by Beth Escott Newcomer —
My feet are so cold.
I am stuck in this hospital bed, enduring the dull interval between what they call “lunch” and what they call “dinner”. Around here, meals are more of a way to keep time than a culinary experience—especially when your diet is so limited. I’d say it’s about four in the afternoon.
Through the fifth-floor window, I’ve been watching heavy equipment operators working the cranes, swinging around twenty-foot lengths of steel I-beam, building the skeleton of the new wing of the hospital. The sun is low in the sky. Almost quitting time.
They can’t fool me. I’ve stood outside that door, out in that same hallway countless times, my hand on the shoulder of a loved one while I softly recount the details of the patient’s last moments, suppressing rage against failure—mine and that of my science—to keep some promise of immortality. But today I am the patient, not the doctor. I now see the flaw in my own reasoning, based as it was on the idea that we should live on the earth forever, that it is some kind of injustice to be forced to leave.
The attentive staff thinks I will die here. They think my daughters will come straight from LAX in rental cars to catch me in my last moments; that Nate and his wife, Maggie, will dutifully keep company with Grace on the couch; that everyone will wear a happy face, hide their grief, their fear, their anger. They think my children will apologize for a hundred tiny things that don’t matter, like totaling the car, like marrying a man I disliked, like dropping out of college. They will expect me to apologize right back for big stuff, like missing the school play/science fair/piano recital, like taking them all rock hunting in the hot desert when they really wanted to go to Dodger Stadium. Like never slowing down to retire and spend some sitting-around time with Grace. Like loving my patients and my slides and my books more than them. And then, surrounded by everyone, newly atoned and amended, they think I will take my last breath.
But that’s not the way it’s going to be. Instead, it will happen like this:
Maggie will walk in a few minutes from now, dressed in her office clothes, carrying a plastic container filled with cut-up melon, an orchid plant not yet in bloom, and the latest copy of Scientific American. She will light up the room, brimming with energy, and will crack some awful pun designed to make me chuckle. And I’ll oblige, then seize the bowl of melon and greedily eat every piece, the juice running over my lips and down my chin.
She’ll tell me where everyone else is today: Nate’s at the emergency room with one of his workers, who cut himself; Leslie is still in Seattle, burdened with yet another in the endless parade of legal problems involving her troubled and troublesome sons; Denise may arrive later tonight from New York, although no one knows for sure if she will or at what time; Grace is at home with her caretaker, oblivious in her Alzheimer’s haze. And in this cheerful offhand way, between the lines of her story, she will explain why it’s just the two of us in this sad room.
She’ll ask how I am, and I’ll say, like I always do, “Well, I’m still vertical.” And then we’ll both laugh—she a little weakly, me with a hearty guffaw—until we stop when we both realize I’ll need to freshen up my sparkling repartee if I’m going to be answering that question from this decidedly horizontal hospital bed. And then we’ll laugh again.
Damn it. My feet are so cold.
I’ll tell her that when she gets here. She’ll unwrap a pair of thermal socks with rubber nubs on the soles, throw back the covers, and slowly, gently roll them on past my twisted and cracked old man’s toenails, over my veiny and scaly old man’s feet.
I’m thinking now of all the places those feet have been: walking barefoot along the unpaved, pre-Depression roads of Michigan, losing all track of time in a study of the local flora and fauna—late for dinner again and again, the boarders clamoring for their food and me the holdup as usual; inside borrowed patent leather shoes a size too small, carrying my father’s casket to a hole in the ground next to my mother’s still-fresh grave; sweating inside heavy work boots, weeding the flowers in Mr. Wiseman’s nursery, on my feet and on my knees for so many unpaid hours, treating his stock with such care that he paid my way through medical school, choosing me over his own son—a kid who acted like he didn’t need to be interested in anything. Oh, but I was interested in everything. Rocks, butterflies, beetles, fish, birds, plants. Clouds and weather, chemistry and math. I filled every empty space in my heart and my mind with science and nature.
My feet: wiggling toes under the covers with Grace before we were married, snuggling close way back at the beginning; losing a nail when I dropped that bag of fertilizer on my big toe just last month, at the start of this final chapter; limping along down the halls of the VA just a couple of weeks ago in my regular predawn rounds, joking around with the men who will die there: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” says one guy, rolling by. “Yeah, I suppose, as long as your aim is good,” I reply.
