This story was a pretty wrenching one to write. I'm not happy with it, but, as usual, I am posting it in the hope that someone will like it and take something away from it. I had good critiques from Chris Kassel and Ken Krasney, who said he thought it needed to be expanded. Which is something I can't think about right now.
The Power of Prayer
Another prayer group, another sharing. It pleased Lance that he’d become adept at it.
“I never prayed when I was growing up. We weren’t a religious family even though we were Catholic.” Tutting among some of the men in the prayer circle. “I didn’t have the knack of it – the habit of it. But…when my daughter was killed two years ago…I needed to say, or think in words, what was tearing me apart. I just – I just found myself praying.” Sympathetic murmurs among the mostly old men. Lance chuckled, careful not to let the chuckle become unseemly, maybe unhinged. “Some of those early prayers were doozies! You’d think I was a lawyer before a judge.” Knowing chuckles. “As the pain lessened I prayed less. I guess that’s normal. Then – two months ago…my wife was diagnosed with stage 4 multiple melanoma. Got a few months to live…no one will say exactly. I—I find myself praying all the time now. All the time. My God…”
His tears, so many and unashamedly spilt, shocked him. He would shrivel with embarrassment later. But now the heave and flow of wet emotion made him lighter, and he was grateful.
It was his third appearance at the St. Saviour Episcopal Church Saturday morning men’s prayer group, and he thought he’d come across all right. He wanted compassion, understanding, sympathy. From men who’d maybe gone through what he was going through, and who didn’t bog the proceedings down with too much sharing of their own. He was overflowing with pain; he couldn’t stand to wallow in their pain. His pain was more.
Here he was on a snowy Saturday in November in another basement room leaning on a laminated table with two boxes of Kleenex sitting on side tables, discreetly placed but within easy reach.
Tears were streaming down his face. He grabbed one of the boxes of tissues and yanked a handful out, blowing his nose until there was nothing left to blow.
A bald man named Dave leaned toward him and patted him on the shoulder. He was one of those laymen who was a clergyman manqué – dressed in black except for a white turtleneck peeking above a black sweater. He would have gone to seminary if his wife hadn’t put her foot down. “First come the tears. God’s gift of tears to cleanse your spirit and give you the strength to go on.” He added hastily, as if forgetting a crucial lesson, “Yours tears are a form of prayer.” He looked at the runnels of tears down Lance’s face and the big wet patches on his shirt front. “I think God must love you very much.” Lance gave a bark of laughter. Dave continued to look at him with saintly forbearance.
There were murmurs of assent in the room, where ten men, from 35 to 75, had gathered to pray and beg for God’s favor, forgiveness and surcease from pain. They met weekly to talk, pray and cry. Here it was manly to cry. Today was Lance’s big day – a breakthrough day, heavy with portents of great good. They kept telling him this, but all he felt was a sense of accelerating collapse.
Sheila had got herself down to the family room and turned on the gas fireplace. Snowflakes were lolling down from the gunmetal sky. She was lying on the couch, cat perched on the arm and the dog crouched at her feet. They stayed with her at all times except after chemo.
She listened to Lance and said, “I don’t know why you bother with those misfits. The one time I went with you – “ She shivered. A group of Lutherans once had offered to pray over her, to assist the Holy Spirit in pinpointing her and pouring His healing Grace into her cancer-ravaged body. Her sense had been of a lascivious group spirituality pawing over her.
Sheila looked at her husband’s wretched expression for a second. “Did you bring my deli soup? Where’d you go?”
“Yeah, the soup’s in the fridge.” He told her where he bought it and she sighed angrily. Tears sprang into her eyes. “You go out and do whatever you want – that creepy prayer group of Jesus freaks and old farts – and you can’t even go to Kirschner’s like I asked you? They have the best chicken soup in town. The best everything.” Her eyes were flashing and he stopped her with his expression.
“They were closed. Death in the family.” He was lying but he was too exhausted to feel guilty.
“Then why didn’t you drive to Cleveland?” she asked testily.
“I don’t like to leave you alone that long. You might need me.”
She retreated into herself. She reached out for Ozzie, the cat, and he moved closer so that she could pet him easier. She stared out the large windows to the crisply edited woods in the back yard. A crew was removing the leaves, slowly and with many trips of men carrying laden tarps to the chipper. “This is the last fall we’ll have to worry about the leaves.” The house was for sale. Sheila wanted Lance in a tidy little condo where no woman would touch her things.
