“Sam, don’t forget to lock the door.”
“I won’t.” I sling my backpack over my shoulder, click the key fob for the Ford Focus and add, muttering under my breath, “I’m not an idiot, you know.”
Mary must have heard and gives me a sharp look but doesn’t say anything in response. I watch as she turns and marches determinedly through the rain and parking lot puddles to the front entrance of where we’ll be staying, the Inn On the Lake. She seems a little pissed off at me at the moment, but that might just be my imagination. I open my umbrella and follow her, wondering in the back of my mind how this planned outing of ours is going to go. I hope well, but you never know, especially after fifty-three years of marriage. Well, check that. After all these years I know exactly how it will go. Even if she’s pissed, her bad mood will soon pass. We’re too old to let piddly stuff like that bother us for long. Things will go just fine.
Mary flips her long gray braid back over the outside of her yellow rain jacket and meets me just inside the entrance, holding the door open, “Did you bring my umbrella with you? I’m going to need it if we’re going for a walk along the shore after we check in.”
“Why didn’t you bring it yourself? You knew it was raining,” I chide her, giving her a hard time. I shake out my umbrella, close it and set it aside.
“Well, Sam, I can’t be expected to remember everything, can I?” She bites off her words. Her eyes are fiery. She’s not willing to give in.
“Well, you certainly expect me to.”
She sighs resignedly at me and shakes her head. She’s about to argue some more but then laughs when I reach into my pack and pull her umbrella out from where I had it hidden. I open it and hand it over to her, flourishing it like a magician with a bunch of flowers, “Here you go my little chickadee,” I say in the poorest imitation of W.C. Fields anyone has ever heard, “an umbrella bouquet just for you.”
“Oh, shush, you,” she says, grabbing the umbrella and trying unsuccessfully to sound mad. “Act your age, you old coot.” Her grin, though, gives her away.
We step off to the side to let a young couple with two small children squeeze past us. Mary closes her umbrella as she watches them. She points to the little kids and says, “Remember when James and Annie and Tim were that young? Those were good times.”
I’m happy to see that her mood has passed. We are both seventy-eight years old. Our three kids are in their late forties and early fifties and we have six grandchildren aged sixteen to twenty-six . The time she is referring to is so far in the past that I’ve completely forgotten about it. But if I told her I didn’t remember, she’d be all over me. “Sure,” I say, “those were great times.”
Mary smiles and squeezes my arm and leads me inside for check in, “No you don’t, Mr. Sam Baker, but that’s Ok, I won’t hold it against you.”
We cross a lobby that’s more than welcoming. On the left there’s a comfortable seating area filled with overstuffed chairs and conveniently placed end tables. The focal point is a wall mounted gas fireplace lit with flames cheerfully flickering. Next to the fireplace is an aquarium full of colorful fish peacefully moving through the crystal clear water. There are lush ferns and palms in brass pots everywhere, and a small fountain in the far corner bubbles quietly . To our right a mountain of cups are stacked on a long table offering free ice water to thirsty travelers. There’s an urn full of free coffee, too. The carpeting is clean and there is a light, pleasant, floral scent in the air. My thought, as I look around, is that this place really has it going for itself.
Mary pulls me up toward the counter where a young man in a dark maroon sport coat is waiting. She says to me, under her breath, “You did remember to bring money, didn’t you?”
I proudly pull my worn leather wallet out of my back pocket, take out the only plastic I ever carry with me and display my bank card when I get to the counter. The young man (his name tag states ‘Gary’) glances at it, smiles and says, “Welcome to the Inn On the Lake. How may I help you today?” He’s college aged, nice and polite, and I can see that Mary is impressed by his friendly attitude. Me, too, for that matter.
“Reservation for the Bakers. One night only, with a lake view room,” I state. Gary busies himself getting the paperwork ready. I glance at Mary and lean toward her, saying under my breath, “Yes, I did remember my wallet. I’m not an idiot, you know.”
Mary grins, “Not all the time, but I still love you anyway.” Then she changes the subject and whispers in my ear, “And also the Declaration. You remembered that, too, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” I whisper back, and I’m about to say something more when Rick Jorgenson steps from his office behind the counter and hurries toward us, extending his hand in a warm greeting, “Sam and Mary, welcome. I thought I heard your voices.” He is tall and robust, with a neatly trimmed beard, short cropped hair and the ruddy complexion of an outdoorsman. Compared to my five feet ten, slightly doughy physique, thinning hair and clean shaven face, I’m pretty plain looking. Rick’s a gregarious guy (I’m more introverted), and I’ve never seen him in a bad mood. “How are my two favorite lodgers?”
Mary and I dutifully laugh at his joke. The Inn On the Lake is three stories high, over two hundred feet long and has one hundred and seventy nine guest rooms. We’ve been coming to it for over thirty years and have known Rick for the last five of which he’s been manager. My guess is he has more than a few favorite guests.
But we play along just for fun. “We’re just great, Rick,” I say at the exact moment Mary says, “We’re wonderful. Happy to be here.” And we all laugh, like one big happy family. Then we make small talk as he tells us about the weather (‘It’s been better’) and how business is going (‘Super good’) until the check in process is completed.
When it is, Gary interrupts our conversation, “Ok. You’re all set.”
He hands us our key cards. We say goodbye to them both, cross the lobby and take the elevator to the third floor where we walk down the hallway to our room. It’s the same room we’ve been coming to every time we stay at the Inn. We drop our bags off, I grab my daypack and ten minutes later are back downstairs and outside. Mary’s still in her yellow rain jacket and I’ve changed into my dark blue one. I’ve also put on my tan Nature Conservancy baseball hat. We are ready for whatever the weather has to offer and right now it’s misting. Heavily. So with our umbrellas lifted and pointed into a slight breeze, we begin to walk along the shore of beautiful Lake Superior, the largest of the great lakes and the biggest freshwater lake in the world.
Earlier in the parking lot Mary was only mildly irritated at the weather and not really mad at me. That, in my book, is always a good thing, because sometimes, if I’ve screwed up badly enough, she doesn’t hold back on letting me have it. Like the time I left the stove burner on after I’d made tea for each of us, or the time I’d inadvertently tracked mud over her freshly waxed kitchen floor, or the time I’d dried the mixing bowls but put them away in the wrong place, or the time…well, you get where I’m going, right? And those examples were only in the last few weeks. But the true fact of the matter is that right now she is on top of the world – as excited to be out by the lake as I am, even if it is raining, ‘er, misting.
We are walking on a wooden boardwalk (sometimes referred to as the walkway) that follows the Lake Superior shoreline for over half a mile from where we are at Canal Park to downtown Duluth, and then five miles further up the far shoreline almost to the Glensheen Manson. The Inn where we are staying is near one end of the boardwalk, only a quarter of a mile from two white lighthouses, the shipping canal and famed Duluth harbor lift bridge that ushers ore freighters and pleasure craft into and out of the Port of Duluth. That’s where we are heading, each of us glad our umbrellas are protecting us from the mist, which with every passing minute is increasing in intensity and clearly on the way to becoming a bona fide rain.
“Oh, I so love it here,” Mary says enthusiastically, stopping after only a minute or so of walking. She turns to look out over the vast lake while wiping some moisture from her forehead. She’s just over five feet tall and has pretty eyes, a wide mouth and high cheekbones, a distinctive look handed down over generations by her Sami ancestors from northern Finland. She’s wearing jeans, hiking boots and a light blue cotton sweater under her jacket. Three foot high swells are rolling in towards us, crashing on the rocky shore only about thirty feet away. Their booming thunder fills the air, almost, but not quite, drowning out the calls of the white, ring billed gulls circling above us. “Oh, Sam, everything is just like I want it to be. It’s perfect. Just perfect.” She turns to me and smiles, wiping more mist from her face. “I think this is my favorite place in the whole wide world to be.” She gazes out over the lake again for a few moment before turning to me, “How long have we been coming here, again?”
Work on the restoration of the entire canal park area began in the 1980’s and the hotels followed shortly thereafter. I pretend to do a quick calculation, but I really didn’t need to. I’ve kept a daily journal ever since we’ve been married and I consulted it before our trip, hoping for a chance to show that my memory isn’t really as bad as everyone thinks it is (although, honestly, it is.) “We’ve been coming here at least once a year for thirty one years,” I announce proudly. “This is our thirty second year.”
“My oh my. Over thirty years,” Mary says, contemplatively, as she turns back to the view. “And all those times were with you and not my secret boyfriend. Imagine that,” she glances sideways at me. She’s wearing what I can only describe as an impish grin, which, I have to say, looks awfully nice on her.
“Lucky me,” I smile back at her. I like it when she jokes like she’s doing right now. It offsets the times when her depression is so severe she can hardly move from whatever spot she’s chosen to sit or lie in, let alone talk and make jokes.
Suddenly she grabs my arm and pulls me close to her. I can feel the fabric of her jacket against mine. I even catch a whiff of the scent she wears (I forget the name), something light with a hint of sandalwood, I think. It’s times like these, when her depression is at bay and my mind is working clearly, that I appreciate (dare I say, love) the most, especially at this stage of our lives. She gives me quick peck on the cheek, smiles, and then turns back to the lake to enjoy the view.
Mary trained to become a registered nurse and was hired right out of school to work at Hennepin County Medical Center, a huge hospital complex in downtown Minneapolis. She was assigned to various areas in the sprawling facility during her thirty seven years of employment, but ended up spending most of her time on the sixth floor Burn Ward administering to victims sixty five percent of whom never recovered. She was a compassionate nurse, calmly taking care of her patients, helping to ease not only their physical pain, but their emotional trauma as well. It goes without saying that she was (and still is) a truly a caring woman, and that trait was one of the many reasons I fell in love with her nearly sixty years ago when we first met at the University of Minnesota. I was finishing up my degree in biology and had decided to get a teaching certificate in case I didn’t get a job working at my preferred professional choice – a wildlife biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Mary had, at one time, also contemplated teaching and we met in a class we were both enrolled in. It was, as I recall, Introduction to Learning Methodology. She was smart and friendly and had what I referred to back then as a ‘drop dead gorgeous’ smile. It was the early sixties and, as Bob Dylan said, the times were changing. She dressed in faded blue jeans and embroidered peasant shirts. She didn’t wear makeup and was prone to letting her long auburn hair flow free. She wore boots all of the time except for summer, when she switched to leather moccasins. I think I fell in love with her the first time I saw her. After three years of dating we married in nineteen sixty four, buying a home in southwest Minneapolis a few years later.
