“While I was talking to my mother yesterday,” I commenced, “I realized that Harold was the friend I used to long for as a child. No one knew what to make of me and my craving for books and quiet corners, I think. But Harold … oh, I could talk to Harold for hours.”
I was on a roll. “I remember once, as a teenager, I was over the moon when I came across a volume of poetry in a bookshop. I thought it was out of print. My sister told me I was nuts. She said, ‘Nobody reads those things.’ You know, I think I found Nobody in Harold.”
“Another reason why I felt obliged to go down to the office regularly was because Pauline tried to do away with herself several times. I didn’t want to burden you with my concerns. I had to make sure he was all right.”
“Oh, he wasn’t depressed,” she was prodded into responding, “He would not allow himself the luxury of getting depressed.”
The warmth of the memories swept over me and dispelled, for the moment, the waves of animosity emanating from the woman sitting in my kitchen.
I smiled reminiscently.”He was a big person wasn’t he? He occupied a big space. But it was such a good space.”
Lorraine nodded her agreement, the unyielding lines around her mouth softening slightly. The cloud of unspoken thoughts hung heavy between us. We were both uncomfortably aware of the much left unsaid.
“We have to be thankful he went when he did,” I laboured on. “He was not confined to a wheelchair. He didn’t have to wear diapers.”
“We ordered the wheelchair,” she replied. “It was due to arrive the next day.”
That would have killed him …
“The timing was providential,” I murmured.
My response felt lame.
… … …
Lorraine stood up to leave.
“I kept a detailed journal over the past few months,” I said, almost to myself. “So I have my memories.”
I marched doggedly on, ignoring the stony silence. “Maybe, when we both feel ready, I could read it to you. You feature so largely in it.”
My voice throbbed with remembered joy. “I loved reading to him.”
Lorraine headed for the coat closet and retrieved her calf-length jacket.
Not a word? Not one single, measly word?
She suffered my lukewarm hug when she took her leave.
I tried to sound sincere when I said, “Take care of yourself, Lorraine.”
I shut the front door and leaned against it, taking deep, deliberate breaths until the palpitations subsided.
It was half past two, the end of the longest half hour of my life
How am I going to tell David?
I called Katherine and cried.
I met David with a volley of words when he walked in through the door. He listened with a shattered look and tight jaw.
We ate dinner in grim silence and the twins wandered off to do their homework. They couldn’t grasp the convoluted details, though they understood that things were badly awry. I was unable to shake off the constant, needling sense of guilt, and blamed myself for plunging us all into this endless ordeal.
I pulled out the hefty legal file and set it on the kitchen table. The vinyl binder fell open at a wrinkled sheet of paper covered in spidery ballpoint scrawl. My heart did a somersault as words swam towards my dazed eyes.
Harold’s handwriting …
I read –
I have two lawyers starting soon. I will prepare and attend at no charge. One of them whom I coach will speak, and I will sit with you. They would charge. I would be both coach and spectator.
If you first quit they would assess their account for $60,000.00 to $70,000.00. Don’t first quit!
There was more …
The moment in the office resurrected itself. I had just told Harold we wished to close the case and walk away. He reached for a handful of used paper from the recycling bin, picked up a pen, hunched in his chair and wrote laboriously. He held the sheets for me to read, then tossed them out. I bent down to retrieve the pages from the wastepaper basket, folded and slipped them into my handbag. They went into my legal file the moment I got home.
I had forgotten all about the incident. Until now.
His words. His handwriting …
David dialed the Stedman residence. “Lorraine Stedman, please. Hello, Lorraine. How are you?” He paused to listen. “Thank you for coming to visit Selina this afternoon.”
Cool, detached, pleasant …
“Selina told me about the bill,” he said evenly. “It seems rather excessive. There has hardly been any activity on our file for the past year. It doesn’t make any sense, you know.”
Lorraine’s voice floated over the phone. I strained my ears to hear.
He shook his head. “I have been an accountant for more than half my life, and I handle lawyers’ bills for my company.”
Lorraine interrupted. He let her have her say then went on. “Oh, I know what I’m talking about. We spent twenty thousand dollars during the first two and a half years of this action. It was during this time that there was a lot of preparation, research and several court appearances.”
He paused again for her response. His voice turned stony. “But Harold wouldn’t let us close the file. He was sure there would be some kind of settlement and he assured us he wouldn’t bill us any further until there was a favourable outcome. We’ve spent so much money and we’ve had nothing to show for it.”
David held the receiver slightly away from his ear when Lorraine raised her voice.
