Authors: Lynne Hinton
who bravely sought the truth,
Sharon Hinton Bender,
more than my sister,
Even if the phone hadn't rung at all, the dateâ¦
On the surface, if you'd seen my parents in passing,â¦
Winter in North Carolina, two hours east of the Blueâ¦
Emma Lovella Witherspoon. That's what I had named my babyâ¦
I was awake and up at exactly the moment theâ¦
I think about Emma and wonder whether she chose notâ¦
I was in the house packing when O.T. walked inâ¦
O.T. died on a Wednesday when the sing-along in theâ¦
I met her in the parking lot while the hearseâ¦
Widow is such a lubberly label. Used like a medicalâ¦
The only child of a migrant farmer from Nicosia, Sicily,â¦
At first I wanted to know, and both the desireâ¦
In my rented room at the beach, where I stayedâ¦
Almost a month after the funeral, Lilly came to Forsythâ¦
“What's it like being pregnant?” a young girl at theâ¦
“Do you think I shouldn't have come?” Lilly was dippingâ¦
Maude flies into the house. It is well into theâ¦
Even if the phone hadn't rung at all, the date itself is memorable because Peter Jennings on
ABC World News Tonight
had said it was the last completely odd day until the year 3111. Month, day, and year, all odd numbers, and it wouldn't happen again for another millennium.
Maude, the neighbor across the street, however, was the one who figured out things weren't right. She was the one who saw the unusual chain of events beginning to take shape; and even though she couldn't name what was coming, she certainly warned me that something out of the ordinary was on its way. She did that hours before ABC reported it, hours before the call.
She met me outside at the driveway when I went out to pick up the morning paper. She's usually up long before I am anyway since I'm accustomed to second-shift hours; and she always comes out to greet me even though she knows I'm not a morning person. That day she ran all the way out to her mailbox, her hair already combed and sprayed.
“I had one of my dreams,” she said, all breathless and excited.
“What's that?” I asked, trying to pull my robe together to keep out the chill and Maude's unwanted comments about still being in my pajamas.
“My dreams,” she said, walking across the street to meet me. “I had a water dream and you were in it.” She looked at me, and I knew she was thinking I stayed in the bed much too long. “It's about you. Your water was troubled.”
Now most people consider Maude slightly irregular. She lets homeless people stay in her house. She wanted to invite a psychic woman who read tarot cards to speak to the women's circle at her church. She has seven cats, all yellow and white. And she claims she can predict disorder and upcoming unlikely events based upon dreams she has that consist of bodies of water. I don't know how she knows where the chaos will be or who it will affect, something about seeing the stirred water at a particular
identifying location. Regardless of her process of interpretation, she never hesitates to announce what it is she believes is coming in your direction.
“It was green and brown. Definitely troubled,” she added with a dramatic touch.
I rolled my eyes and bent down to pick up the paper. “Good morning, Maude.”
“Are you up to date on your insurance policy?” Now she was standing right in front of me. She smelled like pine.
“You burning leaves?” I asked and glanced over in her yard.
“No.” We had turned around and were walking together toward my house. I guessed she would be coming in for coffee. “It's an old remedy for sinus problemsâboiling pine straw, then sticking them in the foot of an old pair of hose and tying it onto the water faucet in the bathtub.”
Maude had lots of recipes for ailments and treatments.
“You got sinus problems?”
“Always this time of year. It's the goldenrod. Mr. Thaler has it growing at the fence. I try to get him to pull it, but I think he enjoys seeing me suffer.” She is short and has to walk twice as fast to keep up with me, even in the morning.
“Then maybe you need to make sure your policy is up to date.” I opened the door and she walked in.
“Oh, no need to worry for me. I took out an extra policy, even with what I got from Arrow. I got coverage for everything.” She went right over to the cabinet and pulled out a mug, the one with the cow in the middle, and poured herself a cup of coffee. She had worked at the local rubber factory most of her life.
“You got any milk?”
I pointed over to the refrigerator with my chin and poured myself a cup and sat down at the table.
“You know, you really should clean out these drawers down here at the bottom. You can get poison from the mold that grows on this cheese.” She found the milk, checked the date on the side of the carton, and poured almost half a cup in her coffee. “Clarence Tupper had to be hospitalized because of something he ate that had been in his refrigerator too long,” she added.
