Manning Assisted Living Center
Roscoe Shaver pushed the bedroom door open with his elbow, moving with care as he balanced the tray. The coffee in the cup sloshed, but didn’t go over the edge, so he counted that as good. He carried the tray over and put it on the bedside table, then turned and placed both hands on the bedrail.
“Lillian,” he said to the frail woman lying in the bed. “Lillibelle, time for breakfast.”
He watched as the eyelashes fluttered, and again, before the eyelids opened to reveal the pale blue eyes that tracked aimlessly for a moment before shifting to focus on his face. His wife lifted a hand toward him.
“Hey, you,” she husked.
“Hey, yourself,” Roscoe replied as he captured her hand and gently held it.
“Still here,” Lillian Shaver said, her voice wavering.
“Yep, you’re still here.” Roscoe looked down at his wife, and swallowed the lump in his throat. “You ready to eat something?”
Lillian gave a faint nod, so he laid her hand down beside her on the bed, looked down to find the pedal, and started pumping the pedal to raise the head of the bed. When Lillian was raised up, Roscoe picked up a cloth from the breakfast tray and carefully draped it under her chin and over the front of her nightgown. Then he reached over and tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear. She looked up at him, and one corner of her mouth twitched. Roscoe knew she was trying to grin at him, that wry grin that had stolen his heart over fifty years ago, and he smiled in reply at the same moment that a wave of sorrow poured through him.
Roscoe looked to the table to pick up the bowl and spoon, then turned back to Lillian.
“Well, it’s not your favorite Cream of Wheat,” he said, dipping the spoon in the bowl, “just the regular gruel, but I did score some honey to stir in it.”
Lillian’s eyebrows raised in surprise, and she opened her mouth for him to feed her, much as she had fed her children decades ago.
Roscoe kept up a running commentary of jokes and gossip as he moved the spoon back and forth. It took a while, because she was really having trouble swallowing. Finally she turned her head away. He looked down in the bowl; she’d hardly eaten half, and it was a small bowl.
He wasn’t surprised. Dr. Shipley had warned him months ago that this would happen, and sure enough, for weeks now her appetite had dwindled. He wasn’t sure if she just wasn’t hungry, or if it was just too much work to eat, but still, it was one more sign of the inevitable.
There was a noise in the doorway to their suite as he was putting the bowl back on the tray, and he looked up to see Leah Chapman standing there, making her first rounds of the morning, with a young man standing beside her.
“How’s Miss Lillian doing this morning?” Leah asked, stepping up to the other side of the bed, the young man trailing behind her.
“See, Lil, here’s Leah and a handsome young man, come to see you,” Roscoe said, trying to raise a joke.
Lillian’s mouth twitched again, then she raised her hand to point to Leah’s companion. “Wh-who?” she asked.
Leah put her hand on the young man’s shoulder. “This here is Jim Davis, Ozzie Davis’ son. He’s thinking about coming to work here next year after he graduates, so Mrs. Clinter said he could walk around with me this morning, just to see where everything is and to get some idea what we do. He’s a good boy, I think.” She grinned. “I’d trade my boy David for him in a heartbeat.”
Jim blushed and ducked his head.
Leah looked over at Roscoe. “When do I need to come back this morning?”
“Probably in about fifteen minutes or so,” he replied, looking at his watch. “I can help her to the bathroom, but I’ll need help to get her in and out of the shower.”
“Okay, I’ll be back as soon as I finish showing Jim around this end of the hall.”
Roscoe picked up the juice glass of apple cider. “Now, Lil, I got you some cider this morning. You know you like that. You need to drink it before Leah gets back, okay?”
Lillian’s lip twitched again, and she mouthed, “O-kay.”
He held the glass carefully as she lifted her head a bit to drink.
“So what’s wrong with her?” Jim Davis asked as he walked beside Leah back toward the commons area.
“Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” Leah carefully pronounced the words. “That’s . . . ”
“Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” Jim finished. “I know. One of Dad’s cousins had it.” After a couple of steps, he looked at her. “She’s not going to get better, is she?”
Leah shook her head.
Lillian had her shower, and with Leah’s help Roscoe got her dressed in a fresh nightgown, a pink one with little flowers on it and a small white ribbon bow just below her throat. She sat in a chair while he fed her some soup for lunch, after which he brushed her hair. She used to glory in her hair, he thought, when it was thick and blonde and long. Now it was thin and white, but it was still her crown to him; still her halo.
He helped her back to bed and lowered the head of the bed. Her mouth twitched for a tired smile, then her eyes closed.
Roscoe sat in the chair beside her bed, looking out the window at the snow falling, not thinking much of anything, occasionally taking a sip of his cold coffee. He looked around at a sound to see Dr. Susannah Shipley coming in the room. He waved his hand in greeting, then held his finger in front of his lips. She nodded, and stepped quietly over to the side of the bed. She touched the side of Lillian’s neck gently for a few seconds, then watched her breathe for a little while. Other than the slow rise and fall of her chest, Lillian didn’t stir.
