Calista Wertheim was, in her time—as most people are, in their times, I suppose—lovely. She had a propensity toward all things batik and slashed her way through life with that mane of frizzled yellow whipping behind her. Garry loved her, and I assume she him, with a devotion and a level-headedness I admire and understand. We were close friends, the four of us—Calista and Garry, me and Witold—for many, many years. There were countless dinners in Chinatown, summer barbecues, Sunday brunches on the terrace. We attended each other’s events: Witold’s openings, Calista’s benefits. I use the past tense: Witold is dead, and though Calista has not yet passed, she is gone from us in most ways that merit use of the present. When she was alive, she ran a nonprofit center for the arts with a will of iron. And I laugh just thinking about Calista and iron. Some years ago she commissioned a piece by a young sculptor—an artist whose work I’ll admit I actually admired, to a point. But a point decidedly shy of having a gigantic foot erected on the lawn of your Marin County home! A giant iron foot to serve as the backdrop for your daughter’s wedding, countless showers and graduation galas, and two monumental anniversary parties, Garry and Calista’s tenth and twentieth. The thirtieth will be this summer, but there will, in the end, be no party. We think (and I have been an instrumental part of this decision process) that Calista would have preferred not to celebrate anything just now, under the circumstances, and she’s the one we have been trying to do right by.
The most recent lawn party was just a year ago, and I think we all knew it might be the last. Garry and Calista’s son, Patrick, had graduated from high school. I drove out from the city the day before, a sheet cake the size of a small nation sprawled across the back seat. I was so terrified of crushing it I went forty-five the entire way. The Wertheims lived in the loft below ours before their kids were born, then moved to the suburbs to raise them, a move that made sense, for them. Witold and I pooh-poohed their flight eternally. Not a decision we’d have ever made ourselves, something that showed the differences in who we were and who they were. For all we liked one another, we weren’t similar in the ways that friends often are. Witold and I could never have imagined leaving San Francisco; Calista and Garry dreamed of and did it. Their kids are good people: Sarah, in dental school; Patrick—who’s the spitting image of Calista: the wide-set eyes, broad jaw, that shock of blond, too towheaded for his age—now just finished with his first year at UCLA. I like these kids, am proud of them in the way I imagine one might be of one’s own. Children were not important to Witold and me, and though everyone wants to know if I regret that decision now that Witold is gone, I am more bothered by their questions than I am by my childlessness. Just to have a part of him still here … they suggest, and I think: A part of him? I want all of him. They want to know if I have missed seeing children grow up, and I say, I have seen children grow up. Do not be under the impression that I have glommed onto Garry and Calista’s kids to vicariously experience the joys of parenthood. I have not. They know me, but not so well. I have been present, but not hovering. I did not want children. That has not changed.
So the lawn party. Patrick’s graduation. An early summer day just made for a garden party, all of us drinking the first gin and tonics of the season, feeling very Gatsbian in our floral dresses, our pale, lightweight slacks, shirts rolled up and open at the collar. As a graduation gift, I had given Patrick a small painting of Witold’s, a study he did for a landscape in the Sierras back when we were first married, more than forty years ago. Witold’s work stunned me when I first encountered it, and him, and still does now: such subtlety, so little representation, everything in the suggestion of what might be, an impressionistic haze of what actually was. Patrick thanked me for the gift profusely. Later, I was nursing my G&T in private, out of sight of the milling guests, on the far side of the garden shed, when Garry came to me, a proffered spanakopita wedge bleeding grease onto a cocktail napkin. “He loves it, Lindy, loves it. I mean, of course he does—it’s Witold’s … Of course. But it’s so special. Thank you.” He pressed the hors d’oeuvre into my hand as if it was all he could do. Garry is an exceedingly earnest man.
“I’m so glad,” I told him. “I thought he might.”
“You know,” Garry said. “You know what else?”
“What else?” I teased him. Getting to the point is not Garry’s strong suit.