Those thin socks won’t really do a thing, but I’ll thank Maggie. I’ll tell her, “I want you and Nate to stay and take care of Grace until she dies—I’ve left money for that,” and Maggie will tell me not to talk that way. She’ll tell me that I’ll be coming home soon, and it’ll be even better for us then because I’ll have time to finally retire, to relax and enjoy the beautiful gardens Nate and I have made. See, she believes my bullshit more than anyone else. She secretly believes I’m not really dying, that it’s a simple circulation problem that keeps my toe from healing, that even if they take my foot clean off, I’ll recover and can roll around the property in some kind of motorized scooter. She’s shown me the catalog—they call it a Jazzy. Nate and Maggie think they’re getting me one for my birthday, and they keep asking what color I’d like.
But I won’t be around for my birthday. I’ll be gone by then. They are right about one thing, though: I won’t be dying here. It will happen at home.
I remember walking the perimeter of my property for the first time, forty years ago when Malibu was still a remote outback populated by hermits and horse people and folks living in little driftwood shacks on the beach. As I walked around the grounds that first day, I remember hearing a voice behind me say, “This is the place. This is your place.” Turning around, I found no one there. I’m not a God guy. I’m a scientist. But I believe, that one time, he broke our treaty and tapped me. Sneaky bastard.
As if I wouldn’t have known this was my place: ten flat acres a mile from the beach, a place where the hills fell down at my feet, a box canyon I could fill with my life, my plants, my projects. I was then, as I am now, a selfish man. I suppose I never really cared if this could be Grace’s place.
I’m thinking of a time maybe a week after we moved from our house in Brentwood. It was just the two of us; the kids were tucked into bed for the night. I turned the lights on in the pool for the first time, and a vast turquoise amoeba opened up in the lawn. I remember we were sipping mai tais in that little rundown palapa that used to stand beside the pool. A mockingbird serenaded us. Crickets conversed. We toasted. She looked away into the darkness, already lonely. We said good-bye so long ago—maybe even that night—she vanishing into alcohol and me into my work. And now, with her quick, bright mind dimmed by Alzheimer’s, I wonder if she will even know it when I’m gone.
Like I said, I won’t be dying here in this room. It will happen a couple of weeks from now. Everyone will be amazed at how well I’m doing, when they finally let me go home. Things around the house and garden will go back to normal for a week or so. Even Maggie will quit hovering; on Friday, she’ll casually wave good-bye to me on her way to a weekend in Palm Springs. She won’t even notice that the orchid plant she gave me will have suddenly bloomed.
Just before dusk on the last day, Nate will come in from the garden and say, “Come quick, Dad, you’ve got to see this strange bird!” and he will then help me into my wheelchair and push me outside. He’ll wheel me along under the canopy of avocado trees, and I will remember how strange I thought it was that Nate has always stayed so close to me, since the first day we walked the property’s edge together. We hardly knew each other then, my little son and I. That was forty years ago, and frankly we haven’t made much progress since. I have to admit he’s been a big help to me over the years—hell, by that last day he’ll be bathing me and wiping my ass.
Oh, sure, over the years I’d say thanks for this and that, but I never really spelled it out for him. How important he has always been to me. How I couldn’t have made this place without him. Instead, I’ll wear the face of disapproval until the bitter end, a face that says he really should have made his own life, his own place in the world. At the end, as his captive, I’ll be forced to admit the truth, and when I finally for once tell him how much I love him, we’ll both do the manly thing and cry.
In the twilight we will come to a little clearing in the yard where a young sycamore stands. And there will be this bird, this strange bird sitting on a low limb—large, colorful, stately, unafraid. We’ll both stare at it for a long time, awestruck, full of wonder, and it will stare back at us. Nate will tell me he saw it for the first time the day before I came home from the hospital, and now it’s returned. “But it doesn’t belong here,” he’ll say. And I’ll say, “I’ve never before seen such a creature in our garden.” And we will return to the house, to the library, to find a picture of it in one of my books. While Nate’s back is turned, while he’s occupied pulling a heavy volume from the shelf, I’ll just slip away.
“Oh damn!” will be my valediction. Because where I’m headed will never be as glorious as the place I left behind.