“I wish it was me. Instead of you. Since Cara…” Lance began to cry.
Sheila’s eyes filled. Then she said coldly, “Be a man for a change.” She crossed her arms and looked at the gas fire that burned yet did not consume.
When he left to make her lunch, she leaned over to pet Tappie. Her tears rained on the dog’s back. Tappie stared up, afraid, and whined with her.
Lance’s initial forays into prayer had been blasphemous and horribly predictive:
Hi God. It’s me, Lance Blankenship. The one in High Point, Ohio. I guess you can tell I’m not used to praying. Maybe I didn’t believe in you so much even though I did the catechism and so on. I got confirmed and all that. Forgive me but I don’t get Jesus at all – and never that creepy Sacred Heart shit – but, okay, anyway, my beloved daughter Cara was killed by a drunk driver two months ago and he DELIBERATELY ran over her a second time when she showed signs of life by the curb and he crushed her brains. And Jesus Christ, God, I am so fucking angry, I wish I had a gun, I’d use it and I’d kill everybody! Everybody! You fucking prick! You’re a fucking piece of shit! You’ve torn my only child away from me! What the fuck are you gonna do next, steal my wife away? Give her cancer so she can die a terrible death? Fucker, GO AHEAD GO AHEAD GO AHEAD GO AHEAD --
Lance was shaking and the tears were coursing down his face, and he raised his head and looked at the abstract representations of what he didn’t know in the stained glass over the altar of a hospital chapel. He was reliving the earthquake of a day when he learned of his wife’s illness, the guilt and awe at the power of his prayer. He lived a strange split existence, the normal-seeming one at work and out in the world. The deformed, stricken one was within the walls of his house with a wife who had been so damaged by shame and fear that, when the time came, she felt, initially, almost relieved when the doctors told her she was terminal.
Sheila Rosenzweig was raised in a Conservative Jewish family, but early on she decided that religion and its blessings (theoretical) and obligations (all too present) weren’t for her. “What did it for me was this crap about the bush that burns and is not consumed. I was like, shit, burn already, I’m sick of hearing about it.” Her Sunday school teacher, an ancient cantor who had escaped the Holocaust yet chain-smoked incessantly, told her parents to keep her home. “She may pe a good Chew vun day, putt for now she ist a pain in mir tuchus!” he cried, brown teeth showing in his cry of anguish.
When she and Lance first went together, he was still a fairly dutiful Catholic. She went to church with him, especially on the big holidays. She pointed out the similarities and parallels to Judaism, and at Passover she informed her Jewish friends and relatives of the conscious parallels that existed between the New Testament and Catholic liturgy and their own tradition. Sometimes there was genuine interest; usually someone made a rude joke and they moved on. She would later tell Lance, “Fuck them! I hate those jewy Jews!”
“Some would say you are a self-hating –“
“Fuck them too.”
Sheila had liked most of the parishioners she met at St. Gregory. The women liked her because she was a full-time mother and a good cook, and the men liked her because she was bawdy and almost beautiful, tall with a Sophia Loren figure. When Cara died, the parish rallied for her and treated her as one of their own. Father O’Byrne quietly invited her to the communion rail for a blessing. “You’re one of us, Sheila. We all love you here.”
She probably loved the tall and manly O’Byrne, too, but mostly she was touched. She wept and thanked him. And everyone came to shivah for Cara. “It’s like a wake, dear,” Mrs. Carroll told her, “except you don’t put on enough booze.”
Christmas dinner was like Thanksgiving’s: A purchased, complete meal “with all the fixin’s” for $89.95, excluding alcoholic beverages. They ate in the kitchen as the minutes clanked by on the grandfather clock in the living room next door. Sheila looked lost within a long robe that now trailed on the floor. They were silent. Lance couldn’t stand watching her try to eat, chewing tiny bites into tiny bits, swallowing, retching into a spare napkin. He tried to make conversation. “It isn’t too good, is it?”