I never got that job with the DNR. Instead (and quite happily, I might add), I became a teacher and taught biology at Southwest High School in Minneapolis for thirty six years, retiring in the year two thousand. Mary followed suit a few years later. We sold our home and moved twenty miles west of Minneapolis to Long Lake, a small town on the shore of the picturesque lake the town is named after. We bought an old, well maintained bungalow and have lived happily there ever since, gardening, bird watching and walking the quiet neighborhoods and local trails the area is known for. We couldn’t be happier.
We are also getting older. We are slowing down. My memory is not what it used to be. I’ve got a touch of congestive heart failure (it’s functioning at 70% capacity.) I’ve also had my right hip replaced meaning I walk with a slight limp, but haven’t given in to using a cane (yet). Mary’s physical heath is still good, it’s just that her mental health is failing but, thankfully, her good days still outnumber her bad ones.
Ok, I’ll stop right here. I could go on and on listing our aliments, but who wants to hear about all of that? You get the drift – we’re old and our bodies are wearing out. That’s the way it goes. The main thing, though, is that when it comes to our advancing age we are finding ways to cope. One of those ways is to make our annual journey to the Inn On the Lake to enjoy the majesty of Lake Superior, a lake we have come to love and where we’ve built a treasure trove of memories.
“Oh, Boss Man, look over there,” Mary says, pointing.
I look. Out about three hundred yards from shore are two, no, three brightly colored kayaks, one blue, one red, one orange. They’re fighting through the swells, working their way from our left to the right. “Must be heading for the canal,” I say. “Maybe they’re going into the harbor.” I watch them skillfully maneuver the waves, feeling slightly envious. It looks like it’s a fun time, if not more than a little dangerous.
Duluth harbor is separated from the lake by a shipping canal nearly two thousand feet long and three hundred feet wide. Huge ocean going vessels carrying iron ore and other goods use it to enter and leave, passing back and forth under another feat of engineering, the Aerial Lift Bridge. When the bridge is raised shipping traffic can move into and out of the Port of Duluth. When the bridge is down it connects Canal Park to Park Point, a spit of land and residential houses jutting about a mile further out into the lake. Of course other boats, primarily pleasure craft, use the canal and the harbor as well, and it looks like that’s what the kayakers are going to do.
Mary turns and sets off walking, “Let’s hurry and watch them go through the canal.”
Her idea sounds like fun and I silently curse my gimpy hip as I turn to follow. “Slow down,” I call out when she quickly out paces me, “I’m hobbling as fast as I can.”
She turns and waves, “I’ll meet you,” and continues on.
I mutter to myself, “Go for it, Speedy,” and resign myself to never catching up to my fast walking wife. I’m not mad, though, because it’s good to be outside with her. We’re next to the lake that we love, and that’s a good thing. We’re breathing fresh, northern Minnesota air, and that’s also good. Plus, I’m as mobile as I can be, and I can’t argue with that, either. I grit my teeth just a little and hobble on.
Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act was enacted in nineteen ninety-seven. When it came into law Mary and I were in our late fifties and weren’t thinking much about end of life questions other than completing our wills and making sure each of us was taken care of if one should proceed the other in death. And, of course, we also made sure our kids were taken care of. Honestly, though, once our wills were complete, we only revisited them every year of two like a lawyer friend told us to. Mainly we just got on with our lives.
All was fine until our twenty two year old grandson Bill, or Willie as we and everyone else called him, was killed in two thousand and two by hostile fire in eastern Afghanistan. Willie’s dad and mom, our son, James and his wife Abby, were, of course, devastated. We helped them cope with their grief as much as we could, but some wounds never heal. The pain of the loss of their son is still there for them to this day, as it is for us. (In addition to James and Abby and their three remaining children, we have our daughter Annie and her husband Frank and their two kids, and our youngest son, Tim, who’s divorced and has three children. In short, we have a pretty good sized family.)
I know for certain Mary’s depression is tied to Willie’s death. In fact, she’s told me as much many times, only recently saying, “I just can’t shake how sad I am that Willie is gone. He was such a fine young man. He had his whole life ahead of him.” Even though when she told me this, just a few months ago, it had been fifteen years since he’d been killed. Like I said, some wounds never heal.
Willie really was a good boy and certainly much too young to die, but the point is this: His death triggered a further deepening of the depression Mary has been saddled with her entire life, stretching as far back as her high school days. (It’s passed down through her genes – her father was a manic depressive who ended his life by hanging himself in the basement of their home when Mary was only thirteen.) I’m extremely proud of her. She fights her tendency toward what she calls ‘The Blues’ every day of her life with only minimum use of medication. Due to Mary’s years as a nurse and my interest in science, we are both extremely attuned to the negative consequences of addiction. On the rare occasions she does have to medicate she says, “I’m only using these stupid pills to get over those bumps in the road I can’t cope with, you know . You really don’t have to worry about me, I’m fine.”
I hear her. It’s not the pills themselves, I’m worried about, it’s her depression. Like I said, we are coping. But that still doesn’t mean I don’t worry about her.
I had my right hip replaced about ten years after Willie’s death. The doctor told me it was the result of all the jogging and running back in the seventies and eighties I did when the fad was starting to catch on and I guess I have to believe him. These days I walk slowly but am happy to at least be able to move as well as I can. Now, if my memory was just a little better. Some would say I have early onset Alzheimer’s and I might agree (if I remember to. Ha, ha. Just kidding.) I’ve been tested and nothing’s definite. But all the doctors I’ve talked with all agree when they tell me that I’m getting older and memory loss is associated with aging. I believe them because I’m living proof that it happens.
Four years ago Mary and I watched a special on our local Public Broadcasting channel about Oregon’s Death With Dignity legislation. It got us thinking…What would we do if we had a choice about not only when to die, but how to die? Over the next few months we talked about it almost non-stop and came up to this conclusion: Since we do have a choice, then we might as well do something about it.
So we did.
We made up another will of sorts; a document, really, and called it Our Right To Die Declaration. In it we stipulate that we are mentally competent to make our own decision regarding ending each of our lives, and we are going to do so when the time comes. We have signed it and dated it. (Getting our Declaration notarized was not possible. We tried it once and got some very strange looks. We were also on the receiving end of one rather uncomfortable visit from a concerned police officer that a overly vigilant, in my opinion, notary public called – a person who seemed to take his job a little too seriously, as far as Mary and I were concerned.)
Anyway, the statement in the document, ‘When the time comes’, is what brings Mary and me to Duluth and Lake Superior on this particular visit. We plan to discuss if now is the right time. We’ve even brought sleeping tablets in case we decide that the answer is yes.
Mary stops half way to the canal, turns and hurries back toward me. I have to say that I’m moving really slow today; plus, I’m panting a little and my heart is starting to labor, not a good thing given my congestive heart failure issues.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to run off,” she says, coming up to me and looking concerned. “I was just so excited. I’ll slow down and walk with you.” She takes my arm and tugs on it.
“No, don’t worry about it,” I say, trying to hide my shortness of breath and hoping to appear like a normal, healthy old person, whatever that looks like.
Mary doesn’t buy it. “Really, Boss Man (a term of endearment she uses that I especially like, but I can’t tell you why), it’s Ok. Seriously. I’ll try to walk more slowly and keep you company.”
I’m suddenly conscious of people moving past us. Are they listening to this discussion? Are they watching us? If they are, they probably think we’re a couple of addled escapees from some Senior Center down the road trying to figure out which way is up. She starts to pull me along beside her, but I stop her, “Really, Mary. Just go on ahead. It’s fine. I’m fine. Really. I’m just taking my time.”
She looks at me, judging my sincerity, but I’m not kidding. I like it when she’s enthusiastic about something like the kayakers. It’s not her fault I’m slow. After a moment she seems to sense that I’m alright with her going ahead on her own.
She releases my arm, “Ok, Boss Man. If you’re sure.”
I motion for her to continue without me. “I am. Promise. I’ll be right behind.”
“Ok, then. Just take it easy.”
Before she leaves she hands me her umbrella. The mist has almost stopped so I fold it up and put it in my day pack. Then I do the same with mine. I can tell Mary’s excited to get closer to the kayakers so I reaffirm that I’ll be alright, “Really,” I encourage her, “just go ahead.”
She grins and gives my arm a squeeze, then thinks twice and gives me a quick hug.”Take it easy with that heart of yours,” she cautions me, and then hurries off. I follow her, moving slow and steady, lagging behind but conscious of taking it easy like Mary (and my doctor, for that matter) told me to do. It takes five minutes for me to make it to the shipping canal, a formidable concrete structure that stretches about two hundred yards into the lake and is over two hundred feet wide. The sides are about chest high and there’s a wide cement causeway next to it that I walk along. It takes another ten minutes to make it out to the end where there’s an observation overlook next to a sturdy white lighthouse.
I’m about fifty feet from the end when the kayakers leave the lake and enter the calm waters of the canal. Mary’s standing by the lighthouse and they’re heading right past her on their way to the lift bridge and the entrance into the harbor. I watch her wave as they pass by and each of them waves back.
I hear her excited voice. “Hi,” Mary yells. “Having a good time?”
“The best time ever,” the last one in line in the orange kayak calls back, waving his paddle. He’s a young man around twenty with a full beard and wearing a red voyeur hat. “You should try it sometime.”
Mary laughs and begins walking along next to him as he paddles, “Maybe I will.” She is heading right toward me. In a minute we meet each other and when we do she gives me a quick hug. “I’m having so much fun,” she exclaims. “Do you mind if I keep walking with them?” She motions to the kayakers.
“Go right ahead,” I tell her. “I’ll be along.”
She smiles as she turns and follows the threesome back toward the lift bridge. I hobble along behind her, retracing the steps I’ve just taken. I’m starting to get tired but I’m happy that she is happy, and angry at myself for buying cheap running shoes so many years ago and now paying the price. These days I’m thankful for my comfortable walking shoes. (Another of the many decisions made by me as a result of relentless prodding of my patient wife, who I have come to realize over time and now can freely admit, is definitely the brains of the operation when it comes to our marriage.)
Slowly but surely I make my way back along the causeway. It takes me about ten minutes to join her near the Maritime Visitors Center located next to the lift bridge. Mary has already waved the kayakers underneath and is now standing in a grassy area nearby talking to a man and woman who look to be in their late thirties. They are all watching three young kids, who appear to be the couple’s children, as they run around chasing seagulls and feeding them chunks of bread.
“Sam, come here,” she waves me over. “These are Aria and Michael and their three children. They’re visiting from the cities, like we are.”
I make my way over to the threesome, trying to appear casual and not as winded as I feel. I must have been successful, because no one notices a thing as I gimp up to them and join the conversation, even as I quickly wipe an irritating drip of perspiration from my brow.
