An Undying Love ... [Memoir]
Hollywood Sign & Palm Trees by Tom Brown
I wrote this piece when we lived in a little house on a hill in a West Los Angeles neighborhood. On a clear day we could see the Hollywood sign from our backyard; from the front yard, if you craned your neck 50 feet to the west, you might see the ocean. It’s a true story, an Easter story, about an old couple who lived next door, and their undying love.
The coleus under Bob and Helen’s front porch window are looking a little scraggly, nothing but tall leggy stems bending in their bed of dry cracked earth. I think how the gardener wouldn’t let them go like that if Bob hadn’t been so sick. If he’d been up and around, those plants would be standing tall, their leaves firm and perky, the ground blanketed with a soft, moist layer of mulch. Well tended, that was the best way to describe Bob’s garden, and come to think of it, Bob too.
I try to remember if I even saw the gardener this past Wednesday, his usual day to come mow and blow. After all, who will notice if Bob’s plants die now? Not Bob while he’s sick in bed. Not Helen who uses a walker and rarely ventures outside. Bob told me once Helen wouldn’t allow him to get her a wheel chair, she couldn’t stand the idea of looking like an invalid. That sounds like Helen, the kind of woman that old-fashioned words like proud and stubborn apply to.
Peeking through their front window I’m shocked to see a hospital bed just the other side of the glass. Its metal rails gleaming in the shadowy front room, a remote on top of the neatly tucked-in white sheet, the bed has taken the place of the highly polished dining table with its Hummel figurine centered on the white lace doily.
Of course Bob isn’t in the bed otherwise the drapes would have been drawn or the sheers pulled to shield the scene. Helen would never allow Bob to be on display like some figure in an exhibition, like in one of those dioramas at the Museum of Natural History with their neat little framed white cards posted nearby: Prostate Cancer Patient At Home. Circa 2000. I have to circle round the bed and walk through the kitchen to get to the small den in the back of the house where Helen sits in her avocado green vinyl chair, head resting on her hand. I squeeze her gnarled fingers in greeting, gently but firmly. I’m almost half her age but I have the same arthritic knots on my knuckles; Heberon’s nodes they’re called, as if they’re some exotic islands Ulysses might have discovered instead of the ugly, swollen joints they really are. It’s not as bad as it looks except when my little boy needs help tying his shoes.
I feel guilty seeing Helen just sitting there without even the radio or the television on. While I’ll gladly pick up a bag of cookies or a can of coffee when I’m at the market -- “It’s no trouble” I insist, and I mean it -- I know what Helen really wants is company.
I don’t know what to say about that bed plonked down in the middle of the dining area. It had only been a few days ago when I’d been the one to bring the subject up. Eveleen, the woman who’s been cooking and looking after the both of them since Bob got sick, asked if I could help her get him propped up in bed enough so he could eat some breakfast. He didn’t have the strength to sit up by himself and, at gone two in the afternoon, she hadn’t been able to get him upright either.
Going round the other side of the double bed and, kicking my shoes off, I scrambled to a kneeling position on Helen’s side of the mattress. I got hold of Bob under his arms and tried heaving him up. He looked like a sack of bones lying there in nothing but a thin white undershirt, his long bare legs splayed out from an adult diaper but, at six foot three, he was an awkward, unwieldy bundle and for all our pushing and pulling, Bob’s head and shoulders were barely higher than when we’d begun.
“Have you thought about bringing in a hospital bed?” I’d asked, catching my breath, looking from Helen to Eveleen to Helen and back. I hated to say the words, hospital bed, seeing how the idea of it made Helen feel but Bob had to eat.
“You’re right. We need it. I told Angel so,” Eveleen said, nodding toward Helen.
I was glad she was somebody’s Angel.
Eveleen continued, her thick Jamaican accent strong in the small room. “I been doin’ everyting myself an’ I don't mind tellin’ you, it’s hard werk.”
Bob broke in, in a crotchety old man voice I’d never heard from him before -
“I’m not high up enough. I can’t eat like this.”
“I’m going to get Mark,” I said. “He’ll be happy to help.”
“What’s that?” Bob was fiddling with his hearing aid.
“I said I’m going to go and get Mark to help lift you up. Okay?”
Bob was shaking his head, still fumbling with the clear plastic of his hearing device.
“I’ll just get my husband” I told Helen.
“What?” Bob said again, his hearing aid ringing shrilly.
“She’s going to get her husband to help” Helen yelled from the foot of the bed.
“Who?” Bob yelled right back.
“Be back in a flash,” I called, escaping out the door.
Then Mark had breezed into Bob’s bedroom and, as if he saw old men sprawled semi-naked in bed every day, he’d casually leaned in and lifted Bob right up while Eveleen adjusted the pillows behind the old man’s back.
Now, a couple of days later, the dreaded hospital bed has made its way into the house, if not the bedroom. I know Helen is the one fighting it. She wants that old man to stay beside her in the same bed they’ve shared for over sixty years. Even though his illness keeps them both from sleeping much, at least he’s there next to her, just like always, an arm’s reach away.
“Helen,” I offer tentatively, “Mark can help get Bob settled in that bed, the next time Jack comes up. If you want.”
