“Whatever” was the last thing Mary said to Greta, her partner of thirty years, right before Greta turned, caught her toe in the carpet, and catapulted down the stairs. Greta’s head hit the wall on the landing and the impact flung her sideways where she lay, crumpled as discarded tissue paper. “Whatever” sounded innocuous, but Mary’s intonation, dripping with disdain, made it clear that Greta was a fucking idiot. Mary struggled to understand the level of venom she spewed toward the love of her life over something so trivial, so inane, she refused to recall what it was.
For twenty-nine years, they fought sporadically, a normal couple. Often attuned, they agreed on most things, the important things, the big things. All their friends called them the perfect couple. But lately, they were going through a phase of irritability that Mary blamed on mid-life. Inconsequential stuff, ignored for years, suddenly stood out clearly and grated on them, like walking through spilled kitty litter in bare feet. Mary snored. Greta missed the trash with her dental floss. Greta was awake the minute her eyes opened. Mary needed a pot of coffee and twenty minutes of quiet. Mostly, those things never bothered them. They’d learned to adapt. Until recently. Hot flashes and irritability.
That night, Greta found an old Spiderman movie on Netflix and sat down with Oreos and Reisling. Mary sighed loudly. She hated those kinds of movies, and Greta, of course, knew that, but Greta sipped more wine and inched up the volume. “It’s been a long week. Could I just relax for a bit?”
Not an unreasonable request, but Mary was restless, hot, and crabby. And the TV was so loud. Finally, she couldn’t take one more explosion and she stomped out of the house for a walk.
When Mary got back, the movie was over, and they tried to make up. But before they even brushed their teeth, Greta bumped her head on the cupboard door that Mary left open, and those incendiary phrases “you always” and “you never” flew through the room like ninja darts aimed to cause maximum damage. At one point, the whole fight was so silly, Mary almost laughed. And, god, how she wished she had. One small giggle would have thrown a floodlight on their pettiness and ended the fight completely.
Instead, Mary chose to pull her trifling frustrations close into a warm cloak woven of self-pity and self-righteousness, toss her head regally, and say, “Whatever.” Because of that choice, she was sitting in a hospital room, holding Greta’s hand, and numbly watching a machine breathe for her soulmate.
Mary called Greta’s brother, Scott, in Montana, who was making plane reservations before he got off the phone. Then Mary called Trish, their closest friend. Mary pictured her running around, changing clothes, maybe a quick shower, not understanding what happened, but focused on hurrying to support her. Trish would call other friends after she got to the hospital. Everyone loved Greta; they would all be here soon.
Mary traced a vein in Greta’s hand. The blue showed clearly through the skin, so thin and transparent. When did that happen? Mary looked at her own hand, almost an exact duplicate. A little smaller, the fingers more squat, but the veins just as prominent, just as old. Goddammit. They weren’t old. Just heading into middle age, they had so many plans, so many things they were going to do. Weekend trips to Chicago art museums and musicals. Day trips to shop and eat lunch at cafes on lakefronts. Then, longer journeys across the country, maybe in an RV, maybe staying in hotels. They couldn’t quite agree on the method of travel, but they agreed on state parks and wineries.
Mary watched the machine breathe for her love. A tube down Greta’s throat, tape holding it tight over her mouth. It was noisier than Mary would have imagined. Slow and tortuous, in and out, taking breaths to keep her partner alive.
She couldn’t stand to see Greta this way. Blocking this current image, Mary chose instead to remember when they met during grad school in the late 80’s. She smiled, picturing it. Mary had big, poofy hair, what Mary always thought of as chickie-la-la hair, and she wore contacts, but Greta had glasses the size of pie plates and even bigger curly hair. Greta was out as a lesbian, to herself, her family, and much of the world at large, but she still dressed conservatively. Big shoulder pads, high heels, lipstick. Mary dated men, because that’s what she was supposed to do, but she was always closer to women. Women were her best friends and emotional support. Society said she should pair with men, but she was finding it harder and harder to stay absorbed, to picture herself with a man. When Mary met Greta, she liked her. They became casual friends, went for coffee, joined the same book group.
