‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anyone else, these pages must show.’
‘What’s the name of the hardback you’re reading Harold?’ Betty Ramis asked her husband. ‘I heard you talking aloud just now as I was coming in.’
Harold looks at the books cover he is holding briefly before wiping away a thin layer of dust with the palm of his hand. ‘It’s a copy of David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, written in 1850. Those were the opening lines from the novel. I thought I’d read some of it as we traveled, you know how I’m not great with small talk on long journeys.’
Betty gives Harold a loving pat on his shoulder as she passes by to lift a small black suitcase which has been sitting below the summer house window waiting to be put into their car since she’d packed it the night before. ‘What ever makes you happy dear’ she smiles. ‘I can just listen to the radio or we could pack a few audio CD’s, any preferences?’
‘You choose’ Harold replies quietly, which seems to Betty to be a half hearted conciliation. She thinks but won’t say that he has become distant, more isolated in his own thoughts since the letter arrived from Washington. Understandable she supposes, considering its content.
‘You like Dean Martin don’t you’ she says running her finger along a line of neatly stacked audio CD’s. Arranged alphabetically just below the row of various themed books on another white shelf from which Harold had extracted his traveling reading choice. She notices a small gap between the others indicating where it had been. There are three Dean Martin albums, one which has all his Christmas hits (not suitable for a September drive, she thinks), another is mostly Italian love songs; again she considers this too is inappropriate for a daytime journey. When she flips it over to read the song list a wave of sadness rolls over her as she remembers the last time she’d enjoyed the disc’s music, memories flood in of a balmy summer’s night on Hawaii’s Kauna’oa Bay’s beautiful beach. Sipping cold Martini’s from ice frosted glasses under a canopy of stars, and dancing together bare foot in the warm sand as the ocean’s tide, like a light rain, rolled in behind them. The trip had been a surprise fortieth wedding anniversary present. He’d secretly brought along a small portable player which he placed on the table between them after they’d finished dinner. Pushing the play button before taking her hand, leading her onto the sand, oh how romantic it was. Instead he’d told her they were going to visit her sister Margery who had retired along with her husband Henry to West Palm Beach Florida at the end of 2006.
Something she now wishes maybe they should have thought about after seeing how they both lived during a visit a few years ago. A Gated private retirement village next to a golf course with twenty four hour security and a communal swimming pool, not to mention their social life which seemed to be endless rounds of dinner parties or afternoon barbeques. She never brought it up, however in any of their conversations since they’d arrived home, Harold just wasn’t the type of man for change, adventure or romance. So for him to covertly arrange such a wonderful trip was totally out of character.
Slowly she slips the plastic carrier back into its place, then selects the remaining disc, a compilation twin set of Dean’s best hits.
‘Are you OK sweetheart?’ Harold asks her noticing she has momentarily gone quiet.
‘I’m fine’ she says clearing her throat, but the lump now in it is hard to swallow. ‘Better put your hat on dear, the weather forecast gives rain’
‘But I’ll only be in the car’ Harold says defiantly. Except he knows he’ll do as she asks, he always does.
‘I’ve made some cheese sandwiches and a flask of hot coffee for the trip; I thought we could stop for a picnic at the Cristina River if we come off at the Delaware turnpike before Wilmington,’ Betty says. ‘What do you think?’ Harold has closed his book and is now cleaning its jacket with a white handkerchief he always keeps tucked up the sleeve of his navy blue cardigan. ‘Maybe we should just drive straight through; it’s not as if we are going on vacation is it, and besides what’s the point?’ he says not looking at her. Dust motes float and dance in the warm summerhouse air around Harold’s novel and moving hands. Betty thinks about saying he should be careful not to breathe them in because she remembered reading somewhere how linen fibers can cause cancer over time if caught in the lungs. But why bother, she hates it when he doesn’t look at her when he’s talking, even more so when he doesn’t listen.
‘Besides you know I hate cheese sandwiches’ Harold grouches. ‘They give me gas’
‘It’s a six hour drive, Harold, from New York to Washington’ Betty says shaking her head. ‘And you always get cranky when you get tired and hungry, but if you like I can put some ham in with the cheese. Will that make you happy?’
‘Suppose’ Harold says dryly without interrupting his cleaning. ‘But won’t that make us late if you have to put together more, you know how I hate to be late for anything Betty’
‘It’ll only take a few moments’
‘Nah!, don’t bother, I’ll eat the cheese’ Harold says looking at his watch.