Finally Dr. Shipley stood up straight, and beckoned him to follow her.
“Not going to be much longer, is it?” Roscoe said quietly after he joined the doctor in the hallway.
“I’m afraid not,” Dr. Shipley said. “I’m sorry, Roscoe.”
“Nah, don’t be,” he said, putting his hand on her shoulder. “Lil and I had over fifty years together. If God’s going to call her home, I’m just glad it’s not something like cancer.”
“There is that,” the doctor said. She shook her head. “But if I just had access to a few of the drugs we had up-time, especially riluzole. I could have given her maybe a couple more years, and she for sure wouldn’t have gone downhill this fast. It’s only been fourteen months since it hit her.”
“Ah, Doc. Don’t be playing the if-only game. She’s seventy-six, for crying out loud. You’ve done a lot for her, and we both appreciate it greatly.”
After a moment, Roscoe chuckled, and Dr. Shipley looked at him with a raised eyebrow.
“Yeah, well, the one thing that’s irked her ever since you told her what was going on is the cemetery.”
“The cemetery?” The doctor sounded mystified.
“Yep. You see, she’s a Hardesty by birth, but she’s not one of these Grantville Hardestys. Oh, they’re cousins of some degree or other, but she’s a Morgantown Hardesty. I met her when I was in the Army during Korea. Anyway, she made me buy cemetery lots in the family cemetery over by Morgantown, so she could be buried surrounded by all her family and be by her mother and father and her baby sister who died when she was six. Me, I figured I wouldn’t care where my carcass got planted, so I went along with her. Well, the Ring of Fire put paid to that idea. I think that’s the one thing in her life she was never able to forgive me for, that I wasn’t able to figure out some way to get her back to the up-time so she could be buried in her plot.”
He chuckled again, and Dr. Shipley gave a small smile.
After another moment, Roscoe sobered.
Dr. Shipley nodded sadly. “Yes. Her breathing continues to slow, her heartbeat is starting to get irregular and light. I’d say it won’t be long.”
“Lil knows Jesus, so she’s ready to go. She’s disappointed every morning when she wakes up and she’s still here tied to that failing body.”
Roscoe looked back into the room at the thin figure on the bed. “Well, Matt and Mike were in yesterday, and basically said their goodbyes then. I’ll tell them tonight, and we’ll see what happens when.”
He stuck his hand out. “Thanks for all you’ve done, Doc.”
Dr. Shipley shook hands with him. “Call me if you need me, Roscoe.”
Roscoe returned to his chair. He reached out and took his wife’s hand. He waited. When Joan Early came by and whispered about what to bring for supper, he just shook his head.
Still he waited.
Darkness came early that time of year. As the evening shade began to cross the window, Roscoe felt Lillian’s hand twitch slightly. He looked over at her, to see her gazing at him with a wide smile, one that for a moment blinded him to the lines on her face and the white hair. For just a moment, he saw the young woman he had been so smitten with so many years before.
Then Lillian’s eyes moved from his, to look up to where the ceiling joined the top of the wall across from them. Her smile grew wider, brighter.
Roscoe didn’t know how long that moment lasted, but he finally realized it was full dark outside. He realized that her hand was cooling in his grasp. He realized that her breast was no longer rising and falling in the slow shallow breathing that had been hers the last few days. And he knew.
He looked up to the place where her sightless eyes had last focused. He guessed he knew who she had seen, who she had smiled at.
“Thank you, Jesus.”
Roscoe got to his feet, laid Lillian’s arm down beside her. He lowered the bedside rail, then walked around to the other side of the bed and lowered that rail as well. Didn’t make no sense to keep them up. She wasn’t going to fall out of bed now.
Roscoe went to his knees beside her bed, and took her hand again.
“Well, Lillibelle, you’ve gone ahead.” He swallowed. “You know, I always figured I’d go first. Guess that’s what I get for figuring.”
He reached out a hand and smoothed her hair.
“It’s going to be hard to wake up in the mornings without you beside me, girl. If it’s all the same with you, I’d rather be where you are. So since you’re up there, why don’t you ask the Lord to bring me home, too? Soon? I figure he’s more apt to listen to you than to me, anyway.”
Gently, oh so gently, Roscoe slid one arm behind her shoulders and cupped the other hand behind her head, gathering Lillian into one final embrace, cradling her head against his. He held her for one long timeless moment, then finally released her, laying her down as gently as he had embraced her. Standing, he straightened her arms, smoothed her hair, and tidied her blanket. It wouldn’t do for her to be mussed up, after all.
One last caress to her face; then he turned to go notify the staff.
One lone tear trickled down his cheek.