The Last Spring
This is the account of a young inventor overtaken in his thirtieth year, on the verge of his first success, by a rare and disfiguring disease. MARGARET RICHARDSON, his wife, tells the story of the vigil she kept, and of the reverence and love that overwhelmed her as she watched the accepted armor of living disintegrate and the reality of a spirit emerge, to grow and to live beyond its ruined flesh.
by MARGARET RICHARDSON
I WAS disheartened the day I went to Sharon. It was nearly a month since I had begun househunting and what I had seen had given me little hope of finding the kind of house I wanted. The countryside, in spite of the lightly falling rain, was pleasant to drive through, and in a small town twenty miles outside of Boston, I stopped and asked for the real-estate office.
The man who paused briefly on the sidewalk to think gave me a woman’s name and directed me to her house. Sitting watching small streams run off my raincoat onto her dark oiled floor, I told her my errand. She was sympathetic but not encouraging. I explained the necessity for privacy. “Of course,”I admitted, “the house I am thinking of is impossible. But an approximation would do. An old house, with lots of trees. In the country, but not too remote. And — this is very important — costing practically nothing.”
“I know the house that you want.” She stopped and thought. “I love it myself, but the owner — well, he’s difficult. It’s a good house but in bad shape, and there is nothing he will do about it.”As we drove out of town and onto a winding country road, the woman beside me went on talking. It had once been a firehouse, she said; it had been moved to its present location years before. Momentarily my hopes dimmed; I wanted a real house. But when we turned up the generous loop of a drive, the house was solid and reassuring. It sat on a slight rise of ground, penned close to the earth by trees and shrubs just turning green.
There was never any doubt about the house; the rent was unbelievably small. We arranged to move in as quickly as possible; and although an appeal to the landlord, chiefly for a stove, brought no concessions, we went on packing.
We moved to Sharon in April when the house was knee-deep in spring. The warm grass was still damp and I could smell it as I walked through it the first day. The lawn was already high, a soft meadow that stretched down to the road and was halted by a weathered stone wall. In a corner of the wall, under last year’s leaves, slim spears of lilies of the valley were pushing up. The sun overhung and in its rays drew from the season it informed all lovely sights and smells. It was a benediction in whose warmth we were wordless and calmed.
We accepted the run-down condition of the house; it explained our luck in having it. Confronted by the ancient stove in the kitchen, the rotting linoleum, the sink not much bigger than a basin, I sometimes questioned the luck but was reassured by a glance out of doors. Through the window above the sink, I could see a small English hawthorn that flushed a delicate pink halfway down a slope. Below it was a brook that after a rainstorm swelled to a brief importance. A narrowbelt of a bridge confined its slimness and caricatured its pretensions.
Once we were settled we missed the coming and going of people, the irrelevant interruptions we knew in the city. One day, hearing a trace of homesickness in Jay’s voice, I asked, “Are you sorry we came here?” Some anxiety in my voice warned him, and after a vigorous denial he began to make plans for the workshop.
Of all the problems the house presented; of all the things that were too big, too intricate; of all the things whose opposition made me homesick for the dependability of the apartment, the refrigerator offered the most solid, the blandest face. It jutted out into the back hall. One day I would enlist some visitor’s help in pushing it back. As time went on, I began to hate the swerve I made each time in passing it. Occasionally, I tried to push it back myself. The last time I tried I lost my temper and, standing back, kicked it very hard, and in a whisper told off the stupid, white-faced thing.
I felt Jay’s hand on my shoulders before I knew he was in the room. Suddenly conscious of the absurdity, I turned to him prepared to concede that absurdity.
But there was no laughter in his face and after a moment I dropped my head against his shoulder. “I hate the silly thing,” I said. And his voice, for the most part sad, told me after a minute’s silence, “You’re indomitable.” I think I sighed, there were so many sweeter things I had been, and I felt his arms tighten around me.
IT WAS hard at times to evade him, to get some of the difficult things done in the house without making them a wounding affirmation of his helplessness. Sometimes he insisted on doing some heavy chore and I watched, measuring the effort it cost him.
When the spring rains came, and the wind slanted its course carrying tree and shrub before it, we found a kind of exultation in the storm, found in it an excitement our lives excluded. It was then that we loved the old house best and, in the absence of the sun, around the hearth we found another kind of tranquillity.