Michael, has (can I say it like this?) the most lovely, coffee latte skin I’ve ever seen. He’s dressed in jeans, running shoes and a dark green sweater and is carrying an umbrella, now closed since the sun is peaking through the clouds. He smiles, showing me prefect teeth, ten times whiter than mine.
“Hi, Sam,” he says, extending his hand. “Pleased to meet you.” We shake and then he points past me, “What a beautiful lake. It reminds me of the ocean back home in Somalia.”
I make a mental note: they’re probably from the Cedar Riverside area of downtown Minneapolis, over by the University of Minnesota. A lot of refugees live there.
“Aria tells me they’re here on a tour,” Mary says, indicating the nice looking lady with big eyes and a beautiful smile standing next to Michael. She wearing a long, flowing, lavender dress, a colorful cardigan sweater and a dark purple hijab. “They live down by the University…”
So I was right.
“…in northeast Minneapolis.”
Oh, so I was wrong.
“Our son lives up there,” I tell Michael. “Near University and Broadway,” I add, kicking myself for being so…what’s the word? Dense? Yeah, that would be it.
Aria joins in, “That’s quite close to us. Our home is on twenty second and Marshall Street.”
“Did you know that Lake Superior is the biggest freshwater lake in the world?” I ask, trying to recover my faux-pas even though I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who has a clue as to what I was thinking. Well, check that. Mary probably does. Probably for sure.
“I’ve read that it’s the biggest lake, surface wise, but there are a couple of other lakes in the world that have more volume. I believe Lake Baikal in Siberia is one, and Lake Tanganyika in East Africa is the other,” Michael says, almost apologetically.
“Michael, quit it,” Aria says, chiding her husband while appearing good naturedly embarrassed. She looks at me, “He teaches eleventh grade geography at North High School and doesn’t get a chance to show off too often.” She glances at Michael and smiles, “With adults that is.”
I look at Michael and he laughs self consciously. I immediately start to like him even more. It’s clear we are fellow teachers and have a lot in common; a lot to talk about. I’m about to spew forth a bunch of information that I’ve painstakingly memorized over the years: Lake Superior has 31,700 square miles of surface area, an average depth of 483 feet and the deepest point is 1,333 feet, but decide not to. He probably knows that anyway. Plus, who really cares about a bunch of dry facts? It’s the majestic, almost poetic beauty of the lake draws people to it from all over the world, and we’re fortunate to have such an amazing natural wonder so close to home. It’s clear Aria and Michael feel the same. I decide to keep my mouth shut and glance at Mary. As usual, she’s able to read my thoughts and gives me a quick grin as well as an encouraging thumbs up sign. It’s uncanny how well she knows me.
We all move to a nearby bench and sit down. I’m grateful for a chance to catch my breath. I’m pretty winded, and it’ll be nice to give my heart a rest.
Mary and Aria talk about a shared love of books and reading while Michael and I talk about teaching. We all watch their kids run around the grassy area playing tag with the gulls. Well, the kids are playing tag. The gulls are hoping around, staying out of the way of the kids and looking for handouts.
After a few minutes I suddenly have an idea, “How about if I buy us some popcorn? Then we can all feed the birds.”
“Do that, Sam,” Mary says excitedly. “It’ll be fun.”
Trying not to favor my hip too much, I walk slowly to a snack and beverage stand close by, purchase four bags of plain popcorn (they have a number of variations ranging from cheese flavored to butter to salted to caramel) and bring them back to our little group. I give a bag to Michael and one each to Mary and Aria. It takes us a minute to get the hang of it, but soon we are all tossing kernels up in the air, exclaiming as the gulls dive for them and try to catch them in their beaks. In a minute there are at least thirty of them hovering around us, circling, calling, diving and soaring. It’s really quite a sight and not something you see too often back home in Long Lake (if ever.) Soon Aria and Michael’s kids join us and a crowd gathers, enjoying the show. Then more gulls show up. I end up buying half a dozen more bags and only quit when Aria checks her watch and informs us that they have to head to a nearby parking lot where a bus is waiting to take them home to Minneapolis. Everyone groans good naturedly (especially the kids.) We all shake hands and smile and wave as they walk off.
Mary turns to me, her eyes bright. She’s energized by the encounter. “Aren’t they nice people, Boss Man? So much fun to be with.”
“They are,” I nod in agreement, watching as the friendly family steps on to the bus. I wave again as Michael turns and waves to me, “They’re really nice.”
After the bus leaves, we walk over to the breakwater and look out across the lake. The clouds have dissipated and the sky is clear. It’s the last week of September and the green leaves on the trees along the far shoreline over a mile away are starting to change to colors of orange and red and yellow and gold. We silently take in the quiet splendor of the beginning of the fall season in northern Minnesota; colors so pretty they take our breath away.
After a few minutes the mood is broken when my stomach starts to growl. I attempt to divert Mary’s attention by pointing out a particularly interesting pebble next to my walking shoe, but nothing gets by my observant wife. She asks, innocently, “What time is it?”
I check my Gotham gold tone pocket watch, a special gift from my oldest son three years ago on my seventy fifth birthday, “It’s a little after one.”
“I’m getting hungry,” Mary says. “Let’s go get something to eat.”
“Sounds fantastic.” (Also, it sounds lots better than listening to the symphony now playing loudly in my gut.) “How about Amazing Grace?” I suggest.
Mary nods in agreement, “Do you even have to ask?”
I laugh because, no, really, I don’t.
Amazing Grace is a quaint little cafe that reminds us of the coffee houses we used to frequent when we were in college back in the sixties. It takes us about ten minutes to get there and most of that time is spent waiting at one of the two stop lights that control traffic flow in the Canal Park area.
Once at the cafe we walk down a short set of steps to partially below street level and step back in time. The cozy cafe has low ceilings, mismatched but comfortable chairs and wooden floors. There’s even an lingering scent of incense in the air, mixing with the aroma of fresh bake goods and homemade soup. Each table has its own unique oil cloth table cloth. It’s the kind of place where you seat yourself and we choose a table that has a traditional red and white checkered pattern. There a fresh couple of fresh sprigs of purple asters in a little jam jar in the middle. We’re sitting next to a window so we can look at the feet of people outside walking by if we want. We don’t. I take my hat off, hang it off the back of my chair, and we settle in, making ourselves comfortable, waiting for someone to come take our order.
I’m enjoying listening to Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ playing quietly through the overhead sound system, when Mary asks, “Did you bring the Declaration?”
I’ve set my daypack on the floor by my feet. I pat it and say, “Got it right here.”
“Let’s take a look at it after we order,” Mary says, and then puts her finger to her lips as the young man who apparently is our waitperson quickly approaches and sets down a glass of water for each of us. She looks up, changing mental gears and gives him a big smile, “Hi, there. No need for a menu. I think we already know what we want.”
“Cool,” the young man says and points to the back of my chair, “Like your hat.” He must have read ‘Nature Conservancy’ printed on it.
“Thanks,” I tell him. He seems like a good guy. He’s young, kind of hippy looking and has a nice set of dreadlocks.
“By the way, my name’s Jeff and I’ll be your server today.” He smiles at his little joke, and makes it a point of hiding two menus behind his back. Mary and I laugh with him, both of us in good moods after being outside by the lake. Talking with Michael and Aria has helped, too.
“This young lady will have the veggie burger, with fired onions and sharp cheddar cheese,” I tell him, “and I’ll have a bowl of wild rice soup with rice crackers on the side.”
“You guys must have been here before,” Jeff says, not bothering to write anything down.
“We have. Thirty-one times,” Mary says, remembering what I’d told her earlier and giving me a wink.
Without batting an eye, and like it’s the most common thing in the world for customers to keep track of how many times they’ve been to Amazing Grace, Jeff smiles and says, “Well, in that case, let me welcome you to time number thirty-two.” He’s tall and thin and has a wispy beard. He’s wearing cargo shorts, sandals and a worn tee-shirt that says, ‘Make Love Not War’. “I’ll get your order started right away.”
I watch him walk away, momentarily envious not so much of his dreadlocks but of the fact that he has a full head of hair. Then I chastise myself because that hairy ship of mine sailed over fifty years ago. Really Sam, I tell myself, definitely time to move on. So I do.
With Jeff taking care of our order and only a few other people dining, we have the place almost to ourselves. I’m reaching into the daypack for the Declaration when Mary puts her hand on my arm to stop me.
“Oh, honey, I’ve changed my mind. Let’s not bother with that right now,” she says, looking at me with pleading eyes. “Is that Ok?” She pats my arm and smiles affectionately, “I’m having too good a time. Maybe we can wait until we get back to the room.” She looks at me, her amber eyes full of light, still as beautiful to me as they were all those years ago when we first met, “Is that all right with you?”
Anything to make her happy, is what I think. “Sure,” I tell her. “Absolutely.” I squeeze her hand back and we pause like that for a few moments, looking fondly into each other’s eyes, just like we used to do in our early years together, over half a century ago. The closeness feels good. Special.
After a few moments Mary squeezes my hand once more and sits back in her chair. She looks at me, smiling brightly and says, “Let’s just enjoy the rest of the day. Ok?”
Sounded like a good plan to me.
We leisurely enjoy a tasty lunch. Jeff stops by our table a few times to check on us, and we eventually spend some time talking to him and getting to know him a little. He’s a student at the University of Duluth and majoring in Limnology, which, he tells us, is the study of fresh water lakes and ponds and they’re physical and geological characteristics. In point of fact, he’s going to become a biologist, like I at one time hoped to be. He wants to figure out ways to help improve water quality in the polluted lakes of Minnesota. (My little editorial aside is that our state has far too many. When I tell him that he says, “Hopefully, not for much longer.”) I have soft spot in my heart for people like him; someone who wants to try to save the environment and is willing to dedicate his life to such a worthy cause. That kind of dedication is beyond admirable in my book. Toward that end, when we have finished our meal and are leaving money at the table for our bill, I leave him a healthy tip.
We are on way out the door when we are enticed by the cafe’s bakery display. We can’t help it, Mary and I are both suckers for sweets, so I purchase four cookies: chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, lavender sugar and ginger spice. I put the bag in my day pack and we say good-bye to Jeff. He tells us to have a good day and we tell him that’s exactly what we intend to do.
“We’re going to take the boardwalk all the way to Fitger’s,” Mary tells him.
“Cool,” he says. “Check out the bookstore up there. It’s pretty good.”
“We will,” I tell him, appreciating his advice and not bothering to tell him we try to go to Northern Lights Books every time we come to Duluth.
Jeff hurries to greet a group of three new customers. We wave a final goodbye and head out the door. We walk up the steps and step into a gloriously beautiful day. The sky has completely cleared. The temperature is a balmy sixty degrees or so. I pull the brim of my hat down to shield my eyes from the bright sunshine. It’s warm enough for us to stop and take off our jackets. My flannel shirt and tee-shirt will be more than adequate for me, Mary’s sweater is fine for her. The jackets barely fit into my now nearly full day pack, and I’m pondering stopping at our room to empty it out when Mary interrupts my thoughts.
