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Now that spring finally arrived, all Carl wanted to do was plant his vegetable garden. But there would be no garden this year. His wife, Anna, was dying-- again, for the third time in the last month. He could hardly go outside and turn over soil and plant his tomatoes and bell peppers while she languished in bed, moaning and clutching her chest with a pudgy hand. It was his fault. He rued the day he·d convinced her to see a doctor. It had seemed like a good idea at the time; she hadn·t had a check-up in years, and though she appeared strong as a bull, you could never be too careful. And now-- now she was a raving hypochondriac. Carl blamed it on the doctor, too, a mere child just starting his practice, who clued Anna in on all the bad things that might happen at her age. So now she could no longer have a headache without believing it was a stroke. A slight case of heartburn turned into a heart attack-- a massive heart attack, never a mild one. Any of the random aches and pains that she experience became the onset of cancer. Retirement had made him a part-time gardener, but that doctor turned him into a full-time nurse. He·d try to assure her, but didn·t possess a nurturing nature. ´You can·t go on about every little pain,µ he·d said. ´If God is going to get you, the chances are you won·t feel a thing.µ He just could never find the right words. Not only was what he said of no avail, but also it often served to make things worse. Almost every night she·d waken him because she didn·t believe her heart sounded right. Long after she·d finally fallen asleep, he stayed awake and watched over her and yearned for the days when she was young, before her curly hair had gone
white and her body thickened with age. She had been quite lovely, with high cheekbones and sparkling blue eyes free of pain and petty worries. She had been a simple soul then, after moving here from Germany. He recalled a time when she worked a factory and came home in tears. Some of her co-workers had waved to her and called out ´hi.µ Anna thought they said ´hielµ as if she were a Nazi. She would not stop crying until Carl finally calmed her down long enough to explain it to her. Carl could look back now and smile at her naïveté. During the day, he brought her chicken broth, or hot or cold compresses, or over the counter medicine, depending on the ailment of the day. Sometimes when he looked at her, she didn·t even seem like his wife, the woman he married over fifty years ago. She had become a moaning ghost that had not yet died. He felt that he, too, was becoming a ghost, he hardly ever left the house; he was afraid to leave her alone. What if one of her little aches and pains were a genuine warning sign and he was not there when she suffered some catastrophic event? Now and then he had weak moments during which frustration and anger rose in him and he wished that she would just die and get it over with, but then he would calm himself, would remind himself that she couldn·t help it-- that it was just one of those things that are covered in the ´for better or for worseµ part of the marriage vows. One morning he brought her a breakfast of scrambled eggs, orange juice and dry toast. He put her pillow behind her back and helped her to prop herself up so that she could eat off the bed tray lain across her lap. ´I set out the patio furniture,µ he said. ´It·s such a nice day. You want to sit outside awhile? It might do you some good?µ But Anna was claiming symptoms. Today it was her back, a sharp recurring pain that might forewarn a heart attack. ´Is it summer yet?µ she asked. ´Is Kathleen here? I would like to see her one last time.µ Kathleen was their granddaughter. For the past six years she would spend most of her summer vacation with Carl and Anna. Although Carl enjoyed his granddaughter·s presence, he believed it was a trade-off of sorts. His son, Richard, hardly ever visited anymore. It was as though he were too busy, and so sent his daughter each summer to stand in for him. Meanwhile Richard and his wife, Holly, whom Carl never liked (no matter how hard Richard worked, how much money he made, she would be right there to spend it)-- they could do whatever they wanted
without Richard being guilty about ignoring his parents and without the encumbrance of their daughter. Carl tried to convince himself that he was being too cynical by thinking this, but whenever Kathleen visited, he couldn·t dispel the image of Richard and Holly standing on the deck of a boat sailing the Caribbean and sipping glasses of champagne-- two lost souls sharing the same middle-life crisis. This year, though, Carl was especially looking forward to a visit from Kathleen. He was hoping that somehow she would be able to help get Anna back on her feet. The only escape Carl had now was, as Anna napped peacefully during the afternoon, going down to his workroom in the basement and working on a birdhouse. He was constructing it especially for Purple Martins, with four large pods for nesting. He had failed to entice the martins to their yard twenty years earlier, when he bought a birdhouse and followed all the instructions on how to lure them. He·d sit on the glider on the patio for hours on weekends and on his off-days, a small pair of binoculars at ready for the first sighting. But they never came. He couldn·t understand it. He went over the instructions again and again, and, yes, everything was right. So where were the martins? Finally, frustrated, he decided something must have happened to the martins destined to nest in his birdhouse; maybe they perished in a storm as they migrated up from South American. In the end, the only regular visitors he had were a pair of mourning doves, a jolly couple that dropped in daily to coo and strut around the yard until Carl would grudgingly throw out thistle seed for them. He would call them turkeys, to which Anna would object, saying, ´Oh, they·re nice birds. And see how they are always together. You never see one without the other.µ ´But I almost stepped on one of them,µ Carl complained. ´They waddle round the yard like they own the place.µ ´They just feel safe,µ Anna said. ´They feel at home.µ Throughout that summer they saw the mourning doves every day, and, somewhat to Carl·s annoyance, Anna named them Ballard and Jorn. Carl told her that it sounded more like a law firm than a pair of mourning doves, but she ignored him and assumed the responsibility of putting thistle seed out each day. Toward the end of summer Carl found Anna sitting on the glider on the patio. She was crying hysterically. When he finally calmed her down enough to she could speak, she explained that Ballard was missing. ´Something must have happened to her,µ Anna said. ´And Jorn just sits on the garage roof, calling for her. It·s so sad, so terribly sad; he doesn·t know she·s never coming back. He·ll die of a broken heart.µ Carl agreed that it was a sad world for birds, a sadder world yet for people. When Jorn evidentially
disappeared, he made Anna promise that she would never again name a wild animal-it just wasn·t worth getting attached to creatures that are doomed from the outset.