We assured each other that, captious in matters of plumbing and heating, our house was adequate to any gale. Returning to it after a long drive through a storm that stripped the young and the dead branches and tossed them in the way of the car, that bent every upright thing before it, I had the feeling that the house was built to endure forever. And Jay, standing before the fire, braced by his cane, eager for my small stories, seemed scarcely less immortal.
There in the bend of an S, on the crest of a rise of ground, protected from invasion yet a part of the elements, Jay lived out the spring of his thirtieth year; and, respecting him deeply and loving him dearly, I watched. We bivouacked in a nature that was all charm in her young season. We settled back in her hospitality, but failed to close our eyes to her distortions. Feeling ourselves cloistered, happy in hope, we turned to each other to insist, “It isn’t true,” and to something else to ask, “Is it true?”
Sadness came rarely. Like some mist that settles where it finds a hollow, it caught us in empty moments. Sometimes it was dispelled by a leaky roof, sometimes by an invasion of ants.
“They’ve breached another wall,” I reported to Jay, dropping down beside the couch and giving him the container of insect poisoning.
“Redouble the guard.” He made it crisp.
“Could be Danny is eating it.” I restrained the dog’s black muzzle that investigated the can.
Inside the house I tackled one job after another. I won only a compromise victory over the stove and, one day, kicked that too. Jay, knowing the lack of respect the car had for me, and my tendency to tell it, “Well, do it your way,” urged me to take a motor corps course.
“If the car stops, you can’t kick it home.” Concurring, I made arrangements. I learned how to change tires, to fix spark plugs, to listen to the sound of an engine. I learned how to park, on the diagonal and the parallel. I brought home my newly acquired learning for Jay’s expert opinion.
Afternoons while he slept I climbed into the Ford with the complete understanding that it trusted me as little as I trusted it. One by one, I explored the narrow country roads. In the absence of traffic I forgot my unsure driving and enjoyed the spell of the early summer.
Occasionally at first, and then almost daily, I turned the car toward Stoughton. Our deepest regret in moving was the neighbors we must leave behind. We reckoned it a part of our good fortune that two dear friends, Marion and Newt, went with us. In the course of my own house-hunting I had found a place for them five miles from Sharon.
In Marion’s kitchen, fragrant with the smell of cookies or the evening roast, the fears I held in check unfolded and I let all the wrinkles fall away as from a crumpled garment shaken. For an hour I would sit and talk against time, fighting tears some days, on others riding a high crest of optimism. Sometimes Marion’s hands would pause in the polishing of a saucepan and while I insisted, “There’s got to be hope,” she would slowly nod.
But when the hour was over, as though a clock had struck, I felt the need to go. The visit never exceeded an hour and was seldom less. The hospitable “There’s no hurry” was idle, because on the instant came a great urgency. A few miles away a man roused, shook off sleep, and went to the window. The car when I climbed into it seemed to have lost its reluctance. It was a live thing on those drives homeward; impelled by something other than my timid driving, it moved at a speed that was often frightening.
To outwit sadness, we learned to ignore the present. More and more easily we dropped behind into the past and laughed again in old merriment, were vulnerable again to old tenderness.
Unhampered by any restrictions, we planned the months and years ahead, agreed on the trees we would prune and just where the flowers would go. In long absorbed talk we cleared the bed of the struggling cluttered brook and encouraged the diffident hawthorn. With the broken pieces of an old-fashioned soapstone sink that lay in the cellar we would someday, we decided, terrace the incline that led to the brook.
Rainy Sundays we listened to records and read aloud. In drowsy undertones we dreamed before the fire. Watching the flame build and flare and turn to embers, we saw Jay build and perfect his motor and make millions. We lived the years ahead: we built a laboratory, he bought the books he wanted, the records he loved, and a car that was a new model.
For my part, in that bright future I rescued our little house. I painted it inside and out, had the wiring foolproofed and the plumbing brought up to date. In extravagant joy, a hand on my heart, I contracted to love it forever. Catching my hand, Jay drew me close. “That’s how it will be; that’s how we’ll live together, you and I.”
I loved his voice; I loved the trouble his mind took, his serenity waiting, always open to laughter, optimism. He rarely touched his work, and not knowing what it would involve I never mentioned it. The little vision he had left seemed reason enough.
