It was a long journey through blowing snow and lots of reading our printed google map and hoping we didn't get it wrong. We've never been able to pass through St Louis without winding up in the wrong part of town, the part with the boarded up windows and no one on the streets except people who stare at you with dispassionate expression of a tiger in a zoo. This time though, we managed to stay on the highway, though I could feel the magnetic forces pulling at us as we passed one inviting wrong exit after another.
Gary and I travel well together. He does nearly all the driving while I navigate and read to him. We worked our way through the first fifty pages of "Under the Dome" by Stephen King and talked, stopping frequently for coffee (Gary tried his first Star Bucks). We talked, we joked, we held hands. While we were traveling toward something intensely sad, we still found solace in one another's company.
We arrived at Lissanne and Mark's house around nine pm. Lissanne's sister, Anne Marie, and Mark's brothers, Keith and Craig, were there. We met the kids, a shy teenage girl named Annaiese and an awkward ten year old boy named Jack with thick plastic glasses and a mop of curly black hair.
Lissanne, a tiny slender woman with long hair, dark like her son's, and large brown eyes, greeted Gary with a hug and cried on his shoulder. They hadn't seen each other since the early eighties, but it was clear they were picking up a friendship as though it were a book left on a sunny windowsill. They resumed at the bookmark and the three decades between conversations evaporated.
Mark, who has Pancreatic Cancer, was laying in a hospital bed in the center of the living room where Anne Marie, who was a nurse, could help Lissanne care for him. He roused briefly when we came in, but slipped quickly back into himself and stayed there for most of the rest of the visit. Gary greeted him quietly.
Anne Marie immediately told Gary that Lissanne hadn't been eating or sleeping. So the first thing Gary did was slip two muffins into her hands while she talked the incessant talk of someone who is overwrought, exhausted, and near the end of their tether. He cajoled her into eating them while he let her carry the ball in the conversation. She pulled out a scrap book full of she and Mark's first years together, love notes, photos, small stories of their lives together, and walked us through their courtship (though Gary was there for most of it) and first year of marriage. I heard how Gary was the guy Mark trusted to look after Lissanne while he was at sea. He was the one Mark turned to when he was considering leaving her. Gary was also the guy who threatened to slap him upside the head (his words) if he did something so stupid.
We learned that none of them had slept in two days and Gary declared that he would take the "night shift" if Anne Marie would administer Mark's meds every couple of hours.
Mark's mother and father arrived by train. His mother laid her head on his chest and cried and talked to him. His father sat silently by, tears running down his face.
While they all talked and settled into their rooms, I wandered around the house a little. Their home was full of books, largely on the history of various wars (In addition to being an officer in the military, Mark was a minor authority on history). Items they'd collected in their world travels were everywhere. Lissanne is an artist and many of her pictures hung on the walls throughout. She'd also painted and decorated the whole house. It was an inviting place, comfortable, with plenty of nooks and crannies with chairs in them.
I sat at the kitchen table with Mark's mother and brothers. His mother had brought a photo album made up of Mark's childhood and she and the brothers went through it chuckling of their escapades. I instantly liked both of the men, quiet, introspective people, made quieter by the weight of their sadness. Keith shyly dropped a fistful of pictures on the table in front of us, pictures of Mark his mother didn't know he had so it was like seeing a new piece of him. They included me without hesitating and I was able to glean that Mark the boy wasn't very different from Mark the man. A leader with high standards for himself from very young. He often led his brothers off on "patrols" and insisted on being the officer in charge because he had the fatigues, which his mother said he was rarely out of.
Lissanne and Gary were still talking when the rest of us went off to bed. To my delight (relief?) there was a half-grown orange striped tom cat there named Oatmeal who decided that I was alright and divided his time between Mark's bed and mine. I tried to sleep, drifting in and out, aware of the noises of the house itself, a furnace kicking off and on, sleet falling on the roof, distant voices. Oatmeal was a reassuring presence in a strange house in a stranger time. Keith, apparently not a fan of felines, spotted him through the half open bedroom door once and offered to relieve me of the presence "That Cat". I told him all was well, but Gary told me later on the way home that he actually concerned that Oatmeal was bothering me. Gary told him, "Trust me, he was there because Mary wanted him to be."
