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A New Kind of Bliss
By BETTYE GRIFFIN
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One Maybe I just imagined the huge cloud of doom and gloom over New York City as the jet headed toward the runway at LaGuardia. It might have been one of those symbolic things, a metaphor, I think it's called. But I was feeling pretty damn low, so it seemed appropriate.
Anything could have happened while I was in the air. I didn't know if my father was still clinging on to life or if he would be dead by the time I got to the hospital. Even if he pulled through this respiratory failure, there would probably be another one waiting next week or next month. That's how emphysema works. It doesn't go away; it just keeps getting worse until it kills you.
Pop's health was my first concern. My mother, Ruby Yancy, was my second. She was seventy-eight years old and had never lived alone in her life. She'd been a wife for most of her adult life, always seeing to it that the cupboards and refrigerator were stocked, serving a hot meal at six P.M. every night, keeping the apartment tidy, and notifying the building superintendent whenever repairs were needed. She could work within the confines of a budget, too, but she had never put gas in the car, never taken it in for maintenance or repairs, never even written a check to pay a bill. My dad, Earl Yancy Sr. has always been the real take-charge type who always insisted on handling all the household business. He continued to do so even after his breathing difficulties got worse.
The bottom line was that after the inevitable happened, Mom wouldn't be able to live alone unless someone taught her how to balance a checkbook and check the oil. But neither I nor my siblings lived in our hometown of Euliss, a city along the Hudson River, just north of the New York City limits. I'd moved to Indianapolis after college, because that's where Al Davis, my ex, whom I'd met at Cheyney University, lived. Two years later we got married, and I remained in the city after we got divorced six years after that. My sister, Priscilla-we call her "Cissy"-lived in Pittsburgh, and my brother, Earl Jr., lived upstate. The three of us had never sat down and discussed what was going to happen when Pop's gone. We may be separated geographically, but we could have done it easily with that marvelous innovation known as three-way calling.
Still, I didn't feel too guilty about not having initiated that conversation. I suspected that one of them would suggest that I be the one to spend three or four months in Euliss getting Mom settled. "Let Emily take care of it," they would say. "She doesn't have a husband. She doesn't have kids."
Bullshit. Sonny-my brother's nickname from childhood, which I thought was silly, considering he was now fifty-five years old and a grandfather-and Cissy were eleven and thirteen years my senior, respectively. They both had kids, most of whom were grown and out of the house. Sonny taught mathematics at SUNY New Paltz, but it was only early June and there wouldn't be classes until the fall. Cissy was general manager of a big convention hotel in Pittsburgh, but it wasn't like they couldn't find someone to fill in for her, somebody like, if I had to guess off the top of my head, the assistant general manager. I saw no reason for me to be the one to have to make a major sacrifice. Being divorced meant the only household income was the one I brought home, and in my opinion that made me the least likely candidate-that is, unless Sonny and Cissy planned on paying my mortgage, car note, and other bills.
The plane was really low now, and all I could see out of my window was water. I heard a loud clicking sound as the landing gear dropped into place. Just when I was certain we were headed for the bottom of Long Island Sound, the runway appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. I knew the pilot had been able to see it the whole time. Still, I held my breath until I felt us touch down with that familiar thump. Landings under ordinary circumstances weren't as dangerous as takeoffs, but they make me uneasy just the same.
The engines roared now as the jet barreled down the runway, and I didn't truly relax until it slowed to taxiing speed.
I sat out the mad rush to deplane, most of which was spent standing up, holding carry-on luggage in hand, and grumbling about what was taking so damn long. Some of the passengers held packages of cigarettes, and one especially impatient man already had an unlit Salem in his mouth. He'd probably make a mad dash for the exit so he could get in a few puffs before claiming his luggage. But I wasn't about to let the people standing in the aisles behind me get off before I did. I put my foot in the aisle to block it as I got to my feet and retrieved my garment bag from the overhead bin.
Cissy stood waiting, an impatient scowl on her face, when I emerged at the baggage claim area downstairs. Instead of a standard greeting, the first words out of her mouth were, "Look at all the people already waiting at the belt for the bags to come out. Did you have to be the last one off the plane?"
"Lighten up, Cissy; there's a good forty people behind me. I was sitting in the back," I said calmly. "But even if I was the last, we can't leave until I get my bag, and nothing has come out yet," I pointed out as we stopped in front of the silent carousel. I grasped her forearm. "What's the latest on Pop?"
"He's hanging in, but he could go any minute. He already went into respiratory arrest at four o'clock this morning, but they revived him. We've been at the hospital ever since."