Moments of fear came and went but were seldom born in the house at the top of the slope. Through the cavelike darkness of the back roads that laced the countryside I drove a friend home one night and listened while he spoke of Jay’s endurance.
He was recalling the figure he had left waving in the lighted doorway, obscured by the disease, bent, and he said, “I would have to take my own way out.”
I heard his words against the steady swish made by the low-hanging trees and bushes that brushed the car. Absorbed in that rhythmic sound and the peace of the night, I did not answer. My mind briefly considered his words, knew there was a warning there, but disregarded it. Jay was too involved with life, loved it, respected it too much.
But out of the darkness, the lostness, of sleep one night I woke to a strange sound and felt that warning. Fumbling with buttons I was on the stairs, terribly afraid, still a part of sleep, running more from than toward fear.
I stood in the door of the living room, blinded for a moment by the light. I watched while Jay went on swabbing his bloody footprints from the floor. Then he looked up and waved his towel. Again we held each other close, half laughing and half crying until, weighed down by peace, we lighted the fire, made tea, and in the strange small hours of the night drank it.
We sat in the firelight, quiet. Jay leaned forward as he always did to ease the strain. His swollen feet rested on the towel. Watching him I wondered, what is left? What is it that I love so much more than I have ever loved anything in my life? And I knew I loved Jay, and that love was none of the things I examined; not any of the things I had dreamed of for him. Once I had loved not just this Jay but all the things he would be, everything he was capable of becoming. I recalled how once I had hated the inroads on his dignity. But the dignity, or whatever it was that warranted a man’s dignity, had increased. I wondered again, what is it that you love?
I looked at Jay in his corner of the fireplace. The kindly firelight did not insist, but I knew the sores, the seeping, the head covered with lumps, the lips that twisted, contorted to shape his words. What is it, I wondered, that I love so terribly, so tenderly, so protectively? And so proudly.
Now, toward the end of our second year of marriage, I felt all life had led to this. The early happiness, content, I had recognized and accepted. In the present I was only sure that what was before me I knew with no trace of uncertainty how to do. I couldn’t make a mistake. When I put it into words it became, I will not let you die. But everything I had ever learned seemed taught to me for now, that I might move surely beside someone who needed exactly what I could give.
There were two men I loved those months— the scarred disfigured one at my side, and the one I had married. Though the two could never merge, he was both. His voice from another room, strong and distinct, would recall the early love. Going to him, I found the strength of the new. At times I hated with fury the malignancy that rent the dignity of one, and there were other times when I loved almost with awe the victim who gave such dignity to his sores.
The helpless ache of his dearness followed me wherever I went. His laughter, the way he held contentment in his two hands, his integrity. Only the small human things were lost, the right eyebrow he always raised in amazement at my temerity, the suggestion of a dimple, the mustache he had chanced. Occasionally I recalled those small things.
In his laughter, deep and sudden, I found an appreciation of a gift that was mine to give. In his sure acknowledgment of a moment’s richness I learned the limits of ambition. In his surprising honesty I found a rock. No sorrow ever swerved his laughter or chipped his integrity. He never lost his contentment, never replaced it with resignation.
We did not talk of God those weeks. I no longer saw Him as a child once had, the great force that, like the wind, was everywhere. That He was there,
I knew. I saw Him as a cold stranger who only watched; who, inscrutable, detached, was unmindful that this thing I loved went down under a horrible destruction.
To this stranger I turned no prayer. My mind tight and set, I leaned above the couch to laugh a little and to shake my head at fear. To hide if I could this love that was mine. Somewhere, I was conscious, there was that presence that waited, aware. Almost, but not quite, I knew the place to look. But, angry, I thought, “I won’t beg. You know and you won’t help.”
Of God and Jay I knew only this. Jay did not fear death, and a never-questioned knowledge gave him a strange consistency. What Jay accepted I never allowed him to commit to words. I covered his mouth with my hand, and laying my head against his, I tried to outstare the stranger who could help but wouldn’t. I refused to think that Jay might die and felt at times he joined that other presence in an understanding I did not share.
His own contentment, a kind of sell-possession he maintained, advanced on what was inevitable and enveloped it. Each moment now was numbered; it must be stopped and prized. What life held but would never give stirred him still, left him interrupted, lonely, but never altered the composure of some realization.
