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An Emerald Memory


Charlie Hudson

Claire tried to breath normally to match the poised façade she’d drawn around herself for the past fifty minutes – well, fifty-four minutes to be precise.  If she could look calm, then the very act itself should be able to seep into her pores and replace the anxiety that gripped her stomach and threatened to send her hands into uncontrollable trembling.  She had to focus on something other than the mental image of the surgical team opening Hal’s chest.

Kerry – remember?” he had whispered softly to her as the pre-op shot took effect.

Of all the thoughts he could have had before slipping into a dazed, mumbling state, why that one?

Brad interrupted her pondering.  “Mom, can I get you a cup of coffee or something?  It will be at least another hour before they can tell us anything,” he continued.

Claire smiled, or thought she did – muscles moved on her face – and looked at the boy who had become a handsome young man.  “I’d rather have something cold, I think,” she said quietly.  “Something diet without caffeine.”

“Sure, I’ll be right back,” Brad said and squeezed her shoulder lightly.  My God, when had he picked up that gesture?  It was so much like Hal that if she closed her eyes, she wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.

“A lemonade would be good and I’d like one, too,” Erin said from the chair opposite Claire.  “Can you carry it by yourself or do you need another pair of hands?” She put the book she was reading in her lap.

Brad shook his head.  “No, I’m okay.  You stay here with Mom.”

Claire almost smiled at the idea that she couldn’t be left alone for a short trip to the cafeteria, but then she realized that she didn’t really want to be alone.  Not in this room – this rectangular waiting room done in lavender and gray in colors that had probably been selected to be soothing.  The chairs were surprisingly comfortable and overhead fluorescent lights had somehow been softened more than the ones throughout the hospital corridors.

Brad disappeared and Erin returned to her reading.  She, as always, would draw inward with her thoughts and respond only enough to avoid being considered a complete introvert.  The silence between them was not uncomfortable, nor had it ever been.  Claire knew that Erin would willingly talk and share and unburden when she needed to.  She’d been the quiet one of the two children and in all honesty, sometimes a welcome relief from Brad’s constant motion.

Claire picked up a magazine from the trio fanned on the end table.  It was a travel magazine filled with panoramic photographs of places that would provide a distraction to those who waited; something pleasant to look at and nothing laborious to read.

“Kerry – remember?” Hal had whispered.

How could she not remember?  It had been only last year; the first long trip they’d taken in more than a decade in what was to be the fulfillment of a promise to crisscross Europe in a series of leisurely vacations.  Hal chose Ireland as the starting point in honor of Claire’s lineage.

“We’ll do the British Isles and then the Continent,” he’d suggested.  “No less than two weeks at a time or three if we’d rather.  And we’ll mix it up with a walking tour for one, then biking, some nice dive trips, of course, maybe a Nile River trip combined with Red Sea diving; whatever we feel like.  We’ll plan on one a year during off-peak time.  We’ll keep watch on the Internet and can get some great bargains; especially now that we’ve got more flexible schedules.”

The vision of their travels had been the second major decision.  Walking away from what they’d built had been the first.  When they’d finally put the idea into words – and Claire couldn’t remember which of them had spoken it at last – it seemed improbable and almost impossible to fathom.  They’d sat and talked that evening and into the night, as the idea became easier to grasp.  Successes for them both had accelerated more quickly than they’d expected and juggling it all was another part of the game.  It was the custom home in the prestigious neighborhood and the exclusive club with the right contacts and the children with so many activities.

The family vacations became difficult to fit in so the condo in Key Largo was at least quick to get to.  They snatched wonderful weekends until those also disappeared as business trips multiplied and the children grew with their own interests.  Claire’s job covered only a three-state radius, but Hal increasingly crossed the Atlantic until somehow the years blended into each other in a stream of deals and projects.  It was at the end of a major deal for Hal and in the midst of Claire’s company planning a restructure when they realized they’d spent a month on the road in opposite directions.  The next project and Claire’s new position would mean more of the same.

They’d sat in their exquisitely decorated great room in the massive house overlooking the manicured lake area.  They tried to figure out how to slow down, but it was not the nature of either organization.  Cutting, competitive edges were not maintained by nine-to-five attitudes.  And if one slowed down and the other didn’t, how would that make a difference?  They poured another glass of wine, listened to the sounds of jazz in the background and known it wouldn’t.

Then Claire had tentatively said – no, no, it had been Hal – that perhaps, just perhaps, a real change was in order.  But the house, and the club, and the condo.  Brad was established in a new job and Erin was in her senior year with superb credentials.  She was deeply involved with her own friends, as it should be, and not likely to need their financial help when she graduated.  But the house, and the club, and the condo.  Well, did they really like the house or the people in the club for that matter?  Once the question was asked and answered with truthfulness born of wine, fatigue and too many years slipped past, the improbability of their hovering decision segued into an executable plan.

It had been simple to find a charming, manageable place on a quiet street away from high mortgages and association fees.  Co-workers and club members bid them a showy farewell while no doubt whispering privately of their inexplicable loss of senses.

They kept the condo since in addition to his occasional consulting jobs, Hal signed on as a scuba instructor during peak season and Claire’s telecommuting, part time work needed no fixed location.  A few months at a stretch in Key Largo blended nicely with their slower pace.  The ease of the shift in lifestyle had been the biggest surprise of all.  They gained the sort of time they’d nearly forgotten existed.  Bicycles were put back into use and they conquered challenges of homemade pasta and grilled pizza.

And then there had been the trip to Ireland, the unhurried rhythm made sweeter still by knowing that it was merely the beginning of other adventures to follow.

