Kindness for the End of Your Life

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Past and present collide as two people come to a crossroads.

 

Kindness for the End of Your Life

The wind waved the trees around the lake and billowed the sheets on Laura’s clothesline. “Put them in the dryer,” her husband used to say but she liked seeing them blowing in the wind and remembered how the grandkids were warm in the sheets last weekend. Laura looked out over the water. When she was a little girl, she’d stood right here with her father. “We’ll build our house here,” he said because they’d spent the last month walking around the lake and always returned to this spot. It was high and you could see across to the little town where the train station was. Of course, it looked like a toy station with trains coming and going and people moving around like ants. Back then, people rode trains and came for the weekend. They built shacks and fished. Laura remembered running to the end of the boat dock and jumping in the water. Now the lake was built up. She’d built up too and doubted herself.

The maples were red at the clinic where Laura used to work. They had their own – lake of happy waters – treatment center for miracle cures and miracle hope and people come from all over. Laura missed not working there, but she was taking a break from life.

The mailman stopped at the bottom of the driveway and Laura waved. They’d gone to school together, someone else who never left. He drove on disappearing behind the trees and Laura started down the driveway to get the mail. The trees towered over her head. Tall pines, huge oaks, everybody let the woods grow up, and the spruces were thick to the ground. Laura could hardly see the big house next door – only the top of the roof.

When she was little, that house was a mansion. Laura’s father had built it. He built their house first, a tiny version of wood and stone blending into the trees. Then Mr. Marsden bought the lots next door and he’d married Sunny then. And Sunny wanted the great open ceiling and the stone fireplace and the windows overlooking the lake. Sunny was laughing and light and Laura was this little girl hiding in the woods to see her.

Fifty years later the big house was quiet. It was rented mostly through the summer, but now the renters had gone, and the house was empty. Still, their mailboxes stood side by side for fifty years. They still had #78 on the side as Laura took out the Christmas catalogues and listened.

When the summer people left the wind breezed the trees and there was this hush, this sleepiness as the branches met over the road. Glints of light on the water, the leftover calls of the grandkids in the woods as they went back to school – they’d come again next year. Now Laura looked, not so much at the steepness of her driveway but at Bud’s grave. The dogwoods had lost their leaves and she could see his marker and the little sitting bench. Bud wasn’t just any dog; he was Mr. Marsden’s friend. And she remembered fifty years ago when Mr. Marsden lifted him out of his truck and Bud was all bandaged. Laura hurried from her hiding place in the bushes, “What’s wrong with him?”

“I found lying by the road,” Mr. Marsden settled Bud on the porch and soothed down his ears and Bud slumped his head on his paws and his old eyes looked up. Laura had never seen a dog who was hurt before. “Doc Ore said he’s been on the scruff for a while, but he’ll make it.”

Doc Ore was the vet who came to the lake to fish. He didn’t want you to bother him in his shack but if you hollered loud enough, he’d come out.

“Is he your dog now?” Laura asked.

“I don’t know,” Mr. Marsden shook his head. “He looks like he could use a good home.”

Mr. Marsden always talked to her like they were the same age even though he was old. Her parents said he had a bad heart. They said he was made out of money, too, but at the lake Mr. Marsden wore old clothes and cleaned fish.

“His name is Bud,” Laura said because it didn’t seem like Mr. Marsden had thought to give him a name.

“Well, Bud, you’re home and safe and you’ll heal and get well.” And Bud raised his head and looked at them.

Now fifty years later Bud’s grave was a holy place – a restful place with the trees and the little bench and the marker that read – Bud. Mr. Marsden fixed it up nice after Bud died and then he had a heart attack right there on the little sitting bench. Less than a month later, he’d died at fifty-four. That seemed old to Laura then, but she was past that.

Her dad found Mr. Marsden slumped on the bench one Sunday morning and called the ambulance and she remembered waking up to this big commotion. “What’s going on?” she asked.

“Mr. Marsden’s gone off with Bud,” her father had said. And she didn’t understand death then or now, but she was used to it. Her grandparents had died, then her parents. So many of the uncles and aunts who came to the lake to fish and play cards, pitch horseshoes and swim. They made pots of stew and came back.

“Why can’t we leave?” her husband used to say. “Why are we Motel Six with the light on?” But what was wrong with that? Somebody had to be keeper of the light house waving the sheets on the line. Somebody had to live in the cabin on the lake so that wherever they went in the world they could always come back.

