You are looking out your front window at the house across the street.  Lovely job with the Christmas lights this year.  Big frosted bulbs in primary colors trace the house-shape from ground to roof peak.  Each window outlined neatly, electric candles fake-flickering above each sash.  You were going to get on a ladder and do the same thing.  If you were going to live, which you aren’t.

You are lying in the living room because you’re at the public stage now.  Vanity and pretense disassembled themselves when the hospital bed came in.   Big metal frame more solid than bone, a good proxy for your shrinking body.  Besides, people want to say their goodbyes.  And shouldn’t they crack bowls of Christmas walnuts, as they have these thirty years past?   But now they come and leave through the back door, through the kitchen.  You have not asked for the front door to remain closed, but your husband has made some kind of decree.  As if watching friends enter and leave will remind you that you won’t again.  Enter that is.  Leaving, you’ll be leaving.  Just leave that to Grace.

Grace is Hospice, a black woman in pink scrubs.  Grace took your mother’s antique bowl-and-pitcher and filled them with hot water to wash your hair.  Grace says tings for things and hands you fat joints from your prescription bottle.  Grace will be there, when it happens, if your husband cannot.   You have told your husband he doesn’t have to.   You have told him it is up to him.   You have said it’s unlikely you’ll even know he’s there.  

You hope he knows you are being polite.

You should have put a bed in the living room long ago.  Very pleasant here, with the fireplace.  That’s one reason you have visitors at all.   But you aren’t a fool—it’s the prescription too.   You are generous with the fat joints, more generous than last time you played procurer.  When you snuck them from your father’s stash hidden inside his backgammon set.  When you took one to the park at twilight and handed it around.  Scott and Betty, Bob and Deb.   Greg, the first to touch your tits.  All your wet lips around the burnt-smelling end.  No one thought it was working, but suddenly, everything was funny.   

Your daughter will not partake.  Your daughter is in AA.  Your daughter has things to live for and cannot help telling everyone else they do too.  Even you, who does not.  She would like you to at least respect her recovery.  You would like her to sit on the davenport instead of standing over you, jaw-skin sagging.  She is older now than you were when she was born.  You will not meet her children, should she bear any.  A forbidden thought: you hope she will not.   She has built a fragile and temporary life—part-time jobs, half-sober men, apartments let month-to-month.  Your fault or her nature?  Likely both.  But you would like to go back to the day she was ten and you let her have half your vodka tonic at a wedding.  You would like to live, if you could, if only to give her what she wants.

But dying takes its work too.  On that front, you are doing a pretty good job.  You saved up for it, like a trip to Paris.  The hospital bed, Grace, the fat joints.  And what comes next.  Satin-lined oak with brass trim.  You asked the undertaker if you could take it for a test drive.  He was not shocked.  People ask all the time.  You lay in the floor model, looking up at your husband.  Until then, he’d been laughing, indulging your whim.  Until then, he’d sworn to hold your hand when it happened.  

You hold your hands up before your face.  Blue veins, yellow skin.  Your fingers move easily.  You could play the piano, if one were brought to you.  You tap out the first bars of The Wild Horseman on your thighs.  Amazing how much you can still do, this close.  You last made love three weeks ago.   You will never get arthritis and watch your hands curl.  You will never go blind or bankrupt or be in a plane crash.  You have swum far out.  An ocean of worry is behind you. 

Ocean.  You will not see the ocean again.  Not until the ice caps melt, at least.  Your husband is putting you in the ground so he can plant flowers on your forehead every May.  How deep can a marigold root reach?  You would have liked cremation, pulverization. Render your fat like whale oil, then scatter a bit of you here and there.  But you are the deserter, so he gets to choose.

The red embers glow beneath a coat of ash.  Grace puts the fire to bed each night, piling ash over heat for rekindling come morning.  She dozes on the davenport in her stocking feet, nurse clogs abandoned under the coffee table.  Grace snores and you cannot roll her on her side. 

Across the street, the Christmas lights go out.  They are on a timer.  They go on and off whether the family is home or not.   A year ago, you found this sad.  The warm lights and the empty house.   The state of modern family life.  Who wants to go to the Dominican Republic for Christmas when you can sit in front of your own warm fire?   Your husband asked if you wanted a tree this year.  You said yes, at first.  Then no, when you remembered you’d be mulch before it was.   And say you did make it to Christmas?  What would anyone dare give you?  A book is a risk and with all the fat joints, you can’t concentrate anyway.  Movies then.  It may very well happen while you are watching something stupid, since you like to watch stupid things now.    If you were close, would Grace be sure to turn off Happy Gilmore?   You will have to ask her in the morning.

All the clocks chime twelve.   Your husband still winds them, turns the brass keys on Sundays.  They will keep good time forever, if you wind them.  You have picked a few things to think about when it happens.  If you are lucid, if you are conscious.  Science is not as clear on the bright line as you imagined. Nothing temporal or sentimental, your therapist advised when you told him of your plan.  Wedding day, vacations, birth of daughter, all out.   But this is one: your husband turning the clock keys.  He has done it since you were married; you can picture him at any age.   He will do it when you are gone.  He will do it until he goes.  Even if he doesn’t, you will picture it that way.

 When you were young, you lay your head on his heart, sad at the likelihood it would stop before yours.  Man versus woman, natural fact.  Then you got up and went for Italian food.  Then you got up and made coffee. You asked him, when it was certain, if he would trade places with you.  He should have said yes.  Because that was impossible and it would have been kind.  When he said nothing, it was like a knife.   But now, you think of him winding the clocks.  He will go on doing it when you have slipped every yoke.  Body, mind, pain, time.  Love, too, most likely.     

Breathe. A pain swells under your shoulder blade.  The room goes white around your body.  Pain so sharp you make your own daylight.  Grace has left a fat joint on the bedside table.  You snake your arm through the guardrail slowly.    If she catch on fire, I’ll put her out, Grace says when your husband objects to night smoking.   Grace pried the safeties off a pack of Bics.  The flame shoots easily under your thumb.  For a moment, you consider lighting the blanket that swaddles you.  But Grace doesn’t need testing. 

You breathe the smoke into your gut.  Do you feel it?  Is it happening?  Drizzling outside now, street of wet asphalt, might as well be a river.  Pink is a pretty color on Grace.  Your daughter is coming again tomorrow.  She plans to bring mangosteen and an energy healer.  It worked for Shauna-from-Tuesday-group’s mother.  You laugh so hard the pain jolts in your shoulder.   You laugh so hard Grace stirs and stops snoring.  You struggle to breathe, to lay back and stop.  You put out the fat joint and let the buzz wash you.  The house across the street seems closer now, as if the drug has sharpened your sight.  The people that live there are drinking beer near an ocean.  They are dancing to music with a fast drumbeat.     


Kate Lister Campbell lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY.  Originally from Kansas City, MO, she holds a degree in history from the University of Chicago and a Masters of Public Administration from NYU.  When not writing, she works to design job training programs for people with barriers to employment.

When I was a child, I watched my grandfather dying of cancer in his living room, much like the woman in the story, surrounded by family and friends.  When I wrote this, I was thinking of him, but also of Carol Shields’ novel The Stone Diaries, in which Daisy Flett is conscious right up to the moment of her death.   I have been married five years and I think I had a drive to explore my own fear of what it would/will feel like to lose my spouse, or for him to lose me.   I wanted to create a woman with a lively, funny mind who can look at her life objectively and without self-pity, but can also feel deeply what she and her family are losing.




Copyright 2009