Albert Transom had reached an age, he thought, at which nothing much mattered. Staying warm so his chest would not ache, and finding a place in sleep where no dreams or thoughts would make the night seem long were his main concerns. Otherwise, he spent much of his time identifying, within reasonable bounds, things around him so he could really be in the world. An extra chair in the dining room or the sudden, profuse blooming of the day lilies in the yard could throw him off for hours if he did not turn to them and think “there you are,” which really meant “here I am,” or “I am here because you are there.” He had no intention of clinging to life, but neither did he intend to neglect its passing. All his life, things had been where they were. He certainly did not plan to let them get out of hand now that he was dying.
His wife, Ruthie, had borne him three sons and two daughters, and though his first daughter and his first son had been lost, to influenza and war respectively, and though only his youngest son lived within a distance he himself could travel, he felt his family was a complete thing and that he had done well by his children and his wife. When he deliberately reviewed the past‑‑as opposed to those times when the past imposed one of its startling images upon him‑‑he thought that what could be said about his life with certainty was that there was no cause for shame to be found in it anywhere. And this was a view in which his neighbors, his friends, and his family concurred.
When he had not made his living by selling his corn or the milk from his cows, he had made his living by teaching geography to children whose fathers made their living too by harvesting corn and milking cows. His manner of living had not been a choice for him, and everything he had done had been done so that his children would not, in adulthood, have to put their shoulders to a plow unless that was what they chose to do. It seemed fitting to him now that at least some of his children and his grandchildren had been to places that he knew only from the geography lessons he had prepared for the children of farmers. And though he sometimes could not recall the names of trees or cloud formations or constellations, he could always recall the names of Paris and Rome, Belfast and New Delhi, Rio de Janeiro and Montreal, and he sometimes mentally recounted the names of foreign cities when he stepped onto the porch at night and watched the stars wheel round the sky.
He himself had no desire to travel very far. Every day, he put his hat on–felt in winter, straw in summer–and walked up the road from his house to the small general store that, along with the Baptist and Methodist churches, marked the heart of the community in which he had always lived. He had helped his friend Edward Hoyt build the store, but Eddie had passed on and it was now run by his son, Jack. In Mr. Transom’s role as neighborhood peacemaker, he had often interceded in quarrels between Jack and Eddie Hoyt, who, perhaps, had been to hot-headed for his own good. Now every day Eddie Hoyt’s son said, “Good morning, Mr. Albert. You surely are looking fit today,” or, “Good afternoon, Mr. Albert. Some kind of hellacious weather we’ve got here, ain’t it?” And though Mr. Transom, in general, frowned upon the use of adjectives derived from the name of the lower regions, he would smile and chuckle and briefly pass the time of day with Jack, who, despite the errant ways of his youth, was a good boy.
Mr. Transom always asked after the health of Jack’s mother, Martha, and Jack always replied, “Fair to middlin’.” Everyone knew that Martha had served green beans in ashtrays for dinner one night; she had been kept at home ever since, and a woman from a nearby town had been hired to come in and cook meals. Mr. Transom thought of this with great sadness, for Martha Hoyt had been as lovely and quick in her day as his own wife, Ruthie, had been in hers. Had it not been too far for him to walk, Mr. Transom would have gone to visit Martha, but as it was, Ruthie went alone at least once a week. She always left and returned with her lips pressed into a grim line and a great weariness about her eyes. When he thought of his own approaching death, it was not the pain of it he feared so much as he feared that Ruthie might have that same look on her face because of his illness. He tried not to think about it.
His youngest son, Ralph, on the basis of the humanitarian principles in which his parents schooled him and, perhaps, on the basis of an early acquaintance with suffering and death, had become a doctor. After consulting with specialists in the matter of his father’s health, he had told his father that he had arteriosclerosis and that the prognosis was not good. Mr. Transom had taught his children to be honest, forthright, and stoical, and his discussion with Ralph had been in this spirit despite the feelings that either of them might have had. Ralph did not need to comment upon the physical symptoms except to say that they would grow worse and more painful with time. But he had had to say a few words about this forgetting of words and dates and the uses of things. Mr. Transom had accepted this news with grave dignity. Then Ralph had said, “Papa, there are some other things we need to talk about now.” And he had paused for a long time before he said, “When your time comes. When your time comes. Do you want to go to the hospital or do you want to be at home?”
