The Big Hill
by Rachelle Reese
Jennifer stood at the window and stared through the plastic slats at the swirls of snow rising up like spirits from the nearly vacant hospital parking lot. She listened to Vern’s breaths, each one a tortuous trek through his war-torn lungs. At least he’s sleeping. But of course he was. They had given him morphine along w
ith the breathing treatment. Morphine for the pain that was now a part of who he was…who he would always be…
She pushed the word away. There will be no until until it happens.
…unless it happens. Yes, that’s better….unless. A tiny change, but better.
“Jenny?” Vern mumbled, half away and half still here.
She went to him and took his hand. “I’m here, Vern. I will always be here.”
“Jenny, I saw Momma. And she’s still beautiful, Jenn. Just like she was when I was a boy.”
Jennifer stroked his hand. “Shhh, Vern. It’s a morphine dream. You rest now.”
“No, Jenny. She’s real…and she took my hand…and she told me how proud she was…my Momma proud of me, can you believe it?”
“Of course she’s proud of you. You’re a good man. An honest man.” Jennifer stroked his stubble-grown cheek. “A faithful man for sixty-some-odd-years, more than some men even live.” She felt the grief stone swell up in her throat like a hawk’s gullet after a feast of roadkill. She tried to swallow it down.
A snore tore through Vern’s lungs. She leaned over and kissed his open mouth. “You sleep now.”
“You sleep too.” His lips responded to hers. “I love you, Jen.”
“I love you too, Vern.” She laid her head next to his and let her tears fall silently on the pillow.
“How are you this morning, Mr. Peterson?”
The cheerful voice startled Jennifer from her sleep. “Sorry…I.”
“What are you sorry for? You’re not the first wife to go to sleep on her husband’s pillow, although I would have brought a cot if you had asked. I’m Nurse Margie.”
Jennifer felt around for her glasses and found them on the pillow. She put them on and struggled to see through the salty smear that glazed their surface.
A compact black woman who looked no older than sixteen, held out a tissue. “This’ll work to clean them off for now. I’ll get you some eyeglass cleaner.”
“How did you know?”
“You think I’ve never cried with my eyeglasses on? I might be young, but I’ve shed plenty of tears.”
Jennifer took the tissue from the nurse. She put the edge of one lens in her mouth and gave a puff, then wiped it off. She repeated the action with the other and then put them on. Nurse Margie came into better focus. She watched her take her Vern’s blood pressure and place an oxygen monitor on his finger. She recorded each number on her notepad. “How’s he doing?”
“If numbers were the whole picture, I’d say better. His oxygen is up from when you brought him in. No episodes during the night?”
Jennifer shook her head. “A dream, that’s all.”
Nurse Margie nodded. “Good. I’ll have them send up some breakfast. Do you think you can wash him up or would you like me to do it?”
Jennifer laughed. “We’ve lived on a farm together for over sixty years. I’ve definitely had to wash up worse than this.”
“If his levels stay good until later this morning, I’ll take him off the oxygen so it’s easier for him to get around. Walk together up and down the hall a few times. It’s not too scenic, but it’ll keep his muscles from getting weak and stave off the bedsores.”
“Will the doctor see him today?”
The nurse gave a high laugh and opened the blinds. “Look out the window, Mrs. Peterson. We haven’t had a snow like this in years. The only staff likely to be in today are those of us who worked all night.”
Jennifer stood up slowly, her legs stiff from age and a night of hanging down instead of being propped up to keep the swelling down. She joined the nurse at the window. The graceful spirits from the night before had been replaced by hulking white beasts.
“I think that lump over there’s my car,” Nurse Margie said. “But with my luck, I’d guess wrong and dig out Doc Steward’s Beemer. Which one is yours?”
Jennifer scanned the parking lot and saw the snow covered roll of chicken wire rising up from the back of the pickup truck. “That pickup over there.”
“You raise chickens?”
“We had a boy staying with us who did. He went off to college a year or so ago and, well, we meant to move it, even had some plans to use it, but we never did.”