One night, Mary checked her messages, and the sound of Greta’s voice gave her a surprise stomach flip. This was new. Mary decided to trust her body. She called Greta back and asked her to dinner. They talked for three hours without pausing for breath, and Mary’s life changed forever. After four more dinners, she finally worked up the courage to tell Greta how she felt and was immensely relieved when Greta reciprocated.
Mary didn’t believe in fate, but if she did, she would have said they were meant to be together. They shared the same political views, friends, and attitudes toward money. They worked together on social justice issues, campaigning for progressive causes and candidates. They celebrated victories and consoled each other over defeats. When Mary was struggling at work, Greta rubbed her feet and baked her cookies. When Greta’s father died, Mary took two weeks off to fly to Phoenix and help sort out his estate.
Mary loved Greta and she loved their lives together. She looked at the machines, the monitor, the tubes, the tape, heard the whirrs and beeps and mechanical wheezing and wanted nothing more than to trade places. Get up. Dammit, get up, baby. You can’t die, not like this.
A tap on the half-open door and a spiky-blonde head poked through. Mary jumped up and threw herself into Trish’s arms, not aware of her movements until she was already in the comfort. Tears were released by her friend’s presence, and Mary sobbed for a long time before stopping to blow her nose. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Of course, honey. I called everyone. People will be coming to help.” Trish looked at Greta and pulled Mary back into her arms. “Do you know anything?”
Mary shuddered. “I’m not sure. The doctor talked to me, but I can’t remember most of what he said. She hit her head, really hard. He said brain injury. They’re doing some tests. Or they’re going to do some tests. I don’t know.” She walked back over to Greta. “What I do know is that it’s bad, Trish, it’s really fucking bad.”
“I’m so sorry.” Trish put her arm around Mary. “Did you call Greta’s family?”
“I called her brother; he’ll fly in tomorrow. That’s really all the family she has left,” Mary said. “My mother’s not doing well; the Alzheimer’s is so bad, there’s no point in telling her.” Mary clutched Trish’s hand. “You guys are my main family now. Thank god you’re here.”
“Can I get you anything? Coffee?” Trish said.
“No.” Mary couldn’t imagine putting anything in her mouth, swallowing. Her throat felt tight, her chest even tighter, old-fashioned corset strings pulled taut, unyielding, cutting off food, air, life. She sat again by the bed and picked up Greta’s hand. Trish stood beside her, one hand on Mary’s shoulder.
Time passed. Slowly, then quickly, then slowly again. Mary only let go of Greta’s hand when forced to for medical procedures. She talked to Greta constantly, the words an outpouring of her love and pain. People came and went. Doctors, nurses, technicians. Trish was replaced by other friends, until the hours were nothing but a blur of throbbing grief.
Greta’s brother arrived. “I’m so sorry.” Mary hugged Scott with one arm, still clutching Greta’s hand. “She tripped and fell. Just crazy.”
Scott kissed Mary’s cheek, looked at Greta and drew a sharp breath. “What’d the doctor said?”
Mary looked over at Trish, so Trish spoke. “He’s coming back at 1:30. We told him you’d be here then, and he wants to talk to you and Mary and give you the latest test results.”
Scot nodded. He took Mary’s hand and entwined their fingers, then placed his other hand on Greta’s shoulder, a silent, unbroken chain of love and support.
The doctor was noncommittal. Traumatic brain injury, they couldn’t be sure how much damage, still testing, watching for the next forty-eight hours. After he left, Scott broke down. “He didn’t sound hopeful, not at all.” Mary hugged Scott and they cried together.
More time passed, shadows and haze. Trish made Mary eat and brought her clean clothes. Scott slept in the recliner in Greta’s room. Mary dozed. Then the doctor brought bad news. He took Scott and Mary into a small room to talk. His voice was kind. “She suffered severe trauma when her head hit the wall. All the tests indicate there is no brain activity.”