“What will the difference be if I go to the hospital?” Mr. Transom asked his son.
“Time,” Ralph said.
Mr. Transom had said, “I want to die at home.” And that was exactly what he was doing now.
On his walk back from the store, Mr. Transom often reflected on the nature of progress. He and Ruth had had great faith in progress. For them, the notion of progress conjured up visions of a time when people’s bodies would not be made crooked by their labor, when no one would suffer such hardship at the hands of the weather or accidents as to make him fear for the health of his children, a time when one would not have to stand helplessly by as loved ones sickened and died, a time when no war would deprive one of one’s son. But what had it all meant? Progress had meant only that his mule had been put to pasture, that no one in the community could afford to plant crops anymore, and the roads that bordered his land had been paved and repaved and widened so much that the cedars he had planted when he built his house now stood on an embankment with their roots exposed, leaning toward the house as if reaching out for help. Progress meant that someone had telephoned him and Ruthie promptly when their first born had been blown to bits in a place whose name they could not make out over the static on the line. Progress meant that it was possible for two of his children and five of his grandchildren to move so easily and so far away that he hardly hoped to see them before he died. Progress meant that he could go to the hospital if he wanted to take longer to die and not even know he was doing it.
On his way home from the store, Mr. Transom often allowed himself to think of these things, for though the ultimate meaning of life was in the hands of God, it was all right and often humbling or instructive for man occasionally to ponder the course of the world. The only time such a thing was dangerous or unbecoming, to Mr. Transom’s way of thinking, was when pondering or wondering was always present at the back of one’s mind and kept one from getting on with the business of life. He smiled just a little to himself as he reflected that he was in no danger in this regard because he could hardly keep a thing in his mind for longer than a few minutes. Bemused by the lackluster promise of progress and his circuitous pondering of it, Mr. Transom would drop his line of thought as he approached the front steps. And then he always thought of Ruthie.
Ruthie fixed lunch every day, just as she had done every day for the fifty-five years of their marriage. They buttered their biscuits with margarine now, and now they drank their iced tea straight because saccharin, which was supposed to save them from the heart disease to which they would be subject if they gained too much weight, had been associated with cancer in laboratory animals. It was hard not to think about progress during lunch too, for there it was on his biscuit and there it wasn’t in his tea. He had considered simply having sugar in his tea again, but part of dying was pretending that he wouldn’t really die because everything was being done to prevent it, and it had always been his belief that the greater parts of dignity were silence and passive acceptance of the things that could not be changed. He was also inclined to take care of Ruthie’s feelings.
They didn’t often speak during lunch, which they usually shared with some sick relative or another whom Ruthie was nursing, yet another way to hold off the fact that she was or would soon be nursing the man whom she had loved all her life. Some pleasantries were required, of course, because Ruthie considered mealtime conversation a small contribution to civilization, just as she considered the piano in the parlor, long out of tune now that the children were gone, a small contribution to progress in the arts. There were greater subjects than those they discussed at hand, of course, not least among them the fact that they had borne life as partners and companions and loved one another for fifty-five years and that they would soon be separated much sooner than either would desire if they were people who would ever voice desire, which they were not. So they discussed upcoming elections. It seemed to Mr. Transom that elections had been upcoming all his life, and although they had come to seem a bit farcical lately, he adhered to the belief that they were an altogether good thing. Or, though they no longer grew things for profit, having a garden just large enough for their household, they discussed the prospects for the year’s crops.
But lately what they discussed most of all was a subject that had never been allowed at table but had sneaked in somehow: the various degenerative illnesses and hideous accidents of people they knew. Like people stunned by a disaster, they recounted and were repeatedly shocked by the intricacies of the colon, the side-effects of chemotherapy, the myriad dangers to the heart. Mr. Transom found these discussions distasteful and dangerously self-indulgent, but he felt it was, like not asking for sugar in his tea, another part of the dying, the part that he did just for Ruthie. Such subjects made the death of the body seem familiarly inevitable. They made it seem momentarily as if one had not been singled out for disease or pain or dying, so that even if it was going on right now, right at this very table, well, it was one’s duty to bear it with dignity, though one might very well pity others.
