By Tom Teti
“Heavenly Father…” Freeman paused, pulled up the sleeves of his sweater. He took a breath, then another, and began again.
“Heavenly Father…” He stopped again and shifted the weight on his knees. He was conscious of his aches, something rare when he prayed. His whole life he remembered transcending any pain when in prayer. It always endorsed his feeling that he spoke from a wholeness, a mind large as the ocean, a soul open as the sky. It was troubling to notice pain, to have it interrupt his voice. One more trouble on top of so many.
He’d gone to their other room to be alone. Sometimes, when he tried to pray in the same room as Mary, she would say things.
“What are you doing down there like that. Get up. Come on, get up.” It would interfere with his concentration, further, with the delight that he hoped would live in him. Praying was always so successful for him.
“We should go home,” she might say after he had begun. “I think we’ve overstayed our welcome here.”
“We are home, Mary. We live here now.” Under his breath, because he was such a compulsive truth-teller, he mumbled: “It’s called Assisted Living.”
“Oh, heavens,” Mary might say. “How can that be? My mother’s coming and she won’t know where to find us.”
Her mother was dead thirty-five years, yet almost daily for the last two weeks Mary invoked her name with the idea she’d be visiting. And if not her mother, her children; three of them lived far away, yet she still thought her sons would be coming. She forgot one lived in North Carolina, one in Chicago, and another they weren’t sure. Their only daughter lived twenty minutes away.
So, more and more, Freeman took to the second room, a guest room that had a small bed in it, to have some moments of peace. Lord help me, he said to himself, to think of it as peace. “It’s solitude,” he said to no one present, nodding in the comfort of finding the right word, a comfort that had always given him a noble feeling.
At a certain time of day, the middle of morning, he found a shaft of light, sunlight on clear days, that stayed long enough for him to accept it on his knees by the bed that no one actually slept in. He prayed in that light, and on this day the sun demonstrated a great strength. Freeman allowed himself to believe there was always some actualization in the weather, from the Creator. It was up to us to use it, and he knew just how to use the strong sun on this day.
“Heavenly Father…” But it wouldn’t come free. His reach toward God was normally a spring from which flowed the best of him, in thought, word and deed. It was a knowing all its own where he found joy on great days, understanding on days of pain, or solace. Solace, as that Shakespeare said: “‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.” But Shakespeare’s young prince said it about death, and there they would part company. His mind, his being was too unsettled for that, yet.
He rose slowly from his knees and breathed. He moved to the main bedroom but stopped in the doorway. His wife looked the same every time, restful, soft, so thin. The bedclothes, her favorite colors, violet and yellow and deep, deep blue, framed her sleeping head. Their daughter had chosen the colors. She’d said it would be pleasant for her, no, she said it might be pleasant for her. Damaris was like that, always thinking of what would make things better.
“Mary, dear…” It was his late habit to address her as if she were awake and just writing a letter or reading the newspaper. In those former times, she would answer “Ye-es?” without even looking up, or just enough to see where he was when talking. He would not give in to the notion that she could not speak to him.
“Mary?” There was just silence, again, and true silence. Nothing else could be heard. The sun bathed the half of the room on the far side of the bed, the half she lay in and the tan carpet between the mattress and sliding glass doors that led to their small patio. The blue curtains would block the light but he liked them open and the room sunny, partly hoping that it would signify ‘day’ to her and she would rise and be normal. She didn’t, not often. It was just a wish he had.
Freeman caught himself staring out the doors to the grass and beyond, retrieving thoughts of yesterdays, breakfasts, morning walks.
“I was wondering, I don’t know, the other day… It was daytime I know that much, how Jesus sounded when he talked…” He watched her. She didn’t stir. “Like on the road to Emmaus, what did he sound like to those two? And on the cross, he spoke to the others getting crucified, but he was in terrible pain, just, unbelievable pain. What did that sound like?”
