The Beginner's Goodbye(3)


by Anne Tyler

So I adopted a sort of Zen approach. I lived in the moment. Dorothy appeared; I was at peace. I didn’t ask questions, didn’t probe, didn’t study the whys and wherefores; I just took comfort in being with her. If she had started to say something that sounded, oh, message-like, I would have tried my best to deflect her; but she didn’t. It seemed that she was living in the moment also. Then she would vanish again, but she wasn’t really gone for good. I somehow knew that. I would wait, still as a pond, until she reappeared.

Once, she asked me, “How are things at Nandina’s? Does she fret over you, and tut-tut?”

“Yes, well, you remember what she’s like,” I said.

I was silent a moment. Then I said, “You needed to ask? Somehow, I figured you would just know.”

“Oh, no. I don’t know anything at all,” Dorothy said.

It seemed to me that there was a sadness in her voice, but then she smiled at me, so I supposed I’d just imagined it.

My mother felt, to the end of her days, that my differences were her fault. She should have called the pediatrician earlier in my illness. She should have rushed me to the emergency room; forget the pediatrician. “They would only have sent us home again,” I told her. “They’d have said that some virus was going around; just give me fluids and bed rest.”

“I would have sat smack down on the floor and told them we weren’t leaving,” she said.

“Oh, why make such a big deal about it? I manage perfectly well.”

“Manage. Yes, I suppose you do,” she said. “And I wouldn’t give it another thought if you had been lame from birth. But you weren’t. You’re not the way you started out. You’re not who you were meant to be.”

“Maybe this is exactly who I was meant to be,” I said.

She just sighed. I was never going to understand.

“Anyhow,” I said, “you did call the pediatrician. You told me. You called as soon as my fever went up.”

“That man was an imbecile,” she said, off on another tack. “He claimed fevers were nature’s cure-all. He claimed they didn’t do half as much harm as all those hysterical mothers dunking their children in ice water.”

“Mom. Get over it,” I said.

But she never did.

She was a homemaker (as she termed it), from the last generation of women who married straight out of college. She graduated in June of 1958 and married in July. Then had to wait ten years for her first baby, poor woman, but even so she didn’t get a job. How did she fill that time, I wonder? Nandina and I were her entire occupation, once we came along. She built our science projects with us, and our dioramas. She ironed our underwear. She decorated our rooms in little-girl style and little-boy style—rosebuds for Nandina and sports banners for me. Never mind that Nandina was not the rosebud type, or that any time I took part in a sport my mother had apoplexy.

I was a rough-and-ready kind of kid, despite my differences. I was clumsy but enthusiastic, eager to join whatever pickup game was happening on our block. Mom would literally wring her hands as she watched from the front window, but my father told her to let me do whatever I felt capable of. He wasn’t as much of a worrier. But of course he was off at the office all day, and middle-aged by then besides. He was never the kind of father I could toss a football with on weekends, or ask to coach my Little League team.

So I mostly spent my childhood fending off the two women in my life—my mother and my sister, both of them lying in wait to cosset me to death. Even that young, I sensed the danger. You get sucked in. You turn soft. They have you where they want you then.

Is it any wonder I found Dorothy a breath of fresh air?

The first time she saw me, she said, “What’s wrong with your arm?” She was wearing her white coat and she asked in a brusque, clinical tone. When I explained, she just said, “Huh,” and went on to another subject.

The first time she rode in my car, she didn’t so much as glance over, not even at the very start, to check how I was driving. She was too busy huffing on her glasses and polishing them with her sleeve.

And the first time she heard me stammer (after I fell in love with her and grew flustery and awkward), she cocked her head and said, “What is that? The brain injury, or just nerves?”

“Oh, just—just—nerves,” I said.

“Really? I wonder,” she said. “When you’re dealing with the left hemisphere … Damn.”

“Excuse me?”

“I think I left my keys in my office,” she said.

· · ·

She was unique among women, Dorothy. She was one of a kind. Lord, she left a hole behind. I felt as if I’d been erased, as if I’d been ripped in two.

Then I looked down the street and saw her standing on the sidewalk.

2

Here is how she died.

It was August. Early August of 2007, oppressively hot and muggy. I happened to have a cold. Summer is the very worst time for a cold, I always think. You can’t just pile on the blankets and sweat it out the way you would in winter. You’re already sweating, only not in any way that’s beneficial.

I went in to work as usual, but the air conditioning made my teeth start chattering as soon as I got settled. I hunched over my desk shivering and shaking, sneezing and coughing and blowing my nose and heaping used tissues in my wastebasket, till Irene ordered me home. That was Irene for you. She claimed I was contaminating the office. The others—Nandina and the rest—had been urging me to leave for my own sake. “You look miserable, poor thing,” our secretary said. But Irene took a more self-centered approach. “I refuse to sacrifice my health to your misguided work ethic,” she told me.

So I said, “Fine. I’ll go.” Since she put it that way.

Nandina said, “Shall I drive you?” but I said, “I’m still able to function, thank you very much.” Then I gathered my things and stalked out, mad at all of them and madder still at myself, for falling ill in the first place. I hate to look like an invalid.

Alone in the car, though, I allowed myself some moaning and groaning. I sneezed and gave a long-drawn-out “Aaah,” as if I were a good deal sicker than I was. I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw that my eyes were streaming with tears. My face was flushed and my hair had a damp and matted look.

We lived just off Cold Spring Lane, in an unkempt, wooded area a few minutes’ drive from downtown. Our house was a little white bungalow. Not what you would call fancy, but, then, neither Dorothy nor I was the Better Homes and Gardens type. The place suited us just fine: all on one floor, with a light-filled sunporch tacked onto the living room where we could stash the computer and Dorothy’s medical journals.