“You know what else he said? He came to me, totally unsolicited, totally on his own, out of the blue, he came up to me, just standing there by the bar, I was talking with Merle Buschbaum, and Merle wandered off, and just Patrick and I were left, and he said, just looked right at me, like he knew, I swear, like he knew, and he was somehow trying to say, Dad, it’s okay. I know and it’s okay, okay? He said: Lindy’s a really amazing woman. Just like that. I think my jaw must’ve dropped into my drink. If he didn’t know before, he had to know then.”
I was smiling—a smile I hope conveyed what I was going for: love, mixed with sympathy, and understanding, but not just sympathy and understanding all full of priestliness and free love. I was trying for knowing understanding, with a dose of sagacity, for which I think Garry looks to me.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Garry continued. “It was like he knew, but how was I supposed to be positive? And how would he know anyway? Is it written on my face? Is he just a perceptive kid, just a super-perceptive kid who’s figured it out somehow? We’re not obvious. I know we’re not obvious. There’s no way we’re obvious.” He looked around him. No one was there. On the other side of the garden shed, Patrick’s still-adolescent friends chatted it up with their parents’ set, as if graduating from high school had suddenly made middle-aged men of them all. Their acne-scarred faces were puffed with self-importance that day. There was no one in the world who cared where Garry and I might be.
“We’re not obvious,” I said.
“I know,” he said. “You’re right. You’re right. I know you’re right. So I asked. I said, Patrick, what do you mean? And he just answered, straight, honest, nothing to hide, just said, She’s great. I just really like her.” Garry was famous for impersonating his children’s speech. “She’s always been around, and I guess I always knew she was great, but it’s like it was just something I knew, like a family thing, like just something I knew was true because I knew you and Mom thought she was great but not because I knew myself that she was great. And then today she gave me the painting, and I just understood, I guess, somehow, that she really is great, and I understood why you and Mom love her so much. And that was that, and then he saw some friend and he skittered off to talk to them, and that was it, and I still don’t know what he knows or if he knows or what he was trying to tell me, but I swear it was like permission. Is that crazy? That’s what it felt like. Is that absolutely crazy?”
“Maybe he was?” I offered.
“Giving permission?” Garry said. “I don’t know. Maybe he was.” And I could tell the tears were welling then. He has cried in my presence enough; it was as if I could see the tears crowding up the back of his throat, thick and salty and all at once, the way tears come. We used to tease Garry; two things move this man to tears: The Wizard of Oz and marathons. I kid you not. The whole There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, and the good-byes to the Tin Man and the Lion and the Scarecrow, who she says she’ll miss most of all—which I always thought was rather horrible, there in front of the rest of them, just to come right out and say that: you were my favorite, Scarecrow, my favorite one of all. But then at some point I suppose I understood that too: of course he was her favorite. And of course she could say so, and it wasn’t callous, not really, it was just true: she loved him most. That scene, it sets Garry sniffling and snorting, the tears rolling down his cheeks—big, fat, wonderful tears. That and a good marathon. Something about the sheer exertion of it. Those guys careening past as we huddle behind the police do-not-cross lines cheering them on, and you can see their limbs working, pumping, more force than you’ve ever seen in the body of a human being. We teased Garry relentlessly, year after year: was it his long lost dream to be a track star? Garry, we’d rib, what is it, a repressed memory coming back? Were you forced to flee some childhood home? Hypnotized and made to run the 10k? Only now do I think I understand that it was the power: the sheer power in those bodies flying past. And I love that about Garry: his unabashed love for things greater than himself. He is moved, deeply, by his own sense of awe, and I find myself thinking that such amazement and wonder are rare things to find in a man, a man his age, in this jaded and cynical world. Witold was a wisecracker, a snubbing and stoic old bear, but I think I know now something that Witold got from Garry: access to a vantage point less considered. I know what Witold loved.
