She thought he looked adorable, popping his attention back and forth between driving and petting Rowdy, their black lab riding half in the backseat with his front quarters and paws languishing over the armrest between the two of them. The years had been kind to her husband. His eyes were a bit turned down on the edges with a few wrinkles accentuating how his skin wasn’t as taut as it had once been. The coloring of his cheeks had somewhat faded into an ashen hue on the places of his face framed by the two-day stubble of growth from a beard, gray as his hair. The broad shoulders she first laid her head on now slumped from decades of wearing the weight of their world. Many years she believed the sparkle in his eyes would never return. But there it was, reminding her, from behind the blue, his spirit was still as young as it had been forty years earlier on this very day.
She remembered it clearly, as if a gift to be periodically unwrapped anytime memories were needed to fill in gaps when intimacy seemed distant. On their wedding night, they lay peacefully in the dark, waiting for the next sunrise to pronounce to the world. Indeed it was true. They were now husband and wife. While she sheepishly hid beneath the covers cuddled close under his arm, he fondly kissed her forehead. He chattered on, describing the plans he had for the life they would share, uncharacteristic for the quiet fellow she believed him to be. In those first moments, he promised her someday down the road they would take a trip across the United States exploring all the wonderful places they could only dream about on their first night together.
“Someday down the road” converted their dream into an anthem they recited hundreds, if not thousands of times. The youthful spirit they saved could not stay the years from relentlessly speeding past. Today she nodded her head in appreciation for the irony in “down the road” had not escaped her.
Just as he planned, they enjoyed a good life. It had not been trouble-free. Certainly in forty years they had come face-to-face with many curveballs, disasters and setbacks. Yet he hung in there with her just as she did with him. Two grown children, three grandbabies, a paid mortgage, and a retirement promising a life of leisure was now theirs to cash in on. To celebrate, they took the early dreams and ventured from their hometown in Vermont to see as much of America as they could possibly stand and more.
New York City delivered a dreadful play on off-off-off Broadway. Laughing about their good taste in theatre, they headed toward the Liberty Bell in Pennsylvania. Shopping on Michigan Avenue in Chicago proved a delightful exercise in spending nearly a hundred dollars on what others may consider next to nothing, but they cherished as treasures. After Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and Yellowstone in Montana, they found themselves drinking wine until they were down right silly in Napa Valley, California. After meeting a couple friendly men in northern Texas, they traveled across the red clay in Oklahoma toward Tennessee to compare cowboys to country boys. With a smirk from under the wide rim of a black signature cowboy hat, they were told there was a difference, even if the hats looked the same. Honky-tonking down Broadway, Second Avenue and River Front Park in Nashville proved the Texans were right. Music City was indeed wonderfully different.
As the sun was beginning to set on the summer evening, they decided to put in a few hours on the last leg of their trip toward home, north on highway 65. Her husband was still laughing about the Elvis impersonator introducing them to Forrest Gump on the sidewalk in front of Tootsies. It struck her how long it had been since she saw him relaxed, laughing, and flat-out enjoying life. Yes, retirement was good for him. With one hand resting casually on Rowdy’s head, petting behind his right ear, and the other on the steering wheel, her husband turned, winked at her, smiled, and then looked back toward the road in front of them.
Terror sharply slapped across his face with his eyes instantly widened beyond anything recognizable. Before she was able to record what she was witnessing, everything went black.
Fifteen steps outside the hospital room, a nurse with long auburn hair loosely tied up in a knot, leaving random pieces to punctuate the urgency of her posture, held a phone to her ear as she paced in front of the nurse’s station. Her blue scrubs fit loosely over a flowered tank top with her running shoes matching the purple that peeked out from the V neckline. She unconsciously tapped her forehead just above the square wire-framed glasses shielding her blue eyes and contrasting against her pale ivory skin, marked only by a hint of cosmetics.
“Yes, I know it is late.” She paused. “22:14 to be exact. I don’t care what time it is. I’m telling you there is a dog out there running scared. I believe it is a black lab that will answer to Rowdy. You have to find it and get it here to me as soon as possible.” Pausing again, she listened. “Of course it is important. I can assure you it is the most important thing you are going to do all week!” There was another pause. “I’m not going to listen to any excuses. If you don’t get that dog and get it here now, you will find out exactly how angry I can get.” There was another pause. “Thank you. That’s all I wanted to hear. I’m in ICU. I’ll call down to security in the ER and tell them you will be coming. Thank you. This really means a lot.”
In room 312, she tried to open her eyes. The pressure in her chest felt like a seven-story building collapsing on top of her. She could faintly hear the beeping of a monitor as it recorded her heart beating and the pressure of her blood. Compressions from a ventilator hissed rhythmically in unison with the beeping. A sharp pain reverberated throughout her right side as she twisted to lift her shoulder. She wasn’t able to move. The tube inserted down her throat to open her airways made it painfully impossible to groan. Consumed by the numbness, she surrendered, slipping back into unconsciousness.