“Looks like it served its purpose after all.” A wide smile spread across Nurse Margie’s face. She gave Jennifer’s hand a gentle squeeze. “You hang in there. And use the buzzer if you need any little thing. I’ll make sure there’s enough on that breakfast tray for the two of you.”
After the nurse had gone, Vern’s hard-fought breaths filled the room again. Jennifer thought back to the x-rays Dr. Lynn had shown them – a battlefield where good cells warred with bad, a desolate world, scorched by chemical warfare and radiation. The tumor’s still there, she’d said. We can do another round of chemotherapy to see if it shrinks it, but there’s too much scarring to try more radiation.
And if I say no? Vern had asked. If I decide to just live out my days without your poisons?
The doctor had shrugged. It depends on how fast the tumor grows. Weeks, maybe months.
That was yesterday. The doctor had checked him in and prescribed a breathing treatment and the morphine for the pain. The chemo would start as soon as he wanted it and if he refused, he’d be released and assigned a hospice nurse – someone to ease his transition. She watched his frail chest rise and fall beneath the blankets and remembered a day not so long ago that he’d walked shoulder-to-shoulder with their cattle, pouring piles of grain from a 50-pound bag. His wasting had happened so fast.
“Jenny?” His eyes opened suddenly, penetrating shale gray like the day she’d met him.
“I’m here, at the window.”
“Anything to speak of out there?”
“Snow. Well, don’t bother having them dig a trench to put me in. I’ll keep until the ground thaws.”
“You’d better. We have a garden to plant.” Jennifer felt the tears start to rise and pushed them down.
“I’m not taking that damn poison again, Jen, so don’t you ask me to. I’ll go when I go.”
Jennifer remembered the nights he’d spent bent over, retching until he lay curled fetal position on the bathroom floor, covered in sweat and vomit, too weak to make it to the bed. She’d washed his face with a warm washcloth and held his head while he took baby sips of water. “I won’t ask you to, Vern. You know that.” She went to him and took his hand.
He lifted a finger to wipe away a tear that had slipped past her barricade. “Good. Then we don’t need to talk about the future.” He started to laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“For the first time ever in my life, the future doesn’t matter. No tilling for springtime planting, no canning for winter, no cutting wood for winter, no saving for a rainy day, no nothing except the here and now and the stories we’ve lived. Come on…you have to admit, we’ve lived some stories.”
Jennifer felt the dimples in her cheeks deepen.
“I’ve always loved your smile,” he said.
“Then I’ll keep on wearing one.”
“Good. But it’s got to be the real smile like you’re wearing now, not that fake smile you wear when you run into Julia’s friends and their babies at Wal-Mart or weddings.”
“Grandbabies,” she said quietly. “Some of her friends have grandbabies.”
“And there it goes…”
Jennifer turned the corners of her lips upward.
“Not that smile. You’re real smile.”
Jennifer laughed. “How can you tell?”
“Your real smile makes fairies dance in your eyes.”
“You’re a crazy old man.” She took his hand and ran her finger across a vein that still bulged hard with needle scars.
“Would you have me any other way?”
“Don’t you do that to me now. It was bad enough you did it when I proposed.”
“Then don’t ask me silly questions.” She ran her finger over his chapped lips. “If I didn’t love you, I certainly wouldn’t have put up with you all these years.”
“How deep is that snow?”
Jennifer saw a gleam in Vern’s eye. “Eight inches or so, maybe more. I can only find our truck by the chicken wire.”
“Damn that boy. He never did get that chicken run built.” Vern started to sit up in the bed. “Help me out of here. I want to see this snow.”
Jennifer put her arm under his back and helped him to his feet, no longer surprised by the lightness of his body. Arm-in arm, they made a slow but steady pace to the window, dragging the oxygen machine alongside them. They stood in silence, two humans and a machine, looking out on a still white world.
