Материалы к занятию
I could not foresee the future, but who can do such things? I do not know what I expected in the years we still had left together. I assumed we would continue just as we always had, for it was the only life I’d ever known. Maybe less travel—the trips and the walking were getting hard for us—but other than that, no difference at all. We had no kids or grandkids we needed to visit, no urge to travel abroad again. Instead, Ruth devoted more time to the garden and I began to feed the pigeons. We began to take vitamins, and neither of us had much of an appetite. Looking back, I suppose I should have given more thought to the fact that by our golden anniversary, Ruth had already outlived both her parents, but I was too afraid to consider the implications. I couldn’t imagine a life without her, nor did I want one, but God had other plans. In 1998, like her mother, Ruth had a stroke, one that weakened the left side of her body. Though she was still able to get around the house, our collecting days were at an end and we never again purchased another piece of art. Two years later, on a cold spring morning as we sat in the kitchen, she trailed off in midsentence, unable to complete her thought, and I knew she’d had another stroke. She spent three days in the hospital undergoing tests, and though she came back home, we would never again have a conversation in which the words flowed freely.
The left side of her face lost even more movement, and she began to forget the most common of words. This upset Ruth more than it did me; to my eyes, she remained as beautiful as she’d been on the day I’d first seen her. I was certainly no longer the man I once had been. My face had become wrinkled and thin, and whenever I looked in the mirror, the size of my ears never ceased to astonish me. Our routines become even simpler, one day simply drifting to the next. I would make her breakfast in the morning and we would eat together as we browsed the newspaper; after breakfast, we would sit in the yard and feed the pigeons. We napped in the late morning and would spend the rest of the day reading or listening to music or going to the grocery store. Once a week, I would drive her to the beauty salon, where a hairdresser would wash and style her hair, something that I knew would make her happy. And then, when August came around, I would spend hours at my desk crafting a letter for my wife, and I’d drive the two of us to Black Mountain on our anniversary, where we’d stand by the lake, just as we always had, while she read the words I’d written.
By that point, our adventures were long behind us, but for me it was more than enough, for the longest ride continued. Even then, as we lay in bed, I would hold Ruth close, grateful for the blessing of this life, this woman. In those moments, I would selfishly pray that I would die first, for even then I could sense the inevitable.
In the spring of 2002, a week after the azaleas in the yard had begun to bloom in full, we spent our morning as we always had, and in the afternoon, we made plans to go out to dinner. It was something we seldom did, but both of us were in the mood, and I remember calling the restaurant to make an early reservation. In the afternoon, we went for a walk. Not long, just to the end of the block and back. Though there was a brisk edge to the air, Ruth did not seem to notice. We spoke briefly to one of our neighbors—not the angry man who cut down the tree—and after we returned home, we settled into what was until that point a relatively ordinary day. Ruth said nothing to me about having a headache, but in the early evening, before we’d made dinner, she slowly made her way to the bedroom. I thought nothing of it at the time—I was reading in the easy chair and must have dozed off for a few minutes. When I woke, Ruth still had not come back, and I called for her. She did not answer, and I rose from my chair. I called for her again as I made my way down the hallway. When I saw her crumpled near the bed, I felt my heart jump in my chest. She’d had another stroke, I immediately thought. But it was worse, and as I tried to breathe life back into her, I could feel my soul begin to wither.
The paramedics arrived a few minutes later. I heard them first knocking and then pounding at the door. By then, I was holding Ruth in my arms and I did not want to let go. I heard them enter and call out; I called back and they rushed to the bedroom, where they found an old man holding the woman he’d always loved.
They were kind and soft-spoken as one of them helped me to my feet while the other began to administer to Ruth. I begged them to help her, trying to elicit promises that she was going to be all right. They put her on oxygen and loaded her onto the stretcher, allowing me to sit in the ambulance as Ruth was rushed to the hospital.
When the doctor came out to speak with me in the waiting room, he was gentle. He held my arm as we walked down the corridor. The tiles were gray and the fluorescent lights made my eyes hurt. I asked if my wife was all right; I asked when I would be allowed to see her. But he didn’t answer. Instead, he led me to an empty patient room and closed the door behind him. His expression was serious, and when he cast his eyes toward the floor, I knew exactly what he was going to say.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mr. Levinson, but there was nothing we could do…”
At these words, I gripped a nearby bed rail to keep from falling. The room seemed to close in as the doctor went on, my vision telescoping until I could see nothing but his face. His words sounded tinny and made no sense, but it did not matter. His expression was plain—I’d been too late. Ruth, my sweet Ruth, had died on the floor while I dozed in the other room.
I do not remember leaving the hospital, and the next few days are hazy. My attorney, Howie Sanders, a dear friend to both Ruth and me, helped with the funeral arrangements, a small, private service. Afterward, the candles were lit, cushions were spread through the house, and I sat shiva for a week. People came and went, people we had known over the years. Neighbors, including the man who’d cut down the maple tree. Customers from the shop. Three gallery owners from New York. Half a dozen artists. Women from the synagogue came every day to cook and clean. And on each of those days, I found myself wishing that I would wake from the nightmare that my life had just become.
But gradually the people drifted away, until no one was left at all. There was no one to call, no one to talk to, and the house descended into silence. I did not know how to live that kind of life, and time became merciless. Days crept by slowly. I could not concentrate. I would read the newspaper and remember nothing at all. I would sit for hours before realizing that I’d left the radio on in the background. Even the birds did nothing to cheer me; I would stare at them and think to myself that Ruth should have been sitting beside me, our hands brushing as we reached into the bag for birdseed.