Scott squeezed Mary’s hand. Mary spoke. “What does that mean? Will she come out of it?”
The doctor’s brow creased. “I’m very sorry, but the tests are conclusive. We believe she’s suffered permanent loss of function in all parts of the brain. She’s not going to wake up or get better. Her brain functions have completely stopped.”
“That’s not true.” Mary heard herself, but couldn’t quit. “Goddammit, she’s going to be fine. Her brain is fine. She just fell. You don’t die from falling down. It’s not true.” The last word ended on a wail, and Scott pulled Mary into his arms. He rocked her gently while she sobbed.
The doctor waited until Mary’s crying slowed, then spoke again. “I’m so sorry. Unfortunately, people do die from falls. The damage depends on many things. It appears she hit her head in such a way that caused a significant brain injury. And, there’s just nothing more we can do.” He paused. “We need to make some decisions. Do you know her wishes?”
It took a moment for the meaning of the words to sink in. When they did, Mary moved away from the doctor. “We filled out forms last year. They should be in her record.”
Mary remembered the long talks as they completed the paperwork. They spent at least an hour on the section about reaching a point where it is “reasonably certain that I will not recover my ability to interact meaningfully with myself, my family, friends, and environment.” The words suddenly surged through the room and lodged in Mary’s brain, because their conversation went round and round about what was “meaningful.” Mary was uncertain, but Greta was clear, and she could hear Greta’s voice: “Don’t keep me alive if I’m not really living. My body is nothing without the rest of me.”
Mary left the room and ran down the hall, back to Greta. She took her chair by the bed and picked up Greta’s hand. After a minute, Scott joined them. “You know what she wants, don’t you?”
“I don’t give a shit what she wants.” Mary glared, a lioness defending her mate.
Scott sat next to Mary. For a long time, neither spoke. Then, Scott said, “Would you like me to tell your friends what the doctor said?”
“Oh, God, no,” Mary shook her head. “Don’t tell anyone.” This was not going to be true. Greta was not brain dead, and Mary didn’t have to make a terrible decision. If they didn’t tell anyone, it couldn’t be real.
“Mary.” Scott put both hands on her shoulders. “Mary, we have to tell your friends. You know that. They’re Greta’s family, too. They’re waiting to hear and they deserve to know.”
Mary pushed Scott’s hands away and pulled everything in, her knees to her chest, her head on her knees, her consciousness became a tiny laser point of focus. “No, no, no…” Mary rocked and moaned, a desperate effort to make everything not so. She barely registered Scott leaving the room.
Scott came back with Trish. Trish stood beside Mary and put her hand gently on Mary’s back. She spoke quietly, a flow of gentle reassurance, the words indistinct and unimportant, just the crucial comfort of touch and love, until Mary stopped rocking and looked up. “She’s dead, Trishie. The doctor said that Greta’s gone.”
“I know.” Trish wiped her eyes.
“Mary, do you want me to get a doctor to give you something?” Scott said.
Oblivion, Mary thought. She wanted to dive head first into the pillowy comfort of Xanax or Atavan or gin. Anything to stop the pain. She took a deep breath. She’d have to save that for later. Right now, she had to think of Greta. “No, not yet. First I have to talk to you, both of you.”
Mary asked them to sit down and shared the last night of Greta’s life. Shared Mary’s harsh words and crushing guilt. “Don’t you see? Do you understand now why she can’t die? That can’t be the last thing I ever said to her.” Mary clutched Scott’s hands. “Please.”
Trish rubbed Mary’s shoulder. “That isn’t the last thing you said. You’re here now, talking to her.”
“I don’t believe she can hear that. You know I don’t believe that,” Mary said.
“You were together for thirty years. Most of that time was wonderful. Some of it wasn’t. It’s like that for all of us. But the good times and the harder times all are part of you. You built a life together. Those thirty years are in her blood, in her bones, in her soul. They’re going with her wherever she goes. If she goes nowhere, then they’ll be buried with her. If she goes to heaven, then she’ll share them with God. If they go with her spirit, then they’ll be part of the everlasting universe. Wherever she goes, she will have your thirty years of love. The one thoughtless thing you said won’t override that. You have to let her go. It’s what she wants.” Trish’s words were interspersed with tears.
