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Anxieties and Assurances


ISSUE:  Spring 1981

Their good friend, who had been ill for some time, died late one night, and they were notified early the next morning. Ethan had been a fair, humorous man, and they had been devoted to him. He was the first of their age group to die. After they were told, they grimaced in sorrow and went aimlessly around their bedroom. Henry coughed in a jerky way, unable to say anything. Clara kept saying, “It’s best, it’s best. He won’t suffer any more.” Instead of calling Ethan’s wife, Lilianne, who might be under sedation or distraught, they sent her a telegram.

On the day of the funeral, they woke to a freak April storm of driving rain mixed with snow. Once a vivid flash of lightning turned the slate-colored Hudson River below their house an eerie white. For a brief while they lay in bed complaining about the weather, then got up and dressed in old working clothes. They were expecting some furniture and several cartons of china and glass from a relative’s estate in Boston and had had to make their plans for the day carefully. Because the articles were part of a consignment of things being delivered to other people in the area, it had been impossible to change the date. But they had been promised delivery the first thing in the morning. This would give them time to direct the placing of the heaviest furniture and leave the house at eleven. The funeral services were scheduled for three in the afternoon and it would take them about two and a half hours to drive out to the Long Island town in which their friend had lived and allow three-quarters of an hour for a good, sustaining lunch on the way.

“I don’t want to be pressed or flurried,” Henry said. “I want to get to the church in plenty of time. We must be as relaxed as possible under the circumstances.”

Unlike Clara, who believed in God and the immortality of the soul, he was an agnostic and distrustful of organized religion. To sit in a pew, attending services for his friend whom he would never see again, would be a painful ordeal. While Clara got breakfast, he prowled through the house, making sure she had made adequate arrangement and space for the coming furniture. He disliked impulsive and haphazard planning and the helter-skelter way in which she often operated. Checking her arrangements restored him a little. Everything seemed in order.

Clara, fixing eggs, coffee, and toast, now and then stopped what she was doing and told herself Ethan was safe in God’s hands. One must think only this, she thought, wiping her eyes on a piece of paper toweling.

By eight-thirty, they had finished their breakfast and were ready for the van. Henry stationed himself at the hall window to peer out at the rain-drenched road and glance repeatedly at his wristwatch. By nine-thirty she felt his tension upsetting her.

“Don’t stand there like that, dear,” she cried. “Do something. Empty the garbage or read the Times.”

At the tone in her voice, his nervousness increased.

“You’re sure you understood them correctly. They said first thing in the morning? Are you even sure this is the right day? If you’ve gotten things mixed up and we’re stewing around for nothing—”

“I have not gotten things mixed up. It’s today, and they said first thing in the morning. What do you think has happened?”

“God knows,” he said. “You can’t take anyone’s word for anything nowadays. Everyone’s so damn independent and incapable. They’re probably taking a coffee break on their own sweet time.”

By ten-thirty, there was still no sign of the van.

“All right,” he said. “All right. We’re still leaving at eleven. We must try to think. We must make another plan. Call Evie Mathews next door, explain the situation, and tell her to come here. We’ll leave a list of where everything’s to go so she can direct them.”

“Can’t we just leave a note for the men telling them to put everything in the garage?”

His shoulders twitched. “Do you want me to move things around myself so I’ll get another hernia and have to have another operation?” Her forgetfulness of his hernia operation the year before annoyed him. “Just do as I say.”

She called Evie and, although Evie had started to wash her hair, she agreed to come as close to eleven as possible. She would have to bring her two little boys, and she certainly hoped they would not get in the way and be hurt.

A few minutes later, the driver of the van called, apologizing for the delay—there had been a little trouble up the line—and asking for directions to the house. She gave them to him. Henry, standing beside her, listened to her explanation intently. There were times when she got mixed up and said “right” instead of “left.”

“We’re all set now,” she said. “From where they are it should take about ten minutes to reach the house. So what shall we do? Let Evie come and we go? Or stay?”