Garry is Witold’s oldest childhood friend, a psychologist. Calista is dying. Alzheimer’s. Early onset, not like Witold’s, which came with the age that expects it: he was ten years my senior, just past his seventy-sixth birthday when we buried him. Calista is fifty-five, looks ninety, and no longer knows what you mean when you sit her down on a toilet and tell her it’s okay to go. We joke, Garry and I, as people in such situations are bound to do, that there must be something in our water, but who knows, maybe there is. I know seven women—seven!—whose husbands have prostate cancer. Seven! Numbers like that you send to the EPA, the FDA, the FBI. The wives—send them to AA, since that’s just about all that’s getting anyone through this. Me, I don’t drink much, never have. I am a doctor; I support my own small pediatric practice. Witold’s paintings: brilliant. Some sold, more didn’t. That’s the way it goes.
“You should tell him,” I told Garry. “You could tell him. If you wanted.”
“Maybe he already knows?”
“Maybe it’d be nice to hear it from you anyhow?”
“Maybe …” he conceded. He walked away then, down to the water first, and then back up around the other side of the garden shed to the party, because we are not obvious. It doesn’t matter so much if people know—would they blame us, really?—still, discretion seems in better taste, considering. I watched him, hidden where I was, as he returned to the party, to his guests and his wife, not yet in a wheelchair then, but nearing it. I am often, it seems, watching Garry walk away, back to Calista, back to their children, to his outer life, to that preposterous iron foot on his lawn, and I cannot say I mind it so much. I am grateful for him. And I also don’t mind being left again, to a spanakopita, say, or just to the view.
Garry called me at home later that night. He’d cornered Patrick in the kitchen, when the last of the late talkers had finally sobered enough for the drive and they’d gotten Calista to bed, laid her out, pillows propped under her legs, pillows wedged under her back. I’ve put her to bed myself on occasion, set her rear on the edge of the mattress and hoisted her legs up, swiveled her body into position. The stiffness is remarkable, as if the rigor mortis is already setting in. This disease is the slowest death, everything stiffening, slowing, lurching, dribbling, until it all finally stops for good, and I, of course, can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to do this with Witold, what Garry does for Calista. So they’d put her to bed, and Garry’d had enough gin to give him the gumption, and he cornered Patrick and said, “What did you mean before, what you said about Lindy, Pat?” And Patrick seemed befuddled for a moment, then asked, “Wait, Dad, why?” and Garry realized he didn’t know anything, and then he told him it all.
When Witold died, it made sense that Garry was the one who was there, on hand, taking care of me. He was Witold’s closest friend, of course, but we had ties beyond that already, both of us spouses of this disease. Calista was bad then, but every stage seems bad until the next creeps in and is inevitably and terribly worse and you wonder how you ever could have complained before. When Witold died, Calista understood what had happened, certainly, came to the funeral with Garry, dressed in black, was quiet and hunched but said appropriate things when asked, and no one minded the mumbling, as it was somber, for a somber occasion. It’ll be three years in August, and her decline in that time has been swift. She is a gouged-out version of the woman she was, and it’s clear that pretty soon there will be absolutely nothing left but a body pumped and coaxed into sustaining existence, for what purpose it’s unclear. When Witold died, Garry kept saying to me the thing that everyone will one day say to him, which is what people said to his mother when his father passed away twenty years ago: It’s those who’ve had good marriages who are able to go on and love again. Garry said it to me when it was too soon to say anything like that, and it made me angry, and I told him so. And as the months after Witold, without Witold, passed, he said it again and again. He said he had friends, colleagues, widowers and divorced men who’d very much like to meet me, when I was ready, whenever I was ready. I’m not ready, I told him. I have someone, he’d say. I’m still not ready, I’d tell him. You just let me know, he’d say. Okay, Garry, enough already. He’d say: Lindy, you just let me know when.
