He closed the curtains, went back to his desk, and sat down, stacking the last of the charts in a neat pile. He knew that in a matter of minutes, his nurse, Carol Audleman, would come to tell him what time it was. As if he didn’t know, as if he hadn’t been waiting for and dreading this exact minute all day.
A knock at the door. “Doctor?” Carol pushed the partially open door and stepped into the small, darkened room. “It’s one o’clock. Marian was your last patient for the day. We scheduled a short day today, because …” She glanced away. “Well, you know why.”
He smiled tiredly, knowing she would see the weariness in his face, wishing he could change it.
“Midge called around noon. She left a lasagna and salad on your kitchen table.”
That was something else Liam had learned. People didn’t know how else to help—so they cooked. This town had banded together to help the Campbells through this terrible time, and they would remain at the ready for a long time. Liam was grateful for their help, but sometimes at night, as he wrote out thank-you notes, the pain was so flashing and deep that he had to put down his pen. Every baking dish and salad bowl reminded them all that Mikaela wasn’t home … that she couldn’t do the things she’d once done.
“Thanks, Carol.” He pushed back in his chair, got up, and reached for his down parka, grabbing it off the hook on the wall. Shrugging out of his white coat, he carefully laid it over the chair-back and followed Carol out of the office, past the empty waiting room. At the door, he patted her shoulder, then went out into the cold.
As he drove toward the hospital, he passed the hand-painted, hand-carved wooden sign that read: GOOD-BYE FROM LAST BEND. HOME OF THE GRIZZLIES, 1982 STATE B-8 FOOTBALL CHAMPS. A banner hung suspended across the road, advertising Glacier Days, the annual winter festival.
Coming soon … don’t forget …
He pulled into the hospital parking lot. The medical center was unusually quiet today. Snow covered everything now, turning the cars into white humps. He parked in his spot and reached under the seat for the two things he’d brought, a photo album and a small wrapped box. Without reaching for his coat, he flipped up the flannel collar of his shirt and headed for the hospital.
The center’s electronically monitored glass doors whooshed open. Inside, a few candy stripers were putting up the first Christmas decorations.
He paused at the threshold, then forced himself to plunge into the antiseptic environment that used to be as welcoming to him as his own living room, but now brought him instantly to despair.
He nodded hellos to the familiar faces but never stopped, never slowed. Too many of the doctors and nurses wouldn’t meet Liam’s eyes.
They no longer believed that Mikaela would wake up … or if she did, they thought, whispering among themselves late at night in the midst of a surprisingly quiet shift, she wouldn’t be Mikaela anymore. At best, they imagined a diminished imitation of what she had been, at worst … well, no one wanted to think about the worst possibilities.
He passed the nurses’ station and waved briefly at Sarah, the head nurse. She smiled back, and in her eyes he saw a hope that mirrored his own. Ragged, a little worn at the edges, but there all the same.
He paused at the closed door to Mikaela’s room, gathering his strength, then he turned the knob and went inside. The curtains were closed—no matter how often he opened them on his visits, he always found them closed when he returned. He walked past her bed and pulled back the blue fabric.
At last he turned to his wife. As always the first sight of her was difficult; it simultaneously made him breathe too hard and not at all. She lay as still as death on the metal-railed bed. A single strand of hair fell across one eye and stuck to her lip. Her chest rose and fell with deceptive regularity; she breathed. The only sign of life. He could see that her hair had been recently washed—it was still a little damp. The nurses took extra care of Mikaela; she’d been one of them. They’d even exchanged the utilitarian, hospital-issue gown for a soft, delicate, hand-sewn version.
He settled into the chair beside her bed. The hard, vomit-colored plastic had molded to his shape in the past weeks and was now almost comfortable.
“Heya, Mike,” he said, putting new potpourri in the dish beside her bed. Bayberry this week, to remind her of the passing of time. To let her know that Christmas was on its way.
Bit by bit, he carried out his daily ritual—the potpourri, the careful placement of one of the kids’ shirts on Mikaela’s chest, the music that seeped softly from the tape player in the corner. The Eagles’ Greatest Hits to remind her of high school. The Phantom of the Opera to remind her of the time they’d gone to Vancouver to see the show. Even the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack … just to make her smile. He did anything and everything he could think of to engage her senses and remind her that life was still here, that they were still here, her loving family, waiting for her to open her eyes and join them once again.
In the corner, the small electric pond he’d placed on a wooden box pumped the music of falling water into the room.
“Hey, Mike …” He took hold of her foot and began gently manipulating it the way the physical therapists had taught him. When he’d run through all the exercises on both legs, her ankles, and all ten toes, he reached for a bottle of expensive, perfumed body lotion and began smoothing it on her calves.
Then he set to work on her left hand, starting with the thumb. A careful, precise movement, bend … extend … bend … extend.