“Clarence Tupper was in the hospital because he weighs four hundred pounds. There ain't nothing that stays in his refrigerator too long.” I unfolded the paper and began poring over the news.
Maude moved near the table and sat down next to me.
“I'm serious, Jean,” she said, and she pulled the paper away from my face. “Something grave is about to happen.”
I glared at her, then snapped the paper back so that I could finish reading the front-page headlines and the temperature and weather forecast in the top right corner.
“Cold front's moving across the Piedmont.” I thought I could change the subject. “You already brought your porch plants in?”
“Did that three weeks ago when the first frost came. Cats eat the leaves off my geraniums every year; they'd probably last longer outside.”
I took a sip and kept reading. There had been a fire in an apartment on the other side of town.
“Maybe it's O.T.”
I heard a chair being pulled out across from me, but I didn't move the paper to see exactly where she was sitting.
“He has been in there a long time.”
I still didn't say anything.
“Jean Witherspoon, are you listening to me?”
I dropped the paper and sighed. “Yes, Maude, I am listening to you. You had a water dream and it's about me and you think O.T. could be dying.”
“Well?” She wrapped the coffee mug with both hands and bowed her head while she kept her eyes on me.
“Well what?” I folded the paper and placed it on the table. Maude was not going to let this go.
“Well, aren't you going to call the nurse and make sure he's okay?”
I took a sip of my coffee and thought about scrambling an egg for breakfast.
“Maude, if O.T. has died, somebody would have called me. It's a policy at Sunhaven. When a patient dies, they call the family. I checked on O.T. last night. He was eating Ritz crackers and giving the nursing assistant hell because he thought the guy was trying to steal bait off his fishing pole.”
I took a breath and breathed it out slowly, trying not to hurt Maude's feelings. “If there's mud in my water, it hasn't settled enough to change the current. Everything is fine.”
I got up and took the skillet out of the cabinet. Then I walked to the refrigerator, making Maude slide way over in her chair so I could open the door and pull out the eggs and butter.
“You want an egg?”
Maude appeared hurt that I had not taken her counsel. She slid back in her chair, shook her head, and drank her coffee. She put the mug down, keeping her eyes on the table.
“Maude, I'll call after I eat.”
She nodded without looking at me. “These dreams,” she said without lifting her head, “they're such a burden.” She paused for a minute. “Everybody wants to be special, but it isn't everything you think it will be.”
I cracked open the egg and dropped it in a bowl, whipped it around with some salt and pepper, and poured it in the skillet, which was already hot and popping.
“Yeah, I guess all the prophets must have had some bad days.” My back was toward her. “At least you don't have to tell the king that God is pissed and that the sky is going to rain fire.” I lowered the heat. “Or locusts and frogs,” I added. “At least locusts aren't in your dreams.”
I turned around to face her, show her a little more sympathy; and Maude was reading my paper. She wasn't as hurt as I thought. I turned to the stove and finished cooking my egg. By the time I was done and had buttered my toast and set my plate on the table, Maude had fixed herself a bowl of cereal and was reading the astrology section. We finished our breakfasts in silence.
“Well, I have to run to the bank. It looks like today is my best day of the month to make those financial transactions. Call me later when you hear from O.T.” Then she hurried out the door with a wave of her fingers and the birdcall she always uses for good-bye, “Tootledoo.”
I shook my head and finished reading the news. Then I cleaned up the dishes and examined what was in the refrigerator, deciding that my meddlesome neighbor was right about one thing: the cheese had to go. And once I decided to pitch it, I filled my arms with other bags and containers bearing items I didn't even recognize.
I was trying to pull the trash can out from under the sink with my foot when the phone started to ring. After trying to negotiate the food and the cabinet without any success, I dropped the stuff in the sink and grabbed the phone on the fourth ring. It was too late, as the machine was already giving the message.
“Just hang on!” I shouted.
“Hello? Hello?” I heard the voice on the other end.
“Just wait a minute.” The message was almost finished. Finally the beep sounded, and since I couldn't get to the machine in the den, it was recording the conversation.
“Hello?” I said.
“Uh, yes, hello.” The voice seemed hesitant. A woman's voice. Young, I thought. “Is this the Oliver Witherspoon residence?”
“Sort of.” I replied. “Who's calling?”