Which is where my preface, or my disclaimer, my plea for leniency comes in. I don’t know why that matters so much to me, but for some reason it does: the forgiveness of strangers. Please try to understand the circumstances of the situation: my husband of thirty-eight years was dead, gone, not coming back. Witold was the one. There’s no question anywhere, in anyone, about that. He was the man I was supposed to spend my life with. And I did. We did. Like his paintings, there was something about Witold that will seem forever unknowable, that made him fascinating to me, every day, always one step out of reach. And then he died, and I was supposed to go on, somehow, and I did. And with Garry it was the same: I wasn’t the one he was supposed to be with; that was Calista, absolutely. And though Calista was not—is not—dead, his Calista was, shriveled away inside a wizened shell that bears her likeness. Somewhat. So when Garry asked, needled one more time about getting me back out and into the world again, which meant getting me out and attached to a man, I told him the thing that was really on my mind, and I said it without apology and without—I hope you will believe me—without expectations. I said: “Garry, I think the only person I could ever imagine getting involved with is you.” I don’t think I even realized before I said it the way it might come out sounding. All I think I meant to say was what I knew to be true: he really was the only person I could imagine being with. We were together so much already, and he knew Witold so well, knew that no one will ever replace him. And then there was Calista and the whole sick irony of our circumstance. This was true: I couldn’t imagine another man, but I could imagine Garry. It was something he hadn’t let himself imagine at all, but once it was said, once it was out there, we knew, of course, it was the thing we would do.
So he told Patrick everything that night after the graduation party. Or everything that Patrick would need or want to hear. He asked some questions—not prying into his dad’s business, which is clearly what Pat saw this as, his dad’s business—just trying to get some things straight, and then he left it, gave his blessing, as it were, mazel tov to you both. He said, and I am relaying here only what Garry told me, he said, I’m glad you have each other. It seems like that would make things a little easier.
A year after the graduation party, Patrick was home from his first year at school, the term just let out. Garry called me from his office downtown, as he often does in the afternoon. “It’s me,” he said.
“Hi, Me,” I said.
“What’re you doing?”
“Not much, puttering. You?”
“Getting ready to go,” he said. It was nearing six o’clock. I leave my office most days by five. I am not a doctor the way other people are doctors. I do sore throats, chicken pox, tetanus shots, referrals to specialists. I have time for other things. “Mrs. Velasquez is with Calista until eight,” he told me. “Want to have a drink or something?” He gets shy when he asks me to do something, as though we were dating, as though we were lovestruck.
“Come over,” I told him.
“I’m coming,” he said.
I fluffed the throw pillows on the couch and put a CD of Witold’s in the stereo. I had gin and some tonic, slightly flat, and a not thoroughly desiccated lemon in the vegetable bin, which I sliced, thinly, so the browning rind wouldn’t show. I thought to make dip: a can of chick peas in the cabinet, some cilantro from the farmers’ market. I threw things into the food processor. Too late I realized I had nothing to dip, then found tortillas in the freezer, cut them in fourths, and stuck them on cookie sheets in the oven to crisp. I was setting the basket of warmed chips on the coffee table when I heard Garry’s feet on the stairs and the ring of the doorbell.
Our hug was long, then he turned, an arm around my waist, and guided me to the couch. “How was your day?” he asked, his hand kneading my knee. I cannot help but wonder how it feels for him to touch me. Is it the way he used to touch her? Is the touching an action that comes from him, or a reaction to me?
“How was yours?” I asked.
Neither of us answered.
“Would you like a drink?”
He shook his head, looked at his watch, imagined, I assume, the traffic he’d hit on his way home. He shook his head again.
“There’s a conference in Sacramento next week,” he told me. “They asked me to go, as an envoy for the practice. I think they think I need a vacation.”
“In Sacramento!” We laughed.
“And with Patrick home …” he said.
“He feels okay, staying alone with her?”
“He thinks so,” Garry said. At that point, for the most part, it was like taking care of a child.
“That’s good, for you to get away,” I told him. Good for Garry to have a few days filled with something other than decay, which is worse than death, if you ask me.
“It makes me nervous,” he said.
“It’ll be good for you,” I said again.
We kissed on my living room sofa the way teenagers do, his hand still on my knee, both of us sitting upright as though we expect to hear the turn of our parents’ key in the door. He kissed the crown of my head, my eyelids, my mouth. I curled my legs underneath me and leaned into him. He stroked my hair. Every few minutes he checked his watch. At seven he got up to go, and I got up and wrapped the untouched dip and put it away in the refrigerator, feeling a little looser, twilit, as though I’d had a gin and tonic after all. I called my favorite Chinese place and ordered mu shu, for delivery.
