Copyright © 2014 William J. Cronin
The sun breached the horizon and bled out on the still water of the lake. Wisps of fog formed by frozen air and warm lake water drifted across the path of the sun and diffused its brilliance into opaque yellows and oranges. Through the misty vapor, the Lakeside Inn across the water appeared to be on fire as the sun rose directly behind it.
I stood on the end of the sixty-foot, T-shaped, frost covered dock, my beloved Lake Dora laid resplendent before me. To my left, the city of Mount Dora was a silhouette on the horizon. To my right the shoreline wended westward in an arc to a point beyond which darkness still lay on the lake in slumber. Immediately in front of me, on the bottom of the lake, with only the windshield breaking the water was our ski boat, neglected and abandoned. Weathered nylon rope still tied off to cleats on the dock led to frayed breaks where the weight of the sinking boat had broken the tethers fore and aft.
The dock on which I stood was once a point of pride. Now, its treated-pine decking, posts and rails were a collection of warped, rotted and nail-exposed hazards slick with frost. I stood in flannel pajamas, a fleece bathrobe and flip-flops, my uniform over the past forty-something days, I hugged myself, shivered, wanted to tip-toe my way back to the safety of shore, but held on to the rickety structure by the importance of the moment and the significance of this particular setting.
Em and I brought a bottle of Chardonnay in a bucket of ice with two glasses to this very site and toasted the completion of the draft of every new novel. In addition, with the toast, my work would end and hers would begin. It was a ceremony during which the bottle was emptied, the baton was passed, and on most occasions lovemaking followed. Em was not only my wife of eight years she was my manager, and my editor. She was still, technically, my wife. This morning there will be no wine, no Em and definitely no lovemaking. Em left me more than a month ago. Out of compassion for my state of mind, she would not file divorce papers until I was in a more stable emotional state. She finally realized that she could no more raise me from the bottom of the pit I was in than I could single-handedly raise the boat whose waterlogged, rotted remains lay on the bottom of Lake Dora. Her efforts were courageous and selfless. Despite her hardened steel will and relentless drive to lift my spirits, she failed, lost hope and finally gave up.
The boat was emblematic of my life over the past three years. While the process of sinking took a while, multiple projectiles to the hull of my life slammed it to the bottom in a matter of hours. Although my life was shredded months earlier, the events of November 14, 1995 tipped it into the emotional abyss.
It has been forty-one days since my publisher threatened to cancel a million dollar contract if I did not complete a draft of a long overdue novel. Forty-one days ago, my publisher Reynolds and Ryan summoned me to New York and threatened me with a breach of contract if I did not deliver a draft of the second of three novels by December 27. On my return from Gotham, Emily had backed a truck up to the door of our home in my absence and emptied it of her belongings after eight years of my mercurial personality. Em told me she was finished watching depression ruin my life and career and wanted out before it ruined hers. It was less than ten minutes following her announced departure that I sat on the side of the road and reached for a Glock 9mm handgun that I kept in the glove box of my car with the intention of ending what little life I had left. Her rejection was the final indignity, the last grain of despair that could be poured into my desperate life. Only a state trooper, curious about a car parked on the side of a major highway in the fog of early morning, intervened and disrupted my hastily conceived exit plan.
At the very moment the trooper rapped his knuckles on the window of my car, as I reached for the gun in my glove box, I felt my life crash to the bottom of the pit I had been freefalling in for the three years. It had been forty-one days since the state trooper told me to “move on.” The weight of that command carried more meaning than I wanted to admit to myself then. Now it seemed so clear. The young kid with the Smokey-the-Bear hat was an angel unaware. From the grimy bottom of the darkest place I had ever been his knock on the window of my car was a good-Samaritan, last second grab at a man who had jumped from a building. It was only a moment but so much happened in that wisp of time.
The weight of my life crushed me; it broke me into nothingness. Never had I ever felt so insignificant, helpless and fearful. Everything that I loved had been taken away from me. I was nothing and had nothing. I cried out to God. “Help me.” I had no solutions for any of my problems. I had no direction. The horror of it, the memory of having nearly lost my mind and the cold, dark loneliness frightened me beyond description. Something in me changed. In the very core of me, my “want-to” was transformed. There were two things I knew in that instant: first, I wanted to live and, second, I wanted out of the darkness and never wanted to return to that miserable God-forsaken place.
