By Daniel Shawler (email@example.com)
Summary: An elderly Clark lies on his deathbed, surrounded by his loving family.
The old man lay on a bed in the middle of the crowded room, surrounded by those who loved him. A recent fit of coughing had left him too exhausted to mask his emotions. Now, they played across his face as a history revealed; love, pain, peace, a little fear; but most of all, love. Love also illuminated the faces of those surrounding him, but in their cases, it was framed by sorrow. They, too, made no effort to disguise their emotions, for there is little need to hide the truth from those you trust.
In the corner, 12 year old Jessica, great-great granddaughter of the old man, stood by herself, tears forming trails down her face. Jessica, confused by the scenario unfolding in front of her, did not know what to do. She was old enough to understand the meaning of death, but Jessica had never before been witness to its austere tones. She had no experience of grief and knew not how to handle it.
Jessica was naturally adept at sensing the unspoken thoughts and feelings of others. In the fanciful way of 12 year old girls everywhere, Jessica liked to think that she could see the aura of other souls, but her mother, always the rational psychologist, told her she was just good at recognizing body language. Trying to find understanding from the relatives surrounding her, Jessica's eyes darted from person to person, analyzing the outward response of each. The others in the room, however, focused on their own grief and were of no aid to Jessica. It was like having only the cover of a book to read. Jessica could see the theme of the book, but could not discern any details from the cover alone. Consequently, Jessica stood alone in the corner, ashamed of her tears.
Jessica discretely raised herself to see over the heads of the adults in front of her. Great-aunt Martha sat next to the bed, holding one of the old man's large, age-withered hands in both of hers. She slowly and gently patted the old hand as if she could squeeze life back into the old man. Uncle Perry (actually great-great-uncle Perry, for he, along with uncle Josh, was one of two surviving sons of the old man)carefully wiped the old man's forehead with a damp cloth. The cloth left a sheen of moisture that glared in the light, causing the old man to look even more sallow.
Jessica looked at her uncle Perry, disturbed by the fear she saw in him. She could never remember uncle Perry being afraid of anything. What Jessica did not know was that Perry was, for the first time in his life, contemplating his own mortality. Death was not new to Perry. His brother Jimmy had died when Perry was three years old, but Perry was too young to remember much of that. He was already a married adult when his mother had died, and Perry could remember the terrible effect her death had on his father. This felt different to Perry. His father was steel. To Perry, his father was the strongest constant in a world filled with variables. Although Perry had a loving and supportive wife, his father was the source of his strength, the inspiration Perry needed to track the difficult path his life followed. Perry knew his father was old, but only recently had his father begun to show signs of aging and until now, Perry had never really contemplated his father's, and hence his own, mortality.
The old man turned his head to the left and joy lit up his face as he spotted Jessica. The old man loved children and Jessica, he loved especially. She had the dark hair, the wide mouth, the flashing eyes of the woman he loved years ago and continued to love to this day. More than the physical similarity, the old man knew Jessica had the same forceful personality and iron-willed determination as that woman. For Jessica, life's setbacks would not be roadblocks, but merely inconvenient detours, as she moved towards her goals.
The old man smiled weakly as he remembered the long-ago life he shared with the woman he loved. The events of that life seemed to him more real than the events in this room. As though it were yesterday, he remembered their joy when he asked her to marry him and she said yes. He remembered the birth of their first child, Catherine, nicknamed Cat. He remembered his pride when she received a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism. He remembered her pride when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of children's rights. He remembered the deep and natural bond she shared with his parents, and how she loved to visit their small farm in Kansas. The old man smiled inwardly to himself when he thought of the first time she met his parents. Without knowing who he was, she had accused his father of being a cross-dresser. He remembered the first time she had hinted of feelings stronger than friendship. She thought he had been killed but had just found out that he was still alive. Caught off guard by her candor he didn't know how to respond, so he lamely pretended to be asleep, although he heard every word she had said.
Martha's grip on his hand tightened as if she could staunch the cough by anchoring herself to him. Perhaps she could, for the coughing subsided as he felt her love through the handclasp. The old man lay back resting once again and returned to the past. He remembered the dread of an evening, shortly following his proposal, when he finally summoned the courage to share his deepest secret with her. He remembered her strong reaction to that disclosure, for she was a strong woman and all of her reactions were strong. As though it happened minutes ago, the old man saw the beautiful, expressive face of the woman he loved progress from unbelief, to anger, to thoughtfulness, back to anger, to understanding, to acceptance, and finally to unconditional love. With the experience of years, the old man knew that, although he had kept the secret poorly, he was smart enough to remain silent until she had accepted the immense change it would make in her world.
