by Lawrence F. Farrar
Dick Cooper avoided newspaper obituaries; too many of them concerned people his age or, even worse, younger. Nonetheless, he wondered what the notice of his own passing might be like. He supposed it would be short; his days rendered in bare outline. The wrap-up of most people’s lives didn’t amount to much. He expected the sum of his own life would be no different. Perhaps it would be something like this:
Richard (Dick) Cooper, age 78, died Saturday while playing tennis at the Merrifield Tennis Club. A longtime partner in the legal firm of Morrissey and Cooper, in recent years Dick had maintained a sole practice specializing in wills and trusts. Twice vice president of the local bar association and lifelong fan of the Fighting Irish, he will be remembered for his dry humor and support for civic causes. Dick proudly served his country as a Marine during the Vietnam conflict. He was predeceased by parents Alfred and Millicent Cooper and by an older brother, Charles. He will be missed by friends and by his dog, Buzz. There will be a graveside memorial on Wednesday at 11:00 at the Oakwood Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, donations will be appreciated for the Merrifield Humane Society or the Vietnam Veterans’ Association.
That would likely be it. Dick assumed some underpaid intern cobbled these pieces together with whatever fragments of information he or she could dredge up. He knew brevity was unavoidable; after all, space was limited, a lot of people died, and, in fact, save for a few friends and family members, no one really cared. Two or three inches of print and you were gone, a whisper in someone’s memory.
Yet, lingering at his kitchen table with a morning cup of coffee, Dick thought: our lives encompass so much more. The obituaries depict people as little more than stick figures, statistical compilations. But every one of those dead so briefly remarked once was young, filled with dreams and ambitions, buffeted by emotions, love and loss, worry, suffering—the entire catalogue of what it meant to be a human being. Mulling these ideas, as he so often did, Dick was suddenly plunged into a torrent of remembering, a torrent of nostalgia at once sweet and hurtful.
People said it all the time: you could not live in memory; something he seemed ever more inclined to do as he grew older. The past was past and, they declared, you couldn’t go back. He smiled at the assertion. Perhaps you could not live in memory, but you could certainly drop by from time to time for a visit. He was struck by the fact, however, that, when he did so, the surges of nostalgia that invaded his heart and mind involved no longing for a return to recent or middle years. No, they always propelled him back to his youth and to his early adult life. Memories of and longing for lost youth seemed the defining essence of his nostalgia.
He realized the recollections were selective. Nostalgia, most often manifested itself in warm colors focused on the happy times, the good things. But experience told him it also involved a search for something you wanted to be perfect but that was in fact imperfect. Nostalgia came leavened with melancholia and pain; wrapped around a wish: if only things could have been different; if only we could have a do-over. Sometimes the discomfort became almost physical. Triggered by late night songs on the radio, Dick sometimes teared up. Unchained Melody, I Can’t Stop Loving You, and the like were never-fail catalysts.
Lingering whiffs of breakfast waffles and maple syrup reminded Dick to clear the dishes, and to put them in the dishwasher. He chuckled; deep thoughts (well, sort of deep) mingled with dirty plates. He refilled his coffee cup and carried it out on the porch that fronted on a pleasant, tree-lined street. He seated himself in a white painted rocking chair. Buzz half-heartedly trotted after a squirrel and then flopped down beside his master. Dick gently shook his head. Only yesterday, the gray-faced Lab had been a pup; now his squirrel chasing days were drawing to an end.
It was an unseasonably warm day in late September and together man and dog bathed in a pool of dappled sun, enjoying the zephyrs wafting in from the south. It felt good, restorative. The oaks, in transit to brown, yellow, and red, had begun their autumnal leaf shedding ritual. A young woman from up the street jogged by and waved. Dick waved back. Serious thought abandoned, for the moment he felt content, at peace. He savored the aroma of the Folgers drifting up from the cup he cradled in two hands.