There was the faintest of light at the top of the long black tunnel above me; only visible with great effort and concentration – but light none-the-less. As the trooper extinguished his flashing blue lights, pulled around me and accelerated on to highway 441, it marked the point at which I began to make a conscious effort to climb out of the pit I had excavated for myself. Until then, writing was just out of the question. It required energies from sources in me that my problems had long ago extinguished. I looked at my submerged boat in front of me and realized that it was on the bottom because I lost interest in it – I did not care whether it survived or not. Forty-one days ago, I did not give a rip about anything in my life including me. However, in that instant, when I realized how close I had come to the end my life, the wind changed. In the days that followed, with help from my sister Billie and my childhood sweetheart, Jody, I began to write again and with the writing came hope.
I do not know how long I stood on the end of the dock before the numbing cold registered. It was Christmas morning. While I could celebrate the completion of my novel, there was still the collateral damage of the emotional destruction I had caused those around me – Em in particular. Selfishly, I had a book that needed editing. I had no doubt in my mind that as soon as I delivered the draft of this book to my agent, Lisa Catera, Reynolds and Ryan, my publisher, would demand the final installment with the same threats and intimidation of forty-one days ago. Normally it took three to four months to write a novel and that with my full focus. Usually, my publisher was happy to get two completed works a year. This gave me three to four months to rest, fill my creative tanks, research and think through future projects. To get another novel written in forty-five days or less would mean writing ten hours-a-day, seven days-a-week. To finish this novel, I had been chained to a keyboard day and night for the last month. While I had been a slave to my writing, it had done more than any counselor had or therapist could have done to extract me from my funk. Death in the Desert, was more than just another novel in a string of action/adventure tales. It was the gear I needed to break out of my emotional prison. Yes, it was an escape, as my writing had always been — a departure from the realities of life that were often more than I could handle. However, while I was deep in the imaginary Sahara Desert, ready to coax a fifty-year old B-24 Liberator bomber into flight, I worked through all the emotional issues that had sandbagged my life and had brought my writing career to a dead stop. In the long hours hunched over my keyboard, I mourned Em’s irreconcilable departure, wrapped my mind around the reintroduction of my half-sister Billie into my life after nearly a thirty year absence, forgave myself for a long misplaced feud I had had with my long-deceased mother and gave recognition to new wounds I had created with my father. Writing had always been therapy until depression sapped my energy, the words disappeared and then the spiral downward began in earnest. Writing had always been my interface with the world around me. When the words ran out so did my ability to cope. Once I understood that which held me captive emotionally, and I moved past it, only then did the words pour from me as they had for so many years.
The sun stretched out in the sky and drew the yellow and orange mist hovering on Lake Dora away like one would pull a curtain from a window to let light fill a darkened room. Bass cleared the surface of the water nearby with a slosh. A gaggle of black and white headed Canadian geese splash landed on the glassy water, formed a line near the dock and headed off into what was left of the fog. Even in the depths of my depression, early mornings on this most hallowed dock kept me from falling off the edge of sanity. From this very spot when there was not an emotional drop of water left in my life, I found a canteen here even among the ruins of my boat and this beloved structure.
I wanted to call Em. It was not because I needed her professionally, every bone in my body ached for her. I wanted to tell her that my life was on the mend and ask her for another chance. I had done that and she rejected that option out of hand just over a month ago and I had not called her since. I wanted to tell her that, despite my loneliness, I felt better than I had felt for a long time. I wanted to share with her the good news that I had completed my story in record time and strategize my next novel as we had done on my previous sixteen books. Em told me when I talked to her last, that despite the fact she could not live with me anymore, she would continue to work for me if I felt like I could handle it. That was the rub; could I handle it? Probably not. Aside from her professional competence, she was one of the most desirable women I had ever been around. She was, until I destroyed it, one of the best friends I had ever known. I do not think I could be with her without the total oneness we had enjoyed together.