 Laura started up the driveway shuffling through the mail and wondered how long till her sheets were dry. The train tracks came and went on the other side. All the places to go and see, and yet, here, in this place, she was home.  

***

Dr. Angelo’s desk had a glassy surface and Tom saw his diplomas reflecting there. He braced himself for the verdict which Dr. Angelo seemed about to pronounce. The doctor looked like an angel if you believed in angels. Tom didn’t, but Dr. Angelo’s eyes looked kindly above Tom’s medical chart. “There’s always hope, Tom, there’s something we could try that might work for you.” Dr. Angelo paused as it sunk in.

“I don’t want false hope,” Tom said. He wouldn’t admit that he came for that.

“I agree with your doctors that your cancer is too advanced, too widespread, in the bones and the liver now. It’s in the lungs, and, yes, we can knock it back with chemo. The steroids will give you time but there’s no known cure, but here we deal in the unknown. Miracles happen in this clinic I can’t explain; there’s a series of injections that might help.”

Tom wanted to say – don’t waste my time – which was precious, but he didn’t. He shrugged because, yes, he had hoped there would be this pill, or this implant cure. “A series of injections?” he asked fearing to be rushed out with nowhere to go.

“It’s not a known cure, Tom, but you’ve come all this way and could enjoy our beautiful lake.” Dr. Angelo waved his hand to the window where the lake was a mirror of colorful trees.

“I’ve been here before,” Tom said. And he remembered how the surface of the lake could shimmer in the sunlight. All those years ago it was golden.

“Tomorrow then?” The doctor stood and extended his hand and Tom stood, catching his breath as he shook it. “Hope is here for you, Tom,” the angel eyes flicked to his watch as he ushered Tom to the waiting room.

The doors of the clinic shut firmly behind him as Tom fumbled for his car keys. Dry leaves fluttered on the trees – holding on by a thread. The sky was dark with rain and Tom remembered how just two weeks ago he’d gone to his doctor thinking he had a kidney stone. He’d been through chemo and radiation with the prostate cancer, and now the tests showed the cancer was back and they wanted to do the chemo again. So, he’d bolted from the hospital and drove all this way for a miracle cure. Still, it was strange that life had looped him back here.

Across from the parking lot the train station was now a gift shop. The train no longer stopped but the tracks were there. A train rumbled through and the guard rail clanged across the road. The rail cars whined as Tom remembered getting off at this station fifty years ago with his bedroll across his shoulder.

What was it Sunny had said? “Go right up the hill, we’re #78 on the mailbox.”

Tom laughed as that was his age now. Death had a sense of humor as the train rumbled on and Tom wondered if the house was still there. Grand and open, unchanged, no, that was too much to hope for, but he could drive there, not like fifty years ago when he hiked up the hill to see Sunny.

***

Laura stirred the soup, a creamy potato and why make a whole pot when the kids were grown, and the grandkids gone, and her husband was mostly gone. It wasn’t official. He’d be back for Christmas to play the part. One of those longtime marriages that died when the kids left, and she gained thirty pounds and wanted to stay at the lake, and he wanted to go.

Go anywhere, do everything, and she couldn’t keep up. She just wanted peace.  Anyway, for Christmas she’d put up the tree and the lights and they’ll all come back. Settle in, read magazines, eat sandwiches, have fires in the fireplace. What’s wrong with that? Somebody had to hold down the fort.

But in between the summers and the Christmas’s were spells of loneliness when Laura wondered if holding down the fort was the same as being afraid to change? What was it Doc Ore said when the robin crashed into the window and little Laura was racing her bike to his shack with the robin wrapped in a dishtowel. “Make him better,” she sobbed, and the bird was stone dead and the old vet put his hand on her shoulder.

“You gave him kindness for the end of his life.”

And maybe she wanted some kindness now, some sort of understanding that she was on track in her life. Not that working for Dr. Angelo wasn’t on track, but she’d worked in the billing department and miracles could cost you. Now, she’d made three loaves of bread when she was just one. One who was taking a break from the miracle life and the miracle weight loss and the hope of her husband returning all penitent.

Now the lake lay under an ominous sky. Laura could see the big houses and boat docks along the shore. The Marsden’s were the first to build a grand house. There was the great stone fireplace and the light that played through the windows. But Sunny was like that, she always got what she wanted. She was golden and laughing, all the time bringing Laura dolls and candy from town. Laura would scrunch down tiny to see her.

