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Talk Before Sleep
By Elizabeth Berg
Random House Elizabeth Berg
All right reserved.
This morning, before I came to Ruth's house, I made yet another casserole for my husband and my daughter. Meggie likes casseroles while Joe only endures them, but they are all I can manage right now. I put the dish in the refrigerator, with a note taped on it telling how long to cook it, and at what temperature, and that they should have a salad, too.
Next I did a little laundry-washed Meggie's favorite skirt, then laid it on top of the dryer and pressed the pleats in with the flat of my hand. I love doing this because I love the smell of laundry soap and the memory it brings of lying outside on warm days, watching my mother peg huge white bedsheets onto the clothesline. Those sheets glowed with the light blue color white clothes radiate when they are extremely clean. My mother seemed to be fighting with them sometimes, muttering at them as best she could through the wooden clothespins she held in her mouth, insisting that they stay anchored in one place while they pulled and yanked to be free, their wet snapping sounds a protest. I always thought maybe we should let them go. Maybe they had a mission. Maybe the sheets were really people who had started all over again, come back on some low rung and now were ready to fly up to heaven for a promotion-say to a paramecium. I viewed all things on the earth as equal, in terms of the Grand Scheme.Vice presidents and river rocks had nothing up on each other. So the cotton fibers of a bedsheet could easily return as a simple form of water life, or, for that matter, as a movie star who drove white motorcycles through the glamorous hills of Hollywood.
I also like doing laundry for the feeling of connection it brings me, especially now, when I see my family too little, when most of my time is taken up with things they have no part of. With my hand on Meggie's skirt, I can see her small, keyhole-shaped knees, the sliding-down socks she wears, the nearly worn-out sneakers she won't let me replace. I see her schoolgirl blouses and the half-heart necklace she likes to wear every day lately, advertising the fact that she is someone's best friend. And then, saving the best for last, I see her face, her still slightly rounded cheeks, her stick-out ears, her gorgeous red hair and matching freckles. She has just learned to make her own ponytail, and she stands softly grunting at the mirror in the morning until the lumps are gone-or nearly so. I can't attend to these small things now-sometimes I sleep at Ruth's and am not there in the morning and Meggie goes to school with messy hair; and with questionable color combinations, no doubt. She's lucky she's only nine; it doesn't really matter yet. Her bangs need cutting, her toenails too, probably-Joe can't keep up with these everyday details and still work the number of hours he's required to. I know that eventually all will return to normal at my house, and then we will feel better-and worse, too, of course.
For now, I roll out piecrust, let myself be soothed by the sound of low-voiced interviews or oldies on the radio. I have learned so much lately about the salvation to be found in caretaking, whatever form that caring takes.
Today, while I was rushing around the kitchen making dinner at seven-thirty in the morning, Meggie asked, "Is Ruth your only best friend?"
"Yes," I said, surprised at the evenness of my tone.
"Oh." She sighed softly. "I'm sorry for you, Mommy."
"I know you are."
"Was she always your best friend?"
"Did you have one before her?"
"I guess so," I told her, then sent her off to school. And then I thought about Carol Conroy. The first time I made a promise with my whole heart, it was to Carol Conroy, and it required me to take care of her rabbit, Ecclesiastes. Carol, who liked very much the sound of words she found in the Bible, was leaving our small New England town to visit Disneyland for ten entire days. My jealousy was mitigated somewhat by the importance of the task she had assigned me. "You have to feed this rabbit and change his water every day," Carol told me solemnly. "And on every third day, you have to clean up his poops. It's not too bad unless he gets sick. But you have to do it even if he gets sick! Now, promise." I stood up straight and promised with my whole heart-I could feel it straining with earnestness-because I loved Carol Conroy in the way that ten-year-old girls do love each other, with a fierce, raggedy flame destined to go out. I vowed to do everything she said unless I died.
Ecclesiastes did get sick-maybe because of some licorice I fed him-and I ended up having to clean his cage several times a day for four days straight. The rabbit's illness only endeared him to me. I didn't resent him; I wanted to help him; and I felt gilded when he recovered. Years later, I would say it was Ecclesiastes that prompted me to become a nurse. And now, years after becoming a nurse-in fact, years after having left the profession to take care of my family, I have again made a promise with my whole heart, again out of love for my best friend. Only this time my friend's name is Ruth. And this time the flame is steady, in no danger of going out. I would say it is of the eternal variety.
So now it is ten-thirty in the morning, and Ruth is in the bathtub, and I am straightening out her bed. She has a white eyelet dust ruffle, white sheets with eyelet trim, a blue-and-white striped comforter, Laura Ashley. There are four fat goosedown pillows, each covered with beautiful embroidered pillowcases, white on white. There is a stack of magazines piled high on the floor and a collection of crystals on the bedside table: rose quartz, amethyst, and a clear white one with a delicate, fractured pattern running through it. They are not working. She is dying, though we don't know when. We are waiting. She is only forty-three and I am only forty-two and all this will not stop being surprising.
I hear her calling my name and I crack open the bathroom door. "Yes?"
"Could you come in here?" Her voice is a little shaky and I realize this is the first time I have heard her sound afraid.
I sit on the floor beside her, rest my arms along the edge of the tub to lean in close, though what I am thinking is that I ought to get in with her. She has used bubble bath and the sweet smell rises up warm and nearly palpable between us. Tahitian Ginger. The label on the bottle features happy natives who do not believe in Western medicine. The bubbles have mostly disappeared; I can see the outline of her body in the water. She is half swimming, turning slightly side to side, hips rising languidly up and down. Her breasts are gone.