It had been a week on an organized walking tour and then a week of self-guided driving.  The pace of both was meant for unwinding and filled with delights of sight and taste.  The walking group of six was pleasant with only one other American, a polite young man enjoying the tour as his high school graduation present.  Their guide was a ruddy-cheeked, broad-shouldered Irishman who knew the countryside well and had a story to tell – who knew how true? – of each trek.

The daily mountain walks of ten to fifteen kilometers with expansive coastline views were not overly strenuous, but designed instead to savor the feel of the earth.  The course along the length of the Cliffs of Moher made Claire regret that she’d not yet taken photography classes.  Each evening reverberated with camaraderie of small inns where they stayed and the sounds of music in the pubs where tourist brochures came to life.

And when that week was done, their guide cheerfully marked the map with the village of Claire’s ancestors and a recommended route.  They set off with the freedom of no fixed timetable, a stop here or there, a side road taken for no other purpose than it looked interesting.

“Kerry – remember?” Hal had whispered.  As Claire thought back on those delicious days, it no longer seemed odd that he would have floated to them in semi-consciousness.

Brad returned with the drinks and Claire took hers wordlessly.  She felt the chill of the beverage through the wax-coated paper of the cup and reminded herself that she should eat something soon.  Later, though, later when she could swallow; later when her stomach would allow food to pass into it.

Brad took the seat next to her and they waited in the almost quiet of the room with sounds of ringing telephones or announcements made for this purpose and that filtering down the hallway.  Claire slowly turned magazine pages, reading nothing, feeling the texture of the paper, noting the colors of the pictures.  It was a way to keep from speaking, a buffer from unwanted thoughts.  Despite her resolve, tendrils of what-ifs wafted through her defenses.

Was it possible that one of life’s ironic twists would reach out and touch them like the devastating tip of a tornado?  Could it be that as they sat, each clinging to their private thoughts, that the highly qualified surgeon with the impeccable professional reputation and well-trained team would be desperately trying to stave off failure?  It had probably happened earlier that day to someone within these walls; or certainly to someone during the past few days.  Was there, in fact, a scoreboard somewhere that would click the win-to-loss column against the human belief that death could be delayed?  Or was it simpler yet, and it was not a scoreboard, but a schedule that had come due?  Could it be that the years Claire and Hal thought they had bought were to be dwindled to this – a few hours in an anonymous room to be told that it was over?

Claire clutched the drink and sucked hard enough through the straw.  The stinging pain above her right eye would distract her from the swerve into morbid wondering.  Better to think of the cardiologist’s assurances of the mildness of Hal’s attack, of the successful record of procedures he explained to them even though Claire could remember virtually none of what he’d said.  What did it matter to her of the details?

No, better to press the play button of events and places remembered and those almost forgotten from the firmly etched ones of their wedding day or the children’s birth, to the mundane acts of passing the newspaper back and forth during breakfast.  Theirs had not been a marriage without flaws, yet when the fabric stretched it was never beyond the strength of the elasticity.  Had the shape changed?  Probably, but not so much as to lose its recognizable form.

“Kerry – remember?” Hal had whispered.  Oh yes, a recent memory that pulsated in purity of emerald tones and mountain air that melded into the smells of sea borne breezes across the Shannon estuary.

“Mom, can I get you anything else?”  Brad’s voice broke through again and Claire turned her head to look into her own green eyes and Hal’s face as it had been the day he proposed to her.  How like him Brad was!

Claire wrinkled her brow as she touched the back of their son’s hand.  “No, I’m okay,” she said, truthful in that another drink or a bite to eat wouldn’t give her what she needed.

Brad’s eyes shifted to her left and Claire turned her torso when she saw his mouth tighten.

“Mrs. Newman?”

The slender woman in surgical scrubs crossed the room with a maddeningly neutral expression.  Her short blonde hair was damp around the forehead.  What did it mean?

Claire tried to speak, but her lips wouldn’t move and the intimate silence of the family immediately hung heavy instead.  It was a dark instant that must surely have been only a few seconds of what seemed much longer.

“The surgery went quite well,” the doctor said quietly.  “Mr. Newman is being moved now and it will be a while before he comes out from under the anesthetic.  We’ll have a better idea of his condition in a day or two, but for now, there’s no reason to think there will be any complications.”

Claire realized she was standing and gripping the surgeon’s hand.  She needed the physical contact to confirm the reality of the declaration.  She relaxed her fingers and nodded or mumbled or said appropriate words, not certain if it was her own voice that she heard.  She probably asked about follow-on treatment or something of that nature.

The doctor gave them a half-smile and retreated as Claire felt herself gathered in an embrace between Brad and Erin.  She silently whispered a dozen “Thank you, Gods”, and took the tissue Erin gave her to wipe away tears blurring her vision.

“I’ll go down to the nurses’ station and find out what we do next,” Brad said with his habit of taking definitive action in most circumstances.

Claire nodded and sat again with the sudden weakness of a passing adrenaline rush.  She crumpled the tissue and tossed it toward the wastebasket – a perfect shot inside.

Erin grinned at the gesture and for the first time in three days, the blue of her eyes was no longer shaded with worry she had refused to speak.  “Well, it looks like that active life must have paid off,” she said.  “Before you know it, you two will be tackling another mountain trail or diving to find some sunken pirate ship.”

Claire laughed with her.  “Actually, we’d booked a cycling tour of the Scottish Highlands,” she said.  “I’ll check with the doctor, but we may have to swap that over for something a little more sedate.”

Erin lifted her hands.  “Hiking, cycling, diving, or just taking it easy at the house.  As long as you’re together, I guess it doesn’t really matter, does it?”

Claire let the lightness wash over her and took a deep breath.  “No, it doesn’t.  And did I ever really tell you about the great trip your Dad and I took to Ireland?

The End