I met Colonel Greydon on the last day of his life. We didn’t know it was his last day, but we knew he was dying. And he wanted to die at home, in peace, without prolonging it. He’d taken great care to have male nurses around the clock, because he was a private sort of man and didn’t want a woman tending his basic needs.
Gary told me all this on the phone but I lived close and could come right away. So, on the morning of the last day, I stood at the foot of the colonel’s bed as the night man hurried home to his kids. The colonel glared at me. “Where’s Gary?” he said.
“Gary was in an accident, sir. Last night going home, a fender bender and he thought he was ok, but this morning a pain shot through his back. So he’s gone to the emergency room to have it checked.”
“But you’re a wo . . .”
“Yes, sir, I know, and Gary told me you preferred a man and if I was sick, I’d want a woman tending to me, but it’s only for a while, sir. I won’t do anything you don’t want me to and Gary should be back any time.”
His eyes drilled into me, “What else has Gary told you?”
“That you’ve got your own mind, sir, even at your age, and you won’t take the full pain meds or zone out.” I babbled on until I stopped, ran out of words, and just stood there. It was familiar now, this fog of blankness.
“What do I call you?”
He said it forceful, using every bit of his strength until finally I roused, “It’s Alice, sir.”
“Well, Alice, are you in wonderland?” He looked around his sickroom which was a sunroom on the back of his house. It was all windows and they looked out on old trees. It was like we were in the middle of the forest with the sun shining down.
And I was named for Alice in Wonderland. My parents thought it was cute. So my husband used to say that – “Are you in wonderland?” – whenever we’d wake up on a camping trip and it was forty degrees outside with sleet coming into the tent. But I’d been with a lot of dying patients and to see the colonel in his own home, in this garden room with no tubes, no machines, because he’d refused all that, and have his right mind up to the very last.
“Yes, sir, I think you are. And Gary told me to fix you a boiled egg and maybe some cream of wheat and whatever you eat will be fine.” But I shouldn’t have said it, or spoke to him like a child, but I was unnerved, off kilter. His eyes shot fire and he waved for me to get out. He wouldn’t yell at a woman. At least I hoped it was that, otherwise, I was too stupid to waste his breath.
“Are you married?” the colonel asked as I tapped the razor in the metal pan and swished it around in the water. He’d relented to have me shave him out of total helplessness and a long standing career of being ready for anything, even his death.
I smeared shaving cream across his face and said, “I was.” And it was the first time I said “was” without thinking about it.
“So, did you tend him?” His eyes looked out of the white cream, and they were that blue like in an iceberg, it was almost ridiculous, except that I stood there. My brain froze. “Was he sick and you took care of him and that’s why you work with hospice now, or did you divorce?”
I shook my head. It was neither, but maybe, yes, why I worked with hospice now. I hadn’t connected it before. “He died in an accident, sir. We were camping in the mountains and met some fellows going repelling and climbing the rocks, and he fell. He slipped, it was this freak thing he’d done a hundred times but this time he fell. And I was sitting at the campsite reading a book and this rescue team raced by because the other’s had called and they airlifted him out.”
“I’m sorry,” he said and he looked, not kind or gentle, but aching and sad, and the soap crinkled on his face and I held the razor in midair. “Was it instant?”
“I don’t know, sir. My husband was on life support, on a ventilator. They never got brain waves or anything to indicate he was still alive and after a week they wanted to pull the plug. They gave me this paper to sign and I didn’t know what to do, so I sat there. Sat beside him for an hour and the ventilator was taped down his throat and his chest went up and down and I thought he’d tell me. Say something into my mind, but he didn’t. I felt numb, felt nothing, and I signed the paper and he died. He didn’t come back.”
And I didn’t say about how if he was hurt bad forever, my husband would want me to pull the plug, because what did I know? I didn’t know for sure and the colonel closed his eyes and I finished shaving his face and wiped it clean with the cloth. Then the colonel opened his eyes and studied me, hard, but maybe less hard, this tiny glimmer, and I thought he’s made these huge decisions in his life. Life and death decisions and now he’s going to tell me this earth shattering secret and absolve me. Put me at rest, but he nodded, a slight tip, almost a bow and said, “Alice, you’re a wonder inside yourself.”
Then Gary walked in. They did some sort of nerve block and the colonel waved his bony hand before I left. “It wasn’t awful,” he said and I bent and kissed his cheek and said I’d come by and pester him, which I would have, because I wanted to ask him what he meant. But that night his heart stopped, but I sort of know, or hope I know, especially since I’m this wonder inside myself.
A flash fiction story by Suzanne Mays