Stephen O’Connor

Here to Stay

I hadn’t been to visit Henry in months. I always thought about it when I passed anywhere near the nursing home, but it was a trying experience emotionally, and it wasn’t difficult to find a reason to put it off. I knew that when he was gone, I’d reproach myself for my faithlessness, and I resolved nearly every day to go and see him until I began to despise myself. It was at such a point, on a Saturday afternoon, that I crossed the rusting metal bridge and drove out to the Lakeview Nursing Home.

When I first began to visit my old friend at the facility, I was sure that he knew me. He would whisper my name and give me a thumbs-up, and his wife, Agnes, who was always sitting there beside his wheelchair, would rub his arm and encourage him. If I told him a joke back then, he’d smile. Sometimes he repeated the last few words of my sentence. I might say, “You want to go out, Henry? It’s a nice day.”

“Nice day . . .”

On my last visit, though, I had not been certain that he knew me or that he understood what I was saying. The doctors said that he had a rare form of a degenerative disease that affected the brain. I know the name, but I don’t even like to repeat it. I hate it. As the word ‘degenerative” indicates, there was nowhere for him to go but down. That’s sad for anyone, but all of us who knew him felt that somehow it was sadder because it was Henry; he had always been larger than life—a man of resounding opinions, opinions that often contradicted those of everyone else in the room. He had made some money, but he cared little for it and donated a lot of it to charity. He showered an unpretentious and forthright affection on his friends and family. He loved us all, and he didn’t care who knew it. He was the life of every party, and of the card game he hosted every Friday night in his finished basement—a fine evening of whiskey, cigars, and good cheer.

His earliest symptom, in fact, was a loss of that easy conviviality, a diminishment in humor. An occasional introspection devolved into a more habitual, vacant withdrawal. He must have been aware that something was wrong. He had trouble concentrating on his poker hand and lapsed into long silences, and sometimes Johnny G or I would have to push his hand back so that he would not reveal his cards. Within a matter of months, the game had changed entirely. It was difficult to watch, and one Friday night I traitorously found a reason not to attend, and then more reasons as the weeks passed until I met Al Preston at the Windsor Shop. He said Henry was still playing cards with them. “How’s he playing?” I asked.

“Not too good,” he admitted, avoiding my gaze.

My old mother drew her worldview from the Catholic Church. She divided people up into canonical categories. It was usually a woman who deserved the rank of “a saint,” or “a martyr,” whereas the best a man could hope for was “a good egg.” More often, though, he was a “lost soul,” or “a devil.” She no doubt inherited these categorizations from her mother, who was from Ireland, because she pronounced that last term as “divil.”

I probably absorbed some of this worldview, and yet, even had I been brought up by atheists, I’m sure I would have had the same opinion of Agnes, Henry’s wife. She was a saint. Henry’s sickness was an unspeakable curse, but he was blessed in her. No one ever took the vows, “for better or worse, in sickness and in health,” more faithfully. She fought to keep him home, though her children knew that the situation had become untenable. Henry was a big man, and when he began to lose his balance, Agnes, with her tiny frame, could not support him. He fell, and she could not get him up. The ambulance had to come several times. It was not a safe situation for either of them, and her children insisted, correctly, that he would have to go to Lakeview. Agnes felt that, somehow, she had betrayed him by not managing to keep him at home, a regret she had expressed on more than one occasion and one which friends and family tried to assuage with reason. But, as the French say, the heart has reasons that reason cannot understand.

I don’t know which was more painful, watching Henry slip into oblivion, or watching Agnes try to hold him above the dark rising water. She was with him every day. She fed him. She talked to him. She brought him milkshakes or little nips of Irish whiskey which he raised in a trembling hand and drank quietly. Eventually, he was unable to do that, or even to swallow without some risk of choking. He required—more horrible words, a “feeding tube.” He was ever less responsive, but still, she sat with him for hours, holding his hand, talking to him. What she said, only she knows, but when I visited she would be there, talking softly, and asking questions that she had to answer for him. “Are you comfortable? No, you need another pillow here-let me tuck this in by your side. Is that better? Yes, that’s better.”

I’m not trying to paint a picture of pathos or sentiment, nor trying to pander to your sympathetic feelings. I’m just reminding you what’s real. Some people can’t see the words “saint,” or even “love,” without thinking that there’s some ironic implication. There is none. And I’m not talking about Catholic doctrine or what we learned about heaven as children. I’m just saying that to me, a godless, card-playing, gin-guzzling, horse-betting bon vivant without a rosary or a statue in his house, Agnes was a living saint and her love was a force of inexhaustible power.

“George is here to see you,” she said as I entered the room. Henry sat in a wheelchair by the window. I used to bring him coffee, but as I said, he had no use for such gifts anymore. I shook his hand, and, rather awkwardly, he would not let it go. He held it firmly in a great fist that was still strong. “Let his hand go, Henry,” Agnes said, “Let George go.” She coaxed him to loosen his grip. I sat on the edge of his bed and spoke, rather too loudly. Agnes and I chatted about the forecast—impending snow, of the family, local news. She always included Henry in the conversation. Sometimes she would touch his arm, “Did you hear that, Henry? George says that Peter Tremblay threw his hat in the ring for the city manager’s job.” Henry blinked. Was that a sign of comprehension?

What astounded me was how Agnes seemed to feel at ease in this awful situation. I’m sure she had done her share of crying, and of raging against the inevitable, but she must have done these things alone. Before Henry, she was staunch. Her pleasant and seemingly carefree demeanor was an act of defiance against the disease, or against fate. She behaved as though she were having coffee with her husband in their kitchen at home, as they had done for decades; as if he was only unresponsive because he was reading an interesting story in The Boston Globe.

After fifteen or twenty minutes, I had run out of things to say and was feeling more and more depressed. It was too warm in the room. I made my excuses and said my goodbyes, casting a last glance over my shoulder at the scene, as if to impress it on my memory for future reference, filed under saint and martyr, or maybe just under love.

There was a piano in the lobby, and as I got out of the elevator on the ground floor, I heard jazzy, unhurried chords. Some residents had formed a semi-circle with their wheelchairs around the baby grand; visitors were seated on the couches and wing chairs nearby; more chairs ran along the broad windows that overlooked a courtyard. I suppose Lakeview was a nice place, as such places go, but these “homes” are always separate realities outside the eager rush of life beyond their walls.

I had a sort of imaginative hallucination as I stood there watching this scene. For a moment, in my mind, I saw the pianist and all the people around him as skeletons, their various attitudes collapsed into jumbles of bones, their clothes tattered ribbons of fading colors, crooked mandibles hanging on bleached chest bones. The building, our bodies, the city itself which we inhabited, trifling barricades—castles of sand on the shores of leveling time. I roused myself and tried to shake off the feeling that seeing my old friend has produced in me, chiding myself that I was so reduced by a single visit, while Agnes had the courage, loyalty, and devotion to spend every day there with him.

The pianist, an older Black gentleman in a tux, cried, “George Gershwin!” and began to sing “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” I took a seat and closed my eyes. The music soothed me, and though I knew that nothing was really here to stay, somehow the melody and the lyrics began to transform the brief tragic moments I had just spent with Henry and Agnes until finally I was left with an impression of something beautiful and ennobling in this hopeless fight. I thought of Agnes and the power of love to stay.

***

Stephen O’Connor is a native of Lowell, Massachusetts, where much of his writing is set. He is the author of Smokestack Lightning, a collection of short stories, and two novels, The Spy in the City of Books, and The Witch at Rivermouth. O’Connor has published stories in over thirty journals, including The Massachusetts Review, The Houston Literary Review, and Aethlon.

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