Arthur had stopped speaking. My retreat into this mental digression had been momentary, but Arthur had noticed my inattention and decided to wait for my return. There was no impatience in his demeanor, but rather a mild sense of urgency to continue with the story. He needed me to hear it in its fullness. I thereafter remained attentive.
The realization that Randy died so close to seven years after Arthur had saved him confirmed Arthur’s greatest fear about his ability, and in so doing, created a new torment in his heart. For now he knew with certainty something he had only feared before. He knew when his wife would die. Arthur had hoped that his ability would somehow add seven years to a person’s life in addition to the life that they could normally live, this was only a dream of his, but he held onto it for these last seven years. To now know that, once saved, he and he alone would have the horrible knowledge of a loved one’s mortality date was more than he could bear. But so it was. And now he must live with the absolute knowledge of his own wife’s limited lifespan.
Two years prior, Arthur’s wife, while returning from a visit with her sister, was involved in an accident. Her sister lived 50 miles north of them in a more mountainous area of the state. That evening, the temperature had dropped below freezing. While maneuvering around one particularly tight curve, she hit a spot of black ice and lost control of the car. Attempts to compensate were fruitless and she went over the side of the embankment and down about 20 feet into a small river. The recent rains, however, had significantly raised the water level. The vehicle now lay flipped over with water rushing in and through the car.
There she lay unconscious, under freezing water, alone. The accident was immediately reported and EMT’s were at the sight within 7 minutes. However, the extrication was difficult, and it was calculated that she was underwater for 26 minutes before adequate resuscitation was achieved. She arrived at the hospital intubated on a breathing machine, hypothermic with multiple injuries, but her heart was still beating.
Was there even a decision here, Arthur thought as he arrived at her bedside in the intensive care unit? The doctors had reported her condition as grave. One doctor had just bluntly said, “She brain dead, there is nothing that we can do.” While some of the others wanted to wait a bit longer for the hypothermia to resolve. Her other injuries were also severe. She had sustained a closed pelvic fracture wherein she had lost a lot of blood and was being transfused. Her right tibia and fibula were crushed in an open compound fracture. She had four left rib fractures and a left kidney contusion. The doctors gave Arthur very little hope of survival.
They ran a second set of EEG’s 12 hours after her arrival and it didn’t look good. There appeared to be little or no brain function. Arthur could not wait any longer. He asked the nurse if he could have a moment alone with his wife. Kneeling at her bedside, he took her still cold hand into his and simply spoke out loud her sacred name and gave her freely the only thing that he could, seven years of his own life. He felt that it was a bargain, for he could not imagine life without her. It just felt so natural to do it; no more difficult than taking a breath.
There was no fanfare, there was no brilliant light. After about five seconds, she opened her eyes and recognized her husband, now standing over her, his eyes filled with tears. The only message that she could give him was a slight, but assuring, squeeze of his hand.
The next day, as the doctors were rounding, they were standing outside the ICU room where Arthur sat with his wife. They were discussing her case and were clearly at odds to explain what had occurred. Finally Arthur heard one doctor comment, “Well, I guess you’re not dead until you are warm and dead.” They left it at that.
She slowly recovered. Arthur was always at her side. The leg fracture underwent a surgical open reduction and internal fixation and eventually needed a skin graft. The pelvis, ribs and kidney were left to heal on their own. Months of physical therapy followed, but soon came the day when Arthur and his wife could go home.
She was alive and slowly getting better, but things would never be ‘normal’ again. She would always walk with a cane. However, a fiercely independent soul, she cringed at the idea of ‘being taken care of’. Slowly, though, they rebuilt their lives together. They made plans and eventually added a family room to the back of their small house and remodeled the kitchen. This was something she had wanted to do for years, but Arthur just couldn’t commit the time or money. However, Arthur’s approach now had changed. What if he only had seven more years with her? Could he afford not to make her happy? With the new kitchen done, Arthur’s wife developed her passion for gourmet cooking and always seemed so content whenever she would place a new creation in front of him for dinner. The dish would especially taste divine to Arthur on those few occasions where he would let himself remember that these moments shouldn’t actually exist. The loss of seven years of his own life never surfaced to a level of conscious thought. He was the beneficiary in this decision. At this point Randy was still alive and Arthur continued in his deluded hope with regard to the possibility of a prolonged uncertain departure point for those on whom he had used his ability.
The reality would be more than Arthur could handle.
The drive home from Seattle, for Arthur, was pure torture. His mind raced with the realization that to give someone seven years of his life meant seven years. There was no mercy in this fixed time; this knowledge of when the one closest to you would die. How could he live with the certain knowledge of when his beloved would leave him? Could he act relaxed, open or normal around her? He knew he could never tell her. That would be cruel. No, this was his burden to carry alone; his responsibility.
