Throughout high school, I had always told Elaine she was the prettiest girl in school, but she never believed me.
When by luck we wound up in the same college together, I wrote down on a semi-finals test paper what she called an 'essay'; on how she was the prettiest girl in the college.
I guess it was obvious I was rather distracted by her, because I didn't mind being downgraded by the economics teacher when I ended out asking for a retake of that semi-final. Alright, maybe telling him what I had used the paper for wasn't a good idea, but I firmly believed it was worth it, even if he didn't agree. What's so bad about receiving your first “D” if you receive a gorgeous smile from Elaine Nelliwood? And receiving a 'yes' to your asking her out for a latte?
Well, a latte soon turned into a cappuccino, which turned into sushi, somehow winding down the road into salmon fillet by the harbour and an engagement ring. She told me she had this whimsical dream since she was a little girl, to find a rabbit hole and go somewhere truly wonderful. I told her I'd make it my life to build her such a place. It would take time and work, but we'd have it one day.
There was later a wedding ring and fruit cake coated too thickly with white icing, but hey, you have a marriage for the woman of your life, not for the cake of the year. And when I had the photographer back me up that she was the prettiest girl in the country, her blushing face contrasted against her white lace dress was like a peach against snow. She still wasn't convinced by my statement on this, but perhaps she was, but was too humble to tell me. Either way, I never tired of letting her know again and again. Because her beauty came from both within and without, it was incredible. She just had to be present at an event, and it all seemed so marvelous.
I would ask her many times not to wear make-up, because it got in the way. She would laugh and just say that other people might not think as much, but I insisted they were merely jealous.
By the day, she would only become more and more beautiful. I admire her patience with me and my compliments, and her sweetness when I'd call her at work or stick a note to the driving wheel on how much she meant to me. Some people think me nuts, but I am sure that if I was blind, I would still feel her beauty. It wasn't only her face, but her attitude, her spirit, her way of treating people and looking at life...I get all choked up trying to word it.
Through all the years of bliss, I never thought I'd be reminding her daily that she was the most beautiful in the world. And not just because it was true; she needed it. Something had changed in her, and she felt ugly and depressed, neither of us knowing why.
Elaine became exhausted more often, her cheeks lost their rosiness, her eyes their sparkle, and I swear I saw some gray hairs among her rich black tresses. I asked her several times to see a doctor, but she said it was just a passing cold, a bad one at that. Nonsense. I was no doctor, but it became more and more obvious that it was no little sickness, and I commanded her one day before going for work to go to the doctor's for a checkup. She insisted that we hadn't any medical insurance, so we should just wait the 'silly cold' out. Not happening, my dear. I told her I had already booked her the appointment, and prepaid it (this part wasn't true, but she didn't question it, thank goodness).
“I'll drive you there myself,” I said.
“No you don't,” Elaine forced a laugh and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “You need to go to work, sweetheart. Thank you for doing this, but I can drive well enough on my own, alright? I'll see you when I come back, and he'll inevitably just send me home with a packet of disprin.”
I tapped her forehead softly. “That,” I said close to her face. “Is no wee headache. I'll drive you there; I want to see what he has to say.”
Somehow, I don't know, she convinced me to go to work while she popped over to the doctors that afternoon. Stupid of me. I should have been there with her. Even if it was just a cold...stupid of me.
I remember kissing her little nose and saying she looked lovely that morning with that funny green dress from her sister's, and she giggled. That was great to hear that giggle again. I told her that as soon as her cold was over, we were heading somewhere warm; anywhere. Far away from the rainy weather we were enduring, to lands of vibrant green earth and sunshine. Some sort of happy-go-lucky Wonderland where we could eat ice-cream and watch the clouds all day. Alright, she could have that fat-free sherbet if she had to, but I seriously think these skinny young ladies today worry about health labels too much. Even on holidays.
I don't even know how convinced I was that she was alright when I agreed to go for work.
Something was wrong.
It ate at me through work all day; I could hardly focus on my typing. Veritably horrid, and I tried calling her mobile phone several times, only to reach her voice-mail. Her call-back recording was merry and bright as it always was, and I took heart by listening to it. But she had recorded it months before, so I became dull again pretty quickly.
