Bright flows the river, p.18

Bright Flows the River, page 18

 

Bright Flows the River
 



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  The hospital was warm and bustling though it was still very early. “Dr. Smithson? Yes, I believe he is waiting for you, Mr. Jerald, in his offices.” Guy prayed that the receptionist would not mention the “cancer floor,” and she did not, but her eyes on Tom were compassionate. “Second floor, office 222.”

  Dr. John Smithson was a smiling but serious young man with a fresh face and clear discerning eyes. He shook hands with the father and son, remarked on the weather, took them into his examining rooms, and asked Tom to take off his clothes. When undressed and when Tom stood before Guy, the son experienced again that terrible pain. For he saw mortality in his father’s withered and wrinkled flesh, he who had seen many of the dead in Europe. But he clenched his teeth and lips and hands and said nothing. He saw that the doctor’s eyes had confirmed his terror. The physician helped Tom onto the examining table and Guy could no longer look. He went to a window and looked down blindly on the cars and the people on the street below. Once he heard his father make a cringing sound, and he forced his nails into his palms. Time passed. Dr. Smithson said to Tom, “You may get dressed now, Mr. Jerald.” He drew a deep breath. “Why didn’t you come to me months ago?”

  “Why? I was all right until lately. It’s only old age.” Now Guy turned and saw the physician assisting Tom with his clothing. He saw his father’s bare feet, shriveled and pathetic, the arms fleshless, the shoulder blades like pushing wood through his skin, the acute angle of his jaw, the touching beard. He said, “Doctor, X rays?”

  The physician hesitated. He patted Tom gently on the shoulder. “Please go out into the waiting room, Mr. Jerald. I want to consult your son about something.”

  “Ah, no,” said Tom. “I’m the patient, ain’t I? I’m not a squealing woman or a peeing kid. I’m a man, though there don’t seem much left of me, is there?” He chuckled lewdly. “What’s there to know I want to know. It’s my body, and nobody else’s. Tell me all your soothing lies, Doctor.”

  “Would you like to stay in the hospital—for a while, Mr. Jerald?”

  “What, and have you fellas taking away my last drop of poor old blood and cutting little pieces out of me for biopsies and shoving bedpans under me? No.” His voice was still amused but his face had become a face Guy had never seen before—stern and fixed. “Look, Doctor, I know what’s wrong with me. I have cancer. I knew that almost from the start.”

  “If you had that—idea—why didn’t you come sooner?”

  Tom shrugged. “I know, I know, the X rays, the barium meals, the long days and nights of pain, the degradation of slowly dying in a hospital bed. I’ve got cancer of the stomach, haven’t I? Come on, Doctor, speak up like a man. We’re all men here.”

  The dread word was out, like a bared sword, a murdering sword.

  “You’d have taken out my stomach. Now, I’m a physical coward, Doctor. Prolonged pain isn’t my preference. My uncle died of the thing. I had a brother who died of it, and he only twenty-five. I’m not going to say you can’t sometimes cure it, but I knew from the start that you couldn’t cure me.”

  Dr. Smithson folded his arms on his chest. “Yes, you are right, Mr. Jerald. You have a massive—tumor—in your stomach. It has already metastasized. Pancreas. Supraclavicular lymph nodes, peritoneum. I don’t need X rays to tell me that. It’s—gross. If you had come—”

  Tom shook his head. “No. I didn’t want that. Hospitals. Nurses. Opiates. Operations after operations. Bloodletting. Pitying faces. Indignities. Beds. Extension of a life that isn’t a life. I often remember what Chaucer said in his ‘Wife of Bath’:

  “—when that is remembreth me

  Upon my youth and on my jolitee

  It tickleth me about min herte roote—

  That I have had my world as in my time.

  “I’ve had my time, Doctor, and it was better than what most other people have. And I’ll leave this lovely world, not as a screaming mindless lump of agony, but as a man, on my feet.”

