Grief

byoshaw©

The silence during the drive was consuming the attention of the couple in the vehicle. Ray Thompson gazed ahead lost in his private thoughts. Surreptitiously he would allow an occasional peripheral view at his wife, Marilyn. She was concentrating on looking out the passenger side window at whatever caught her interest. Whenever she thought it was safe she would focus on the hazy reflected image of her husband from the passenger's window as the miles continued to pass away.

Subconsciously as only married couples could do, little signals known only to Ray and Marilyn would tip off each other when one would decide to gaze at the other. That allowed the other to divert their attention and preclude the couple from the admission of observing their respective spouse.

This well established practice had been ongoing in the Thompson household for a long time. Communications between the two had devolved into formal polite snippets of any topic that needed to be addressed.

We are so goddamn cordial, Ray Thompson thought as he allowed his vision to linger on Marilyn, dressed in her black dress, wearing dark silk stockings. Her legs crossed at the ankles; ladylike, her profile was mostly of her posterior as she continued to turn away from her husband. Her raven dark hair nearly matched her dress as Ray looked abjectly at her cheek, her jawline, a faint glimmering of her lips. These were the only portions of her head subject to his view.

Ah, but her body, that exquisite feminine body that attracted him in college was still amazing to him; even though all Ray could observe was her back tapering down to her hips and the soft swells of her buttocks merging into the car seat.

No matter, he had committed to memory every inch of her body by vision and by touch. Hell, it went further than that. He had tasted every portion of her and breathed in her scent for the nine years of their marriage. He honestly believed that if you blindfolded him and just allowed him to place his head on her torso, he could pick her out from her heartbeat, her breathing pattern, her scent, the texture of her skin...

Ray felt the guilt of betrayal for his thoughts of Marilyn. How can I even be thinking about her right now? Hadn't she made it plain by her words and her actions where I stood in the great scheme of things? It was just something else to mourn now. Another loss, another heartache, another numbing pain of a void that couldn't be filled.

These were feelings that Ray had to entertain for too long a time now. What has it been, sixty two months? Sixty two months of living in agony every day. He kept a daily tally, this made day number 1,865 of his personal hell. Would the events now come to a speedy conclusion? Would he get closure regardless how painful? Would he ever feel like breathing again?

Marilyn Thompson sensed that her husband's attention diverted away from her. She took a quick glance at the hazy reflection in the glass for confirmation and now she began to study the man she had committed herself to so many years ago. Her emotions were in flux. There were so many good things to remember and there were too many bad things to forget.

Why won't he give me the support I need? She thought, why did I ever have to go looking to get such a basic human need? Then, her conscious weighed in and asked if she had provided that same need to her husband. In irritation at the self examination, Marilyn focused on the sad stoic visage of Ray's face. She knew the torment he was undergoing was matched by hers.

She wanted to gather the courage to initiate a dialogue. But every time she had attempted in the past year she had been rebuffed. And every time Ray had clumsily tried to discuss things with her she had retaliated and closed him off. Now the relationship consisted of only inane insignificant conversations, cold politeness, and guilty consciousness.

It hadn't started that way. Once there had been such a blinding love between the two. Once there had been the bond of two people into the bliss of a single entity of happiness. They were one and the same, even before they underwent the rite of marriage. Neither could endure the pain of being separated from each other.

When they looked into each others' eyes while they exchanged their wedding vows, both thought they could never exceed the love they had for one another from that day forth.

They were wrong.

Fourteen months into the marriage, on Christmas Day saw the arrival of Rachel Lee Thompson into their lives. Now, both knew that life would never be the same and they felt the completion of their souls into a cherished trinity.

Marilyn, remembered the stunned look of awe on Ray's face as he first glanced at his daughter in the delivery room. Then his face morphed into the sweetest look of adoration as he looked at Marilyn exhausted from the efforts to give birth first cradled the mewling newborn in her arms and began crying tears of joy. That caused him to join into the cascade of tears as the three huddled together briefly before the delivery team took charge of the post delivery procedures.