The old man also recalled bittersweet memories made bearable only because they were shared by the two of them. He remembered the double murder of their first son James and his godfather, Jimmy, and the unrequited pain of the long trial that resulted in the acquittal of the murderer. He remembered the comfort they shared following the death of his parents, his father dying from a broken heart, just hours following his mother's death from cancer.
Worse than all of those memories, however, was the death of the woman he loved. He still felt her weak, diseased body as he held her tightly at the moment of her death. She looked even older than her 84 years at the time, but to him she was more beauteous than when they first met. For the old man saw with eyes that beheld her soul, ever greater than fleeting physical beauty. The old man knew he was blessed that she shared such beauty with him. He knew her struggles to break her natural tendency to distance that part of herself from others. He knew she was only partially successful in that struggle. While she opened herself to him completely, she remained reserved even with her closest friends. Thus it was, that even after all these years, the old man felt the grief of losing the woman he loved made inconsolable only because he could not share it with her.
The old man tried to speak to Jessica, but instead fell into a violent attack of coughing. So violent was this attack that many felt that the old man's time to die had finally arrived. But that was not yet the case. The attack left the old man weak, deprived of energy, but still alive, for the old man had one last thing to do before he departed this life.
After laying quietly to marshal his remaining energy, the old man's eyes sought Jessica in the crowded room. Again he tried to speak. This time the old man managed to whisper Jessica's name twice before he collapsed, exhausted. Martha, bending her ear towards the old man, heard Jessica's name.
Somewhat bewildered, Martha looked at Jessica and said, "I think he wants to see you, dear."
Amidst a murmuring choir of surprise a number of hands pushed the startled Jessica towards the old man. Martha gave up her seat next to the old man and motioned Jessica into the chair. Jessica sat and tremulously took the old man's hand into her own.
At that moment, Jessica felt a sudden bond form with her many-times-removed grandfather. The sense that failed her with everyone else in the room awakened while she looked at her grandfather. She could see into his soul with such great clarity that suddenly she knew everything about her grandfather. Jessica realized that her grandfather was sharing his soul with her. The magnitude of his gift astounded Jessica. She not only saw her grandfather's love for his wife, but she could feel the love. She knew that she was a part of that love.
Jessica felt the grief her grandfather had carried alone since the death of his wife, so many years earlier. To her, it seemed as if her grandfather was moving a box up a hill; a box so heavy he could not lift it and therefore he dragged one end upon the ground. What a burden this must have been to her grandfather, to drag his grief like that without any help. Instinctively in her own soul, Jessica reached out, grabbed the other handle of the grief. With her grandfather, she started carrying the box of grief up the hill. They walked wordlessly, for words were an inferior form of communication compared to that which they now shared.
Time seemed unmeasurable as Jessica and her grandfather continued carrying his grief up the hill until, at last, the two of them reached the hill's summit. Here, they laid the box down and rested for a moment. Then, smiling at Jessica, her grandfather reached over and opened the box. The creak of the hinges hinted at the age of the box, but the ease with which her grandfather opened box belied its age. Jessica looked inside the box and saw the soul of her many-times-removed grandmother, who had died years before Jessica's birth. Jessica saw great beauty in her grandmother and immediately understood the love and grief her grandfather felt for his wife. Jessica looked back to her grandfather and saw him as he had looked when he and his wife were first forging their love together.
Jessica's grandmother took her grandfather's hand in her own and looked to Jessica with a beatific smile. "Thank you," she said, "I can take him from here."
The woman and the man turned, hand in hand, and started walking down the hill into the most beautiful valley Jessica had ever seen. Jessica stood at the top of the hill, marveling at the tranquillity and beauty of the valley for a long while after her grandparent's had disappeared; for a long while after her instincts told her it was time to leave; for a long while until a strong set of arms enfolded her in embrace saying, "Oh, Jessica."
After her father's embrace had ended, Jessica looked down at her grandfather. The muscles in the old man's face relaxed into a peaceful slumber and Jessica bent her head towards her grandfather. Inaudibly, so that only Jessica could hear him, the old man made his dying statement, "Lois, I love you."