She shrugged as if to say, It’s okay. Her expression brightened a little. “You used my Christmas plates.” Her smile stared at nothing. It occurred to him that it would be the last real meal she would eat. Soon enough she’d be fed intravenously. Her face was hollowed out, her eyes were sunk far back in her head. Her hair had grown back in patches since they had stopped chemotherapy. It gave her a piebald look that was the crowning sadness of it all. When he looked, she had hidden the expression of blank terror away, like a nun hiding a killer in the attic. Sheila smiled and said, “I think you did a wonderful job, darling. I want you to give the Christmas plates to Doreen. I hope you’ll keep the Christmas tree decorations. Especially the ones Cara made when she was…”
Lance kept quiet. How much more pain could they pile on this meal? He went, “Mmm,” and pushed the squash to the far end of his plate. “You up for mince pie?”
“I need to get back to bed.” Her walking was unsteady; he held her up and led her to the bedroom. She winced as he helped her get under the covers. This was new, this stoic quiet, and Lance felt something tear in himself. In practical terms, she was finished. But every day until the end would seem like a month.
Dear God, please end her suffering. Please.
When Sheila came home from chemo, the animals stayed away from her for a day or two, until she had voided most of the chemicals from her system. The dog crouched at the door of the bedroom and the cat hid under the bed. This was when she felt worst, physically and every other way. Being abandoned by her pets was the worst betrayal she could imagine. She didn’t blame her husband if he was fooling around on the side. But the betrayal if he left her to have a real life – to escape what she couldn’t – that was what she feared.
Lance wasn’t fooling around on the side. Between his job and taking care of the house, the animals and Sheila herself, he hadn’t the time or energy to find solace in someone else. If he had the energy, he doubted that he would want to deal with another person’s wants and needs. He practiced prayer as a way to connect to something greater than himself, hoping to shift his burden to God or Jesus. Or anything. Many nights, lying next to the drugged and sleeping Sheila, he lay curled up on his side, mind racing, begging God to relieve his burden and the suffering of his wife. He offered himself up as a sacrificial substitute, usually meaning it, when he was especially despairing, and laying out tasks to please the jealous God, like opening his house to homeless people or tending to black orphans with AIDS.
It was inevitable, Lance realized, that his prayers focused on freeing Sheila of pain and fear: releasing her to God.
For weeks he resisted calling it what it was: praying for her death. Releasing himself from his bondage to her ill health. When he gave in to it, she sensed it immediately. Her face hardened and became even bleaker in its gaze. More than ever she rejected his expressions of sympathy and said he was faking, which he often was, and became more demanding – run to Walgreens now, get me ice cream now, call Pauline now and get her to come over here and wash and iron these sheets… She pulled her pets closer to her. She let the dog sleep on the bed. Lance moved to Cara’s room, a nowhere since her paraphernalia had been stripped from the place.
Sheila had done that two months after Cara’s death. She had thrown away all evidence of their daughter except for tiny keepsakes that no one but her was meant to find. He’d find them hidden in odd places. It reminded him of the little offerings archeologists had found in the niches of ancient houses in Turkey.
He would lie in bed long after Sheila had fallen asleep, and he would try to remember the unimaginable days when the three of them had been a happy family with a rich and wonderful future ahead of them. In a dazed sort of way he recalled their laughing together and enjoying one another’s company, and there were little family inside jokes that made everybody smile and look at each other with a complicit love. All of that happened centuries ago, Lance would think, we were never those people. When he remembered that it was only two years ago, he felt that he was on an emigrant ship watching the port, the pier and the waving weeping relatives dwindle.
When the anger came, it came softly and in the guise of helpfulness. Please, God, let me be of sincere use and help to her. Let me not wallow in pain and confusion. Help me see clearly what I must do and how best to make her days as pleasant as possible.
Lance felt good when he thought such prayers, sending them up to heaven on cherubs’ wings. He smiled and went down to the family room, where Sheila had settled herself with a book, a crochet kit, an expensive “antitoxin” smoothie, and an Oprah wannabe on TV. She had turned the gas fireplace on high, so the normally cold room was tropical. She was under an afghan on the couch, looking shrunken and gaunt. He bent down to kiss her; she smelled of chemicals. The animals had made themselves scarce. Sheila looked up and attempted a smile. He murmured, “How you feeling today, babe?” She nodded and looked away. She reached out for her smoothie and knocked it over and it slopped all over her book, the crochet kit and the carpet. She started to cry, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Lance, forgive me!” She buried her face in her hands and wept bitterly.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” He ran upstairs to get sponges and cleaning supplies. He thundered back downstairs, cursing the whole time. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” He threw her book and crochet kit in a plastic trash bag while she was going, “I don’t mean to ruin your life, I don’t, it’s terrible, it’s—“ She was bawling and he kicked the couch repeatedly shouting, “SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
Lance was kneeling by her, sopping up the sticky drink. He whispered, “Shut. Up. Now.” The urge to beat her silent was nearly too much to resist. He needed silence. Her silence.