But as he surveyed his yard, his mood shifted. Leaves needed raking, shrubs needed trimming, and grass needed cutting. It occurred to him the landscape service he’d hired wasn’t worth a damn. He ought to be tending to those chores himself, but he’d experienced some lower back pain of late. And his limp, courtesy of a long ago VC mortar round, seemed a bit more pronounced. He didn’t like being seen as hobbled, not at all. But, in the words of his know-it-all neighbor, he wasn’t as young as he used to be. He briefly mulled the thought. So what? What did she know? He might be old. But he didn’t feel old, and he sure as hell didn’t think old.
And, confirmed by his regular morning interaction with his mirrored self, he didn’t look old—well, at least not as old as his seventy-eight years. His mother, who lived well into her nineties, attributed family longevity to good genes and good habits. He figured he benefited from both.
In any case, Dick was a tall man, well-knit with abundant gray-white hair kept closely cropped, a throwback to his days in the Marine Corps. His penetrating brown eyes and tan skin lent him an appearance both rugged and distinguished. He had simple tastes complemented by a sense of propriety. While on this particular morning Dick had put on khakis, a madras shirt, and white tennis shoes, you could rarely spot Dick Cooper away from home without a jacket and tie.
A ringing phone in the house sliced into Dick’s musing. He still depended on his land line. He’d reluctantly acquired a cell phone but never used it; he said the damn thing confounded him. Buzz lazily lifted his head and then planted his chin on the porch floor when Dick went back inside.
“Dick, this is Berger Johannsen. I’m calling to see if you won’t change your mind about coming to the class reunion. Not so many of us left, you know.”
“Sorry, Berger. I hardly knew anybody at the fiftieth. Probably would know even fewer at the sixtieth. Don’t need to see more people in wheelchairs. Don’t need to meet more empty-headed husbands or wives.”
“Hey, I won’t give up.”
“And there was that woman in the red dress who kept trying to hug me.” They both laughed.
“Maybe she had too much wine. Anyway, the ranks are thinning. Think about it.”
“I thought about it. No.”
“By the way, I heard another one of our classmates isn’t doing too well. You remember Gail Moore, don’t you? Can’t think of her married name. Doesn’t matter; her husband passed away years ago. Anyway, Molly Crawford—she’s handling invitations—said Gail is in a nursing home outside Chicago. Apparently her health is really failing.”
Dick paused, making sure his answer was controlled and casual. “Why, yes, I know her. Sorry to hear that.”
“Come to think of it, wasn’t she your girlfriend once?” Berger said. “Or maybe I’m thinking of somebody else. It’s all so long ago.”
“Thanks for calling, Berger. I’m afraid the answer is still no.”
Dick put down the phone and drifted back out to the porch. He settled into the rocker and with one hand idly reached down to massage his dog’s velvety ears. A surge of emotion rippled through him; Gail’s health in decline? Berger had unwittingly opened an incision that had never fully healed. Gail hadn’t simply been his girlfriend. Oh, no, she had been much more. She had been the girl he’d hoped to marry; she had been his lover for more than three years. Dick closed his eyes and his chin dropped to his chest as cords of memory pulled him back along a path he had traveled many times. God, he had loved her so.
Still in high school, he’d been captivated the first time he saw her at a school assembly. Newly arrived in Dick’s small Indiana hometown from somewhere near Chicago, Gail was smart, petite, and talented. She had a delightfully husky singing voice; it seemed her version of These Foolish Things had lodged in his brain forever. Vibrant and warm-hearted, she was full of laughter. She had soft skin; she had soft hair. Alarmingly attractive, she had drawn him to her like an alluring flower. Later, when they made love, her compliant body had regularly stirred a frenzy in him. And then it had ended. One autumn day in college, he received her letter, little more than a note really, telling him she was marrying someone else. He didn’t even know someone else existed. That searing moment when she dropped him was at once evanescent and ever-lasting.
