It's half past five. The back door stands open. Little Girl, the old brown dog, wanders around the back yard snuffling the scent of other critters. A warmed-over mug of coffee rests on the edge of the little table on which my computer sits. In an hour, I will drive north to a hotel near the airport where I will serve as Sergeant-at-Arms for the 2016 District Conference of District 6040 of the Rotary Club. I never expected to join anything, not in the south end of my middle-age. Being a member of the Waldo-Brookside Rotary Club gives me something to which I can look forward, week on week; and crystallizes my life-long yearning to be of service. I don't quite fit into the mix with other Rotarians, but their kind hearts move aside to accommodate my bumpy contours.
I'm thinking of the letter "J" today -- as in Jay, Jabez, my favorite curmudgeon. Two years ago today, with the victorious Republican election still shimmering in his ears, Jay slipped from our grasp and went with his waiting Joanna into the divine circle of eternity. Because I must be north before 8:00 a.m., I will not be able to visit his grave today. I will take flowers tomorrow; but for today, only the devotion of my heart will give him honor.
As I fell asleep last evening, I thought suddenly of one of many afternoons when I sat by his side. Into the pureness of our relate, a little barb intruded. Someone did something nasty, something to hurt me, something small and unwarranted. Who and what no longer matter, and I will not speak them. But Jay reached his hand to mine, flustered, almost furious. I'm so sorry, honey, he said. Our eyes met and we sat for a few moments. I murmured something, it's okay, I don't mind, and he shook his head. He understood what I felt. He had no power to control anything at this time. His power had waned, except for the hold over me. I bent over and wrapped my arm around him and said, firmly, louder, It's all right, Jay; please, pay it no attention. I'm all right. I felt a wrenching sob and then his frail arms reached around my body and we held one another.
I desperately wished the person who had taken such pains to sting me with their superiority could see that the arrow had missed and plunged into his heart. But I let it go. I stood and raised the shade. I found the book which I had been reading to him, and began the next passage. His hands arranged themselves on the cover that lay across his legs, and his eyelids lowered. A smile passed across his face. Sleep overcame him. I kept reading.
I only knew my favorite curmudgeon for five years. As my father-in-law, he showed me a purity of compassion. He did not approve of much about me -- my politics, my breezy way of relating to my son, my headstrong will, my housekeeping. But none of that mattered in the end. From the spring of 2013 when we began a tandem course of care for his wife until her final days, to the dark November of 2014 when he himself passed from the grief and longing for her that had come to consume him, Jay and I forged a bond that in my own dark hours sustained me like no other gift. In his last few weeks, I listened as he spoke of his feelings for his children, his grandchildren, his cousin Anne Jones, his nephews Tom and Steve, and most of all, his beloved Joanna. He lamented his flaws. He spoke of his mistakes. He told the same stories, over and over, his body shaking as he laughed in the same places.
Between the memories, he spoke of regret and his unrelenting desire to have been a better man. He greeted me at the start of every visit with the same questions. Are you all right, honey? Do you need anything? Do you have enough money? Other questions, more pointed ones of which I will not here speak. I answered the same each time: yes, yes, yes. He would urge me to tell him if I needed anything. I promised that I would. Neither of us put to words what I might need. We let that go.
Last night, I hit a parking barrier with the Prius which I drive, the one that used to be Joanna's car, which I got after Jay died. I didn't hurt it, as far as I know. Fatigue had overcome me early in the evening. I hurried from a fundraising benefit, desperate to be home, my eyes wonky, my legs hurting. I backed off the concrete barrier, tears welling in my eyes. I've put so many dents in the plastic of this little vehicle which I feel blessed to drive, which inexplicably seems to be my last connection with my favorite curmudgeon. Sometimes I feel like parking it and wrapping my arms around its funny nose and wailing.
It's time to go. I have to shower and feed the dog. Perhaps the sun will rise before I pull out of the driveway. I'll see its crimson tinge cresting the horizon and know that I've survived another long and dreary night. A little nugget of hope will struggle to the surface. Perhaps I'll find a quarter on the sidewalk. I'll lift it from the ground and run my finger over its edge, thinking of Jay, wondering if he's trying to tell me something.
I love you, honey. I love you too, Jay. I know you do, honey.
His last words to me, before he slipped away.