The siege went on, progressed. Weakening, Jay made concession after concession. There were times when he faltered, then, lifting his shoulders, resumed an old, a deeper courage, but resumed it each time with a deeper weariness.
His hands — strong, definite ones — remained unchanged. His voice, always deep, took on added depth, exaggerated his optimism, braced himself and me with his own improvisation of a battle cry. His humor took every revolting betrayal and made it possible to live with, and to look at.
There’s much in nature that’s unlovely, the debris cast up by the clearest of waters. Jay went to the sun and the balm of the open air, when first we lived in Sharon, as to a bath long denied. Stooped, walking slowly, his weight upon a stick, wrapped about in a fresh cotton robe, he seemed like some pilgrim following the way of the cross. I would watch him pause in the midst of his walking, see him bring his head up slowly, carefully sideways, and examine with reverence the height of some old pine. Then, taking a firmer grip upon his stick, he would slowly lower his swollen and heavy head to continue along the path in the spring sunlight.
To know the lovely and to lose it, to be offered the sweetest of gifts and find it bitter. Outside was a world that glistened, called. But outside was a world against which the multiplying sores had no protection. Out of the delight of spring were born a host of insects, enemies that made him a prisoner in a house we carefully guarded. We might with knowledge have avoided one horror. Disquieted, one day, Jay spoke of a strange movement in his head. When his uneasiness did not pass, to soothe him, to slave off his mounting apprehension, I bent and examined the deep sore in his head.
Shocked and sick I stared for a moment at the maggots I found there. For the space of a slight cloud across the sun, life came to a stop. But there was Jay’s voice, asking. Turning back I began the work of cleaning the deep wound. Watching my bloodstained hands work I noted the depth of the sore, wondered with dread where a brain began. Talking to hide my sick despair, I told him, “The work of elm tree beetles.”They seemed so clean.
Nothing in the past had so demoralized him and nothing in the future would. The difficulties of walking, seeing, holding his head erect — these he could master. He contrived new expedients to offset new handicaps. Together we learned to accept and live with them, to find the insurmountable one day an old sorrow the next.
There was a luxuriance in the growth about us brought on by the heavy rains and the warm sun that at times, in spite of its loveliness, I found stifling. Everything grew so fast.
Inexorably, the season matured and became summer. The grass was too heavy for the mower, and in full foliage the trees and plants outside the house seemed a part of an advancing disorder that would not be held back.
Jay walked only short distances now. One leg was badly swollen, and the black hole I tried to clean only bled; knowing I was hurting him to no avail I gave it up. He could no longer lie down and he walked when it became painful to sit.
I HAD not yet put out the light; I was still reading the night Jay painfully mounted the stairs to the second floor. No call announced his intention and, perhaps because of his silence, I lay without moving, hearing the uncertain feet, his stick as it groped, his labored breathing. I did not move to meet him but, puzzled, waited, trying to elicit from the scraping sounds and the long pauses some understanding. When he reached the top of the stairway he halted, and I examined the silence as I had the sounds. Then, still without a word, he came to the doorway and paused at the threshold.
We stared at each other across the room and I said, hello. He did not return or seem to notice my half-smile; he did not comment on the difficult way he had come. His slow glance examined the room, his eyes caught at the white curtains lifting at the window.
“You look very cool,” he said, watching the curtains, their whiteness against the night outside.
His eyes examined the room again. He was not troubled or worried; restless, he seemed to be searching for something. His eyes considered the old-fashioned roses on the wallpaper, remembered the pictures, the dressing table, the low chintz chair. They came to rest on the whiteness, the undulant dimity at the window.
His voice drew my eyes from it. “May I come in?” He sounded formal, stiff.
I really did smile then at the man who stood at my door. Equally formal, I said, “Please come in.”
He walked to the foot of the bed. Because of the heat, only the white sheets covered it. Gripping his stick with one hand, with the other he steadied himself on the bedpost. It was a long time since I had seen him there, and because, at the moment, there was nothing in him to answer, I lay and watched. Perhaps because his mind was elsewhere my own was free to think of him just as I saw him, as he stood at the foot of the bed. Without his voice I saw him as an outline, saw the emaciation that his cotton robe fell back to reveal. Saw it more shocking than the sores.