I needed to call Lisa Catera. Lisa was more than an agent. For the past twenty years, she had been a friend, confidant and champion of my career. Em and Lisa had been closer than sisters. Lisa, however, was also a pile driver of a boss. As soon as I called her to let her know that Death in the Desert was finished, she would begin to pressure me to complete the next one.
The cold finally penetrated. I knew I wanted Em back in my life. I knew the odds were long, but I had to try. I needed to find an editor. I did not want to ask Em to do it unless I could have all of her back and I knew that would take time, perhaps a lot of time and I needed an editor now. Before I turned to go to the warmth of my home and studio, I looked at the dock and pledged to myself that I would have my boat raised, replace it and my dock rebuilt as soon as businesses reopened after the holidays.
Lakeshore Drive separated many of the homes along Lake Dora from the water. Owners took advantage of Riparian Rights that gave them deeded access to the lake. They constructed docks or boathouses on the water directly across the street from their homes. While some felt it an odd arrangement, I valued the southern exposure and views of the lake from my studio.
I walked across the street to the redbrick structure I called home. The house was the shape of a square C with the open end tilted slightly toward the lake. The main house was located in the lower leg of the C and my studio in the upper where a plate glass window gave me an unobstructed view of the lake. By day, the many angles of the sun gave life to the water, and by night, the lights from Mount Dora brought atmosphere to my secluded workspace. During the worst of my depression, I had never left my studio. I would sleep in it for days on end, doors locked, and cellphone off. When I first bought the place, cellphones still looked like bricks with an antenna and wired phones were still a necessity. I did not want a phone in my studio, so I installed an intercom system between the house and the studio. When I was writing, Em would save me from the phone and only signal me if a call was crucial. When I could not write, she would plead with me over the intercom to come into the house and eat, or to get out of the “hole” for a while, her name for the studio.
One afternoon she had an accident in her car and could not get through to me. She demanded that we install a second line that had an extension in my office. There was no bell to ring, only a red light would flash then stay red if a call had come through. Since Em was the only one with the number, it was always her and she would only call with something important. Then cellphones came into vogue, became irreplaceable and she made sure I had it at all times
When I approached the door to the studio, through the reflection of Lake Dora on the plate glass window, the red light blazed on the old telephone set that sat on my desk.
“Em, is everything okay?”
“Merry Christmas to you too, Scrooge.”
“Merry Christmas, it has been so long since you used this line. I just thought there was a problem.”
She said, “I tried your cell but it went straight to voice mail. You must have it turned off. I decided to try the old landline. Guess it still works.”
I pulled the cellphone from the pocket of my robe, checked it and the phone was dead. I tried to turn it on without success. “The battery must have died.”
“When did you use it last?”
“I can’t remember. I’ve been too busy. Maybe a week ago, I really don’t know.”
“Your aunt has been trying to reach you. How she got my number I’ve no idea, but she has been trying to call you for several days.”
“Em, I haven’t been in the main house to check messages for days. Anything serious?” Ruby never called me. Never. I tried to call her at least once a month and Em and I tried to see her two to three times a year. Ruby and Glory Jean were my mother’s sisters and on opposite ends of the personality spectrum. Glory Jean was an irreverent, non-conformed, wild woman. Ruby was deeply religious, serious and gracious down to every fiber of her southern roots.
“Actually, it was St. Vincent’s Hospital in Jacksonville. Someone in administration called for her. Apparently, she’s there and is asking for you. They wouldn’t tell me anything other than that. I hope it isn’t serious.” Em’s concern was genuine. She had grown close to Aunt Ruby over the past eight years and they connected at a level that I did not comprehend.
My Tabby, polydactyl cat, Hemingway, jumped up on the desk and surveyed his vast domain then inched his way across the desk and nudged my hand for attention.
“I hope nothing is wrong as well. As soon as we get off, I’ll call the hospital.” I had resisted calling Em as I neared the end of my story. Part of it was stubborn anger that she had left me, rejected me even. The other part; I found it difficult to juggle all the emotions regarding the enormous role she had played in my work and life. Even though Em had told me that she was finished with me, I had held out a sliver of hope that I could still piece together my relationship with her. I was afraid that if my conversation with her drifted much past hello that I would learn that my hope was displaced. No sooner had the words, “I finished the bomber story” left my lips, I regretted it.