  The loathsome sickness and terror in Guy had increased during this exchange. His heart was one gigantic horror and grief. He said, “Pa—”

  “No, son, I’ll die when I must, and like a man, with no regrets and with less suffering than the other way. When I was in my war, and could walk around with all that shrapnel in my leg, they put me to work in a hospital ward, in Old Blighty, as we called England then. I saw what endless pain can do to a man. It can reduce him to an animal, robbed of his humanity. I prefer it this way.”

  The physician had listened with respect and surprise, for he had not thought Tom an educated man at first. He said, “There are people—”

  Tom lifted his hand, kindly. “I know. ‘Who are walking around without a stomach.’ I know. But I want to die intact. What suits one man repels another. I’ve loved living, more than most men have loved it. But I’ll leave it with no regrets. And in peace.”

  “Mr. Jerald, I will be frank with you. What you have described would be quite true, and I won’t lie, for you are a brave man. But you are still going to have considerable pain. All we can do for you now is to give you palliatives, derivatives of opium, and such, when it gets—unbearable.”

  “Will it dull my mind?”

  The doctor hesitated. “Well, yes. But isn’t that better than pain?”

  “No. Not to me, sir, not to me. Sleeping away what’s left of my life, until the final sleep. I want to be aware until the last minute; I want to be on my feet until the last, clear-minded. I know what pain is. I can stand it.”

  “Do you think it’s fair to your family?”

  “Do you think it’s fair to my—family—to force them to watch me die inch by inch, instead of quick yards? Until they pray for me to die, and then feel guilty all the rest of their lives? I’ve tried to be a just man, in my fashion.”

  He was so tired that he leaned against the examining table, but when the doctor would have taken his arm he opened his eyes and smiled. Guy could not move. Tom said, “How long?”

  “I don’t know, sir. It could be a month, three months, six. But not longer than six.”

  “Let’s hope it’s soon.”

  “You are a brave man, Mr. Jerald.”

  Tom shook his head. “I don’t know. Perhaps I’m a coward for not wanting to drag this thing on for a long time. Let the inevitable come as soon as possible.”

  He looked at Guy and his skeleton face almost crumpled. “Son,” he said. “Let’s be men. Don’t make it harder for everybody. We’ll tell Sal the truth, and then let’s not talk of it any longer. It will be easier for me, too.”

  Guy never remembered leaving the hospital with his father. Tom would not let him hold his arm—he remembered that. He did see the street, and it wore all the shadows of agony, all the grotesque shapes of pain and despair.

  They were in the car and rolling back to the farm and there were only white dazzle and black darkness before Guy’s eyes, and often the car swerved and slid. Guy felt that his voice had become frozen, petrified. A dozen times he began to speak but no sound came.

  At last Tom said, “Son, give me peace.”

  When Guy still could not speak, Tom continued: “Socrates asked why a man should fear death. If it is only a sleep, then how sweet sleep is. If one lives after death, then that also is good.”

  He looked at Guy’s profile, wan as death itself, the aquiline nose pinched, the mouth set in suffering, the dark face a mask of torment, the black hair as ruffled as if it had been in a high gale.

  Tom said with tenderness but new strength, “There are things you should know, son. I’ve left Sal an insurance policy for fifteen thousand dollars. I hope she marries a man who will be kind to her, and loving, and appreciate her. But no one could fully appreciate Sal. I wonder if you could help her. I’d like that. I’ve left your ma all I have in the bank—two thousand dollars. And I’ve left you the farm, lock, stock, and barrel, and there’s no mortgage on it. I paid that off years ago. And there’s four hundred dollars for my funeral.”

  “Pa,”
said Guy, and the water was deep in his eyes.

  “Come on, son! We all have to die, sooner or later. It’s the one inevitability we’ll ever know. You are still young. You have your life, and your health, and your future. What does it matter that I haven’t any of that? Eventually we lose everything, through death, if not by taxes. I hate to quote your ma, but she is right when she said we are only lent things in this world. They are not really ours. Except our lives, for the time we have left. Then even those are taken from us. We came out of the unknown and we’ll return to it. Amen.” He chuckled. “Never thought I’d end up quoting clichés.”