The book had fallen aside; I pushed my shoulders back against the pillows. With the length of the bed between us, with an infinity between us, we followed our own thoughts. I watched the hand that polished the ball of the bedpost.
“You look very cool. And very clean.” Nodding, I waited. I had followed him easily before, and now I waited. His eyes dropped to the white sheets.
“So very clean and cool,”he murmured and raising his eyes to mine said, “I wish I might lie down here.”
Without thought or inflection, I told him, “You may if you like, you know.”
But his voice was weary and he shook his head. “I’d only soil them.” Then, because there was nothing else, I reminded him, “They can be washed.”
He gave no sign of hearing as he turned to the door. But suddenly, as though conscious that he frowned, he gave me a token smile. Halting just before he left the room and turning about, he tried to say how it was with him.
“Tonight,” his eyes were troubled, “tonight I want to take a bath.”
I said, “ Yes, I know,” and he added, “Very much.”
I nodded again and said, “I know,” and, helpless, saw him leave the doorway.
Lying very still, I listened as he lowered himself down the stairs. I heard him stumble where they curved. I listened until he reached the bottom, my eyes on the white curtains, watching them stir in the night air.
In the morning, in the bright sunlight that poured in through the four windows of the dining room, dressing Jay’s back I noticed again the thinness. One bandage overlapped another now. It was hard to place the adhesive. Before I was finished the first bandage needed replacing. I found it difficult to talk. Leaving him to his breakfast, feeling useless, helpless, I turned to the housework. I found the electricity had gone off. After calling the company, I wandered about the house noting the things that needed to be done, pursued by the doubt that any of them mattered.
Keeping the house free of flies was a haunting necessity. Jay read from the encyclopedia one day the fantastic number of larvae left by one fly. “An enemy to be reckoned with,” he pointed out.
Automatically now, I looked about the kitchen, saw the black wings on the screen and reached for the rolled paper. When the fly settled I would kill it. But while I waited I thought, “How easy not to. How easy to let it live.” It was a bargain I had in mind. I will let this small thing live — I have that power — and somewhere something bigger than I — something that has the power — will let Jay live.
I killed the fly and, turning my back on the cleaning and painting, I went to the door. I called to Jay that I was going for a walk. He was still at breakfast when I closed the door behind me.
Just outside, in a crack on the doorstep, an anthill was building. “If you step on it,” I remembered from childhood, “it will rain.” Very carefully I stepped over it. I found I was crying, and rubbing the tears away, I began to walk. Reaching the stone wall at the foot of the lawn, I stopped, leaned against it, and lighted a cigarette. I looked back over the way I had come. I felt lost and without direction. I examined again the tangle of grass that would soon be a wilderness. I crushed out the cigarette between two stones and started up toward the house, the long grass dragging at my feet. Where the gradual slope steepened I dropped to a hummock and recalled a story read long before of three soldiers hopelessly lost behind enemy lines. They had no course but to keep walking, day after day, without direction. One of them, I remembered, got through.
I went on up the slope, circled the house, and went into the kitchen. I washed my face before I joined Jay in the other room.
“You’re tired,” Jay told me when I sat down beside him.
“I’ve been for a walk,”I explained, taking the hand he held out.
THE doctor who came twice a week gave a routine treatment but he offered no hope. One morning as I poured soap and water for him to wash his hands, I protested, “If so few people have it, how can you be sure that a very strong person won’t outlive it?”
“It’s not a completely hopeless disease,” he said wiping his hands. “And it’s not that rare. There’s a man five miles from here who has it.” He spoke more quickly. “It hasn’t, you must understand, progressed to this extent. And you mustn’t hope that what has helped him can do the same for Jay.”
They had found, he told me, not a cure, but a drug, one that could hold it in check. In spite of his warning I was eager to try it. He said again, “It’s very unlikely it can help now. At best it can only halt the disease for ten years.”
We were standing in the kitchen. Looking out the window I thought of what those ten years might mean. At the moment all I wanted was time. But the doctor at my side, hesitant, glancing toward the next room, pointed out, “It will not cure. It may halt a disease that has not gone too far.”
At my insistence, he came the next day and brought the new drug. The injections, he explained, would be followed by a fever. “And don’t,”he warned me, “expect any immediate results.”