That began Marilyn and Ray's journey to become the perfect parents. They bought and read every book on child rearing. They scanned every night on the internet. They talked to every friend and family member they could. The anxiety they went through was endearing as well as exhausting. Finally, they compromised on trusting the most practical authorities; their mothers.

From almost hourly calls, the two grandmothers were able to alleviate the fears and concerns of the new parents and at the same time began the process of spoiling their beautiful little granddaughter. Marilyn's parents were so enamored by their granddaughter that they moved cross country to live nearby. So life began in the Thompson household and each day was a wonder of discovery with their child.

The feedings, the sleep cycles, the diaper changes. The quiet rockings at 2:00 a.m. to hush the baby with a soft lullaby. The rapt attention of watching the baby prone on their living room floor as she struggled to get on all fours.

The increase in height and weight, the doctor's visits and vaccinations, the photographs of the baby using every gift bestowed at the baby's showers and copies sent along with the thank you notes to the donors to show the appreciation of the gifts. The video recordings of each landmark event. The steady coordination of hands and eyes and muscle control.

The blessed look of recognizing her parent's faces and voices went they came into her view and beaming a smile and the little body thrashing about.

The first crawl, the first sounds, the first gripping of fingers. Baby foods and spillproof bottles.

The first time she said "Momma," which brought tears to Marilyn and Ray.

Standing up and then plopping back down on her butt. Each day bringing a little more progress and endurance. Then that first hesitant step. Soon, they would keep a distance away to encourage Rachel to walk to them. The celebrations of each successful trek. The agony of teething.

The increase in vocabulary and the pleasure of trying to interpret Rachel's desires. The Terrible Twos' Era and potty training. The purchases of new outfits to accommodate Rachel's growth. The third and fourth birthdays' celebrations with a gleeful Rachel's face smeared with chocolate cake.

All these and the thousands of others things that impacted their lives just as they do every set of parents. And like every set of parents, Marilyn and Ray were sure that their child was the smartest and most beautiful baby ever born. Because everybody wants their child to be special. Unique. And Rachel Lee Thompson was unique. She had something that tens of millions of babies would never have.

Leukemia.

Marilyn recalled the devastation she had felt when she and Ray sat in their pediatrician's office as the doctor tried to balance his concerns and assurances to the couple. There were a few disturbing results on Rachel's latest examination. Nothing major...just some things that warranted running some tests...

Then another consultation...and an even more concerned look on the doctor's face...more tests...more disturbing results...then the vagueness of a referral to an oncologist. And the zombie like reaction of Marilyn and Ray walking out of the pediatrician's office with Rachel walking between them holding both their hands, oblivious to the shadow of the events.

The initial consultation with the oncologist...more tests...more dread...then came the pronouncement of that awful word...Cancer. The oncologist's pronouncement was like a judge handing down a death sentence. Marilyn became hysterical in the office and Ray wasn't far behind.

The seasoned oncologist had seen it all too many times before and used his experience to assure Marilyn and Ray. He cited the advancement in treatments, the specifics targeting of cells, the increase in survival rates. Rachel would receive the best care to be offered. He emphasized that he and his staff of doctors and nurses would leave no stone unturned in treating Rachel. They would all unite and battle this insidious disease.

Still after they left the office and sat with Rachel in her bedroom, both of them holding her and crying. And poor little Rachel sat there on the bed smothered by her parents, wondering why her parents were crying. The unknown fear, in turn, caused Rachel to cry, which cycled into even more crying by her parents...

Marilyn began shedding tears again in the vehicle. She brought out a tissue from her purse to wipe her eyes without fumbling for one. After five years of practice, she had enough experience not to waste any time or motion in grasping one.

The motion caught Ray's attention and he wondered again if he should try to comfort his wife...But now, Marilyn had found her comfort elsewhere, he thought glumly. And, in truth, so had he...

He though back through time, looking once again in the chain of events that had got them to this point. He remembered how they had sat and talked and rehearsed how they would broach the subject with Rachel.

