“You’ve got to take me,” she said, reaching across the table and taking my hand; “I need to go.” It was getting harder all the time for me to keep the pain from showing. My Lorraine, Lord bless her. I didn’t want that on her conscience, not on top of everything else. The last thing she needed was her ninny of a husband blubbering every time she turned around. That’s why I struggled to keep my facial expressions calm, to hide my emotions behind a smile.
“Now, I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I said; “You know the doctors say the most important thing for you is rest. What do you think Doc McCauliffe would say if I told him you wanted to run off to Pennsylvania chasing after rainbows?”
“That’s not fair,” she said, tightening her grip. She was stronger than she’d been in quite some time. “Don’t you make fun of me.”
“I’m not making fun. I just don’t think you should be wasting your energy on this, that’s all.”
“Oh, honey,” she said, patting our entwined right hands with her left; “I think we’re past that now, aren’t we?”
I felt my face tighten and the muscles around my mouth twitch. The sting of new tears was in my eyes, but I forced them back, bringing her knuckles to my lips and kissing them. It was about the hardest thing I ever did, but I smiled. The drive from Bedford was eleven hours according to Google Maps. If Lorraine slept some of the way, I figured I could make it in a little under ten. We hadn’t taken a trip like this since she was diagnosed. I worried it wouldn’t be good for her, but I couldn’t help but be a little excited, “So where the hell am I supposed to sit?” she asked when she saw all the pillows.
The woman had a point. I was so worried about her being comfortable, I forgot to take into account that she would have to get in the car and put her seatbelt on, “I may have gone a little overboard.”
“I’m not made of glass,” she said, grabbing two of the big white pillows and throwing them into the backseat.
We left before dawn, hoping to get to Nicholson in time to get a view of the lights that night. According to the news report, they were most likely to be spotted between ten at night and two in the morning. If we saw them on the first try, I thought maybe I could treat her to a night at a decent hotel and we could be headed back home the next morning, “You still haven’t explained to me why we’re going all this way to see some lightshow,” I said. We were a few hours into the drive and I was surprised she hadn’t fallen asleep yet. “You’ve already seen them a hundred times on the internet.”
“It’s not the same, and you know it.”
“I don’t know. What with all the new camera technology, it might look better seeing it on TV than it does in person.”
“Not another word out of you, Richard, or so help me God I will smack you with this pillow;” the road was doing something to her, making her sassier, livelier than she’d been since getting sick. It was good for her. I wanted to keep her talking, to stay in the moment for as long as we could.
“You cause an accident, we’ll never make it to Pennsylvania, and you can forget about your little light towers.”
“Pillars,” she said, and the pillow hit me along my right side, but there wasn’t much force behind it. It was nice, being on the road again. As much as we both loved to travel, we had gotten out of the habit, weighed down by one anchor or another. First it was my job, then it was the kids, then came the diagnosis. With the kids out of the house and a steady pension coming in, the plan had been to drive through the lower forty-eight, sleeping at KOAs and Wal-Mart parking lots as we went. That wasn’t in the cards, it turned out; “I told you, they’re called light pillars.” She was facing me, but her eyes became unfocused, and I couldn’t be sure just what she was seeing, “They’re supposed to be heavenly.”
That word again. It wasn’t until she started going to that damn church that everything became heavenly. The breeze through her hair, the smell of the laundry detergent, even the little square of apple crisp in a Hungry Man dinner: all the sudden they were all heavenly. It wasn’t that they were bad people. I knew they were just trying to help. They might not get under my skin so much if they would just shut up about the Great Hereafter. Hearing that Katie woman with the big hair talk about it, it’s better than staying in the penthouse at the Ritz-Carlton. That may be so, but I just wished everyone wasn’t in such a damn hurry to get my wife there.
The worst part was hearing Lorraine talk about her own end. It seemed so easy for her to accept. She would say things like, “You’re going to have to get better at cooking when I’m not around;” or, “I just don’t know what you’ll do without me.” It would come out as casually as a statement about the weather, or a reminder to stop by the dry cleaners, “I know it’s just ice,” she said.
“The light pillars. They’re tiny pieces of ice floating in the sky acting like miniature reflectors.”
“Yeah?” She had explained this all to me before, but I wasn’t sure if she remembered.
“Yes,” she said, her voice getting faint and her eyes far away again; “The conditions have to be perfect, but when the light is right, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. Just heavenly.”
I cringed at the word, but nodded my head, “Well, we’ve got a few more hours to Pennsylvania. You sure you don’t want to stop and get a motel for the night?”
“Oh, you quit that,” she said, sensing my concern; “Of course I don’t want to stop. It’s not even dark yet.” She laid a hand on my arm, “I’ll be fine. God knows there’s enough pillows and blankets in here. If I need to sleep, I’m in the best place to do it.” She did sleep, and I was grateful. It was nice seeing her so worked up, but I was afraid she was overdoing it. So I turned the radio to the oldies station and left the volume on low as she softly snored.
When I pulled in to the Sunoco station to fill up, she awoke. She was fully alert, no sign that she had just been sleeping, “Where are we?” she said.
“Muncy,” I told her with a chuckle; “Turns out Pennsylvania’s got one, too. Isn’t that something?” We lived a couple hours from Muncie, Indiana, which we had driven through earlier that day. The novelty was lost on Lorraine, though. She just watched out the window with wide eyes.