Garry flew to Sacramento on a Tuesday. Thursday 4:30 a.m., my phone rang.
“Lindy, this is Patrick.”
“Patrick,” I gasped. “What’s wrong?” It is my great failing as a medical practitioner, this inability not to leap, immediately and with great alarm, to the worst-case scenario.
“I’m so sorry to call so early,” he said. “I’m really sorry. You’re the person I thought of. I just woke up to pee and found Mom in the hall. She was kind of sleeping in the hall, on the floor, you know?” The poor kid sounded blurred in sleep himself, ripped out of it, some tenacious neurons still clinging to unconsciousness. “She woke right up, and she seems okay, really, but it’s hard to tell, I mean you know how she is normally, and it’s hard to tell what’s okay. But she’s got a cut on her head. It looked really scary at first; there was dried blood all clotted in her hair, but I got a washcloth and cleaned it off, and it doesn’t look so bad, not deep or anything, but there was a good amount of blood. I brought her back into the bedroom and everything, and I saw where she’d fallen, just gotten out of bed and tried to walk, which she really can’t do anymore, and fell against the bookshelf. So there’s blood on the edge of the bookcase and drops on the floor, and …”
“Okay, couple things,” I said. “Can you go check her eyes? Check to see that the pupils are the same size.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’m on the cordless. I’m going in there.” A pause. “Mom?” he said. “Hey, Mama, hey, let me get a look at your eyes, okay? I’ve got Lindy on the phone, and we just want to make sure you’re okay, so let me have a look at your eyes, okay?” There was a moment of scuffle, of Calista’s garbled murmurs, Pat’s voice soft and cooing, and then he was back with me: “They look okay, her eyes. I don’t see any difference. She really does seem totally okay; I just wanted to make sure, you know?”
“It was right to call me.”
“Okay,” he said.
I pressed my fingers to my eyes, thinking. “We just want to make sure she doesn’t have a concussion, is the thing. She’s not nauseated, is she? She’s not throwing up or dizzy or anything?”
“No, I don’t think so. It’s hard to tell about dizzy, but she’s sitting up okay. No, I don’t think she’s dizzy.” He paused. “It looks like what’s bothering her most is her finger.”
“I think she fell on it or something. It looks pretty swollen. It’s her ring finger. I tried to get the ring off, but it’s too swelled up already. Do you think that’s bad? Should I be worried about that? Is it going to cut off her circulation or something? It’s really swelled up pretty big …”
“You can’t get it off at all?”
“No,” he said, “I can’t budge it. It’s really tight. It’s a little purplish.”
“Shit,” I said.
“That’s bad, isn’t it? Shit.” He was scared.
“Well,” I said, “it’s not good. But let’s see …”
“Shit—Dad said something about this, I think. I think her fingers were getting really swollen already, from the medication, I think, or something, and they couldn’t get the ring off her finger, and Dad was nervous about it. He wanted to go get it cut off, and I think Mom got totally upset, like she really didn’t want to have it cut off …”
“It’s okay, we’re not getting it cut off yet. Let’s see if we can get the swelling down on its own, get the ring off intact. Do you think you can get her to ice it, make up a bowl of ice cubes with just a little bit of water and get her to keep her hand in it, really ice it down?”
“I can try …”
“Keep her awake, if you can, okay? Keep looking for signs that she’s feeling ill or acting strange, or different from usual. And ice her finger down like that awhile, and then maybe try some grease—some butter, or some cooking oil, maybe Windex, something like that—see if you can’t get the ring off on your own?”
“Okay,” he told me.
“I’ll call you in an hour to check. But if you need anything before then, you call me, okay? I’m awake. You call, okay?”
