The Remains of the Day

After Christmas dinner, after the dishes had been scraped and rinsed and stacked in the dishwasher; after the leftovers were relegated to their individual containers and placed on shelves in the refrigerator; after the turkey carcass had been boiled down for broth and the meat cleaned from the bones; after our youngest daughter left for her apartment and our younger son and older daughter left for Boston; after the sun had receded leaving the early evening darkness in its wake; it was then I donned a vest over my fleece and stood under the light on the back porch to flatten out the cardboard boxes, all that remained of the carefully wrapped presents that hours before had waited under the tree to be opened. I pulled apart and flattened the corrugated cardboard boxes and sorted the empty cans and bottles into bags and carried the plastic recycling bin, now all but overflowing, to the bottom of the driveway to stow it in the snow, then returned for the trash bin to find my wife on her way out with the dog for a walk.

“Why don’t you come with us?” she suggested. “The trash will wait till you get back.”

So we walked down to the end of the driveway and turned right and crossed the road and proceeded up the hill in the evening darkness.

Many of the houses we passed were lit up with Christmas lights; a few had ornate displays of snowmen or reindeer or Santas in the front yards. High overhead above the silhouetted mountain stars burned in the night sky.

“Look there!” my wife pointed to three stars in a diagonal line. “The three sisters!”

“That’s Orion’s belt,” I said. “He’s just coming up over the hill.”

“Is that the Little Dipper?”

“No, those are the seven sisters.”

“They’re seven? I thought they were three.”

As we walked by the individual houses, my wife told me stories about them. “This is where the pond used to be. You can tell because there’s always water on the lot. This family put an addition on sometime back. They had the whole house redone in wooden shakes; doesn’t it look nice?

“Oh, look—what’re those?” She pointed out two small white objects suspended from the branches of a tree in someone’s front yard. “Angels?”

She crossed the street with the dog for a better look and returned somewhat disappointed. “Just little ghosts left over from Halloween.”

“This house has the best view of the entire valley,” she explained as we walked past. “And this one is always dark, closed up; but sometimes there’s a car in the driveway. I wonder who lives there. Oh, look; the moon’s coming up!”

Sure enough a gibbous moon was making its way above the eastern horizon, bathing half the sky in mystical light.

“It’s so beautiful,” she said.

We stopped to take it in. The dog paused and lifted her head.

“Do you want me to show you where I found the white cat frozen in the tree?”

We walked down the hill and turned onto Center Street.

“It was right there.” My wife shined her flashlight onto a small tree at the back of an old house. “She was stuck in the fork between those two branches, poor thing. I pointed her out to the man who lives there and he took her down. I think it was the neighbor’s cat.”

Together we stood in silence to witness the death scene illuminated by the moonlight.

At the end of the street we turned the corner and passed another man putting out his trash and recycling bin. “Merry Christmas,” he said, as we walked by.

“I guess it’s all over for another year,” I said.

“Would you look at that moon!” my wife said.

“Yeah, I was watching it earlier from our deck out back. It’s a nice one tonight.”

We cut through the church parking lot and walked up the path to Maple Street. I rolled the trash bin down to the bottom of the driveway and locked up the car for the night.

My wife had the TV on when I came inside. I plodded up the stairs to the bedroom, pulled off my clothes and crawled into bed with a copy of A Child’s Christmas In Wales—a Christmas present from my older daughter—and barely made it to the last page before nodding off in the moonlight that streamed in through the window overhead.

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A River Runs Through It

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
—Norman Maclean, in A River Runs Through It

I am here in the office this morning because it is my Wednesday to work. Normally, I work every other Wednesday, but just in the morning and always by myself. It’s a trade-off of sorts. My partner and I flip-flop the Wednesday morning hours, so we each get a break every other week. This is my Wednesday to work, and I am not happy about it.

Christmas is coming soon, next week in fact, and as usual I am behind in everything. Somehow I managed to procure a tree. I bought individual cards for my four grown children. I was contemplating buying individual gifts, but the older they get, the more difficult it is to find something suitable. I no longer know their desires, their tastes, their needs. So I sit behind my desk in the office this morning, waiting for my first patient to arrive, all the while thinking about the countless other things that need to be done in the precious little time left before Christmas day.

