The Dying Season

Fiction
Cynthia J. McGroarty


And yet. And yet. This new road will one day be the old road too.
Photo Credit: harold.lloyd

I knew that day we drove out of town and headed west into Bradford County that Billy and I were going to a place we would never come back from. But in the end I was glad for it. I was ready. I wanted to go.

It was mid-October. A crisp blue sky was stretching over the hills that ringed the valley as we drove down the interstate. Billy had one freckled hand on the wheel and the other poised by the partially open window with a cigarette pinched between his fingers. Every once in a while he flicked some ash out the window, but he never took a drag.

“So Roy decides not to sign off on it, and I say, are you crazy?” Billy was talking about work and I was pretending to listen. What I was really thinking about was Drew.

“That’s Roy for you. His own worst enemy,” I said, just to let him know that I heard him.

We drove for a while and then turned off the highway. The last signs of commerce—the strip malls and restaurants and big chain stores, the warehouses and car dealerships—began to fade away until there was just the occasional gas station or diner or gravel lot, or string of ranchers or mobile homes set back off the road behind wide front lawns. I wondered who lived in those houses and what they would do when the westward sprawl reached them and brought noise and bustle to their quiet lives. It was only a matter of time.

“Left at this light,” I said as we pulled up to an intersection with a boarded up Tasty Treat on the corner. I had made this trip five times already, but Billy had never been with me. He’d been away on business or caught up with a project. After the second time, I hadn’t needed the directions anymore. I found my way with landmarks—church steeples, billboards, broken-down pickups rusting in yards—just as my father had taught me to do on long drives to see relatives across the state line.

“I don’t why he couldn’t pick a place closer to home,” Billy said. Then he softened his voice a little and said, “I mean, it would have been easier on everybody.”

We settled into a steady cruise down the long two-lane road that would lead us through the countryside to the far end of Bradford. It was Sunday, so there was hardly any traffic and no signs of life around the farmhouses and barns and silos that rose up between the spent cornfields. No laundry flapping on clotheslines, no bicycles, not even a dog. There were only the black cows grazing like sleepwalkers over swaths of meadow.

Billy went on about work while I gazed out at the fields and the rich blue drape of the sky, and tried to pretend that I was somewhere else, that I was with Drew on the porch, dancing under a big silver moon, letting him gather me in, letting him kiss me, one, two, three times from my shoulder to my neck, letting things take their course.

The next thing I knew Billy was saying “Nan, Nan!”

When I turned to look at him, I saw that he was staring down at my hands.

“Are you upset?” he said, shifting his tone into lower gear.

Three years ago, after we lost Mark, I developed the habit of pressing my hands together, fingers to fingers, then palm to palm, over and over. A nervous habit I hardly ever noticed myself doing. But Billy noticed, and he always asked me to stop. I think it made him uncomfortable because he felt responsible for it. And he was. If he’d been paying attention that day, Mark wouldn’t have ended up on the bottom of the swimming pool, and my hands wouldn’t be wondering what to do with all that grief.

I turned back to the window. “Aren’t you?” I snapped.

“What do you think?” Billy said. “He’s my brother.”

We drove in silence for a while and then I directed him to turn right at the Country Cupboard convenience store that was coming into view, a giant, fake ear of corn sprouting from its roofline.

“You think they sell coffee in there?” he asked.

“We could try,” I said. But as we pulled up to the light, we saw that the store was dark and the parking lot was deserted. “They’ll have coffee in the cafeteria when we get there,” I said.

As we reached the bottom of the hill that brought us to the end of our journey, my chest began to flutter with nerves and suddenly I wished Billy wasn’t with me. “Turn in there,” I said, pointing to a driveway on the left.

Billy eased the BMW past a spray of tall bushes and the sign came into view. Saint John’s Hospice it read in big gold letters against a red background. In smaller letters below were the words Compassionate Care for Those in Need.

Billy and I walked up the long allée of red maples that led to the main building. A few visitors and patients, the patients who could still walk or sit in a wheelchair, were wandering over the casually manicured grounds. Actually they never called them patients at Saint John’s; they called them residents.