It took a long time to accept the fact she had gone out of his life. But try as he would to exile her image, she lingered in some recess, asserting herself at unexpected times to dance teasingly across the landscape of his mind. In due course, he went on with his life, but by the time he reconciled himself to their separation he had turned inward and immersed himself in his work. He never married.
But he never forgot her, not in any permanent sense. He didn’t consciously try to keep track of her; indeed, he frequently didn’t know her whereabouts. She and her husband and, eventually, children moved first to Chicago and then to California. From time to time someone would mention her name and he would acquire some tidbit of information. Years passed and he realized his fascination was with the memory of a woman in her early twenties, not the actual person she must have become. The memories that survived seemed almost contrived. Maybe he invented them. But in any case they persisted, however unevenly.
He often wondered how she had turned out; what she looked like (his imagined depiction apart); what sort of person she had become. He wondered if she ever thought of him; if she had regrets. And more than anything, he wondered why she had turned away; indeed that heart-breaking question obsessed him more than any other. He had never learned the reason from her or from anyone else. Sixty years of this preoccupation surely seemed ridiculous; but there it was.
At times he’d thought of writing or calling, but he had always suppressed the inclination. The impulse recurred more frequently as he grew older, especially after he learned, years after the fact, her husband had died. He knew only that she lived alone in a Chicago suburb, apparently in somewhat straitened circumstances. Even then, he could not muster the resolve to contact her, fearing she would be annoyed or dismissive or answer his questions in hurtful ways.
Nonetheless, he told himself he had to see her, talk to her, once more before his own short obituary—or hers—claimed its place in the press. And now Gail was in failing health, living in a nursing home. The void persisted; but although time was running short there was still enough of it to do something. He summoned the determination to try.
Dick called Molly Crawford, mentioned he had business in Chicago, and unobtrusively extracted the location of the nursing home. He told Buzz, his furry—and only—confidant that if he was to see Gail again on this earth, the time had come. Dick turned Buzz over to his neighbor; the woman thought the dog was half hers in any case. He slipped on a blazer and set out on the two hour bus ride to Chicago. Once there he hired a cab to Lake Forest. He stopped at a local florist, selected a bouquet (roses, pretty certain she liked roses), and then went on to the Tranquil Gardens Home for seniors.
During the cab ride he allowed his mind to explore what their meeting would be like. He was buoyant, excited. His imagination pushed ahead. He rehearsed it all. She would embrace him, tell him she had been wrong, had always thought of him, and had loved him. And he, in turn, would tell her he had always loved her, never forgotten her. Such a scene constituted the core of a recurring dream, an image long treasured.
He considered calling first, but thought questions might arise about the appropriateness of his visit. The best course, he decided, was to go to the place, present himself, and ask to see her. At seventy-eight, his attitude of late had finally become one of what the hell?
He arrived in front of the three story brick building in late afternoon. He paid the driver and pushed open one of the double glass doors leading into the lobby. He clutched the flowers in one hand. Ensconced behind a reception desk, a middle-aged woman in a pink and purple smock greeted him. “And what can we do for you, sir?”
Dick glanced past her down a hallway where he spied a young man in blue scrubs maneuvering a cart, its wheels afflicted with a stuttering squeak. At the far end of that hallway Dick made out the bent figure of a woman creeping along behind a walker. Dick needed no such sights to remind him he hated places like this. Cheerless and depressing by their very nature, he considered them institutions where elderly human beings, whatever games and entertainments might be provided ostensibly to lift their spirits, were warehoused while they waited to die.
The receptionist, her voice saccharine, said again, “And what can we do for you?” Maybe she thought Dick was a potential resident. He felt insulted.
“I would like to see one of your patients. Her name is . . .”
“Sir, we have no patients. We have only residents or short-term guests. Patients are in hospitals.” She smiled indulgently. “Now who is it you would like to see?” He did not like this woman.
“Her name is Gail.” Her married name momentarily escaped him. “Perhaps Gail Hamilton.”
“Yes. Mrs. Hamilton is a resident. Are you a relative?”