“Jeff is a such a nice boy,” Mary says wistfully, as we walk to the corner and wait for the light to change. “He reminds me of Willie a little bit.”
I glance at her with trepidation, wondering if her statement might signify the beginning of a dip in her mood, the beginning of a downward slide toward the blues if not further into deeper depression. But, fortunately, it looks like I am jumping the mental health gun a little too prematurely. Mary is smiling as she is talking and still happy. In fact, she looks at me as if reading my mind and says, “What? I can’t make a comment about a young man near to our grandson’s age?” See looks at me, like she’s challenging me to say something and then grins, “Don’t worry, Mr. Boss Man, I’m doing just fine, thank you.”
Then she turns away with a big smile on her face, taking in the scene of quaint shops and tasty restaurants, all within view of Lake Superior. She takes in a deep breath and lets it out, “Everything is so perfect,” she exclaims. “I’m so happy to be here. I love the lake, especially when the waves breaking like they are on the rocks. Feeding the gulls with Michael and Aria and their kids was so much fun. Lunch was wonderful and Jeff was a really good guy, too.” She looks at me with what I swear is that same impish gleam in her eye from earlier and adds, “It’s good to be alive.”
A fleeting image of Our Right To Die Declaration appears in my mind and then, just as quickly, disappears, as if carried by an offshore breeze out over Lake Superior. I decide not to pursue it.
The light changes and we cross the street. This portion of Canal Park is narrow, only two streets wide. Lake Avenue and Canal Street run parallel to each other for the over half mile length of the park from downtown Duluth on one end to the Aerial Lift Bridge on the other. We are still toward the lift bridge end of the park. We cross the street and walk down the sidewalk on the far side of Canal Street, the street closest to the lake and the street our hotel is on. In a minute or so we are at the Inn’s parking lot.
“Should I run our jackets up to the room?” I ask, kind of dreading it. For some reason I’m getting winded pretty easily today.
Mary doesn’t bat an eye, “Why don’t you let me do it? You save that hip of yours for our walk. Your heart, too.”
Like we told Jeff, we are planning to take the boardwalk to Fitger’s, over a mile away. Founded in the 1880’s, Fitger’s was at one time a prosperous lakeside brewery. It thrived for over a hundred years at the edge of downtown before falling on hard times. It closed its doors in 1972 and shortly thereafter was purchased by a group of investors. They began refurbishing the building, keeping much of the facade while remodeling the interior. It was a labor of love that took ten years. By the time they’d finished they had converted the former brewery into a three story, twenty-seven room hotel, with specialty shops and a couple of nice restaurants on the first level. Since it re-opened in the early eighties, it has become a go-to place for locals and tourist alike. For us, it’s a fun place to visit and walking to it is something we’ve always enjoyed doing on our visits to the Inn.
Mary’s idea is a good one. Gratefully, I take our jackets out of my pack and hand them over to her. She hurries toward the front door, calling over her shoulder, “I’ll meet you around in back. Find a bench by the lake and sit down and take it easy. I’ll just be a minute.”
Thankful to get a chance to rest I yell, “Ok,” and slowly gimp around the side of the Inn to the boardwalk. I find a bench with a nice view of the lake (although, honestly, they all are) and gratefully sit down to enjoy the scenery, the sunshine and the sound of the waves still breaking along the shoreline. It occurs to me that Mary and I could easily spend days here, meandering around (well, gimping, in my case) enjoying the out of doors and each other’s company. Too bad I only booked the room for one night.
I’m pondering the possibility of perhaps adding another day onto our stay when Mary taps me on the shoulder from behind, startling me a little, “What do you think, Boss Man? Shall we head for Fitger’s?”
“Absolutely,” I say, and immediately decide to hold off on my idea of staying an extra day to maybe surprise her later. Mary helps me to my feet and we step onto the boardwalk and start walking.
If you were to look at a map of Lake Superior, the far southwest corner comes to a point right on the edge of downtown Duluth. From where we are, the boardwalk is level and follows the southern shore of the lake to the tip of the point. There it bends to the right, to the northeast, and continues along the shoreline at the edge of the city. Duluth is built on the hills that lead down to the lake and any time you want to, you can look up and get a panoramic view of the second largest city on Lake Superior.
Once you turn past the tip and start heading northeast, the boardwalk not only starts to climb above the shore, but also begins to run along side of a railroad track that was built over a hundred years ago. The rail bed was carved out of the igneous rock common in the area and is unique in that a sheer cliff rises above it to downtown Duluth as well as down below it to the lake – twenty feet or more each way. But the way the boardwalk is built and landscaped, once you turn past the tip, you really don’t know the city is next to you, just a quarter mile off you left shoulder. In other words, as you walk you can look to the right out over the lake and imagine you are in a different time and different place and it’s frankly quite awesome – one of the many reasons we love making the three hour journey it takes to get here from our home.
After we’ve made the bend at the tip and begin walking up the gentle incline of the boardwalk to the northeast, we suddenly catch the faint strains of what sounds like fiddle music. We look at each other trying imagine what in the world could be going on but come up empty. Curious, we continue on a little further until we can look up ahead a hundred feet or so. Finally we can tell. We see a group of people gathered at what looks to be (if my memory serves) Veteran’s Memorial Park where a freeform, concrete structure is built on a high overlook above the lake. It’s dedicated to those from the area who have given their lives in service to our country. Mary hurries ahead while I hobble along as fast as I can, catching up to her in time for me to be introduced to couple she has begun talking with.
“This is Guy and his wife Melody,” Mary says. “They’re visiting from out of town and are seeing the sights, just like us.”
I shake the rough hand of Guy, a lean, thickly bearded man around fifty with a gray ponytail. He’s dressed in faded, but clean, jeans, a red plaid shirt and work boots, all topped off with a beat up straw cowboy hat. He tells me he’s carpenter and he and Melody live on the Iron Range near Aurora, a town about sixty miles north. He’s quiet but friendly and we chit-chat a little. I’m try to concentrate on Guy telling me about a log cabin home he’s building in his spare time for he and Melody, but I’m a little distracted, if not more than a bit captivated, by the musician, a young kid with wispy blond hair who can’t be more than fifteen. Man, let me tell you, he is playing one mean fiddle. His selections are mostly western swing with some Cajun tossed in for good measure and everyone in the crowd of maybe twenty is listening intently, bobbing their heads along to his songs.
Suddenly, Guy says, “Excuse me,” and breaks off from our conversation. He reaches over and takes Melody by the hand. They separate themselves from us and move off to the side of the crowd, taking a moment to look into each other’s eyes and settle themselves. I’m glancing at Mary with a questioning look in my eye, when all of a sudden they start dancing. Swing dancing, to be exact, and much to the delight of everyone in the crowd, the musician included. They are really good, too. They dance a couple of songs while a few onlookers clap in time, keeping a ragged beat. When they finish, Mary and I and the crowd applaud enthusiastically. Guy and Melody make their way back to where we are standing, sweaty and perspiring, but happy and smiling. Guy tells us dancing is a hobby of theirs, and they mostly do it in the privacy of their own home.
“I guess I just got inspired by the moment,” Guy says, shyly.
Melody laughs at him and punches him in the arm, saying, “Don’t believe a word he says. He’ll dance if he walks by a kid whistling on the sidewalk. But I don’t mind. I like doing it, too.”
What a fun and interesting couple. We talk a while longer before we all say goodbye. They tell us they are heading for canal park and the lift bridge, and Mary and I tell them we have just come from there and to have a good time. I drop a five dollar bill in the fiddle player’s case, which he acknowledges with a smile and a nod, and Mary and I continue on along the boardwalk.
Since we’ve left the area of the lift bridge and our hotel we’ve covered just over a mile. On the other side of Veteran’s Park, the wooden boardwalk ends and is replaced by a ten foot wide tarred path, which is probably a good thing because now the area turns hilly and the path twists and turns and dips and rises, all the while maintaining a height of around twenty feet above the shore of the lake. The views are stunning and every few steps seems to bring a new exclamation of wonder to our lips. Near to the path are granite rock outcroppings amid clumps of green pines and golden aspen trees. There are colorful flower gardens packed with purple and white asters and yellow black eyed Susan’s. Every now and then a swale of green grass provides a comfortable spot for people to rest and have a picnic, of which more than few people are doing. Waves roll in from across the lake in three or four foot swells and crash against the rocky shoreline, booming with abandon, at times tossing spray nearly as high as the path. Gulls soar above, gliding gently on the wind, wings barely moving. The sky is deep blue, the sun is shining brightly and water is glistening like an infinite sea of sparkling diamonds. It’s a day worth treasuring.
We move a few hundred feet past the musician and the crowd, find a wooden bench, sit down and look out over the vastness of the lake, enjoying an unobstructed view. It doesn’t even bother me that my right hip is hurting, but, still, it feels good to rest. After about fifteen minutes Mary says, “How are you doing Boss Man? Do you want to forget about going to Fitger’s and head back to the Inn instead?”
Even though I’m in a little pain and am slightly winded, I’m having too good a time to call it a day. “No, I’m doing good,” I say. “I love being here.”
Mary laughs. She understands I’m not exactly being honest, but she cuts me some slack; she knows how much I enjoy being up here on what everyone in the state of Minnesota calls ‘The North Shore.’ “Ok, Big Guy,” she says, “Let’s rest a little longer, and then we’ll keep going.”
She pats me on the thigh sealing the deal, then turns and looks back out over the lake stretched out in front of us. I follow her gaze. There are a couple of charter fishing launches heading from left to right toward Duluth harbor. In spite of their size, they look like the toy boats our kids played with in the bath tub, so dwarfed are they by Superior’s immensity. We watch in companionable silence for a few minutes, perfectly at peace.
After a while, Mary glances at her watch and says, “It’s nearly three. Do you think you can make it the rest of the way?”
I’m rested and ready to go, “Try and stop me.” I get to my feet, joints creaking, and steadfastly point myself down the path. “Lead on, my Little Butterfly,” I say, using a term of endearment from probably fifty years ago. What possesses me to blurt it our at that particular moment I have no idea.
Mary just laughs, ignoring my statement. Perhaps she’s even forgotten what it had meant all those years ago. (I have, too, but I still like to say it.) “I’ll race you,” she jokes with me.”How’s that sound? I’ll even give you a head start.”
“You’re on,” I say and off I hobble, trying to hide my grimace. I hurt, but not so bad that I’m going to let it ruin our afternoon. One thought keeps me going, though: I’m thinking that if they sell canes at Fitger’s, today might just be the day that I decide to get one.