“Looks just like the pictures,” Billy said, trying for a cheerful note. He had seen glossy color images of Saint John’s in a brochure I’d brought back after scouting the place one day. I told him it was the best care Drew could get, so he’d signed off on it. We were the ones paying for it. But money wasn’t an object. Billy had made plenty in corporate real estate in the 1980s, and by this point, in 1991, the year he turned 42, he could have retired. But Billy wasn’t the kind to retire.

We entered the main building and checked in at the desk, a mahogany island in the middle of a big sitting area furnished with sofas and chairs and coffee tables. I pointed toward a wide corridor to the left. “Cafeteria’s that way,” I said. “I’ll stay here.”

I took a seat by one of the large picture windows that looked out to the rear of the building. About 30 yards away was a landscaped plaza intersected by a grid of walkways. A fountain bubbled in the middle of the plaza, and a few people ambled back and forth around it or sat on the wrought iron benches. Further out were the cottages, four of them built in a wide semicircle, where the residents lived, or I suppose you could say died. The cottages looked like something you’d see on an English manor: multi-paned windows, ivy trailing up the stone walls, hydrangeas and boxwood ringing the perimeters. Drew was in the Bluebell Cottage, the furthest to the right. Bluebell. It sounded like spring, like promise.

A man and an attendant emerged from one of the cottages and started up the path toward the main building. The man was frail, hunched, withered, with a wild tuft of grey on top of his head. I thought of the lock of Drew’s hair, the dark brown sheaf, forever brown, cinched with a piece of grosgrain ribbon and tucked into a trinket box in my dresser drawer. I’d clipped it weeks ago, just before he cut his hair almost down to the scalp. “Hasn’t been this short since Da Nang,” he’d said, bouncing his hand on the top of his head and turning up his lips. And I’d stared at him and said, “Stop smiling.”

At the time, the doctors said Drew had maybe four months to live, five if he was lucky, and he ought to begin preparing for the end. So he’d started dropping the dead weight, as he called it. He packed up most of his clothes and donated them and gave away some of his books and personal belongings to his smattering of friends. He was living in a small house on the edge of town on a lot that backed up to the woods, and almost every night I went over to help him sort. I told Billy it was the least I could do and Billy agreed.

Drew was pretty tired by then—the final round of chemo a few months before had done him in—and we couldn’t make love. So we would work on packing for a while and then sit on his porch in the twilight, holding hands and looking out at the woods.

“What about the house, and the furniture?” I said one evening. Drew had made most of his furniture himself. The dining room table, the bookcases, the headboard on the bed, and a built-in cupboard with French doors in the kitchen. They were simple pieces, sturdy with clean lines, like Drew. Only Drew wasn’t so sturdy anymore.

“It’s yours, Nan. I’m leaving it all to you. It’s in my will.”

“I don’t want it. I want you.”

I went home and asked Billy whether Drew could live with us since he was becoming too ill to live alone. We had plenty of room, I said. And we did. Ours was one of those big suburban houses they were putting up in the mid-1980s at the start of the building boom. Five bedrooms, three baths, a garden, and the swimming pool, which Billy had insisted on putting in even though I didn’t want it. “How are you going to take care of him?” Billy said. “It’ll be more than you can handle.”

“We’ll get in-home hospice,” I said. But Billy still said no. I think that after Mark he didn’t like the idea of someone else dying on the property, someone he loved, even if it was a difficult love.

“Then we’ll get him hospice at his house,” I said.

I had already proposed this idea to Drew, and he had decided against it. He thought he should separate himself from everything familiar, that that might make it easier for him to die. “I just want to drift out of this life on an ice floe, like an Eskimo,” he said.

Still I thought I might change his mind, so I asked him again. “You love this place and you know it,” I said.

But he only put his finger to my mouth and said, “Shhh.”

Later he led me by the hand out to the woods and pointed down at the base of a towering white pine. “Here is where I want my ashes,” he said, his mica eyes clear and resolute. “Here and only here.”