In addition to the lunchtime memento mori, they shared two hours of soap operas, which they watched faithfully every day with a combination of repulsion and amusement foreign to later generations. The Winds of the World was, in the age of farce in which they found themselves, their Hieronymus Bosch, their Jonathan Edwards. Their granddaughters Sara and Annie, visiting briefly between some school and another, were not a little shocked when their grandparents, and whatever sick guest was there at the time, caught them up on the incest and murder and general depravity and disease that had led to the day’s episode. “What do you think they think?” Sara asked Annie when they were in the bathroom washing up for supper. “Maybe they think it’s real,” Annie offered. “Maybe they think it’s Hell,” Sara said with a low laugh. And Mr. Transom, who was passing by the bathroom just at that moment and whose ears were just fine except for having to hear everything through the sound of his own heart beating, heard them. He thought about it later in the night. He tried to decide if soap operas resembled Hell more closely than real life, but the thought of Hell led him instead to search his own conscience for some trespass not noticed at the time or repented for later. He couldn’t come up with anything worse than occasional unkind thoughts, all of which he had already remembered, and soon his mind turned to other things.
It was at night that Mr. Transom felt closer to his life, which struck him as odd because he was, in fact, more removed from life at night. His daily life had become so restricted, depended so wholly on the taking of various pills, on his tiredness, on his pain, that it seemed a transmogrification of life, not the real thing at all. But at night when he lay in bed and either sought out memory or let it descend upon him during the hours in which he tried to sleep, life seemed close again, real, and all of a piece, even though, perhaps because, it had no order or plot.
It always started with what glimpses he caught, from where he lay in bed, of Ruthie’s nightly rituals. Even when his pain was greatest he saw, or thought he saw, Ruthie combing her hair. When she had cut her hair years ago, he had never said anything to her about it, but he had never gotten over it. It had, when she let it down, hung to her waist as long as he had known her, and then she had cut it all off when it was still thick and luxuriant, when it still glistened in the moonlight as she combed and braided it before bed. How he had loved her hair! How he had loved to touch it, to see it stray from the pins that held it during the day! And he remembered it most fondly not from earlier times, when it was black as night, but from the time when it was first almost all silver, from the time when she was no longer a coltish and stubborn young woman saddled suddenly with a husband, a small farm, and children but a woman who had given herself over to the things she had chosen, more alien, more beautiful then, and cherished in a way he could not imagine when he was a younger man.
And so it was that his nightly life, his real life, almost invariably began with a meditation upon Ruthie’s hair. How often he had had to shun the blasphemous thought that it was not her glory and her shame, as the Bible taught him, but her glory and his shame, because he loved it as the sign of her, beyond any love he should have, as the Bible taught him, for any earthly thing. And she had cut it, and cutting it had been like the constant influx of invalid relatives that had started once the children left. It seemed to him a way to keep him away, a way to keep him from wanting her so much that the sight of her hair before bed could throw him into an unholy ecstasy. It was her way of feeling right about her life in the body. So she had chosen, and so it was. And just at this turn of thought, if he had been a man to express emotion he would have called out to her, touched her hand, what was left of her white hair, and he would have begged not to be just another person in the series of people whom she tended in illness, people whom she saw, with great patience and reserve, to the grave, mindful always, from too young an age, that it waited for her too. He had never expressed his feelings for another person, so when he felt this and was almost moved to speech, all he could think of saying was “I am your husband.”
It seemed then that all the important things in life were kept between them in silence. He and Ruthie did not speak of their feelings because feelings were in and of the body, and the body passed away. But this meant that one could not beg the woman one loved not to cut her hair because he loved her as much as he loved his life and knew what the cutting of her hair meant. Nor could one, in dying, say, “Sometimes I forget your name, but I love you.” He did not regret the not speaking; he regretted that what was unspoken might be unknown because of it, and he wanted to leave no misunderstandings behind him. This doubt of silence had plagued him as a youth, but now it simply nagged at him in short vivid bursts that made his heart beat a bit too fast.
He usually thought then of the children he had lost–of Fran’s bright hair upon the pillow wet from her fever, of the stalwart way in which John shook his hand when he went off to war. He tried to comfort himself with the idea that he would greet his dead children upon leaving his body, but he immediately felt guilty that he had not thought of greeting his own parents and his friends, who, one after one, had died in the past several years. So he perfunctorily imagined greeting his parents and friends at the threshold of the pearly streets, and only then did he allow himself to think of his lost children–not as they might be in Heaven, which, he admitted to himself, was somewhat abstract, but as they had been in life.