He remembered how Marilyn so calmly began telling Rachel that she was sick and that they would have to go see a lot of doctors and hospital visits, before Rachel got better. Ray was a quivering mass of emotional jello, but taking his cue from Marilyn he began assuring Rachel that she would be okay. Her mommy and daddy wouldn't let anything bad happen to her.

God, what a lie that turned out to be. All the medications, all the shots, all the chemo...that fucking chemo. Watching Rachel bravely endure it all. Trusting in blind faith that her parents wouldn't do this to hurt her.

His poor baby coming home from a treatment and not having any appetite. The heartache of holding a wastebasket by his baby's bedside while she vomited and retched into it. The pallor of her complexion as she wasted away. Her hair, that shiny black hair that she had inherited from Marilyn falling away in clumps from her scalp.

He remembered how upset Marilyn and Rachel had been when they decided it was time to shave Rachel's head. He told them to hold off until he got back. He drove until he found the first available barbershop. He went in and requested that they shave his head.

He felt weird coming out of the barbershop, the tingly sensation of the air breezing on his bald scalp, the curious looks of people seeing the pale white scalp clashing against his tanned face. When Marilyn and Rachel saw him, they were in shock and the amazement morphed into laughter as first Rachel and then Marilyn insisted on feeling his head.

He relished the soft caresses of Rachel as she asked if it hurt to have his head shaved. He told her it didn't hurt a bit and that eased some of the concern from Rachel. Then he saw the pure look of gratitude on Marilyn's face at his sacrifice.

The vehicle stopped at a redlight and Ray's musings were interrupted. It had been a long time since he had seen a similar look on Marilyn's face.

By coincidence, Marilyn at that same moment was recalling Ray's haircut. He had done that to help her baby. But then, Ray had always been there for Rachel...and for her as well... It had only been his quiet courage that embolden her to do what she did.

She made an emergency appointment at her hair salon and walked in and told Antoine what she wanted done. For close to twenty minutes Antoine begged her to reconsider, but, her mind was made up. She finally explained why she wanted it done and with tears in his eyes, Antoine agreed and soon she was startled at the large mirror showing her bald face.

The other stylists and their customers were also crying since the story had been relayed from station to station. Antoine gave her a hug as she left to go pay for his services. She was stopped at every station as the other stylists insisted on hugging her as well. Even some of the other customers insisted on hugging her.

When she finally got to the counter to pay, she was informed that Antoine had told them not to accept payment from Marilyn. Marilyn was insistent on paying, but, Antoine was adamant that Marilyn did not owe for the service. Marilyn felt humbled by the act of sympathy from Antoine and the others as she walked out of the salon. As she walked through the parking lot, she heard some loud guffaws coming from a group of teenagers pointing toward her. She just braced herself from their ignorant ridicule and reminded herself what was important. The show of solidarity with her husband and her daughter.

Her husband's act had brought laughter; hers had brought tears as Rachel realized she wouldn't be going through the ordeal alone. As Ray hugged her, he whispered, "Oh baby!" as his hands explored his wife's shaved scalp. She whispered back, "It's okay. It will grow back."

Then she smiled and told him, "It just means you are going to have to buy me and Rachel all the Hermes' scarves we want as our hair grows back."

And bless his heart, he did exactly that. Each day, he would bring home two boxes. A scarf for both of the women he cherished and Marilyn and Rachel would model and trade scarves on a daily basis. The times that Rachel felt well enough, they would go out in public, not heeding the looks, they drew. They were united in their love.

At least, that was how they started.

Ray and Marilyn knew from the outset that Rachel's disease had increased the level of stress in their lives. Every night, in bed they talked on how to deal with the daily situation as they held each other. Sometimes, they would end the conversations making love into the night. Sometimes, they would just hold each other silently until sleep overtook them.

Each day, they would go to work and the first order of business was to relate the news of Rachel to their co-workers. Marilyn was employed as a graphic artist in a mid size business firm that employed about fifty people. Every morning after she finished relating the events of Rachel, her co-workers would always remind her to call them if she needed anything. She always responded that she would, but, she never figured she would do so. She had a strong support group of co- workers, family, friends, and neighbors she relied on. While, she appreciated the offers, she never quite let people know what she was really feeling. She would allow herself to be the center of attention and allow people to fawn over her, but no one grasped her really. How could they, unless they were in the same situation? She quietly did her job and went home and relieved her mother or mother-in-law from babysitting duty.

