The Four Seasons
Chapter 4: Winter

Copyright© 2008 by Autumn Writer -- All rights reserved

My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.

Song of Solomon 2:10-11

November 1993

Martha and Hal sat in their family room late in the afternoon on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. They didn't go in for long conversations in those days, but that was okay. They liked to be close to one another and conversation wasn't an absolute necessity. Hal was in his favorite easy chair, watching the fourth quarter of the Notre Dame Game with the sound on the television turned low. Martha sat on the couch. Her legs and feet were stretched up across the cushions. She had a blanket over her feet and another one on her lap and wrapped around her arms and shoulders.

Due to the angle of the chairs Hal couldn't get a very good look at her face. He didn't need it. All the clues told him she was dozing—in that undefined state between sleep and being awake. There was a time, not long in the past, when she would have scolded and scoffed at Hal and his devotion to televised football. The Notre Dame Fight Song would have been her signal to get up and busy herself in the kitchen. They had entered different times. Martha sat still for football or whatever might be on the television. She would stare into the television without flinching. Hal was never sure if she made any sense of the programs she watched. Sooner or later she would fall asleep.

"It's getting to be about time I fixed dinner," he called loudly from his chair.

It was a test. Sometimes she could make little sounds of approval. At least that's how Hal interpreted them. He'd asked the doctors about it but got shrugs for answers. The stroke had left her paralyzed but not without feelings, he often told himself.

"I'm just thankful that I can still lift her."

Indeed, it was fortunate, because if he could not lift her he would have to put her in a nursing home where others could do it for him.

"That would just kill her, going into one of those places."

At other times he wondered if she really wished to cling to a life that was so meager. He lived with the cruel paradox, satisfied with the knowledge that the wisdom to understand such things was beyond him. He just kept doing the best he could.

Hal turned off the television and moved from his easy chair to a footstool that he placed next to the couch. He looked into Martha's face. She looked so peaceful when she slept. He wondered if she was dreaming.

"Martha," he said in a soft voice as he shook her wrist. "Martha, can you hear me? I'm going to get dinner ready now."

She slowly hoisted her eyelids. There was a stern look behind them.

"Not ready for dinner, yet?"

They had developed a language of the eyes. A single tear trickled from the corner of one eye and ran down Martha's cheek. Hal pulled a tissue from the box on the coffee table and dabbed it dry.

"I know how you feel, Old Girl. We're not as young as we used to be. I guess you might say that we're both playin' the back nine."

She slowly closed her eyes. She looked more tranquil. Hal reckoned that it helped her to know that he understood. He wasn't any hungrier than Martha at that moment, so he thought to stay with her for a few minutes and try instead, for some food for the soul.

She must have sensed him still seated on the footstool instead of wandering into the kitchen to clatter with some pots and pans. She opened her eyes again. Hal was still holding her hand.

"We were a pretty good pair in our prime, wouldn't you say?" Hal mused out loud. He swore that he saw a faint smile. "Of course, we had our ups and downs."

She let out one of her purring sounds. Hal didn't need her confirmation to know the truth of that.

"I wasn't perfect. That's for sure," he said to her. "Of course you weren't, either," he hastened to add.

He thought for a second that he caught her laughing. He didn't say anything for several seconds. He just sat there, holding her hand. He thought about the many times he had been imperfect. His thoughts traveled to that night and day of mutual unfaithfulness, the agony it created. He wondered how little meaning the incident had for them at this time of their lives.

"I wish I hadn't thought of that."

"We did alright together," he assured her. "The kids turned out well. You were a wonderful mother."

The last statement brought out another tear. Hal let this one run its full course, hoping that the feeling of the droplet reminded her of one joy or another that their children had brought them.

"Did I ever tell you that I thought that you look like Eve Marie Saint?" he asked her.

He never had, and the new revelation brought a look of surprise to her face. Hal's heart quickened. He promised himself that he would never lose the memory of hre expression as he told her that. "Maybe you had a slightly better figure than her," he added with a chuckle.

That last comment brought out the stern look once again and Hal knew that he had gone too far. Martha always liked compliments but never flattery.

"Well, maybe," he retracted in part. "I always liked your figure."

He stood and leaned over her. He bent down and kissed her on the cheek and tasted the saltiness of the remnant of her tear from a moment ago.

"Time for me to get some dinner on the stove. I'll just make sure you're warm enough before I go into the kitchen." He tucked the blankets more securely around her shoulders and feet. "I'll be back in a few minutes. Why don't you take a nap? It'll help your appetite."

"Mac and cheese for me. Broth for her."

It was a simple enough meal to prepare. When he went into the kitchen the mess on the counter reminded him that he hadn't yet cleaned up the dishes from breakfast and lunch. He decided to do them while he waited for the water to boil. He decided to bring her soup into the family room and feed her while she sat on the couch. Getting her off the couch and into the wheel chair was always such a big production. It took a lot out of her. The only advantage was that when they ate—or rather, when he fed her—in the dinette there was a shred of normalcy at mealtime.

"Who a am I kidding? This isn't normal. Martha knows it, too."

