Moving On

Avery’s wife called mid week to ask me down for Saturday dinner. “Bring your wife,” she said. “It’s my son-in-law’s birthday. I’m making lasagna.”

I said we’d come.

The weather had turned cold during the week. Temperatures dropped into the low 40s overnight. My neighbor across the street told me the bass had stopped biting. “Fall’s here for sure,” he said.

We drove down the interstate under blue skies. The uppermost leaves on the maples were just beginning to turn. Avery’s wife met us at the side door. “I’m glad you could come. It’s so good to see you again,” she said.

Avery’s flower garden looked like a miniature jungle. Most of the high stalked flowers had shed their petals. I could make out a few varieties still hanging on. Avery’s wife had taken down the hummingbird feeders from the eaves. “They’re gone for the season now,” she said. “They disappear every year right after Labor Day. Come inside.”

The kitchen was warm. I could smell the lasagna baking in the oven. Things had been tidied up a bit from the last time I visited. We stood in the warm kitchen together and talked.

“I’ve bought a new home. My daughter and son-in-law are moving into it at the end of the month. I had to take out a small mortgage, but I plan to pay that off as soon as this house sells.”

“You’ve put it on the market? I didn’t see a sign.”

“I’m going to stay on here for the winter. I’ve got plenty of wood to heat the place. I’ll put it on the market next spring.”

“Then where will you go?”

“The new house has an attached in-law apartment. As soon as I’m settled in, I’ll pay off the existing mortgage and deed it over to the kids. I don’t want the headache of maintaining a house anymore. Besides, if it’s in their name it won’t count as an asset if I have to go into a nursing home at some point—not that I’m planning on going into one soon,” she said.

I pointed to the framed photograph of Avery and his granddaughter on the hutch. “Where was that taken?”

“At the kids’ place this past spring. Avery actually looks well in that picture. To look at him you’d never guess he was dying; his hair had even started to grow back. I put the photo there because I couldn’t remember what he looked like. Isn’t that sad? The only thing I could remember was the way he looked at the very end, when he really wasn’t there anymore.” She started to cry.

“I think that’s normal, isn’t it?” my wife said, reaching out to touch Avery’s wife’s arm.

“Have you read ‘A Grief Observed’?” I asked. “I think C. S. Lewis had a similar experience after his wife’s death.”

Avery’s wife wiped her eyes. “Yes, I think I did read that one,” she said.

A car pulled into the driveway. Avery’s son-in-law appeared in the doorway.

“Happy Birthday!” I said, offering him my hand.

He nodded, then shook my wife’s hand too.

“Where’s that daughter and granddaughter of mine?” Avery’s wife said.

“They’ll be along shortly,” he said.

We stepped outside and met them in the driveway. “Thanks for coming,” Avery’s daughter said. “Did my mother tell you about the elephant ear project?”

“No, we just got here.”

“Come and see,” she said.

We walked across the expanse of freshly mowed lawn to the garage. Inside, Avery’s daughter showed us the newly set concrete forms that capped small mounds of sand. Gently she lifted one of them up, exposing a large elephant ear leaf underneath.

“You put a layer of plastic wrap over the mound of sand and lay the leaf on top. Then you mold the wet concrete over it. After it’s dry you pick it up, pull off the leaf, and presto—you’ve got an elephant ear birdbath.”

She peeled back the leaf, exposing the imprint of its veins in the concrete.

“Very nice,” my wife said.

I noticed the Harley in the corner. “Quite a bike,” I said.

“It was Avery’s father’s motorcycle,” his wife said. “A 1949 Harley. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been kept up. I’ve already sold it. The fellow should be by to pick it up sometime next week.”

I pointed out the cigar boxes stacked on the workbench. “Avery never threw anything away,” his wife said. “He kept all sorts of things in them: nuts, bolts, screws, hinges—I don’t know what all. We should be going inside. Dinner’s almost ready.”

“How’s your mother doing?” I ask Avery’s daughter on the way back to the house.

“Better,” she said. “She still has her days, but that’s to be expected. She seems keen to get us into the new house. Funny, I thought she’d never want to sell this place. She and my dad lived here thirty-six years.”