"What's up?" I say.
She squeezes her bath sponge over her head. She is almost bald, but not quite. Dark strands of hair cling to the bottom of her head and her neck. Duck fluff, we call it. I told her to shave her head and she'd look great, like a movie star, like a rock singer. It's the latest rage, I told her. "Nah," she said. "What's left, I want to keep. It has sentimental value."
"I was wondering what happens when I die," she says now. "I was thinking, how are they sure? Are they really sure? I mean, what if I get buried alive?"
"They're sure," I tell her. "You sort of . . . shut down. Your heart stops, and your breathing. Certain reflexes disappear, you know, like the pupils in your eyes don't react." She watches me, holding absolutely still, looking like a colorized sculpture of herself. I sigh, then add, "And you get cold, you get real cold, okay? Your skin doesn't feel warm anymore. They're absolutely sure."
"Oh," she says. "Okay. Just checking." She is relieved; you can see it in the uncreasing of her forehead, in the loosening to normal of the area around her mouth. "Wash my back, will you?"
She sits up and rests her forehead on her raised knees. I bump the washcloth over newly revealed bones, the delicate scapulas, the orderly line of vertebrae. "I'm becoming exoskeletal," she says, her voice muffled. "I'm turning into a lobster. Maybe when we die we go back incrementally. You know, a little to the sea, then on to the heavens." She thinks a moment, then says, "I was just lying in here and I felt kind of tired and . . . weird, and then I thought, wait-is this it? I mean, how will I know?" She leans back, frowns. "Is that the same question I just asked? Am I making any sense? Do I keep asking the same goddamn question?"
I'd been making dinner. I had The Oprah Winfrey Show on the little kitchen TV. The phone rang and I wiped my hands on my apron and answered it and she said, "It's in my brain."
"No," I say, "it's not the same question. It's different. First you wanted to know how they'd know; now you want to know how you'll know. Different question entirely. You will know, though. You won't be the same person you are now when it happens. You'll be, I don't know . . . wiser."
"Okay." She stands up, asks for a towel, tells me she's done.
"I should think so," I say. "You've been in there for an hour."
"Have I? Jesus, I thought it was about five minutes."
"That's okay. I was having a good time waiting for you. I was reading your diary."
"Find anything good?"
"The sex stuff. That's good. But it's all bullshit."
I help her into a nightgown: white, white-lace trim, thin strands of ribbon hanging down the front.
She climbs in bed, pulls the covers up. She is tired, so pale. But her blue eyes are still beautiful and her face such a perfect shape you could walk into the room and see her and first just be jealous.
"I suppose it could be tonight, couldn't it?" she says. "God, it really could."
I was with her, sitting in the corner of the examining room, while she read questions off her list. She was pushing to know exactly how and when. She's that way: if she'd ever had to go to confession, she'd have torn down the curtain separating her and the priest. "Hey! Look at me when I'm talking to you," she would have told him.
Her oncologist was wearing a blue suit, a white shirt, a beautiful Italian silk tie and a gold Rolex watch. He was handsome and very sad, leaning up against the little sink in the room with his arms crossed over his chest and one leg crossed over the other, too. Obviously, this was too much for him. I think when he first met Ruth he fell in love with her and, guiltless, stayed there-though at an antiseptic distance Ruth regretted. Falling in love with her was a liability that came with being a man around her. Finally, he said, "All right, yes. It could be any time. Depending on how it happens. If it's from brain metastasis, it could be at any time."
Of course she has other options. Respiratory failure, say, from lung metastasis. Liver failure from the metastasis there. Think of those cartoons where people are run over by steamrollers and then get up and walk around. You'll be seeing Ruth. She put a new message on her answering machine the other day-she thought the old one sounded too sad. I stood behind her and watched her do it, her back so straight. The only thing that revealed what was really happening is that one of her feet rapidly tapped the floor the whole time she was talking. "It's me," she said. "I can't come to the phone right now. But leave me a message and probably you should make it a good one, okay? Okay, 'bye." She says "okay" all the time, Ruth. Before, we'd be making plans to go somewhere. "Okay, okay, so I'll meet you there at seven, okay?" she'd say.
"Will you stay here tonight?" she asks now.
"Of course." I hope my face doesn't reflect any of the ambivalence I feel. Another night away. I haven't paid bills. I need to call my mother. Joe and I haven't had sex in over six weeks. I feel sometimes as if I'm opening a too-full closet and shoving something else in, then leaning against the door so it won't burst open.
Later, when she is asleep, I'll call home. "Please understand," I'll say.
Ruth pats the bed. "Here, take a load off. Should we watch a movie?"
I stretch out beside her. "I'd rather talk."
"Okay," she says. "But mostly you. I get too short of breath. It's getting worse. Have you noticed?"
She nods. "Yeah."
"What should I talk about?" I ask.
"Me," she says. "Tell me a story about me. If I seem to fall asleep, make sure I'm not dead. I think you have to call somebody if I am, right?"
"Right. The coroner."
"Yes. And call Michael, too. You be the one to tell him. I don't want his father to. He'll fuck it up. But if I'm just sleeping, don't get offended, okay?"
"Okay," I say. "All right: the story of Ruth. So to speak. Well, the first time I saw you, you really pissed me off."
"You were jealous," she says.
"I know," I say. "Everybody was. But also you were being a pain in the ass."
"Exactly wrong," she says. "You're projecting again."
"Exactly right," I agree.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Talk Before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg Excerpted by permission.
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