A station older than oldies was playing Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love in All the Wrong Places,” and didn’t that make me laugh right out loud in spite of my high-wired nerves. My sister, Ashley, used to say this could be the title song of my life. Hard to argue with that. My romantic history was a string of jagged beads, each broken in a different way.
I snapped off the radio—time to change that tune—but, of course, now that it had taken up residence in my head, it would be cycling through for the rest of the day. I checked the dash clock. Late. Late. Late. I could make better time on a banana-seat bike.
The gray sedan in front of me, one in a long line of cars, inched along three degrees short of a dead stop. Back when I was a child vacationing on Cape Cod, traffic like this was a hassle reserved for summertime, but a shitload of change had occurred in two decades. Now roads were clogged nearly year-round, and each month, one more seasonal cottage held in a family for generations was replaced by a place so large, I swear it could exist in two time zones.
I tailgated the sedan, as if that would speed things up. I was beyond late. No excuses. “Jessie Lynn, I swear you’ll be tardy for your own wake,” my mama used to tell me. Of course, that was back when she could say something like that without looking like she wanted to slit her tongue and serve it for dinner, back before we all became painfully aware that such a possibility could actually loom on the visible horizon of my life.
At one time, Lily used to treat promptness as something of consequence, along with matters like impeccable grooming and refined manners. Please, thank you, and elbows off the table were just the day care level. Back when I was a child idolizing her, I yearned to be exactly like my mama, but then, about the time I hit high school and commenced being a disappointment to her, I vowed I would never end up like she had, trapped in a small town, checking her roots for gray, her life consumed with tending to the needs of others. Well, couldn’t the irony of it just cause a person to weep, for it was as if, in some weird way, I’d flipped lives with Lily. Here I was wearing twenty minutes’ worth of makeup and heading off to care for a stranger while Mama was back in Virginia with her hair gone natural, preparing to sail across the ocean with a man named Jan, a semiretired dentist ten years younger than she was. Go figure.
The dentist was new on the scene, and for details, I relied on my sister, who called him “junior” and “the boy toy,” as if someone fifty-five could still be considered a lad.
“So,” I said during one of our conversations, “tell me about what’s his name.”
“It’s Yawn,” Ashley said.
“Yawn?” I said.
“Right,” Ashley said. “His family’s from Finland. Or maybe it’s Norway. One of those countries. Anyway, it’s spelled J-a-n, pronounced Yawn.”
“You mean as in boring?” Perfect. What was our mama thinking? “So what does he look like?”
“He’s shorter than Daddy,” Ashley said, which gave me a small satisfaction. But how short? Dustin Hoffman short? Richard Dreyfuss short? Or freaky short? I pictured Danny DeVito. Hervé Villechaize.
I rechecked the clock and continued tailgating the sedan until I reached my turnoff. I was running a good half hour late, and my nerves were skinned and deep-fried by the time I finally arrived at the address in the file lying on the passenger’s seat. I pulled up directly behind a maroon Dodge Ram, the kind of muscle truck that caused me to feel inadequate, its tires so oversized, it would require a forklift to hoist me up and into the cab. The kind that made me feel like Danny DeVito. I switched off the ignition and checked out the house. It was a full Cape shingled in gray cedar and featured a front door and shutters painted a showy lavender. A line of lobster traps was stacked along the property line to the north, and a boat was cradled in the side yard, slightly tilted, with a wooden stepladder propped against the gunwale. Someone had started to scrape paint off the keel but quit before completing the job. Except for that purple trim, the house and grounds were like a half dozen others in the neighborhood. I, of all people, knew it was possible for things to look perfectly normal on the surface while, hidden from sight, the extraordinary was in process, but still, even fully expecting it, knowing it, there was nothing to indicate that, inside that house, a man was dying.
To settle my nerves, I unwrapped a stick of gum and popped it in my mouth, my mama’s manners be damned. When Ginny Reiser, the hospice nurse, called me the night before offering to meet me there and introduce me to the family, I’d refused. Major mistake. I could have used some shoring up. As much to combat jitters as anything, I performed a last-minute run-through of the patient’s file, although I had already memorized every detail. Luke Ryder. Pancreatic cancer. Age forty-five. Commercial fisherman. Divorced. (Which explained the lavender trim. Obviously the ex’s decision.) One child, Paige Ryder, twenty-two. (Difficult; can be confrontational; substance abuse? was jotted in pencil next to her name.) Primary caregiver: Nona Ryder, seventy. Relationship: patient’s mother. (Doesn’t drive; no car, the case supervisor noted.)
The path to the door was sloppy and rutted. There had been a spring snowstorm three days before, and my boots sank into the ground as I picked through the half-melted patches that spotted the way. I barely noticed. Echoing in the back of my brain was a sentence from the first morning of training.
It is never easy to enter the world of the dying.
Well, I knew that from experience. I’d had my own world turned wrong side up by death and disease. “Sweet Jesus, what am I doing here?” I said aloud. I caught a flutter of movement behind one of the curtains at a front window. Too late to cut and run. My grandpa Earl’s advice echoed in my head: Don’t worry about the mule going blind. Just load the wagon. I climbed the steps, chewing that gum like a cow hopped up on speed and hoping I looked more together than I felt. Just load the wagon. As I neared the door, a formless clutch of anxiety closed my throat, and I combed my fingers through my hair, lightly traced the scar that lay just behind my ear. Then I swallowed and stood tall, my mama’s daughter after all.
