STANTON TRIED TO AVOID LOOKING LIKE HE WAS JUST LAYING THERE WAITING FOR COMPANY. He knew someone was supposed to be coming soon -- probably the nurse to check on his IV. He had used some of his energy to sit up straighter, and eyed the green, leather-bound book on the stand next to the bed: Bacon’s Essays. His wife Lina had brought it as he’d requested, had not asked what exactly he thought he was going to do with it when he was in the condition he was in, though after thirty-one years of marriage, he heard the question anyway. That third terrible night at the hospital, he had stared at the book’s spine, and only then noticed another volume sitting beneath it: Heraclitus.
He heard a voice in his head that sounded like his own, though much crueler. It kept saying, The sun is new each day. He tried to have a sense of humor about the whole thing – replying, Sure, the sun is new each day to someone with a terrible memory – but it wasn’t very funny. The books were still sitting there, he still too weak to pick the damn things up, his eyes incapable of ciphering even the letters in the exit sign above the door.
______Stanton heard footsteps and saw a figure lingering in the hallway outside of his room, but couldn’t yet tell who it was.
______“To men some things are good and some are bad. But to God, all things are good and beautiful and just,” he said, sending out the quote like sonar to figure out who was there.
______“Heraclitus.” It was Lina’s voice. It was one of Lina’s favorite quotes, and one of his least favorite.
______She stood in the doorway, a thin silhouette in a green coat.
______“There’s a reason the fool was called the weeping philosopher.”
______She sat in the chair next to his bed, and placed her hand on top of his. It was the hand on his bad side and he would have liked to pull it away from her, but couldn’t. That whole side of his body had gone to sleep with the stroke, as though it were injected with lidocaine.
______“Get off my side of beef.” That’s what it felt like. Meat. The sound of his slurred words embarrassed him.
______“I’m just giving it a good rub before I roast it,” she joked, squeezing the hand.
______“Godammit, I can’t feel anything, don’t touch me.”
______She pulled her hand back, and stared at it, a whitish fish, palm-side up in her lap. She had always found a way to wait out the tough times. She remembered once sitting with Stanton at the movies – some terrible horror film that came out when they first met forty odd years ago. He had reached over and squeezed her hand, then slid it under his shirt, and over his belly, pressing her hand against the skin of his chest. It was a kind of tenderness saturated with sexuality, and that memory along with the smell of slightly burnt popcorn or the sound of sneaker soles against floors sticky from soda, used to get her through the rocky times in their marriage. While the memory was still vivid, the people in that memory had become familiar strangers, like children that had moved away from home.
______Lina took off her jacket and Stanton turned his head, watching as she stretched her arms upward, breathing deeply, her head tipping back and the skin of her neck pulling taut. It felt like a lifetime ago that she had started taking yoga at the community center, then teaching it. He envied her body, the way she seemed to look not just younger, leaner, but like a different person entirely, someone who had left grief behind. They were both the same age, both about to turn sixty, but his body no longer made sense with hers.
______When she opened her eyes again, she saw Stanton gazing at her as though it were not familiar. She reminded herself again of the fluidity of reality. Of how things familiar can and must always look different. No woman stands in the same river twice.
______“Would you like to do some breathing exercises with me?” she asked.
______“Nah. I’ve been breathing for fifty-nine years now. Not all it’s cracked up to be.”
______It occurred to him that it was easier for her to love him like this. His inability to move provided a contrast to her self-sufficiency. If he were a different kind of man, he thought, he might even be happy to see his wife – now fluffing the pillow behind his head, straightening the blankets -- find solace in this control.
______“You ought to go soon,” he said. “Dr. Lothgaard is coming in to give me an exam.”
______“That’s not your doctor.”
______“Alright, then, who’s my doctor?”
______She looked down at him and he could see a wetness in her eyes. She blinked rapidly, and heaved a sigh before closing her eyes and breathing deeply again. He could almost hear her counting the inhalations and exhalations and had the desire to reach out with both arms and shake her until she couldn’t breathe. Say, “My god, I’m dying here!” But he understood the cruelty of such a thing. Knew she would never believe him, think it melodramatic. He lifted his good arm, and waved it a bit.
______“Ah, forget it. I’m sorry. I’m just having a sour day is all. Don’t worry about me.”
______There was a long pause while his wife rummaged through her bag for a piece of Big Red gum, his favorite. She offered him one, holding the foiled rectangle towards him like a peace offering, and again he had to stanch a wave of anger. He’d choke on the damn gum. Why didn’t she know that? She was there when the doctor told them about chewing, about food.