“She told me she’s going to stay the winter.”

“That’s the plan. I wish she’d reconsider and move in with us right away. I suppose she needs some time to herself. Christmas is going to be rough this year without dad or Uncle John. I’ve booked rooms for us in the Bahamas for the holidays—Paradise Island. We went there on our honeymoon. Mom is going to love it, even though she says she can’t imagine being in the tropics for Christmas. We just have to get away.”

I nodded in agreement.

“Oh, look! Here’s one of dad’s plants blooming.” Avery’s daughter pointed out the clusters of blue violet flowers sprouting from the center stem of each compound leaf.

“I didn’t know that there were any plants that flowered in the fall.”

“This variety blooms in September,” she explained.

We went inside and took our seats around the table. After dinner Avery’s granddaughter did her homework while we all had a piece of ice cream birthday cake.

Sometime later, after Avery’s daughter and son-in-law left with their daughter, Avery’s wife showed me the tiny blue light that the nurses in the hospice unit had given her. “They hang it on the door of the patient’s room,” she explained. “After the passing, they give it to you to take home. It continues to glow for several days, then gradually fades away. Avery died on a Monday. The light finally faded away at the beginning of the next week.”

“Oh, look!” My wife stroked the back of the stuffed silver fox in the den.

“It was Avery’s brother’s,” his wife said. “We brought it back from Pennsylvania with us after John died.” Avery’s wife put the small blue light back into a box with some other mementos and set it on the shelf. “I almost forgot,” she said. “You wear flannel shirts? Here, let me give you a couple of Avery’s. I think they’ll fit.”

We said goodbye at the side door. I headed out to the car with three flannel shirts on my arm. Avery’s wife waved from the stoop as we turned down the driveway.

It was a quiet ride back home. As the car hummed along down the highway in the near darkness, I thought of the silver fox in Avery’s den. Then I remembered another fox that I had read about long ago, the fox who befriended Saint Exupéry’s Little Prince.

“To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes,” he says to the little prince. “But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

To me Avery was like that silver fox—unique.

“You see the grain-fields down yonder?” Exupéry’s fox says to the little prince. “I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

I recalled the hair on the back of the silver fox, salt-and-pepper grey, like the wisps of Avery’s grey hair in the photograph of him and his granddaughter, the little girl he loved so much.

“One only understands the things that one tames,” says the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more.”

Avery had been a good friend. Although he would talk when prompted, Avery always had time to listen. Now it’s been four months since he’s gone.

“Eventually, the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near—

‘Ah,’ said the fox, ‘I shall cry.’

‘Then it has done you no good at all!’ said the little prince.

‘It has done me good,’ said the fox, ‘because of the color of the wheat fields.’”

I parked the car in the street, reached for the shirts and followed my wife up our driveway. Overhead, the first stars were beginning to appear in the night sky. The smell of wood smoke drifted through the evening air.

Fall had finally arrived.

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Author to speak at 3rd annual Cell2Soul conference in Montreal

Author Brian T. Maurer is slated to speak at the third annual Cell2Soul conference in Montreal, Canada, on Saturday, September 27, 2008.

Maurer will deliver his talk “Brokenness and Healing” in the Osler Library of the History of Medicine on the campus of McGill University at 3:30 PM.

“At core, we are all broken people. Some of us were broken from the start, when we were conceived. Some of us were broken by abuse in our tender years, when we were children or adolescents. Some of us were broken as adults, through relationships that soured or just didn’t work out. Some of us were broken by chronic illness: by heart disease, neurological disease, or cancer. We are all broken in some way. Yet, within the realm of our brokenness, we can experience substantial healing — by telling our story, and by listening to the stories of others.”

Information for this year’s conference, In the Footsteps of Osler, is available on the Cell2Soul blog.

“Notes from a Healer” — Open-Ended Questions

In pediatric practice, the month of August is historically a dry stretch, with few medical challenges to test the clinician’s diagnostic acumen. Instead, for me, this becomes the season of the open-ended question.

The latest installment of Notes from a HealerOpen-Ended Questions — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online clearinghouse for manuscripts dealing with the humanities and medicine.