Rachel rubbed her neck and adjusted her position in the chair one more time. She didn’t dare stand to stretch her legs. It might disturb Murray. Murray could not be disturbed. This was the first time in days he was close to sleeping.
I’m so tired, she thought. Maybe when I was younger I could have done this, but now I don’t know how much longer I can last.
She looked around guiltily, as if someone might overhear her thoughts, and think her cold and selfish. After all, at worst she would end the day with a crick in her neck and an aching back. Murray’s pain was so much worse than that. A familiar wave of feeling – she had grown so used to it – burst over her for the millionth time, a mixture of love, guilt, sorrow, pain and everything else she had ever felt.
Murray was dying. Murray had been dying for months, maybe years, although to Rachel today it seemed like forever. How long can a man spend dying? She felt like a traitor for wanting to know. But she desperately wanted to know.
The figure on the bed shivered, and so did Rachel. Could she imagine the pain? Weeks earlier, when she was spending her days in this chair talking with Murray, he tried to tell her about the pain. Of course, he wouldn’t really tell her how it felt. That was Murray. However much he might need to reveal his true feelings, he couldn’t do it if it caused pain to someone else.
But she had insisted. She had to know. Reluctantly, and without any of the hard edges, he told her how the cancer felt like it was eating his flesh, from the inside out. He told her how sometimes the pain was so familiar that it didn’t even hurt any more. He told her that it hurt him more to see her sorrow than to feel the disease gnawing at his vital organs.
She loved him for saying that, and even more for really believing it, but she didn’t believe it was true.
Now the pain was worse, much worse. She could see it flash in his eyes when he tried to hide it from her. She felt it – physically, as if the cancer was contagious – when he tried to talk to her to raise her spirits. He was doing that less in the last few days.
It looked like the body on the bed was calm once more. Rachel felt her body relax, too. She hadn’t even noticed how tense she had become. His pain was her pain. His life was her life. And Murray was dying.
This afternoon they had a visitor. At first, Murray had experienced a constant stream of visitors. So many people loved him. A life of feeling for other people, someone said of him, and it showed in the effect his cancer had on everyone. An hour wouldn’t go by without someone else appearing at the door. It was almost too much. Sometimes she even had to send people away, because Murray tried to be so… healthy… when they were around. He didn’t want them to be hurt by his pain.
Of course, he couldn’t really hide it. Even if he could have gritted his teeth and played his old self on this hospital stage, the effects of the chemotherapy and the radiation treatments made him look so much worse.
Once, when she was angry at the doctors for not making him well, she accused them of just using the treatments to make him look as bad as he felt. She told them the treatments never did anyone any good. They were just there so the person would end up looking sick.
She meant it at the time.
She was angry a lot. At first, it was the doctors. They were supposed to make people healthy. Whenever she was sick, they always made her better. Why couldn’t they make Murray better? His health was more important than hers. They obviously weren’t trying hard enough.
The doctors were trying, she finally decided, even though they were all really too young to understand how incredibly important it was that Murray get better. But Murray was just dying. That was it.
Murray had tried to explain that to her. Cancer kills people, he said. I have cancer, and in the end I will die. Nothing can be done. I can fight it; I will fight it; but, in the end I will die.
He cried when he said that to her. He didn’t cry for himself. He cried because he knew that he had to help her prepare, and that the process of preparing would hurt her. He couldn’t stand to see her pain. Just as Rachel couldn’t stand to see his pain.
She was angry at the visitors, too, for a while. Where did they all go? When they needed Murray, did he only show up once and then have other things to do? He was always there for them, no matter how much they needed him. Sometimes he had to neglect his family to be there for them. But he was there.
After a while she stopped blaming them for not coming. It was hard to look at him. When he tried to talk, you could see the pain. His stutter, a burden he carried all his life, became at times an insurmountable barrier. When it got to his lungs – how cruel diseases can be – he couldn’t overcome the stutter with strong breaths, as he used to.
Yet he had to talk. He had to make everyone feel better. That made her angry too. Murray could be so stupid. Why couldn’t he think of himself sometimes?
Rachel wasn’t even angry at Peter any more. That took a long time, but she thought maybe now she understood. Murray told her she could not be angry with him. She hadn’t told him she was, but he knew. He always knew how she felt. He loved her a lot.
She remembered Peter at three, when they first realized he was disabled. She was just newly pregnant with Alan at the time. Murray had taken Peter to a specialist, and the test results were positive. It was like Murray that he accepted the problem without question. The first thing he thought of was how to make sure it didn’t hurt Rachel or Peter. Murray felt responsible for everyone he loved. And sometimes she thought he loved everyone.
Many times she felt Murray protected Peter too much from his disability. She never said so – to anyone – but he knew she thought that. When Peter’s marriage failed, Murray was so quick to be the emotional safety net that Peter wanted. Maybe too quick. Who could tell, even so many years later?
Peter told her that after the first few visits to the hospital, he couldn’t stand it any more. He said his father was so close to him, the pain was like his own pain. He said his father understood how he felt, and would be happier if he stayed away. Until he was better.
Murray told Peter he would get better. Peter knew that wasn’t true.