I had to give a brief speech at work to the board of directors, but the whiteboard seemed to blend in with the table, and the markers had a will of their own, and I was erasing more than I was writing. I was soon permitted to leave, after getting the marker on someone's face somehow. I vaguely recall that director shouting to have me fired, but it didn't register as too important. I then recall taking the idea of 'having a break' too seriously and driving home to see Elaine. I couldn't concentrate. Something deep down inside me said something was wrong. Very wrong.
I reached home and my watch read 3:26. Her appointment was at 1:00. She might be home any moment.
I called her mobile phone again, and reached that voicemail. I left her another message. I then called the doctor's office, and they said she was still in session with the big man. Good. At least that meant Elaine went. I told the nurse to call me as soon as Elaine came out. I told her to write it down on a stickynote so not to forget, and she hurriedly snapped she would. By that answer, I was pretty sure she had a lot of work going on, and wouldn't remember. I was sorely tempted to drive across town to Elaine, but if she left while I was going, I might pass her.
I'd wait at home for her. I put the kettle on the stove, just simmering, ready to have her a mug of tea brewing as soon as I saw her enter the driveway. I had no stomach for tea or anything; I hadn't had lunch and didn't remember eating breakfast. I hadn't had supper the night before, because I finishing my notes for the dissertation for the board of directors which I had failed at today. Maybe that's why I became a bit delirious; lack of food or drink. My head was swimming a little as I watched the rain begin pelting the front yard outside. I sat pensively on the sofa, staring out the window at the drive way.
Come on, angel. Come home.
When 4:00 passed, I began mulling over how many tests could they be running her through? I called the clinic again, and the busy nurse said Elaine had recently left, and the nurse was just about to call me. I didn't believe it and could have given the nurse some thoughts on basic customer service, but a quick thank you very much ma'am was enough. The nurse began telling me something about the bill, but I just hung up. Not now ma'am, please.
The house had never been so quiet before.
Soon Elaine's flashy black Mercedes turned around the bushes into the driveway, and I was up like a spring. I had seen that car come into the driveway many a time on odd days when I came home before her, with that big dent in the front from when I bumped a brick mailbox. I had wanted to get it fixed, but she said it was just a scratch, and we should save the money for better things.
But never had I watched with such attention. Every detail of what I saw seemed enhanced; it was like I could see every drop of rain patter off its metal.
I rushed to the simmering kettle and splashed the water into the waiting mug with a teabag, then snatched up the purple umbrella from the boot rack and opened the front door. The rain splashed down like a wall between us, as if I was to be cut off from her. Ridiculous notion. I snapped up the umbrella, tried to go through the front door, then backed up, pulled the umbrella out of its stuck position, closed it up and then reopened it when I was outside; the blithering thing was too big to get through the doorway. We needed a smaller one.
I rushed to her car in a heartbeat, and opening her door, helped her out gently. She was trembling.
I put my arm around her, telling her what an absurd time I had at work today, and how I somehow made squiggles on one of my bosses' faces with a marker because I could only think of her, but I don't suppose she heard me. I don't think I stopped blabbering till we reached the kitchen, just filling the air with noise, as her face was turned to the floor. I don't know, maybe I was nervous and hoped the noise would liven her. I wondered how far her car had been from the clinic door, she was so wet.
I sat her down at the breakfast table and poured some milk in her tea before handing it to her. I stopped talking as she gave me a smile. Wait, it wasn't a smile; I think it was just a twinkle in her eye. But her face looked so sad it seemed an enormous improvement. I attentively sat across from her, noticing the twinkle had vanished. She held the warmed mug for a few, quiet seconds, before putting it on the table.
I didn't want to push her to tell me. I waited. She looked like she was trying to choose her words.
She opened her mouth to say something, and before I knew it, her lovely face was in her hands, her shoulders shaking with sobs.
I was horrified, and swung my chair around to sit next to her.
“What's wrong, Elaine?” I asked, startled.