“He instructed me to bill Selina on the morning of his death,” she said.
Indignation rose in me like bile.
David was unperturbed. “We have his instructions on file. In his own handwriting. He advises us not to give up. He states he would sit in court with Selina, free of charge.”
A moment’s silence at the other end, then a brisk barrage of questions.
“Yes,” David said. “He advised us not to close the case.”
She was curt. “Would you have jumped off a cliff if he told you to?”
David answered dispassionately, “No. But he was the lawyer and we are ordinary lay people. We trusted and admired him. We are willing to pay what’s within reason, but this bill makes no sense at all. This lawsuit has been a great drain on us, and if we have to pay this last amount, we’re going to be wiped out.”
“Oh, I certainly wouldn’t want that,” Lorraine drawled. “Don’t lose sleep over it. The accountant has still not made up the bill.”
The receiver hit the cradle with a click. His mask of feigned indifference slid away. David’s face was like a thundercloud.
I wished it had occurred to me to pick up the extension. I could have listened in on the conversation.
… … …
Two days later, I had a dream …
I was taking a walk with a friend. The day was foggy – dreary and dank. There were sprawling houses — grey in the gloom — on either side of the street.
On impulse I turned to my companion and said, “Would you like to meet my friend Harold Stedman?”
Before I knew it, we were in the basement of a home. I seemed to know that it was Harold’s. I was aware that we had broken in and were trespassing. A brown-painted ladder, attached to the main floor by hinges, led down to the basement. As we stepped off the last rung, the hinges broke off and the ladder became detached from its hold. I heard a sound and saw the figure of a woman looking down from the floor above. I was apprehensive. We were intruders. Would she call the police?
The shadow-woman reached out and handed me a hammer. I could see the nails still protruding from the top of the ladder. I hammered with all my might to re-attach it to the upper floor. I couldn’t succeed.
Harold appeared from a dim corridor to my right. A deluge of joy swept through me when I recognized my friend. He looked decades younger, strong and vigorous, brimming over with life. His hair was longer, thicker, with barely any grey in it. He was attired in black dress pants and a grey golf shirt with dark flecks. The shirt wasn’t tucked into the waistband — it hung over his pants.
Harold beamed when he saw me. My heart was ready to burst with gladness. I turned to introduce my companion, who became coy and tongue-tied. She was overcome to be in the presence of the wonderful Mr. Stedman she had heard so much about.
… … …
I recalled the dream the instant I awoke. My heart sang as waves of sweet peace surged through me. A sense of this-is-so-much-more-than-a-dream hung all over me like a surreal mist.
David stirred. I opened my eyes, reluctant to emerge from the blissful state of euphoria I found myself in.
“I dreamt of Harold,” I said. “He’s okay. He is at peace. He’s well again.”
… … …
I phoned Katherine shortly after David left for work. Choking with emotion, I recounted the details of my dream.
Katherine wept with me. “Oh, Selina. I asked God to give you a dream to set your heart at rest. So you’d know he was okay.”
The tears I cried were laced with joy.
Trees in the dark
An anxious month crawled by with no word from my defunct lawyer’s office. I had no intention of probing further into the matter. Our family was more than ready to pick up the frayed threads of our life and move on.
The bruise in my heart throbbed each time I drove past the building at the corner of Main Street. A tall sign advertised Space For Rent. The brass Stedman & Associates plaque still remained on the wall by the door. I took to averting my gaze whenever I sped by.
On impulse one evening, I slowed down and drove into the premises. The wet, pitch-dark night dripped all over the car as the wipers thudded against the windshield. The parking lot was deserted, and I became oppressed by a sudden sense of apprehension.
No one’s going to jump out from the bushes and pounce, silly …
A dim fluorescent bulb struggled in the shed behind the two-storey edifice. Trees — ghostly sentinels — towered above me, bowing and creaking in the turbulence like dancers at a cotillion ball, their swaying branches bending, shaking hands, then swinging away. I slowed down to a crawl and swallowed hard to dislodge the rock in my throat, assailed by an uninvited rush of mind-movies. Droplets pricked at my eyelids and began a salty journey towards my chin.
I paused for a brief second at my usual parking spot. A deluge of cameo-moments poured all over me …
… … …
Six months into the diagnosis Harold still bounced with vitality and optimism, though his speech had begun to slur considerably. There was also a marked weakening in his little finger.
“Pull,” he said, extending his hand. “I’ve been exercising it. See? It’s getting stronger. I’m sure of that.”
I was all out of platitudes, so I smiled when I found myself at a loss for words. I smiled a lot.