“That’s marvelous,” she cooed. “When did you finish it?”
“This morning, actually an hour ago. I wanted to call you and share the good news.” There was awkward dead air.
“My offer to continue to edit for you still stands . . . that’s if you still need me . . . if you still want me to.”
We came instantly to the place that I did not want to go.
“Em, I need to ask you something.” My stomach felt like a caldron into which someone had just poured a pot full of hot pasta. I wanted Em around me very much, I wanted to see her, smell her and be absorbed into the warmth of her being. However, I knew that if I were around her or had constant interaction with her, it would irritate the open wound she created when she left me. I barely hung on emotionally as it was. I needed to protect the fresh coat of paint I had applied to my life.
“Shoot,” she said. I could picture her perfectly made up mouth as she said the words.
“I’m much better. I’m writing and enjoy it. I feel good. I know you had to leave to get away from me. I needed to get away from me. If I continue to progress as I have for the past month or so, I’ll be back to my old self . . .”
“Jack, I know where this is headed and I don’t want to go there. In fact, I had planned to wait until after the first of the year to send the divorce papers to you. I promised I would give you some time. You’re writing, doing better and I’m proud of you. And I’m willing to help as long as you need me.”
“But getting back together?” I hung the question in the air like the blade of a guillotine.
“No, Jack. That won’t happen. I’m sorry.”
“Em, I don’t think I could handle working with you right now. It would be too hard. I’m still in love with you.”
I could hear her breathe into her cellphone. “I understand, Jack. We all have to do what we need to do. Let me know what’s going on with Ruby. I want to call her or send her flowers. I’ll let you go now.”
“Bye, Em.” I laid the antique phone onto the receiver base, scratched Hemingway behind his ears and considered whether this was the final nail in the coffin of our marriage.
I looked around my studio. The sleeper-sofa against the wall that I used as a bed stood disheveled. I had not changed the linens in two weeks. Books, magazines and printed-paper from the Internet and remnants of fast-food meals warred with each other for control of top of the desk in front of me. I had piled dirty clothes on the guest chairs in front of the desk. The single counter kitchenette was overrun with dirty dishes. Burned coffee covered the bottom of an overworked and under-cleaned coffee pot; the smell contaminating the air. Dust covered everything else. Dust motes swirled in the air as the sun fought its way into my corner of the world.
I could feel myself backslide into darkness and my resolve not to call Lisa dissolved. I thought about calling her on the old landline, but I knew she would not recognize the number on caller I.D. and there was no chance she would take the call at home. I pulled my cellphone from my pocket, reached for the charging cord that had fallen on the floor, plugged in the phone and called her New York number. I did not want to call her, but I needed to talk with someone.
“Lisa! Merry Christmas!” I thought I sounded desperate, lonely.
“Jack, do you realize what time it is?” Her voice was filled with sleep, and her groans equal to the effort the sun made as it struggled to rise above the fog on the lake.
“I just wanted to share the good news. I finished the book this morning.”
“That’s wonderful,” she said and yawned. “I talked to Em the other day and she’s ready to edit as soon as you’re finished.”
Lisa Catera was my friend. When nothing else had gone right in my life, she had been there for me. She also worked for me and made a handsome living as my agent. There was no question in my mind that she was my agent first and my friend second. I had always wondered how long our relationship would last if our business dealings ended. I did not have that many friends that I could be meticulous. It was comments like these that reminded me of her place in my life. Despite the glamour that goes along with the profession of a novelist, it was very solitary work. I spent hours huddled over a keyboard. You have to be somewhat introverted to endure the seclusion. I have relationships with other writers, but I have not reached out to them in a while. Depression had so isolated me I had cut myself off from just about everyone. Lisa was one of the few people I let in.
“That’s why I called, Lisa. Em and I just got off the phone. I don’t want to use her. In fact, I can’t. It would be too hard.”
