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Chapter 28, Part 1
When I wake, my first thought is that my body is weak and growing steadily weaker. Sleep, instead of giving me strength, has robbed me of some of the precious hours I have remaining.
Morning sunlight slants through the window, reflected bright and sharp by the snow. It takes a moment to realize that it’s Monday. More than thirty-six hours now since the accident. Who could have imagined such a thing happening to an old man like me? This will to live. But I have always been a survivor, a man who laughs in the face of death and spits in the eye of mother fate. I fear nothing, not even the pain. It’s time for me to open the door and scale the embankment, to flag down a passing car. If no one comes to me, I will have to go to them.
Who am I kidding?
I can do no such thing. The agony is so intense that it takes a concerted effort to bring the world back into focus. For a moment, I feel strangely dissociated from my body — I can see myself propped on the steering wheel, my body a broken wreck. For the first time since the accident, I am sure that it is no longer possible for me to move. The bells are tolling, and I do not have long. This should frighten me, but it doesn’t. In no small way, I have been waiting to die for the last nine years.
I was not meant to be alone. I am not good at it. The years since Ruth’s passing have ticked by with the kind of desperate silence known only to the elderly. It is a silence underscored by loneliness and the knowledge that the good years are already in the past, coupled with the complications of old age itself.
The body is not meant to survive nearly a century. I speak from experience when I say this. Two years after Ruth died, I suffered a minor heart attack — I was barely able to dial for help before I fell to the floor, unconscious. Two years after that, it became difficult to maintain my balance, and I purchased the walker to keep from toppling into the rosebushes whenever I ventured outside.
Caring for my father had taught me to expect these kinds of challenges, and I was largely able to move past them. What I hadn’t expected, however, was the endless array of minor torments — little things, once so easy, now rendered impossible. I can no longer open a jar of jelly; I have the cashier at the supermarket do it before she slips it into the bag. My hands shake so much that my penmanship is barely legible, which makes it difficult to pay the bills. I can read only in the brightest of lights, and without my dentures in place, I can eat nothing but soup. Even at night, age is torturous. It takes forever for me to fall asleep, and prolonged slumber is a mirage. There is medicine, too — so many pills that I’ve had to tack a chart on the refrigerator to keep them straight. Medicine for arthritis and high blood pressure and high cholesterol, some taken with food and some without, and I’m told that I must always carry nitroglycerine pills in my pocket, in the event I ever again feel that searing pain in my chest. Before the cancer took root — a cancer that will gnaw at me until I’m nothing but skin and bones — I used to wonder what indignity the future would bring next. And God, in his wisdom, provided the answer. How about an accident! Let’s break his bones and bury him in snow! I sometimes think God has an odd sense of humor.
Had I said this to Ruth, she would not have laughed. She would say I should be thankful, for not everyone is blessed with a long life. She would have said that the accident was my fault. And then, with a shrug, she would have explained that I had lived because our story was not yet finished.
What became of me? And what will become of the collection?
I’ve spent nine years answering these questions, and I think Ruth would have been pleased. I’ve spent these years surrounded by Ruth’s passion; I have spent my years embraced by her. Everywhere I have looked, I’ve been reminded of her, and before I go to bed every night, I stare at the painting above the fireplace, comforted by the knowledge that our story will have precisely the kind of ending that Ruth would have wanted.
The sun rises higher, and I hurt even in the distant recesses of my body. My throat is parched and all I want is to close my eyes and fade away.
But Ruth will not let me. There is an intensity in her gaze that wills me to look at her.
“It is worse now,” she says. “The way you are feeling.”
“I’m just tired,” I mumble.
“Yes,” she says. “But it is not your time yet. There is more you must tell me.”
I can barely make out her words. “Why?”
“Because it is the story of us,” she says. “And I want to hear about you.”
My mind spins again. The side of my face hurts where it presses against the steering wheel, and I notice that my broken arm looks bizarrely swollen. It has turned purple and my fingers look like sausages. “You know how it ends.”
“I want to hear it. In your own words.”
“No,” I say.
“After sitting shiva, the depression set in,” she goes on, ignoring me. “You were very lonely. I did not want this for you.”
Sorrow has crept into her voice, and I close my eyes. “I couldn’t help it,” I say. “I missed you.”
She is silent for a moment. She knows I am being evasive. “Look at me, Ira. I want to see your eyes as you tell me what happened.”
“I don’t want to talk about this.” “Why not?” she persists.
The ragged sound of my breath fills the car as I choose my words. “Because,” I finally offer, “I’m ashamed.”
“Because of what you did,” she announces.
She knows the truth and I nod, afraid of what she thinks of me. In time, I hear her sigh.
“I was very worried about you,” she finally says. “You would not eat after you sat shiva, after everyone went away.”
“I wasn’t hungry.”
“This is not true. You were hungry all the time. You chose to ignore it. You were starving yourself.”
“It doesn’t matter now — ,” I falter.
“I want you to tell me the truth,” she persists.
“I wanted to be with you.”
“But what does that mean?”
Too tired to argue, I finally open my eyes. “It means,” I say, “that I was trying to die.”
It was the silence that did it. The silence that I still experience now, a silence that descended after the other mourners went away. At the time, I was not used to it. It was oppressive, suffocating — so quiet that it eventually became a roar that drowned out everything else. And slowly but surely, it leached me of my ability to care.
Exhaustion and habits further conspired against me. At breakfast, I would pull out two cups for coffee instead of one, and my throat would clench as I put the extra cup back in the cupboard. In the afternoon, I would call out that I was going out to retrieve the mail, only to realize that there was no one to answer me. My stomach felt permanently tense, and in the evenings, I couldn’t fathom the idea of cooking a dinner that I would have to eat alone. Days would pass where I ate nothing at all.