**  *

Tom stopped at #78 and glimpsed the house through the trees. Their branches towered over the road and there was this sleepy hush. Coming along this road fifty years ago the air was filled with laughter and the sizzle of frying meat. Sunlight shimmered on the lake. Canoes slid through the water. Kids hollered and called.

Tom turned off the ignition and then he saw Bud’s grave. He couldn’t believe it. The bench was still there, and Bud’s monument of a dog resting his head on his paws. So, Tom walked with his cane, and sagged on the bench beside Bud, the most trusted, devoted of dogs.

He remembered being brand new in the apartment building and off to the college and his first real teaching job. He had on a new suit and squeaky shoes and when the elevator doors opened there was Bud, his old eyes kind and welcoming. Mr. Marsden gave Tom a quick nod as Tom wedged in beside Bud and there was this silence as the elevator doors closed. Bud’s tail wagged against Tom’s leg. “Out for a walk,” Tom lay his hand on the old dog’s head and the tail twitched faster.

“We’re off to the park,” Mr. Marsden said. “You move in?”

Tom extended his hand in greeting, “Tom Harper, I’m teaching here for the summer.”

“Ben Marsden,” the older man shook his hand and Tom remembered it was Ben Marsden’s building and that he lived on the top floor. “This is Bud,” he added as Bud nosed into Tom’s hand and the elevator doors opened to the lobby.

And Tom turned up the street to his new beginning and Mr. Marsden walked Bud to the park. Fifty years fell away as Tom slumped weary where once it was light.

On his second day of teaching, Tom had dog biscuits ready in his pocket. This time when the elevator doors opened Bud was with a woman. She was young and her hair spilled everywhere like she just woke up. Tom offered a biscuit to Bud and he snapped it up.

“You must be Tom,” she smiled. “I’m Sunny Marsden.” Her eyes shone like the sun.

“You’re Mr. Marsden’s daughter?” he said, and she burst out laughing.

“I’m his wife and he gets real mad when people say that. His first wife died – I’m her replacement.” She smiled all golden as the elevator doors opened to the lobby and Tom agonized that he would turn the other way, but Bud was straining to get to the park. Then Sunny called back, “Come to the lake this weekend. We have a house there. Take the train to the lake. Hike up, we’re #78 on the mailbox.”

Tom remembered how the laughter floated through the trees. How the hoots and calls echoed off the lake as Tom stood anxious at the bottom of the hill and then Bud came limping down the driveway to greet him. Tom hitched his bedroll and pulled a biscuit from his pocket. “Good to see you, old boy,” he soothed down the ragged ears and Bud looked happy to see him.

People were everywhere, on the deck, on the terrace. Kids dripped water at the boat dock. Some people brought food and Tom hadn’t brought food and then Mr. Marsden was walking toward him. “So glad you could come,” he said as beads of sweat popped on his forehead. “Flipping burgers,” he squinted through the smoke and Sunny came from the kitchen with a tray of drinks. Tom felt a swirl of awkwardness as Sunny pressed a drink in his hand and he settled in the corner with Bud. Somebody laughed and Mr. Marsden winced, and Tom felt Mr. Marsden would rather be riding one of those huge tractors he built than hosting a party.

“How’d you get to the city?” Tom asked.

“The corporate office is there. And I met Sunny and we’ve married, and she likes the city but me and Bud – we like the lake.” He caressed his old dog’s head, “We’re working it out.”

Tom finished his drink and the burgers got served. Somebody lit torches when it got dark and he watched Sunny laughing through the big glass windows. Later on, when things got quiet, Sunny linked her arm through his and walked him down to the boathouse. “The extra men sleep here,” she said showing him the screened-in porch with the cots. Then she pressed close, laughed up for an instant as Tom breathed her honeysuckle smell. Later he lay with his hands behind his head listening to the frogs and the crickets while her laughter floated down.

***

Laura folded the sheet, smoothed it across her stomach and placed it in the basket. She hurried quickly to the next one because the rain wouldn’t wait. Still she liked braving the wind, liked how the lights came on around the lake like they were this little family hunkering in.