Betty sigh’s deeply and lifts the suitcase wondering how she ever stayed married so long to such a cantankerous man. She loved him; still does she supposes, and knows she’d miss him if he wasn’t around. But there were times like now when he just gets on her nerves.
Like a lost child looking for his mother, Harold follows her down the hallway towards the front door carrying nothing more than his book, completely ignoring his wife’s suitcase which is standing at the foot of the stairs waiting to be loaded. ‘Do you know where my hat is Betty?’ he asks. His question makes her sigh once more. She’s not the keeper of his battered old white panama after all.
‘Oh wait!’ he says like he’s having a eureka moment that immediately dissipates into nothing more than a confused look. ‘Didn’t I wear it to church on Sunday, but where did I put it, you didn’t see it did you?’
‘Maybe you should try the hat stand at the back door Harold?’ Betty says sarcastically ‘And while you are there you’ll find your gray overcoat, the warm one I bought you last Christmas. I think you should wear it too.’
Harold pecks her lovingly on the cheek and smiles ‘what would I do without you sweetheart’
‘Yes indeed’ Betty sighs again ‘I’ll see you in the car, and don’t forget to lock up; I don’t want to come home to find the house has been burgled’ she says, but she’s pretty sure he won’t remember by the time he finds his hat and coat and she’ll have to do it herself anyway.
She knows it will take him a while; since lately she has noticed small tasks have been coming increasingly difficult for him to complete. It will give her enough time to be able to pack both cases and hamper into the car and while she is waiting she will look at the letter again. Although before she gets the chance to find it in her handbag her cell phone rings. The screen information tells her it’s their only daughter Candice. For a moment she considers whether to answer it or not. As far as she’s concerned there’s no point in going over everything again, the talking is finished. The final decision has been made and Candice will just have to accept it. Reluctantly she connects the call.
‘So you’re going then’ she hears her daughter reply, and even though she can’t see Candice she’s sure she’s been crying. Maybe it’s just as well she never got round to putting that face time app thing on her phone as Candice has often suggested, she thinks, she couldn’t bear to see her upset, not today. It would be bad enough just to talk with her.
‘It’s what your Father wants’
‘I don’t think you tried hard enough’ Candice says ‘But I’ll meet you there if you want me to’
‘I think he’d like that’
‘When are you leaving?’
Betty looks at the dashboard clock, it's 11.10 am. ‘We’re already ten minutes late, he’s looking for his hat, I’d better go see what’s keeping him’
‘Oh, Ok, - What time did the letter say you need to be there?’
‘They’ve scheduled us in for nine this evening, but we need to register before 5pm’
‘We could have dinner later; I might be able to book a table for seven thirty. Dad likes Italian right, we could go to that place over on Water Street, Osteria Morini they serve nice food there. Danny used to take me sometimes, before we were married, but I haven’t been since we got divorced. I think it’s still open though.’
‘I’ll mention it to him honey, but he’s in a bit of a mood at the moment so don’t get you’re hopes up. Have you seen Danny lately?’
There’s a pause in the conversation and for a second Betty thinks she’s lost the signal ‘He’s getting married again I heard’ Candice finally whispers. This time she wishes she had the App after all.
‘Do you know who it is?’ Betty asks as rain drops begin to pepper the dust on the car’s hood and trickle down the windshield like teardrops. She glances anxiously at the front door which is still open and thinks how the TV weather forecaster on Fox morning was right on the money.
‘Brenda Conroy’ Candice says flatly ‘we went to high school together, we were friends, she was my maid of honor, of all people don’t you remember her? She was a plumpish little carrot top with glasses back then. I knew she always had a thing for Danny ever since I introduced her to him’
‘Do you think it was her he was seeing behind your back? you never did find out who it was, after all, when you suspected he was cheating’
‘Maybe Mom, but if wasn’t her it would have been someone else. Besides I’m over him now, I’m moving on, you know that’s why I’m leaving D.C’
Betty sits in silence contemplating what to say next; she wants to agree with Candice, empower her with some positive words. But she knows deep down they would be wasted. It’s clear her daughter still loves her ex-husband.
‘I’d better go’ she says, ‘the rain's getting heaver, and there’s no sign of your Father yet. I’ll call you again when we get close to The Hilton Hotel, how far are you from there?’
