Ripplesby Anne Manning
Norah Barclay finally found love in old age, only to lose it to the inevitability of death. Even as she railed at God, she knew her own choices had led her down the path which led to her sitting by the deathbed of Egan Corey as he drew his last breath. But she is not alone, even in the stillness of the night. Her grief is shared by One who can see the whole of the fabric of our lives, who decides, "...this time, for these two..."
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Havenwood Retirement and Convalescent Home, Winterhaven, Florida, May 27, 1944
NORAH GRIPPED his hand between her two, holding on. He was slipping away and the tissue of her heart ripped with the strain. For five years they had been companions, less than lovers, perhaps, but much more than friends. Her lungs ached to join with his and help him breathe. Her heart pumped a little harder, trying to move his thickening blood through arteries thinned by age.
Egan whispered something. She leaned as closely to his mouth as she could.
"Yes, my dear. I am here," she said.
He smiled. He still had most of his teeth and she marveled that at ninety-eight they should still appear so strong and healthy when the rest of his body was failing him.
"Still talkin' like a prissy school-marm."
"I was a schoolteacher." she emphasized the words, correcting him for the thousandth time, "for more years than most people are privileged to live. You should know better than anyone how hard it is to change, you old geezer."
He coughed with the laughter that erupted from his chest. "You're being redundant, Norah," he said when he could draw a breath.
"Old spinster schoolteachers are often redundant. It passes the time."
"Ah, if only..." he stared at her, his gray eyes still sharp and clear. "You'd not have been either a spinster or a schoolteacher if I'da caught sight of you in time. I guarantee you, my girl, you'd have had better things to do with your mouth than spout redundancies at me."
"Stop talking such nonsense."
Egan's canny gaze fixed her like a butterfly to a board.
"Is it nonsense to wish that I could have found yousooner?"
It was what Norah herself had wished too many times to count.
They spoke with words unspoken for a long time. Then Egan drew a long breath. Norah feared it was his last, but not yet.
"You know I'm not much with words..."
"You have the glibbest tongue I've ever heard."
He chuckled. "Have I fooled you, then?" As he spoke, he turned ever more serious. "Sometimes, my girl, I've wished for my own words to say to you what I feel. Wanna hear some po-try?"
She smiled. "Please." He was tiring, but she couldn't refuse him.
He took another breath, the creases in his leathery face, drawing deeper around his eyes in an expression unutterably sad.
"O, lest the world should task you to recite,
What merit lived in me that you should love,
After my death, dear love, forget me quite...."
Norah gasped a sob and shook her head. Egan went on with the sonnet.
"...For you in me can nothing worthy prove--
Unless you would devise some virtuous lie
To do more for me than mine own desert,
And hang more praise upon deceased I
Than niggard truth would willingly impart.
O, lest your true love may seem false in this,
That you for love speak well of me untrue,
My name be buried where my body is,
And live no more to shame nor me nor you;
For I am shamed by that which I bring forth,
And so should you, to love things nothing worth."
His eyes drifted closed and he coked a harsh chuckle. "That's me. Egan Corey. Nothing worth. Take the advice, my girl."
His head rolled on the pillow away from her.
The death of his pride terrified her more than the death of his body. Norah gently turned him back to face her. Once he'd opened his eyes, she whispered, "No, Egan. I cannot be ashamed of loving you."
He squeezed her hand until she nearly cried out.
"What a hellacious end." The gravel of his voice grated across her heart, scraping it raw, leaving bloody streaks. Norah could bear that pain. It was the single tear that left her undone.
"Egan, please, don't." Norah reached forward and wiped away the tear, allowing the back of her finger to caress the warm brown of his face. "They'll make me leave if they think I'm upsetting you."
"The hell they will." Egan sniffed and with poor grace, allowed Norah to dab at his nose with a handkerchief. She saw the melancholy descend upon him, a black cloud of regret. "Why didn't he come, Norah? Was I so bad a father?"
A fist squeezed her throat. Yet, she knew she had to force some words past the constriction.
"I think children have their own lives and worries. Too often they don't see the things that matter until they are gone."
"He's not mine, you know."
Norah closed her eyes. Egan had told her. Many times.
"I tried, Norah. I really tried to be a good father to him. I tried to love him, but..." He shook his head in time to the palsy that trembled his hand.
"Egan, you did the best you could. It's almost all over now and you'll be at peace."
He nodded. "Yes, it's almost all over now," he repeated her words. "And I'll be done. It'll be good to get back to Texas. Too bad I won't find out how we do against them damned Nazis. Sons-a-bitches." He gasped a breath. "I only wish..." He turned his eyes on her.
That you and I could have been together, his silent words so loud that she was certain God Himself could hear.
They sat in silence for a long time. Only her own long acceptance of the inevitability of death kept her from weeping herself empty.
As though wishing to ease her heartache, Egan smiled. "Wish I had time for one more piece of your chocolate cake."
"If you'll wait a bit, I'll bake one for you."
He made a pitiful attempt to squeeze her hand. "I'm afraid I don't have anything to say about that, my girl."