He and Ruthie loved their other children, but Fran and John had been the children of their hearts, and their loss had made life barren and merely to be endured for a long time afterward. It had not helped to try to believe that life was by nature barren and merely to be endured anyhow. And so the silence where things were kept had started up between them. At first they kept only their sorrow there, but later, other things. And so Ruthie had cut her hair and seen her sister and her mother and her aunts and a few of his cousins on to death in their house. And so he had pushed his shoulder to the plow and stuck bright pins in the various cities of the globe that he had chosen for discussion in his geography classes. And so his other children, the ones who were left to him, had grown up and pursued careers and married and had children of their own without the slightest notion of his capacities for feeling or thought–they were extravagances–or what was in his heart.
Now everyone knew what was in his heart, which was doing overtime and graveyard shifts just to get him out of bed in the morning. Maria and William sent him letters hoping that his heart was better. They sent pictures of their children, who also hoped that he was feeling better. They had gone their own way, and though he did not blame them any more than they might have blamed him for being mild and just, he felt that he had somehow lost them too.
The last time he had seen Maria, she had rushed through with two children who ate with their elbows on the table and called him “Pappy.” She had been on her way somewhere else, he couldn’t remember where, and her husband had been “tied up.” He felt a little sad when he thought of Maria, not because she was wild or because she was what she was, but because he was certain that his having let her accept a scholarship to a school in California made it his fault that her children had no table manners and talked back to her when she asked them to wash their hands or to be quiet. He himself had never been to California; one of the soap operas he watched had given him this idea, and, in his opinion, he was just too old to find out whether or not it had any basis in fact. Similarly, he felt he had done some small, irrevocable thing wrong with William, who lived in New York, from whence he periodically sent newspaper clippings about showings of his paintings. Mr. Transom did not take it as an affront that William had not married or found a normal business to be in, he just felt a sinking feeling in his stomach every time William wrote the words “New York” in a letter, as if his son were on Mars.
But Ralph, perhaps because of his proximity, perhaps not, had another sort of understanding with his father, and Mr. Transom’s greatest solace and his greatest worry in the nights that gave him little sleep was that Ralph understood in a way that others could not how his body was shutting down and closing in. When he began to think of Ralph in his long night, he grew restless and sometimes watched the shadows cast by the moonlight advance across the floor until they rested and dissolved into blackness at Ruthie’s dressing table, for he loved Ralph dearly and had as much faith and hope bound up in him as a man can have bound up in his son. He knew also that Ralph would be the one to see him through his death, and for Ralph’s sake, he regretted that it would be so.
In early spring, Ralph’s daughter Sara was married. Mr. Transom made the journey with Ruthie to Ralph’s house–Ralph’s boisterous son, Rupert, picked them up in his old car–but only Ruthie attended the wedding itself. At some point, Ralph’s other daughter, Annie, breezed into the living room, where Mr. Transom was calmly contemplating a beaded lamp, and demanded in her breathless way whether or not he would attend the wedding. He smiled and explained to her that the cold hurt his chest. This was true. But it was truer that he could not bear to be around large groups of people. He had not attended church with Ruthie in some years because he felt suffocated, felt as if a great weight were bearing down upon his chest when he was closed into a room filled with people who suddenly felt like strangers to him. He missed church in a way, but he comforted himself with the thought that he could hear the singing from his house. “Rock of Ages,” they sang: “cleft for me. Let me hide myself in thee.” Puttering around in contented confusion in the garden or the kitchen, he hummed along, for it had always been his favorite hymn. Though the notion of a clefting rock had always struck him as somehow absurd, he did not doubt that such a thing was possible and that if one needed it badly enough, the rock would surely cleft.
When everyone else was gone to the wedding, he went for a walk on Ralph’s land, as he usually did when he was there. He was walking down the path to the pond and thinking with pleasure that Ralph had done well in life. The sunlight was particularly kind, and rather than bearing down upon his head, seemed to slant as if only to mark his way and wash the things he desired to see in light. The family dogs were running in wide circles about him and barking, when suddenly he was transported to another time.