Mary is kidding about racing. She takes a hold of my shoulder to stop me from hurting myself. She’s very conscious of my health and bends over backwards to make sure I eat right and don’t push myself too hard. We take a leisurely stroll instead. The sun is bright in the sky over the hills of the city to our left and the sky is cloudless and the purest blue I’ve seen in quite a while. To our right Superior stretches to the far shoreline of Wisconsin twenty miles away. Beyond that the lake disappears into the distant horizon. Somewhere beyond our vision is Ontario, Canada. The swells roll from left to right and continue to crash against the rocky shoreline beneath us. Gulls circle above, calling and squawking. Where we are right now is, as Mary has said time and time today, the perfect place for us to be.
About every minute or so we see individuals walking or jogging or bike riding, as well as couples out enjoying the late afternoon, just like we are. Mary takes my arm as we walk, utterly at peace. She looks at me and grins. “I’m so happy,” she says.
“Me, too,” I tell her, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
She gives me a kiss on my cheek, “Best day in a long time.”
“I agree,” I tell her and squeeze her arm affectionately, thinking for the hundredth time today, just how lucky I am.
It takes us fifteen minutes to go a quarter of a mile, but we didn’t mind in the least. Our buoyant mood carries us all the way to the stairway leading from the path up to Fitger’s. I pause and look at it and balk. The circular two story structure is built from iron and is exceptionally strong and sturdy. Today, however, I’m afraid the climb is going to be too much for me. Although I want to, I just don’t have the strength or the energy to make it to the top.
“I think I’ll just rest,” I say to Mary and make my way to a nearby bench where I gratefully plop down, letting loose with a contented sigh. I take out a bottle of water from the day pack, up cap it and take a refreshing drink. “You go on up. See if you can find us good book or two at Northern Lights.” I hand the bottle to Mary and she takes a drink as well.
She hands the bottle back to me and I put it the pack. Then she makes the quick decision to go it alone, “Ok, Boss Man. I’ll go ahead without you, but I won’t be long. Just don’t go flirting with any young girls while I’m gone.” She laughs and leans over and gives me a hug, inadvertently knocking my hat askew.
I set it back in place, I chuckling at the implausibility of her statement, “Not on your life. You’re the only young lady in my life. You know that.”
Mary grins, “I know, and you’d better believe it, mister.” She squeezes my shoulder affectionately before she walks over to the stairway and begins her climb, “See you in a few minutes.”
I watch her prance up the stairs, marveling at her energy. When she reaches the top, nearly twenty feet above me, she leans over the railing and waves and I wave back. Then she disappears from my view, making her way along the path at the top of the ridge to the back entrance to Fitger’s. I sigh. If only to be young and spry again. Or at least to be able prance like my wife. But what am I thinking? Who am I to complain? It’s been a good day and I’m in a great mood. I’m enjoying goofing around and joking with Mary. I’ve learned that these good days (as I call them) are something to appreciate and cherish. Believe me, it’s not always like that, especially when her depression is severe. But she’s having as good day as am, so I intend to make the most of it, both for her sake as well as mine.
My bench is on an overlook, high above the Lake, at least thirty feet. Not more than fifteen feet in front of me a steep cliff leads down to the rocky shore below, precluding anyone but the most adventurous (or foolhardy) to make the climb down to the water. Just as I am wondering if anyone is ever reckless enough to attempt such a undertaking, wouldn’t you know it, two boys and a girl around twelve years old come flying along the path on skateboards, jump off them and disappear over the edge in the blink of an eye, skateboards securely positioned under their arms. I can hear them laughing all the way as they climb down to the lake. I panic a little, the parent in me mouthing a silent prayer that they don’t get injured. Then I realize I’m just being foolish. Those kids are happy and carefree and on this beautiful fall afternoon don’t appear to have a care in the world. Who can blame them? Let them be. Who am I to be an old fuddy-duddy and rain on their youthful parade?
I am pondering the advantages of being youthful and energetic when I have another and decidedly more troubling thought. For some reason, our Right To Die Declaration pops into my mind, scouring it clean of all notions of youthful enthusiasm, if not indiscretion. The reality of the here and now rears its ugly head. The real question facing Mary and me at this particular moment on this particular day on this particular shore of beautiful Lake Superior is this: Is tonight going to be the night we take out our stash of sleeping pills, drink them down with a glass of water, fall into each other’s arms and hold each other close as we say goodbye to our life together and the world we are living in? Is this the night we are going to end it all?
My thoughts go something like this: Mary is in such a good mood right now, her spirits are bright and she’s not even close to being depressed, so my guess is that she will vote to stay alive for another year. And why not? All is going well for her, or at least as well as can be expected. Nothing to worry about, right? Then I remember that just one month ago she had been a totally different person, having been struck almost catatonic by a fall into deep depression. Her despair was so pervasive that her mind literally went numb. She didn’t interact. She didn’t talk. She just lay in bed with the curtains drawn and slept. All I could do was try to get her to eat some soup and drink some water, nurse her along as best I could and pray she would recover like she always had in the past. Unfortunately, anything I did for her she struggled against. All she wanted to do was pull the blankets up over her head and close out the world. It was troubling as well as horribly frightening.
And it wasn’t the first time she’d been like that either; been in such a state where she seemed to have given up the will to live. Over the past few years those episodes have been happening more and more frequently. Six months ago when Mary brought them up to her psychiatrist, the doctor only prescribed different anti-depressant medication along with the admonition to ‘not let yourself get too down.’ Easy for her to say. Unfortunately, the new meds did nothing for my poor wife. In fact, in the last six months, now whenever she gets depressed, nothing seems to help: not medications; not doing things she usually enjoys doing, like reading or gardening, or sewing or quilting; not seeing our kids or grandchildren – nothing.
But then, snap your fingers and just like that, bang, she’ll pop right out of it. She’ll get up, get out of bed, and start living life as if nothing had happened, even though she knows that something did. In fact, that’s what occurred that time last month. She suddenly sat up, stretched, and got out of bed, all smiling and energetic. She greeted me and the new day with, “Hey there, Boss Man, I’m hungry, let’s go out to eat.” I was overjoyed. We went to a favorite restaurant where she wolfed down a double serving of eggs Benedict, and drank cup after cup of English Breakfast tea. Life started up for us again.
Since then she’s been doing fine (great, actually), but who knows when another episode will happen? Well, the answer to that question is obvious – we don’t know, do we? But even if we don’t know when it will happen, we both know that it will happen. And the real question is this: Does she want to continue living, all the while knowing that the possibility of sinking into severe depression is not only likely, but a foregone inevitability? And the answer to that question? I’m not sure.
Me? I still have constant, dull, pain in my hip and can’t walk very well. My memory is going, and I am definitely slowing down. My heart is laboring and it seems like every day I have less and less energy. So, on one hand, things aren’t too good. But…How’s my mood? My attitude? They are both good, thank you very much. I enjoy life. I still adore Mary and love being with her. I love our kids and our grandchildren. I enjoy reading, bird watching and gardening. I even have an old three-speed bicycle I enjoy riding from time to time. Most certainly, not only do the good parts of my life outweigh the bad, they also contribute to emotionally mitigating my aches and pains and lack of energy. So I would be voting no on the end of life issue. Would Mary? I’m not sure. In fact, after all is said and done, one thing is certain, we have a lot to talk about.
Just then, coming up from behind, there’s a tap on my shoulder, startling me out of my morbid thoughts.
“Hi there, Boss Man,” Mary chides me. “Thinking about that girlfriend of yours again?”
I laugh, “How’d you guess?”
She moves in front of me and holds out a small container filled to nearly overflowing. It’s a hot fudge sundae, my absolute favorite. She grins as she places it in my eager hands (along with a fist full of napkins), “Surprise. I got you a treat.”
“My god, this is perfect,” I tell her, using a little red spoon and already digging in. “How’d you guess that this would hit the spot? I’ve always got room for some ice cream.”
“I know. I’ve got your number, big time,” Mary grins. She sits down next to me and starts working on a waffle cone the size of her head.
“Salty caramel?” I ask through a mouthful of cold ice cream and warm chocolate, savoring their combined flavors. I’m watching her tear into her cone. Salty caramel is her favorite ice cream in the entire world.
“Do you even have to ask?” she mumbles, chewing away enthusiastically.
Actually, now that she mentions it, no I don’t.
We pass the time chatting and enjoying our ice cream while looking over the lake. Mary savors her cone and I dig into my sundae, marveling at how scrumptious each bite tastes. These little pleasures are magnified by not only our age, but by the very real reason we’ve come to spend the night at the Inn. Every now and then people pass by, either on bikes or walking or jogging. And every now and then someone makes eye contact with us and smiles and says “Hi” and we smile and say “Hi” back. And those friendly folks never once come close to imagining that the two old people sitting peacefully side by side on a park bench in the bright afternoon sun, enjoying their ice cream and talking together, are only a few hours away from deciding whether or not tonight is going to be the night they are going to put an end their lives.
However, for the moment we steer clear of that discussion.
When we finish our ice cream we stand up and I stretch my stiff muscles. Mary dumps our trash in a refuse container nearby and we make ourselves ready to leave. Before we do, though, there’s one small bit of business to take care of. Since she had playfully snuck up behind me earlier I hadn’t noticed something else Mary had brought with her – something she had hidden on the ground behind the bench. She now picks it up and shows it to me.
“Look what else I got you, Mr. Gimpy,” she says. I turn to look just as she proudly holds up her purchase, “Do you like it?”
Thinking she had bought us a few new books, I’m shocked, no, let’s say I’m stunned, when I see what she has done. It takes me a moment to answer because I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life. What she’s holding is a beautifully carved wooden cane. It looks like it was crafted from Diamond Willow, a tree species common to northern Minnesota. It’s reddish-brown hue is accentuated by mellow yellow traces of lighter colored grain running through it. The wood is polished to a gleaming sheen so bright it almost glows in the sunshine.
Mary hands it over to me and I cradle it in my hands, reverently running my fingers over the wood’s smooth surface. My ambivalent and somewhat negative thoughts about using something to assist me walking are completely blown away by the beauty and craftsmanship of the cane itself. It is the most gorgeous handmade piece wood I’ve seen in a long time, if ever. Don’t think less of me when I tell you that it’s beauty actually brought a tear of joy to my eye. You bet I liked it. A lot.
“I more than like it,” I tell her, “I love it.” I quickly wipe my eye. My heart is touched my wife’s thoughtfulness.
“You’re not mad I got it for you, are you?”