I couldn’t imagine Drew, the flesh and blood of him, the hand that was holding mine, burned away to dust. “I promise,” I said. Then I yanked him to me and kissed him hard.

Billy came back to the waiting area, a paper cup in his hand. “Coffee isn’t so hot,” he said.

I led him through a pair of French doors and out into the morning sun. As we walked toward the cottages, I pointed to Bluebell Cottage and said, “He’s in that one.”

My chest fluttered again, and again I wished Billy hadn’t come. I wanted to be alone with Drew, to make the most of the time we had left. He’d been conscious and alert two days before, when I last visited. But he’d had to ask the nurse for some pain medication, and a while later he’d dozed off. It was only a matter of time before he would have to be medicated constantly, and then he might not know I was there anymore.

“Let’s stop for a minute,” Billy said when we reached the plaza. We sat down on a bench that was flanked by the shriveled flower heads of autumn sedum and sprays of small ornamental grasses that were turning to straw. Everything was dying now. Billy sipped his coffee. His hand was curled around the cup, freckles scattered over the skin like a dusting of brown stars under tufts of fine, apricot hair. I had always loved those hands, and I think I still loved them even then.

“What’s the matter? Losing your nerve?” I said, taunting him.

“Lay off, will you? This isn’t easy for me, you know.”

“Not everything can be easy, Billy.”

He turned and looked at me, searching and wounded. “Are you ever going to let it go?” he said, lowering his voice so anyone walking by wouldn’t hear. “Are you ever going to let me off the hook?”

I let his words hang in the air and then I said calmly, “No, I don’t think I ever will.” I stared back at him, feeling that in that moment I had been as honest with him as I’d ever been.

He shook his head and stood up, then tossed his cup into a nearby trash can. “C’mon,” he said.

We walked the rest of the way in silence. I thought about the way Billy began needing me after Mark died. His sad, deflated need. He was desperate for me to forgive him, to put things back together the way they were. But I couldn’t forgive him, what happened that day, his going into the house to rummage for some papers in his office because Roy was waiting on the other end of the line for an answer to something that really could have waited, while Mark, just six years old, was on his own by the pool. And I didn’t want to forgive him, because I hadn’t really liked the way things were. A distance had opened between us, miles of territory, like that space between two mountains that always looks shorter than it really is, and when you go to cross it, you realize how far you are from your destination, and you lose your will to go on.

At the Bluebell Cottage, a woman greeted us from behind a desk just inside, one of the staff, friendly but sober, her eyeglasses hanging on her chest from a thin gold chain. I didn’t recognize her from my other visits. “We’re here to see Drew Bradley,” I said.

She got up and waved us past the furnished parlor and into the hall, where we got into the elevator, one of those old-fashioned lifts with a wood interior and brass details. The building housed twelve residents in a network of large, airy suites. I had requested that Drew get a corner suite so he would have windows on two sides and plenty of light. “We believe one will open up quite soon,” the administrator had said, avoiding my gaze. Five days later, he called to say Drew could move in.

Billy and I got off on the second floor and turned left and headed down the hallway. Old oak floorboards creaked underfoot; tasteful landscapes hung on the walls. I slowed down at the room at the end of the hall, Drew’s room, and peered in. Sun was washing through the windows, falling over the double bed and the easy chair beside it and a long bureau against the wall. Drew was sitting in an upholstered chair at the foot of the bed. His eyes were closed but he opened them when he heard us.

“Hey,” he said, sitting up.

“We made it!” I said cheerily. I went to him and bent down and kissed his cheek, letting my lips linger for a moment just beside his mouth.

Billy was behind me, and when I stepped away from the chair, he moved in and bent down and embraced his brother and stamped him lightly on the back.

“How’s it going, bro?” Billy said, and Drew shrugged and smiled and said, “Downhill.”

Billy and I pulled up two chairs and we settled into conversation. Some niceties to start, the weather, the drive, the changing colors of the trees, Billy saying, “Hey, buddy, the Braves played like shit last night,” and Drew answering, “Yeah, but not as shitty as the Twins are going to play tonight.”