Sheila turned her face to the back of the couch, hiccupping her sobs.
“Shut. Up.” She managed to stifle her sobs completely.
How strange, Lance said to himself, I’m thinking these brutal things and she’s reacting like I really did say them.
He knew he’d never say them. He couldn’t be so cruel. It wasn’t like him. He was not a cruel man. He was kind, and he loved Sheila almost as much as he loved Cara. Soon they would both be gone, in the ever-vanishing past, and he would be left with memories that would shrink and yellow in too little time. As they had already done with Cara. When he thought of Cara now it was always the way she looked with her face stove in by the driver’s Michelins. When he saw a picture of her, he went, “Oh, thank God,” but on his own he could not help but see a destroyed creature, a mass of gray jelly and red wine. He knew he would always see Sheila like this: shrunk to the bone, eyes of terror and anger. The smiling, ribald girl he’d met one sunny afternoon at college – scarcely a sketch of a memory by now.
Lance cleaned everything up. He left her there and, as he drove down the street, wondered with amusement how she’d manage to climb two flights of stairs to bed. By the time he’d arrived at the supermarket, remorse had taken hold. He walked the chilled aisles in a daze of shame and self-reproach. He bought some ice cream, a premium brand that she favored – she had the least trouble keeping ice cream down now. He bought steaks that he would burn yet undercook. He would try to lighten the mood by parodying “The bush that burns yet is not consumed” to give her credit for something.
When did it happen? When did the largest love he’d ever known turn into a little fanged hatred? When was it precisely? The day Cara was run down, intentionally, by a drunken prep school boy? The day he’d spotted the odd-looking mole on her back, which suddenly appeared blown apart, without a center? The day of the diagnosis? The day, an anxious two days later, when the prognosis was shared with them? The first day he’d stayed at work two hours past necessity? The first time he lied about going to a prayer group when he was walking along the shore at Lake Erie?
It was getting colder and snow was beginning to drift down, driven by wind, promising a good cover by morning. He stopped off at the Lutheran church located a few blocks from the supermarket. There were lights on and many cars in the lot. He went in the front door and came upon a recital of lieder. The sanctuary was decorated for Christmas, cheery in contrast to the German singing. One of the ushers, a typical usher, 60ish, well-padded and hale-fellow-well-met, directed him to the chapel for silent prayer. Lance went outside and followed the sidewalk to an unmarked door. He went to the chapel, a space clad in green marble that was far more beautiful than the main sanctuary. One beaten-down man was kneeling and praying, lost in his private world. Sobs came from him every now and then. Lance found a place that suited him a couple of rows from the altar. He craned his neck around to see the man stretched his arms out and dropped his head on the wood of the front of the pew.
He turned back and formulated a prayer for the poor guy, since he was in such distress. Dear Lord, please grant this suffering soul surcease from his pain and help him find grace in you.
Lance felt that was a bit pro-forma. Dear Lord, please help this man find his way out of the thickets of affliction and lead him to temptation for ever and ever, amen.
He was rather pleased by “the thickets of affliction” but it took him a minute to register what he had asked at the end. No! God no, I didn’t mean that, I’m exhausted and stupid and I meant lead him not to temptation at a time like this when he is so vulnerable.
It occurred to him again that so many prayers, whether your own or the liturgical, sounded like clauses in a legal document. Well, Lord, it is, isn’t it, because we agree to do something in exchange for your favor. Or not do something. A contract, yea, a covenant after all.
Lance decided he couldn’t pray for Sheila tonight. Or for himself. And certainly not for the overdramatic character in the back row. He looked around. He was alone in the chapel. Had the praying man gone out the main entrance or the door to the parish hall? Maybe he disappeared, Lance thought rather cynically, and the man was a lesson sent to him.