“How much longer?” she asked. So much could be summed up with that one question. After all we had shared, it was the only one left to answer. The faithful optimism that now possessed her and all of my greatest fears revolved around those three words.
“Not long now,” my voice echoed through the car with the ring of final, total truth. We got to Nicholson earlier than I had expected. She wasn’t hungry, so I got her a milkshake. Eating had been something she’d always enjoyed so much. It was hard watching her lose all interest.
The light pillars had been big news in Nicholson, and the locals didn’t shy away from talking about them. An attendant at the Valero was very helpful, even drawing me a map on a paper towel to get the best spot to see them. Her boyfriend lived out that way, she said, and it was driving to his house after work one night that she got her first look at them.
The place where I pulled off the road was just on the edge of a small forest. I recognized the sugar maples right away, and I thought the big silvery-barked trees might be American beech. Couldn’t be sure without seeing the leaves. I left a couple hundred yards between us and the stand of trees. There was something ominous about them, their bare branches swaying softly in the wind, silhouetted against the night sky. When I turned off the headlights they looked like black skeleton fingers trying to reach out toward us.
Lorraine shivered, and I thought about taking the milkshake away. She needed the calories, though. Should have gotten hot cocoa. She had a tan afghan around her shoulders, and I tucked her into it even tighter, “Stop fussing over me,” she said; “I’m fine.”
“I’m just doing my job,” I told her.
“Oh, Richie. What am I going to do with you?” We held hands and watched the clearing through the windshield. The sky got darker, cut every so often by the twin beams of passing cars. The only other light was the distant glow of Nicholson on the other side of the hill. It was quiet for a good while. I was starting to wonder if she was sleeping again when she said, “It’s okay, you know.”
“What’s okay?” I said.
“You know,” she said; “This isn’t getting any better.”
“There’s still more treatments to try. We’ve just got to find the right one.”
“Oh, Richie.” She patted my hand like I was a child, “I’m okay with it. I’m at peace. I want you to be okay with it, too.”
“I wish you wouldn’t talk like that;” I wanted her to stop. I wasn’t at peace with it. I would never be at peace with it, “You’re going to get better. Remember that book? The one about positive thinking?”
“I am being positive. I’m good. It’s you I’m worried about.”
“Don’t you worry about me,” I said, gently bumping her with my shoulder, “I’m a tough guy, remember?”
She looked at me then, a look that said she had the true measure of me. She decided not to argue the point. “I just want you to be ready for the worst, that’s all.”
How could I ever be ready? I flushed with anger, my ears growing hot. I wanted to yell, to pour out all of my rage and bile and tell her to just stop. Instead, I nodded and tried to force a smile. She put her head in the crook of my neck and we sat there for I don’t know how long. I enjoyed the familiar smell of her shampoo and the feel of her breath against my cheek. I wanted to freeze time, to drag the moment out forever, “Richie, look!”
I don’t know how long I had been out, but my eyes shot open with a start and I immediately set to checking her over. I reached for her, to tuck her back into her blanket but she smacked my hand away, “Stop, silly,” she said, then pointed out the window; “Look!”
Our breath had fogged the windshield a bit, the condensation heaviest at the corners and across the top, but I could still see something glowing beyond. I turned the defrost on and grabbed two unused napkins from the bag my burgers had come in and started wiping. Lorraine wasn’t waiting, though, “Get back here,” I called to the open door, but it was too late. She was headed across the clearing, running toward the trees that had so recently looked menacing, but now were aglow with reflected golden light. I chased after her, amazed at how fast she was moving, “Come back,” I called; “You’re going to freeze.”
She didn’t listen. She pressed forward, arms extended as if she thought she could grab the lights in front of her. I thought I heard her cough, but when I got closer, I realized she was laughing, “That’s enough,” I said when I caught her; “We’ve got to get you back in the car. You’ll catch…”
“Isn’t it glorious?” she asked. She seemed oblivious to the cold. She wasn’t going back to the car; that much was clear. Conceding the point, I took my coat off and made her put it on. Then I wrapped the blanket over top of that. She looked so small like that, with her too-big clothes and awe-filled smile turning her into a child.
It wasn’t until I had Lorraine situated that I allowed myself to look at the lights. They spread across the whole clearing, shafts of light varying in size and color. Some were predominantly white, a purer white than even the brightest light bulb. In others, I could see the entire spectrum of the rainbow moving throughout, the color shifting fast and making them seem to dance.
The term light pillars was technically accurate, but it didn’t do them justice. They were beams, hanging suspended in the air. No wonder Lorraine wanted to see them. It was easy to imagine how someone could see these as a gift from heaven. It may just be some random phenomenon, but if you didn’t know how it worked, you would swear you were seeing the work of God, or aliens, or who knows what.
It was cold, and Lorraine’s breath came out steady, in big plumes. She couldn’t feel the chill, though, I knew. She was so taken by the sight, she held her hands clasped under her chin and smiled like I hadn’t seen in years as tears spilled from the corner of her eyes and ran down her face. This would be our last trip together. She knew it, and I knew it too. Her smile, so full of joy and wonder, would be the one I would always remember. In that moment, she was happy. We were happy.
It might not be enough to sustain a man forever, but maybe for a little while, “Oh, Richie,” my Lorraine said then; “Isn’t it just heavenly?”
This time, I didn’t have to force my smile. I put my arm around her shoulder and pulled her in close; “Yeah, Babe. It sure is.”