“Jack, we’re up against it. I get daily threatening calls from Reynolds on your progress. You know they’re going to tap dance on my head for the next novel as soon as we meet their deadline. They want a draft of the third and final novel by February fifteenth. We just don’t have time to look for someone else.”
I considered the dilemma. “If I start right now and do all-nighters for the next month and a half, I might, just might, meet their deadline. I don’t have time to find another editor and I’m not going to use Emily.” I stopped short of saying something like, ‘earn a little of the ten percent you get and find one for me,’ but I held my tongue.
Lisa breathed heavily into the phone. “Jack, these are the holidays. How can I find someone now?”
“Lisa . . .”
“Alright. Alright! I’ll take care of it.” More breathing, less labored. “How are you and Em?”
“That’s the point, Lisa. We aren’t. Em has no interest in reconciliation. None. She’ll serve me papers any day now. She would’ve done it six weeks ago if I hadn’t asked her for a little time. She told me then that there was no chance. I wasn’t ready to hear it. It’s done.” The finality of the words hit me hard, unexpectedly hard.
“I was afraid of that. I feel bad, Jack, for both of you.”
We finished our conversation. She wished me a Merry Christmas and said that she would get to work on an editor. Those would be big shoes to fill. I could not worry about it. It was in Lisa’s hands.
I turned my attention to the scribbled telephone number of the hospital in Jacksonville. I called and talked to a social worker assigned to my aunt’s case. She relayed the same message she had given Em; that Ruby was asking for me. She said she wanted to meet with me when I came but was evasive about the nature of the discussion. I had to write another novel by the middle of February. As much as I loved Ruby, I just did not have time for this.
Late in the morning of Christmas day, the lobby of St. Vincent’s was sparsely populated and heavily decorated for Christmas. Tinsel hung and Christmas music played softly in the elevator and the nurse’s station on the third floor had a North Pole appearance. The door to room 301 was ajar. I poked my head in. A curtain had been pulled around the far bed in the semi-private room.
“Oh, honey, I’m so grateful for this. A woman has to smell pretty to feel pretty.”
A nurse’s aide looked out from behind the curtain. “I’m sorry sir, but you’ll have to wait in the hall until I’m finished with Mrs. Johnson’s bath.”
From behind the curtain, “Is that you, Jackie?”
I answered, “Yes, ma’am.”
“The nurse won’t be long. Besides, you don’t want to see an old woman in her all-together.”
“I’ll just be out in the hall.” To the aide I said, “Take your time. I’m in no hurry.” On the outside, I may have given the appearance of calm. On the inside, my stomach roiled and all I could think about was the plot to the next novel and all I had was the kernel of an idea.
Ruby’s hospitalization was an untimely and unfair intrusion into the madness of my life. She was eighty-five.
Ruby’s voice echoed off tiled walls and found its way into the hall. The banter between Ruby and the nurse’s aide was comfortable and casual, as if they were sipping iced mint-tea together on an open porch. That was the place all of Ruby’s conversations ended, a waltz of words where she made her guests feel uniquely special. As the aide bathed her, the aide had become a guest in Ruby’s room.
Light footsteps from behind approached. I turned and caught the doctor before she entered Ruby’s room.
“Excuse me. Are you Mrs. Johnson’s doctor?”
The small elderly woman in the white smock and the name badge that read, “Alicia Sommers, MD,” stopped. She asked, “Are you a relative of Mrs. Johnson’s?”
“Nephew. But we’re very close.”
“Well, she’s been through a lot. Doing quite well, though.”
“What’s the prognosis?”
“You mean from the surgery?”
“I just wondered if you were able to get all of the cancer.”
“And your name is?”
“I’m sorry. Excuse my manners. Jack McNamara.” I extended my hand and enfolded her small delicate hand. “I’m her health surrogate.”
“Ah, you must be the author she talks about all the time. She’s quite a fan of yours I’d say.”
“Ruby’s a character.”
“That she is.” She paused, and looked distracted. “I usually get a cup of coffee after rounds. Would you meet me in the cafeteria in about thirty minutes? I’d like to talk to you about Ruby and some options about her care.”
“That would be great.”
She patted me on the arm, gave me a warm look and then disappeared into Ruby’s room.
