Photograph copyright by Lynn Bridge
In spite of his creeping dementia, Harry figures out one last thing about his life.
In the shock of disbelief that follows such news, he and Mabel had hurriedly discussed what they should do. Since it just didn’t seem possible to him that they could lose their young and seemingly healthy daughter in such a way, Harry had felt no urgency to get on a plane and fly to Washington to be with her just then.
He reserved action for times when he could do something concrete – when there was lifting, hauling, or carrying to be done, or decisions to be made. Now he would put Mabel on the plane; let her go to their daughter and nurse Becky back to health.
Mabel could even bring Becky home, back to the bedroom she had grown up in. Mabel could care for her like she had done when the twins had contracted first, the chicken pox, then mumps a few years later, and finally, the measles.
Mabel had protested his decision not to go to Washington with her, saying that she was worried about traveling from the airport to the hospital by herself in a strange city. But Harry had been distracted by the process of buying her plane ticket and he had not really paid attention to her fears.
Becky was dead by the time Mabel’s plane landed at National Airport.
Harry had then joined Mabel in Washington. A few days later, they had gone to Becky’s apartment to dispose of her belongings and to bring home mementos from their daughter’s life.
Harry had spotted Becky’s bike propped in a corner of her kitchen, and had carried it downstairs to the rented trailer. Back at home, he pedaled the bike himself for years, until his knee pain had gotten so aggravating that he’d had to quit riding.
Without being aware of it, Harry had ceased painting several minutes ago, and now he was shocked out of his trance by the sound of glass shattering on the concrete in front of his feet. He stared at the paint spreading across the garage floor. After he puzzled for a time over the color oozing across the concrete, his mind began to clear.
He shuffled back into the house, tracking pink blobs across the kitchen floor and down the dim hallway. He stopped in the doorway of his daughter’s old room.
As he stared into the light bursting through the window onto the pink walls, he recalled the plummeting feeling he had had when Mabel had called with the news of Becky’s death.
Then Harry’s mind again carried him back to the phone call from the doctor, when he had been standing in this same doorway. He had had a twinge of guilt after his conversation with Mabel. He had briefly wondered if he should have been on the plane with her, heading for Washington and Becky’s hospital room. At the time he’d dismissed the thought as too theoretical and too uncomfortable.
But now, as he stared into the stream of light, the thought came back to him and he imagined himself on that plane; imagined the rush of the plane as it raced down the runway, mashing him back into his seat. He imagined the turbulence as the plane rocketed through the clouds that were always forming over the gulf coastline. He imagined the pilot making ready for the landing at National.
What if he’d been on that plane? Perhaps the very act of his boarding the plane; inhaling the engine exhaust and tracking his own dust onto the plane’s striped carpet; would have rearranged the universe just enough to have given history, his personal history, a different outcome.
His mind now running uncontrolled in unaccustomed paths, the old man stared and breathed heavily. He felt a burning sensation in his nose, and his eyes started to run.
As he examined the furnishings of Becky’s room, his mind peopled the room with children; first, his own young Becky looking up at him from her rocker with her wistful, puzzled eyes; then later, two unfamiliar children.
As he gazed at the two sleeping children snuggled into the comforter on Becky’s bed, he began to feel that he somehow knew them. He sensed an uncomfortable pain, almost a swelling inside, when he realized how much they reminded him of his own children.
He watched the little girl’s nostrils taking in and letting out her shallow child-breaths and he saw the familiar dark lashes flicker against the boy’s cheek.
“What if Becky had lived?”
“Would these have been her children?”
Never before had Harry experienced a consuming regret, and now he was overwhelmed by this amount of emotion. His wet eyes turned downward from the sleeping children to look at the pink liquid dripping from the paintbrush he gripped in his shaking hand.
Alone, Harry wept.