Around two am, I was awakened by the sound of a child's voice shouting into the darkness, "I want my Dad." I learned later that the boy, Jack, had come to his mother crying and told her quietly that he wanted to scream so she took him outside and let him. I have never heard such pain and longing in a child's voice in my life.
I went looking for Gary at dawn and found him leaned over Mark, repositioning him with Anne Marie's help. Oatmeal was at his feet. Mark had stirred and reached for Lissanne so they'd moved things around so she could lay as close to him as possible. Gary commented later that when Oatmeal had slipped into Mark's bed and Mark had clumsily stroked him once or twice while the cat purred.
I convinced Gary to get a little sleep as Mark's brothers got up. He went to bed in the room we shared. I found a corner and sat with my cup of coffee and read until Anne Marie found me. We made small talk for a while. Then she needed to talk about important things. So I listened. She was a single mother with a severely autistic son and Lissanne and Mark had looked out for her many times over the years. Mark, she said, was fighting to stay alive. 'Was unable to let go. He needed permission.
Jack emerged from his room around ten o'clock, carrying a canning jar with a lid on it and a dime. "Want to see a magic trick?" he asked me.
Of course I did.
He made the dime "go through the lid" and appear in the bottom of the jar. I cheered and he beamed and showed me another trick. And another. When Gary appeared I made him give his performance for him. It turned out that Jack had been studying the history of magic and he was full of facts and stories. A neighbor came and took him to play with her son at their house. He almost didn't bother to dress, ran out the door without saying goodbye. I don't blame him. I wouldn't like that word much either.
Mark became restless. Hospice came and prescribed more pain medication. The counselor visited with Lissanne and Mark's mother, preparing them for what was coming. Gary came and sat next to me on the sun porch. He wanted to stay longer than we'd agreed to. His eyes were red rimmed. He talked with a quaver. We agreed to a couple of more hours.
I called our boys, discovered that the schools had screwed up and no one had picked Daniel up that morning, The local elementary school generally brings the kids to a meeting place on the high way and the high school bus takes them from there. The local elementary school was out due to snow. The high school wasn't. They failed to communicate this to several families of high schoolers who lived off the beaten path. Daniel talked Jeremiah into taking him. Unfortunately, Jeremiah had to work and couldn't pick him up after school, which is thirty minutes away. Gary took the phone and politely informed the principal that this was an unacceptable situation. If I had not called, we wouldn't have known they weren't bringing him home either. We convinced them to bring him halfway and my parents took him the rest of the way.
Gary helped to bathe Mark and change his clothes. He talked to him gently, telling him how much he appreciated his friendship. He reminded him of their best times together. He said his goodbyes to his friend with tears running down his face.
When we left, Mark was slipping further away. Lissanne was beside him telling him that it was okay to go. The rest of her family had arrived. The house was full of people who loved them both.
The drive home was more subdued than the drive there, but we held hands a lot and talked as Gary negotiated our way through four lane traffic. I watched the sun set and observed the first sun dog I've ever seen (It looks eerily like two suns in the sky. In this case, it was one on top of another, though they are usually side by side. It's caused by ice crystals in the air).
Halfway home I suggested to Gary that we stop some place "nice" for dinner (not fast food). We were passing through a town near where his dad had lived when Gary was growing up. This town contained a family owned pizza restaurant that made the best pizza in the world, according to Gary. I've been hearing about this place for better than twenty years. We decided to see if we could find it. It was still there and doing a bang up business. The service was good, the pizza terrific. It did a lot to bolster Gary. We took some with us for the boys.
The boys were all extremely glad to see us. The house wasn't trashed--clean even. Jeremiah had stayed after them some and had made sure everyone ate well, the biggest worries for me whenever I'm away. They crowded around us anxious to reconnect and hear about our trip. We told them some; I told Sam about Jack and Oatmeal.
I have never been so glad to be home.
Gary is up and down, of course. Wishing he could turn back the clock, could have done more, stayed longer, given his friend his own organs, healed him. I can't take this away. Meanwhile, he must grieve and I must listen and time must pass.