They arrived home; their fractured lives to rebuild. They had lost their only child and Arthur felt himself losing hope. Initially, he was angry. Why was he given this ability if its fixed knowledge of death caused him to despair? Time was now his enemy, each moment never to be recovered. Intellectually he knew that without this so called ‘gift’, (although he never thought of it as a gift), his wife would have died two years ago, and Randy seven years prior. But in the present, that was no consolation. Maybe it would have been better to not know the future and therefore not suffer in its anticipation the dread of the inevitable pain to come. But Arthur also knew what great benefits; even blessings had come from this life extension. Mark and Eva were in their lives. Randy’s wife had always been so loving toward them. His own wife was still there, and yet, in a way he already missed her. Arthur grieved deeply and forced himself to become numb to all of this by burying himself in his work. He spoke little, even less than normal for him. His wife tried her best to lift him from his self-imposed prison. But in that first year following Randy’s death, Arthur spent most of him time in the shop, dismantling and rebuilding small engines. This was something over which he had control.
One day there was a message from their daughter in law. Eva was going to perform in her first major dance recital and very much wanted her grandparents to attend. Eva and mark always brought them joy whenever they were with them. Mark was much like his grandfather. He could spend all day taking apart a clock, just to explore how it worked and then reassemble it into perfect working order. He was curious about everything, his questions were never-ending.
Alternatively, Eva never was still. She seemed to move in a manner both harmonious and synchronous with the movement of the earth, almost as if she stopped so would time itself. From age two, she was always dancing; sometimes to whatever music might be playing; often to the music in her head.
After Randy’s death, Eva’s mom used some of the insurance payment to enroll Eva in the best dance school that they could afford. Even at her young age, Eva excelled. It did not take much coaxing to get Arthur to close the shop for a week so that they could make the drive north.
When they arrived, Mark and Eva both burst out of the house, literally flying over the porch steps to race to the car to surround them with hugs. Both were speaking simultaneously to report on everything in their lives. Their pressure to report gave a sense that relating these facts was the most important thing on earth and the words could not be expressed fast enough. Arthur and his wife fought their way into the house with Mark and Eva alternatively jumping and skipping as they dragged them up the steps into the living room. Eva spent an hour with Arthur, explaining every move in her dance routine and using a vocabulary that Arthur did not recognize, pirouette, fouette, en croix…. She brought out the three costumes that she would wear in each of her dances and went on how she even had a solo. Mark, on the other hand was wearing a pathway in the carpet as he went back and forth to his room, each time bringing a different object made of Legos to show his grandmother; cars, trucks, planes, boats and spaceships. He was very careful to point out where the engines were and added the appropriate sound effects, an ability innate to all boys over the age of two.
Two nights later was the recital. They arrived early to get good seats near the front. As Eva danced, it was clear that she was in her element. Even at age six, you could tell that she really felt the meaning in the motion. The only description of the look on her face, as she moved across the stage with such purpose, was that of pure joy. She was lost in her own world of movement and music. The other little girls stumbled around, looking at each others’ feet for cues on the steps. If Eva made mistakes, and she didn’t appear to make many, she seemed oblivious to them.
The second to last dance featured her solo. Initially the piece began with all of the girls running in from either side of the stage and forming two parallel lines. The lines then pulled apart and formed an inverted “V” as Eva came forward in the center and proceeded to spin and jump as she moved across the stage. She was so happy. Arthur sat there transfixed. He felt something he had not felt in a very long time and it felt wonderful.
They stayed a few more days then drove home. As they passed through miles of evergreen forests, Arthur could not help but remember the look on Eva’s face as she danced, pure, unadulterated innocence. He realized that his self-imposed emotional exile was slowly killing him. Time, his mortal enemy, unrelenting and fixed, was winning. He knew he could not succumb to this passive attempt to escape pain. It was time to fight back.
He began to leave work each day at five and started taking Mondays off. He hired a young man who had just finished high school to help out in the shop. The quiet calm that had entombed him for the last year now gave way to incessant chatter from the young man set to the sound track of alternative rock. Justin, that was his name, talked of his dream of someday getting a motorcycle and riding across the country. He was a good kid, and learned very quickly. Soon Arthur felt comfortable leaving Justin alone to work on his own and even close up the shop for him. Arthur wanted to spend as much time with his wife as he could. Things improved in their relationship. They planned more trips together. In the past, when his wife would comment how she always wanted to see the American southwest, Arthur would change the subject or say that he was too busy. Now he acted on her casual comments knowing that they really reflected her true desires. He worked it out with Justin and his carpet cleaning manager, and they left for three weeks to explore the Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde. They created wonderful memories together; memories that, in later years, would surface with an ease that the denser, more painful memories, did not possess.