Nothing made any sense, nor did I want to make sense of it. My days were spent in the quiet agony of heartbreak. Evenings were no better. Late at night, as I lay in the half-empty bed unable to sleep, I would feel the dampness trickling off my cheeks. I’d wipe my eyes and be struck anew by the finality of Ruth’s absence.
It all went back to the ride on Big Ugly Critter.
The one he’d had nightmares about, the one that had kept him away from the arena for eighteen months. He’d told Sophia about the ride and a bit about the injuries he’d suffered.
But he hadn’t told her everything. As he stood in the barn after his mother had left, Luke leaned against the mechanical bull, reliving the past he’d tried hard to forget.
It was eight days before he’d even known what had happened. Although he knew he had been hurt and, after some prompting, could vaguely remember the ride, he’d had no idea how close he’d come to dying. He’d had no idea that in addition to fracturing his skull, the bull had cracked his C1 vertebra and that his brain had swelled with blood.
He hadn’t told Sophia that they didn’t reset the bones in his face for almost a month, for fear of causing additional trauma. Nor had he mentioned that the doctors had returned to his bedside to tell him that he’d never completely recover from the head injury— and that in a section of his skull, there was now a small titanium plate. The doctors told him that another similar impact to his head, with or without a helmet, would most likely be enough to kill him. The plate they had grafted onto his shattered skull was too close to the brain stem to adequately protect him.
After that first meeting with the doctors, he’d had fewer questions than anyone anticipated. He’d decided right then to give up bull riding, and he’d told everyone as much. He knew he’d miss the rodeo and that he’d probably wonder forever what it would have felt like to win the championship. But he’d never entertained a death wish, and at the time, he’d thought he still had plenty of money in the bank.
And he had, but it wasn’t enough. His mom had offered up the ranch as collateral for the loan she’d taken out to cover his monstrous medical bills. Though she’d told him repeatedly that she didn’t care about the fate of the ranch, he knew that deep down, she did. The ranch was her life, it was all she knew, and everything she’d done since the accident had confirmed her feelings. In the past year, she’d worked herself to the point of exhaustion in an attempt to forestall the inevitable. She could say whatever she wanted, but he knew the truth…
He could save the ranch. No, he couldn’t earn enough in the next year—or even three years—to pay off the loan, but he was a good enough rider to earn enough to meet the payments and then some, even if he rode only on the little tour. He admired his mom’s efforts with the Christmas trees and the pumpkins and expanding the herd, but both of them knew it wasn’t going to be enough. He’d heard enough about the cost of fixing this or that to know that things were tight even in the best of times.
So what was he supposed to do? He had to either pretend that everything was going to work out—which wasn’t possible— or find a way to fix the problem. And he knew exactly how to fix the problem. All he had to do was ride well.
But even if he rode well, he still might die.
Luke understood the risks. That was the reason his hands shook every time he prepared to ride. It wasn’t that he was rusty or that he was plagued with ordinary nerves. It was the fact that when he used the suicide wrap to hold on, a part of him wondered if this would be his last ride.
It wasn’t possible to ride successfully with that kind of fear. Unless, of course, there was something greater at stake, and for him, it came down to the ranch. And his mom. She wasn’t going to lose the ranch because of him.
He shook his head. He didn’t want to think about these things. It was hard enough to find the confidence he knew he needed to last—and win—over the course of a season. The one thing that you didn’t want to think about was not being able to ride.
Or dying in the process…
He hadn’t been lying to the doctor when he said that he was ready to quit. He knew what a life of riding could do to a man; he’d watched his father wince and struggle in the mornings, and he’d felt the same pains himself. He’d lived through all the training and he’d given it his best, but it hadn’t worked out. And eighteen months ago, he’d been okay with that.
But right now, standing beside the mechanical bull, he knew that he had no choice. He pulled on his glove, then he took a deep breath and climbed onto the bull. Hanging off the horn was the control, and he took it in his free hand. But maybe because the season was getting close, or maybe because he hadn’t told the complete truth to Sophia, he couldn’t press the button. Not yet, anyway.
He reminded himself that he knew what might happen, and he tried to convince himself he was ready. He was ready to ride, he was preparing to ride, no matter what might happen. He was a bull rider. He’d done it for as long as he could remember, and he would do it again. He’d ride, because he was good at riding, and then all their problems would be solved…
Except that if he landed wrong, he might die.
All at once, his hands began to tremble. But, steeling himself, he finally pressed the button anyway.
On her way back from New Jersey, Sophia made a detour to the ranch before returning to campus. Luke was expecting her and had tidied up both the house and the porch in anticipation.
It was dark when her car pulled to a stop in front of his house. He bounded down the porch steps to meet her, wondering if anything had changed since he’d last seen her. Those worries evaporated as soon as she stepped out of her car and rushed toward him.
He caught her as she jumped, feeling her legs wrap around him. As they held each other, he reveled in how good she felt, certain again of how much she meant to him, wondering what the future would hold.
They made love that evening, but Sophia couldn’t stay the night. The new semester was beginning and she had an early class. Once her taillights vanished up the drive, Luke turned and walked toward the barn for yet another practice session. He wasn’t in the mood, but with the first event in less than two weeks, he reminded himself of how much more he had to do.
On his way to the barn, he made the decision to keep the practice shorter than usual, no more than an hour. He was tired and it was cold and he missed Sophia’s presence already.