But I was elated and full of a new hope. And Jay was sure once more. We revived all our plans and talked excitedly about the future. Then the fever set in and Jay’s speech began to wander, and though he continued to walk about, it was hard for him to keep his feet. The fever went on for some days, and listening to Jay’s rambling talk I suddenly felt alone in the house.
But looking closely, after a day or two, I was sure I saw an improvement. The lumps about his eyes had grown smaller. In another day, for the first time in many months, he could see. Excited, but knowing it was just what I had been warned against, I called the doctor, urged him to come when he could. When he came, he said there had been a great improvement. He made haste to add that it was hard to say what it meant. I knew, however, that the change impressed him. All that day, hugging the knowledge of a turn for the better, I sat with Jay and wondered with him if we could hold the little victory.
Overriding every dream was the ominous silence of friends, the knowledge of what they thought; the glances that slipped away admitted what we would not. On our second anniversary we sat a long time over dinner, and in haltingly recalled laughter we laughed again.
Abstract, and feeling very still at last, across the table I studied Jay and felt our aloneness. It had been a day all sunshine. It was a day we were suddenly careful, careful not to remember now, to be matter of fact. Not to draw too near the love we celebrated. Memories we liked to finger were merry ones and that day we were many things but we were not merry.
Losing the conversation for a bit, my mind came back to Jay and I saw tears, although, in fact, he was smiling.
In some emptiness I had rested; now it was gone, and, torn by tenderness, helpless in it, I stood beside him and held him close. Smiling down at him through my own tears, I felt a part of every sore. At times I was his legs, his arms, his eyes. But at all times I was his pride in himself, a mirror for his courage. But now in the face I kissed I encountered a loneliness, a sadness I could not assuage, could not quite meet. It lay in the end of a journey I would not share.
It was not a long sadness and the following day the doctor came again, for a second injection. Jay, I knew, had only just thrown off the effects of the fever. In spite of the improvement, he had grown weaker. He had lost something, some grip that he had had before. I watched the doctor prepare the needle and hesitated. I wanted terribly to say “ Wait a little, let him draw himself together before you continue. Let him get back a little strength.”
I put one foot forward. I thought of the time, how short it was. A small advantage had been gained, a small victory that had steadied through the week, one that I knew the doctor respected. If we hesitated now the disease might move in again. Better to push the advantage, I decided, and staying where I was made no protest. The fever came almost at once now, and there was no mistaking the work it did. I watched it destroy the growths this time with no sense of triumph. More surely I saw it drain every bit of strength, erase some definite outline that Jay had always been. He was lightheaded, unable to move; his speech rambled; the strong will that had lifted his head and brought him to his feet each day was gone. Examining the improvement that was more and more pronounced, he checked his own pulse, waved away the aspirin I offered, but then dropped once more into delirium.
I watched the drug do its work, miraculously clean away the marks, but I knew it was too late. “Your voice is tight,”Jay told me while I waited for the doctor’s visit.
“I’m hurrying.” I stopped by the couch. “I needn’t, I’ll stop.”
The visit was brief. He was only just looking in, the doctor said. At the door he said he would like to see Dan retrieve and I followed him out. Dan was off when the stick left my hand.
“There are worse things than dying,”the doctor said. “Let him go now.” He laid his hand on my arm. There was more; he spoke of a kind of pain Jay hid from me.
“Don’t hold on to him any longer.” His words were quiet. He leaned down to pat Dan for a moment and then turned to the car.
I waited while he started the motor, called Dan away from the wheels and waved as he went down the drive. Then I started back toward the house. I sat in the chair directly across from Jay. “ He’s fond of dogs,” I said, to explain my walk outside. We talked in a desultory fashion and while we talked I watched the man on the couch. I thought mostly about the heat. The days were very warm, they would grow warmer. I could never protect Jay from that terrible heat. Suddenly, very tired, I knew that.
THAT night, drowsy and intent on bed, I turned at the foot of the stairway to wave a last good night to the bent figure on the couch.
I think exhaustion held him then, surrendered him to loneliness and deep grief. Lifting himself from the couch and getting to his feet, he cried for me to wait, not to go. I stood very still and saw him tortuously cross the room. Waited while he stumbled into my arms.
And listened while he spoke.
Not fear of death, broken, lonely, his voice told of; not fear of death, but the awful emptiness where once hope was.
Not fear of death, the stricken voice insisted, not fear of death, but a desperate shrinking from separation.
