She grasps his calloused hand. Her delicate fingers tug desperately to keep from falling further than she’s already gone. He nimbly wraps his round, craggy fingers around her wrist, ready to pull her up or, if need be, fall with her to the depths below.
They’ve both been at this precipice before, sometimes their positions reversed. Once in a while, the drop isn’t too bad. If their grip loosens, the one hanging lands easily on their feet. Most times though, the slightest slip means crashing onto broken boulders, gnarled trees, pounding rapids.
But each time, they hold on and walk away a bit more battered, but stronger still for having shared their graceful, tender, rope-free climb together.
She looks up at him, him back at her. Their gazes lock, and they share more in an unspoken moment than an hour of verbal conversation ever could.
“This is survivable.
“I know. But I’m scared.”
“Me too, my love. Me too.”
“I’m so glad you’re here with me.”
“I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”
“What if …”
“What if nothing. We’re here now, together. That’s what matters.”
“I wish we hadn’t gone this way. That I’d chosen another path to take. That I didn’t make you come with me.”
“I didn’t go anywhere I didn’t want to. And as far as I remember, there wasn’t any other path to take.”
Then, perfected over half a century of adventuring together, they simultaneously take a deep breath. Each of them as much responsible for filling the other’s lungs as their own. The situation remains, but they are more present in it.
As though waiting just off stage for her cue, the doctor knocks and steps into the small emergency department room.
“We’re ready to take you down to nuclear medicine to be looked at,” she says to my parents.
They both nod slowly. Dad leans in, pulls down his face mask, gives Ma a gentle kiss on the forehead. “We’ll be here waiting for you, kid,” he says.
“Ok,” she says, barely above a whisper.
His hand slips from hers, and tears well up at the corners of their eyes. Ma is wheeled from the room. Dad sighs deeply, looking at me and my sister. “She’ll be fine,” he says, wiping away a tear.
Just over two months later, Ma asks me where Dad is.
I’m sitting in a chair at her rehab facility, watching her drift in and out of sleep. It’s been nine weeks of hospital stays and stints in rehab. An unmercifully short week or so back home around the end of February. Back in her chair, next to Dad in his chair, in the living room of the home they’ve shared for over five decades.
Dangerously low sodium. Multiple sclerosis flareups. A gall bladder infection. Fluid around her lungs. Painful, swollen hands and arms. Then useless hands and arms. Countless blood tests, CAT scans, and physical therapy. Dad’s daily drives of devotion from Johnson to UVM, then from Johnson to St. Albans. Feeding Ma her meals. Cheering on successes once taken for granted. Saying goodbye to each other and crying every afternoon.
Each day a new trip up that harrowing precipice.
“Dad’s on his way,” I tell Ma. “Remember he had his doctor’s appointment this morning? He’ll be here.”
“Oh yeah,” she says. “That’s right.”
And a few minutes later, he shows up. He’s smiling beneath his face mask. His eyes say so as he walked over to the bed.
Dad leans in, pulls down his face mask, gives Ma a gentle kiss on the forehead. “Good to see you, kid.”
And without a word, they tell each other, “Hold my hand. Look in my eyes. Take a deep breath.” And they do as the climb begins once again.