When Sheila had told him she had a Stage 4 melanoma, Lance had stared at her as if she had just told a particularly funny joke. “No!” he exclaimed, laughing. “Oh, come on, Shee!”
“I might have…3-4-6 months left. At the most.” He had never seen terror like that in anyone’s eyes. Not even Cara’s when the car was rushing at her.
Lance went toward her then stopped. “Melanoma? Like from getting a sunburn?”
She nodded. Her expression frightened him. He held her. “Oh, Shee.”
Her tears came, and big groans of terror drawn from the gut. And as they spoke, and cried, and held onto one another, the idea came to Lance to begin a life of prayer dedicated to Sheila’s recovery or, if he couldn’t pray convincingly enough, to give her succor in her pain and fear. He told her of his intention in a few days. Her reaction was bewilderment and hungry gratitude, mixed with alarm.
Dear Lord God, please relieve the fear and pain that Sheila feels and that curdles every day she has left, take her to you at the appointed time and give her a place in your Kingdom, I beg of you, Lord. Lift her up, let her float over the pain and let her heart be opened to those who love her and care for her, including her poor mother who is 83 years old. Sheila was a late-in-life, oops baby, but don’t think they didn’t love her – they loved her best.
But you know all this, Lord, forgive me, I don’t mean to imply that you’re out of it, it’s just I’m nervous praying and I’m scared of what’s coming. We’ve been together since we were in college, we’ve defined ourselves –
Forgive me, Lord, that’s no way to pray and I’m trying so very hard to get it right and maybe to save her from death, now anyway, not from this ca—
Something got Lance to open his eyes. He was kneeling by the bed, and Sheila had wakened and seemed furious as only the terminally ill can be. She coughed and managed to croak, “Stop that. It’s like it’s my corpse you’re praying over. I’m not dead yet. Maybe you just can’t wait. But you have to.” Tappie wedged herself in between Lance and the bed. Ozzie nestled watchfully on Sheila’s pillow.
She turned her back on him. The waterworks began. They poured forth for an hour or two at a time now. Many evenings he came home from work, late like tonight, the house was dark and she had barricaded herself in the family room in the basement. The rest of the house was cold and pitch-black. But there the gas fireplace was on and the room was stifling. Sheila was wrapped in afghans, and crying to lacerate his heart. The cat and the dog looked dejected; they hardly stirred. Tappie hadn’t been out all day, not since he had walked her at six in the morning; she did her business quickly and rushed back indoors to guard Sheila. Neither animal ate much.
Lance stroked the cat, stroked the dog, aware that praying was no substitute for their presence and constancy. The little animal in himself, concerned principally with its own survival, said, Thank God.
But, as always, he had to stroke her and talk her back from her precipice. I love you, we all love you, Cara loves you wherever she may be, you have so many friends – so many of whom were fully committed to magical thinking and would disappear before the end, he didn’t doubt… And your mother loves you, no matter what you may think and maybe even your selfish prick of a brother loves you, in his way. Sometimes this got her to stop crying and start laughing, and she’s go off on a tear about what shitty thing Irving did or said to her when she was eight. Then her reminiscences would take on a glow of remembered security and happiness, as when her family’s maid, Pauline, and her husband Henry would drive the very little Sheila off to the peanut fields outside Danville in a buckboard and meet their friends who worked as pickers and they’d sing gospel songs and roast peanuts over a fire after the day’s work. “It was another world. I was very little, but I knew I was happy. I loved those poor black people so much. They were so kind to me.”
Lance would nod and say, “That must be why you love gospel music so much.”
Sheila would drift happily, unaware of the present for a while, and say, “If I have a religion, it‘s that. It sure wasn’t at that fucking shul.”
“They prayed in their songs,” he told her. She said she knew that.
One night after a bullshit session disguised as prayer meeting he got home and discovered that she could no longer go up the stairs to the kitchen except by crawling. He found her there, halfway up, panting, sweating, bleached looking. The animals bracketed her, the dog below and the cat above. Lance reached to lift her up, but she pulled her arm away and cried, “You off at that fucking prayer meeting. What about me? What about Tappie – it’s eight o’clock and she hasn’t been out since early! You hate me! You run away and leave me alone all day and night. You cover it up with work and prayer and who knows what! Help me.”
