Linda was determined to prevent her adversary from storming the castle but too cowardly to pull the plug.
Hours earlier, she had sailed down the hospital corridor, a roast beef sandwich and a coffee in hand, and a mystery novel under her arm. The sight of a bony priest black as a crow crouched by the hospital bed, his shoulders high, his sharp eyes focused on the morsel before him had stopped her cold. She had yanked back her head to confirm it was the right room. It was. The morsel was her ex-husband, a very thin meal, his face as crumpled as stale breadcrumbs.
This was all she needed. She had been looking forward to a restful night. Her ex-husband, who had once seemed invincible, would die within a few days. She was back in town to help her two children through this last challenge. Now that Jason was playing silly bugger, her presence was crucial.
Winston, her son, worn to a wisp by his overbearing father, was immobilized by remorse and guilt. He could hardly bring himself to enter the sick room. Her daughter, bitter from years of abuse and neglect, boiled at the sight of her father and resenting the adulation that he received from his adoring fans. Neither could cope with the relentless plodding of their father’s illness.
“What’s happening?” she said, bursting into the room.
“Mrs. Edwards?” the priest lisped, rising and offering a parchment hand.
“Yes. And you are?”
“Father Beauregard. Your husband asked to see me.”
“I think not. He’s not practicing.”
The victim, still as the corpse he soon would be, stared in her direction, his eyes anxious, his face pinched.
“The nurse called me in.”
“Well, I call you out. I’ll talk to my husband.”
“He’s in a weakened state.”
“I know the state he’s in, damn it,” she said pushing the priest aside.
With a restrained smile, he slunk from the room.
“What’s this about,” Linda said, crossly dropping her purse and plopping down in the still warm chair. “What have you to do with a priest?”
Her husband’s thin blue eyelids fluttered. His pupils drifted towards her, like dead fish in water. Was he even there? His voice, when it came, was as taut as silk thread. Linda leaned forward to hear a rasp, “Need a… (sounds like beast, must be priest).” An electric bolt shot up Linda’s legs and burst from her head.
In his death as in his life, her celebrated ex remained egocentric. The effect on his children of his latest flip-flop, if he remembered it by morning, would not have entered his mind.
Having finally escaped years as her husband’s appendage, explaining to all and sundry that his thoughts were not hers, was she once again to be entangled with Jason and mother church?
That was the downside of marrying a celebrity. And Jason was that: not a five-minute celebrity, a longtime runner whose notoriety had been built on his witty and scathing tirades against the Church. And now here he was hanging around death’s door and calling in the clergy.
If she let him go through with this Catholic elastic snap back, the publicity would be vicious. The media would hound her about the role she had or had not played. His editors would rush to add another chapter to his biography, now at the printer. A wry epilogue: After a life profiting from his hatred of the church, he insisted on the last rites.
Linda collapsed into the metal chair. Stop the press. Right now. No way would she let Jason’s family triumph. She had suffered too many years being blamed by his relatives for taking him from the faith. Years of smiling to soften Jason’s vitriolic public outbursts against mother church. Years of rationalizing his defense when one of his young disciples splattered red paint across a church altar or caught the media’s attention with some other anti-clerical outrage.
The ghost mumbled something; Linda crouched forward to hear the scratches, “A Catholic funeral.”
“No way, no way Jose,” she said, lips still. She refused to put up with that mumbo jumbo. The media would descend in droves to pontificate about what had happened and to question all he’d written.
“First you’re not dying,” she said crossly, “Secondly, we paid for our memorial service ten years ago.” That had been five years before their final split. A time when they were still planning an old age together touring Italy not, as it turned out, divorce and her return to Ontario to watch his last gasps.
The breakup had not been convivial, sparked with hurl-against-the-wall fights. But even after the turmoil and a five-year separation, it bruised her to witness her ex-husband’s fading soul.
And where were the doting fans? The nubile young women and poetic men, who had drifted in and out of their lives for years, the acolytes who had sat at Jason’s feet and worked their way through the family’s wine?
