He stared at her name on the return section of the envelope. He wasn’t sure when he would open it. He tried to remember her handwriting from 40 years earlier. Was this it? He sat on his couch, holding it. He couldn’t let it out of his hand. In the meantime, he examined the thickness of the pages within the envelope, and concluded it must be 3 or more. More than a note. That idea pleased him.
He remembered her as she was then, and wondered how she might now appear. Even then, she had great folds of hanging fat, bulging dimensions that grew with each unhappy, stressful year of their marriage. She likely was draped with great folds of sagging flesh. Gravity would show her no more mercy than he had.
He opened the envelope, careful not to rip it or tear the part having her address.
“Dear Edward, after 40 years where do I begin? I suppose that is simply too much time to cover, and is not my purpose in writing, anyway. I am dying. I have been fighting breast cancer for some time, and recently, I was told that aggressive measures were no longer warranted. Getting to the point, I am making my goodbyes. I wanted you to know you were a very significant person in my life.
I did not remarry, and I never again became pregnant. It is my continuing sorrow that I aborted our child. There were reasons, but none of them mattered later in my life. Looking back now, I see how I little I understood myself or you. I want you to know I hold no resentments about the distant past, and hope you will live in complete freedom from any old hurts.
I know it would be greatly impractical for us to meet again, and I am not especially presentable. However, you will be glad to know I have shed hundreds of pounds of excess weight. Even cancer has its positives, I have learned.”
The letter provided a phone number.
Edward finally put the letter down on the coffee table, and continued sitting motionless, staring at the thing as if it were a recovered meteorite. The only sounds were the clock ticking on the wall, and the sound of an occasional car passing on the street outside. He realized he had not moved when his leg became cramped and his foot numb. He stretched out, then called her.
The voice was a bit hoarse and slow. He tried to remember it, but it had changed, or maybe his memory of it had changed. “It’s Richard. I just read your letter. Thank you for reaching me.” “Can you believe it’s been 40 years?” she said. “We were just kids.”
“Yeah,” he said, “There was so much we didn’t know. Remember that trailer in the country? Those were magic days for me.”
She shared a memory of her first batch of Easter eggs early in their marriage. She didn’t know the eggs were to be boiled. He cracked one, and it spilled into his lap. “We’re laughing like it happened 4 hours ago,” he said. “You mean it didn’t?” she said. “Maybe it did,” he answered.
“I’d like to see you,” he said. Neither of them mentioned the part of her letter about dying. “That would be nice, but I’d suggest sometime this week,” she said. He didn’t ask why.
A few days later, the taxi dropped him off at the hospice. When he found her room, he heard another person’s voice. He hesitated at the door, wondering if he wanted a witness to this awkward encounter. He walked down the hall, and took a seat in a small waiting room. He decided to call her. “I’m down the hall. Thought I’d give you a little prep time, if you needed it.” “It’s fine,” she said, “you’re the one in for a shock” she laughed. “Maggie is here,” she added. It took him a moment to make the connection: her sister. “She’s about to leave.”
As he approached, Maggie stepped out into the hall. He was grateful, if only because seeing her forced him to reconcile memory with present reality. Maggie was was just a few years younger than her dying sister. He remembered the unusual nose, but her thin shape and girlish features were gone. She didn’t recognize him. She walked by, without more than a quick glance.
“Hello Katie,” he said, and stepped to the foot of her bed. An IV bag was suspended from a pole at her side. She had nose tube for oxygen. Her hair, naturally strawberry blonde when they married, was now thin, almost whispy, and gray. There were pictures of people pinned on a cork board on a wall to the side of her bed. Her face was taunt, and sunken. He remembered her blue eyes, and their lively, intelligent energy. Her eyes allowed him to know this woman was that girl in his past.
“Damn you’ve gotten old,” she said. “I hardly recognized you.”
“You’ve made a few changes yourself,” he said.
“A few more on the way,” she smiled.
He didn’t smile. The joking didn’t remove the awkwardness.
“Go ahead, get serious. You always were so serious, you know. It’s OK. What’s on your mind?” she asked him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought you’d live forever. To me, you’ve been like Elvis or Marilyn Monroe — unchanging.”
“Well, this is better. Dying young for the sake of image doesn’t appeal to me.” More silence.
“I hope you’re not feeling awkward?” she asked.
“A little,” he replied. “I think it would be a bit strange no matter what,” he added.
“Well,” she said, “it’s OK. Everybody comes around to this. There’s no social scripting.”
“I know,” he said. “I searched my files. Nothing.”
“Funny, when we were together, I never thought of dying,” she said, after awhile. “It wasn’t going to happen to me, just everybody else. I had some sort of special immunity, I guess.”
“You realize time isn’t endless. You realize maybe a handful of people are significant.”
She looked at him now, a lingering look, as if to take him in, a visible distorted memory.
“Did you ever think of changing your mind about contacting me?” he asked her.
“Sure,” she said, “but it was too painful. You were remarried. Your last call was that you had a child. I knew then it wasn’t good for an ex-wife to be in the picture.”
“Choices matter, don’t they?” he asked.
“No replays,” she said.
They were silent for a while. Then he went to her bedside. She managed to scoot over a bit, and pulled a sheet back, to welcome him beside her. He laid beside her, placing his arm to cradle her head against his chest. The boney feel of her next to him was so different that the full soft flesh that so excited him decades before.
They held one another until she began to scrim. “The pain,” she said. He pressed the red button for her, then stood again at her bedside. The nurse replaced her medication bag.
“I need to go,” he said.
“Yes,” she answered simply, her eyes half open, closed for seconds at a time.
“I will always remember you — always have a place in my heart for you,” he said.
She smiled, raised her her finger tip to her lips, and blew him a kiss, then drifted away.