Is it raining? she asked.


Is it raining?

I bent low to catch the sound. Her tongue slowly reached out to moisten her whitened lips. I held her hand and smoothed her gray hair against the white pillow.


Is it raining?

No, not today, I said. Are you expecting rain?

Only when you’re here.

Peggy smiled at our shared joke, that it rained whenever I visited her here in the land beyond the Tallahassee River, which could just as well be the Lethe. I came to this place often, if briefly, to visit and to evaluate, assess her health, her life, and usually the rain and I were joined here in a marriage of inconvenience. But not this day. This day, Charon held the rains.

Have you…?

What? I leaned lower.

…made your travel arrangements? Gotten your boarding pass? To go back.

No, not yet, I said. I left it open. This time I’ll stay for a while.

I didn’t usually stay awhile. I usually hit and ran. In on Friday, out on Sunday, counting the hours on Saturday. Especially if it rained. I’m convinced when it rained in Florida, the clocks moved slower. Probably due to the humidity, I figured. Gummed up the works.

But with this, she smiled and closed her eyes. A nurse came to the door, stood by the other bed, now empty, its previous occupant gone. They often left this way. Not even a goodbye, it’s been nice, let’s keep in touch. Sometimes it was in the middle of the night, as if these people had somewhere to go in the middle of the night. They’re there when the lights go out at night, gone when the lights come on in the morning. The nurse motioned for me to join her.

We’re still not sure what happened.

But she fell. Two days ago she got out of bed in the morning and fell. She never falls. And look, she barely responds.

We looked and she seemed to shrink a little more before our eyes. Soon all that will remain will be her smile: Cheshire Peggy.

We still have no diagnosis, the nurse said.

Well, I’m not trained in this stuff, but it sure seems like a coma to me.

Ssssh. She’ll hear us.

She’ll hear nothing, not without those things. I motioned to the hearing aids, little pink clumps of rubber, laying on the table.

Still…she said as she left and I thought, yeah, it certainly was.

The question I ask and which Peggy cannot answer is how did she manage to become a different person right before my eyes while I haven’t changed a whit in 44 years? Who painted her hair chalk white; who dimmed her sight; who took her hearing, who left her with arthritis, with cancer, and now with a stroke and in a coma? Who answers for this?

I left to go to dinner. Even watchers have their hunger. Hearing my heels resound on the shining green linoleum floor, it occurred to me that hospitals after visiting hours are frightening, nasty places.

At this early evening hour, hospitals are serene and have a quiet efficiency as the night staff relieves the beleaguered day staff. Calm men mop and polish the floors. Large buxom women with melodious Haitian voices relay the cold, hard medical orders in a song that suggests comfort and life.

It’s all wrong. It’s a mirage. These women are Sirens and they offer the Lotus and soon we will all have white hair against a white pillow and smile unknowingly as hands pat our heads and then go to dinner. Better the tumult of the day, when unseen bodies hidden in darkened rooms emit howls of pain, when disconnected voices blare the names of doctors and coolly announce code blue which does not describe the warmth of an azure sky, but, rather, the color of death. Better the banging and howling and running and wringing of hands and twisting of faces than this nighttime charade. At least during the day you know what the hell is happening. At least during the day the struggle is engaged. During the day, people aren’t swept away from their beds, made gone. Night in a hospital is vicious because we let our guard down, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. I think we are like horses, responding to stroking and patting to calm us after a fright.

Are you here visiting someone?

50 tables in this sterile hospital cafeteria, 200chairs, all empty, yet it was the chair directly across from me, at my table, the old woman decided she wanted and took.

My mother, I say.

Ah, your mother. Yes, you can tell.


Your face. It has a mother’s son’s look. You’re here for her. Naturally. I’m here for me. I’m dying, you know.

Ah, sorry. I scanned her face, but avoided her eyes, as I dug my fork into my salad. Mother’s son’s look, I thought. What is that look? I’ll find a mirror. It occurred to me I was dealing with a crazy.

No need to apologize. Not your fault, you know. I guess the living always feels guilty about the dead or dying. I know I do. I’ve always tried to avoid them, now I’m one of them. Hard to avoid myself, you know. I’m not sure yet how I feel about my situation, you know. It’s so odd, this business of being in-between. I can handle being alive and then being dead, but it’s the not quite, being mid-stream, that’s so hard, you know. Don’t you agree?

My processed ham and cheese on white bread would have to wait as I thought this through. Finally, I say, yes I guess I agree, that being in-between was difficult; I think being in the middle is difficult even if you’re not dying, but when the issue is dying, it seems to me we are on a whole new level of problem.

I looked out of the window as my new, dying friend was formulating her response. It had begun to rain. I excused myself and hurriedly left to return to the hospital room.

Give her my best, my friend said.

I waved a goodbye over my shoulder.

It seem longer to return than when I left. I always thought it was supposed to be the opposite. The elevator took its own sweet time.

The room was a right turn off the elevator and at the end of a long corridor, long enough to appear to narrow at the far end. I pushed hard down the corridor. Two aides in spanking white dresses approached me midway to the room. They seemed somber. Our eyes met, but they quickly looked away. I walked faster.

Reaching the threshold, I saw three nurses standing at the bed, their backs to the door. One turned at my entrance. She stayed, the others quickly left. It began to rain harder now. I thought of my father lying underground in New Jersey. Who will answer for this?

The remaining nurse laid a comforting hand on my arm and said Peggy had simply stopped breathing; that she had another stroke; that her last days, hours, minutes, seconds were blessed, that she felt no pain. I heard as an ox must hear when told to move: could you repeat that, please? I’m not sure I understand.

What would you like to do with the hearing aides?

I won’t be needing them, I said. Donation?

Fine. I’ll take care of it. And you can stay as long as you’d like, tonight. Have you made arrangements?

I’ll be going home tonight.

No, I mean about burial.

Ah, yes, no, I mean I haven’t, but she did. She took care of everything. I’ll call them. I have to sit down first. Okay if I stay a minute?

As long as you’d like. I’ll be at the desk.

The nurse left and I sat. When my great-aunt Fanny died, my great-uncle Herman disappeared. The family had no idea where he had gone. He remained this mystery relative, a joke among the family, that when the Messiah comes Herman will be driving the car, until 20 years later, when, upon a visit to Fanny’s grave, I found Herman lying beside her, his name carved in stone. I called my sister.

Ruth, call off the cops, I found Uncle Herman.

After calling my sister with the news about Peggy, I went looking for my friend from the hospital cafeteria. She was gone, too. It wasn’t night, yet, but it also wasn’t raining.