Over the five years since my hip replacement we’d talked often about me getting something like a cane to help with my increasingly unsteady walking, my increasing tendency to trip on the tiniest obstruction in my path and my deteriorating heart capacity. I’d won every discussion with immature arguments all centered in some way shape or form around my stubbornness and close-mindedness. (Toss in my stupidity, while we’re at it.) But after my struggle today to cover the mile and a quarter from the Inn on the Lake to Fitger’s, I’m now willing to accept my limitations. I’m amenable to trying anything. This cane is just the ticket. “Not at all,” I tell her, enthusiastically. “In fact, honestly, I’ve been thinking seriously about getting a cane off and on all day.” I pause and smile a little sheepishly, “You’re a mind reader, is what you are. Let’s give it a try.” I’ll bet my intuitive wife knew what I’d been thinking all along.
Mary grins, “Go for it, Boss Man.”
I shoulder my day pack and then grip the smooth handle. There’s a slight curve to it that fits my right hand perfectly, as if it were made for me. I like the cane’s light weight, yet it also feels solid and strong, like it will last forever. “It’s great,” I say, looking at Mary. “Fantastic, in fact. You did a good thing, here.”
She smiles back to me, “It’s about time you listened to me.” She reaches into her pocket and takes out a clean Kleenex and dabs the corner of my eye. Then she puts it away, not bothering to say a thing.
I reach out and give her a one armed hug, “Thanks so much for putting up with me.”
She smiles, “You’re an all right guy sometimes. I just might keep you around.”
When Mary jokes with me like she’s doing now, it means more to me than any declaration of love – you know, like ‘Actions speaking louder than words’ – that kind of thing.
But I can’t resist saying, slapping the tip of my new cane in my hand left hand, “Ok. Now, I’ll race you. Watch out. One, two, three, go,” and I head off, huffing along with my new cane.
Mary pulls up next to me in about four steps. “Calm down there, Speedy Gonzales. We’ve got all the time in the world to get back to the Inn. Let’s just take it easy.”
I slow my pace because, like so many other things she’s suggested throughout our life, Mary is correct – we do have all the time in the world. At least until tonight when we have our discussion about Our Right To Die Declaration. But right now we aren’t thinking about that – just today and the warm, late afternoon sun on our faces and our outing together in the fresh air along the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior. And that’s all that matters.
Mary takes my left arm and we slowly make our way back toward the Inn. The sun is starting to dip in the west over the hills of Duluth off to our right and the shadows are lengthening. The air has a crisp coolness to it, making the times we step from shadow into sunlight gratefully warming our old bones; a joy and adds to our feeling of happiness from being outdoors and sharing this time together.
We are in no hurry. We poke along, pointing out purple Kale and fragrant herbs planted in tidy, well maintained public gardens near the walkway. Pretty ten foot tall Amur Maples with their leaves turning burgundy red and flaming orange add more color to the scene. Fall is really our favorite time of year, and the effect of all the color along the walkway is both calming and invigorating at the same time; the kind of feeling that’s fun to experience. I’m also enjoying my new found freedom of movement with my wonderful wooden cane (which I’m inclined to think of as a walking stick.) I’m finding that I can actually walk better, at a steadier, less painful, if still fairly slow pace. The adage concerning the tortoise and the hare, ‘Slow and steady, wins the race’, comes to my mind more than once, making me grin a little.
It’s nearly six in the evening by the time we arrive at the Inn. The sun will be completely set in less than an hour. We use our key card to enter through the back door into the open area that will be used tomorrow morning for breakfast seating. (A buffet breakfast is free for the Inn’s guests.) As we pass by the front desk Gary waves to us before he turns with a smile to help a middle aged couple check in. In the height of summer, the lobby is usually packed with vacationers at this time of day, mostly families with young kids in tow. Now, in the off season, there are far fewer people, most of them ‘Peepers’, older people like us who have come to this part of Minnesota to look at the beautiful fall colors along the north shore of Lake Superior and the arrowhead country in general. We wave back at Gary. Mary leans over and whispers, “He’s such a friendly young man,” as we walk by.
We take the elevator up, exit on the third floor and walk down the hall. We don’t see another soul. It’s like we have the whole floor to ourselves. Mary leads the way, a step or two ahead of me and my new cane. After years of struggling with my hip replacement and (for some ridiculous, misguided, old codger kind reason), vain enough not to want to admit I needed some assistance, it was my dear wife’s intuition to know that all it would take was the right time and right place to push me over the edge to do what I should have done years ago. I’m glad she did what she did.
We enter our room, I set my cane aside and fight the urge to give it a loving pat-pat. Then I do. Mary goes about getting settled. We both love The Inn On the Lake and this particular room especially – it’s the same room we’ve stayed in for each of our now thirty two visits. To the left is a large bathroom and shower with a door that closes for privacy. Next, along the wall, there’s a nice sized desk, then a large, king sized bed, and then a cozy sitting area with two comfortable easy chairs. There’s a convenient little table between them where we can set our mugs of coffee or tea (or hot chocolate.) Immediately next to me along the right side of the room is closet and then a good sized counter and sink. Next is a long, low chest of drawers with a flat screen television on end nearest the sitting area. A great feature of the room is next, a nice sized gas fireplace mounted in the wall, which we’ve used quite a bit during previous stays for the ambiance (and occasionally for heat.) There are also framed prints on the walls capturing scenes associated with the lake: waves crashing on rocks, fishing trawlers trolling for whitefish and iron ore ships battling November storms. But the real draw is at the opposite end from where I’m standing; a large picture window overlooking a secluded balcony and the vast expanse of Lake Superior just beyond.
A privacy door to the right of the window leads out to the balcony and that’s where we head. “Let’s sit and enjoy the view,” Mary says, settling into one of the comfortable chairs. She pats the one next to her, “Come on, Sam. Come and join me.”
I really want to, but…”First, should I go back down and get us some hot chocolate?” I’m mentally kicking myself for having forgotten to think about bringing up a favorite treat of ours when we were downstairs. The free hot chocolate provided by the Inn is an added bonus for us.
“No, that’s Ok. We can make some tea later. Come…”She says, patting the chair next to her, “Come and sit with me.”
I appreciate that after over fifty years of married life my wife still wants to spend time with me. I pull up a chair and sit down. If we lean forward a just little we can see the boardwalk about seventy five feet away. Past it is the rocky breakwater with waves still rolling in and then the lake itself. To the left of us we can see the far shoreline where we’d been walking earlier. We can even make out Fitger’s if we look closely. But it’s the wide expanse of Superior stretching off into the far horizon that takes our breath away every single time we look at the huge lake. From our third floor vantage point it’s stunning sight, this inland sea, right here in northern Minnesota. We split our time between looking out over the water and watching people stroll along the boardwalk, letting the moments slip by as if our time together was infinite and will last forever.
Over the next hour or so, we both take showers and I make us some tea. We spend most of our evening outside on our little balcony, enjoying each other’s company and being together. Mary is wrapped up in a blanket to ward off a chill. I’ve put on a light jacket. We each have a book, so we read a little, people watch a little and watch the lake a lot.
At one point, after we finish our tea, I grab my cane and go downstairs to a serving area reserved for guests and fix us two big mugs of hot chocolate. When I realize I can’t use my cane and carry two mugs at the same time, one of the staff cleaning in the lobby notices my predicament and asks if he can help. I gratefully take him up on his offer. We make our way back to our room and he is kind enough to bring the hot chocolate out onto the balcony. He sets the mugs on our little table and I give him a five dollar bill for his effort. He gratefully thanks me and quietly leaves us to our lake gazing and people watching. Mary sleepily sips her from her mug and as I fight the urge to gulp from mine. I really am kind of addicted to the Inn’s hot chocolate. A sense of peace settles over us as we look out into the deepening twilight. The day is winding down to a close and the lights along the boardwalk have come on.
I’m engrossed in reading my book, when, after a while, it occurs to me that Mary suddenly has become very quiet. I glance over just as she lets loose a huge yawn. It’s been a long day, and she’s obviously tired. In fact it occurs to me that it’s completely dark out. Night has fallen
“Should we go inside?” I ask. “I could turn on the fireplace.”
She shivers a little, “That’s sounds like a good idea. I’d like that.”
Mary picks up her blanket and our books, I grab our hot chocolate (which now is lukewarm.) We go inside and get ourselves settled. After a few minutes watching the flames flicker, Mary surprises me by asking if I want to play a game of cribbage. She seems to have revived and picked up a bit of energy from somewhere.”What do you say, Boss Man, just for old time’s sake?” I swear I can detect that same impish twinkle she seems to have had in her eye all day.
“Sure,” I readily agree, “If you don’t mind losing,” I grin, joking with her.
If we bothered to keep track over the fifty-three years of our marriage and the thousands of times we’ve played cribbage, Mary has won probably eighty-five percent of the games. I’m always a willing competitor, though, just not very good at cards compared to her.
“I think I can handle it, Big Guy,” she laughs, and begins shuffling the deck while I set up the board and pegs. When we are all set, and she’s just about ready to cut to see who will deal, she stops dead still and looks at me, “You know, we haven’t talked about the Declaration. We really should get that out of the way.”
Here it comes.
I set the board aside, “I was wondering about that.” I take a nervous sip of my hot chocolate. It’s barley warm and just short of disgusting. “Just a second.” I go to the microwave, set the mug in and turn it on for a minute. The noise gives me some time to consider what she is going to say. Is her decision going to be yes or no? My guess is it’s going to be no. She’s been having a really good day: she’s enjoyed our walks, she enjoyed talking with Richard and Gary at the front desk. She liked meeting Michael and Aria at Canal Park and feeding the gulls. She had fun talking with Jeff at Amazing Grace and chatting with Guy and Molly at Veteran’s Park. She’s been friendly with people and happy and outgoing all day long. She bought us ice cream at Fitger’s along with my beautiful new cane. In short, she’s on top of the world; a rare place for her to be, but, nevertheless, a place that is certainly possible for her to attain again in the future. At least it’s something for us to shoot for. Plus, my wife is a fighter. I think she will want to rise to the challenge of living a happy and productive life for another year. So the way I see it is this: The sleeping pills will stay put away. Mary will want to stay alive and if she does, so do I. I will join my wife for another year of living our lives together. There will be no Right To Die Declaration fulfillment tonight at the end of this, one of the most memorable days we’ve ever spent at the Inn On the Lake. At least that’s my guess.
Turns out I am right. I take my mug back and sit down and look at her. Mary’s eyes are sparkling merrily as she says, “I won’t keep you in suspense, Boss Man. I’m voting no. I’d like another year with you.”
Was that a surging flood of relief I am immediately overwhelmed with? It is. My heart leaps, “I’m so glad to hear that,” I tell her. “I feel exactly the same way.” Words cannot describe how happy I feel.