A silence fell over them. Norah sat by him, holding on, holding him, counting his breaths, her own breathing waiting for his.
"Stay with me, Norah," he whispered.
"Of course, my dear." She reached forward and, with her stiff, knobby fingers, swept back the pure white strands of his hair. He still had such beautiful hair. Had it been so soft and wavy when he was a young man, she wondered?
For many minutes, he was still.
"Norah, do you believe in God?"
"Yes, Egan, I do."
"Do you think He cares?"
"I'm certain that He does."
"I wish... I can't tell how it would have been different, but..."
"Hush, Egan. Rest, my dear."
"I wish I'da paid Him more attention, been a better man. Maybe then I could be with you in Heaven."
Norah wondered if she herself would make it.
"You're a good man, Egan Corey. The best man I ever knew."
Egan wheezed. "I wish I had another chance at you, Norah."
"I'm just grateful He let me find you at last."
A pitifully weak squeeze answered her. Again silence fell over them. Egan's eyes fluttered closed, as his breathing grew more troubled. Norah steeled herself for the final one, the one that would take him from her at last.
For all her preparation, his whispered words touched her like a live wire.
"I'm very tired, Norah. Will you sit by me awhile?" Norah swallowed her cry.
"Of course, I will, my dear." She lay the back of her hand against his cheek, the brown leathery skin strangely dry beneath her touch. Struggling to raise her bowed body from the chair where she'd sat for so many hours, Norah stood by the bed, holding onto his hand. She leaned over and pressed her lips to his, catching his last breath.
As the warmth left him, Norah broke away and sank back onto the chair. She lay her head on his arm.
Her old lonely heart felt as though it were being torn up for rags. And she wished with all her heart to be the one growing cold in that bed. What was the point of living now?
All her life she'd done what was expected, well, at least since her calamitous European trip with Miss Gennett. That wasn't even her fault. After all, how could she -- a convent-school innocent -- have known about the unnatural proclivities of some single women?
But that disaster had taught her to be obedient, malleable, pliable. Every authority figure had become her idol. Her father, the principals, her doctor.
Ah, she thought, finally pinning her despair to its source.
"You're to blame," she railed in her reedy, old-lady voice, screeching at the Almighty. "You could have done better. You should have done better. God!" She spit with blasphemous venom. "What kind of God lets people live miserable, lonely lives? What kind of God can't make things right?"
Somewhere near her ruined heart, the thin, pinching fingers of her conscience twisted a reminder to respect Him.
"Oh, no, you don't. You're not going to use my conscience on me this time." She gripped Egan's hand, refusing to let go. "Why even let me know him if you weren't going to let me have him?" Again she lay her head on his arm and the tears poured, dampening his dead flesh.
"Miss Barclay?" The gentle voice reminded her once more that her life was not her own. "Miss Barclay? You have to come out now. The doctor needs to look at him."
"Why? He's dead." Norah's eyes swam and the vision of Miss Cower wavered before her.
The nurse only smiled understanding.
"Come, now. You've done all you can. You need your medication and some sleep."
Norah allowed the woman's competent hands to cup her elbows and help her to her feet and out of the room. She glanced back at Egan, lying so still, so cold, so lonely.
In that instant, Norah silently cursed at God again, not caring anymore for the promise of paradise. Without Egan, she doubted Heaven would be much of a paradise.
And for the first time, she considered that she, and not God, held her life in her hands.
She may have lived over eighty years without him, but she didn't have to live without him now.
No, no, Norah. Do you have so little faith?
The question is not for Him, for He knows the strength of her faith and the limits of it. It is for her, to remind her of His love. Yet, He is not surprised that she should rail at Him for Egan's death. But, my daughter, he is not really gone.
The ripples in the river are radiating out and He sees everything settling into its new order.
Have faith, Norah. I have not abandoned you.
IN HER antiseptic green room, Norah lay in her bed, head aching from the tears that wouldn't stop. She'd repented of much of her earlier seething blasphemy, but the idea that she didn't have to live without Egan played at the edges of her mind. It would be easy, she thought, if she could just find a method.
A gurney rattled by her door. Voices drifted inside.
"This is Mr. Corey?"
Norah sat up. They were taking him away.
"I have the next-of-kin's order here. They've donated the body to the University medical school."
The words slammed into her head.
"No," she moaned. A spurt of energy surged through her. With every stringy fiber of her body, she struggled out of bed and shuffled to the door. She jerked it open.
And froze in agony.
The gurney sat right in front of her door, a cold, white sheet covering him. The two men were at the nurses' station a few feet up the hall, looking over the clipboard.
"Medical school, huh? Cold son-of-a-bitch," one of them said.
"Maybe they can't afford to bury him."
"Naw, the old man's bill was always paid right on time. I know the son. This guy," the orderly said, pointing to the name on the form, "is doing real good in oil, especially with the war and all. Making a killing out there in Texas. But the old man never heard a word from him."
Norah listened, staring at the gurney and his body. Did they have to discuss his personal business like that? Even the sympathetic tone in the orderly's voice didn't make it better.