An urgent pre-court consultation on an evening late in the summer, Harold wearing a long-sleeved shirt and one of his avant garde ties.
The zany tie with the red-nosed clown painted on it …
I wrapped both arms around my bulky legal file, and stood up to leave. He rose to his feet mumbling, “I’ll walk you to the car.”
Ronald drove in as we rounded the corner into the parking lot behind the building. He stuck his head out from behind the wheel of his ramshackle conveyance and exchanged a few words with his employer. We waved when he drove away.
We chatted for a while before I glanced at my watch and reached for the handle of the driver’s side door. Harold pressed his cheek against mine in farewell, then shambled back to his office.
… … …
The drapes were drawn tight at the wall-sized first storey window. I saw my friend in the swiveling office chair at his desk or, in the final months, watching for my arrival.
“I love the dress you’re wearing,” he said last summer, about a new denim outfit. “It’s very flattering. Oh, and I like how the shoes match.”
Not much escaped his notice.
I looked into the dim dusk. He was at the window, tapping on the tinted glass, grinning and making gestures to suggest I return for another hug. Once, I used my car keys on the glass to attract his attention, to wave one more time before I drove away.
My thoughts careened on their riotous rampage. I rounded the corner and moved towards the front of the property. I stepped on the brakes, ground to a halt, and closed my eyes …
… … …
I slipped a folder of documents on Terri’s table and scurried back to the car. Harold’s voice brought me to a halt.
He stood in his shirt sleeves on the balcony at the top of the short flight of steps going up to the side door. The brown eyes twinkled.
“You left without saying hello,” he complained.
The ground was thick with ice and snow. “You’ll catch your death of cold,” I chided, and shook my head in mock disapproval. “It’s freezing.”
The eyes danced. He retorted, “Oh, but I was born in this country. You weren’t. I don’t feel the cold like you do.”
… … …
Memories are strange, precious things. Harold was everywhere in the grudging light of the weakling moon.
I negotiated the narrow corridor between the squat building and the wall separating it from the adjoining property. The spot reserved for the silver Mercedes was empty. The familiar constriction gripped my throat.
… … …
Harold stood by the open passenger-side door of his vehicle. The SUV towered over his reed-like wispiness. Dusk was falling, and crouching shadows hovered all around us. He leaned forward to hug me and lost his balance. I grabbed his elbow in the nick of time. He felt weightless. He straightened up as if nothing untoward had occurred.
His lips moved. He mouthed, “I love you.”
He never forgot to say, “I love you,” during those last months. Over and over again. To everyone he cared about.
A murky well of aloneness clouded his eyes. He clambered awkwardly into the driver’s seat.
… … …
I blinked and stepped on the accelerator. The car eased itself — all but grazing the wall — through the narrow passage at the side of the building.
The entire exercise lasted no more than five minutes. The drizzle heightened the hazy glow around the street lamps. The trickle from my tear ducts meandered along my cheeks as I edged towards the thoroughfare. I tasted brine on my lips.
The bruise ceased to throb. My ghosts were laid to rest.
… … …
On Thursday evening — the following day — I made my weekly pilgrimage to the hospital, to sit with Karl and his semi-conscious wife.
A framed needlepoint sampler hung on a wall in the Long Term Care ward just outside a patient’s room. It was dedicated to the staff in lettering engraved on a small brass plaque. Cross-stitched on embroidery canvas beneath the glass, was the poem Footprints.
I froze in my tracks.
Where did it come from?
Puppet on her string
I didn’t recall seeing the framed needlework before. Not in all the months I’d visited the ward. It felt like a comforting sign, as if it had been placed in that particular spot for me.
… … …
My mother-in-law handed me a white envelope when the twins made their regular weekend visit to the grandparents. I couldn’t bring myself to look at what I found inside — a newspaper clipping of the obituary notice.
I put the cutting away with my cache of assorted Harold memorabilia.
… … …
The postman rang the doorbell one afternoon, some days later. The sight of him brought on a panic attack, and the familiar feeling of fear in the pit of my stomach extended icy claws all the way to my extremities.
“Registered letter for you, ma’am.” He held out a clipboard and pen, stabbing the dotted line with his forefinger. “Sign here, please.”
Stedman and Associates, Lawyers …
I recoiled at the sight of the brown Manila envelope.
The covering letter and attachment were dated the day before Harold’s demise. There were charges for meetings that never happened and phone calls a voiceless lawyer could not have made. Not one item on the ambiguous list was legitimate.