I move quickly next to her, drop to my knees and give my cherished wife a big, warm, all encompassing hug. She hugs me back, “So you can put up with me for another year?” She asks, not having to add anything more about her depression and dark moods.
“Obviously, yes,” I say into her hair. “I might ask the same, of you,” I add, releasing her, but stay kneeling next to her. I want to be close as possible. Suddenly, my hands start shaking. My body’s reacting to how much stress I have been feeling not knowing what we were going to be deciding. With the decision made, the relief is palpable. I can’t believe the joy I feel and, with it, the happiness that fills my entire being.
Mary places her hands in mine. At her touch, my entire body immediately relaxes and I become steady. We have another year together. I’m overjoyed. I look into her eyes. She returns my gaze. We don’t have to say a thing.
Unexpectedly, along with the relief, there’s suddenly the tiniest bit of a sharp twinge in my heart. Probably the aftermath of my ice cream, I think. I ignore it and decide not to say anything. I don’t want to spoil the moment.
“Yes I can, Boss Man,” she says, finally, in answer to my question, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” I take her words as a good sign that she might actually be winning the overall big battle with her depression. At least for now she is. I’m relieved for her; and us. “I’m so very happy,” she adds and I know that she is telling me the truth, not something she thinks I want to hear. She squeezes my hands, then lets go of them and hugs me again. I hug her back. I can’t believe how happy I am; how happy we both are.
Unfortunately, after a minute or so my knees start to give out. We hug once more and I stand up (we both wince when my knees crack) and I say, “Well, in that case, how about if dump this old chocolate out and make us some fresh chamomile tea to celebrate?”
“That will be wonderful,” Mary says and briefly reaches out and touches my hand once more. No further words are necessary. We both know that, with our mutual decision to leave the pills untouched and to continue living together another year, something special has passed between us. Our love, deep already, had just become immeasurably deeper; our bond immeasurably stronger.
So I make our tea. Mary opens the bag of cookies from Amazing Grace and we share them while we play three games of cribbage, Mary beating me two games to one. I don’t recall ever having had such a wonderful evening.
By the time we finish playing cards, Mary is yawning almost nonstop. The day, spectacular as it has been, has completely worn her out. She stands up and stretches, “I’m going to go brush my teeth and get ready for bed, Boss Man, and read a little. You go ahead and stay up if you want.”
When she is ready and climbs into bed I come and sit down next to her and make like I’m tucking her in. She shoos me away, laughing. We kiss lightly on the lips, say that we love each other and I leave her to her book. I stand up and glance at the bedside clock. It reads a little after ten. I’m still a little energized by the day and don’t want to bother Mary. I turn off the fireplace and all the lights in the room except for her bedside lamp, grab my jacket and a blanket and make my way as quietly as I can out onto the balcony.
At this hour, the boardwalk is quiet. I only see a few walkers, a jogger and one or two couples strolling hand in hand. The lights along the walkway resemble old time street lamps from Victorian England, and they cast a pleasant glow, illuminating the ground with a soft light and adding to the almost poetic beauty of the scene. There’s no moon so the sky is pitch black, and I can see a white wash of stars stretching to infinity above the lake. I checked the Duluth Shipping News before we’d left home and I know that the Walter J. McCarthy is expected sometime later this evening. I causally scan the horizon, looking for the ship’s lights. The W. J. McCarthy is a one-thousand foot ore boat on its way to Duluth Harbor from Sioux St. Marie. It would be fun to see it come across the lake, making for port through the canal nearby and into the harbor just beyond. For now, though, the lake is void of the big ship’s lights and is as deep and dark as a bottle of India ink.
I must have dozed off. I’m wrapped up in my blanket when suddenly a gust of wind startles me. It’s a cold wind and causes a chill to rush deep through my bones. I shiver and feel goose bumps run up and down my arms. I come wide awake and check my pocket watch. I’ve been asleep for twenty minutes. Maybe it’s my shivering that causes what happens next to happen, but suddenly I get a sense of forbidding. My entire being goes on high alert. I have the strangest feeling that something’s not right. I immediately think of Mary. She’s been overly tired tonight. She’s gone to bed earlier than we normally do. She’s been yawning all evening. Is something going on? Is something happening I should have noticed and been aware of but wasn’t? I wonder…
Then I have a thought, a horrible thought. It hits me so hard, panic sets in and my heart starts to race. Our Right To Die Declaration! Those sleeping pills! Had she not been truthful with me earlier this evening when we’d talked? Had she lied to me about wanting to continuing living with me to spare my feelings. Had she, in fact, really taken…
Those pills? Shit! I jump up from my chair, knocking it over the table as I scramble to reach for the door handle. I need to check on her. Fast. Images race through my mind, each worse than the next, until I’m left with the worst scenario imaginable; Mary lying comatose in the bed slowly succumbing to the effects of those damn sleeping pills. I yank open the door and at that exact moment my heart thumps like it’s turning over on itself. I clutch at my chest as I look into the room. The bedside lamp is still on. I can see Mary lying in bed, turned away from me, blankets pulled tightly around her. She looks so peaceful. Is she asleep, or…
I take a step toward her and suddenly my heart slams into overdrive. It feels like it’s been hit by a sledge hammer. I press down on my chest thinking I might be able to slow it down, but I can’t. It only races faster. Faster. Faster. Oh, my god. What’s happening? I only have one answer. I’m having a…
In the next instant my heart explodes. The pain is so overwhelming, it knocks me to the floor. I roll into a fetal position as sweat runs out of every pore in my body. I’m having trouble breathing. It feels like I have a hundred pound weight on my chest, bearing down on me, pressing me into the carpeting. The pain is unimaginable. I’m afraid I might vomit. I panic and try to fight back, try to rid my body of the pain and to try to regain my equilibrium, but I’m losing the battle. I feel myself starting to pass out but fight to stay conscious. I need to get to Mary. I need to see if she is still alive. I need to convince myself that she hasn’t taken those sleeping pills. She wouldn’t leave me, would she? She wouldn’t take her life, would she? Not after how happy she was today. I try to call to her but I can’t form any words. My mouth is numb, my mind is going blank. I have lost all control of myself. Is this what it’s like to die?
The only thing I can think to do is to try and crawl to Mary. I force myself across the carpet. Ten feet, five feet…I inch my way to her, dragging myself along with my right arm, using my elbow for leverage. It takes what seems like forever. Finally I make it to the edge of the bed. I reach up and grasp the mattress with my right hand, the one hand that seems to be working. I try to raise myself up to her. I want to touch her. To gain strength from her. To see if she is still alive. With strength I didn’t know I had, I pull myself up until I am eye level with her shape under the covers. My vision is blurry and I’m not able to focus. There’s a fog in my eyes, a mist. I can’t do anything other than blink rapidly and hope that my vision clears. Oh, the pain in my chest is unrelenting. I fight to stay conscious. Suddenly my sight returns. For the briefest of moments, Mary’s form comes into view. I can see her clearly, and when I do, I see what I need to see. The blanket she is wrapped in rises, then falls, then rises again. She’s breathing! And it’s steady and strong. She hasn’t taken the sleeping pills. I am overjoyed. My dear wife is alive.
In the next instant everything changes. My vision leaves me, going cloudy and out of focus. The pain in my chest accelerates until it is beyond unbearable. It’s crushing me. I can’t stand it anymore. I can barely make out Mary’s form under the covers. I want to touch her so badly. I force my hand forward. Then…I can touch her! Oh, joy! I want to continue living with her so badly. We’ve got so much left to share with each other. So much life.
But no, what’s this? I’m slumping to the floor. I can’t get up. I can’t move. I am drifting…drifting away. No. Not that. Please let me stay. Please let me live. Please, please, please. I struggle to come back. I fight to reach out to Mary but I am losing. Darkness is setting in. I don’t want to leave. I’m not ready to go. Not now. Please let me stay. Please. But, the darkness deepens. Oh, no. I don’t want to go away. Please let me stay. Please. I’ll do anything. Anything. Because anything is better than this. Anything is better than my life with Mary…
Then final darkness. Then Sam is gone.
Later that night, Mary awakens and looks at the clock. It reads two-twenty. She stretches and rolls over, feeling wonderfully refreshed, wondering as she does so, where Sam can be. He’s definitely not in bed. She looks across the room to the door leading to the deck. Oddly, it is open. No wonder it’s so cold in here, she thinks to herself. Why did Sam leave it open? Sam. Sam! She bolts up right, wondering where he is. Did his memory fade and he forget where he was? Did he wander off and is now lost somewhere?
Her eyes frantically search the room. She happens to glance down and she sees him lying on the floor next to the bed. His arm is stretched toward her. She falls to him, and takes him in her arms, holding him and rocking him. He is limp, unresponsive. It takes but a moment for her to realize the awful reality. She’d dealt with enough death at the hospital to know without a doubt. Sam is gone and passed from this life forever. What happened to him? Her mind races, searching for answers. She holds him tighter, as tears form and run down her cheeks. He must have had a massive heart attack. It’s the only thing she can think of that makes sense. She wills her strength into his body, wanting desperately to bring him back from where he is. But it doesn’t help. She knows the awful truth; he is dead. Mary breaks down finally, her body racked with sobs, her soul aching. She loses track of time as she cradles her husband’s head in her arms, holding him to her chest, quietly weeping over the loss of this good man whom she has loved so dearly and for so long.
When she is finally able to bring herself back to the here and now, Mary knows that the right thing to do is this: She needs to call 911 emergency and report her husband’s death. The paramedics need to come to the room, examine his body and verify that his heart has quit beating. A doctor needs to pronounce him dead. Beyond those legally mandated activities, the police will probably even need to question her. After all, he died while she was in the room with him. It’s common procedure. In short, people in charge of such things need to take over.
Right. Yes. Those are the immediate things she needs to do. However, those are all just the cold logistics required by law. For her, though, more importantly and most certainly, what she really needs do is to take the first tiny steps forward in learning how to accept the loss of her husband. She needs to figure out how to move on with her life.
Mary closes her eyes to gather strength. There are so many things that she is supposed to do, supposed to take care of, but she does none of them. Instead, she continues to hold onto her husband, rocking him in her arms.
Then, after a while, she puts into place a plan of her own.
She looks at the clock on the bedside table. It reads three fifteen. There is plenty of time. She gently moves away from her husband. She stands, goes about turning on some lights and then goes to her travel bag and takes out her bottle of pills. These days sleeping pills aren’t made as strong as they used to be in order to protect users from doing what she is now going to do. But this pill bottle she obtained years ago when she worked at the hospital, long before regulations were made more restrictive. These pills are strong. She knows their dosage. She knows they will do the job.