My first patient is an asthmatic who’s developed a head cold with an ear infection; the second is a two-month-old with a cough. It turns out to be nothing serious. I spend some time reviewing the care plan with the mother—a piece of cake, really. Things seem to be moving along smoothly; I’m on a roll.

In the next room I find a seven-year-old girl sitting on the exam table looking rather glum. Her mother rises from the chair in the corner. She looks to be in her mid to late thirties, plainly dressed. Vaguely, I recall seeing her before. When she speaks, it becomes apparent that this woman has a profound hearing loss. I muster a smile and look directly at her as I accentuate my words: “Your daughter has a head cold for several days and fever since last night?”

The mother nods. “It went up to 102 degrees. I gave her some medicine, but she spit it out. She don’t like to take medicine, but I tell her, Macie, you gotta take medicine when you’re sick.”

I ask a few additional questions before examining the girl and pronounce my assessment. “Macie has a sinus infection. I’ll give you a prescription for an antibiotic.” I extract a pad from the drawer and begin to write. “She’ll have to take one teaspoonful every morning and evening. Give it to her until it’s all gone—”

“What did you say?” I look up from the pad and see the mother standing next to me. “I didn’t hear you—I’ve got a hearing problem.” She points to her ear.

Once again I repeat the instructions in a louder voice, taking care to enunciate my words. “She’ll have to take it twice a day until it’s gone. Don’t worry—she’ll be much better by Christmas.”

“Yes,” the mother says. “We’re trying to make the best of Christmas this year. It’s our first Christmas without my son.”

Immediately I stop writing and search her face. “What happened?”

“He died last spring, drowned in the river. He was thirteen years old.”

“I’m so sorry,” I say, silently recalling the series of articles that appeared in the local newspaper and on the nightly news broadcast.

“He was out in a canoe with his friend. The boat flipped over, and the other boy swam to shore. My son couldn’t swim. I don’t know why he went out in that boat without a lifejacket. The other boy didn’t say anything for four days—four days! My son’s body was in the river six days before they found him.”

I open my mouth slightly and realize that I have no words for this mother. Dumbfounded, I can only listen.

“I think there was something more to it, you know. If this boy was his friend, how come he didn’t say anything for four days? I’m still angry about it. The judge didn’t do anything. So far there’s been no punishment. I talk to my counselor, but it doesn’t go away.

“I live in the rundown section of town with a lot of other families that don’t got a lot of money. People look at us in the street; they think that poor people don’t care about their kids, but that’s not true. There’s some bad apples, sure; but me, I was always there for my kids. Now I’m so overprotective—I won’t let my daughter walk to school by herself; I’m always there to pick her up afterwards. It hasn’t been easy.”

“I imagine not,” I muse.

“Yeah, it’s been a rough year. And here it is Christmas, and he’s gone.”

“I’m sorry.” My words seem so inadequate.

“Well, what’re you gonna do? Nothing. Just try to take one day at a time and keep going.”

She reaches for her daughter’s coat and holds it up for the little girl to slip her arms through. “Turn around and let me zip you up,” she says. The child complies in silence.

“I always have my kids zip up before they go outside in the cold. I don’t know if it does any good or not.”

“It can’t hurt,” I smile.

“I guess I do it because when I was a little girl my mother always did it for me.”

I watch them disappear down the hallway before retreating to my office to jot down my notes: “Family history: mother—hearing impaired; sibling—deceased by drowning, age 13.”

Outside, bare winter branches stand silhouetted against a stark blue December sky. Less than a mile away the river flows silently over the rocks that hold the timeless words, some of which I have just heard.

Those myriad other things begging to be done before Christmas seem somehow terribly unimportant now.

Caviar and Camembert

“The office called while you were in the shower,” my wife told me as I sat on the edge of the bed pulling on my socks.