Peter said his feeling for his father wasn’t like anything other people could feel. He said his father was too special to him. He said no-one else could possibly understand. Rachel cried out inside that she understood, but she didn’t say it to Peter. Maybe later.
She had hoped Peter might come today, but it was Sammy instead, Murray’s younger brother. He was also hurting, but he didn’t show it to Rachel. Rachel was his brother’s “little woman”, and he had to respect Murray’s wishes to spare her as much grief as possible.
Sammy didn’t understand Rachel at all. Maybe he understood Murray. Maybe not. She thought he probably did, in his own way. People, even two brothers, can be so different, she thought.
She didn’t really listen while Sam brought Murray up to date on the business and the investments. Sam and Murray were in business together, a business set up by their father but now theirs. It had grown, and they had investments, and then they sold the business and later bought it back, and all in all everything was going fine. She had heard the story before. Same old.
It scared her a bit to think that she would have all that money. Murray had always looked after the money, in his very precise, almost compulsive way. Sammy thought that Murray, although the older brother, was the weaker brother, and not really much of a businessman. He kept neat records, Sammy thought. That’s the best you could say of him.
Murray let Sam think that, all the while making sure the business was successful. Sam could be so narrow in his judgments about people, but he was really a good soul underneath that cold exterior, Murray used to say. Rachel wasn’t always convinced. He was Murray’s brother, though, and Murray watched out for him.
And Sam would look after the money for Rachel, just as he thought he had looked after it for Murray all these years. Sam would be one of the executors of the estate, along with Rachel and the two boys.
She couldn’t do it alone. Murray was wrong on that one. He didn’t know she had heard him, but she had been outside the room when he was talking to Alan. Your mother, he told Alan, is smarter than all of the rest of us – you, your Uncle Sam, me, Peter, all of us. She pretends she’s just a housewife, incapable of doing anything for herself when it comes to money or other practical things. Don’t let that fool you. Your mother was brought up to live through her husband, and she does that very well, but she was always capable of anything she wanted to do. Anything. I wish I’d seen it earlier, or even been more persuasive in convincing her. But she’ll do just fine after I’m gone, he told their son. She heard Alan crying at that point, and she walked away. Alan never cried. There was some of Sammy in him.
Murray had always wanted her to be a teacher, ever since they first met. He said teachers were the most important people in society, and she would be the best.
There were times when she couldn’t bring back those memories of sixty years ago. And, there were other times, like now, when she could feel the fresh air on her face, and smell his boutonniere as he stood at the front door.
Rachel was no longer smug about Murray. She was for a long time, but then it seemed so petty. Maybe it was because so many of her old friends started having such troubles – with their spouses, with their kids, with their lives. At some point she just decided that the smugness was unbecoming.
She was still proud of Murray, though, just as she was then. Sure, he was a tall, funny-looking, bookish sort of guy who wasn’t very popular with the girls. Sure, you never saw him on the sports field, except for cross-country running, which he did badly. Sure, he had such a stutter that many people simply avoided talking to him.
But she had been right. Rachel, popular and attractive, sought after by many boys, had followed her instincts. She didn’t see the handsome faces and stylish clothes of her other suitors. She saw his depth of personality, and sensitivity, and caring.
She once told her mother that all old men are ugly, but not all of them are kind and caring. Her mother, as always, said nothing, but at the wedding was more proud of her daughter than anyone thought she should have been.
I should be crying, thought Rachel. I’m remembering things that were such happy times, and they are over. No more tears left, perhaps.
Sammy had left at some point. Maybe he said goodbye to her. She didn’t remember.
She looked at Murray’s wasted body in the bed. Rachel could remember when she thought how uncomfortable it must be for a tall man like Murray to sleep in the small beds provided in hospitals. Now he seemed to be a small speck lost in the vastness of that bed.
Yet she was wrong about all old men being ugly. Murray – even with his hair almost all gone, and with the pasty pallor of death on his face – was more handsome now than ever before in his life. In fact, Murray was never really ugly. Even at nineteen, when she said that to her mother, she didn’t actually believe it was true, not about Murray.
She found herself staring into his closed eyes. Finally he is sleeping properly, she thought. Could he be as tired as she? He must be. Not just from the pain, and the disease, and the lack of sleep. For a whole lifetime, he has carried the burdens of other peoples’ happiness on his shoulders. Wouldn’t that make him tired – very, very tired?
Rachel looked around the room as if it were new to her. The dusk outside the window told her she must have drifted for some time. Murray seemed comfortable, perhaps more so than in several days or even weeks. She knew she had to leave, if only to eat. Murray would be very upset with her if she skipped another meal to stay with him.
She crossed to his bed and kissed his cheek lightly. Love gushed out of her heart, as it always did when she kissed him.
Something else touched her heart, though, something different. She looked at him again. The room was too quiet. Where was the rasping of his lungs as he fought for air? Where was the gurgling of the oxygen bottle?
She held his hand for the last time. He couldn’t feel it any more, but she could.
To her surprise, though, it wasn’t Murray she was thinking about, nor was she thinking about herself. In her mind, she was already going over how to soften the blow for Peter and Alan. She didn’t feel so tired any more.
– Jay Shepherd, March 15, 2015