The woman who opened the door was dressed in a print cotton blouse, navy pants that had seen better days, and a pair of sneakers with slits cut for bunions, the kind of getup Lily wouldn’t be caught dead in. But then again, who knew what my mama was wearing those days. For all I knew, it could have been floral print spandex.
This woman was wrinkled and thin, with drugstore-kit-dyed hair and a bent body that signaled osteoporosis and spoke of a far-reaching history of heartache and hard work. Right then, that first time I saw Nona, she touched something in my heart, and I wanted to reach straight out and fold her in my arms.
“You’re Jessie?” she said. “From hospice?”
“Yes,” I said. “Sorry I’m late. I didn’t allow for traffic.”
She brushed away the apology. “I’m Nona. Luke’s mother.” Behind her smudged glasses, her face was slack, fatigue revealed in every pore and line. “You’re younger than I expected,” she said, although it appeared she wasn’t going to hold that against me, for she stepped aside and allowed me in.
I tucked the gum in my cheek and offered what I hoped was a reassuring smile.
“How old are you, anyway?” she said.
“Well, I thought you’d be older,” she repeated in the no-nonsense tone of a person who said just what she was thinking. In that way, she was kin to Faye. I wondered if that was something you grew to as you aged. Like you didn’t have anything to lose. Or maybe it came from being a born and bred northerner and not having to come at everything sideways.
“You’re not from around here,” she said, more statement than question.
“Richmond,” I said. “Virginia.” I’d never thought of myself as having an accent, but since I’d moved up North, it seemed everyone commented on it.
The living room was small, seriously overheated, and smelled so strongly of wet dog and wood ash, I had to smother a sneeze. While Nona closed the door, I took a quick look around. I swear I’d seen more furniture in a phone booth. The ex-wife must have picked the place clean. A faded plaid couch, the kind you could tell was scratchy without even touching it, faced the fireplace and was flanked by a scarred pine rocker. The Cape Cod Times was spread out on a wooden lobster trap that served as a coffee table. One section of the paper was folded open to a partially completed crossword. The only interesting object in the entire room was a seascape hanging above the mantel, an oil in delicate shades of gray and blue with a dory that surfaced from the fog only after I had been considering it for a minute or two.
“The kitchen’s in here,” Nona said, pulling my attention back. We passed by a closed door through which seeped the sound of a television. Nona slowed a step but did not stop. “I just made a pot of coffee, or there are tea bags if you prefer,” she said. “And there’s soda in the refrigerator. You just feel free to help yourself to anything.”
I looked over at the closed door, assumed that Luke lay behind it. At our last team meeting, Faye and Ginny had told me that he was militantly private and had agreed to accept only a limited amount of help from hospice. Translated, that meant my role there was to provide support for Nona, who had moved up from Wellfleet to care for him exactly one month back. Until two weeks ago, Luke had resisted having hospice involved in any way at all, but when his doctor gave him an ultimatum—hospice or a nursing home—he had surrendered. At first, he only allowed visits from the nurse and from the health aide who assisted with his bath and personal needs, but after the social worker spoke with him, he agreed to my inclusion on the team. “It’s more for your mother than for you,” the social worker told him. “She hasn’t been out of the house in days. A volunteer will provide her with some necessary respite and support.” According to Faye, Luke’s exact words of acquiescence were “As long as I don’t have to have anything to do with her. I don’t want some goddamned, recycling do-gooder wringing her hands over me.” It was a sentiment I certainly understood and had no trouble respecting.
We had been told that the central tenet of hospice care was that since the dying have so little control over their lives, the hospice team was, whenever possible, to grant them autonomy in decision making during this end-of-life period. “We meet people where they are, not where we want them to be,” Faye had told me. Still, the more I learned about Luke Ryder, the more surprised I was that Faye hadn’t assigned a man to the case. Someone older and experienced, like Bert, a retired FBI agent who has been volunteering for eleven years. But Faye said, “Trust me. I never make a mistake. You’re the one.”
“Is Luke in there?” I asked Nona.
“Yes. But they’ve told you that he doesn’t want to be disturbed, didn’t they?”
“Yes. They were clear about that.”
Outside, a horn tooted. Three short beeps.
“Well, here’s my ride,” Nona said. She looked over at the closed door, serious second thoughts plain on her face. “Is there anything else you need to know?”
“Nothing,” I said, all false confidence.
“It’s hard to leave him,” she said.
For an instant, I swear I nearly told her to stay. Instead, I said, “Take as long as you like. I have all day. Really.”
“Well, I won’t be gone long,” she said. “An hour at the most.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, regretting the words instantly. Don’t worry. To a woman whose son was dying.
“He has a bell. Did they tell you that?”
I nodded. It was in my notes.
“He’ll ring it if he needs anything.” She hung back at the door, as if still trying to determine if I could be trusted.
“Go,” I said. “He’ll be fine. I promise.”
I watched from the window as the car pulled away. I was surprised by a jolt of anxiety—it had been months since I’d had an attack—and felt the telltale prickly flush of heat flooding my body. I closed my eyes and reminded myself to breathe—Deep Breath. Deep Breath. Deep Breath—repeating the mantra until the flash of panic gradually began to subside. I told myself anyone would be a bit nervous under the circumstances. I told myself I would be fine.