“Spotless,” Vern said at last. “All that noise and nonsense….gone. You know, I always liked the snow days. Getting up and finding the road unmarked by tire treads. You remember, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. You and I would walk up to feed the cattle…one dog or two or three would go along, depending on the year. The only tracks would be our boots, the dog paws, and the turkey and deer that had traveled that path before we woke.”
“How long has it been?” Vern squeezed her hand.
“Last winter. We had snow last winter, didn’t we?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Neither do I. But it doesn’t matter. One year or another, the stories are there.”
“The stories are there. Our stories. Carrying buckets of water to the cattle when the well froze. You remember that?”
“How could I forget? My hands were sore into the summer from the frostbite.” Jennifer let out a little laugh.
“You don’t regret it, do you?” Vern’s eyes had become serious.
“Moving to the country with me.”
“Why would I regret it? We had the best life I could ever imagine. The beauty, the peace and quiet ….”
“I love you, Jenny. How will you…”
Jenny saw that there were tears in Vern’s eyes. She squeezed his hand. “No future talk, remember?”
A half-smile fought against the tears. “No future talk.”
“You remember how we used to go sledding down that hill where we picked blackberries?”
The tears retreated from Vern’s eyes. “The Big Hill! We haven’t done that in…”
“Fifteen years at least. Let’s see, Julia moved away in….”
“Yes, that was the last time.” Vern’s eyes got a faraway look. “It was four years after Julia was killed. You know, I saw her last night.”
“Saw her? You mean in your dream?”
“It was real for a dream.”
“A side-effect of the morphine.”
“Anyway, little Kevin was there too. He still has that devilish grin he gets when he’s up to something. She told me we were right.”
“Right about what?”
Vern’s eyes started to glisten again. “Never mind. Future stuff.”
Jennifer squeezed Vern’s hand. A knock came on the door.
“Are you two decent?” Nurse Margie’s voice sang out.
“It’s the nurse. She’s very nice,” Jennifer whispered and then raised her voice to call “Come on in, Nurse Margie.”
“I brought you breakfast myself. Bagels, cream cheese, coffee, and fruit cup is all I could rustle up. It seems this snow even kept the cooks from work.” Nurse Margie carried a tray into the room and set it on the fold-out bed table. “How are you feeling, Mr. Petersen?”
“Fine and dandy. How do you think I’m feeling?”
“Be nice,” Jennifer whispered.
“Well, your vitals were improved when I checked them this morning. I know the numbers don’t mean everything, but if they’re still good, I can take you off that contraption and let you roam around a little.” She held out the oxygen finger sleeve. “Would you mind if I take your oxygen level?”
Vern stuck out his finger. “Now this device is medical magic, Jenny. It can tell how much oxygen I have in my bloodstream without so much as a prick.”
Nurse Margie wrote the number on the chart and grinned. “Even better than this morning. I’ll disconnect that oxygen if you want so you can eat comfortably and maybe take a little stroll after breakfast.”
She removed the oxygen tube from under his nose and left them alone. Jennifer spread cream cheese across her bagel and took a bite. She noticed Vern was just staring at his. “Aren’t you going to eat?”
“Yes. I was just remembering that the last time we went down the Big Hill, we had bagels for breakfast. Bagels and jelly and eggs. Remember?”
“Eggs spruced up with homemade salsa. Yes, I do remember.”
“Well why don’t we do that today?”
“Slide down the Big Hill.”
“You’re a crazy old man.”
Vern grinned. “Yes, but you love me. Do you think you can drive the old truck home in this snow?”
“Vern, you’re crazy. The doctor’s not even here to sign you out.”
“So I sign myself out or I just leave. And I’m not crazy, I’m serious. This might be the last big snow I see and I sure as hell don’t plan to watch it out a hospital window.”
“How’ll I get you out of here?”
“Nurse Betty said we could go for a walk.”
“Whatever her name was….the point is we’ll go. We’ll get the toboggan and we’ll slide one more time down the Big Hill together.”
“And then what?”
“We’re not talking about the future, remember?”
“You’re a crazy old man.”
“But you love me.” He put the pout on his lips – the same pout that had melted her heart the day they met.