Carl watched through the front window when Kathleen arrived. The cab was doubleparked, and the driver was removing her suit cases from the trunk. Carl was annoyed that his son had sent her over in a cab. What?-- he couldn·t make the short ride into the city to drop her off, couldn·t even tolerate stopping in for a few minutes to say hello. He never tried to figure out what Anna and he might have done while raising Richard to have led him to now be so disregardful of his parents. He simply stood at the window, pursing his lips and wagging his head in disgust. His attention finally turned to Kathleen as she stood out by the curb and paid the driver. She seemed different somehow. She was seventeen now and would soon be off to college, but she·d changed in some way during the last ten months, since he·d see her last. Maybe it was in the way she was carrying herself; she seemed to move with more grace, seemed to have acquired a measure of poise. She·d had always been a pretty girl, with blue eyes and long natural blond hair for which other girls would kill, but before she·d always been awkward, as if apologetic for her appearance. She had always stood or sat with her chin slightly lowered, her shoulders sagged forward abjectly.
He opened the front door for her, and watched as she climbed the stairs, a large black suitcase in each hand weighing her down. His bad back prevented him from running down the stairs to help her with the cases. He met her on the landing, though, to relieve her of the luggage. She hugged him around the neck, joyously chiming out, ´Gramps,µ in a genuine way. That was what he·d always loved most about her: how she·d always naturally, purely conveyed her feelings; there was nothing fake or forced about her-- all was sincerity and sweetness, and she had been like that even when a small child; it was difficult at times for Carl to believe Kathleen was actually Richard·s daughter-- Richard so gloomy, his feelings lost in shadows. From the landing, Carl paused to make a show of peering up and down the street, and then asked, ´What? No boyfriend?µ This had been an old quip, carried over every year since the first year Kathleen had spent the summer, when she was eleven. `Usually she would murmur ´Noµ in an abashed way, but this year she said, ´Yeah, but not with me.µ ´Yeah?µ Carl was surprised. ´Well, yeah.µ ´Oh.µ He wanted to say that that was great, but it didn·t feel right. So instead he said, ´We·ll talk.µ They went into the house, and after Carl put her suitcases in the guest room, they sat down in the kitchen and drank coffee and homemade apple strudel that Carl had made himself from Anna·s old recipe. When Kathleen asked about Anna, Carl explained that she was sleeping. ´She sleeps a lot lately,µ he said. ´Maybe that·s a blessing.µ ´It·s sad,µ Kathleen said. ´No, it starts out sad. It gets worse later.µ He was going to elaborate, to prepare her for the changes in Anna, but decided not to try. There was no way Kathleen wasn·t going to be shocked; she hadn·t see Anna in nearly a year, and so hadn·t lived through and seen, as Carl had, the day by day, disintegration-- to Kathleen it would seem one huge horrendous transformation.