She finally looked at me, after several hesitations. Her cute, pale lips parted and she tried to speak, but no words came out. It was like she was choking.
I put my arms around her right away and began rocking her gently. She held onto my jacket, her hot tears wetting my shirt. I ran my fingers through her wet hair, kissing her forehead. I prayed that God would have mercy on us, and strengthen us for whatever situation He had chosen to send us.
“Ben...” she finally said. Her finally-found voice was like music to my ears, even though it sounded tired and strangled. I turned to look at her face. Her dark eyes flickered up to me. “I...I have cancer.”
I couldn't believe it. It smashed me like a hammer. I grasped her tightly, holding her hard and close as if I could see the claws of some monster trying to pull her away. No! I would not let her be ripped apart from me! No!
I felt more tears on my chest, and I knew I needed to calm down. Somehow! For her. She was the one in true pain here, far more than me! I needed to hear her out. Maybe it was stoppable. Maybe we could nip this poison in the bud. Save her!
“The doctors,” whispered Elaine. “They say I only have a few weeks before...before...”
She could not go on, and I lovingly stroked her hair as she cried into my shoulder.
I couldn't believed. Startled.
So it was terminal. She was...leaving. In a few weeks? I expected myself to explode with questions, in some sort of outrage and mad sorrow, but I surprised myself when I found I was calmly fondling her, trying to soften the edge of her pain, soothe her somehow.
I had no idea what to say. What could I say? Nothing came to mind!
I don't know how, or where it came from, but I was softly murmuring something. It almost didn't seem like my voice, but another's; it sounded so distant, broken...but struggling to sound strong, secure, consoling.
“Ave Maria,” I began, “Gratia plena…”
I don't know how long we stayed like that, it seemed to last hours. Finally, that dratted, dismal rainfall stopped. Some sunlight peeped through the clouds. The golden shafts beamed through the kitchen window and landed on her hair, as if the sun wanted to drying her, nature was summoning itself to console her. How could the stars shine if she was gone? Would the sun rise? How could nature just go on?
“It's all over,” Elaine whispered, as her tears began drying. “Our hopes, our dreams... What now? We've been saving so much to have a family together, to buy a dream house...”
I had bought her a Thomas Kinkade painting for her twenty-second birthday, a cottage nestled in mounds of purple flowers. We chatted frequently about how important our choice of house was in which to bring up our children. She loved painting, and had tried a dozen times to paint the best of houses for us, but never quite found it. I always joked it was in 'Wonderland', and we'd never find it.
The sort of things that came to her mind, I tell you. A new house was the furthest thing from my mind right now.
“Do you have to go to the hospital for these next few weeks?” I asked quietly.
“The doctor said I should get in there now. But if I don't want to just yet, to, you know, visit people and places... I have about a week before I must enter into the hospital. And then about three weeks before...” she couldn't say it. She just held on, and I was overflowing with I don't know what bittersweet emotion, since I was there to hug her, to be her pillar to hold onto. It was killing me like acid to see her in such pain, in such dread.
But hadn't we always learned that death is a good thing, passing from one dreary life into a blissful next? I asked her to join me in some prayers, and we quietly prayed together. I mentally begged the Blessed Mother to give me the words She wished me to say, and for Her to personally soften and soothe Elaine's confused and frightened heart.
After a few minutes I began asking Elaine what was the most beautiful things she had ever seen. It felt spontaneous, but I knew what I was doing.
She didn't understand; but then believing I was trying to lighten her mind with colourful thoughts, she conceded, and with closed eyes began mildly mentioning what she'd seen of misty forests or glorious canyons.
When she finished what came to mind, I said, “Well imagine all that, and ten times better; they are pale shadows compared to Heaven itself. You're going to the most amazing place imaginable, Elaine! We should pop champagne, really!” I hardly felt it, but that didn't matter.
I thought she smiled. I looked down at her closed eyes, and her long dark lashes; the imagination behind them had to be positive, began the sides of her lips were pointed up! It was the most elating and gorgeous sight I had ever seen to date, and I stroked the side of her mouth gently, before kissing her damp head, holding her tight.