He waited for her to wake, to talk, but she did not and suddenly he humbly wished that she wouldn’t just yet, because he was speaking and it was meaningful to him. He began to take steps, very, very slowly forming an arc around their bed to the night table. Passing the open door, he smelled the coffee – he had not yet taken any – and the peel from the mashed banana the hospice worker had left in the sink. Mary had not eaten much. The worker, a young man who came four of the five days, had removed a bite from her mouth.
“She’s just not swallowing,” he’d said, as if there was no other way to give the information, and perhaps there wasn’t.
Freeman stopped by the glass doors and put his hands in his pockets. He saw reflections of himself everywhere, lately, the desk lamp, the computer, the stainless-steel kettle and here the glass doors. He was being reminded that he was an elder, and where he was balding, white-haired, and not thin and young and all those other things he used to be, even though there were times in his day when he felt so.
“I always picture a sunny day when I think of Jesus on that road. And one olive tree coming out of a mound of earth and rock, by the side of the road. It’s supposed to be a man and a woman. Were they married?” He shrugged. “Were they us?” He turned back to her. “I guess they could have been a couple and men, besides, right? We know that now, too.” His right arm and shoulder shaded her face; she did not answer. “I think they must have talked first, right? They must have said something like, ‘Did you hear the news?’ The crucifixion was ‘the’ news, for sure. But weren’t they afraid of who they were talking to? Did he choose them? They were being careful, you know, dear, they were feeling him out, I guess you’d say.”
He looked out and then looked far off. He could just see the edge of the golf course and a sand trap visible through a barrier of maple trees, at least, he thought they were maples. He’d played golf for a while, after he was sixty up until a few years ago. He liked it for the walking, then gave it up when it became about riding in the cart and hurrying to get to the next hole. Something wrong in that, he thought. This day was a great day for golf.
“Would Jesus have liked it here? I can’t stop, Mary, I can’t. Would he play golf?” Freeman turned his back to the glass doors and stared at his wife. “Questions and questions and questions anymore, and always questions nobody can answer, so, here’s one for you, okay?” His voice quavered slightly. “Was I always like this? Was I always so off-balanced without you? I feel so unsteady. Was it you who kept me from drowning in these questions, because you made me move on, you told me, so many times, straight out, ‘Forget it, Freeman, because there’s no way to prove it.'” He waited, but knew there was no amount of waiting that would get anything from her. He started toward the kitchen, then changed and slid open one side of the doors. He stepped outside and felt warm spring on his face, sun, breeze, even the sounds of birds and the smell of new grass and waking soil seemed to enter him through his eyes, nose and cheeks.
“You told me once I needed to be needed or I’d die in ten minutes, but-”
It was Damaris’, his daughter. Her voice found him first, then she entered.
“Good, you’re here. I-”
“Yes. I’m here.”
“I was worried, for a moment.” Her worrying annoyed him. He felt her studying him. “Are you okay?”
“Oh, yeah. I’m fine.”
“She’s been fed, Dam.” Freeman had always called her Maris. She was even called Maris at school for years. Then one day Mary complained. “I can’t tell who you’re calling when you’re in another room. I always have to drop what I’m doing and run and sometimes for nothing.” Mary fancied that her time was more valuable than other people’s; you didn’t interrupt her without hearing about it. If she were to wake up, thought Freeman, she’d probably say something like: “Where’s my wheelchair? Get it, we’re going outside.”
“Has she been awake at all?” Damaris asked.
“Well, she ate breakfast, I told you.”
“I know, I mean, after that.” The girl wore an expression of hard-earned patience of late. It bothered him, made him feel like he was to blame for… What? He couldn’t put it into words, though he understood. This was a time that no one planned for, and even if they had…
“Did you eat?” she asked.
He wanted to say, “Who cares if I ate?” It didn’t feel important.
“I had some cereal and banana,” he told her.
Damaris eyes lingered on him. “Because sometimes you skip it, and you mustn’t.”
“Yeah, okay.” She was in the way. Of course, he wanted her to be there, just not in ‘his’ way. He was thinking, and studying, and trying to answer questions, dammit, because there wasn’t enough time left, he knew that, there never had been enough time, but he knew it too well now. Now, he lived it every day.