"Did anyone at the hospital talk to Mom about a DNR order, 'do not resuscitate'?"
"Yes. We made him a full code for the time being, so you'd be able to see him. Now that you're here, I guess we can reverse it, although it's a hard topic to discuss. I'd be hesitant to bring up the subject to Mom." Cissy looked a little embarrassed. "How've you been, Em?"
I was wondering how long it would take my sister to get around to basic civilities. "I'm fine." Then I asked about Cissy's family. She and her husband, who was waiting in the cell phone lot, were staying with their daughter, son-in-law, and two-year-old grandson. Everyone was well, but anxious about Pop.
The crowd at the carousel was the same people who were practically knocking each other over to get off the plane. Now the gripe had changed from "why isn't this line moving" to "where's my damn luggage." I got lucky. When the buzzer finally sounded and the belt started moving, my bag was the third one to come out. Cissy promptly called her husband, and five minutes later we were in the car and on our way to Euliss.
Traffic was light, which was a relief. But I winced when I saw the toll for the Triboro Bridge was up to five dollars. It made me feel old to remember those exact-change lanes that existed back when the toll was just seventy-five cents.
It was too hazy to see the Manhattan skyline from the bridge, and since there wasn't anything else to look at but one of the most hideous parts of the Bronx, I stared straight ahead at the back of my brother-in-law's head of straggly salt-and-pepper hair. "Has Mom really been at the hospital since four this morning?"
"We all have," Cissy answered. "They normally have just two visiting periods a day for intensive care, but since Pop's situation is so grave, the staff usually lets us in any time we want." She paused, possibly to make her next words have more impact. "He really could go at any time, Em."
That explained why her husband was driving like his foot was weighted with a cement block. David, a retired police lieutenant, zoomed past traffic like he was on a high-speed chase. I barely had time to get a whiff of the sweet smell of baking cakes and cookies from the Stella D'oro plant at 238th Street before we crossed into Westchester County.
The Euliss Medical Center, formerly Euliss General Hospital and usually still called that by locals, had been the recipient of a complete expansion and face-lift. Gone were all traces of the eighties-eighteen eighties, that is-haunted castle look I remembered in the main building, which had looked every bit of its hundred-plus years before the remodeling.
We had to drive a block past the main entrance to get a parking space. David dropped a few quarters into the meter and we rushed to the hospital entrance.
Mom and Sonny were waiting in the lobby, and they greeted me with strong, tight hugs. Mom looked older and smaller than she had the last time I'd seen her during the holidays, just six months before. The illness of her life's partner of more than a half century had been taxing for her. I felt a twinge of guilt that quickly grew to encompass my whole being. As the youngest of the three, with a considerable age gap between me and my older siblings, I had enjoyed having our parents all to myself during my adolescence and teenage years and had lived a semipampered existence, at least as much as a lower-middle class kid could. I knew they hoped I would return to Euliss after my divorce, but the truth was I liked Indianapolis. I usually got back home about twice a year for quick visits. Because of that I had missed much of Pop's decline. Sonny and Cissy got to town more frequently, especially Sonny, since New Paltz was only a few hours' drive away. He'd driven down fairly often in recent months after receiving hysterical telephone calls from Mom, usually telling Cissy and me that Pop had improved and there was no reason for us to travel to Euliss.
David took a seat in the waiting room outside the ICU, while the rest of us walked to the desk. I eyed the sign that stated each patient was restricted to two visitors. "Will they really let all four of us in to see him?" I whispered to Sonny.
"We're here to see Earl Yancy," he said to the nurse as he gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "There are four of us."
The woman didn't blink. "Yes, of course. Go right in."
Pop's eyes were closed. He had tubes going down his throat. He had never been a large man, but his outline under the sheet looked thin and wasted.
Mom leaned over the bed's guardrails, talking to him and becoming visibly upset when he didn't respond. I pulled her to me and hugged her tightly. "Take a break, Mom," I whispered; something about all that machinery alternately clicking and flashing his vital signs in the background made hushed tones appropriate. "Let me try."
Again he was unresponsive. I couldn't even get him to squeeze my hand. I work as a physician assistant, and my trained eyes automatically went to his vital signs on the monitor. His pulse was steady, his blood pressure was normal, and so were his oxygen levels, but the latter was only because of those four liters of [O.sub.2] he was receiving every minute.
"Pop," Cissy whispered near his ear after fifteen minutes, "visiting time is over. We have to leave, but we'll be back at three o'clock."
He suddenly opened both eyes. "Earl!" Mom squealed, rushing to his bedside from where she stood between Sonny and me.
