The Last Welcome


“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.” - Charles Darwin

I am a changed man.

I knew it before I walked through the weather worn oak door, the storm screen rusted and removed years ago but never replaced. It never rained enough here to warrant buying a new one, I remember telling Bay as I struggled to remove it from its hinges. But the screws were stripped so it ended up taking me much longer than I’d anticipated.

I knew I was changed in the permanent sense the moment my tread bare bicycle tire touched the cracked pavement at the end of our driveway, and I was unsure whether I had come to the right house; and I know it now, beyond any shadow of a doubt, as I sit here in the rocking chair that has been sitting in the corner of our matchbox bedroom since the week before Christopher was born.

The deep golden rays of the setting sun have always looked this way from here, coming into this room. The surprising, high windows that line the western and southern walls of the master bedroom inside our red brick bungalow are the primary reason we never moved from this place in all thirty-five years that we’ve been married. On sweltering nights, the kind we sometimes get during the dog days of summer, we would leave all the windows open. The evening breeze would blow through, cooling our bodies as we lay in bed.

Yes, it was the windows that kept us here. That and financial constraints, of course.

Remembering what it feels like to have a breeze kiss my cheek while watching the day’s dying sun illuminate Bay’s face, calm and smooth as though she hadn’t a care in the world, perplexes me more than anything else I’ve encountered. I saw this same sun just yesterday. And yet this seems impossible to me, if impossible were a word that held any merit, because I haven’t set a foot inside the walls of our home in a quarter of a century. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that the word ‘impossible’ is as real as a sun that never sets or waves that never crash.

I would say that I’m a stranger in my own home, but I’m not. Everything is exactly as I left it just twenty-four hours ago. Not even the most thirst quenched blades of grass on our postage stamp lawn have grown since I saw them last. I’m coming home not as a stranger, but as a lost soul who has found absolution—

I’ll stop myself there.

So much time spent alone, living in silence that only stars and planets should ever come to know, has left its mark. I don’t know when I’m rambling, or saying something no one, not even my honeybee beauty, wants to hear.

So, I’ll close my eyes and empty my mind. I’ve done this many times before, each time more unnerving than the last. This time, this final time, is most unnerving. What if it doesn’t work? What if, this time of all times, she doesn’t open her eyes? What if my life has been the cruel joke of a bored bully and all our suffering and bliss has come down to this exact moment, and I’m about to become the punchline? These questions plague me even though I know that none of it matters in the end. I’ve seen all there is to see in this world, and more. If this is how man discovers that he has a destiny than so be it. I have lived enough to be grateful to have been let in on the joke at all.

Ah, there I go again. Rambling like a raving lunatic who’s haunted by a burning sun, like a fiery eye that never stops watching.

“This is it, Jocko,” I mutter to the old grey beard schnauzer who stands guard next to Bay. He hasn’t moved in ten years but he’s never looked more alive. A fit of coughing overtakes me. I wait for it to pass. Water used to help sooth my throat but it doesn’t anymore, so I don’t bother reaching for my bottle.

I can’t get over the feeling that I’ve forgotten something important, maybe even the most important thing. This isn’t a new fear. I feel it every time but my mind isn’t as sharp as it used to be so I tell myself that it’s up to its old tricks again. I shake my body all over, blowing my cheeks and flapping my tongue to make noises that would embarrass my mother. The motions help me relax so that I’m as ready as one can be for the cacophony of the universe.

I clear my mind.

A dandelion appears in the empty expanse between my ears where rambling thoughts just recently echoed. It’s the kind of dandelion that’s covered in fluffy seeds, like tiny feather parasols, just waiting to be carried off on a warm breeze on a hazy day. I don’t need to remember the dandelion, or anything at all for that matter, but I do because I like the ritual of it all. It’s like tipping my hat to the universe before it opens a door for me to walk through. I worry that if I stop giving thanks then maybe next time it’ll refuse me passage, and I’ll be locked somewhere I don’t want to be. So now every time I do this I pick a memory (or rather a memory picks me as I just wait for one to pop into my mind), and I give thanks.

“Go,” I whisper, and remember how the dandelion looked. Tapered kernels carrying the promise of new life, each with its own feather cap, scattered like a trail of breadcrumbs up across the sky.

I breathe deeply.

The sudden lack of quiet is overwhelming, as it always is, but I’ve been waiting years to hear her voice and I’m attuned to its gentle notes. I can’t miss it in the din.