‘Ten minutes by cab, how long are you staying for?’
‘Two days once it’s done’
‘Ok, Love you Mom’ Candice says.
‘Me too’ she replies, then disconnects, momentarily staring at the screen. A tension headache is looming on the horizon of her mind, has been all morning, and its ready to roll in if she fails to deal with it right away. If she doesn’t, by experience she knows, it will stay with her most of the day. She searches in her handbag for some Vicodin then remembers she left her pain medication she takes for her click hip beside her bed before finally going to sleep last night. She may as well go and get them she figures, kill two birds with one stone so to speak. Find her pills and see what the hell is keeping Harold. Absentmindedly she looks in the rear view mirror before she gets out, but hates the refection it reveals. Gone is the tightness of youthful skin and the fervor of a woman with her whole life ahead of her. Where there was once thick and healthy strawberry blond locks now there are only gray limp tresses which make her thin face look pale and sickly. Crows feet creases pull at the corner of her seventy year old lips and eyes, and she thinks turning away, there is no pleasure in growing old, and she wonders where that young woman who used to stare back has gone to. She pulls away in aversion and only then does she remember her umbrella is still in the hat stand, placed there after church on Sunday along with Harold’s battered panama. She will have to make a dash to the door.
‘Where are you Harold?’ she calls out almost falling into the hallway. ‘We need to go dear, it's fifteen after, did you find your hat and coat?’ she hears a sound from the kitchen. Harold is sitting at the table dressed to go except for his hat when she comes in. ‘Are you Ok Harold?’ she asks slightly perplexed as to why he’s reading from his book.
‘Do you think I will be seen as the hero of my own life Betty?’ he says without looking at her. She sees the letter from Washington is sticking out from the book like its being used as a page marker. She suspects Harold must have taken it from her handbag while she was loading the car.
‘Will people, will you and Candice think of me as being brave?’
‘We both love you’ she says.
Harold nods slowly in silence, his eyes still fixed on his open book. ‘Or am I a selfish coward, afraid to face the pain that lies ahead, is that what you think?’
‘We’ve talked about this Harold; it's what you want, isn’t it, to take control. You’re already showing the signs of advanced Motor Neuron Disease. The little hand tremors have got worse, the occasional slurred word when you talk on the phone is now more frequent. The changes to your personality and emotions, don’t tell me you haven’t noticed those, because I have. The constant tiredness, soon there will be painful muscle spasms. After a while maybe dementia, then in the final stages you won’t be able to breathe and finally total body paralysis. That’s the part you fear the most, being trapped in your body, isn’t it?’ Harold looks up at her. ‘Yes, having my mind being alive while my body is failing would be too much to bear. You can understand that can't you?’
‘You’re not a coward Harold’ she says reaching down to touch his hand, ‘remember when we met with Dr. Page in January at the ‘‘Graviter Necem Facility’’ and she spoke with us at length of what dying with dignity meant. Her organization provides the medical options of how a terminally ill person choses to die. It was her who said those who take control of their illness rather than it controlling them are the bravest of all. That’s what it says in that letter she wrote to you; it says you have been offered a place to end your life your way today. Her only stipulation was that you were of a satisfied mind. Content that you’ve lived your life the way you wanted and are now willing to accept death in the same way. If you would like to stay here I will be with you, and if you want to go I will be with you too, because I love you’
‘I’ll be leaving you alone Betty, isn’t that being selfish?’
‘Then I’ll just have to be brave too’
Harold nods silently again then lifts his hat from the table and puts it on; he gets up and kisses her on the cheek. ‘I believe I’m satisfied’ he says slipping his other hand into hers. Betty leads them both out into the rain. ‘I spoke with Candice earlier’ she says as they walk. ‘She wants to meet up for dinner later; I said I would ask you first’
‘I think I’d like that’ Harold says as they get into the car.
Betty starts up the engine and engages the windshield wipers; they swipe across the glass in a smooth near silent arc clearing away the rain. She takes out an audio CD from her handbag, removes its disc and slides it into the player. The sounds of Dean Martin begin to drift into the warm interior.
‘I know this song’ Harold starts to say, but has to swallow hard. ‘It’s the one I played for you that night on Kauna’oa Bay’s beach’
‘I remember Harold’ Betty says ‘What do you say we dance one last time in the rain?’
‘I think I’d like that very much’ Harold smiles.