Dawton Diner Regulars
SYLVIE tries to smile back at Ellie but can only attempt to wipe
grief from her face. She is fond of Ellie. Ellie can always
fill the silence that seems to engulf Sylvie these days. Even
when Ellie is quiet she fills the silence somehow. When she
isn't, she's like a big old machine. Give it a bump to set it
going and it will run on forever. A good thing right now.
Sylvie lets most of what Ellie says wash over her, knowing that
Ellie doesn't expect more. Sylvie is remembering Win, the man
who was in the room next to David. David, her husband. David
who died of complications after a long lingering illness. When
he agreed to enter Saffron House, a small hospice near where
they'd lived for 40 years of contented marriage, it relieved them
both. He was glad his dependency on her was ending and she was
glad his imprisonment in a wasting body would soon be over. They
spoke of all this very openly to each other. Discussed death and
their different takes on it. Discussed his wish for no funeral
and her's to hold a memorial service for him. She'd insisted
against his demurrals. He was well loved at the small Quaker
school where he'd been grounds keeper and general maintenance man
for the past forty years. The kids adored him. He did tricks
for them with pennies, finding them in their ears or their hands
or up their noses. They never tired of it. He always made them
giggle. He used two small hand puppets for chastising any unkind
or unsafe behavior and the youngsters heeded the puppets.
Otherwise, he didn't talk. He returned morning or afternoon
greetings by teachers with smiles and a salute or a nod, and for
children, he bowed.
He never talked much, not even with Sylvie who was herself a rather reserved person. Their home easily became for each of them a quiet haven. They shopped and cooked together and read aloud to each other. They took long walks, separately or together, and worked companionably year-round at maintaining home and house-lot. Each had things held dear that weren't shared, but these were accommodated as were all such differences. In moments of brief disagreement, he would cede to her as what he called his elder. She was a leap-year baby, born on February 29th and he was born the following month, on the Ides of March, making her older by two weeks. But only every four years. Otherwise, she had only thirteen days on him and, in those years, on an occasion of one of their infrequent disagreements, his habit of instantly ceding would be delayed long enough for smiling acknowledgement of her lost day of seniority before giving her, as usual, her way. On all years, they celebrated together at a time mid-way between birth dates. That's when they took small get-aways. Birthday Away, they called it. They might fly to a city for two nights of luxury at a grand hotel with marvelous dining. Or they might motor to a lodge on a lake or a cabin in the woods or a shack on a beach "You have fun!" Ellie would declare, half enviously. And indeed they did. Life with David. Now no more. David, whom she'd been with for 40 years, as best friends for the first two, and wedded for the next 38. They met because their jobs were at the same small grammar school, where they started at the same time. She was hired to run an after-school program and be librarian to the school's small collection of books. Sylvie was drawn to the silent man who was so good both with the school grounds and building and with the children, just as he was drawn to her ease with children and love of both them and their learning. They soon realized they fitted together somehow in a way that was part magical and part mystical, and they were married shortly thereafter. At the courthouse. With two secretaries for witnesses. Neither of them had family. David had been adopted from an orphanage by an elderly couple, long dead .and Sylvie's family had left her care and oversight to an spinster aunt, also long since dead, soon after she started college while her family, brother and parents all, emigrated to Australia. Since then, they had supposedly moved, but she hadn't been able to trace them and soon decided that if cutting the bonds was what they wanted, who was she to disoblige them. She hadn't felt the loss in any clanging hurtful way. More like a bad scuff of a knee that healed slowly with the scab dropping off almost unnoticed after a time. So Sylvie and David had been each other's family. And friend. And support. And love. Of a kind. They stopped being lovers after her third miscarriage and subsequent hysterectomy. Failure to have children of their own was something David couldn't get over and wouldn't discuss. Simply withdrew physically from her. In his last days, he apologized for that. Told her she should seek passion, hopefully together with love. That she should re-marry once he was gone. That she deserved that kind of love. He regretted his inability to overcome what had been a bitter grief for him and allow it to continue to live between them. This is a miserably bitter irony for Sylvie.