We all moved in closer. Pop's gaze shifted to all four of us, and I thought I saw him smile. Then his eyes closed in a slow fade very different from the haste in which he had opened them. We all kissed him good-bye, even Sonny.
I rode to my parents' apartment with Mom and Sonny, while an exhausted Cissy returned with David to the apartment of their daughter and son-in-law.
"There's some tuna fish for you in the fridge," Mom said to me when we arrived. "I'm going to lie down for a bit."
"Okay, Mom." I sighed as she disappeared down the hall. "This is tough on her," I said to Sonny. "It's not going to get any easier. It doesn't look good."
"No, it doesn't."
"Do you know if she's prepared? I mean, does she know where the will is? The life insurance policy? Have she and Pop discussed what kind of funeral he wants?"
"All that's been addressed. The problem is what's going to happen to Mom."
My shoulders automatically tensed as I waited to hear what he would say next. When he remained silent I prompted him. "You have any ideas?"
"Well, I know she wants to stay here in Euliss. All her friends are here, and the church is here. Of course, Nelly and I would love to have her come live with us, but Mom won't consider it. I don't think a college town is the right setting for her anyway."
I noticed that he didn't say that he'd actually invited her to live with them, only that she wouldn't consider it. "I don't know if she has a choice," I said. With a sigh, I added, "I wish she'd listened to me when I tried to get her to take a more active role in running the household. If she had, she wouldn't be facing such a hard time in the first place. It'll be hard enough for her to lose Pop. But considering that all three of us live out of town and she wants to stay in Euliss, her only other option is to live alone."
He shook his head. "I don't think she can."
"Of course she can, Sonny. You do what you have to. We all do, no matter how old we are."
"She'll have a terrible time of it. Do you really want to put her through that, Emily?"
"I don't see any way out, unless you're planning on coming down here to teach."
"Don't be ridiculous. I couldn't possibly do that. But Cissy and I figured you could come back."
I raised an eyebrow. They sure didn't waste any time. How long had I been in town, forty-five minutes?
I raised my chin defiantly. "Well, that's interesting, considering I live farther away than either one of you. How did you come to the conclusion that my relocating would be easier than it would be for either of you?"
He shrugged. "Well, you're not married...."
There it went. "Which is precisely why I have to work to support myself," I snapped. "It's June, Sonny. College is out of session for the summer. Are you saying you can't spend the summer here with Mom? It shouldn't be necessary to pull up stakes and move back permanently; she only needs time to get used to the idea of being alone."
"And then just abandon her?"
His righteous indignation was starting to get on my nerves. "You're here all the time anyway, Sonny; New Paltz isn't that far away. She's not being abandoned. Most of her friends are widows; they all manage."
"They all have kids living here. Mom has no family except us."
"She has grown grandchildren living right here in Euliss." That's the kind of place Euliss was; if you didn't leave by the time you were thirty or so you would probably spend your entire life within the boundaries of a single zip code.
"That's not the same as children," Sonny insisted.
"I'm not moving back here, Sonny, not even temporarily, so forget it." I held his gaze for emphasis until he looked away. I was still glaring at him when the phone rang. "Hello?" I listened to the caller, a female, identify herself as a representative of the hospital, and I in turn identified myself as the daughter of Earl Yancy. "I'm terribly sorry," the woman said. "We did everything we could. We were unable to revive him."
Chapter Two People started arriving at the stroke of seven. In a way I was glad; it gave me something to concentrate on other than the casket, just a few feet away. I had looked at Pop when I first arrived at the church. Some people truly do look as if they are merely sleeping when they are laid out. Others look like there isn't an ounce of life left in them, like they've been stuffed by a taxidermist like a moose. I'm sorry to say that my daddy fell in the latter group, which I found depressing. I reminded myself of how at the hospital he had opened his eyes and smiled at all of us, the family he loved so much. In my heart I felt that he'd known all of us were there and that he only had another half hour or so of life left. It was like he was trying to tell us that it was all right, that he was ready to go and we shouldn't be sad ... words he could not audibly express because of the tube in his throat. Thank God I'd gotten into town when I did and was there to see the face I knew so well that one last time. But I'd give anything if I could have heard his voice as well.
"Emmylou," he used to call me. His mother's name had been Louise, and he made that my middle name, in honor of her. She'd died when he was a boy, and now he was with her after a separation of nearly seventy years. Could that have been why he died with a smile on his face? Big drops of tears spilled from my eyelids. I didn't bother to wipe them away.
Excerpted from A New Kind of Bliss by BETTYE GRIFFIN Copyright © 2009 by Bettye-Lynn Griffin. Excerpted by permission.
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