Ruby lived in Jacksonville, Florida. Ruby and her sister Glory Jean were not terribly close. Had I moved Ruby to Savannah to live near Glory Jean, it would have been more difficult for Em and me to be involved in her care.
Ruby said behind the curtain “Oh, thank you, Juanita. You’re such an angel, the bath was marvelous.”
“The doctor will be finished in just a moment,” the petite Hispanic aide said to me as she came through the door into the hall.
I could hear the muffled tones of the doctor’s conversation with Ruby, but none of the words. Dr. Sommers appeared in the doorway. Her eyes narrowed over granny reading glasses. “It’s good you’re here.” She reached up and squeezed my shoulder with her small hand. “She’ll need your support now more than ever.” She looked down at Ruby’s chart, flipped through some pages, then briefly looked up at me. “We will talk more in the cafeteria.” She let loose of my arm, patted it and then departed down the hall. Her touch of my arm communicated warmth in a way that words could not.
When I walked into the room, the doctor had opened the curtain and furled it against the wall. The room was on fire with orange and red Gladiolas Em had sent her last night. Ruby had her head turned toward the window and was startled by my entrance as though she had forgotten I was there.
Her face brightened. Her tightly curled grey hair surrounded her round fleshy countenance. Reluctantly, her lips formed a crooked smile. “Oh, Jackie, honey. Come give your Aunt Ruby a hug.”
I slipped my hand under her neck and shoulders, bent over and kissed her on the cheek. She trembled at my touch and began to cry, first softly, then with abandon. I held my embrace until she gently pushed me away. “You’re so precious to me. The last thing you need is an old woman blubbering all over you.” She patted her hair down, wiped her wet cheeks, and tried to sit up in bed, but the pain from her surgery blocked her. “Jackie, honey, find the switch on this contraption that raises my head, will you?” she said through clenched teeth. “I’ve got enough stitches in my stomach to open a quilting store.” She made a significant effort to smile at her own joke.
I found the bed control just out of her reach and raised the top half of the bed to a half-sitting position. “You O.K.?” I took her hand and put it between mine. Rheumatoid arthritis had gnarled her fingers.
“It’ll take more than a little surgery to get this old gal down. Remember, you’re talking to the Bionic Woman.”
Doctors had replaced both of her hips and knees to counter the ravaging effects of her crippling disease. Bionic Woman is a title no doubt given to many patients who have undergone joint replacement. The honorary title stuck with Ruby, who wore the moniker with pride.
“What did the doctor say? You seemed pretty upset when I came in?”
“Isn’t Doctor Sommers a jewel? I don’t think I’ve ever met a doctor with the sensitivity she has. She cares so much about her patients. Always takes the time to explain things so that even I can understand. I just love her.” With difficulty, she pulled tissue from a box on the rollaway table next to her bed and mopped up her eyes. “I want to talk to you about our story.”
I had no idea what ‘our story’ was — there were so many of them. “O.K., let’s talk about it.”
I always found it of interest the vein of artistry that had woven its way through my mother’s family. Ruby was an accomplished artist. Her oil painting skills blossomed late in life, oddly enough after arthritis had rendered her hands and fingers useless for anything more than the most rudimentary endeavors, one of which was to sketch and paint. Her favorite subjects were floral scenes painted to perfection with her unusual sense of color, eye for composition, exacting detail and subtle emotion.
Whenever I visited her, she had a slew of ideas for stories. She stubbornly refused to let me leave her company until I promised to use one of her ideas in a short story or novel. She would have written them herself, she told me many times, but found it difficult to write or type with her hands. Many of her ideas were good. Unfortunately, none of them lined up with material publishers felt had any commercial value. I did not have the heart to tell her that I could not or would not use them. Therefore, I was not surprised when she wanted to talk about ‘our’ story.
For a writer to use the ideas of others is a mortal sin. The last thing a novelist needs is a lawsuit from someone who claims you have used one of their notions and then have to share royalties. In fact, at the end of every one of my books was a statement that, “I don’t want story ideas from anyone and all the material I write is my own.” She leaned forward and whispered to me. “I’ve got an idea for a novel you’ll love. I know every time we get on this subject you think I have diarrhea of the mouth, but this is different. This story has been in me for a long time. I’ve got the whole thing written in my head. I want you to have it. But I want it to be ours.”
