Laura only loved people when they were dying.
Fiction by Nancy Scott Hanway, Winter 2017
If she doesn’t go, will they send someone for her? Pastor Becky has already called twice. She must be standing at the front of the church next to the casket—a tiny, black-robed figure, squinting at her watch like a sea captain about to take sights at noon.
“I have a question,” Laura said when Pastor Becky called the first time. “Is it required that I come?”
Silence on the other end of the phone. “Laura. You’ll regret it terribly if you don’t. I shouldn’t have to tell you that.”
What Pastor Becky meant was that she found it unbelievable that Laura—director of a hospice facility, national expert on death and dying, author of the influential Learning to Grieve: When Families Refuse to Accept a Stage 4 Diagnosis—was reacting in this way.
“I don’t believe in God anymore,” Laura responded.
“That’s all right,” Pastor Becky said. “God believes in you.”
A platitude. That’s all she had to offer, Laura thought. A Facebook quote. Or one of those posters on Tumblr, with pictures of redwood forests. She slammed down the phone and immediately felt guilty. Pastor Becky meant it to provide courage.
And Pastor Becky—gray-haired and kind—knew tragedy. She had entered the ministry after her husband tried to kill their son twenty years before. He’d gone crazy, maybe, or was it financial stress? The son, paralyzed from the waist down since the shooting, helped his mother with her ministry by leading their therapy dog team. Because of Pastor Becky, Laura’s hospice facility had received national recognition. Laura owed her.
Laura’s sister had been texting all morning, concerned and overly helpful. Jenny might arrive in a taxi to fetch her. Out of pure guilt.
Jenny had disapproved of Ted because he was a lab tech and a loud, clumsy man who stepped on Laura’s feet when they danced.
“Did you have to pick someone as klutzy as Dad?” Jenny asked her once. Ted overheard the comment and there was an argument in which Jenny had called Ted “farm boy” and then wept and said that Laura had never really loved her. And that the Midwest was an ugly place. Laura knew. She once spent a miserable summer working as a consultant in Omaha.
Ted said, “You’ve never seen beauty until you lie down in a corn field and look up.”
Jenny snorted with laughter. She then added that Ted should watch out because Laura only loved people when they were dying. She gave him a list: Their mother. Laura’s old college roommate, whom she ignored for years until Trish ended up in the hospice facility that Laura ran.
At Christmas Jenny sent them an invitation to attend family therapy.
“Over my dead body,” Ted said. “Your sister is so controlling.”
After Ted’s death Jenny asked Laura if she regretted not going to counseling. “Not that it would have helped. You couldn’t have done anything to stop him.”
“It was an accident,” Laura shouted. “He didn’t mean it. He didn’t see the bus!”
“The driver said Ted looked right at him,” Jenny said in the gentle way that meant she thought she was being kind. “It’s not your fault.”
Laura sat in her rocker beside the window, wearing the light-blue suit that had been Ted’s favorite. A gray and chilly day, like nearly every day here. Ted hated weather in San Francisco. But Laura had been born here, unlike Ted, who still longed for the bright, hot summers of Iowa. For cold, breathless winters. For the brief flash of Midwestern spring. For crisp autumns, where you sat by the fire after raking leaves that fell slowly and quietly for months.
That was always funny to Laura’s friends—that they knew someone who longed to move back to his flyover state.
Ted spent his childhood in a house that bordered a neighbor’s farm. Corn grew right up to the edge of their yard. As a kid he used to pretend that the sound of wind rushing through the dried stalks was ocean waves against the shore. He thought he would love living near the sea.
They rarely visited Iowa after his parents retired to Arizona because Laura resisted going. “What’s there for me to do?” she always asked.
“Get to know my old friends,” he had said. “Walk around, talk to people.”
She only got a few weeks away from the hospice every year, and she desperately needed to be far from anyone who might need her, even anyone who might need to get to know her. And Ted’s friends weren’t the simple, friendly Midwesterners of movies. They were thoughtful people who argued about politics and attended poetry readings and pushed for their towns to go solar.
Laura couldn’t stand the thought of arguing about anything on her vacation. She and Ted always ended up in Hawaii, on Kauai, in a little hotel on the beach. The most stressful part of vacation was watching Ted fish out taro chips from the bowl at the bar.
“Other people might like those too,” she once said.
“You’re too sweet.” He had put his arm around her, already drunk from the mai tai. She could tell when he was drunk because he began to say things that he didn’t mean.
“I mean me,” she said. “I might like some.” But he was too drunk already, and it was feeling like an argument.
She should have known about the shame. After watching the patients in hospice all these years. Just shaking hands with a patient made you feel regret by osmosis. The families were the worst. Shame vibrated from their hands. Their too-friendly smiles. All the things they hadn’t done or said.
The old cop had said, “Don’t expect my kid to come visit. I was a shitty father.”
But he was wrong. His kid—a trans man in his late twenties—had come and cried at the funeral, holding his mother’s hand.
That was the problem. When the patients weren’t telling you their awful stories, their families were demonstrating the pain. A husband recently pulled out his wife’s breathing tube. His response, when alarm bells went off and they raced in to see what had happened, was, “She was already dead.”
At home, when she told him what the husband had said, Ted looked up from his book. “Surely you don’t see that as murder.”
And they argued again about her work. Her patients were sucking the life out of her, is what Ted said. He wanted her to quit, move somewhere else.
“I suppose you want to go to stupid Iowa,” she had said.
“Why not? It’s beautiful and calm. We could get jobs at the university hospital.”
“Over my dead body,” Laura said. “I don’t want to be bored to death.”
After that he never talked about Iowa again. It was like a secret place that only he understood.
Down on the street a taxi pulled up, and her sister got out, looking up at the building. She was wearing black, like a professional mourner. Laura grabbed her purse and went out the back entrance just as her sister was putting her key in the lock. Laura walked steadily down the back stairs, past recycling bins, bicycles, and muddy shoes. The back door let out onto an alley.
Down to the marina. Ted had loved the marina, even though he couldn’t swim and got seasick every time they went out on a friend’s sailboat. But he adored sitting on a bench near the docks, staring out at masts on the mooring field.
“What do you like about it?” she had asked him once. “You hate boats.”
“You can’t see, can you?” he asked her once.
“See what?” she had asked.
“I don’t think you know me very well," he said sadly.
The day of the accident, she had gone to find him at the marina, to tell him that she’d be having dinner that night with Trish’s widower, who was having trouble adjusting to his wife's death. She walked right past the scene—the bus, its emergency lights flashing, the driver shaking, talking to the cops, hand over his mouth. The ambulance pulling away from the curb—siren blotting out every noise, destroying any peace—and it never occurred to her that Ted might be inside. She walked right past it to look for him. She had missed his secret moment of dying.
Now she sat on the bench across from the marina as if he were sitting down beside her. That’s when she saw what she could have seen a week ago. Her mistake had been looking for what was there. She had only seen water, fog, and sky.
Today was a rare bright day. The sailboats. Wind rushed through the halyards, pinging them against the masts, which rocked side to side, silhouetted like stalks of corn against a blue sky.
Nancy Scott Hanway's work has appeared in The Florida Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Willow Review, Washington Square, Portland Review, WomenArts Quarterly, Southern Indiana Review, and elsewhere. She lives with her husband, son, and opinionated corgi in Fayetteville, Arkansas. http://nancyscotthanway.com
Image: Amanda North