“Vole,” she breaths. Her voice is like that now, all breathy, as though every pump of her lungs is shallow and barely there.

I feel a warm tongue on the back of my hand and a cold nose push into my palm. My hand begins to move of its own accord, finding the spot behind Jock’s salt and pepper bristly moustache. He’s become much suckier through all this. Before I used to rub him down and give him treats once a day, but for the past twenty-four hours of his life I’ve barely stopped.

“How long this time?” she asks, quietly.

It takes me a moment to understand her words. Gathering meaning from sound is a skill that’s very similar to riding a bike. The first few times you get back into it after years of negligence, you’re wobbly and slow and wont to do something stupid.

I shake my head, and take a drink of water before responding.

“Vole?”

“I’m sorry, honeybee,” I apologize quickly and squeeze her hand. I’d forgotten she can no longer see. “It hasn’t been long,” I tell her.

She smiles in my direction, a blaze of sunshine and warmth cast broadly, and nods. Just hours ago she would’ve fought me and insisted on hearing every detail of every day that passed, but she’s too tired now. Instead, her sightless eyes turn inward, and I hear her think.

“Did we make it?” she eventually asks.

“We did, my flower.”

Her shallow breath escapes her lips in a sigh of relief.

“I thought so. Will you tell me how it went? From the beginning, please. I want to hear everything, just one more time before…”

She trails off and pauses before asking, “Will you do that for me?”

I’m grateful, for once, that she can’t see, because she’d be disturbed by the tears cascading down my cheeks and dribbling off my chin. Bay always hated seeing anyone cry. It always made her cry a thousand times harder. She has a special kind of beauty of the soul. The rare kind that absorbs pain from others and grants them relief and freedom in turn, but she suffers for it.

As though she can sense my distress she brings my skeleton hand to her lips, and kisses my knuckle. “Shhh.” She shushes me like she once shushed our baby boy in his pine wood cradle. “Don’t be sad. Not for me. I’m the luckiest girl in the world because of you.”

I chuckle lightly, and the tightness in my throat eases. It’s our own private joke, this thing called luck. A concept I would’ve disregarded and never given the time of day to for most of our marriage. Where once I would’ve scoffed and said luck has nothing to do with anything, that only hard work is King, today I give credit where credit’s due.

“You were born lucky, honeybee. I had nothing to do with it. Are you comfortable?”

“I am.” She pats the soft mattress next to her and Jock abandons my scratching fingers to sit by his mistress. He and I share a lot in common, but nothing more than this: Bay, my honeybee queen, is the love of our lives.

“Good. Your medicine’s right next to you,” I say as I guide her hand to the cup that holds her pills and help her swallow them down with a drink of water.

“From the very beginning?” she asks once more. A gentle plea from a tired soul.

“From the beginning,” I confirm, and lay down next to her. I place her head on my chest, gently, and wrap her in my arms. These days my body’s most at ease sitting so I’m grateful when I feel my limbs relax enough to allow the downy softness of our bed to cradle me in comfort. We’ve slept this way, in this very bed, for decades. Barely missing more than a day. The soft mattress knows the curves and dips of our bodies well. When Bay first became ill and the disease began to eat away at her already-thin body, the spaces in our bed that formed over the years seemed to envelop her. Now, we are both so frail that we must look like little James tucked inside his giant peach as we curl up close to one another.

Jock’s happy about it all, I must say, because now he can press even closer against Bay than ever before.

The three of us lay there, fitted together like the nested measuring spoons Christopher gave us years ago. They were one of the first gifts he’d ever given us, paid for with money he earned himself by sweeping floors at the pharmacy down the street, just past the corner of Blunte and Harmony. No matter how dented and scratched those spoons got, Bay always refused to trade them in for a newer set. The touch of Bay’s skin and the smell of her hair is comforting. Little things, like the way Bay smells, and the way the tips of her once-long honey brown hair (now greying and shoulder length but still silky and soft) brush across her shoulders, are my greatest comforts. I’ve become used to a world that’s unchanging and these constants have come to anchor me.

But I digress, and I’m ashamed for wasting the most precious minutes of all. I must go back to the beginning as Bay has asked me to do. Back to when I was her husband, and Bay was my wife, and we were just done celebrating thirty-five years of marriage together. To when the fruit of this world that we’d been waiting our entire lives to pluck, folded in on itself and everything came crashing down.

THE END. OF CHAPTER ONE.

Next Chapter: What Others Are Saying (actually)