by Norman Klein
Rita had been visiting her best friend, Jody, in New Hampshire, and two days into the visit Jody called Bill from the hospital.
“Last night she didn’t look right, so I gave her some soup and put her to bed. But she was worse this morning, so I loaded her into the truck as fast as I could and took her to the hospital,” Jody said.
It took Rita’s husband Bill a little more than a hour to get there from Bolton driving over the limit,but he arrived to find Jody drenched in tears.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t make it,” she told Bill. “That doctor said there was nothing they could do. But I know better. I saw him in the cafeteria reading his newspaper,” Jody said.
The doctor was apologetic with Bill. “The autopsy will tell us what happened, but we lost a heartbeat minutes after she arrived. People think of hospitals having life support systems and all kinds of miracle cures, but the truth is that when someone in your wife’s condition is wheeled into an emergency room, there’s very little we can do.”
Bill nodded, in shock. The doctor excused himself saying he had patients waiting, but before he left he gave Bill a crumpled envelope. “This is for you,” the doctor said. “Your wife probably wrote it this morning before she lost consciousness. We found it in her pocket.”
He stumbled through the viewing and the church service with Jody’s help. She took care of the arrangements. She told him what he needed to know and placed the legal papers in front of him to sign. He thought of opening the envelope several times but couldn’t make himself do it. He couldn’t bare to see her last words scribbled on a page, probably a list of clothes to bring, or information to pass on to somebody who might call while she was away. He was in enough pain. That would be too much.
Jody stayed with him for a week in Bolton, and before she left she showed him how she had filed everything in folders – one for Rita’s bank account and bills, another for her insurance and pension plan, and a third one with a list of people he would need to notify or talk to. The principal of her school was at the top of the list. He would need her class lists and grades. That would be the most painful task of all.
Jody’s last good deed had been to call Bill’s doctor. He saw Bill the next day and arranged two months of disability for him, then signed him up for three sessions a week to address his crying fits night walking, and hopelesss anger.
Two weeks later Jody called to tell him to get his butt out of the house. “Go wash your damned car, Bill, or buy yourself a puppy,” she had told him.
He knew she wanted to hear that he was coping, and so he told her he was planning a trip to California to see his best friend, Kip. Planning the trip helped. But then he cancelled it and pulled out the four photo albums and went through them one by one.
There was Rita as a grad student, wearing a sweatshirt with sleeves so long they covered her hands, giving him her best outraged expression, telling him for the hundredth time that she didn’t like to have her picture taken. She had what Bill called her official warning pose, but he found it to be edgy and sexy.
“Have you ever thought about marriage?” he had asked the day she moved in.
“No, never,” she said.
A year later they were married, but only because she was pregnant and didn’t want the kid to have problems at school. Then ten days after they were married she lost the baby.
The last few pictures in the last photo album were taken by her students on the girls’ cross-country team. Rita was their coach, and he had six pictures of her running with her girls. The girls ran in their matching warm-up gear, and Rita was wearing black tights and her black leather jacket. Bill loved that picture, and he loved her. She was wonderful and so full of life.
A few years after that picture had been taken he had asked her if she regretted marrying him.
She said, “No, I’m glad I married you.”
“Why?” he asked. “There are so many things you like to do alone. You like to read alone, walk alone, and most of the time you even eat alone.”
“I don’t like partying alone,” she said. “But here is the real reason. You saved my life. . Remember the time I was drunk as a skunk and started to fall off that porch railing that overlooked the river, but you somehow got your arms around me and pulled me back. I’ll never understand how you did that so quickly, and how strong you were to snatch me back. I’ll never forget that. Never.”
Bill had fallen for the heat and magic of her when he was young, but as they made their way through their thirties and forties, his love for her deepened. He would sit for hours watching her do the Times cross-word puzzles on Sunday. She would begin sprawled on the sofa, her head tilted, her expression amused, but reluctant. A few moments later she would scratch a few notes on the newspaper, then hurry to the kitchen for coffee.
He also loved the stories she brought home from school. There was the day that a freshman had come to school wearing a blouse with both sleeves torn off. Rita had asked what happened, and the girl had burst into tears. She had torn one sleeve on a nail that morning and had gone upstairs to change the blouse. But her mother insisted that she go to school wearing the torn sleeve.
The girl said, “Okay Mom, if that’s what you want,” and reached for her coat and books. Then her mother grabbed her, ripped off both sleeves, and then handed her daughter her coat and her books. Rita got her spare sweater out of the school closet and gave it to her, and she told Bill that evening that she had spent the rest of the day trying to figure out what she could do to get the mother to understand that she couldn’t do things like that to a teenage girl.
“Please help me, Bill,” she had said, “because I can’t think of a single thing I could do that would make things better.”
“Because she will make her daughter pay for your interference?” he had asked and she had nodded.
But the thing that bothered her most was the way the school was run, the way the administrators wasted money on lawn fertilizers and ignored the need for new books. Her principal had told her not to get so involved with the students, and not to listen to them when they complain about having so few computers in the library.
Bill renewed his love for Rita going through the photo albums. They were his bible. .
“Maybe it’s the medication I’m on, or I am just exhausted, but I’ve stopped hurting, I think,” he told his friend, Kip, in a late-night phone call.
The following morning he opened the envelope the doctor had given him and read the brief note that Rita had written, ‘Bill, I had a sordid affair with one of my cross-country stars. Please don’t identify her. She’ll say it was her idea. It wasn’t. Please forgive me.’
Bill couldn’t breathe. He sat down and drank a beer and tried to make sense of what he had read. He called Jody and read it to her, and she told him she couldn’t help him.
“How do you think I feel?” she asked. “For the last six months I only got to see her when it rained.”