84

by Melanie in IA

He reaches for me, his hand thin and spotted. The skin is smooth but cool. I’ll need to trim his nails tomorrow. I pull the faded quilt up to his shoulders but he shrugs it back. Blue eyes, wet with age and grief, he cries for losing me.

The machines maintain their low hum. Pushed back against the wall, they are unobtrusive. Still I know they’re there, monitoring his heart, feeding him.

We did not want this, but we cannot seem to make it stop.

I stand and turn so he won’t see my own tears. Catching a glance at the mirror, I wonder who that is with white hair. Where did the girl go, with her long brown hair? The girl who fell in love so long ago … is she here, too?

What about the young man, dark beard and lean body? I miss him, though he lies quietly near me.

***

The day we met I was all of nineteen, captivated by those blue eyes, the straight white smile. Jim and I got acquainted quickly, falling in love faster than good sense dictated. We ate pizza and drank beer and necked in the garden next to the biology building, floral scents mingling with our own.

Swift summer days filled with each other, against each other. The heat was intense, recorded temperatures matching our desires. We watched the Perseids meteor shower and walked around the pond, camped in the state park, rolled hedge apples. We listened to Bob Seger and James Taylor and dreamed of being together every day, not just five days a week for another five weeks.

We married more than a year after meeting, in the small chapel of a large Protestant church. The ceremony and reception were small, planned and paid for by us, only family in attendance. The reception featured cake and punch and bored guests, eager to retreat. I’d hoped the two families would interact but they did not. The wedding photos, taken by Jim’s brother, each reliably cut off the top inch of the tallest person’s head. It was not the wedding of anyone’s dreams, but it served the purpose.

Still, things happen in a marriage that can change its course, for better or for worse. Things happen that a young woman can’t anticipate on her wedding day. Deaths and births, job changes, other people, all have an impact.

***

A small moan draws my attention back to him, where he dozes restlessly. I sit again, holding his hand, assuring him I will not leave. He quiets.

***

We’re unusually compatible, I tell people. Despite our age difference, despite the fact we weren’t an obvious couple, we have the important things in common. Our values are similar, our sense of humor is similar, we appreciate the same activities, the same aesthetics. He could always make me laugh. Together 64 years, almost all of it happy.

The hardest year was the year I made the quilt covering him now. “Quilt therapy,” I called it, a way to focus on something besides my own stew of emotion. I made it without a plan, not knowing what it would be. Like a marriage, perhaps, each layer built on the one before. I cut and stitched, trying to fit the pieces together.

The quilt is faded and worn now, like him, like my memories. I do remember how distant I felt that year, on a journey alone through dark and uncomfortable places. With an anxiety disorder that came from nowhere, it took over every part of my life. I was overwhelmed with questions I couldn’t answer, pieces I couldn’t fit together. The questions spun through my mind, like the chorus of a bad song played endlessly for months. What happened? Why did it happen? How could I fix it?

Self-doubt replaced self-confidence, as I questioned my judgment and behavior. Panic attacks left me doubled over, gasping and helpless. Obsessed with my own concerns, I withdrew from people who cared about me.

We’d always felt like one body, not two, as if an organ transplant between us would be perfectly accepted, no risk of rejection. That year was different. I could not mold myself to him, relax into the oneness we’d always enjoyed. Our pieces did not fit. Yet he had to hold me; I clung to him, begging him not to leave me. Though all of my focus was away from him, that was the year I needed him most.

He did not waver. Enfolding me day after day as I muffled my sobs against his chest, he reassured me, though I could not be reassured.

***

Again I want to beg him, don’t leave me. Again I cannot be reassured. Surely he will leave me, and soon.

Our son will arrive tomorrow, joining the rest of us. He looks so much like Jim, but with green eyes, not blue. And the beard. He never could talk Jim into shaving it, and Jim never could talk him into growing one.

The beard. I turn back to him, to this old man, and touch his beard. Petting the side of his face, I’m rewarded with a slight smile.

The machines continue to hum. We did not want this. Our son will arrive tomorrow. Maybe, just maybe, then it will stop.

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