Sunday, January 6, 2008

Loving the Sunset

Bryan resembled an old-fashioned telephone switching board. Tubes and wires protruded all over his body, connecting him to the machines that had long been more responsible for keeping his body alive than anything inside him.

Caroline, his wife, sat beside him with her hands in her lap. During his first months in the hospital, she touched him as often and as much as she could. She even persuaded the nurse to let her give him his sponge baths. Rubbing his antiseptic sagging skin was the nearest she could come to intimacy with him without endangering what remained of his life. He told her it felt good for a while, but his frustration at not being able to respond to her and the steady deadening of his senses twisted even that pleasure out of his control.

Most recently, the parts of his brain that allowed him to formulate speech started behaving erratically. In the middle of telling Caroline or one of the nurses a joke, he would either forget his thoughts and be unable to finish it, or he would spasm and spout nonsense. When he recovered, he said he preferred the spasms, because those sometimes still elicited a laugh. That he had made his living as a stand-up comedian and often brought his wife along to the more romantic locations was a cruelty everyone knew but never mentioned.

He still had some good moments, bursts of something short of convalescence but better than simple suffering. Those were the times he followed one of Caroline’s conversational monologues, or smiled voluntarily, or loved the sunset. He had requested a room with a west-facing window. He was too lethargic now for anyone other than himself to notice a difference, but he felt better. Before he died, though, he believed he would still make someone happy.


On the day Bryan died, Caroline came into his room wearing a yellow dress. It was a couple of shades darker than her hair, and the two combined equaled the color of the sun in his eyes. He preferred her natural color, but he did not tell her because he knew how much she liked being a blonde. Her green eyes, magnified and sparkling from tears that appeared after she dried her face in the hall, shone as brightly as they did every day. She kissed him quickly and sat down, her head in line with his rib cage. She was too far away to hear him.

Instead of looking at his face, which puckered in a tiny crater wherever she happened to kiss it that day, Caroline had lately taken to staring at his hands. Because he had never used them much when he was healthy, their deterioration was less noticeable. She had difficulty focusing her eyes when she looked at him.

She was alert enough, however, to see his index finger move. He raised it less than an inch, and it was only because they had been married for fifteen years that she knew it meant he wanted her to raise her head.

"Closer," he mouthed.

She leaned in, her arms on the side of the bed, but she was still too far away. Whatever he added
in volume he would lose in endurance, and he knew it would take everything he had to say what he needed to tell her.

"Closer," he repeated.

Caroline perched on the edge of the bed and leaned over his chest. She could hear him wheeze out every breath, and to get away from the sound she moved closer to him, so that her chin almost touched his.

She smiled, which surprised both of them. "Close enough?" she asked.

Bryan held his blink for a second longer than normal, and then he spoke. All he could manage was a whisper that came from the front of his throat and did not even sound like his voice, but it was enough.

"I was doing some shows at a resort in the Caribbean. One night after my set, I couldn’t sleep, so I walked on the beach. I saw a woman in the water, splashing and playing like a little girl. Her bathing suit was black. It looked like her arms and legs were spinning and flying on their own, like they weren’t connected. Her hair was blonde, so bright it looked like the sun rising. I stopped and watched, but I didn’t want to disturb her. She was so beautiful, so pure and innocent in the water."

Caroline knew this story. It was how they first met. He got some of the details wrong–she wore a bikini and her hair was red then–but she was thrilled to hear how much he still remembered.

"The next morning, I saw her in the exercise room. I was too distracted to work out, and I almost followed her into the ladies’ shower room. Right before I went on that night, I found an envelope in my dressing room. A picture of her was inside, and she’d written her room number on the back. That night was the worst set I ever did. I couldn’t remember any of my material."

Caroline could not hold back any longer. Trying to be as gentle as she could, she said, "No, that’s not how it happened, honey. I was laying out by the pool, remember? You could see me there from your room. You called room service and had them bring a drink out to me. You made them write your name and room number on the little umbrella. I’d watched all your sets and I thought you were funny, so I went up. You almost passed out when I showed up at your door in my bikini. Don’t you remember that?"

Bryan blinked. "Of course, Care. But this story is about Jackie. She came first. I went to her room after my set, but she wasn’t there, so I changed and went to the beach. She wasn’t there either. I tried to play in the water like her, but I couldn’t. I felt silly. Just when I was getting out of the water, I saw her coming. She was wearing a beautiful white dress, but she took it off and left it on the sand. She introduced herself in her underwear. We went back out, and she showed me how to play in the water."

"Bryan, why are you telling me about this now? You’ve never said anything about it, about her, before. Why wait until now?"

"Care, I want you to understand. That’s all I want now. She was like a sunrise to me. But my sunset was better."

She dug her chin into his collarbone and pressed his sides with her hands; she could not then have said whether it was from anger or affection. Had he been able to feel pain, to scream, or to cry, he would have. But as Caroline knew from the silence in his chest, he was already beyond agony’s reach.


All the legal issues and funeral arrangements had to be taken care of, she knew, but they could wait. She rushed out of the room and past the nurses station without saying anything or even looking at them. She barely breathed as she drove home, and she had not even thought about crying.

It was upstairs in their bedroom, tucked unceremoniously away in one of the bottom dresser drawers; she had forgotten which one and so had to search through three full drawers, throwing aside articles of clothing like a burrowing animal, before she found it.

It was wrinkled and dusty, but in good condition overall, considering how long it had been since she last wore it. Her life had been so consumed with taking care of him for so long. She could not even remember the last time she thought about swimming.

She needed to know if it still fit. Caroline had become conditioned to take care of herself and change her clothes in between Bryan’s medications and emergencies, and she undressed and put on the black bathing suit–one-piece, with a low-cut back–in only a few seconds.

She was already crying softly before she looked at herself in the mirror. She collapsed on the floor when she saw her reflection, sobbing and grateful to Bryan for his final gift to her.

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