Lance felt himself getting angry. He worked 10-12 hours a day. He spent half the nights holding Sheila’s hand and getting her things – water, Ativan, special pillows and afghans her mother had knitted, the remote control. He did nothing but worry about her, pray for her recovery and relief from pain, he cared more than anyone else, certainly more than the supplement-pushers who came to the house and spouted a lot of happy talk, got the credit card imprint and slithered off with a smile on their nasty faces. He was the constant in her life – except for her precious pets – and since Cara’s death, the only person she had the ability to express herself with.
After he went into Cara’s old room, he prayed in bed.
Dear Cara, how I wish you were here to help me bear this burden. Please help me, Lord. I’m really tired and really really sick of all this.
He tried to calm himself by imagining a long crescent beach framed by mountains in the background and villas with swimming pools on the cliffs overlooking the sea. He tried to imagine himself wading into the water, warm as the sunny air, smiling at the little fishes nibbling at his toes. Diving under the crystalline water, coming up to a sunburst of laughter.
He had begun to relax a little when Sheila began to sob, crying, “Cara, Cara, I’m so sorry.” She called his name four times, weakly. He was too exhausted to move. For the first time, he didn’t.
Later Lance told Sheila a white lie: he was sleeping when she called him, since she asked where the fuck he was. She grabbed his hand and rested her cheek against it. She begged forgiveness for being so horrible. She whispered, “I’m so afraid. Honey, I’m so frightened I don’t know what I’m saying half the time.”
He looked at her, shriveled up in the bed, face disappearing into bone, eyes bored deep into her skull, terror written in her very gaze.
The destruction of her face wasn’t complete, and she did look like someone he used to know. With curious formality, a practiced concern, he asked her, “What can I bring you? Do you want me to go out and get something for you? Some of the ice cream you like so much? Ben & Jerry’s?”
She looked at the window. It was black night outside. “It’s late. Nothing will be open now.”
“It’s six o’clock. Everything is open. Tomorrow’s New Year’s Eve. I’ll get some Champagne.” Lance felt detached and competent. He touched her face and said gently, “What would you like?” He felt a strong need to get out of the house for an hour or two. Even just to look at the junk in Target.
“Get me some frozen yogurt. It’s less fattening.” Lance thought she might be thinking of her favorite aphorism, which she created: Show me a Jewish girl who’s never been fat, and I’ll show you a girl who isn’t really Jewish.
He chuckled and said, “Honey, you don’t have to count calories. You’re too thin.”
Sheila perked up a bit. “Really? I never thought –“
He left and drove around for an hour before he went into a grocery store. He bought her three different flavors. She’ll like these, he thought, they’ll put a smile on her face.
Lord, thank you for the means to bring a smile to Sheila’s face, if only for a second. I’d like to know why you have to torment her this way, and me, but you supposedly know best, know everything, know even what’s taking place in my corrupt heart, my broken heart. By the way, who the fuck are you to torment the world the way you do? No one can give a sensible answer to the problem of evil when they try to include you in the picture, so maybe we exclude you and see how it works. Guess what! It doesn’t make a fucking bit of difference! Not one teensy little iota.
Lance stopped by the side of the road a few blocks from home. All around were big lawns and dark windows as the elderly snowbirds had flown down to Naples, Florida. Dirty crumples of snow where the plows had come through and dug up earth in their passage. Fences and stone walls leaning, already needing repair even though it was still early winter. He sat and waited for God to answer him. To smite him. He deserved to be smitten. He had committed a grave offense against God. He had committed a little wrong – ignoring the frightened cry of a dying woman – the smiling, ribald girl he’d loved since they met freshman year of college – and he wanted her dead already, he needed rest, he needed peace, he needed this wasting creature gone, away, disappeared.
He wept angrily. It occurred to him that anger was all he felt these days. Anger sustained him. Without it he couldn’t go on. To survive he must be angrier than Sheila. Then, after she was dead, he could let go of it.
Lord, forgive me. I’m at the end of my rope. Plus with your help only will I be able to let go of the anger, and the pain, and loss of both my beautiful girls. Poor Cara so young and sweet. Sheila my funny, bitchy wife who cooked so well – you’re taking her too soon, too. Why are you doing this? Why? I don’t understand. Please give me a sign…something…my heart is breaking…take me instead.
