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In a stern but graceful, straight-back wooden chair, Ramona Darling sat next to the bed.
Her frail hands lay in her lap, her fingers folded over a delicate, white-lace handkerchief. It looked whiter than it was against the full skirt of her dull-grey dress. When she raised it occasionally to stifle a sniffle, it looked whiter than it was against her sunbaked, weathered skin too. But it matched the frill around the front of her bonnet, the bulk of which matched the heavy dress.
Beneath the frill of her bonnet, the silver curls of her hair framed small, electric blue eyes, high cheekbones, and an aristocratic nose, save for the wart on one side. The vertical lines above and below her lips continued down over her rounded chin, then trailed off into squiggles on her throat.
The figure on the bed opened one rheumy, crystal blue eye. It peered at her for a moment without recognition, then gently closed again.
She thought she heard a sigh.
She leaned forward in the chair, her small hands gripping the handkerchief.
But the eye remained closed, and after a moment she settled back again. She watched him for a moment, then raised her gaze to the ancient crystal clock on the back left corner of the dresser across the room. The clock had been his wedding gift to her seventy-two years ago. It still kept the proper time. The time of their lives.
It was eight minutes before 9 a.m. She watched the second hand, waited for the minute hand to click over to the tic marking the seventh minute before noon.
Waiting was all right. She didn’t mind. It was better than not having to wait anymore.
The doctor’s face came to mind. The doctor hadn’t wanted her to wait.
The doctor said he might not regain consciousness at all. Or it might come and go. “But for all practical purposes,” he said, “he’s gone. You might as well go and get some rest.”
Well what did the doctor know about practical purposes? The man was barely old enough to have developed a blood type.
“For all practical purposes,” he’d said. One of those phrases people toss around to make themselves sound as if they were intelligent. To make themselves sound as if they knew more about the love of your life in his final moments than you had known together in the last eighty years.
For all practical purposes indeed.
She and her husband met in school when he was ten and she was only eight. For all practical purposes, each of them should have been closer to the other children in their grade level.
But even then, it was as if they’d been together forever and had somehow lost track of each other. As if their spirits had reunited. They were all but inseparable, as if fearful if they ever let go, the other might disappear again.
Then he went off to war at 2o. For all practical purposes, she should have continued to date.
But she’d waited faithfully for his return.
And as the date of their reunion approached two years later, his enlistment was involuntarily extended. She wouldn’t see him until the end of the war.
For all practical purposes, she should have called the whole thing off. She was 20 by then. Most girls her age were already married.
But she settled in resolutely to wait.
Finally the day had come. They’d been married on this date—her birthday—72 years ago.
He’d slipped the ring on her finger at precisely 9 a.m.
And they hadn’t spent 24 hours apart in all the ensuing years.
She smiled. Doesn’t the silly doctor know anything at all?
When he made his ridiculous statement, she was tempted to test him. She wanted to ask him which practical purposes specifically he was referring to.
But she knew better. She’d been dealing with ignorant people all her life. People who seemed unable to form an original thought. People for whom the cliché and the platitude were the life blood of conversation.
But what if she had asked him such a difficult question?
Well, if he were truly intelligent—but no, he’d already proven that he was not.
Still, even the ignorant can be possessed of a modicum of grace.
In that case, he would have bowed slightly at the waist, then and turned and left.
But probably he had no grace. Probably at best he would have hemmed and hawed and backed away politely.
Then again, what would an educated and self-assured but ignorant man like the doctor know of backing away? Probably he’d have missed his chance at a genial exit altogether.
Probably he would have added to the inanity of the ridiculous “for all practical purposes” gambit with a curt, haughty “As you wish.” Or perhaps he’d have crossed the line of ludicrous audacity with an inauthentic smile and “Do whatever you want.”
Her gaze returned to the face of the man on the bed.
Yes, that’s what the doctor would have said. “Do whatever you want, Miss Darling. Just do whatever you want.”
Just as if a lifetime of loving this man hadn’t educated her as to what was good and right between them. Just as if the doctor’s permission was all the validation she needed to abandon her responsibilities and her husband in his final moments. Their final moments.
The air in the room was cool but draped with grief. It smelled of antiseptic and the dust of ages. What little light was admitted by the narrow split in the curtains was dim and tired. The only sounds were the shallow, labored breathing of the thin form on the bed and the occasional sniffle, which emanated from Ramona herself.
She marked each of those by moving the handkerchief to her nose. Even then, even as she struggled a bit to maintain her composure, she kept her posture. Her dignity. And her gaze on the love of her life.
Except when she glanced up at the clock.
During her reverie concerning the doctor, the minute hand had ticked over to three minutes before the hour. Three minutes before she and her husband would begin their seventy-third year together.
She looked at him again, then at her hands, the handkerchief folded between them. The hands were steady. She wasn’t frightened at all.
The handkerchief had the added effect of making the dress look almost black.
“Appropriate for the circumstances,” the doctor would have said.
He was right about the dress. It was appropriate for the circumstances. But he was wrong about the circumstances.
She hadn’t donned her black dress since her mother passed away some forty years ago. But she had taken it from her closet yesterday. She’d tried it on, realizing she would need it soon enough.
She reveled in the fact that it still fit so well. Then she’d hung it back in the closet next to her husband’s favorite suit, a little separate of everything else.
Then she’d written the note and pinned it to her dress.
She glanced up at the clock.
One minute until 9.
“Harold,” she said quietly. She leaned slightly forward, her hands still in her lap. “Harold,” she said again.
She leaned forward farther. With her right hand, she clenched the handkerchief. With her left, she reached to caress his right shoulder. “Harold.”
His right eye opened again. He looked directly at her.
Barely above a breath, she said, “It’s almost time, my love.”
His nod would have been imperceptible to anyone else in the room.
Slowly, he moved his left arm, extended it across their bed.
She moved her left hand back to the seat of her chair, careful not to catch the edge of her dress beneath its weight.
She stood unsteadily, corrected her balance, and moved away to walk past the end of the bed. Turned, her left hand tracing over the arched footboard, made the next corner. Turned again, moved along the bed.
“All right,” she said.
Her husband turned his head. His lips open the slightest bit.
She lay the handkerchief on her pillow, unfolded it. Pinched a pill between her thumb and forefinger. “I love you, Harold,” she said, and touched his lips.
When she moved her hand away, the pill was gone.
She looked at the handkerchief again, pinched the remaining pill, then lay down. Her head was nestled comfortably on Harold’s left shoulder when she slipped the pill between her own lips.
He moved his right hand across his body.
She gripped it with her own and rolled onto her left side.
“Good night, Harold Darling.”
“Good night, Ramona my darling.”
And for all practical purposes, they fell asleep together.
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