It was quitting time at the clinic. Laura saw people scurrying to beat the rain. She’d seen a lot of patients over the years. Mostly she talked to them about their bills and usually it was a pair of them with the caregiver speaking up for the sick one. A harried daughter who spoke for her mother, or a husband who asked for his wife and the patient just sat there. But not always, sometimes the patients came alone. She’d see them frail and thin crossing the parking lot as the truth of it settled in.

The wind gusted the trees and she saw the car at the end of her driveway. It was directly beside the mailbox. Used to be people rode trains to the clinic but now they drove cars and rented houses on the lake to take their treatments. But the Marsden’s were coming. They always came after the end of summer when their house was vacant. Not that Laura looked out for the house, the rental company did that. But she looked out, yes, because she stayed. So, she walked down the driveway and saw a man slumped on the bench by Bud’s grave. He was thin and frail. His glasses had slipped, and his head drooped forward, and she feared he was dead. “Are you alright?” Laura asked and he looked up startled.

He pushed his glasses back, hunched over his cane and took in a breath, “I was at Bud’s funeral fifty years ago and seeing it again has brought it all back.”

“I was at Bud’s funeral, too,” she said. Of course, she’d been hiding under the spruce trees and Mr. Marsden was sobbing and the young man was digging the grave. And she looked closely at the old man now, “Are you Tom? You used to bring me bottle caps and match books because I was saving them. I’m little Laura from over there.” She pointed back to her house.

“Little Laura,” Tom looked up as she stood over him. Of course, she wasn’t little now. Tom shook his head, “I came to the clinic and then I wanted to see if the house was still here and I saw Bud’s grave and you’re little Laura from over there.”

Laura recognized a pilgrim to Dr. Angelo’s shrine of hope. But it was nearly dark, about to pour rain and he was sagged in the bushes. “Where are you staying, Tom?”

Tom blinked through his glasses. “I thought maybe they’d admit me, give me some magic cure but there’s only something to try. Then I wondered about the house and drove over, I never thought of getting a room.”

“Have you eaten?” Laura asked because she had the perfect meal for him. And he shook his head. “Well, come on then,” she said as she helped him . . . somebody had to.

***

The soup was good with the potatoes, creamy and warm. Tom sipped another spoonful because she was watching so hopeful. He sopped the bread in the soup, and that pleased her. “I was in this house fifty years ago,” he said, remembering how he liked that it was open yet sheltering like a tree house. “Your father said Sunny wanted this house only ten times bigger.”

“Wasn’t she something!” Laura laughed.

“She was,” he croaked, the soup fogging his lenses.

Laura got glasses from the cupboard and poured him some wine. “I’d be trailing after her in the woods and she wore that honeysuckle perfume and when she and Mr. Marsden drove down from the city she’d run to the lake and jump in.”

Tom accepted the glass of wine. He was sitting on the couch but part of it tilted back like a recliner. So, he leaned back full of soup and bread and took a sip of the wine. I was a young man trailing after Sunny in the woods, he thought, and he remembered how her hair caught the shine of the lake in the moonlight.

Laura lit a fire in the fireplace. It crackled gently as she smiled, “She brought me dolls and candy from town but, you know, Tom, she was good. She wasn’t an act, she was real.”

Yes, Tom thought – Sunny was real. “So, you’ve always lived here?” he changed the subject sipping the wine which was homemade and tasted like summer.

“Pretty much, I worked at the clinic for twenty years.”

“Is Dr. Angelo for real?” Tom asked because he wanted to know.

“He’s done some incredible things. And, of course, he was a miracle cure himself with the leukemia and I don’t want to scare you because people get cured at the clinic. They get hope and comfort but everything costs. Everything has a price tag.”

Yes, Tom thought, remembering that Saturday morning he rowed Mr. Marsden across to the little island. How the wind had ruffled Bud’s fur as he looked from the front of the canoe. They’d left everyone sleeping at the big house and Mr. Marsden was easy and relaxed as Tom rowed into the rising sun. There was this cleanness as the canoe cut through the water, this sureness as he dipped in the oars and the ripples slid outward. “I used to come here with my son,” Mr. Marsden said, and Tom remembered how he said the word son with everything cherished. “We’d set up camp and fish.” Mr. Marsden’s son was killed in the war and Tom felt this early morning trip was a bond between them.