“Can you stay here a little while?” he asked, without looking at her. “I just want to go outside. It’s sunny and I want to go out there.”
“Yes, of course, it’s beautiful. I’m going to make tea.”
He ambled out the doors onto the grass and continued walking, taking breath in the same way one would after being in a room too small and too warm. He tried to feel his freedom; he wanted to run. He hadn’t run in so long. The grassy incline rolled gently down to a pond, but even a gentle incline demanded care and attention. How long had it been since he’d been free of the chronic ailments that he felt every day, all day, the foot things, the knee things, the eyes, the infernal stomach. Mary was healthier than he, just unable to enjoy it. If the English professors at universities wanted to explain irony, he could give them a lesson guaranteed to hit home.
At the water’s edge, he scanned the bushes and growths that ringed the oval-shaped pool. It was a man-made pond, he thought, dug out and filled for the charm and pleasure of the residents, but it gave him solace at this moment. It satisfied him. He glanced upward and held his gaze toward the sky, letting the light enter his eyes.
“Anything, Lord,” he said. “This is a hard time… I remain your servant – ” Freeman stopped and closed his eyes, then opened them and looked back up, skyward. “I call myself your ‘friend’, in all things. That’s what I want to be, that’s what I have always been. I wish,” he said and stopped. “I once led others to you. And now you seem… Now I can’t seem to find you, like I used to. I wish someone would ask me again, to lead them.” He felt something like tears beginning, not from sorrow, but because they couldn’t be held in anymore. But they didn’t come. He sat on the grass, with something of a hardship. He was grateful parts of him could still bend enough for him to lay down. Then he lay back against the gentle slope and just stared at the three clouds framed in a grand blue. The sky was so cerulean that the clouds looked lost, as if they’d wandered into the wrong day.
He was aware of a rustling and steps. Damaris was above and next to him.
“May I join you?”
“Yes. You sure she’s okay?”
“Yes. She’s getting a bath. Eliana’s with her.”
“She’s awake?” He began to shift like he would get up.
“Let her finish the bath, Daddy.” She first sat, then lay back in a pose matching his. “This looks too good to not join in.”
“It is.” Then Freeman started laughing. “I just hope I can get up.”
Dam laughed, too. “I’ll help you.”
He laughed again. “I hope you can get up!”
After their shared laughter, they stared silently at the blue heavens for a long moment. Their faces sobered, but a contentment set in, temporary, as all contentments were for them both in the patch of time they inhabited, lately. Freeman shifted his legs, crossed the right over the left at the ankle. He was struck by how young he felt, right then, on his back, in the fresh air with his daughter.
“I’ve been wondering what Jesus said, to the couple on the road to Emmaus.”
“What a surprise, Daddy.”
“Oh, I know. ‘When will he ever stop with the wondering?’ You’d think I’d be past caring, by now.”
“Nope, not in the least. I’m sorry you don’t have a congregation anymore; you’d have your sermon right there.” Damaris smiled broadly looking upward. “Don’t you ever stop wondering.”
He heard her, but said nothing. She had a beauty about her, plain though it was. She seemed to have no vanity. When she was younger, he liked that. He regarded his daughter’s hair, grey with white, and long, gathered in the back with a blue ribbon, no doubt chosen because Mary might see it and like it. She wasted too much time on that sort of thing, precious things, too many precious things. Her hair was beautiful. When did it become white? He couldn’t answer.
“So… What did he say, do you think?” Dam asked.
Freeman squinted slightly, then a kind, thin smile appeared at the corners of his mouth.
“I think… I think he asked them about their lives. What work do you do? Do you get weary? How old are your children? Do you hate washing? We need him for large, profound things. But what we need has nothing to do with what he thought he should do…” His eyes were wide open; he thought they could never be so wide open again. “I don’t think he ever stopped wanting to learn all about us.”