______In the right-hand corner of the room were two long, narrow windows that allowed a view of the oak trees and loblolly pines across from the hospital. For a moment, he wondered if this were the same view he’d had when he held Ellie for the first time, cradling her soft pinkish head still slick with the fluids of this woman next to him, his wife.
______In the silence that followed the offer of gum, shame descended into his mind like a heavy liquid drop, and he stared inwardly at the reflection of certain incidents tied to this feeling, all of them made exquisitely sharp by the power of the liquid’s magnification: A letter. A letter from Dr. Lothgaard. He squinted to see it more clearly, an old letter. No, a letter to Dr. Lothgaard. The one who saw Ellie the night she died. That’s right. Dr. Lothgaard, who had sent the letter on from one of Ellie’s friends who wanted to know what Ellie’s last words were, how she died.
______“Dear Mr. Stanton Hausen,” Lothgaard had written, “I recently received the enclosed letter from an Ananda Risval, who claims to have been an acquaintance of your daughter, Ellie Hausen, inquiring about the details of Ms. Hausen’s death. It seems this is a conversation best had between you and her. Best wishes, Dr. Lothgaard.”
______He remembered the call from Lothgaard, how he explained his attempts to resuscitate Ellie, hundreds of miles away. In Iowa, for god’s sake. How Lothgard said, “I’m sorry for your loss.” The casualness, as though it were a tin of fresh-baked muffins that had fallen from the kitchen table and he hadn’t caught them in time. “We did everything we could.” They were like lines from some movie, and he played his part by staying silent on the other end before quietly placing the phone in its cradle with exquisite gentleness and despite this, he was sure the phone would shatter in his fist, collapsing like membranous eggshells.
______Stanton hadn’t asked Lothgaard the kinds of questions Ananda had asked the doctor in her letter – Was she lucid? Do you think she understood that she was dying? – and he remembered now having folded the letter right after he read it, stuffing it, a thing too unreal to exist, back into the envelope, and tucking it under the broken wet/dry vacuum in the garage. Not once in fifteen years had he gone back to look at the letter. Nearly every day, he remembered and worked to forget its presence.
______They went on seeing Ananda, saw her all the time until she moved to Chicago. Then, they would get letters from her – photos of her two young children, memories she had of Ellie from high school, from college, before she died, but those unanswered questions were still under the vacuum.
______“The bastard,” he mumbled.
______“Who?” his Lina asked.
______The night of the stroke, he was playing poker with Jorge and Norman. He had a great hand and was about to push a stack of quarters into the center of the table, when there was a quick tightness in his skull, a hot searing sensation like some boundless force – sure, he’ll say it, it felt like God – sticking a red-hot finger in his ear. It was excruciating, but it also felt inevitable, like he had always agreed to attend this event, and had finally arrived. Stanton fell clumsily from his chair, quarters spilling from his fist to the carpeted floor, and he wanted to laugh but couldn’t. There were no images running through his mind, no summation of his life, though he was certain he was dying. Instead, just one clear thought hummed like a buzzing wire parallel to the pain: It’s about damn time. He had the sensation of being pushed, then pulled in a dimensionless pink. What was at first painful became rhythmic, even soothing and he hoped this was his eventuality. He didn’t believe in heaven, or an afterlife, and this seemed the most he could hope for. Warm oblivion.
______When he came to in the hospital, the doctor (not Dr. Lothgaard, Dr. Mehta, he remembered now) was looking at his chart, and Lina was sitting by his bedside in her green woolen coat, her purse in her lap. She sat up straighter when she saw Stanton’s eyes flicker open.
______Lina leaned over him then, squeezing his bad hand and whispering, her breath sour from coffee, with a kind of enthusiasm he hadn’t remembered she was capable of, “Did you see her? Did you see our girl?” He closed his eyes and pretended to fall back into unconsciousness and after a few minutes he heard the click of her low-heeled boots leaving the room.
______He remembered the sound of her gait, her shoes on the wood floors of the first house they had lived in Carrboro. She had come to visit him from New York, taunted him about his newly Southern twang. But those nights on the porch, they’d drink bourbon until they could barely stand, holding hands instead of slapping away mosquitoes. And when it was time for her to go back to New York, when the cab honked and she kissed his sleeping mouth, he had said, “Stay.” And she had said, “I can’t,” the sound of her footsteps going, going, but then pausing, and coming back.