“What did they want?” I asked, fearing some sort of disaster. This was Thursday, my day to work the afternoon and evening shift. Normally I had Thursday mornings free.

“They want to know if you can come in early. They want to close the office by two o’clock. I guess it’s supposed to start snowing around noon.” My wife referred to the winter storm, the first of the season, which was supposed to dump close to a foot of snow in our area by nightfall. For some reason the prospect of snow never failed to strike panic in the office staff.

I picked up the phone and called back. They were prepared to move the afternoon patients to the morning schedule. All I had to do was give the word. “O.K.,” I said, “I’ll be there by nine-thirty.”

I sped to the office over dry country roads. The first flakes started to fall by mid morning. By noon, two inches lay on the ground. I saw my last patient at one o’clock. The office staff donned their boots and parkas. “You want us to wait for you?”

“No,” I said. “You run along. I’ve got a few odds and ends to tie up.”

They left, locking the front door behind them. I watched them walk across the white parking lot, their feet disappearing with each step in the powdery snow.

I found a holiday gift basket in the lunch room. All sorts of exotic imported foodstuffs lay scattered across the table top. I picked up a small flat jar and read the label—caviar. There was also a petite round wooden box that housed a tub of camembert cheese. I tore open a bag of dainty crackers, found a knife, opened the containers and sampled the fare—first the caviar, then the camembert.

Outside, tiny snowflakes swirled down, burying the tire tracks and footprints in the parking lot. Inside, from the warmth of the office, I watched the swirling white cascade through the window, periodically sampling a cracker coated with caviar or camembert.

The roads would be choked with bumper to bumper traffic for the next several hours. Eventually things would settle down. Meantime I put my feet up on the desk and watched the snowfall, pleased with my good fortune.

The only thing that would have made it better was a glass of Bordeaux.

Expectations

News of the infant’s death reached me first thing Monday morning.

It had turned bitter cold over the weekend. Even though I donned several layers of clothing before venturing outside on my Sunday afternoon walk, the cold still stung my ears and numbed my face. That night it sleeted, and we awoke to a world encased in ice. It took twenty minutes to scrape the thick ice off the car windshield before I headed out to the office. Traveling along back roads, I drove past stands of tangled briars bent and bound in pale grey ice.

The baby, I learned, had been born right after the Thanksgiving holiday. Everything went as expected. Support personnel were on hand to bandage the small defect in the infant’s abdominal wall. The cardiologist documented the harsh heart murmur; the ophthalmologist examined the eyes and substantiated that the child was blind. But despite a small recessed jaw, the baby had no spells of breathlessness in the nursery.

The prenatal diagnosis was on target: instead of two paired chromosomes, there were three—a trisomy of chromosome 13—in this instance an unlucky number incompatible with life outside the womb.

The parents had taken the baby home from the hospital nursery on the third day. The infant fed well several times but failed to awaken for the midnight feeding. When the mother roused herself from a fitful sleep, she found the child cold and grey in the bassinette.

Family and friends gathered in the home the next morning. A doctor arrived to pronounce the infant. Outside, the bitter cold had settled in.

In the office I read through the notes in the medical record, the beginning of a life story now cut short. Afterwards, I gently placed the chart onto a pile of other records waiting to be filed in the office archives—those of patients who had grown too old for a pediatric practice over the past two decades.

My son called at the end of the afternoon to ask if I were up for dinner at a local restaurant. He arrived shortly after I finished up with my last patient of the day. I jotted my notes in the remaining charts, answered a phone call, and washed my hands.

Together we stepped outside into the darkness and walked over the frozen grass to the where the cars were parked. “I’ll follow you,” he said, climbing into his compact.

I nodded, throwing my briefcase into the back seat of my station wagon. As I climbed in, the cold from the driver’s seat permeated my trousers; my legs began to tremble. The engine coughed to life at the turn of the key, and I drove off in the cold darkness.

Somewhere along the road to the restaurant, I remembered that we had just entered Advent, that time of the church year when Christians meditate on the long-expected birth of a baby, and my body trembled again in the darkness of the scrotum-tightening cold.