There was a pause. I heard her breathe.
“Is Oliver Witherspoon there?” Her voice sounded tight, stretched across some depth of feelingâfear, anxiety, I couldn't tell for sure.
“Oliver Witherspoon is my husband. Can I help you?”
Another pause. Then the beep on the machine sounded and it cut off.
“I need to speak to Oliver Witherspoon.”
“Well, he isn't here.” I was thinking it was some marketing person, somebody from over at the tractor place in
Raleigh, where he bought all his machinery. They called every year even though I told them he was not buying any new farm equipment.
“Do you know what time he'll return?”
I hesitated. I didn't like giving out information about our situation to strangers over the phone. “Look, if you'll tell me who you are and why you're calling, I'll be happy to let Mr. Witherspoon know.”
There was a click, and the phone went dead. She hung up.
O.T. had been at Sunhaven Nursing Home almost seventeen months when she made the first contact. Since the massive brain hemorrhage and the broken hip, the feeding tube and the ministrokes, I could no longer take care of him by myself. He required constant attention, and even with bringing in a sitter for a few hours every day, I could not manage him alone.
I acted on the doctor's strictest advice, received many reassurances from those who understood, but none of that took away the sting of what I chose to do. Taking him to that place was the hardest decision I had made in more than thirty-seven years of marriage. It kept me up at nights, aged me, depleted me. It made me wish that I was dead.
Of course if you knew us, knew us well, you would be confused at that final number because O.T. and I were married more than fifty-five years. Count it up and you
would realize that sometime during the first fifteen to twenty years of our matrimony I had made another difficult choice. You might then cluck your tongue to the roof of your mouth, nod knowingly, a nervous smile, and only wonder, or maybe, if you're nosy like my neighbor Maude, not afraid to ask the obvious, you'd want me to tell you about the other decision.
Now not such a long time ago, I would have said in carefully chosen words or discreet body language, a quick retreat from your presence, to mind your own business; but since I am now a woman who no longer hides much of anything, a woman unafraid to open up her closet and parade her skeletons in front of any audience, I would more than likely oblige.
“Ask me a question,” I would say to you. “But do not be offended if the answer I give is more information than you would like.”
After fifteen years and eleven months of being O.T.'s wife, I walked out for forty-six days. I left him until I decided whether or not to stay married, whether or not to stay myself. I packed up most of everything I owned, which I could fit into the trunk of our Mercury, drove down to Wrightsville Beach, rented a room at the Ocean View Motel, and listened to the steady crash and pull of the ocean as it crested and fell, just like the contents of my heart.
Late on a Friday morning in November, just like the one when Lilly called, I cleaned out my closet, the drawers in the bureau, the shelves above the toilet, and one small corner of the kitchen hutch where I kept my grandmother's china, put everything in boxes and plastic bags and two large suitcases, turned the car east, and drove until the pavement ran out. Right at the entrance of the Ocean View Motel. And there I stayed until I could finally cry.
When I finished weeping and awoke from the death sleep I fell into afterward, both of them feeling like they would last forever, I repacked the suitcases, the bags, and the boxes, paid my bill, and came home. It seemed to neighbors and friends that it was only a needed vacation, that I had rested and eased; but I knew better. I knew that I had made a choice, a choice that kept my life in motion, a choice to take in air and let it out, a choice to survive even if the deeper things were not changed.
It would be a moment, a choice, that kept my heart beating, my marriage and life in order. And on I would go like this for almost forty years until there would be another agonizing decision to make. More than thirty-seven years before O.T. got out of his restraints and fell out of his bed. Thirty-nine years and eleven months before the phone call.
Right up until the moment I was forced to make this second major decision, I was picking him up and carrying
him to his room, still thinking that I could do anything. But after that spill and the consequential fracture in his hip, the dull ache down in the bottom of my spine, the way my hands couldn't stop shaking, I knew my abilities to care for him were lessening and then finally limited. Once we made it to the hospital I scheduled my first appointment with Sunhaven. I cried the entire time.
I believed for a very long time that I had failed him, that I should have been able to keep him at home. But after the choice was made, just like the one at the beach, I stayed with it, learned to let it be. And I suppose if anybody is keeping score, two major life decisions in fifty-five years wouldn't be such an awful record. There are certainly worse lives to lead than mine.