______There are times that he felt trapped by this new paralysis, but more often now, there is a great sense of relief, as though being incapable of moving his body is a kind of vacation. He hated being helpless, but preferred the uninterrupted insularity of his mind. He was remembering things, things from twenty years ago: not just the letter from Ananda, but Ellie’s journals. There was Lina waking up and showering early, going off to work just a week after Ellie died and Stanton stayed at home, reading through every written word he could find of Ellie’s. High school entries about a boy named Eric she shared music with, how she and Ananda had once kissed, later college entries about a boy she called B. who she slept with, her travels to Mexico and Amsterdam.
______Lina came back from work, went straight to bed and Stanton sat, still unshowered and in his pajamas, teeming with the life and energy of their daughter. When he tried to tell her what he’d read, Lina begged, “Please. I can’t.”
______One afternoon, two or three or twelve weeks after Ellie’s funeral (after he had put her in the ground for goddsake) he found himself rereading the same passage over and over. It was the last entry from Ellie’s journal: “Have to declare my major next week. Sheesh. Who the hell knows who I’ll end up being.” Lina was at work. (Someone had to go to work to sustain the family, she had said.) She had stopped calling to check in on him. (What family? he had said.) It was a hot day, with a light breeze so that when he started up the grill, it was ready in no time at all, though it took longer than he thought to burn all of Ellie’s journals. Stray scraps of writing would fly up off the embers, and he had to keep retrieving them and feeding them back into the flames. Lina never forgave him. He owed her for that but he didn’t know how to make up for it.
______Later, when Lina pointed to the tiger lilies – Ellie’s favorite – that had sprung up in the yard, Look, Stanton, isn’t it remarkable, he resisted the urge to explain the fundamentals of botany, how the neighbor two houses down had planted lilies all over their back yard and this was the inevitable result – a simple migration. Already, she was finding magical what he found only another reminder of how arbitrary meaning was.
______He opened his eyes and saw Lina arranging a bunch of orange ranunculus in a vase,
______“How is everything at the house?” he asked.
______Lina smoothed her hair, more gray than red, with the palms of her hands before pulling a chair closer to her husband’s bedside.
______“It’s fine – though the refrigerator is acting up again. I think the wires are crossed because the bulb turns on when the door closes, and turns off when I open it.
______Stanton laughed gruffly, almost spastically, and spit flew from the left side of his mouth. At that moment, he realized it was the first time he had laughed since the stroke.
______“I’ll just stick the screwdriver in it and fix it up when I’m up and about,” he said, wiping his mouth with his good hand. “Probably just a loose connection.”
______Lina leaned towards him and patted his bad arm. “No need,” she said. “I fixed it this morning. Screwdriver. Just like you said.”
______He raised his eyebrows in a familiar gesture, as if to say, Well, look at you go and Lina laughed. She was wearing a shade of lipstick he didn’t recognize – something tropical. Coral, maybe. He didn’t think it suited her, but it made her look vibrant. “I got rid of the squeak in the bedroom door, too,” she told him, raising her eyebrows. Stanton wanted to keep the mood buoyant, but felt a weight drop in his belly, and turned his head away from his wife.
______“Would you like me to read to you?”
______“Sure. But from the Bacon. Don’t read me that Heraclitus crap you brought.”
______She read to him for two hours, and he closed his eyes after the first so that she would think he had drifted to sleep. He knew many of the essays nearly by heart so that when Lina read the essay about death, he knew that she skipped over a passage that went like this: “Certainly, the contemplation of death, as the wages of sin, and passage to another world, is holy and religious; but fear of it, as a tribute due unto nature, is weak.”
______When the second stroke came, Stanton was ready for it. Dr. Mehta had talked to him about the possibility, and he had told Lina he did not want to be resuscitated. When he had told her about this decision, she responded the way she always seemed to – with cursory acceptance and a deep breath. The will was all pretty straightforward: What was his was Lina’s.
______The sense of aloneness Lina felt the first night after Stanton died was familiar, almost comforting and she said a prayer before reaching for the Heraclitus that used to be at the hospital and was now next to her bed. She opened to a fragment she hadn’t read in some months: “It is not better for human beings to get all they want. It is disease that makes health sweet and good, hunger satiety, weariness rest.” What crap, she thought. What is this crap? Crap! She pulled both ends of the covers, hoping to tear the book in half. A small sheet of paper slipped out from between the pages. The handwriting was nearly illegible, written by Stanton after the stroke had paralyzed his writing hand. “I saw her,” it read. “I saw our girl and she’s beautiful.”
______Lina felt something filling up her center, making it impossible to breath. She heaved the book across the room and used both her hands to tear the paper into smaller and smaller pieces until the sweat from her palms turned her husband’s words, written, she was sure, only to maker her feel better, into a paste.