“Thanks honey,” she says. “I’ll let you know.”
Jack is Helen’s second cousin who comes up frequently from Orange County to look in on the couple. He has a daughter, Deana, who lives in Santa Monica. I’ve never seen her but I know she does their weekly grocery shopping even though she has a full time job and a little one of her own to look after. Bob and Helen have no children of their own.
“Okay Helen, remember… call me anytime and I’ll have Mark run over.”
“You’re so sweet” she says, hugging me tightly.
“Nah” I wave the compliment away. “It’s the least I can do.”
And we both laugh at my volunteering my husband to do the work while I take the credit. It’s a wife thing.
The following Sunday afternoon I’m on the phone with my mother talking about the beauty of this glorious spring day when I see a tall, scrubbed-face blond in her mid-thirties coming up our walk. She’s athletic looking in jeans and white t-shirt, hair pulled back in a pony tail. Talking the whole time, I watch Mark as he answers the door. His shoulders sag a little and his lips compress into a grim smile and I know then that the woman at the door is Deana and I know why she’s come.
“Sorry Mom,” I say when I can speak. “I’m going to have to call you back.”
When I go next door, the hospital bed is still there crowding the dining room. It’s never been slept in. I still have to circle around it to get to Helen sitting in her green chair. Jack is there; he says Bob died in the night, peacefully, quietly, in his own bed. Helen had been sleeping right next to him just as she’d done for their entire lives together.
“What will I do now?” Helen asks when the well-attended gathering for Bob has wound down. All of Bob’s Ham radio operator buddies had come to pay their respects, crowding the immaculate storeroom where he kept his tools and did most of his broadcasting. Brothers and cousins and nieces and nephews on both sides flow in and out, mingling with the rest of the relatives, friends and neighbors who have come to say goodbye. Outside, the tables and chairs set out in the garden so everyone can admire Bob’s cherished roses and his view, are emptying.
It’s been over fifty years since Bob and Helen moved here. Theirs was the first house on Mar Vista Hill, it had been surrounded by farmland at the time. Looking out at the sea of prime West-Side real estate that crowds the landscape now, the neighbors all know precisely what this little house is worth today. They all wonder discreetly if Helen will sell, but they wonder also, where would she go? A little boy, a great-nephew, sits with my son on the couch and the two of them talk Pokemon for awhile. Someone, Jack probably, has set up a ramp leading from the back porch steps out to the yard but Helen never moved out of that avocado green vinyl chair.
When I go over again, a couple of days later, Eveleen says they counted over seventy-five people.
“Where have you been honey?” Helen asks me. “Did you go out of town?”
I try and stop by two or three times a week, simply to sit in the den and make small talk with Helen for a half hour or so. I don’t know what else to do. Outside the window we watch the April showers come and go, spring brings alternately sunny mornings and cloudy afternoons.
“So, what’s new?” Helen wants to know and I make conversation about my husband and our son. It’s just a bit of chatter, some small fluff designed to break up her days.
“How are you doing Helen?” I ask her.
She shrugs. “I’m all right, I guess. ‘Bout as well as you’d expect, I imagine.”
She looks out the window where Bob’s whirligig blows in the breeze. Beneath it lies a bed of roses: American Beauties, Blue Girls, Camelots and Queen Elizabeths. “I miss my husband.”
“I know.” I hug her firmly and pat her back. It feels so ineffectual. “I know.”
“We’re going away for the Easter holiday” I tell her a few days before Good Friday, “but I’ll stop by and see you before we leave.”
On the morning of Good Friday, just before we take off, I go over to give Helen an Easter lily. There are some cars in the driveway. I think one of them is Jack’s. A red truck. But there’s also black Datsun and a man I’ve never seen before, leaning against its hood.
Now I’m not sure what to do. She has company and I feel a little shy.
“You must be Eveleen’s husband” I walk over to the man leaning against the Datsun and introduce myself. “I live next door,” I say, shifting the lily and shaking hands awkwardly. I’m afraid to ask but I do anyway.
“Is everything okay here?”
“Helen's gone” he says quietly.
I stare at him. “What?” Not pardon me or excuse me, just what.
“She passed away last night.”
The summer I was nine years old I got hit in the stomach with a baseball bat. I’d been standing too close to home plate, waiting my turn when the kid ahead of me threw his bat. It hit me so hard it knocked the wind right out of me. I couldn’t talk. I sat right down on the field and cried.
That’s what I do now, sit right down on Bob and Helen’s front steps and cry. Eveleen’s husband goes to find his wife.
“It’s so soon” I say in baffled protest, except I’m not really surprised. I knew she couldn’t live without him.
“I tink Bob been callin’ Angel to come and join him” Eveleen tells me.
And Helen, like the good wife she’d been for over sixty years, couldn’t bear to make him wait. I leave the Easter lily just sitting there on the concrete steps. I hope Helen knows I dropped in to say goodbye.
If you like this piece, you might want to check out Beach Music which is really a tale of two cities, #10 San Juan and #11 Santa Monica or #9 Of Brasso and Brownies about growing up in Niagara Falls in the 60's. What do the numbers mean? I'm writing stories from my life and ordering them on the roadmap to my life in a little section I like to call On the Street Where I Lived.