And we hung up, Garry’s son and I, and I lay back in my bed, the bed I shared with Witold, our wedding band still round my own ring finger. My husband and I were married thirty-eight years, from a wet spring in ‘59, when my heels sank into the country club turf on my way down that lily-lined aisle, until a rainy afternoon three summers ago when he gave up for good. Not on me. He didn’t give up on me. And not on himself. You could say he gave up on life, though that wouldn’t be quite accurate either. Really he gave up on a fight he knew he was going to lose, and though it hasn’t been easy without him, it wouldn’t have been any easier if he’d stuck around, and I will respect his decision until the day I die myself, and probably beyond. He did it when he felt it in the painting—when he felt it in his hands—and he did it as smoothly as he could: every pill in the medicine cabinet one afternoon I’d gone to the movies with Lorraine Fuchs, looking for a little respite from the rain. The note he left me I can recite by heart, not because I’m morose, but because I loved him and couldn’t help it, and I’ll say this: anyone in my position would do the same. Not intentionally, but I memorized it the way I know every line, back and forth, of the telegram that arrived for me at a Miami hotel in 1956, three days after the man who sent it was supposed to have arrived. Dear Lindy, it said. STOP. Stuck in Toledo. STOP. Can’t get away. STOP. Sorry. STOP. Please don’t call. STOP. Bob. And what could I do then with the rest of my romantic week in Miami but walk the beach and feel those few abbreviated lines scroll through my head like stock tickers? Please don’t call. It was clear right there—was it not?—that he was married. Bob. No love, no nothing. Bob. No promises, no futures. Just Bob, come clean, down to the barest bones of himself: Bob. And he’s no one to me, Bob. He’s a memory of disappointment, a path I thought my life might take forty-odd years ago but didn’t. Still, his words are stored in the same part of my brain that takes care of the Valentine I received from Freddy Arthur, school champion, track and field, in the seventh grade: I’d trade my shot-put for you … The part that will forever remember what Jake Abernathy penned in my high school annual: Lovely Lindy—why weren’t you ever mine? Why indeed? I asked. Why indeed? Peter Barkley’s final scrawled good-bye, not the sweetest, but not by far the sorriest farewell bid me in my time. He fancied himself a poet. L—Misconnections abound. Shouldn’t we let what falls apart must? We DO have this … don’t ask for any more. I’m not. P. Witold’s last note to me rests there among them, not the company I’d choose for it to take, but there it lies despite me. Dearest Lin, Please do not hate me for doing this. I think you’d never have let me if I’d asked, so I am not asking, just doing, and hoping you will understand. I want to erode in the ground, where folks were meant to erode, not up here, before your eyes, before my own. I feel more sadness in leaving you than I ever knew a person could feel, but I also feel relief, and I hope you will allow yourself to feel it too. Go on, my love, and live. There is more, and I could tell it line for line, but this, I think, is enough.
At eleven, I dressed, got the car, and drove out to Marin. Pat was in the kitchen making lunch, and he greeted me with a handless hug, his fingers wet with tomato and mayonnaise. I hugged him back awkwardly, wondering how strange it must have been for him—was it strange?—to welcome the woman who is not his mother who sleeps with his father. He was gracious and friendly and nice as he always has been, and I wondered if I could muster that, in his place, my mother dying slowly on the other side of the wall. He waved me toward Calista’s bedroom. “She’s belligerent today,” he warned, and I thought how much he is like Garry, acknowledging and sad but ever tolerant of their situation with Calista, talking matter-of-factly about the state of her degeneration, whatever it may be. Perhaps this is just what it’s like: like watching children grow and monitoring their progress. Today she made a fist. Today she said Mama. Today she forgot my name. Today she forgot her own. I remember Calista when Patrick was just born, dress styles so short then that the ends of her long, long hair met the hem of her skirt, as she stood and swayed on the porch, the baby in her arms, and I watched her long, thin legs, the muscles over her knees bunching up and releasing as she rocked, and I envied her those legs; nothing detracted from them through the ordeal of childbirth. She was a dancer in her youth. I am not an ungraceful human being, but Calista was something quite more than graceful.