Bare-faced lies …
Beneath a signature I didn’t recognize was the name of the young solicitor Harold hired some months prior to his demise. Theodore What’s-his-name, a callow, unimpressive man.
Puppet on her string …
I held in my hand a trumped up bill for twenty eight thousand Canadian dollars — plus taxes — six weeks after my lawyer’s widow paid me a supposed courtesy call.
Determination unfurled like a poisonous flower from the knot in my belly. My indignation knew no bounds.
The buck stops here, lady …
David and I sat down at the kitchen table to draft a response –
Dear Mr. What’s-his-name,
Re. File # …
The points of concern covered several sheets of typewritten paper.
I concluded –
We have been longstanding clients and considered Harold Stedman a close and trusted friend. It is discouraging to realize that we have gone through so much expense and time, only to achieve nothing.
I went down to the post office that evening and sent the letter off by registered post.
… … …
I thought of Lorraine as I dropped off to sleep. I imagined the oil painting with the names Harold and Lorraine intertwined, hanging on her living room wall.
“Harold painted the names on after I was done. He hung the picture himself,” I recalled Lorraine telling me.
I remembered how Harold’s eyes filled with tears when he said, “I love my house.” He was that house. He dreamed, breathed it into being. He willed himself to remain alive until the building was complete.
Harold-in-my-head made an unbidden appearance. He hadn’t visited in awhile.
“Lorraine once had a serious skiing accident,” he commenced conversationally. “She has a pin in her arm.”
“I know. And a scar to prove it. You told me. She mentioned the incident herself at the housewarming party.”
I was surprised to find myself bored.
“She’s a fantastic cook.”
Yeah, whatever. Yadda, yadda …
“I know. She’s a talented woman,” I mumbled.
Blah, blah, blah …
“She should have taken her art up professionally.”
Yep. So you’ve often said …
“Her mother was a seamstress. She was very close to her father …”
I yawned. My mind began to wonder.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten …. counting fishies, counting piggies, counting sheep …
I slept fitfully. My slumber was peppered with unsettling dreams.
… … …
I made a follow-up trip to the post office the next week. The postal clerk showed me the delivery slip. The signature on the chit was Lorraine Stedman’s.
The weeks went by, and I felt more able to breathe. We began to make tentative plans for a future that wouldn’t include the clinging leach of litigation.
… … …
One blissfully normal day — the kind of day we’d only just begun to experience after four years of unease — I was blindsided by an unexpected phone call.
“This is Ted What’s-his-name. May I speak to Selina?”
Something about the voice put me on my guard.
“This is Selina.”
“There is a sum of twenty eight thousand dollar plus tax owing on your account and …”
I remembered who he was.
“Mister … er … Ted, both my husband and I have spoken to Mrs. Stedman about this matter. I responded to the outrageous bill in a lengthy letter addressed to you. I sent it out by registered mail several weeks ago.”
“What letter? I never received any letter from you …”
Oh, dear God, I can’t do this anymore …
“The account was paid up in full before Mr. Stedman died. I sent you a registered letter with documentation to prove this.” My tone teetered on the cliff-edge of cordial.
What’s-his-name carried on as if he hadn’t heard a word. “The trial is coming up in the spring. I have to begin preparing. You are looking at about seventy thousand dollars.”
Who retained your services?
“Have you looked at my files …er.. Ted?”
“No. Not yet.”
“Are you familiar with patent and copyright law?”
This can’t be happening …
“Is Stedman and Associates still functioning?”
“No. I’ve opened my own office.”
“And you have my files? But I never authorized …”
“Mrs. Stedman sent me the whole box.”
She … what? HOW DARE SHE?
“I’ll come round and pick them up.”
What’s-his-name responded curtly, “I’m sorry I cannot release them because,” – I almost dropped the phone – “there’s a large sum owing on your account.”
Were you even listening to what I just told you?
He rambled on. “I have to begin preparing for the trial. I require a retainer.”
You must be joking …
“I’ll have to get back to you, Mister … er … Ted.”
The receiver went down with a bang and I fell on my knees to the floor. My eyes ached with tears that wouldn’t be shed.
Pathetic Pollyanna. Where’s the silver lining in this cloud, huh?
Turn Back Time
Once again I sought refuge in my Enchanted Woods, on the Crying Rock by the stream. I hiccupped and sobbed my way through hour after hour, as the sound of my pitiful prayers merged with the burble of the stream. I had to find a copyright lawyer and desperation made me frantic.
A volley of enquiries and frenzied phone calls led from one dead end to another. I finally located a downtown type, and retained her services without pausing to deliberate. She charged four hundred dollars an hour.