Lance stopped crying. He blew his nose with a big handkerchief and tried to compose himself, putting on a patient, loving face in the few blocks home. He sat for a while, tired beyond tired, and heard a siren in the distance.
An ambulance was in the driveway. Sheila was being carried down the vertiginous front steps in a gurney. Ozzie lurked in the doorway, assessing his chances of escape. Dr. Flynn from next door appeared out of the darkness between the houses and said, “Lance, she needs hospice. Right away.” He observed Lance’s red, stricken face, and patted him on the shoulder. “She called me. She was hysterical – said she was disappearing. That you’d abandoned her.”
Lance held out a bag and said, “I got her ice cream. She wanted ice cream.” He gave the bag to Dr. Flynn.
He could hear Sheila shrieking, “Don’t let my babies get outside! Don’t lose my babies! They know I’ll be back!” The smallest of the EMS guys scampered up the steps, shooed the cat inside and slammed the door.
Lance looked up through the branches like veins at the murky sky. He was unsure what to say.
Forgive me, Cara, for not taking better care of you.
The autopsy showed that, while Cara did indeed die from injuries inflicted by a hit and run, she had considerable quantities of several drugs in her body at the time of death, both prescription and proscribed. When Lance took Tappie for a walk that beautiful September day, with half an intention of meeting Cara on the way home from school, he had no idea of this when he rounded a corner and saw her two blocks away. She was deep in conversation with another girl, and they shook hands and it seemed odd for young girls to do. She started to walk toward him, unaware of his presence, staring at her beeper. Where did she get one of those? She looked unsteady and he heard her laugh raggedly. She didn’t notice the red walk light when she reached the intersection, and a young man driving fast in a BMW coupe plowed into her. It seemed almost comical, a big pratfall and her astonishment. She went under the car and the driver, screaming, “Dumb cunt!” out his window, backed up and drove over her head and sped off. Lance noticed the car had a manual transmission, and he applauded the young man for learning to drive a stick.
He was ashamed of his detachment, and he prayed about it many times later. But he learned from a therapist that it was shock, and it was natural. It didn’t mean he didn’t love his daughter. He learned from the newspaper that the young man, who was 17 and lived four blocks from him, was under the influence of several drugs, none of which Lance had heard of.
Lance had made his way to the intersection where what remained of Cara lay in crushed pieces. Tappie whined and strained to get at her body. Lance saw her beeper, undamaged, and kicked it down the sewer grate, where it splashed in the water. A witness, a neighbor who was planting bulbs, ran inside and called the ambulance and the police and both arrived in a couple of minutes. They asked the witness most of the questions. When a policeman asked Lance if he saw the incident, he said, “Yes. It’s my daughter.” The cop wasn’t sure if she meant the dead creature on the ground or the driver. Lance pointed as the dog continued to whine and howl. “Her. Her.”
“Jesus,” said the cop. “Candelario, take this man home.” He spoke low to his colleague. The heavyset Candelario went, “Oh, shit,” and treated Lance gently as he bundled him and the dog into the police car. When they got home Sheila was out. They sat in the over-formal living room and Lance gave a statement for the accident report. Candelario said the department would get Lance and his wife in touch with a counselor. There would be the formality of identifying the body. Lance said okay, he’d do it. He didn’t want his wife to see. Sheila came up the driveway as the cop was leaving. She laughed and the sun shone on her and she said, “Uh-oh, another speeding ticket?”
The men fixed her with a look. “Cara? Cara?” No one had to tell her anything. She walked up the front steps slowly, very carefully. She turned at the front door and faced them, paler than Lance knew she could be. When he went inside, the house was more still than he knew it could be.
Dear Lord, it was like shards of happiness were falling off her. I think she began to die that day. Not when the cancer was announced. That day. That minute. Her heart died. Please grant her one happy day – one hour – before she dies.
He never told her that the boy who killed their daughter, the son of an important contributor to both political parties, got a year’s probation and three months’ mandatory rehab plus AA and NA meetings for a while, and went East to Brown the following year. Nothing was said about the car’s second pass over Cara’s body. “My fondest desire is for Kyle to get his law degree and carry on the good work at our company, which has served Northeast Ohio for almost one hundred years,” the father told a local business paper.
