Someone knocks softly and comes to kneel beside the bed. A shape in the gloom. “I’m the graduate student. Photographic studies.” I was told she would come. She’s at work on a series—Last Things—attempting to capture what finally matters in a life.
“I’d like to make a photograph for you. Is there anything you would most like to see again? A loved one? A favorite place?”
A picture forms in my mind. But I don’t answer.
At first, the request seems intrusive. What’s that line from Chekhov? “Tell me what you want and I’ll tell you who you are.” But I am being old and ridiculous.
Removing images from a portfolio, she clicks my reading lamp on and holds up samples of her work. Exquisite, most of it, printed on thick cotton paper. Close-ups of children’s faces. An old wedding portrait, the image enlarged for the dying bride, now nearly blind. A photograph taken from the cockpit of a prop plane. Another shot deep in twilit woods, tree trunks and brambles turned silver in the weak light. Each photograph, a dying person’s treasure. Slowly, I warm to the idea. The work seems almost sacred.
The young woman holds my water cup and angles the straw to my lips. The hospice aides talk of her in low whispers, like she’s a saint. She brings me a warm blanket and pulls it up to my chin. “You can tell me later.” She doesn’t say, “not much later,” though it must cross her mind.
I wonder what you would say.
You. I marvel that after all this time that pronoun should still be yours.
If you were made the same offer—one photograph to contemplate while dying—what subject would you choose?
I wake wanting the driftwood box you built me with all our treasures still inside—the sunbaked heron skull and vertebrae, the scrap of paper with the Keats poem you slipped into my locker, the blue marble you claimed was Astroom, a distant watery planet we would escape to one day.
And the newspaper clippings that I saved afterward.
I buried them all. Dug a grave. Fitted our whole world inside of it.
I couldn’t have borne it otherwise.
I stopped eating a week ago. Food tasted like dirt almost overnight. Taste buds go offline when the digestive tract can no longer break down food. I picture my body, controlled by a panel of rusty circuit breakers, tripping off, one function at a time.
My mind still works.
Though I drift.
I wake with a sense of being underwater. Aware, but each time less certain of reaching the surface.
Dying, nearly everything trips a memory. An aide swabs the inside of my mouth with a small wet sponge. The sensation is cool and restorative as diving into the sea.
Do you ever think of that winter’s day? We waded out with our clothes on until the waves broke chest high.
We kissed underwater.
When I wake next, someone is holding my hand. Cold and bony, it must feel claw-like. The girl’s hand is warm as a napping child.
“Have you thought of a picture?” Her face swims into view. She is dark-eyed with a broad fine nose and wide perfect teeth. Pretty.
I was pretty once.
You thought so.
“Tell me.” The girl leans her ear next to my mouth. I know what I want to say. All I can manage is a dry croak.
“A walk?” she says.
I nod. Mostly with my eyes.
“Where?” I love the childlike, breathless quality of her voice. All that hope makes me suddenly tearful.
I try to form words again. With sound. A function any child could perform.
“Along the shoreline?” she says.
Another invalid’s nod.
“What time of day?” She knows the photograph I want connects to a memory. I imagine most do.
A child comes to play on the floor beside my bed. She has your eyes and in other ways the look of you. A slender little weed. Thoughtful. Good-natured. Her quiet presence weighs on my chest, so I find it hard to breathe.
A sensor chimes. An aide appears and fits a cannula to my nostrils promising that a little oxygen will make me more comfortable.
When I wake next, my daughter is there. She quickly dries her eyes.
I pat the covers. She lies down next to me and rests her head beside mine on the pillow.
This is the hard part. My love for her feels like a trapped ocean in my chest.
She wraps my useless arm around her and whispers the prayer we said together every night of her childhood.
A large print hangs from a moveable contraption beside my bed. The photograph must be four by six feet. Sand drops to a sea that stretches to the horizon. Taken at daybreak, flecks of light sparkle on the water. In my memory I have walked this short strip of sand a thousand times. Tears leak from the corners of my eyes.
“Did I get it right?” A whispered voice comes from the dark. The girl scoots her chair next to the bedrail. She gives me her hand, and I squeeze it.
“I’m so glad. Listen.” She fingers a device in her palm and I hear waves crashing. Gulls wheel and cry overhead. Sounds I thought I’d never hear again fill the room.
“I brought back a tub of seawater. Thought you might like to feel wet sand between your toes.” She studies me. “Maybe that would be too much.”
Again, she leans her ear to my mouth.
Up comes out mostly as a percussive P.
“All right. Just a minute. Let me get some help.”
She returns with two large aides, who lower the bedrail and gently lift my feet over the side of the mattress. One on each side, they hoist me in the air. What a sight I must be in my hospital gown and diaper. All bones and loose skin. Unable even to bear my own weight.
My feet lowered into the chilly water, I forget all that.
I climb out of your truck and walk with you to the water’s edge.
You pull your shoes off, then your socks, folding them neatly.
“I am not getting in that ice-cold water,” I tell you. I pull my sweater tight around my shoulders.
Our eyes meet.
“We both know you’ll come with me,” you say. “You’d follow me anywhere.”
I laugh. Fold my sweater and weight it with my shoes in the sand.
We wade into the chilly water, gasping as the waves lap higher.
Beyond the second sandbar a deep trough falls away. We tread water, heads just above the surface. Both laughing.
“Kiss me,” you say, and you pull me underwater.
Your lips are blue as your eyes. My hair floats around us like seaweed. Bits of algae hang in the water. Shot through with sunlight, they glow. You press your lips to mine. We stop treading and fall toward the seafloor.
I feel you smile in the kiss and I smile too.
Hungry for air, we start upward.
The surface is a net of glinting light high above us.
My sodden clothes make me heavy. I pull harder with each stroke.
Somewhere far away I hear competing chimes. And urgent whispered voices.
Exhausted, I stop swimming.
You hang in the water beside me. Same tender smile as when we were kids.
Lisa Glasgow’s short fiction earned Honorable Mention in the 2019 Writer’s Digest Literary Short Story Contest. She received The Writers Hotel Sara Patton Fiction Stipend, and an excerpt from her novel-in-progress won the Writers League of Texas YA Manuscript Contest. Her work has appeared in Gone Lawn.
–Art by J. F. Chow — Artist Profile