Ray was the youngest associate in a law firm. While the partners were sympathetic to his plight, the bottom line was Ray was expected to produce for the firm. As long as he produced billable hours, the partners would be happy. Ray, relied on his secretary, Karen to keep him on the straight and narrow. So every morning, she would bring him a cup of coffee and asked him how he was doing. He would spend a few minutes with her sharing personal time, until, his calls and appointments came in.

And that, in a nutshell was how the Thompsons managed to get through from day to day on the emotional roller coaster of their lives. Often, the daily routine was interrupted by a particular procedure that Rachel would undergo and both would drop everything to tend to their daughter. Then, they would go back to their employment to frantically mend fences and play catch up.

Time has a way of eroding everything. And unknowingly, minute by minute, time was eroding away at Ray and Marilyn's marriage. It was so minute that neither was aware there was a problem as they began to drift away from one another. They continued to be there for Rachel every minute they could. They delegated errands and chores between them in whatever fashion would be to Rachel's benefit. Getting Rachel well was the main priority in their lives.

The strain of stress subtly began to throw grains of irritation into their relationship as they silently continued to strive to get Rachel healthy. Still, they labored from day to day; the priority was Rachel. As long as, Rachel was on the mend and happy; then Ray and Marilyn were likewise.

The good days brought false hopes; the bad days were minimized in significance. Still stress and time grew the grains of irritation into resentments. First there was a procedure that Ray could not attend due to a conflict with an appointment. Marilyn fumed at him as she waited at the hospital alone in the bland reception room. Then he came rushing in with an anxious look on his face asking her how Rachel was doing. She brusquely responded that she hadn't been given any news, yet.

The harshness of her tone made Ray step back from anymore questions as he meekly sat by her and waited together. When they got home, she apologized and they made up for the argument in a mutually satisfying manner in bed.

But little by little, there were other little slip ups which brought out one or the other to lash out. And soon the make up sex was slowly dwindling away. Ray found himself every morning venting to his secretary, Karen Ferguson.

"I swear Karen, it is like I can't do anything without her finding fault in whatever I do."

Karen gave an encouraging emphatic gesture for Ray to continue.

"Marilyn got upset that we made the doctor's appointment with only ten minutes to spare. When the hell have you've ever gone to a doctor's appointment and got taken at the appointed time? Never! Am I right?" Ray continued to pace around his office as Karen continued to track her attention on him.

"So, of course, we wait half an hour before we even get taken back to the exam room. Then as soon as Rachel gets out of earshot she unloads on me! I mean, I got enough on my plate, I don't need to have this crap going on!"

Karen soothingly interjected, "Mr. Thompson, you just need to sit down and talk to your wife. You have too much invested to let things get away from you. Just take some time and explain that you are doing the best you can and that you know she is doing the best she can," Karen interjected.

"I hear you Karen and I'm trying, I'm trying really hard, but some days it just gets the best of me, you know?" Ray sighed, "Well thanks for letting me blow off some steam and vent. I guess we better get prepped on the Jones' contract now."

"You're welcome, Mr. Thompson. Anytime, you feel the need to talk, just buzz for me."

Ray watched the attractive secretary walk out of his office. I'm lucky to have such a sensible secretary working for me, he thought. Lord, I dread the day she comes in and tells me she is going to quit to get married. As good looking as she is, she's got to have plenty of offers. Maybe, I need to give her a big raise to keep her from leaving.

Across town, an obvious upset Marilyn furiously worked on her latest project. Her supervisor, John Tullos, quietly walked over to her cubicle and studied her computer screen. Marilyn felt discombobulated by the close scrutiny as she continued to work through her problem. After a minute of studying Marilyn's monitor, John Tullos reached over and deleted her project.

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