“I love you, you fool.” Jennifer kissed him full on the lips.
They ate their breakfast, complaining about how the fruit cup was not nearly as tasty as the fruit they canned themselves and how the coffee was not nearly as good as that they made at home. By the time they took the last bite, the snowplows had cut a rut through the snow and left it bleeding red sand.
“Now or never,” Vern said.
“Are you sure about this?”
“As sure as I was when we chose that ring.”
“Let’s go for a walk.” Jennifer put her right arm around Vern’s waist and held his left hand in hers. They walked, haltingly at first, like a mother helping a baby take its first steps. But as they reached the elevator, Vern’s steps grew more sure.
“We’re really doing it….the Big Hill.” He squeezed her hand.
“It’s what you want, isn’t it?”
“More than anything.”
“Well then we’ll do it.”
They rode down the elevator and walked to the truck. Jennifer helped Vern in and swiped the snow from the windshield, relieved it hadn’t been an icy snow. She backed out of the parking space into the newly plowed lot and drove onto the freshly scraped road. They drove a distance over clean freeway, talking of nothing at all and everything all at once. They turned onto the back road and noticed that the splotches of snow became more frequent as the houses grew further apart. At last they turned onto their gravel road, still pristine of tire tracks. Jennifer cut the first rut, and parked alongside their driveway.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
By the time she came back with the toboggan, he was asleep. “Vern? Do you want to just go to bed?”
“Hell no. Let’s do this and make it good.”
She could tell he was still half asleep, but drove on anyway, up the hill to the entrance to their blackberry-picking path. She pushed on past it as far as the truck would go. “This is it, Vern. This is as far she goes.”
“Yes. This is as far as we go.”
“Are you still sure you want to do this?”
“The Big Hill? Sure. Do you want to cut the rut or should I?”
“I’ll do it this time.”
“Are you sure? I always cut the rut.”
“You can do it next time.”
“No future talk, remember?”
“No future talk. You just wait here and I’ll cut the rut.” She started to get out of the truck.
“Don’t leave me, Jenny.” The panic in his voice stopped her. She had only heard that note one time before and that time she’d been dying.
“I’m just cutting the rut, Vern. I’ll be back.”
“Let’s cut it together.”
“Are you sure? The first run isn’t too good and the walk up is long.”
Vern held her by the shoulders. His eyes were sober and sad. “I’m sure.”
She helped Vern out of the truck and sat behind him on the sled. They scooted together, an inch at a time, down the slow part of the hill. When they reached the fast part, the going got a little easier, even fun. They let out a whoop as they slid to the bottom.
“Again?” Vern said.
“Can you make the climb?”
“I can climb it if you can.”
They clasped each other around the waist and began the climb, stopping each time Vern got out of breath or Jennifer’s legs gave out. By the time they reached the crest, the sun had emerged from the clouds and was inching toward its fall. Vern sat in the front. Jen clasped her arms around him. They pushed off. This time they flew down the hill, faster than even birds could fly, at least it seemed that way to Jennifer. They whooped all the way down and crashed in a flurry of white dust. Vern lay back in the sled.
“That was beautiful, Jenny. It was worth it.”
Jennifer stroked Vern’s face. “Are you okay, Vern? Was it too much?”
“Nothing is ever too much.”
“Can you climb the hill or do you need to rest?”
“Kiss me,” Vern said.
Jennifer wrapped herself around Vern and put her lips to his. At first she felt response and then his lips slackened. His chest no longer struggled beneath her own. His war was over. She lay her head on his decimated, tired chest and imagined her climb up the mountain and into an empty world where she would cook single portions to stay alive. The sun had passed behind the clouds and the snow was falling again. She knew if she opened her eyes, she would see his spirit swirl across her face, carried upward by the snow. She kept them closed to savor his last caress.
A hawk cried not far away and she imagined it pecking at her flesh and her husband’s. She envisioned the coyote that would come across their bones, intermingled in the snow, and carry them off indiscriminately to pile them in a heap – her bones with his – indistinguishable forever.