“It hurts so much.” The pain grabbed Mary and shook her whole body. “I can’t do this. Goddammit, it’s not fair.”
“I know. Nothing about this is fair. Greta doesn’t want to be like this. And I’d do anything to change it, if I could. But I can’t.” Scott took Mary’s face between his palms. “One thing I know for sure is that Greta loved you more than anything, and you made my sister happier than anyone ever could have.”
“It does hurt,” Trish said. “It will hurt for a long time. But you won’t be alone. We’ll be with you. We’ll be there as much as we can.”
Mary brought Greta’s hand to her lips and kissed it. So limp. Not really Greta’s hand anymore. Greta’s gone. She’s gone. The words screamed through Mary’s head, pounded the walls, cracked the windows. She’s gone and she’s never coming back.
Mary turned to Scott, begging him to fix it. Scott wiped his eyes. “I’m sorry, Mary. It’s time to let her go.”
Mary looked back at Greta. She saw the closed eyes, pale skin, the needles, tubes, and monitors, every part of her silent and motionless, save the machine, the goddamn machine. “I need to talk to Greta. We need to be alone for a little while. Is that okay?”
Scott leaned over and kissed Mary’s cheek. “Of course.” Trish squeezed her hand.
After they left, Mary stood over Greta. She smoothed back her hair, short now, but still curly, only a few strands of gray. “I don’t believe you can hear me, not if you’re dead. But who knows?” Mary smiled for the first time in days. “If this were the other way around, you’d believe it, wouldn’t you? You’d think my spirit, my essence was still hanging around, waiting to help you through this. God, I wish I believed that.”
Mary watched her tears splash softly on Greta’s forehead. She wiped them away. “Sorry. I’m so sorry. This is worse than dying. Watching you die. You know I didn’t mean it, don’t you? I love you so much. I didn’t mean to sound so cruel, so hurtful. What a snippy bitch I was.”
Mary stared at Greta for a long time. “It doesn’t matter, does it? You’ll hear me or you won’t. Trish was right. What matters is what we had, and what we had was spectacular. You were always there for me. I can’t believe I have to go on without you. Thirty years of loving you is worth any amount of pain at losing you. I wouldn’t change a fucking thing.” Mary laughed at the stupidity of that statement. “Well, of course I would change this, you know what I mean.” At that moment, a monitor beeped and the blood pressure cuff tightened, causing Greta’s hand to move slightly. Mary felt a cool breeze through the room, and she thought that maybe Greta would understand. For thirty years, Greta knew exactly what Mary meant; why would being dead change that? And for thirty years, Mary always understood what Greta wanted. She understood that clearly, even now.
“It’s time, isn’t it?” Mary held her cheek against Greta’s, sobbing softly. After a few minutes, Mary sat up. She wiped Greta’s cheeks, then her own. She raised Greta’s hand to her lips for one last kiss. “Bye, baby. More than anything, I hope I’ll see you later. You believed it; for now, that will have to be enough for me.” Mary laid Greta’s hand gently on the bed.
Lenny stuffed a few bullets in the pocket of his fluorescent orange jacket and looked at his watch. Fifteen minutes till sunrise. He pulled on his thick gloves and checked the safety one more time.
Nearby, Martin’s breath came in angry white clouds as he struggled to load his rifle. The slender, graceful hands that had delivered thousands of babies over the past half century now fluttered like fallen leaves in the breeze.
“Too much coffee?” Lenny asked.
“It’s the cold. Getting to me in my old age.”
Lenny nodded and looked away. It was cold out, alright. But both men knew that wasn’t the problem.