I am no doctor. I do not know if the depression was clinical or simply a normal product of mourning, but the effect was the same. I did not see any reason to go on. I did not want to go on. But I was a coward, unwilling to take specific action. Instead, I took no action, other than a refusal to eat much of anything, and again the effect was the same. I lost weight and grew steadily weaker, my path preordained, and little by little, my memories became jumbled. The realization that I was losing Ruth again made everything even worse, and soon I was eating nothing at all. Soon, the summers we spent together vanished entirely and I no longer saw any reason to fend off the inevitable. I began to spend most of my time in bed, eyes unfocused as I gazed at the ceiling, the past and the future a blank.
“I do not think this is true,” she says. “You say that because you were depressed, you did not eat. You say that because you could not remember, you did not eat. But I think that it is because you did not eat that you could not remember. And so you did not have the strength to fight the depression.”
“I was old,” I say. “My strength had long since evaporated.”
“You are making excuses now.” She waves a hand. “But this is not a time to make jokes. I was very worried about you.”
“You couldn’t be worried. You weren’t there. That was the problem.”
Her eyes narrow and I know I’ve struck a nerve. She tilts her head, the morning sunlight casting half her face in shadow. “Why do you say this?”
“Because it’s true?”
“Then how can I be here now?”
“Maybe you aren’t.”
“Ira…” She shakes her head. She talks to me the way I imagine she once talked to her students. “Can you see me? Can you hear me?” She leans forward, placing her hand on my own. “Can you feel this?”
Her hand is warm and soft, hands I know even better than my own. “Yes,” I say. “But I couldn’t then.”
She smiles, looking satisfied, as if I’d just proved her point.
“That is because you were not eating.”
A truth emerges in any long marriage, and the truth is this: Our spouses sometimes know us better than we even know ourselves.
Ruth was no exception. She knew me. She knew how much I would miss her; she knew how much I needed to hear from her. She also knew that I, not she, would be the one left alone. It’s the only explanation, and over the years, I have never questioned it. If she made one mistake, it was that I did not discover what she had done until my cheeks had hollowed and my arms looked like twigs. I do not remember much about the day I made my discovery. The events have been lost to me, but this is not surprising. By that point, my days had become interchangeable, without meaning, and it wasn’t until darkness set in that I found myself staring at the box of letters that sat upon Ruth’s chest of drawers.
I had seen them every night since her passing, but they were hers, not mine, and to my misguided way of thinking, I simply assumed they would make me feel worse. They would remind me of how much I missed her; they would remind me of all that I had lost. And the idea was unbearable. I just could not face it. And yet, on that night, perhaps because I’d become numb to my feelings, I forced myself from the bed and retrieved the box. I wanted to remember again, if only for a single night, even if it hurt me.
The box was strangely light, and when I lifted the lid, I caught a whiff of the hand lotion Ruth had always used. It was faint, but it was there, and all at once, my hands began to shake. But I was a man possessed, and I reached for the first of the anniversary letters I’d written to her.
The envelope was crisp and yellowing. I’d inscribed her name with a steadiness that had long since vanished, and once again, I was reminded of my age. But I did not stop. Instead, I slid the brittle letter out of its sleeve as I maneuvered it into the light.
At first, the words were foreign to me, a stranger’s words, and I did not recognize them. I paused and tried again, concentrating on bringing the words into focus. And as I did, I felt Ruth’s presence gradually take shape beside me. She is here, I thought to myself; this is what she’d intended. My pulse began to race as I continued to read, the bedroom dissolving around me. Instead, I was back at the lake in the thin mountain air of late summer. The college, shuttered and forlorn, stood in the background as Ruth read the letter, her downcast eyes flickering across the page.
I’ve brought you here — to the place where art first took on true meaning for me — and even though it will never be the same as it once was, this will always be our place. It’s here that I was reminded of the reasons I fell in love with you; it was here where we began our new life together.
When I finished the letter, I slipped it back into the envelope and set it aside. I read the second letter, then the next, then the one after that. The words flowed easily from one year to the next, and with them came memories of summers that in my depression I had been unable to recall. I paused when I read a passage that I’d written on our sixteenth anniversary.
I wish I had the talent to paint the way I feel about you, for my words always feel inadequate. I imagine using red for your passion and pale blue for your kindness; forest green to reflect the depth of your empathy and bright yellow for your unflagging optimism. And still I wonder: can even an artist’s palette capture the full range of what you mean to me?
Later, I came across a letter I’d written in the midst of the dark years, after we’d learned that Daniel had moved away.
I witness your grief and I don’t know what to do, other than wish that I could somehow wash away the traces of your loss. I want more than anything to make things better, but in this I am helpless and have failed you. I’m sorry for this. As your husband, I can listen and hold you; and kiss your tears away, if given the chance.
It went on, this lifetime in a box, one letter after another. Outside the window, the moon ascended and drifted and eventually climbed out of sight as I continued to read. Each letter echoed and reaffirmed my love for Ruth, burnished by our long years together. And Ruth, I learned, had loved me, too, for she left me a gift at the bottom of the stack.
I will admit: I didn’t expect this. That Ruth could still surprise me, even from beyond, caught me off guard. I stared at the letter lying at the bottom of the box, trying to imagine when she’d written it and why she’d never told me.
I have read this letter often in the years since I first found it, so many times that I can recite it from memory. I know now that she’d kept it secret in the certainty that I would find it in the hour of my greatest need. She knew I would eventually read my letters to her; she predicted that a time would come when I could no longer resist the pull. And in the end, it worked out just as she’d planned.
On that night, however, I did not think of this. I simply reached for the letter with trembling hands and slowly began to read.