There had been an ice storm one winter when Ralph was maybe seven or eight. Mr. Transom had not expected the fruit trees to be spared, but he was particularly concerned about how many trees had gone down on the Little Bottom, from which his best corn came. Ralph had begged to go out with him to inspect the damage. Too thoughtful for his own good, Ralph always seemed to take too long to lace his shoes and button his jacket, no matter how eager he was to do a thing. “Make haste, son,” Mr. Transom said, as he always did.
When they got out, everything was covered with ice–even the oaks looked as if they’d break beneath the weight of it. But for their footsteps and the impatient prancing steps of the dogs, there was no sound. And in the way that silence breeds silence, they walked along without saying a word, Ralph looking back at him periodically to see if he was following the best route, to see if his father was keeping up. It was as if they had entered the sort of land that existed only in the fairy tales he read the children when they were young. Everything was shining silver, encased in ice, and though the trees had clearly had a hard time of it, it was somehow beautiful. They inspected the Little Bottom–there would be a few tulip tree branches and some pine branches to clear–and walked on toward the pond.
Mr. Transom was standing stock still, gazing up, in the sort of wonder he hadn’t felt since he himself was a child, at a sycamore tree encased in ice when he heard Ralph’s screaming, as if from another world. He rushed, slipping and sliding to the edge of the pond on which Ralph had gone out too far and fallen in. Accustomed to dangers, Mr. Transom calmly grabbed a long branch from the ground and crawled with it as close as he could get to Ralph, whose small face was blue with cold and set in the stiff grimace of panic. “Grab hold, son,” he said: “Hold on, I’ve got you.” Ralph had somehow managed to get hold, and Mr. Transom had somehow managed to pull him to him across the ice. Sometimes in the night still he would hear the slipping, failing sounds his boots made on the ice as he trudged toward the house holding Ralph as close to his body as he could–he paused long enough to unbutton the front of his underwear so he could stick the child’s arms beneath his arms. Sometimes still he would wake in the night and see Ralph’s small head hanging back from his body as if broken from the cold, and he would feel the little legs brushing against his own as if they were kindling, inert, long-lost from life, and all over again he would fear that he had lost his son. And finally he had been there and Ruthie had pulled out every blanket in the world and they worked quickly while John took the horse to get Dr. Gresham.
They had already lost one child, but Ruthie had looked at his face when he carried Ralph in, and she had looked at Ralph, and after she got the blankets, she had run sobbing into their room. It was the only time, then or later, that he saw her get hysterical. Dr. Gresham gave her a sedative. Ralph’s color returned, and they slept that night with Ralph between them. When Ralph awoke red-cheeked and plucky the next morning, asking for pancakes just as he did every morning of the world, they were happy to see him alive, and happy that they had made him with their bodies in the night. But nothing was ever the same again, and Ruthie scolded him for not watching the children more closely.
Having seen these things as if they were happening in the present, Mr. Transom suddenly came to himself in the clearing. It struck him as odd that he would remember this incident out of all the life-threatening incidents of his children’s childhoods, but it was this one that he remembered just now. It was the only time when the outcome had depended solely upon him. He had not been able to breathe for Fran, nor could he alter the course of John’s flight. But he had been able to reach a stick across to Ralph and to tell him to grab hold and to hold him against his own body to give him warmth, to hope that he would live. He thought then that it was what anyone would have done, that it was nothing special, and that was what it meant to be a human being, to do and to love merely as one could, to hope that it would be enough.
He turned and finally headed toward the house. Soon the wedding party returned, but his chest ached so horribly that he stayed in the guest room, trying to remember the faces of his family. A week later he took a turn for the worse. A month later he began to die in earnest and there were not even memories to keep him company through the nights.
Ralph came the last day and increased his father’s morphine dosage as much as he could, but the pain made Mr. Transom start and moan against his will. At one point he saw Ruthie with her face turned to the window into which so much moonlight had come so many nights of their life together. He tried to call out to her, but he couldn’t make an intelligible sound. Silence had always been the better part of dignity anyway, and the world would go on without him, so he tried to be quiet, though his body sometimes roused up alarms of its own. After drifting a long way for a long time in great, hollow darkness, he suddenly returned to his bed. He saw Ralph’s face in panic and pain, and he remembered the time he had pulled his son up from the ice and taken him home to warm him. He sat up suddenly, and his son’s arms cleft to hold him.