Four HUNDRED dollars …
Beggars couldn’t be choosers. It was not the time for penny-pinching.
If Ms. Heather Murdoch came to her own conclusions regarding the reasoning behind Lorraine Stedman’s conduct, she kept her thoughts to herself. She was a seasoned professional, a large and dispassionate woman. She seemed to know what she was about.
In the interest of economy I prepared a sheaf of typewritten sheets detailing the timeline of my case. Time was money – four hundred dollars an hour — and it would take my new legal representative hours I couldn’t afford, to go through the contents of my file.
“I want this case closed,” I announced flatly. “I have five thousand dollars, that’s all.”
“It can be done, no problem,” she assured me. “First I’ll have to contact your former lawyer’s office for your files.”
An irate Heather Murdoch phoned me the next day. “I just spoke to Ted What’s-his-name. Your files are being withheld until your account is paid up. Twenty eight thousand dollars plus …”
“But I told you, Heather, I’m all paid up and …”
“I know, but he’s not buying it. I called Lorraine Stedman as well. What’s-his-name gave me the number. Same story – no can do. Money owing.”
I explained — all over again — as best I could. The convoluted details of the tacky tale sounded bizarre in my own ears.
“So tell me again. Why is she doing this?”
I squirmed. “I don’t know, Heather. I really thought Lorraine and I were friends. I even offered to take my turn in a round-the-clock care-giving roster. She appreciated that. Also I …”
“You don’t owe any money and Mrs. Stedman claims you do?”
I writhed inside. “I know. It sounds crazy. I don’t know what else to say.”
“Oh, I get it. Revenge,” my new lawyer commented drily. “We’ll just have to get copies from the court files.”
I never knew if Heather Murdoch believed me or not. I didn’t bother to find out.
I had to let her draw her own conclusions. I had no energy left to care.
… … …
I was denied access to my legal files — twenty thousand dollars worth of litigation — and had to fork out one thousand dollars I couldn’t afford, to obtain copies from the court archives.
A three-way conference call between the judge and both lawyers brought my action against my former employers to a close.
I put my signature to a document absolving the defendants (my ex-employers) of all wrongdoing, with an assurance that I would never attempt to sue them again, in any way, shape or form. In doing so I denied myself the right to any compensation for the theft of my copyright and wrongful dismissal. There was no other alternative when I opted out of an expensive trial, and potential ruin if the judgment didn’t go in my favour.
The copyright of the musical play I authored was returned to me by court order. I was also awarded half the takings from the ticket sales. A paltry one thousand-and-some dollars.
The copyright number on the certificate naming my former employer as author and owner of my play was permanently deleted from public record.
A few weeks later, I received a re-written copyright certificate from the Copyright and Patent office. It came by registered post.
My work was finally mine. Owner. Author. Playwright. I felt deflated by a dreadful sense of anti-climax.
The manuscript went into the bottom drawer of my bedside table where it remained untouched for almost a decade. The sight of it filled me with anguish and loathing.
… … …
There were two distinct issues in the action against my former employer. The labour issue belonged in provincial court, the copyright matter was under federal jurisdiction. Harold focused on protecting my copyright because (he said) I couldn’t afford two lawsuits.
The local phone book happened to fall open at the Yellow Pages one day, some years after Harold’s demise. I was aghast to find staring at me the names of labour lawyers who would represent a client without requiring any cash up front, but would wait to be paid a percentage of the final settlement.
I would have won outright if I had engaged such a lawyer and sued for wrongful dismissal. I should have filed two lawsuits.
Harold’s advice was erroneous.
Lorraine Stedman never returned my legal files.
… … …
A medical practice now operates in the space once occupied by Stedman and Associates.
The visits from Harold-in-my-head finally ceased.
I never heard from Lorraine Stedman again.
… … …
And this, dear reader, is an account of my personal odyssey, detailing my unwitting entanglement in the mesh of a dying man’s journey.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, there lived a naïve, gullible woman named Selina. She persisted in wearing rose-tinted spectacles long after the rest of the world had disposed of theirs, much to the chagrin of her practical, longsuffering husband. He was a good, practical man who — fortunately for them both — wore his head well screwed on his shoulders …
Would I do things differently if I could turn back time?
I don’t know.
Did my friend, Harold, have my best interests at heart?
Did his wife have reason to be jealous?
There will only ever be one Harold Stedman. He was one of my life’s sweet serendipities.
This is my new novel, Next Week, On Thursday.
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