He set his actions to the music of his voice. “It was a quiet day at the office,” he said in a throaty voice, the only kind he seemed able to manage when he was beside her. “Jimmy McCracken came in again, this time with a marble stuck up his nose, and old Mrs. Jacobsen had another migraine. Of course, she really just wanted to talk. Since Robbie and Janine moved to Chelan, she’s lonely. But she brought me some of her excellent cranberry rum cake. Remember how fast you used to sell out of that at the school bake sales?”
Across the room, the tape player clicked and changed. It was Barbra Streisand now, singing about people who needed people.
He squeezed Mike’s hand. “Remember when we danced to this song, Mike? It was in the Center Hall at the Minors’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, with that local band playing? Remember how the lead singer mangled the words and sang about peepers needing other peepers? We were laughing so hard we were crying—and you said if he said that word again, you were going to peeper in your pants?
“You were so beautiful that night, in your jeans skirt and Western blouse. I think every man in the place wished you were his. At the end of the song, I kissed you and it went on so long, you smacked me on the back and said, ‘Jesus, Lee, we’re not teenagers,’ but I felt you shiver … and for a split second, we were kids again …”
This was how his evenings were spent now. In a gentle stream of words, he poured himself into her, his heart and soul. As if she were a dying flower that needed only a tiny taste of water to lend it the strength to reach again for the sun. He talked and talked and talked, all the while searching desperately for some movement, some blink of the eye or flutter in her hand that would tell him that the heat of his voice reached the cold darkness of her world.
“Heya, Mike, I’ll bet you thought I forgot our anniversary.” He started to reach for the photo album on the bedside table, but at the last second, he drew his hand back.
It was a collection of pictures from last year’s Christmas in Schweitzer. Mike had chosen each photograph carefully to represent their vacation.
He’d been a fool to think that he could open it and look through the picture trail. Now he saw the album for what it was, a wound that, once torn open, would only seep infection and cause more pain. Instead, he glanced down at the thin, flat box beside the album.
It had been wrapped for almost two months and hidden deep in the sample drawer in his office. He’d been so damned excited on the day he’d decided what to give her for their tenth anniversary. He and Carol had scheduled a half day at the office, so Liam could spend this special day alone with his wife.
“I got us tickets on the Concorde, Mike. Paris …” For New Year’s. His voice cracked. For years they’d talked about Paris, dreamed together about New Year’s at the Ritz. Why had he taken so long to get tickets? It wasn’t money, it wasn’t even time. Plenty of friends had offered to watch the kids for two weeks at winter break. It was … life. Mike’s saddle club activities and her horse training; Jacey’s volleyball, skiing, and violin recitals; Bret’s Little League and hockey practice; Liam’s patients.
Just life. They’d blithely thrown their line of dreams out again and again, reeling in nothing but lost chances and missed opportunities. Why hadn’t they realized how precious every moment was? Why hadn’t they seen that one fall from an ordinarily gentle horse could take their future away?
He stood and grabbed the bed rail, lowering it. The railing fell with a clattering whine and clunked into the bottom position. Slowly he climbed into bed with her. Tucking one arm behind her head, he drew her close, being careful not to pull out her IVs. Her body was limp and seemed frail, though she’d lost only a pound or two.
He held on to her lifeless hand, squeezing gently so that she would know he was here. “Help me, Mike. Squeeze my hand, blink your eyes. Do something. Show me how to reach you …”
He lay there for almost an hour. When he next tried to speak, nothing came out except the broken, rusty moan that held her name.
For a second, Liam thought his wife had spoken, but her hand was limp as death and her eyes were sealed. Slowly he turned to see Jacey standing in the open doorway. She was holding a cake.
“Hi, honey.” He climbed awkwardly out of the bed and slumped into his chair.
She moved toward him, her long black hair swinging gently against the oversized flannel work shirt that swallowed her lithe, sixteen-year-old body. Her face was winter pale, and what little color her cheeks might have produced was sucked clean away by the sight of her mother. “It’s your tenth anniversary. You and Mom always made such a big deal out of it …” Her words fell away, and he knew she was looking to him for reinforcement.
It was difficult, but he nodded and smiled. “You’re right. She would have wanted us to celebrate.”
Jacey set the cake on the table by the bed. It was a round, two-layered affair with pink butter-cream frosting, the same cake that Suzie Sanman at the Lazy Susan Bake Shop had concocted for them every year. Only this year, instead of the normal Happy Anniversary Mike and Liam, it was blank on top. Liam wondered how long Suzie had spent trying to think of something festive and hopeful to write before she gave up.
Jacey moved closer to the bed and leaned over her mother. “Happy anniversary, Mom.” She reached out a shaking hand and brushed a lock of hair from Mikaela’s face. “Can you believe it has been ten years since we married Liam?”
She turned and smiled at him, and in that instant, she was six years old again, a gap-toothed first grader who’d fallen off the jungle gym and sprained her finger. He ached to make everything better for her, but no amount of colored Band-Aids or knock-knock jokes would make her smile now.