“We have a week, do we?” I said, feeling warmth seep into our hearts. I gave a sigh, rocking back and forth a bit like some big old rocking chair, and looked out at the sunny backyard. “Well then, what a week we shall have.”
I had been spending time so much time at work, making plans to build that Wonderland for us... when all this time I should have been spending time with her, doing more with the present, not the future. Well, that was over.
When Elaine fell into a much-needed sleep, I carried her to bed, then called my friends at work. I compelled them help me to search for a house, somewhere, anywhere, that looked like the cottage in Elaine's most recent painting. She had said that out of all her attempts before, it was the most like our 'Wonderland'. Working all through the night, we found the cottage the next morning, twelve hours flight away, a house on a forested hill overlooking a quaint town we couldn't even pronounce the name of.
After surprising her by the spontaneous flight that day, we flew over to stay there a week, to live off the fresh summer produce from the nearby farms and lots of a marvelous tea which was a specialty in that land. Elaine was struck to laughter when we drove up to the house. She couldn't believe her eyes, and I had to convince her I hadn't had it built overnight for her, it was so similar to her painting.
I would awaken early each morning and go to bed late each night, to ensure everything was as perfect as could be, fresh flowers daily filling the house with exploding colour and fragrance. The contagious happiness caught Elaine up and she was like she hadn't been in months. I had brought her paints set, easel and canvases, and she was soon painting the countryside, turning out the most fantastic masterpieces I've ever seen. There was a nearby church we spent long hours at each day, and though we couldn't understand a word at daily Mass, it gave us such a deep, soothing peace.
A very merry week seemed to draw too soon to an end, as she began coughing hard, and it wasn't letting up. She had to go back. The idea of going from this dream-come-true of a house to a cold, stoic hospital room was abhorrent. But I did all I could to act bright and positive, as if the change was a good thing, a great thing.
When we flew home and signed into the nearby hospital, I found out her room as soon as I could. While she was going through check-ups and answering all sorts of boring and awkward questions, I contacted her friends from her job, and implored them for creative ideas for her room. They devoted the rest of their day (their boss loved Elaine like a daughter), to driving over to the hospital and in a side lobby we secretly drew up a grand plan, full of a myriad of colourful ideas. They made the calls to their various professional friends, who soon came in with their tool kits; it was amazing how keen the people who knew Elaine were to help her. As I helped them set it up, I was surprised at their constantly sounding their good opinions of her. You know what, it was that beauty of hers. That beauty from deep within her, which spread to what or whoever she met with.
When her took her into her room, she was enthralled, and settled into her new bed far better than I'm sure any other patient ever has. Her work friends soon came in after dinner in a surprise entry, but soon had to leave, because Elaine's coughing came back, and we needed to call a nurse for some pain relief. She was linked to the IV, and thus began the last three weeks.
I barely thought about work; I would deal with that later. I spent every single day with her, eating delivered take-out and such, so I never left her room. Not for a moment. We played gentle music all the time, and I paid for books to be sent in, full of paintings and photographs of beautiful things from landscapes to architecture. They excited her, and she would explain the paintings and things to me when she was too tired to do any drawings of her own; even now she was still able to make little masterpieces. And she was happy; despite all that was going on, and the morbid news from the doctors, I wouldn't let her feel down for two minutes together. I would make her smile and perhaps laugh with what the doctor had to say.
In the second week, she was too weak to draw anything, and talked far less. I would show her photographs and do the talking for her. A lot of times she would keep her eyes closed, because it hurt to keep them open too long, and she was so very tired. I would read stories to her, full of descriptions, so she always had lovely images in her head. A priest came in to administer the Last Rites, which renewed her spirit a lot. She could never get over what a palace her room was.
Many of her friends and family came in droves to see her, but I would keep the visits short, as she was easily tired out from being so happy to see them, and her symptoms were getting so bad that she seemed to be in very frequent pain. She was always so worried about how pale and worn she looked, but I wouldn't hear of it, and would let her know how lovely she still was, and even get the visitors to agree. When they entered, they would begin their litanies on how sorry they were and how wasted she looked, but in no time I had them genuinely agreeing that she looked wonderful and they'd hardly know something was wrong. And it was true, I would say to her when alone, holding her hand. She would never stop looking the angel she was.