Then Billy looked around at the room as if to take everything in, and said, “So how are they treating you here? Let us know because we’ll set them straight.”

Just then a nurse came in, a woman in her forties with cropped blond hair. She was wearing a cotton tunic and a pair of pale linen trousers that I imagined had a drawstring at the waist. She carried a blood pressure cuff in her hand.

“Here comes Ratchet,” Drew said, loud enough for her to hear.

“You better be careful, Andrew, or I’ll hurt you,” the woman said. She put the cuff on Drew’s arm.

“Just don’t leave any marks,” Drew said.

After she left, Drew said he wanted to rest, and Billy popped up and helped him over to the bed and then stood awkwardly, watching Drew settle in and pull the covers over his shins.

“I think I’ll run up to get some coffee. You want some, Nan?” Billy said.

I shook my head and Billy left, saying he’d be right back. Drew signaled me to the bed and reached for my arm. “Come here, you,” he said. I bent over him and kissed him. He tasted brackish, medicinal. He looked toward the door and nodded. “He’s trying.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said.

Drew patted the bed and I sat down. “Nan,” he said tentatively. “I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to die on an ice floe. I want to go home. I want to die in my own bed, in our bed. Do you think you can arrange that? I’m sorry, I know…”

“Shut up,” I said, almost teary with relief. “I’ll call the hospice people tomorrow.”

“I was hoping, and I know it isn’t right for me to ask…”

I knew what he was going to say next. I often knew what Drew was going to say. “You want me to come live with you, for the rest of your life.”

He nodded. “Do you think you could do that? Would you do that?”

“It’s the only thing I think I could do right now. The only thing I want to do,” I said. I kicked off my shoes and crawled onto the bed beside him.

“And then, when I’m gone,” he said, “you have to go back to nursing, like you said you would. Live in the house and find a life for yourself.”

“Why didn’t we have a life, Drew? Why did it come too late?”

“At least it came. We had those two years, my best years.” He paused then he said, “You know I have always loved you.”

“I know,” I said, and I burrowed in next to him and put my arm around him. He was thin under his baggy T-shirt. We lay that way for a while, neither of us moving, until a shadow crossed the doorway. It was Billy, holding a cup of coffee.

“Chrissakes, Nancy! Right here?” he said. He didn’t register surprise. Somehow he’d known. He’d known and had decided to ignore it, to bide his time because Drew would die and it would be just he and I again.

Drew lifted his head and let it drop and looked up at the ceiling. “Billy,” he began. But I cut him short as I sat up and moved to the edge of the bed.

“I’m sorry, Billy. I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s been so hard.”

“And what about me?” Billy said, pointing back to himself with his thumb. His face began to flush. “He was my son, too. And now,” he nodded toward the bed, gathering himself to go on. “My brother… and by the way, bro, thanks a lot!” he said. He shook his head and suddenly threw up his hands, the coffee spilling over the cup. “So I lose everybody!” he said. Then he turned around and walked into the hall.

I started to follow him, to say that I was losing everyone, too, that whatever we’d once had together died long before Mark did, that some things needed to pass away. But I stopped and let him disappear, and a moment later I heard the ping of the elevator and the opening and then the closing of the doors.

“He’ll be all right,” Drew said from the bed. “You know Billy. He’ll survive.”

I took Drew home a few days later and moved in with him. We had three months together and then he slipped away one cold January night. The last thing he said was “I’ll find Mark.”

Billy didn’t come to the service, which was really just a gathering of friends and family out by the white pine. But I saw him a week later at the supermarket. He looked tired. “How about coffee some time,” he said. I said no, there was no point in it. He tried to smile as we said goodbye. I walked off, thinking about the walnut headboard above Drew’s bed, my bed now. Thinking about home.
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Cynthia J. McGroarty is a former reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College and teaches English and writing to graduates and undergraduates. Her work has been published in a variety of journals including Schuylkill Valley Journal, Newtopia, The MacGuffin and BloodLotus. She lives in Paoli, Pa., with her husband James J. Kirschke. Email: cynthiamcgroarty[at]comcast.net

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