“I’m always open to a blockbuster idea,” I lied.
“Jackie, I’m serious about this one. I want this to be a legacy, my swan song. I am asking a lot, I know, but you’re the only one I can turn to. I want you to promise me you’ll write this story.”
“You know I will,” I lied again.
“No, Jackie, I mean for real. I want you to promise me.”
“Publishing a story isn’t always easy. It depends on the topic and whether a publisher will go for it.”
“They’ll go for this. I’ve no doubt. God gave it to me.”
“God gave it to you?” Ruby had told me many times that she and God talked to each other. I understood the prayer part; it was the God-talking-back part that made me wonder about my bible-thumping aunt.
“Every detail. The whole story came to me as a single thought. Sugar, it’s all here. Every line.” She tapped the side of her head with a twisted finger.
“What’s the story about?”
The Hispanic aide who gave Ruby her bath flew through the door. “Well Mrs. Johnson, you ready go? These two good-looking gentlemen will escort you to MRI. Doc wants pictures for your photo album. She says a beauty like you needs be photographed.” The aide and the two attendants rattled around Ruby’s bed and prepared to move her.
“Do we have to do this now? Jackie, my nephew, has come a long way to see me. Juanita, this is my nephew, Jackie, I mean Jack McNamara.”
“It’s nice to meet you.” (You came out “jew.”) She shook my hand. “This machine cost a lotta money and when people no show up, they get crazy. Maybe Jack will wait until you be done. No take long.”
The attendants moved the IV fluids to the pole on her bed, unlocked the wheels and prepared to wheel her out of the room.
“Jack, please wait for me. We’ve so much to talk about.”
“Mr. Jack, we have a waiting room down the hall. You could be there if you want.” The nurse pointed at the wall in the direction of the waiting area.
Juanita smoothed out the sheets that covered Ruby and signaled the attendants and they maneuvered her through the door then down the hallway.
The crowded cafeteria on the first floor bustled with hospital staff and visitors who queued up on two food lines. Patrons talked loudly over the din and I wondered when the doctor came if we would be able to hear one another. It was nearly eleven when I went through the line, and found a quieter table in a distant corner of the room. I loved the smell of fresh coffee. The aroma wafted from the large Styrofoam cup on the table. Ruby’s emotional reaction to her discussion with the doctor did not bode well. While Ruby had always been emotional, she would tear up at the slightest joyful provocation; she seldom wore her troubles on her sleeve. She would cry when she saw you for the first time in a while. She would tear up when someone showed her a kindness, or when something from nature moved her as particularly beautiful. She had always been a fountain of joyfulness and her tears had always been an expression of the overflow. It was rare to see her cry from hurt or sadness.
As a child, my father all but cut us off from my mother’s family. My aunt Glory Jean speculated that my father could not tolerate my mother’s redneck relations, all of whom hailed from Georgia and South Carolina. As I grew older and my mother’s health declined, I came to appreciate my mother’s family.
Since Ruby’s husband died, she had lived alone in a large antique frame home in the center of Jacksonville. Her deceased husband, who sold life and health insurance, had left her without any insurance save a small burial policy. A small, dwindled savings account and social security were not enough to rescue her from her submerged financial situation. Four years ago, I helped her sell her home and possessions and moved her into a small, well-lit apartment so she could paint, see her friends and most importantly to continue to attend her church. Thus began my stewardship of her affairs and my three to four trips a year to see her. Then her stomach pains began.
After several visits to the doctor, tests at the hospital and the loss of a very close friend who cared for her, I convinced her to let me move her to an assisted living facility. She insisted it be in Jacksonville near her church. That was a year ago. Actually, Em handled much of this since my bouts with depression were in full bloom and her miseries, added to my own, made my life a challenge. As I tried to remember the last time I had visited Ruby, I noticed Dr. Sommers as she stood in line and filled her coffee cup. A doctor was not going take this kind of time to discuss a patient’s condition unless it was serious. I knew when she asked to meet me here that the news was not good.