The last week was the worst. She was in constant pain despite the pain killer medicines, and could hardly receive Communion when the priest came to renew the Last Rites. A dark gloom seemed to be fighting to come in through the window, to infect the room, but I fought it, with all my strength I fought it. The room has such wonder and charm, I would not have it taken. She had her eyes closed most of the time, so I rarely knew when she was awake. I went through book after book, though, reading to her whether she was asleep or not. I was deeply heartened when she said she could hear me in her sleep, and the stories were giving her beautiful dreams. That was enough to make everything worth it. The nurse commented a few times on how tired I looked, but I brushed it aside; last thing I wanted to hear about was me.
Towards the end of the week, she held onto my hand a lot more, and I could see she was soon leaving me. I did everything I could not to cry over her; all this time of happiness could not be ruined by an outburst of emotion! When I was sure she was deeply asleep, I would sometimes go into the nearby bathroom and let out all my tears as hard as I could, to avoid any being left which might try jumping out later on. We prayed a lot together, and even though she was always in painful exhaustion, I somehow knew she was constantly smiling, deep inside.
“Ben,” her voice sounded like an angel.
I opened my eyes to see her looking down at me, gently illuminated by the single lamp nearby. The clock on the dark wall read 1:30 a.m.
“Yes?” I asked, shaking off the sleep. I looked up at her attentively; she hadn't spoken in days.
“Ben...remember how we've been longing to...go off...and find that...that Wonderland?” she had laboured breathing, but her voice had a smooth firmness to it.
“Yes,” I said slowly. “And you've been trying to paint it for so long, too. We found it, though.” For a moment I was sickened by the thought that she had forgotten all about that week we'd spent together. All those colourful memories gone? “You haven't forgotten...honey?”
“Oh no,” her lips parted into something like a smile, her eyelids fluttering. “I remember all that. Of course I do.”
She paused for about twenty seconds to get her breath back; I didn't rush her, I just held her hand, and waited.
“Few people ever find Wonderland. I always wanted to...”
I kissed her hand, overjoyed. “Then I have to admit something to you,” I said gently.
“That I found it long ago.”
“When I married you. Ever since then, wherever we've been, it's been a Wonderland for me. This room, with all its colour and all...this is just because of who you are. I used to be so boring and bland; being with you brought out the artist in me, gave me outlook I have; the gorgeous world I now live in. in this room is just an extension of that world...I owe it all to you. Thank you for giving me a far larger taste of Heaven than I ever deserved! You've beaten me to seeing the real deal, my love, but have left me with so much to help me get there too, a beautiful road!”
“I'm so sorry...” she swallowed. I could see a tear building up on the corner of her eye. “You're going to hurt so much, so much pain...”
“My life will be a focused journey on reaching Heaven, Elaine,” I said, holding her little hand in both of mine after smoothing that tear away. I kissed her hand. “And now I've now yet another reason to reach It.”
She smiled, and laid her head back.
“I'm not silly, you know,” she said quietly. “I know you can't be as jolly as you've seemed to be. I wonder how much pain you're really feeling?”
“Ridiculous notion,” I grinned. “If you're fine, I'm fine. If you're happy, I'm happy! And are you happy, darling?”
She looked like a laugh had bubbled out of her heart, but it died in the the form of a sigh. She turned to me, and her hair about her face glowed.
“Yes, sweetheart,” she said. “I am. Very happy.”
There was a pause as she laid her head back and gathered her breath. I held her hand, rubbing it gently. Only now I realised I could sense her heartbeat.
It was slowing.
“Ben?” her voice was weak. “I have to tell you something...about Wonderland...”
“It wasn't in that distant land...not for me...”
“It wasn't?” My heart dropped. I couldn't understand. “Why?”
“These last three weeks...this has been it,” she said with a smile.
Her eyes opened to me, one last time. And she smiled! A real smile!
“Ben, you being here, with me... Thank you... I found it here, right here in this room, you made my Wonderland.”