The Beginner's Goodbye(8)


by Anne Tyler

“Yes, we’ll see to it; run along.”

What I really wanted to say was, “This is a specific person, do you understand? Not just some patient. I want to make sure you realize that.”

“Mmhmm,” they’d have murmured.

I walked up and down the corridors with a sense of something stretching thin, fragile elastic threads stretching between me and Dorothy, and I saw sights I tried to forget. I saw huge-eyed children without any hair, and skeletal men struggling for breath, and old people lying on gurneys with so many bags and tubes attached that they’d stopped being human beings. I looked away. I couldn’t look. I turned and went back to my torturers.

The shoes arrived in front of me on a Wednesday afternoon. I knew it was a Wednesday because the newspaper on the chair beside mine had a color photo of a disgusting seafood lasagna. (Wednesday always seems to be food day, for newspapers.) The shoes were clogs. Black leather clogs. That’s what the hospital staff tended to wear, I’d observed. Very unprofessional-looking. I raised my eyes. It was a male nurse; I knew him. Or recognized him, I mean. From other occasions. He’d been one of the kind ones. He said, “Mr. Woolcott?”

“Yes.”

“Why don’t you come with me.”

I stood up and reached for my cane. I followed him through the door and into the ICU. It wasn’t time for a visit yet. I had just had my visit, not half an hour before. I felt singled out and privileged, but then also a little, I don’t know, apprehensive.

The cords and hoses had been removed and she lay uncannily still. I had thought she was still before, but I had had no idea. I had been so ignorant.

3

There used to be a dairy outlet over on Reisterstown Road, with a lighted white glass sign outside reading FIRST WITH THE CARRIAGE TRADE. It showed the silhouette of a woman wheeling a baby carriage—a witticism, I guess—and she was just galloping along, taking huge confident strides in a dress that flared below her knees although we were in the era of miniskirts. Whenever my family drove past that sign, I thought of my sister. This was before my sister had reached her teens, even, but still I thought of her, for Nandina seemed to have been born lanky, and ungainly, and lacking in all fashion sense. I’m not saying she was unattractive. She had clear gray eyes, and excellent skin, and shiny brown hair that she wore pulled straight back from her forehead with a single silver barrette. But the barrette tells you everything: she wore it still, although she would be forty on her next birthday. An aging girl, was what she was, and had been from earliest childhood. Her shoes were Mary Janes, as flat as scows in order to minimize her height. Her elbows jutted like coat hangers, and her legs descended as straight as reeds to her Ping-Pong-ball anklebones.

She drove me home from the hospital the afternoon that Dorothy died, and I sat beside her envying her imperviousness. She kept both hands on the steering wheel at the ten and two o’clock positions, just as our father had taught her all those years ago. Her posture was impeccable. (She had never been one of those women who imagine that slouching makes them look shorter.) At first she attempted some small talk—hot day, no rain in the forecast, pity the poor farmers—but when she saw that I wasn’t up to it, she stopped. That was one good thing about Nandina. She wasn’t bothered by silence.

We were traveling through the blasted wasteland surrounding Hopkins, with its boarded-up row houses and trash-littered sidewalks, but what struck me was how healthy everyone was. That woman yanking her toddler by the wrist, those teenagers shoving each other off the curb, that man peering stealthily into a parked car: there was nothing physically wrong with them. A boy standing at an intersection had so much excess energy that he bounced from foot to foot as he waited for us to pass. People looked so robust, so indestructible.

I pivoted to peer out the rear window at Hopkins, its antique dome and lofty pedestrian bridges and flanks of tall buildings—an entire complex city rising in the distance like some kind of Camelot. Then I faced forward again.

Nandina wanted to take me to her house. She thought mine wasn’t fit to live in. But I was clinging to the notion of being on my own, finally, free from all those pitying looks and sympathetic murmurs, and I insisted on her driving me home. It should have tipped me off that she gave in so readily. Turns out she was figuring I would change my mind once I got there. As soon as we reached my block she slowed down, the better to let me absorb the effect of the twigs and small branches carpeting the whole street—my twigs and small branches. She drew to a stop in front of my house and switched off the ignition. “Why don’t I just wait,” she said, “till you make sure you’re going to feel comfortable here.”

For a minute I didn’t answer. I was staring at the house. It was true that it was in even worse shape than I had pictured. The fallen tree lay everywhere, not in a single straight line but flung all across the yard as if it had shattered on impact. The whole northern end of the house slumped toward the ground, nearly flattening as it reached the sunporch. Most of the roof was covered with a sheet of bright-blue plastic. Jim Rust had arranged for that. I vaguely remembered his telling me about it. The plastic dipped at the ridgepole in a way that reminded me of the dip in Dorothy’s chest when the rescuers carried her out, but never mind; don’t think about that; think about something else. I turned to Nandina and said, “I’ll be fine. Thanks for the lift.”

“Maybe I should come in with you.”

“Nandina. Go.”

She sighed and switched the ignition back on. I gave her a peck on the cheek—a concession. (I’m not usually so demonstrative.) Then I heaved myself out of the car and shut the door and strode off.

It took a moment before I heard her drive away, but she did, finally.

Just in case some of the neighbors were watching from their windows, I made a point of approaching the house like any other man heading home after an outing. I stabbed the front sidewalk briskly with my cane; I glanced around at the fallen branches with mild interest. I unlocked my front door, opened it, shut it behind me. Sagged back against it as if I’d been kicked in the stomach.

An eerie blue light filled the hall, from the blue tarp overhead that showed through the gaps in the ceiling. The living room was too much of a jungle to navigate, and of course I didn’t even try to look beyond it to the sunporch. I stepped across a floorful of mail and made my way to the rear of the house. In the kitchen I was relieved to find only a scattering of wood chips on every surface, and one broken windowpane where a stray twig had poked through. But the dining room, to the right, was a ruin. I closed the door again after the briefest glance inside. That was okay, though. A person could live just fine without a dining room! I could eat in the kitchen. I went over to the sink and turned the faucet on. Water flowed immediately.