“Well, no. But we were friends a long time ago—in high school and college. I heard she was here and thought I would stop and say hello.” Dick felt a stab of uncertainty.
“I am afraid that is impossible. Unless you are a family member or . . .”
“Look, I’ve come a long way. Could you just tell me where she is?” He would not permit this officious woman to fend him off.
He asked again; she said no again.
Undaunted, Dick was about to push by and conduct his own search, when a man of fifty or so dressed in jeans and an open neck work shirt approached them. “Did I hear you say you wanted to see my mother?”
“Yes, if Gail Hamilton is your mother.”
“I was just leaving,” the man said to the receptionist. Then he turned to Dick. “How do you know my mother?”
My name is Dick Cooper. Like I told this lady, we were in school together a long time ago.”
The younger man studied Dick’s face. “So you’re the infamous Dick Cooper.”
“Do you know me?” The man’s comment left Dick nonplussed.
“No. But I heard about you. From my father. I’m Mike Hamilton. I can’t say much of it was good.”
“But I didn’t know him.”
“Apparently you knew Mom before him. He said she always compared him to you.”
“Really? I don’t understand.”
“It doesn’t matter now. You might as well go in. The sergeant here will send somebody to get you if you stay too long.” He grinned at the receptionist who responded with a frown.
“Are you certain you don’t mind?”
“Yeah, I’m certain. She doesn’t get many visitors. Might do her good.”
Dick nodded. “Thank you. It’s a coincidence running into you.”
“Not really. I come by almost every afternoon. Gotta go now. Nice meeting you, Mr. Cooper.” Dick felt both troubled and encouraged by Hamilton’s words. And he was puzzled by his seeming unconcern about Dick’s presence. Did he know something Dick did not?
The receptionist said, “Room 203, second floor. There’s an elevator over there.” She gestured. “Don’t stay too long. You’ll tire her.”
Dick squeezed into an elevator with a female attendant and her cart laden with dishes covered with plastic lids. “They eat early,” she said.
In the second floor corridor he encountered two more residents pushed along in wheelchairs. How would she react? Swept by anxiety, he suddenly feared he would think of nothing to say. Nearly sixty years had passed; they were both old. It shouldn’t matter. Why, then, such a case of jitters?
The door to Room 203 stood partially ajar. He hesitated and then rapped softly. He detected no response. He knocked again. “May I come in?”
A nurse came up to him. “She’s probably sleeping.” Then, stepping inside, she said, “Mrs. Hamilton, you have a visitor.”
Dick couldn’t see her at first; the bed was screened. But the room made him uncomfortable. Starkly white, antiseptically clean, it had less character than the most Spartan motel room. And an assertive medicinal odor assaulted his nostrils. At least, he thought, the view out the window seemed pleasant—a stand of autumnal crowned trees surrounding a small garden.
He had waited more than fifty years. He went round the foot of the bed, saw her, and swallowed hard. No. This couldn’t be his beautiful girl. No, No.
The woman who occupied the bed was small, almost shrunken. Everything about her seemed depleted. She was frail-looking, her face wrinkled, and her hair thin. Dick suppressed a gasp of emotion and, truth be told, of utter disappointment. He had expected change, but not this much, not such a devastating transformation. He simply had not prepared himself; the image he had preserved all these years shattered in an instant.
Suppressing his shock, he said, “Gail, it’s me. Dick. Dick Cooper.”
She opened her eyes and lifted them toward him like a sad uncomprehending child. She seemed so feeble.
It pained Dick to see her this way. Dick dragged a chair over and sat next to the bed. He searched for words to express what he wanted to say, uncertain if she was hearing him.
Her thin lips formed a faint smile of remembrance. “Hi. How are you?” she said. He discerned a spark of recognition and feeling.
“Hi. It’s been a long time. It’s so good to see you,” he said. But doubt beset him. Her aging and ill self had savaged the self of her youth. Dick grasped the reality, but this made it no easier to accept.