He thought, frowning, for a few moments. “We’ll stay. We want to make sure everything goes properly. Call Evie back and tell her not to come, then make us some sandwiches. We’ll eat in the car. We’d better go right up and put on our good clothes.”

When Clara called Evie again, Evie seemed relieved. But by a quarter of twelve, the van had not come. Henry turned on Clara. “Why didn’t you tell them we were going to a funeral on Long Island and had to leave the house on time. Now they’ve probably stopped somewhere for lunch.”

“All I could think of was to give the directions so they’d come as quickly as possible.”

“That’s the trouble,” he said. “You don’t think enough. You always rush through things.”

“Well, why didn’t you tell me to tell them about the funeral,” she cried. “You were standing right next to me. You heard the conversation. You could have said something since you think so well.” The sarcasm in her voice stung him.

“You answered the phone. It was your responsibility. People who aren’t responsible shouldn’t answer telephones.”

“All right,” she said. “I’ll never answer the phone again. I’m not responsible enough.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. So childish. At a time like this. I’ve got enough on my mind. Call Evie and tell her to come.”

“You call her.”

“I will not. You’ve got to learn to take the consequences of your”—he hesitated.

“My what?”

“Never mind. Just do as I say.”

Once again she called Evie who now seemed annoyed. By this time she had given her baby his lunch and put him down for his nap. She would get him up and come over.

A few minutes later, they heard the roar of the van laboring up the steep hill to their house.

“All right,” he shouted. “They’re here. I’ll tell the men they’ve got to unload in half an hour. We’ll leave sharp at twelve-thirty. Call Evie and tell her not to come. And eat now.” He snatched a sandwich and rushed out to direct the parking of the van. Running back in again, he cried triumphantly, “Just as I thought. They stopped for lunch. They reek of beer. That’s what comes from incomplete instructions. You called Evie?”

She nodded. “I’m sure she thinks I’m senile. I can’t blame her.”

In the frantic hustle of the next half hour, they ran up and down stairs, directing the men and avoiding each other. It was not until they had crossed the Tappan Zee bridge and were driving down towards the Cross County Parkway that she admitted to herself it was her fault for not being more explicit with the van driver and for letting Henry upset her. Why, after 35 years of marriage, couldn’t she remember that he always felt threatened when something upset him and grew unfairly critical?

He drove intently, spending his exasperation on a fast but careful handling of the car. Why had she never learned not to grow annoyed when he was annoyed? He was sure other wives could and did learn this. But he regretted his unfair criticism of her. For an instant, he looked away from the road and stared miserably at her.

She saw the look and touched his knee with her hand, their signal of contrition and affection. After a moment, he patted her hand, and they began to talk of their children away at school, of plans for the summer, and perhaps a possible trip to California to visit her sister. By the time they reached the church in the small Long Island town, they felt in control of themselves. It was a medium-sized church, recently painted white, and had brightly stained glass windows and dark oak pews already crowded with people. Ethan’s coffin, covered with a blanket of red roses, lay before the altar. Henry shut his eyes for a few moments. Was it possible that Ethan was lying in there?

When Lilianne and members of the family were seated, the service began with the calm, consoling words of familiar psalms and prayers. But at one point, speaking of Ethan, the young minister’s voice faltered unprofessionally and stopped in a brief silence that brought tears to Clara’s eyes. How, she wondered, could one have faith and anguish at the same time? Henry saw and envied her tears, but kept his dry, rigid stare on an altar candlestick. When the service ended, they drove to the cemetery for the brief interment, then on to the pleasant stone house which they had so often visited. Lilianne ran to them instantly and embraced them. Her face was pale and she wore dark glasses over her swollen eyes. “Don’t say anything,” she said, kissing them. “Thank God, you’re here with me,” Several other people came in, and they moved away from her to the small bar off the living room, where Henry fixed them strong whiskeys.