"Damnation, seems a man ought to have more respect for his own father."
Well, that was the problem, wasn't it? Egan Corey, Jr., big-shot Texas oil tycoon, had never forgiven his father for not being his father, Norah thought with despair. Now, he'd have the last laugh and the final revenge.
Or would he? she wondered, still staring at the white-shrouded form. Glancing quickly at the two men who stood by the desk, oblivious of her presence, she tip-toed into the hallway and set her hands on the sides of the gurney. As she pulled it toward her door, she didn't think about what she was planning on doing with a corpse in her room. She only knew she couldn't let them take Egan to a medical school, where young, smooth-faced men would peer at his naked body and take knives and....
Wiping that horror from her mind, she concentrated on pulling him into her room.
"Hey, lady, stop!"
Long-used to answering voices of authority with immediate obedience, she froze for an instant. But with a glance down at Egan, she made up her mind to at least try to save him.
Norah dug in her heels and jerked against the weight of the gurney, rejoicing when it rolled toward her door. She pulled harder, scraping her knuckles against the doorframe, but the pain was nothing compared to her exultation as the gurney followed her into her room. She was going to get him away from these men!
The orderly dropped the clipboard and dashed across the hallway.
"Come on, Miss Barclay. Let him go."
The orderly -- she couldn't remember his name -- grabbed the opposite end, where Egan's big feet towered. His strength easily overcame hers, but she refused to let go. He pulled the gurney back out into the hallway and Norah with it.
From somewhere, she found the strength to hold on and, by the time the orderly stopped in the hallway, Norah was dangling from the end of the gurney like a used banner fluttering from the tail of a skywriter plane.
"No, no, please, let me have him," she shrieked, all pretense of control gone. "You can't take him to that place. Please, let me have him. I'll pay to give him a funeral. Please..."
Norah sank to the floor, her hands clawed around the edges of the gurney.
She pleaded with the men with her eyes, the only voice she had left. Their exchanged glance gave away their own distaste with the choice Egan Corey, Jr., had made.
Seeing a chance to convince them, Norah kept on. "He'll never know. He doesn't care. Please, let me have him."
"Miss Barclay," the orderly knelt beside her. "We have our orders. If someone finds out we didn't follow them, we'll lose our jobs. I need my job, Miss Barclay."
"I understand, but you see how wrong it is."
"Yes, ma'am, I do. But Mr. Corey's body is the property of his family." He paused, giving Norah time to steel herself against his attempts at persuasion. "Mr. Corey lived a good long time. If the doctors can learn something from him, don't you think it is worth it to let them? Maybe it can help someone else?"
"No! Let them go to the prisons for their cadavers. Egan is mine and I won't give him up to those butchers."
"No!" Her voice had risen to a screech. "No! You won't take him from me!"
The squeaking of gum-soled shoes was her only warning before the cold voice slapped across her consciousness.
"What's going on out here?"
The two men snapped to stances of military attention at the sound of that voice.
"Nothing, Dr. Gustavson," the orderly replied. "I've got everything under control here."
"It doesn't sound like you've got it under control." The doctor shifted his black gaze to Norah, still slumped on the floor. "Miss Barclay, what are you doing here? Why aren't you in bed?" He reached for her and, with a rough hand, pulled her to her feet. Holding her carelessly against him, Gustavson raked his eyes over Egan's body. "What's that doing here? Here," he spoke to the other man, the man Norah didn't know, "You're here to take it away. Get to it."
He turned away from what had been Egan, pulling Norah with him.
"No," Norah wailed, even as he dragged her into her room.
"Don't be sentimental, Norah," the doctor said, his voice as lacking sentiment as any she'd ever heard. "He's dead and probably glad of it. I know if I should reach ninety-eight years, I should be glad to finally be done with it." He man-handled her into bed, jerking the covers over her. "Don't get up again, or I'll have you sedated."
As he turned to go, Norah felt something snap inside her head.
"Don't you turn away from me like that, you insufferable pig. How dare you send him out like a slab of beef? He's a man and he deserves a decent burial."
The doctor turned, his face devoid of emotion.
"A dead body, my dear Miss Barclay, is no more than a slab of beef. If it can further medical science, so be it."
"You monster. You heartless, cold-hearted..."
"Nurse!" Gustavson called, even as he stared at Norah.
"Yes, sir," the night nurse replied crisply.
"Get Miss Barclay a sedative. Something that will help her sleep."
"Yes, sir," the nurse said, turning away immediately.
The doctor left without another word. His point had been made. When the nurse returned with the hypodermic, Norah lay quietly for the injection. What was the use? She had no more power over her life. She was an old woman, dependent upon others to help her with the simplest necessities. She was old and tired and useless, not even children marked her existence.
She thought then, of Egan's son, Egan, Jr. -- excuse me, she thought with a snide chuckle, Egan II.
Maybe children weren't a blessing after all. Her eyes grew heavy with the artificial lethargy of the drugs.
The overstuffed blanket of sleep covered her. Perhaps in her dreams she would find a reason to go on living.
Copyright © 2000 by Ann Manning
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