That day she lay in bed, her yellow-gray hair matted in choppy chunks around her face, sheared off last winter when she got it caught in a door and they finally said to hell with vanity, against protestations from Calista so vehement they sent Garry crying to the phone to call me. When I came into the bedroom Calista was involved in something that looked like exercises, and she seemed angry, muttering to herself as she moved her arms up and down from her sides to her head like a child making snow angels, trying to imprint some evidence of herself on the face of a world she’d already left behind. She showed me no recognition at all as I checked her eyes, found them clear, checked the finger that was worrying Pat. As near as I could figure, she seemed to be making something of a plea, an angry, adamant, I’ve-had-enough-of-this-crap sort of a plea. She seemed to be mad about the exercises: why was she being forced to perform them? Whose life was this anyway, goddammit? Did we just expect she’d keep up this bullshit rote repetition forever? I asked Pat later in the kitchen: “Are the exercises part of some doctor’s regime?”
“Exercises?” he asked. “What exercises?”
I called Garry from their house. Pat and I decided that to hear it from me would panic him less. I was worried about the ring; her finger was purple, and I thought something needed to be done. Patrick sat in a chair opposite the living room couch and watched me anxiously as I dialed, waiting to see the change in my face when Garry answered the phone.
“Garry, it’s me.”
“Lindy!” And I realized he thought this was a love call, a quick buzz in his absence to say, I miss you, Darling, which I would never do.
“I’m calling …” I said. “Everything’s okay, basically, but I wanted to call and let you …”
“What? What happened? Lindy. What’s wrong? What?” I cursed myself for his anxiety.
“Everything’s fine. Garry, shhh. We’re all fine. But Calista took a fall last night, in the middle of the night. I’m at the house now, and she’s fine: a bump on the head …”
“No, really she’s fine.” Such an absurd thing to say. Fine? She’s fine? Could she have been any further from fine?
I told Garry about the ring, and he swore at himself, loudly, with such violence, alone in his hotel room. “Dammit! God dammit!” he cried. “I knew it! I knew we should’ve … She got so angry. I couldn’t fight her again … God dammit to hell!”
“It’s okay,” I told him.
“It’s not okay!” He sounded like me.
He was silent a moment. “I’m coming home,” he said. “I’ll catch a flight tonight.” His voice was at once imperative and resigned, as though he had done this sort of thing a thousand times before. I thought of him suddenly as a parent whose child has run away for the umpteenth time: does the panic feel any less acute the twenty-second go-round?
“There’s no reason for you to come home,” I told him. “No reason. Stay. We’re under control. Don’t cut the trip short.”
I could feel him slipping off an edge. “Well, what am I supposed to do?” he wailed.
I started to say, I don’t know, but that wasn’t true; I knew exactly what I thought he should do. “I think we need to …” I stopped. I started again. “I have less right than none to order this …” And I had to stop again: this wasn’t about right; it was my medical opinion, and that ought to prevail. “The ring should come off, Garry. It’s her finger I’m worried about. I think the ring needs to come off.”
I waited, afraid of what he might say, realizing that I had never been afraid of Garry before. Across the room, Patrick waited, frozen. His face is Calista’s face, and it was set as Calista’s might be if she were overhearing this conversation.