She goes to the sink and looks at her image in the mirror. Do I really want to do this, she asks herself? I have my children and grandchildren to think about. How will this affect them? She knows her death will be traumatic, there’s no doubt about that, especially on top of the loss of Sam, her children’s loving father. But she is old and going to die someday anyway. Sam already has. Death is a necessary part of life. Somewhere along the way, in her children’s grieving process, they will come to the conclusion that both of their parents lived full and useful lives; their deaths, though sad, were certainly inevitable. And if her children have issues with the manner of her death, well, sorry kids, but that’s just too bad. It’s the way it has to be. It’s not their lives she has to face, but her own – her life with Sam, her Boss Man, now no longer by her side. It’s a life she doesn’t want to live. The truth of the matter is that the time is right. The time is now.
Mary shakes out the number of pills she calculated years ago would be the required amount and adds two more. She puts them in her mouth and washes them down with a mouthful of water from the faucet. She knows she has about fifteen minutes before they begin to take effect.
She moves through the room tidying things up. She straightens the covers on the bed. She uses a towel to wipe down the sink and carefully hangs it on the rack. She makes sure the towels in the shower are straightened and hanging nicely. She rinses the mugs they used and sets them to dry upside down on a wash cloth on the counter. She sets the book she was reading carefully on the nightstand. She finds Sam’s book and does the same on his side of the bed. When she’s done she looks around, happy with what she sees. She doesn’t want whoever finds them to think they were slobs.
In looking around the room, her eyes glance at the picture window and the black night beyond. Starting to feel drowsy she makes her way to the door leading outside and steps onto the balcony. The air is brisk and momentarily revives her, but it will take more that cold air blowing in off Lake Superior to bring her back. If fact, nothing will. Not now. In a few more minutes her body will start to shut down. She will fall asleep, and her major internal organs will slowly cease to function. Finally her heart will stop and, within five minutes, she will be gone. Just like Sam.
Mary straightens up the chairs on the deck that Sam knocked over and sets the little table between them. She folds the blanket and sets it on one of the chairs. There, she says to herself, it looks good. Neat and tidy. She turns and takes one last look at Lake Superior. Due to the darkness she can barely make it out, but the lake is certainly out there. She takes heart in knowing it will still be there after she is gone – a living memorial, if you will – a testament to her and Sam’s love. She takes a last long moment and listens. She doesn’t have to strain. She can hear the waves breaking rhythmically on the rocks nearby. It’s a sound both she and Sam have loved for the over thirty years they have been coming to the Inn. She leaves the door cracked just an inch or so and then goes inside. If she is lucky, she’ll be able to hear the waves when she lays down next to her husband.
Before she does that, however, there are a couple of things left to do. She takes her phone and Sam’s and makes sure they are turned off. Then she goes to the door leading to the hallway and places a Do Not Disturb sign on the outside handle. Then she sets the deadbolt. No one will find them until the afternoon at the earliest. She’d be long gone by then.
Stumbling slightly, she turns off all the lights but for the one by her side of the bed. She is now ready to lay down next to Sam. Before she does so she has a thought. She looks around and then sees what she is looking for; Sam’s new cane is propped up against the wall near the table where they’d played cribbage. She reaches for it and holds it in her hands. She smiles at the memory, just a short while ago, of how much he had appreciated her gift to him. She runs her hands over the beautiful smooth wood and then lays it down reverently next to him. Next she moves him onto his back, just like she’d done for countless other bodies she’d prepared for viewing when she worked at the hospital. She is gentle with him, this man she has loved her entire life. This man who was, in his own way, was much a part of her life as she was of his. The two of the together, she knows, form the absolute truth of their marriage – together they made each other whole.
Finally she lays down. Earlier she’d removed a comforter from the chest of drawers and now she pulls it over the two of them. She is so sleepy…so very sleepy. She curls up next to Sam and puts her head on her husband’s chest, something she’d done thousands of times during their long marriage. Their marriage…Words can’t begin to describe how wonderful it had been. So much, much, more than she had ever hoped it would be.
She snuggles closer to him and closes her eyes. The room is so quiet. Peaceful and still. She can hear her heart beating. She can hear it slowing down. She is beginning to lose consciousness. And then, just before sleep takes over, the last sound Mary ever hears makes its way into the room, sent on a breeze blowing softly off the lake – the rhythmic sound of the waves of Lake Superior, breaking against the rocks. Lapping against the shoreline. Calling her home.
She smiles at the memories the sound of the waves brings and then drifts…drifts…drifts away. Sleep overtakes her.
And then she hears no more.
A month after the bodies of Sam and Mary were discovered Gary the desk clerk is sitting at a round table in the Inn On the Lake’s small break room. Rick comes in through the door and Gary looks up and greets him.
“Hi, yourself,” Rick says. He goes to the coffee pot, pours half a mug and sits down next to him, “What ‘cha reading?”
Gary shows him the book. It’s a brand new, but slightly worn, paperback. Rick glances at it and says, “Never heard of the guy.”
“It’s pretty good,” Gary says. He pauses and then adds, “The old guy who died in 358 last month? He was reading it.”
“Really? How do you figure that?”
“Remember I let the police in? I noticed it on the night stand. I thought I’d check it out.”
“Yeah, I like it.”
They are quiet for a minute. Rick blows on the coffee and takes a sip, thinking Gary might have more to say. He likes the young employee, thinks he might even have management potential, so he prompts him,” Weird about them, isn’t it? Who would have thought they’d both die on the same night like that?”
“I know,” Gary says, carefully using a piece of what looks like scrap paper to mark his place. He now seems eager to talk, “I think about it a lot. They seemed like such nice people. I read in the newspaper the cops figured that he died of a heart attack and she couldn’t handle the grief and took her own life.” He’s silent for a minute, thinking. Then says, “I just don’t get it.”
“Get what? They were old. Maybe their time had come. Maybe it was supposed to happen.”
Gary puts his book down. “Do you really believe that? That there is a time and place for everything? Even when you die? What do you call that? Predeterminism or something like that? We studied that kind of thing in my entry level philosophy class up at school.” Gary is a liberal arts student at the University of Duluth. He points in the direction of the city before continuing, “If that’s the case, how do you explain the bottle of sleeping pills they found in her purse? Who carries something like that around with them anyway? And why?”
Gary looks hard at Rick, challenging him to give him an answer.
But Rick has no answer and is suddenly leery of the conversation. Like most people, talking about death is not something he’s comfortable doing. “I have no idea,” he says, “but I do know this – I plan to live for a long, long time. No sleeping pills for me. No way.”
He quickly gets up, rinses the mug in the sink and walks to the door, making it a point of checking his watch. “Breaks almost over. It’s pretty slow out there but I’ll man the counter. See you in a few minutes, Ok?”
Gary glances at his own watch, “Yeah. Be right there.”
He watches Rick walk out the door and then goes back to his book but is unable to concentrate. He sets it aside. He’s had trouble this past month getting over what happened that night up in room 358. He liked the old guy. He liked his wife, as well. In his backpack he’s got a copy of the book she was reading, too, by a female author he’d never heard of. Somehow those two books are making him feel closer to the old couple. But their death has rattled him, that’s for sure. It all happened so fast. He just can’t get it out of his mind. One day they were alive and well; vibrant and smiling. Next day, bang, they’re gone, just like that. Such a sudden and tragic loss. He just doesn’t get it. Why did their deaths happen the way they did? And, more to the point, how did it happen that they died together like they did? He just doesn’t understand.
He holds his book in his lap and stares out into space, letting his mind drift, thinking about death and dying, wondering what he’d do if he were in the same situation as the old couple when he got to be their age. Like Rick, he comes up with no answer.
In a few minutes he glances at his watch. Shit, time to go back to work. He quickly puts the book in his backpack, sets is on the floor, then hurries through the door, out to the lobby and up to the check-in counter. Rick gives him a look like, ‘Don’t make it a habit of taking these long breaks,’ and heads to his office. Gary watches until his boss closes the door and then glances toward the big windows nearby that look out over the lake. He sees that the sky is blue, and the waves are gently lapping on the shore. The serene scene makes him think, yet again, of that old couple who died. He feels badly they are gone. He would have liked to see them next year, maybe even have gotten to know them a little.
But, of course, they won’t be returning. In fact, when you get right down to it, who knows? Maybe next year he won’t even be working at the Inn. He’s been saving his money. He might do some traveling before he settles down. But one thing is certain – he’s got a lot of years left in him before he needs to face the end of his life; his own mortality. He’s got a lot of living to do until then.
The image of Sam and Mary fades from his mind as he turns to the business at hand. Some new guests have just come in through the front door. It’s an elderly couple. The old man is using a cane and they slowly make their way across the lobby. Gary notices that he’s wearing sensible walking shoes and she’s wearing boots. The lady entwines her right arm with his left. She is about a foot shorter than him and when she looks up at him and says something to him, they both start to chuckle quietly. Gary, watching, thinks it must be some sort of inside joke between them. They seem very comfortable and happy with each other, that’s for sure. For some odd reason, seeing them together makes him feel good.
“Hi, folks,” he says greeting them with a smile as they step up to the counter, “Welcome to The Inn On the Lake. How may I help you today?”
“Hello, young man,” the old man says. He has a friendly, open smile. It’s end of October and cold outside but he looks warm in his dark blue jacket and dark green Audubon baseball cap. He leans his diamond willow cane up against the counter and smiles at the little old lady next to him. She responds by smiling back at him and flipping her long, gray braid outside her own warm looking yellow jacket. The old man turns to Gary and points out the nearby window with its view of the boardwalk and the expanse of Lake Superior beyond. He says, “This is our first visit to your Inn. My wife and I would like a room with a view of the lake. One night only. Do you have any available?”
Gary observes the couple with a sort of vague recognition. Has he seen them before? They look like…But then shakes his head. Couldn’t be, he thinks to himself, no way. He collects himself and smiles back, “You bet I do. I’ve got a nice one for you up on the third floor.”
“Did you hear that, Marilyn? They’ve got a room for us. What do you think? Should we take it?”
Next to the old man, the lady leans in to the conversation. “How exciting. It sounds perfect, Stanley,” she says, looking at her husband and grinning, “I think that’ll be just perfect for us. Let’s take it.”
Gary watches as the old couple make eye contact with each other. Does something silently pass between them? Some secret something only they know the meaning of? He shakes his head, again, clearing it of those kinds of weird thoughts, thinking, ‘Old people, you just never know what’s going on with them,’ and waits patiently for their decision.
Finally, after a few moments, the old man breaks eye contact with his wife and looks at Gary and smiles and says, “Well, that’s all settled, then. You heard the young lady. One room with a view of the lake. We’ll take it.”