Tom remembered the morning when he found Mr. Marsden hunched over Bud who was gasping, and Mr. Marsden was trying to stick one of his nitroglycerin pills under Bud’s tongue. Tom carried the dog to the truck and Mr. Marsden cradled Bud as Tom drove fast to the vet. And the old vet did what he could, and Bud was gasping and shuddering, and the vet drew up a syringe and sunk the needle deep into Bud. And Bud’s eyes held on Mr. Marsden the whole time while he died. Mr. Marsden broke down sobbing and the vet said, “You gave him kindness for the end of his life.”

And Tom ached for some kindness now, for Dr. Angelo to give him the syringe of peace at the end of his life.

***

Laura covered Tom with a blanket. The firelight wavered on his face and gentled him. She thought how he looked when he was young and lean coming up the driveway and she’d pop out asking for her bottle caps. And she took the photo album from the shelf and settled beside him opening it to the black and white photos she took with her Brownie camera.

“Say cheese!” She’d jump from her hiding place. This annoying little girl, and people faked smiles, made faces – she had all kinds of pictures. “Here’s one of Mr. Marsden waving from his fishing boat.” Tom nodded as Laura turned the page and there was Sunny with the light on her hair. “She even glowed in black and white.” She shimmered on the page, and there was Tom. “Look, Tom, here’s a picture of you when you were young and strong.”

Tom pushed up to see, the years falling away as Laura remembered him on the driveway, this summertime man who came when everything was bright and sizzling with fun.

She thumbed on seeing the faces of her parents and all the people who came to the lake and there was Adam Marsden as a tiny baby. “You knew Sunny had a baby after Mr. Marsden died, Tom?”

“I knew,” he said, his voice was full of pain. “I wasn’t around after Mr. Marsden died. I went to England right after that summer.”

“My folks said it was a shame how much he wanted another son and then he had a heart attack and died before the baby was born.”

For a moment Tom studied the picture of Adam, then Laura turned the page and there was Adam back from college with the sun in his eyes, so sturdy and lean. Back then he wore glasses. And she stopped as the quiet came, the understanding came as she compared the pictures – Tom as a young man – Adam Marsden in his twenties.

“Say cheese,” she’d snapped the picture capturing them at different times and now, holding them together Laura saw the exact smile, the glint in their eyes, the summer lean of them side by side.

Tom touched his finger to Adam’s picture. “It wasn’t meant to happen. I never meant it to happen.” Laura heard the ache in his voice. “She asked me down to the lake and I thought everybody was coming. I thought he’d be there, but Mr. Marsden was working, and it was just Sunny. I knew if I stayed what would happen. And, of course, I stayed, and she came to the boathouse and we were together all weekend. We were lying there early that Sunday morning when people came beating on the door of the big house looking for Sunny because somebody found Mr. Marsden at Bud’s grave and they were calling the ambulance.”

Laura nodded.

“And I’ve always known in my heart that Mr. Marsden came back early and left the truck on the road and hiked up suspicious and saw us. Then he walked back to Bud’s grave and had a heart attack.”

Laura breathed slowly, understanding that just as good memories held around the lake, some memories held heartache. But surely a little kindness now could give him some peace. “You didn’t kill him, Tom,” she lied. “I know because I was hiding in the spruce trees when Mr. Marsden drove up and he got out at Bud’s grave and slumped over. He fell over and I tried to get him to talk but he wouldn’t, so I ran and woke up my parents.” Laura paused for a breath – she was good at this. “He never went to the boathouse, Tom, I would have followed him.”

She watched the pain ease from Tom’s face. He breathed in easier, “Sunny wrote to me in England. She said no one could know I was his father, but I could be his friend. I never wrote back. I couldn’t face it.”

“Well, he’s a fine man,” Laura said. “He runs Marsden Machinery and, you know, they’re coming soon, Adam’s bringing his mother.”

“Sunny’s alive?”

“Yes,” Laura nodded as she flipped through the album to the end. She stopped at the picture of Sunny standing in front of the big house. “This is Sunny from last year.” Sunny looked at the camera with vacant eyes. “She didn’t remember me anymore, but Adam thought maybe she remembered the house.” Laura smiled shaking her head as she flipped to the latest picture of Adam. “And this is Adam from last year and the lady beside him is his daughter, Ann, and the little girl with the glasses slipping down her nose is her daughter, Amy.”

Tom stared at the little girl. He rubbed his finger there as Laura smiled. Dr. Angleo wasn’t the only one who got miracles cures, she’d done pretty good for herself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Submitted: June 14, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Suzanne Mays. All rights reserved.

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