Suddenly Garry choked on the other end of the line—”No!”—as though someone had burst into his room, grabbed him in a headlock from behind, and pulled. “I’ll come home, I’ll be there tonight, I can’t …” and I could see then why this was so much more than irony, so much more than medicine and sense and logical decision-making. I asked myself: Could I have mashed up the pills in vanilla ice cream and fed them to Witold on a spoon I’d fetched myself from the kitchen drawer? Could I have done that? And the answer was no. It didn’t take much hesitation for me to know that. No, I could not have done it. I was searching inside myself for the right thing to tell to Garry, a compassionate way to say, This is a decision that a person should not have to make, but I couldn’t find the words. All I could find was the stark and irrelevant idea that this was Calista’s decision—not Garry’s—to make, and I was suddenly and preposterously angry at this woman, this woman who should have been insisting, goddammit, on her own, finding the language for it somewhere in the twisted circuits of her mind to tell me herself: Saw off the ring, Lindy. What use do I have for it now? She was cognizant enough at the time of Witold’s death. Witold said good-bye, and it was hard to say, and hard to hear, and always will be, but it was right, and inevitable, and he is gone and we are left, and that is sad, but it is true, and that is that. Calista couldn’t have wanted her life anymore, and I realized I was angry for every day that had already passed. Every day she had been left alone for an hour by herself and not attempted to swallow the arsenal of pills stocked in the kitchen cabinet like vitamins, to amass the Cognex, Exelon, Reminyl, Aricept, and wash it all down with the Drano they keep under the bathroom sink, so old it doesn’t have a safety cap. Even if it wouldn’t have killed her, she hadn’t tried. And I resented her for that, for not even trying.
“You shouldn’t have to make this decision,” I told Garry. Patrick’s face had fallen in resignation. I could not help but imagine Garry’s doing the same all those miles away.
There was only silence from Garry, and I was afraid again. When he spoke again, his voice was hard and uncompromising. “Well, who the hell’s supposed to make it then?” he demanded.
There was nothing to say to that, so I didn’t.
“Do you think,” Garry spat, “Do you think that Witold was more valiant? That he loved you more? That not putting you through this meant he was a better person than she is? Is that really what you think, Lindy?” And he waited. He wanted a response.
“That’s not what I mean …” I started, suddenly certain that Patrick could hear everything Garry was saying, everything I was thinking too. I hated that I might become something new in Patrick’s eyes, not awesome, not the person helping his father through that time, but something horrible, someone horrible: someone who wanted to see his mother dead.
By the time Garry said, “Don’t pull that, Lindy,” I was already in tears. Patrick stood and left the room, in deference to my privacy. Garry thought I should cry more, for god’s sake. Because there’s a part of Garry that hates Witold for leaving. Part of him that thinks I should hate him too, for taking it all into his own hands, for leaving the rest of us with nothing to do. “Witold was the selfish one,” Garry said. “He never let us—goddammit!—He didn’t even let us mourn! Go on,” Garry mimicked, “go on and live your lives!”
“Don’t,” I shrilled. “You have no right to …”
“I have no right?” he yelled. “Who has a right then? Who has a right then, Lindy, tell me that, okay?” And he was crying then too, and I didn’t know anymore what we were yelling about, and there was nothing more to say; I just kept holding the phone to my ear as if I could will him through it, will him close to me, so we could hold on. That is what we have done best for each other, what we have been: someone to hold on to.
When we hung up, all I wanted to do was compose myself, blow my nose, splash some water on my face. The guest bathroom is past the kitchen, and I didn’t want to see Patrick yet, not like that. I walked down the hall to Garry and Calista’s room, heading for their bathroom, hoping Calista would not be awake, knowing it wouldn’t matter if she was. I could not stop my crying, but what state was Calista in to even notice? I pushed open the door, and there she was, on the bed, her arms still working, up and down, up and down, and I was too far gone for patience. “Calista,” I scolded her, my voice condescending and mean. “What are you doing?”
Her arms stopped abruptly and dropped to her sides, and she looked down at them for a moment, bewildered, then turned her face back up to me. The look in her eyes was no longer blank. Her forehead furrowed in intelligent consternation, and she spoke, her voice lucid and clear as it used to be. She said: “I have absolutely no idea.”
For a moment I stood there, just staring at Calista, Calista staring at me like she was back, snapped out of it, returned from her delirium, sobered and steeled and ready to get on with her life. For a moment she was Calista again, and I was me, and we were friends. And then the next moment she was gone, the light of recognition passed again from her face, the way the soul may seem to pass from the eyes of the dying, and I thought: this is what she does—day after day she practices dying. Her eyes went blank, and with great effort she lifted her arms from the bed again, above her head and then back down, up and down, up and down. I don’t even think she saw me when I turned away, into her bathroom, where I tried to put my face back on.