Margie Evans was dying. Not of thirst, though her parched tongue and lips cried out that it was so. Her doctor would have listed “heart disease” and “causes incident to age.” But the refrain that ran through her mind over, under, and around thoughts of water was, “I’m tuckered out—just worn out.” Inside, one ailing part would fail and bring the collapse of another, like cogs and pistons freezing up in an ancient tractor left to run until it stops altogether. She had pushed herself for a long time, but now she was nearing the final effort.
It had taken her all morning to weed one small flower bed, she was that tired, and she’d had no appetite for lunch. Then she felt dizzy and her limbs seemed as heavy as the great buckets of water she used to carry to cattle on the farm. Water, sloshing into a dry trough, and she was so thirsty—maybe she could get a little in her hands …
The fatigue had pushed her into bed, and she had no strength, nor even desire, to try to pick up the phone. Still, it would be nice if someone were here to get her a nice cold drink.
Her sandpaper-tongue worked at the roof of her mouth—all of it dry. She plucked at the patchwork quilt; that worn blue-green piece, now—Water trickling over the moss in Crooked Creek; Margie, Bob, and Howie playing Apache in the “Indian Rocks,” then just when they’re dry as dust, whooping down to the creek, splashing, and the boys throwing water on her from their hats …
“Don’t think about it,” she commanded herself, and thought turned into prayer. “Dear Father, please help me be strong and get through this the best I can. Send somebody with water, please.” She forced her gaze up to the old brown clock. 5:53 P.M. Maybe she could rest—really rest—by midnight.
Cowles Maternity Home, a clock on the antiseptic wall—10:04 P.M. Mrs. Cowles’ booming voice: “Hang on, Miz Evans, you’ll deliver by 3:00—that’ll be tomorrow, ya know!” Waves of cramping, pushing her down into a dark place: “If I could go back somewhere and stop the clock, I just wouldn’t have a baby, that’s all! No, Father, I want it, I really do. But five more hours of this—that’s an eternity!”
Then, forty-three minutes later, Helen kicks and bawls her way into the world, blue and then red. When they are alone together she cuddles the bundle, so worthy of any amount of pain. “Thank you for coming today,” she sighs, and with the tiny fist curled around her finger, they sleep.
“Mother,” came a voice that hovered strangely over her head. “Mom, it’s Helen.”
Margie’s eyes fluttered open. “Hello, dear.” All at once, Margie bubbled over with things to say. “I just had the funniest dream—that your daddy was coming with a big jug full of water like we used to take on huckleberry trips!”
It was no use—with her parched mouth, and her teeth on the dresser, it all came out as one long mumble. She was confused, and sorry for Helen, who looked like someone had kicked her in the stomach. “It’s all right, honey, don’t worry. I just seem to be falling to pieces today, somehow.” She could think it anyway, even if she couldn’t say it, and that made her feel a little better.
In the small, stuffy bedroom, Helen felt suddenly cold. Without accepting the thought, she knew that death was here. For the first time in her life, she would have to face it—and worst of all, wait for it.
She took a deep breath and reached out her hand to her mother’s forehead. It felt like a hot stove.
“Oh, Mama,” she smiled tremulously. “Looks like you’re up to your armpits in the syrup jar.”
Margie tried to smile at the family joke, but her lips were too dry. She gestured delicately toward her mouth—
Those hands: pushing clothes through the wringer, kneading bread, playing the piano, moving eloquently when she told a story; now, begging for water.
At least it gave Helen a task. Somewhere she had heard—maybe Mama herself had told her—that even a few drops of water could choke a dying person. So how was she to ease that torturing thirst?
A wet washcloth was too big on top of the swollen tongue; when she tried an eyedropper, Margie moved and it spurted water onto the quilt. Finally, guided by Margie’s fingers and mumblings, Helen folded a facial tissue, wet it, and laid it across the fevered tongue. Margie squeezed her hand appreciatively.