´So you actually do have a boyfriend,µ Carl said, deciding a merciful change of subject. ´Yeah.µ Here she almost, but not quite, blushed. ´Is he a nice fella?µ ´Yeah,µ she said, but seemed unwilling to elaborate. ´That·s the most important thing. No matter what school or what jobs or how much money a person has-- as long as people have a good heart, everything else pretty much works itself out.µ It was a statement of sage advice, the kind of thing he believed was expected of him. Later Kathleen would go up to check on Anna. When she came back down, Carl was not surprised to see the distraught look on his granddaughter·s face. ´Was she up?µ Carl asked. ´No,µ Kathleen said. ´But even while she·s sleeping, I can see the change. It·s very sad, and sort of scary. How could this have happened?µ ´It·s life,µ he said, wishing he could believe it was so simple. Kathleen pursed her lips in determination. ´Well, we·ll see then. We will get her back on her feet,µ she said. ´I·m sure. You·ll see.µ But Carl already understood she was hoping for the impossible. For the next two weeks Kathleen brought prepared and brought up all Anna·s meals. The girl would have made a wonderful nurse one day, Carl thought, if she so choose that profession. He watched as Kathleen sat at the edge of the bed, and dutifully spooned soup or broth into Anna·s tremulous mouth, all the while speaking to her of how nice the weather was outside, how bright the sunshine, how gentle the warm breeze, and how the trees stirred in it and seemed to be whispering. In the evening, while Carl watched a ball game on television in the living room, Kathleen would sit at Anna bedside upstairs. She would read to the old woman. Anna, during her life had no favorite books or stories, but she seemed to enjoy hearing
Kathleen read her Grimm·s fairy tales and some short stories by Jack London or Willa Cather. Though Carl enjoyed Kathleen·s presence in the house, which gave him more free time to work on his birdhouses, he began to notice something. He thought at first that it was his imagination. Being around Kathleen seemed to sap his energy is some way. He·d always believed that if you were old being around young people kept you young. It was a common belief. But he was unsure now. Every time he saw her young face, every time heard her speak of her naïve hopes, he legs weakened and his back began to ache as it usually did in winter, not now in the dead of summer. Though he tried to convince himself that all this was just a product of his rambling old mind, it seemed very real to him. One day, coming up from his work room, he was frantic to find no one in the house. He rushed out the front door, and mouth agape gazed up and down the street, but neither Kathleen nor Anna was in sight. He went back in the house, to the kitchen, and through the window saw them sitting on the glider in the back yard. Amazingly Anna was smiling and laughing and talking to Kathleen to the same way she had to him over the years. It was a miracle, he thought. It could be nothing but a miracle. Later that day, to his further astonishment, he watched as Kathleen and Anna walked hand in hand down the street to the small corner store, where they bought ice cream cones, which they had all but finished eating by the time they returned home. He felt foolish now at the thought he·d been having lately about Kathleen; she certainly hadn·t stolen any life from Anna-- quite the contrary. The three of them spent the evening in the back yard. Kathleen and Anna sat on the gilder and watched as Carl erected the pole on which he set the newly finished house for the purple martins. When he was finished, Anna said to him, ´Maybe they will come this time.µ ´Yes,µ he said, careful not to sound too hopeful. Whether the purple martins came now was of little importance to him. His heart was warm, looking at Anna, so sure was he that she was returning to health and that they could continue on as they always had over the years.
That night Anna passed quietly away in her sleep. At the funeral, three days later, friends assured Carl that it happened that way sometimes: they suddenly seem better, but it only lasts for a short while, and the next thing you know they are gone. He would try to console Kathleen over the next weeks. The girl was so devastated. Her young hopeful spirit had been shattered. It seemed a shame that she had to learn the hard fact of life that though hope was always good, it couldn·t cure everything. It was one of those things that once learned can never be unlearned, and from then on must be tolerated in our memories. He knew Kathleen would never be quite the same, and it saddened him that even that would change. Richard and Holly attended the funeral, but he barely spoke with them. In the church and at the cemetery he seemed absorbed as he looked at all their friends and family and wondered that there were so few left. The ones who were there looked decidedly older than he had remembered them. The funeral director even had difficulty recruiting six pall bearers from among the guests; not enough of them were able-bodied enough to serve in the capacity-- old men with canes, stooped backs, crippled joints, having fought years of disease, tragedy and gravity, all in a slowly losing battle. In the end the funeral director was forced to go to next to the tavern and
recruit two young healthy men, compassionate but utter strangers, to carry Anna to her finally resting place. For the following week silence filled the house, except for the loud ticking of the cuckoo clock in the hallway between the living room and kitchen. Kathleen scarcely left the guest room. Carl waited in the yard for the purple martins to arrive. He sat in the glider and waited and waited, just as he had years ago, but so far had spotted not a one. The metal of the glider feel cold wherever it touched his skin. Sometimes he looked at the blue sky, at the white fluffy clouds slowly moving past. Some of the clouds broke up and seemed to vanish before they ever got anywhere. One day he suggested to Kathleen that they do something. ´We just can·t mope around here,µ he said. They decided to go for a walk. As the strolled along Kathleen reached across and took his hand. He was amazed how soft and fragile it felt in his own hand, which was large and thick from years of manual work. She seemed, then, to start smiling again. First a tiny shy smile, and soon a toothy charming smile as she spoke of what classes she planned to take when she returned to school in the fall. He listened intently, hardly bothered by the pain that racked his knees each step he took on the sidewalk. His back ached, too, and now there was a new feeling, a jabbing sensation in the side of his ribs, but none of it matter. He was so pleased to see she was healing. He was distracted briefly by a distant sound, the faraway warble of a bird. He gazed skyward. When Kathleen asked what he was looking for, he told her he though he heard a purple martin. Maybe they were finally heading home. It hardly seemed to matter anymore. They came upon the corner store, and decided to go in to buy ice cream cones. As they entered the store, he didn·t let go of her hand. He never noticed the solitary mourning dove they passed, pecking the sidewalk for food in the shade cast by the awning over the front window of the store, nor the tender coo it made as they entered.
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