Not fear of death, he told me, but the good-by to a loved companion.
Not fear of death but the hunger he still knew to go on with life.
Not fear of death, the lost voice said, but a great longing to be once more a human among humans.
Holding him close, I comforted him, reassured him as one does a child in the dark. And he in turn, to reassure another frightened child, hid his shuddering distaste, quieted, and accepted my empty promises. Then, like a good child and a very strong man, he went back to bed and pulled the covers up.
And something I had always known was quite clear again. I took the hand of a small girl who had learned too late what death meant. Never to be able to look at a face again or to hear a voice, never to reach again with your own voice ears that were closed. In the room above, I stared through the white curtains at the even blackness of night outside, knew how little time there was left to study that face, to memorize the voice, and to say to those ears a few more things.
So I filled my eyes with Jay, knowing that one day soon he would be gone. I said to myself, see him now and listen to his voice, and when you hold him, hold him very tight. Know that the hand that lies so warmly in yours must let go. But remember the grasp. And while you look into his eyes, and hear his voice, think that in this day is all a lifetime’s love.
I stopped coaxing him to new efforts. I gave up the bursts of temper that once alerted him, and never again threatened to go away. I said, “I love you very much,” held his hand, and watched with him. As the whole world seems to quiet, before a storm our lives settled into a stillness. We waited. As he grew weaker, delirium and frequent sleep cut into the time we shared. He slept sitting upright, since he could no longer lie down, his scarred head bowed under a great weight. And then, at length, even when he roused, vagrant fancies held him.
I missed the old bravado, and deprived of his encouragement and laughter, lost without his rallying from the sidelines, I tasted while I clung to him the loneliness of life without him.
But in the stillness I came to understand, to know the thing I loved, and never wondered again. My love, I knew, is this slight flame, a mind reined by a heart and a soul. No trace of feature, depth of smile, or strength of carriage remained now of the Jay I had learned to love. But I never wondered again about the thing I loved. I knew Jay could only surrender now, or I could relinquish for him, the ruin that lay about what he could never quit, a trinity of mind and heart and soul.
And the God who had moved into the house at Sharon, who was there from beginning to end? Of whom I never begged, only perhaps hoped he would hear me when I whispered, “Let me keep him,” “Don’t hurt him any more,” and “Let him keep his dignity”? The pain which seemed inevitable never came. And the dignity he kept, kept me whole. Please let me keep him, I prayed. But knowing I couldn’t, I knew too I could go on alone. The sorrow then was in the wonder at that lonely darkness to which, turning, I must leave him.
Very sorrowfully at last, knowing it must be done, I uncupped my hands from about the flame and, stepping back, watched while it burned low.
It was June, a soft night in which nothing stirred. Jay, a little delirious, a little petulant, murmured a protest at every attention, fought every enticement to sleep. Like a child parrying the loss of a light, the approach of darkness, he sought in little ways to delay my going.
But very firmly I withdrew the light, smoothed and tucked the covers in; then, closing his eyes for him, I turned up the corners of his mouth to smile. Then I kissed him and told him good night.
When I came down to him in the morning, my friend Jay was dead. Stooping over the bent figure for the last time, I kissed him. Then I left the house that seemed invaded; on one sharply drawn breath I found my way out into the sunlight.
“Jay is dead,”my heart knew, and only that.
And out of the coldness, the sick defeat, I walked into a morning washed clean by a storm. The sun was there and, closing my eyes against its brightness, I paused at the top of the steep stairs that led down to the lawn. In the sunlight gentle as the man just dead, I found the sorrow that I should see him so at last. As every living thing that ever loved has sorrowed, or someday will, I dropped my head and said “No,”and lifted it to plead, “How is it with you, Jay? How is it with you now?” Then, as when someone very close and dear slips his hand into yours, I steadied. Putting my hand on the rail I went down into the garden.
It was hard to walk. To carry that heavy coldness, that leaden knowledge, “Jay is dead.” It was a great effort, the walking, but I seemed to move into some warmth, and I was no longer alone. Warm in a love I thought I had lost, I walked in peace among old friends. With a companion who had never learned to keep a secret, who could never bear to see me cry, I shared the end of a journey, a peace he had only just found.
Then curiously elated, strangely lighthearted, I uncupped my hands and let him go again, a small flame that was now a part of this warm peace.