They began talking to others whom they knew, trying to make their voices as natural as possible. The service, they all agreed, had been just right. Everything had gone well and just as Ethan would have wished. His affairs were well arranged and in good order. Lilianne would not have to worry about a thing. She was going to Nassau for a month, where she would lie in the sun and rest. When she got back, they must all get together. “Oh, hell,” a man said abruptly and moved away from them to stand by a window with his back to the room. They had two more drinks apiece, then said goodby to Lilianne and left. It was a relief to be out of the house.

“I might have been drinking water,” Clara said, getting into the car. “I don’t feel those drinks at all.”

“I don’t either,” he said. “I think when you’re under a strain, you don’t.” He was silent for some time, then he said, “I hope when I’m buried, I’ll have a lot of people at the service. The way he did.” He named many friends in their town. “Do you think they’ll come?”

“Why, of course. Of course, they’ll come, dear.”

“And I want only one thing read. I think it’s from Ecclesiastes. The thing about “There is a season,” something, something, I don’t know how it goes, “A time to be born and a time to die. . . .”“

She stared at him. “Don’t talk about that. Please. Not now. Let’s have another drink and dinner somewhere. I don’t feel like cooking.”

“A good idea,” he said. “I think I’ve got enough money.”

They went to a place that had been highly recommended to them, a large mansion, overlooking the Hudson River, which had once been owned by a wealthy family and was now converted into a restaurant. After their drinks, they felt very hungry and, although they were both dieting, ordered crabmeat canapés, potage mongole, tenderloin steaks with asparagus hollandaise, new potatoes, salad and strawberry shortcake.

“We’re crazy,” she said. “Absolutely crazy. But I don’t know when I’ve been so hungry. It really doesn’t seem right after this afternoon.”

“Life has to go on,” he said.

“Yes.”

They nodded at each other. She seemed to him full of vitality and of the wild sweetness that had always made him desire her. She smiled gently at the familiar look in his eyes.

“You look wonderful to me,” she said. “So strong. So well.”

They grew gay and reckless, ordering more butter and spreading it thickly on the hot, rich rolls, and now and then pressing their knees together under the table.

“You . know what,” she said. “I feel about 18. How old do you feel?”

“Twenty.”

“Hurray,” she cried. “Oh, my goodness. The drinks have caught up with me. I feel wonderful.” She threw her arms up in a childish way. “Let’s have some brandy.”

“No,” he said. “let’s go home and have some.”

When they came out of the restaurant, the lights of the Tappan Zee Bridge made trembling paths of brilliance on the dark water. Before they got in the car, she flung her arms around him and kissed him passionately. “How lucky we are, so lucky, so lucky.”

“Hush,” he said uneasily and folded her coat collar around her throat. He must protect her. He must take good care of her.

“No brandy,” she said when they got home. “I’ll fix us some hot milk so we’ll feel better tomorrow morning.”

“I’ll come with you and help you.”

“You don’t have to.” She went towards the kitchen door. “You go up and get undressed and I’ll bring the milk and we’ll drink it all cosy in bed.” She began to hum.

“But I want to be with you.” His voice was high and strained.

She turned swiftly and saw him standing in the middle of the living room, his arms hanging loosely at his sides, his hat still on his head, his face pale.

“What is it? Do you feel all right?” She hurried toward him.

“I’ll never see Ethan again. Never. And you—oh, my God—when you—if you—”

“Don’t say things like that.” She shook him.

“But I have to.”

“But you will see him and you’ll see me, too. Afterwards. And everyone else you’ve loved. Things don’t just stop.”

He looked down at her, pitying her. “How do you know? Maybe they do.”

“There can’t be just nothing,” she cried. “Even science says there’s no such thing as nothing. There’s always something. So there must be something afterwards. Can’t you see it that way?”

“No,” he said. “I don’t want some vague hereafter. I want you as you are, as I’ve known you. How can you be sure of what you think?”

“I have to be, I have to be,” she whispered.

He saw the loosening structure of her face, the white strands in her hair, the thinning lips, and she saw his thickened body, the stooped shoulders, the darkened hollows under his eyes. Reaching out for each other, they clung together and began to weep.

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