He got out a tray from the cupboard and set the soup bowl and spoon on it. He went searching for a napkin.

Twenty minutes later he carried the tray into the family room. He had waited a few minutes for the broth to cool down. Hal set the tray on the coffee table and then glanced at her silhouette on the couch. She hadn't moved. He sat on the footstool and took her hand again, getting ready to reawaken her. For a moment, it appeared that she had fallen asleep, but the deception didn't last longer than that. Hal had seen death before, but he tried to rouse her just the same. He called to her in vain. He had to; after everything, he owed it to her not to give up easily. He knew all along that it wasn't in his power to call her back. He wondered for a second if he should and fought off the doubt. It was time to say good-bye.

He lay her down on the couch and pulled at the blankets to cover her up. For a split-second, the image of Sammy Cimino raced through his mind and he reached out to take her dog tags. He shook himself and pulled his arm back.

"We were a good pair," he said out loud. He laid her down, pulled the blanket over her face and patted her on the shoulder. She was gone; he was alone.

On the day after Hal buried Martha—his first real day of being alone—he arose early. It wasn't that he was unused to sleeping by himself. Martha hadn't made it to the second floor of the house since her stroke. Hal glanced from the kitchen through the French doors to the family room and the daybed and couch where she spent so much of her last days.

In his secret thoughts, he was glad that things had gone as they did. Hal struggled against great opposition to arrange for Martha to come home at all. The doctors, the insurance company, and even his children were against it.

"It was sad," they said, "but she would be better off with professional care."

If she had gone through a slow decline the pressure would have mounted and he would have had to take her to a hospice. He was grateful that she was spared the pain of that experience. After a lifetime of devoting herself to their home, she would never have willfully consented to spending her final days away from it.

"Comfort of the body and the spirit don't always go hand-in-hand," he often told himself.

He knew enough not to voice his feelings. No one would have understood, for they did not have his experiences to draw on.

He poured some cereal into a bowl. He was out of eggs and a lot of other things. He didn't feel like toast and coffee. As he sat at the kitchen table eating he thought about doing some shopping. If he didn't, his daughter was sure to show up and insist on doing it for him. It would have been a nice gesture, but he desired a return to self-reliance. He picked up the pace through breakfast and took a quick shave and shower. He hurried to get it done fast. He suspected that his daughter might show up, unannounced, at any moment.

A half-hour later, Hal was backing his car out of his driveway.

"Ah! I made it."

The escape brought the sensation of freedom. Grocery shopping was not a favorite task, but it felt good to take care of himself, for a change. It was the way that he and Martha had lived until she got sick. Martha's stroke, and especially the funeral, put a temporary end to that. Their need for dependence on others was over.

"Nancy would have done the shopping. She's been great, but she should take care of her own family. I don't need her now like we did before."

He knew that Nancy would have a hard time understanding it. Hal hoped that his son, Robert, would see it his way. It would be easier to explain it to him, if he had to. He thought on these things as he made the short drive from his home to the grocery store.

"Oh no! I forgot about Thanksgiving."

As Hal guided his car through the entrance of the supermarket parking lot he saw the mass of cars and humanity. With the Holiday only a day away, he looked upon a maelstrom of self-absorbed shoppers, frantic to get last-minute cans of cranberry sauce, or a bag of onions. Worse yet, he saw that most of them were women. They always seemed to get the better of him in the grocery store, even during normal times. He thought, for a second, about turning around.

"If I do, Nancy will be sure that I can't do it for myself."

With his pride at stake, he decided to enter the fray.

His first task was to find a place to park. It wasn't a very nice day, so he would have preferred a space close to the entrance of the store.

"Fat chance!"

He thought he would give it a try, just the same. He hoped to get lucky and find someone who was just leaving. He guided the car down the first row of parking spaces.

It was a disheartening scene. He expected traffic to be flowing—at least at a snail's pace ... Instead, there were cars stopped in the midst of the driveway every twenty feet or so. They blocked movement of all else as they waited for returning shoppers to vacate a space. First, the departing car would have to back out of its space; the waiting car would wedge itself into the vacated space. That wasn't the end of the struggle. The departing car, intent on finding the exit, was headed against the flow of traffic. Each lined-up car, in turn, had to slowly edge itself aside to make room

"If I'd known it would be like this I would have stayed home," Hal sighed out loud.

It occurred to him that Martha would never have gotten herself into this kind of mess. She never did things at the last minute.

"And if she did find a mess like this, she would just go home and come back later."

Hal reasoned that he was only sitting in the line of cars because he was too proud not to. He was out to prove something—that he could do it by himself.

"A worthy goal, carried too far." It was too late to do anything about it; he was waiting for people to get finished waiting for others. "I've got to become more humble. I'll work on that after the holidays."

He'd been in the line for about fifteen minutes. It crept ahead, car by car. Every so often a delinquent car would perform a nasty maneuver and approach an empty slot from the opposite direction and slide in before the car rightfully waiting could do so. There would be shaking of fists through the windows of the cars involved. The offending driver would look away. Hal sighed in wonder and disgust.

"I would never do that. People should be nicer to one another. They'd sing a different tune if the tables were turned."

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