Her eyes brightened a bit. “It was kind of you to come to see me. I’ve been sick, you know. So kind.” Her voice dry and barely audible trailed off. But the look of recognition in her eyes made it all worthwhile.
For a time he just sat there, gazing down at her. “I brought you these.” He’d realized he was still holding the flowers.
“Thank you. You can put them there. With the others.” She inclined her head toward a small table where a bunch of yellow gladiolas drooped in a vase. Dick substituted his own flowers and discarded the glads in a waste receptacle. Troubled by people chatting in the hall like so many gossiping hens, he shut the door.
When he returned to his chair Dick leaned close and took her wasted hand in his own. “I’ve never forgotten you,” he said. His eyes moistened. “Never.”
“That is so good to hear. It’s been a very long time, hasn’t it?” She weakly squeezed his hand.
“Do you remember the time we . . .” And with those words, Dick launched an easy-going monologue summoning up the happy days they’d spent together. Allowing his emotions to pour out, for almost ten minutes, he shared with her the stuff of all those nostalgia-drenched recollections.
Mostly she listened. Periodically she nodded slightly and murmured, “Yes, oh, yes. It was so wonderful, wasn’t it?”
At last he stopped. He could see she seemed to be tiring. He’d been warned. For a bit more time, time he now deemed precious, Dick sat in silence gripping her hand. “Could I bring you something?”
“Just a drink of water.” She took a sip through a straw and returned the plastic cup to him. “You were always so good to me.”
He wanted to ask her the question that had burned in his brain all this time. Why had she abandoned him? But now that he had the chance, he hesitated. It would seem accusatory, perhaps upsetting. He decided it would be better to wait. He had achieved the most important thing; he had found her again, touched her again. And so he held back. No more questions. Instead, he leaned forward and kissed her gently on the forehead. “I loved you so much.”
She smiled, and he detected a sparkle in her red-rimmed eyes.
“I should go now,” Dick said. “I’m told you need to rest. Maybe I can visit you again.”
“Yes, oh yes. I would like that.”
She wanted to see him again; he could bring closure to all those concerns of almost six decades. They would have so much to discuss; they could reminisce together. He knew it would lift her spirits.
“I’m sure you will be feeling better soon. See you soon, darling Gail.”
“Thank you for coming, Walter.”
“No, I’m Dick. Walter was your . . . your husband.”
“Don’t tease me, Walter. Why do you want to tease me?”
It took a moment to register. Dick put his hands to his face. She had no idea who he was. God, she hadn’t known for the entire time. The link he thought he’d forged across the years was flawed. In fact, there was no link at all. He bit his lip in near anguish. He had waited too long.
He looked down at her. Eyes closed, mouth half open, she snored softly.
He experienced an awful sense of loss and for an instant wished he had not come. The veil of nostalgia had been ripped aside. The old memories should never have been disturbed. In torment, Dick took her hand one last time and, unmoving, remained at her side.
He had no sense of how long he’d been sitting there when a housekeeper entered the room. She looked at him with a stranger’s understanding. “I’m sorry, sir. You will have to leave now. We have to change the bed.”
When Dick went out to his cab, the last flickers of sunlight played on the rattling oak leaves. He desperately tried to convince himself that, even if only briefly, she had remembered him and recalled their love. But he knew he was kidding himself. The day that began brimming with anticipation and hope for Dick Cooper ended without providing him either. The bridge he’d sought to cross had rusted away. It was beyond repair.
Two weeks later when Molly Crawford sent him a copy of Gail’s obituary, he could not bring himself to read it. Two or three inches of print and Gail, too, was gone; a whisper in memory.
Lawrence F. Farrar is a former Foreign Service officer with postings in Japan (multiple tours), Germany, Norway, and Washington, DC. Short term assignments took him to more than thirty countries. He also lived in Japan as a graduate student and as a naval officer. A Dartmouth graduate, Farrar has an MA in Japanese history from Stanford. His stories have appeared in over forty literary magazines.