And he never told Sheila of the pop of Cara’s skull as the boy drove over her the second time.
After Cara died, he prayed for her soul. He did not want her to be an unquiet spirit, restless and pursued by the snakes of Sheol, or the wraiths of Sheol, or something he imagined must be tormenting her crushed body. This was what spurred him to pray, the desire to protect his daughter even as he had not done while she was alive. Now that Sheila was dying, fast though not so fast as Cara had died, he felt that prayers were worry beads, they were a neurotic habit, a way to pacify yourself and – the old Lance asserted himself here – delude yourself that you have some power over death and suffering, and that you can protect anybody at all. Sheila was going to die. Everyone knew it except, at times, her. He was counting the months, weeks, days.
When Sheila died he would have no one. No friends, really – the friends they had, few as they were, were Sheila’s friends. He had tolerated them for her sake. He had almost no family – parents dead, one brother who lived in Hawaii. They hadn’t seen each other in years or even spoken on the phone since Cara was born.
He gazed unseeing at his dying wife, sinking into death so slowly, so surely, but not surely enough for the living to retake their own lives. He thought the last prayer he would utter. Take her now; end this misery; amen.
He watched her die. He forced himself to sit there and watch it. She was so heavily sedated that she no longer thrashed about much. Her eyes were closed. He wiped the drool out of the corners of her mouth until she opened her mouth in an O to breathe. The nurse on duty that night said that was common in the dying. Lance told her he read about hundreds of masks found in the ruins of a village in Turkey that was six or seven thousand years old, and the masks all had this feature: O. She patted him on the shoulder and left him alone.
About four thirty Sheila’s eyes opened. He jumped up and crooned, “Shee, it’s me, hey, I -- !” Her eyes were staring at the ceiling where there was some water damage, and she seemed afraid. She got restless. She moaned and he thought she was trying to say something to him. Her eyes seemed to sink very deep into her head. A deep exhalation and then nothing. O mouth. Staring eyes. A look that told nothing. He closed her eyes and held her hand until it started to feel cool. The nurse came in 20 minutes after he buzzed for her and whispered, “I’m sorry. She was a fighter.”
Lance nodded. He hoped she hadn’t been feeling horror in her last moments of life. He hoped it was him, projecting on her the horror he felt.
He sat back in the chair, spent, feeling next to dead himself. Another death, another of his most precious loves on earth gone. If there are such a thing as souls, he thought, maybe they’re near me now – consoling each other. A blink of a vision: Cara running to Sheila crying, “Mom! Mom! I missed you!”
He got up and left the hospice and went out into the icy parking lot. It was still a long time until sunrise. Bleak January. Epiphany. He got in his car. He closed his eyes and tried to pray. But why? His prayers had availed him and Sheila nothing. The cloying vision of Cara angered him. It was false, it was pure wishful thinking. Cara was dead. Sheila was dead. It was an outrage. An affront to him. Why should he pray to a deity who’d do such a thing to a faithful servant? What the fuck was wrong with Job? He was a rabbinical lesson and an insult to intelligence. A prefab construct, like a trailer in a tornado. The lesson had nothing to impart to him. He was on his own in this world.
Lance was rigid with anger as he drove, slowly and with great care, over the black ice to the house. He saw the sky brighten as he climbed the steps to the front door. It was cold and utterly still inside. He went to the kitchen and put together a little supper of bread and cheese. He imagined the animals peeping out from behind doors, assessing his mood, looking for Sheila. But as soon as Sheila went into hospice he gave the Christmas plates and Ozzie to Doreen. For Tappie he found a home with some St. Saviour people who had another dog and demanded a monthly stipend to cover Tappie’s food and medical care; weary, he said all right and thought, Christianity at work.
Lance went down to the family room and put on the gas fireplace. The room still smelled of her, chemicals mostly. He thought of the moment he closed her eyes. She was still warm. The touch of her cold hand as the night was coming to its end. He realized now that they had changed her out of the pretty satin pajamas he had asked them to put on her in the morning; at the end she had on a simple hospital gown, something for a shroud when they cremated her. Burnt and, finally, consumed.
He bit off a chunk of baguette and washed it down with a swallow of red wine. It was hard to swallow because tears seemed to be flooding up from his chest.
He had nothing to say.