When Martin was ready, they locked the truck doors and entered the woods. It was dark along the narrow path, the early morning stillness broken only by the crunching of their boots on a fresh layer of snow. The trail was flat and winding, with a small creek trickling nearby. It was a path they’d walked for years, since they were teenagers. Back then they’d lug a canoe and a cooler of beer to the creek without breaking a sweat, but now both men shuffled along, breathing heavily.
They walked in silence for a few minutes, Lenny in the lead, until they reached a large clearing. The sun had crested the horizon and shined through the trees in thin slivers. The men set their rifles down and leaned against a tree to catch their breath.
A gunshot echoed from the distance. “First shot of the day,” Martin said quietly. He wiped his nose on the back of his glove. “Sounds far off.”
“You gonna use the stand?” Lenny asked.
Both men looked across the glade. Fifteen feet off the ground was a gray, weathered tree stand, nestled in a large oak tree and accessible by a ladder of old planks nailed to the oak’s thick trunk. They’d built the stand together years ago, when both were stronger and carrying a little less snow on the roof. Martin hadn’t used the stand in close to a decade, but Lenny asked the same question every time they entered the clearing.
“Maybe later,” replied Martin. Always the same answer. He gazed wistfully at the old stand. Some of the best naps of his life had come up there.
There was a scratching noise from their left. Both men reached for their rifles and took aim, but there was only silence. Martin slowly lowered his rifle. “You think he’ll be back?”
Lenny nodded. “The orchard’s right over the ridge. His tracks led right in that direction. Big bastard like that must like his apples.”
Without a word the men trudged away in opposite directions. Martin walked along the edge of the clearing until he stood beneath the tree stand. From this angle, he knew, the sunlight would hit him from the side as it rose above the trees, warming him without hampering his vision. It was a good place to spend the cold morning.
Lenny disappeared into the dense forest, to a large rock near the creek. He set his heated seat on a short shelf and ducked low to avoid the chilly morning breeze. He held a gloved hand over his cold nose, listening to the trickling water and waiting for a thirsty buck to approach.
A few minutes later, two gunshots blasted the still air. Lenny’s sagging eyelids fluttered open. He slid slowly down the rock – his days of leaping were long gone – and trudged back through the snow to the clearing, gripping his rifle tightly. There was nothing like the thrill of the hunt. Women had once provided a similar excitement, but between his seventh and eighth decade the old body had lost interest.
Near the center of the glade, the biggest buck Lenny had ever seen lay dead at Martin’s feet. Dark blood spread beneath it like spilt wine on a snow white tablecloth. Lenny counted fourteen points on a rack the width of his gun.
“He walked right out in front of me, damn fool,” Martin said. “How’d he ever live so long, being that stupid?”
“Lotta people have said the same thing about you over the years,” Lenny replied. He stood beside his old friend and gazed down at the deer. Steam rose in faint clouds from the warm, dead body. “You gonna just sit here staring at it all day, or you gonna clean it out?”
Martin set his rifle aside and slowly knelt beside the deer, groaning on the way down. He took out his buck knife and held it in his right hand near the deer’s stomach, but his arm trembled badly. His face tightening in anger and embarrassment, he gripped his right wrist with his left hand to ease the shaking.
“Let me get it for you,” Lenny said. He groaned while dropping to his knees beside Martin. “Doctors like you ain’t used to operating in these cold temperatures.”
Without meeting his friend’s eyes, Martin handed over the knife. He stood up slowly, battling age and gravity, and watched as the deer was sliced open from breastbone to anus. While Lenny removed organs and waste, a thought struck Martin.
“Lenny, how are we going to get a deer this size out of the woods?”
Lenny looked up at him. Squinting in the overhead sun, he smiled. “We’ll find a way, my friend. We always do.”
Martin nodded and grinned. Then Lenny went back to work, digging and cutting.
Alice Benson lives in La Crosse with her partner and their dogs, Max and Oliver. Alice recently retired from a job in the human service field; previously she spent over thirteen years working with a domestic violence program. Alice’s first novel, Her Life is Showing, is set in a domestic violence shelter and was published in January 2014, by Black Rose Writing. Visit Alice’s website www.alicebensonauthor.com.