“Oh, Daddy…” Freeman heard tears in Dam’s voice, but he knew it wasn’t sadness.
“That’s what I want to do… I want to shed tears. Tears were never that easy for me. It’s right there, but I can’t make it happen… It’s like being constipated.”
He laughed first, then his daughter joined in. “Oh brother. My father has no propriety anymore.”
“What do you mean, anymore?” Their bellies both shook with happy chuckling, up and then down and then up again in a light, careless moment. He so appreciated it.
“I’ve also been wondering what he said to the robbers on the cross. It couldn’t just be ‘This day you will be with me in paradise’.” He saw Damaris wipe her eyes. “What do you think?” he asked her.
“I think…” she began, then began again. “I think he asked them about their pain… I think he told them it would be over soon… He tried to help them, I think.”
Freeman studied the water. “So he made them brothers… He did that, he always did that.” Suddenly, something caught his eye. Just off the edge, up the bank in some tall reeds, stood a heron. “Look, Dam!”
Damaris followed his finger as they both sat up.
“Oh, my,” she said, a smile in her voice. “Beautiful… Must be a nest there.”
“Must be another one nearby. Those big birds mate for life.”
“I should have married a swan, then.”
“If you want monogamy… But not everybody can handle it.”
The heron took wing, went straight over the pond then veered off toward a cluster of trees. Freeman continued searching for it but, for the moment, the bird was gone.
“I wonder if it was there all along,” he said. “Probably, huh?”
“Likely,” said Dam, who also kept looking. “Sometimes I think they just stay there until you see them, then they go.”
“All the mysteries,” Freeman said. They both glanced back at the sliding glass doors of Mary’s room. Damaris got up and put a hand under her father’s elbow as he rose. He gave her his arm and they walked up the small incline toward the apartment.
“One of these times-”
Damaris cut him off. “Don’t say it. You keep saying that and I just wish you would… leave it.”
Freeman didn’t answer. They were closer than ever, he and his daughter, and neither of them could stand the reason for it.
“I’m sorry, Daddy.” They slowed their walking.
“Yeah… You remember how upset I was when she cursed me out, a month ago i want to say but it’s probably two… Called me every vile name in the book. Loud enough that one of our new neighbors knocked on the door. I don’t know who she thought I was. So, I – I shouldn’t have been, but I was upset by it – I shouted back ‘I don’t have to stay here for this!’. She yelled: ‘So go, who needs you!’. Ridiculous, perfectly ridiculous. Maybe it was me she was yelling at, I don’t know.”
He laughed through his nose and Damaris chuckled and shook her head. “She always had a feisty streak,” she said.
“This wasn’t feisty, Dam, this was mean. Awful.”
They stopped a few feet from the open sliding door, listening for any sounds from within.
“Now I’d be happy if she cussed me out.” Freeman studied the ground in front of him.
“Around the same time, around your birthday, February, she took a picture frame from another room, from Lila, who lives here, too. Seven or eight people in the picture, all of them dark and smiling. She swore it was her mother and her aunts and uncles, which is so ridiculous… Our families are so white, pale, I should say. So I asked her if if she talked to Jesus anymore…”
“I’d think not,” said Damaris. “But who knows?”
They looked at each other with ears still alert for any sound. Mary would moan, sometimes, and Freeman had a hope that was so tiny he was embarrassed to give it recognition – that if she moaned or made any sound at all, she might also say his name. To hear that would mean everything to him.
He kept looking at the ground, then told his daughter: “You go in.”
She kissed him on the cheek and went inside.
He glanced back at the pond. The sun had grown quite strong and he had to shade his eyes. He didn’t need to see the heron, it was enough to know it was there somewhere, though he did wish, as he had a zillion times before in his life, that he had wings. He never tired of watching a creature winging against a backdrop of sky.
The door was open behind him, and there was nothing to do but, eventually, go through it.
Tom Teti is well-known as an actor, director and teacher in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Less well-known is Tom’s writing over his entire career of more than 40 years. He lives in Malvern and is a founding member of Malvern Arts.