A Life With Lily
Ben’s story about Lily the other day was peachy swell keen-o — or whatever the hell they said back then to indicate approval — but it didn’t explain how he ended up alone. So drawing on my vast well of tactful journalistic tools and tricks, I decided to opt for the world-famous, patented Donovan Graham Super-Subtle Sideways Slipstream Sneaky Suggestion approach.
“So how come you’re sitting here on your porch, all alone, watching the sun set and smelling like pee?” I suggested sneakily.
Ben whiffed. “I thought that was you,” he muttered.
Fair enough. I do have a certain swamp aroma hovering about me. I continued full steam ahead: “No, really. Lily sounds incredible. Did you do much together?”
He took off his glasses, wiped his eyes, smiled in a strange way, and sighed. “Did we do much together?” he repeated, using a tone that suggested a mournful patience for foolish questions. “Yes, you could say so. For our honeymoon, we climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. There’s an easy path up one side, you know, and so we did that. We didn’t want to waste our energy on hiking!” He laughed silently and took the handkerchief out of his cardigan pocket.
I smiled. “Wow,” I said, with gentle admiration. I had no idea this withered old man had ever done anything that cool.
“After our honeymoon,” he continued, rocking in his gloomy chair, “we moved to Boston. I took a job as a photographer, shooting pictures for magazines and newspapers. Made a good living at it, and my clients sent me all over the world. I took pictures of a monastery in Cambodia for National Geographic. I took pictures of the Angel Falls in Venezuela for International Wildlife. And did you know that the U.S. Navy goes on iceberg patrol every spring? They track down the icebergs and blow them up before they can impede the shipping lanes. I went along one spring and shot photos for Smithsonian. I’ve been all over the world, and most of the time, Lily went with me. She could do anything I could do — and she could make people love her while she was doing it.”
I was speechless. Here was a guy I had written off as tired and empty, and it turns out he lived the kind of life I dream of. In my fantasy, I don’t have a wife along, though. Footloose and free, that’s me. Still, Ben’s choices sounded awfully rewarding to me.
“So then what did you do?” I asked.
His eyes grew dark and deep. He wiped his nose with the handkerchief. “Nothing,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “She died.”
Ouch. I pretended to write a bunch of things in my notebook, figuring that he’d continue when he felt like it. He didn’t take long.
“We were playing croquet when I first noticed that something was wrong,” he said in a quiet voice. His words were steady and measured, like he had practiced this speech every night at bedtime but had never found a reason to deliver it. “We were living in GSI by then, and we were taking a vacation at the Eastport Country Club, where you could get a room and a champagne breakfast in their special romantic suite for a bargain. You also got to use the grounds all you wanted. Neither of us played golf, but we decided to try our hands at croquet. Lily was lining up a simple putt that would send her ball right through the wicket. It wasn’t more than three feet away. But she seemed to have difficulty determining which way to aim the face of the mallet. She prepared to strike the ball, but her mallet was skewed to one side. The ball had no chance of going through the wicket.”
He sighed. After a long look out at the darkening ocean, he continued.
“She seemed to sense that her aim was off, so she pulled the mallet away and tried again. This time, she got closer, but the mallet face was still angled sharply to the left. She swung anyway, and the ball didn’t come close to her target. She laughed and made a joke about the sun being in her eyes — but I could tell that something was wrong. I could see it in her face. I couldn’t tell what was wrong. Only that she knew that she was in trouble.
“She had other problems every now and then. She’d set the table wrong or not remember how to put the cap back on the toothpaste. When the episodes started getting closer together, too hard to dismiss as fatigue or a vitamin deficiency, we took her to a doctor in Eastport. He peeked in her ears and thumped on her knees with a rubber hammer, and then he said that she suffered from depression. He offered to put her on antidepressant medication.
“We knew full well that he had no idea what was going on. Lily was as bright and cheerful as any woman alive, even faced with this problem with her perception. We thought that maybe she needed a special diet or something to help the blood flow to her brain, but antidepressants? That would be like giving Determination Pills to Patton.
“So we took her to a doctor down in Portland. Had to get a hotel and everything. It cost a lot of money back then, with the bus fare and everything, but we believed that it was worth it. And we were right. The doctor down in Portland had the brains to admit that he didn’t know what her problem was — but that he thought it was serious. He sent her to a specialist in town, a neurologist who did all kinds of tests on her. He had her read letters off a little chart. He had her touch her nose with the tips of each finger, all the while with her eyes closed. He listened to her heart, he felt her skull, and he took X-rays of her chest and head. He even made sure she wasn’t pregnant. Eventually, he sent us away and told us that he would call us with the results.
“It was two weeks later, when the call came. We were sitting right here, on this porch, when Jenny Royal came running up the hill. She told us that there was a call for us down at Cory’s. Cory was the only one on the island with a phone. So we walked down there as quickly as we could, with Lily stumbling over her own feet from time to time. We couldn’t move all that fast. But we finally got to Cory’s, and Lily took the phone.
“The doctor asked her to put me on the line, and that’s when we knew that the news was not good. He wanted me to break it to her in a gentle way, you know. He rattled on about cell division and blood vessels and other things I didn’t understand, but I got the message. She was going to get worse and worse, and then some major system or another was going to fail. Lily was dying, and only God could save her. Lily took the news well, in that — ”
He stopped talking for a moment. The sun had set, and the porch was too dark for me to see his face clearly. But I knew he needed some time to get his composure back. No guy likes to cry in front of another guy.
“She took it well,” he continued. His voice was thick. “Upbeat and cheerful. I took it much worse. I was torn apart, and I — ”
I knew he would continue when he could. I just sat there, drawing a little sketch of Ben on the phone in my notepad. I had the scene pretty well roughed out when he found his voice again.
“I didn’t do very well. Watching Lily struggle so hard to be funny and cheerful, when both of us knew that she wasn’t going to see another Christmas or have another birthday. We both knew that she wasn’t ever going to have children to hold and play with, or grandchildren to spoil rotten with candy and toys. And the hardest thing for me was watching her try to act like it was all OK. She was — she — ”
The sketch was coming along nicely, with some subtle shading and some good expression around the eyes.
“She was a damn sight braver than I was,” he said at last, his voice now raspy and hard to understand. “When she died and we buried her, I knew that I had nothing left to do. I sold my cameras and pulled myself into our little cabin here, just waiting out my days. Just waiting. But I’m happy, remember? Happiest man on Earth. I got to spend part of my life with the most incredible woman alive, and now I get to sit here and remember that. What could — ” He blew his nose. “What could be nicer?”
I drew in some little lines to indicate that he was talking, and I made the phone cord extra long, coiled like a snake. When it seemed that he wasn’t going to say anything more, I decided to toss out a prompt. “Ever think about remarrying?” I asked. “Go on another cool honeymoon?”
He said nothing for a long time. He would breathe sharply, like he was about to speak, but then he would lapse back into silence for a while, as though he couldn’t find the words to explain Cosmic Truths to an earthbound clod like me. But then, at last, he spoke.
“With a woman like that,” he said, “you don’t remarry. You rejoin her. In Heaven. You can’t do any better than that.”
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment — Edith5545: I know just how he feels. When I lost my husband, I didn’t want to go on. But I guess God expects to, and so we do.
Comment — Gemstone: That’s a kind of love that you’ll never find down in The Village, Van.
Comment — WomynFire982: most of us only dream about a love that transcends death. why do we feel sad for those who, at least for a while, found it?
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.