Once again, she was in charge of navigating a safe way forward. With the kids in tow, she had to ensure she didn’t rip any arms or legs off on the rocky coastline. What were her options? Who were her allies?
She jumped up and paced the room. The frustrating thing about hospital visits was the time spent sitting; Linda had too much energy to tolerate stillness. She flipped through the get-well cards guarding the windowsill, a few new ones: from Jason’s publisher, colleagues, and the innumerable fans. There’s a laugh, she said, seeing his longtime adversary and critic Peter Southland’s card. “Hope you get back on your feet.” Yes, she bet he did, otherwise who would be his sparring partner.
Retrieving the nail scissors from the bedside table, Linda hacked the deadheads off the resilient mums. She hated mums, so stiff and hearty.
She needed to talk to someone—someone discrete who would help her to navigate this moment. Her daughter would be in after her fencing class but Linda was too twitchy to wait. In any event, Jill would just add to the turmoil by raging about the room shouting, “How dare he?”
As if on cue, her son Winston appeared in the door. Noting her agitation, he beckoned her into the hall. They sidestepped a crumpled body abandoned in a wheelchair.
“What’s up?” Winston whispered, holding up some tapes. “Da asked me to bring these in.”
“I guess they’re soothing.”
Soothing for some, she thought.
Winston would be the last one she’d tell about his father’s request. A reed against his father’s wind, he was too softhearted to stomach any conflicts at death’s door. She took his hand and squeezed it affectionately. After a brief update about the grandchildren, her son slipped into the night. Linda wished she could join him, get back outside to the chilled air, but if she left, the crow might return.
Perhaps Jason was hallucinating on the medication and would laugh about it if he regained his senses, but what if he did want a Catholic funeral? What could she do? She pulled out her notebook and listed the possibilities, unsure whether they were, in fact, options.
1- Pull the plug now. The doctor said Jason had only a week to go; he was medicated to ease the pain. But no, she was not up to playing God, especially when Jason had not asked her to do so. Not asked recently in any event. They had talked about it when they were younger and supported the Dying with Dignity group.
2- Leave it for him to choose but get out of town fast. That would put Jill in the hot seat, not fair. Her daughter had spent enough of her youth fielding the paparazzi.
3- Give Jason the right to choose. Give? That showed how far he had fallen. Then what? His family coming on strong to arrange it all. “We’ll have the ceremony at the Cathedral” his brother would announce and she would attend and sit with the kids, head dropped forward, her tail between her legs.
4- Not tell anyone, just bar the priest from the door, and hope Jason slipped across the river Styx before any damage was done.
The Marseille chimed from her cell phone. “I’m on my way,” Jill cried over the traffic noise.
“I found him talking to a priest,” her mother blurted.
“Bugger it, it’s the damn fundraisers. Grandpa Downs donates so much to the hospital, they’re after more.”
“Apparently your father asked for one.”
Linda almost added, “Worse still, he’s talking about a Catholic funeral” but her mouth snapped shut. Why did Jill have to know? What could she do?
“He’ll have forgotten by morning.”
“Probably. Yesterday he asked for Aunt Bess—dead ten years.”
“There’s a traffic jam, mom. It’ll be another half hour.”
“Never mind coming; he’s out for the night. Come tomorrow.”
“And the doc says?”
“Only another few days.”
This time she would be strong. She would sit outside the door like Cerberus guarding the gate to the underworld. Who needed to know? If they swooped in for last rites, she’d tell the papers Jason hadn’t been tough enough to fight them off.
She perched on the unyielding metal chair near the door and tried to imagine herself as a short stubborn bush with roots firmly planted. It would be a long night, the morning was uncertain, but she would hold firm.
~ Melodie Corrigall
Published in Toasted Cheese,Vol. 15, Issue 3, Sept, 2015. http://tclj.toasted-cheese.com/2015/15-3/a-tasty-morsel-by-melodie-corrigall