  Guy slowed down to clear his eyes and to light a cigarette. The car crawled. He did not see his father watching him with sad compassion. Tom said, “Oh, the damned paraphernalia of dying! I wish they’d invent a ray or something to touch a corpse and make it disappear instantly, without dragging out the miserable amenities. Listen to me. I don’t want to be buried. I don’t want the noble earth to be polluted by my wretched body. I want to be cremated, and my ashes scattered, and if you don’t mind, I’d like those ashes to be scattered over my land. That is, if the accursed authorities will let you do it. Well, I hear they put the ashes in some kind of a box. You can open it yourself, some night when the moon is out, and scatter them, and no one will be the wiser. I want no grave for anyone to visit and suffer the whole thing over again. When I leave this world I want to be gone, with no trace of me anywhere.”

  He waited. Then Guy said, “All right, Pa.”

  Tom said delicately, “And, if you can arrange it, I’d like your ma not to be at the funeral, or the cremation. I don’t want Sal hurt any more than she will be.”

  “All right, Pa,” said Guy again, feeling suffocated.

  “And I’d like it even better if you didn’t tell her I was dying. Oh, you’ll arrange everything, I’m sure. I trust you, son.” He paused. “By the way, no parson. Is that understood? No public funeral, nobody but you and Sal.”

  “Yes.”

  How could the sun shine so blazingly when the only thing one loved was dying? It was a mockery, a curse. Guy was forced to stop the car on the shoulder. He folded his arms on the wheel and put his head down on them. He did not cry or speak. He simply could not go on for a few minutes. Tom waited, understanding. Once he put his hand on Guy’s shoulder, but that was all. Of the two he was the stronger.

  Sal came running to the car the moment it stopped before the door, and when she saw Guy’s face she became mute and her face lost all color and her mouth opened in a soundless sob. Tom put his arm about her. “Now, Sal, let’s have no talk. It’s all over. I have a month or so, and I want it to be a happy month. I want to be happy with you. Please?”

  She took his hand then. “Yes, sweetheart, oh yes.”

  They went into the house. The wood stove was crackling, the kitchen shining with light. “I have some whiskey around here,” said Tom. “A toast. To life.” He kissed Sal. “But above all, to love.”

  A little later Guy called his mother. “Ma, Pa isn’t too well just now. I’m coming home for some of my clothes. I’m going to stay here with him until he is better.… Now, wait a minute. I need to take care of some—things. It won’t be long.… I’ll go every day to the mill; it’s near this place, almost as near as home. And I’ll stop in every Friday to see you and give you thirty dollars.”

  “You’re not a real son, Guy, deserting your mother for a father who never cared about us, and to be in the same house with that wicked woman! It’s shameful, that’s what it is. Haven’t you any pride?” Mary’s voice was an indignant shriek of outrage. “A scandal.”

  She did not ask about the man who had been her husband for twenty-eight years. Guy felt a surge of hatred for her, and he never loved her again.

  When he arrived back in Cranston, Mary did not notice how sallow his dark face had become, how leaden his lips, how pent his expression. She assaulted him with reproaches. She followed him into his bedroom, protesting his packing. Then she cried, “Can’t you say something? What’s the matter with you? You ought to be ashamed.”

  “I haven’t anything to say, Ma. Nothing at all. I’m—tired.”

  “A whole day’s pay wasted! You’ll be lucky to get your job back!”

  “I called this morning. It’s all right.”

  “Well.” She subsided for a moment. Then she said, “I’ve been a decent person all my life. No one can say anything bad about me, Guy. I’ve done the very best I could. You know that. How can you treat me that way? And only thirty dollars a week instead of your usual thirty-five. Is that fair?”

  “I won’t be eating here, Ma.”

  “But there’s your room.”

  He was so beset that he turned on her a frank face of hate and she saw it and stepped back a pace or two. “Rent the damned room,” he said. “I may not be coming back at all. Take my things out, the rest of them, the summer suits. Everything. Put them anywhere.”

  “You won’t be coming back? Not coming back?”

  “I don’t know yet. I’ve got to make up my mind about something.”

  “You’ve got a girl, a creature like that Sal, out there! And you know what a sinful thing that is. You’re not thinking of getting married?”

  “No. Please stand away from my bureau. I need some work shirts.”