Things weren’t perfect. She still struggled to get around with her cane and would become frustrated, sometimes at the smallest inconvenience. Sometimes she would snap at Arthur for no reason, at least not any reason that he could surmise. Arthur would think, “Honey, if you only knew how little time we have left together, you would be more patient with me.” This made it quite difficult for him to bare this truth alone, but he would no longer hide from it. In those three years following Eva’s recital, Arthur now felt quite content to accommodate his wife, as he no longer blocked the suppressed dreams that she had carried for so many years. They went to San Francisco for a three day trip as she participated in a culinary master class. She created a grilled Sea Bass with a Dijon and dill sauce that was heavenly. She began to design and create mosaics and soon they were everywhere in the house. Initially the designs had a clear floral pattern, but soon she moved on to abstracts, focused more on color and radial dissymmetry. She stayed involved and Arthur stayed at her side. The last year of her life she began to slow down. Her energy began to wane. Her doctors had no real explanation for it. But she did not complain. Soon, she did not speak of travel anymore, other than to visit her grandchildren. She stopped creating mosaics, but she continued to cook as long as she could still stand. Discouragement or complaining, however, were not part her character. Arthur, of course, knew what was coming. Every morning he would wake up with the knowledge of how much time he had left with her. Should this knowledge cause him to drastically change what daily activities they should accomplish in the short time they had left? Did this extraordinary revelation of his require that their live become extraordinary? They still needed to eat, to bathe, to clean the house; such mundane tasks for such an extraordinary couple. But isn’t that what you do together? Arthur found that the most important thing he could imagine doing was just being with her as he slowly began to assume the responsibilities that had always been hers. The first time in their married life that he did laundry was a disaster, but she guided him through and soon it became routine for him.
The timing of her death wasn’t exact, but Arthur figured (remembering the date of Randy’s death) that there would be a 3-4 week window around when it would occur. As it approached, it became more difficult for her to get out of bed. He would assist her and they would sit in the garden, surrounded by a myriad of potted flowers and herbs, all setting on mosaics of various sizes and shapes. Often the only sounds were that of a small fountain nearby and the many species of birds that had taken up residence in their garden. If his wife knew that she was dying, and Arthur believed that she did, she never mentioned it. She would wake up every day, Arthur would help her dress, and they would spend the day together.
One morning Arthur woke up to find his wife struggling to breath. Not knowing what to do, he took her to the hospital knowing that she would likely never return to their home again. A multitude of tests were done, all inconclusive. The doctors spoke of different possibilities in the differential diagnoses, but Arthur knew that they were baffled and just guessing. She lay there with a green mask on her face which supplied her with humidified oxygen as she spent much of the time sleeping. Fortunately, she suffered no pain.
It was during one of these long sleeping episodes that Arthur experienced a memory. One of those vivid memories of one’s past that might occur when the mind is allow to shift into neutral and coast for a while.
Arthur was 7. Or he was 9? He wasn’t sure. His memory was like patches of blue sky seen through shifting clouds; fading, changing, with new patches of blue revealing themselves as others were lost. He was sitting in the back seat of the car. His father was driving, his mother, or maybe it was his older sister, was in the front seat. They were driving somewhere, they were always driving somewhere, and he was bored. It was a long straight stretch on a two-lane country road. As Arthur pressed his face against the window, he would play this game with his eyes to fight off the boredom. His memory now engulfed him and he was there. As they traveled, there was a long fence separating the road from the farmland along side. As he stared at the fence posts he would see different things. If he looked ahead at an angle more parallel to the road, he could differentiate individual fences posts as they rapidly moved toward him. If he looked straight out the window, perpendicular to the direction of their travel, everything was a blur. As hard as he tried to rapidly move his eyes back and forth, he could not make out an individual fence post. But, there was one particular angle that, if he looked on that one spot. He could see the solid, individual fence posts right at the moment that they were sucked into the blur. He would spend many minutes gazing at the transition. It helped if he let his eyes go slightly out of focus, trying (or not trying) to look at some imaginary point beyond the fence. Arthur noticed something. Just as the post became swallowed in the blur, they were angled. But he could not remember whether they were angled forward or backwards. He would rack his brain to try to determine which way they were angled. He had to know. Somehow this discovery became all consuming. It seemed that maybe this would somehow explain his life. Was he forever falling backward in time or tilting forward? It seemed that he was always caught in the blur. If only he could figure out its direction.
Suddenly, he felt himself in a river. The current was pushing him, or was it pulling him. As the water carried him, he wanted to get out. He saw a large rock to his right and maneuvered himself towards it. He grabbed it with both hands and immediately the current, that had be quietly carrying him, now became a rushing force; pushing-pulling him away from the solidity of the rock. His strength was no match for the force of time whose current would not allow him to stop.
Two days later she gently left this world. Arthur sat next to her bed keeping vigil. During her final hours, he spoke softly to her; reminiscing over the memories that they shared. She did not move. He held her hand as her breathing eventually slowed and then came, maybe one to two breaths in each minute. He stroked her long brown hair as she became still. Arthur waited alone with her for about fifteen minutes, slowly got up, and went home.