She turns to study Ellie, who is so deep into her dissertation that she isn't noticing how Sylvie is watching her. Sylvie wonders as she gazes on the familiar face and body language of Ellie what Ellie thinks her, Sylvie's, grief is all about. David, obviously. And Sylvie wonders how shocked Ellie would be if Sylvie confided in her that her grief is not for David but for Win. She had been saying goodbye to David for the two years it took for him to die. He knew it, and did the same thing. Said goodbye to her. No, her grief is not for David, free now of sickness and pain. She has sorrow that the life they shared, the known of it, the surety of it is over, is gone. That she is now alone. Alone with a much keener, much deeper grief for a man she had known barely six weeks. Beginning from the night he'd called to her and asked if she would turn out the small lamp beside his bed that had been left on. She was leaving because the day was long over, David was medicated into a deep narcotic sleep, and her own weariness cried out for a hot shower and her own bed rather than the chair beside David's gurney-like bed, hearing his breath catch and re-start so that her own sleep stopped and re-started like a recording with a hiccup. She had stepped into the shadowy room and reached to the lamp, seeing the man in the bed for the first time. He was startlingly ugly. So ugly he was attractive. And skeletal. Dying, of course, she knew that. But somehow totally alive. She'd sunk into the chair by his bed and gazed at him and he had returned her gaze. They'd started talking. Briefly, but it had been like starting in the middle of a long, intimate relationship. He asked how she was dealing with death and she'd said all the things she hadn't been able to say to David, all the things she had not really said to herself. Somehow he gave her license to be and say just who and how she was. For the first time in her life. When she finished, they'd sat in silence, in the darkened room. Then he surprised her completely. Said he'd often over-heard her humming to David. Said hers was a remarkably lovely voice and would she hum to him before leaving. Just for a bit. Perhaps that old song she hummed so often for David. the last thing at night. So she did. And when his breathing had evened out, she'd risen to stand a moment. Felt understood by this person, without question or doubt. Completely understood for the first time perhaps ever - certainly in her adult life. She moved then to the bedside, and, leaning over, kissed his lips and was startled to feel her kiss returned. Gently. Softly. With no words spoken. Not that night. She took then to stopping in whenever she left David. And she had fallen in love. They had fallen love. In the last six weeks of his life. The last six weeks of David's life. It is unbearable, and it is a fact, and she is hurting so damnably that she thinks she will survive in everlasting angry sorrow and grief. The man who was in the room next to David at Saffron House. The older man. The much older man, Sylvie thinks. He never said how old he was and surely his disease had the same effect of adding years as for David. But everything about him spoke of older. Older ways, older understandings, older orientation to life and the world. He had been - what? Elegant? Yes, in his age and self-possession. Fascinating? Yes. She damned the fact that she had only such a brief look at all they might have shared had things been different. If he'd been healthy and they had met, they would have fallen in love just as fast and just as desperately. Seventy he might have been, but virile he would also have been. Even dying, there was no denying the looks they had exchanged. The few kisses they shared, though the smell of death was on him, had a passion greater than any she'd ever known. And however had he known about music and her? How ever had he, that very first night, so easily touched that hidden place in her heart? All the things they could have shared. His humor, his wisdom, his touch. What could have been. Sylvie jumps. She's overturned her coffee cup and though there's little left in it, it is wet and is staining her coat.
Ellie stops talking and stares at Sylvie. No one knows, Sylvie thinks as she dips her handkerchief in her water glass and dabs at the spreading stain on her coat. And no one but me ever will. Her laugh startles Ellie, who takes the handkerchief from her and scrubs at the spot, saying very earnestly that while it might sound pat and therefore nothing to take seriously, empty nest syndrome has a name for a reason. Patting Sylvie's hand and thrusting the damp handkerchief into it, she turns back to her English muffin, dripping with duck sauce, and takes a large bite, wiping her lips with her fingers, then her fingers on her napkin, following this with vigorous chewing and finally several swallows of coffee. Sylvie sighs. Ellie says she doesn't believe Sylvie's heard a word she's said and that she's just going to hop over and have a word or two with the Pastor is that's okay with Sylvie. She hardly waits for Sylvie's nod to be moving determinedly towards Pastor Henry.