  “Then it’s some hussy, all four of you living down on that awful farm! After what I’ve taught you, and everything, to be God-fearing—”

  He could not control himself. He shouted, “Damn your God! Damn everything!”

  Mary was struck silent with horror. Then she said, “I smell whiskey on your breath—whiskey. Drunk like your father.”

  “True,” said Guy. He closed his cheap suitcase. “I want to be like my father. I will be content if I’m ever the man he was—is.”

  “You can say that to your mother, who worked so hard for you, and gave you a decent home? What did he ever do for you except to teach you godless ways, and to swear at your mother and curse her, and let you be in the company of an evil woman, a Jezebel?”

  “I don’t know, yet, what he did for me, but someday I’ll find out, I hope.”

  He went to the outside door and she followed him, wailing, but he had no pity for her. He did not speak another word. He threw his suitcase into his car and drove off, the fenders spitting snow. Mary stood on the doorstep until the car was out of sight. Then she cried and shivered with desolation. She was a good woman. As Tom had said, that was her curse.

  As if he knew that it was unbearable for Sal and Guy to hear his sleeping groans, Tom no longer groaned in the night. When Guy returned home from the mill, Tom at first made feeble protests when his son took over more and more of the farm chores. The two who loved him never remarked on the fact that he was growing weaker every day, that it was now an effort for him to speak too much, and he ate almost nothing. They knew his suffering, but he did not speak of it or betray it in any manner. Tom sat by the stove, and he did not object when Sal put a blanket over his knees. He read his books, commented on them to Guy, and listened to the radio. His remarks were as sharp as ever, his smile always ready, his quips keener. And he died a little more each day, and his eyes grew larger if dimmer. He had finally stopped smoking. He just put away his pipe and never lit it again.

  Guy and Sal did not pretend that everything was normal. But they did their work as usual, sometimes commenting on the stock to each other and Tom. They did not give the air of waiting for the dread inevitable. They did not talk in subdued voices. They did not ask Tom how he felt each morning, for which he was grateful. When Sal cried it was when she went with Guy to feed the stock and gather the eggs, but her face was resolute and calm when she returned with him. Sometimes, in the dark warm barn she would throw herself into Guy’s arms and he would silently hold her until she wiped her eyes. But they did not talk of what was impending. They did not, in the house, assist Tom to walk when he faltered and caught the back of a chair or the edge of a table. Again, he was
grateful.

  They watched him die and knew that this was worse even than death. They knew now what he had spared them. He was no longer able to walk outside, but he often stood at the window looking out at the cold and silent land. One day he said, “It’s February. In a month it will be spring again. I’d like to see the spring once more.” Then he turned to Sal and Guy and smiled.

  One late-February morning he could not get up, even with the assistance of Sal and Guy. He lay back on the plump goose-feather pillows which Sal had made and looked up at his love and his son. He tried to speak. It was too much effort and he suddenly fell asleep again. His body scarcely lifted the warm blankets. It was almost flat. He slept through the day, never stirring.

  The crescent moon burned like a wire of white flame in the black sky when he awoke. He saw Guy sitting near him, his hands clasped on his knees, his head bent. Now he could speak. He said, “Son, I think this is it.” His voice was only a hoarse whisper. He said, “Call Sal.”

  Guy returned with Sal, and they stood beside him, holding his cold hands. He looked at them and all his spirit stood in his darkening eyes. He looked until he could not see them any longer and all was a swirling mist about him.

  Guy bent over him. Tom was whispering very faintly. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death—”

  Only Guy heard him, and could not understand. He had never heard the words before. What did they mean?

  Then Tom uttered a single gasp, and his body moved in a long shudder. His eyes stared open, his mouth gently smiled. And so he died.

  It was Sal who closed those dead eyes and kissed those icy lips. Guy could only stand and gaze down at his father, unmoving, the kerosene lamp flickering on the table. There was the silence of death in the room. Guy did not know that Sal had left the room and then had returned. She was putting something in his hand. He looked dumbly and slowly down at it. It was a rosary. He recognized that, at least, for he had seen some of the men at the mill with such an article.

 

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