It seemed it might go on forever, Helen wetting Margie’s tongue, bathing her brow, and thinking. She was bombarded by her own oft-repeated opinions:
“I don’t know how I’ll feel when the time comes, but Mom is adamant about not going to the hospital. She abhors the tubes and prodding—says it’s a cold place to die, and I think I agree. If we take away her right to decide her own course, we strip away her dignity.”
It didn’t seem so black and white now. She longed for one of her sisters or brothers to argue with, or cry with. She tried Margie’s doctor, but the crisp voice at the answering service said he was on vacation, and a Dr. Parmenter was taking his patients.
“I can imagine what Mother would say about having a strange doctor look her over at this stage of the game!” she thought wryly. She nearly dialed the ambulance, but her mother was sleeping so peacefully it seemed a shame to have them come rushing noisily in.
“No, she needs to rest now, whatever comes later. I won’t call Hank and the others yet—they are all so far away. Besides, maybe she was just tired and needs to rest. Maybe she’ll feel better tomorrow.”
Margie moaned a little and opened her eyes. Helen spoke soothingly. “We had a lot of laughs piecing this old quilt. Here’s Melly’s party dress—you made it over from mine, and she insisted she would not wear it; then at the last minute she changed her mind, and that was the night she met Jack.” Margie smiled a little, and Helen continued. “Here’s Hank’s pants—remember how he snagged the seat with a fishhook one Sunday and you said you wished it had gone deeper, to teach him a lesson?”
She eased her voice down as if she were shushing a cranky toddler. Her mother slept.
Helen was filled with a wistful dread. She didn’t fear the after-death; her faith had grown from her mother’s and was a sure knowledge that rest and reunion waited on the other side of that door. But what of the struggles and darkness here, until that door opened? Would it be days or weeks? How could she stand to wait, knowing that death was her companion?
It had been a silent thief in the night when it took baby Stacy—there and gone with no warning, no chance for her to grapple for his tiny six-month life.
It had been a great club, hurtling through the light of day, striking Daddy with a massive heart attack before she could be summoned, before Mama could get him to the car.
She wanted to hate death for approaching Mama when she wasn’t prepared, when she was alone. But hate could not stop it, for it came as inevitably as the chiming of the old brown clock striking the hour. It would come even on a day like today, when there had been four parent-teacher conferences, an overflowing washer, and past-due bills to pay. She was glad that when the feeling came—“Mama needs you”—she had opened cans for supper, explained to Dick, and hurried over. At least Mama would not be alone this night.
She ran her hand over the quilt—
A pink print, the maternity dress she had worn out waiting for Susan. Mother had been there for a week, had come in on the train from Commerce to wait with her. They canned apricots and green beans, read out loud to each other, and Mama cut some quilt pieces. Finally Helen complained, “It’s never coming—I’ll be pregnant forever!” Then she took Lisa for a long August walk, feeling miserable in that pink dress. That evening, labor started and was over in an hour.
She was tired now, and Mama was quiet. She took the wrinkled, workworn hand into her firm, workworn hand and tried to stay awake.
Hand in hand, mother and daughter slept as the old clock ticked and the workings of Margie’s body slowly wound down. …
Margie woke to light streaming through the doorway, and she sensed that, somewhere, a fountain of water waited where she could drink and never be thirsty again. She was eager to go, yet there was one more thing to do. What was it? Oh, yes—Helen.
Margie tightened her grip on her daughter’s hand. She opened wide her faded blue eyes to see everything—stained wallpaper, electric light fixture, colors and patterns of the quilt, and, finally, Helen.
“Don’t be afraid.” There wasn’t time. “Be happy, for I am.”
She shuddered convulsively, like a machine sometimes does before the engine stops, and fled.
“Oh, Mama, I’ll never make it without you,” Helen cried. She felt torn in half; hadn’t this woman been bone of her bone? Yet in the midst of sorrow, there was still a part of her that wondered at what she had seen in her mother’s eyes.
Her own eyes brimmed with tears, tears falling gently, caressing the quilt that embraced, that released this sister, this mother, this friend.