I’ll Wait For You
It was the summer of 1994, and Nikolai Nikolaiovich was dying. He knew he was dying, and he was ready to go. He had cancer. That was alright with Nikolai. He was ninety-four years old, and he had outlived all of his family, all of his friends, and most of his relatives. In his long life, he had seen the world change in ways that he did not understand, could not fathom, and did not like. The cancer, in fact, had come as a sort of perverse blessing.
He had long before made his peace with whatever powers that be. Now, as he lay in his bed, surrounded by his doctor, and two of his grandchildren, in the comfort of the neat little flat that he had shared for over sixty years with his wife, Olga, he had nothing to do but wait. He had declined pain medication. It wasn’t so bad. He had, many times in his life, experienced worse. At least the doctor had allowed him to come home to die. He could not bear the thought of leaving the world in the sterilized, sanitized and frigid environment of the hospital. Here, at least, he could spend what little time was left to him amid his own things, in the place that had been his home for over half of his life.
The old carpenter was wasted, a shadow of his former self… only his large, callused hands showed any evidence of the strength that had once been his. He had never been a large man, and the sheets… clean and crisp… and the blankets… made him look even smaller than his five-feet, four inches. Of course, the cancer had taken its toll, and the extra weight that he once carried had long since melted away. Still, his eyes were bright, his mind was clear, and his intellect keen.
Every five minutes or so, his oldest granddaughter, Elena, would gently brush an unruly shock of snow-white hair away from his forehead, smooth his bushy eyebrows, and ask the old man if he needed anything. From the look on his face, what he needed most was to be left alone. Of course, he would never tell the girl this. He simply shook his head, and said in a weak voice, that he was fine the way he was. The younger girl, Natasha, sat quietly beside the bed, occasionally glancing at the wall above the headboard, where an old photograph of Nikolai Nikolaiovich and his late wife hung in a handmade wooden frame.
The old man glanced up at the girl, and caught her staring at the picture. “You look a lot like her, you know”. He smiled weakly, and reached for her hand as he spoke. “The same eyes… the same smile…”
“Save your strength, grandfather,” she said softly. “You have to conserve your strength.”
“Why? Your grandmother will be here for me soon…”
“What are you talking about, grandfather?”
“Your grandmother,” the old man replied softly. “She’s coming for me. She promised me that she would.”
Both girls had been present when their grandmother had passed away. Both of them had heard the old woman make that promise to her nearly frantic husband. She had done it to calm him. They both knew that. Now, it looked as though the old man was living some sort of fantasy. Did he really believe this? Certainly not…
That day passed, as did the next. With each passing hour, Nikolai Nikolaiovich grew weaker and weaker. Finally, after a ten weary days, it looked as though the end was near. With each passing day, the old man grew weaker. He stopped eating altogether. Elena and Natasha had both suggested putting him back in the hospital. The old man was weak, but he still had his wits about him. He simply would not hear of it. The priest was called. He came and went.
He slept all through the day on the twelfth day. The doctor came, shook his head, and left. There was nothing more he could do. The old man’s breath grew shallower and shallower, but still he held on. Neither girl left his bedside. Neither expected him to wake from his sleep. Then, in the small hours of the morning, on what was to be the thirteenth day, he rallied.
Both girls… they were hardly girls… but that’s what he called them… they both had grown children, and one had a grandchild of her own… had nodded off into a fitful sleep. They didn’t notice at first. Then, they heard his voice… Not the voice of the sick old man that they had come to comfort in his dying, but the voice that they remembered from childhood… a strong, firm voice.
Elena and Natasha looked up to see the room bathed in a gentle glow. Their grandfather was sitting bolt upright, looking intently at the door, across the tiny room, at the foot of his bed. He spoke again.
“So you’ve come,” he said… a smile lighting up his lined face. “I knew you would. You said that you would. I was waiting for you. I told you that I would wait… remember?”
The young woman in the doorway smiled back at him and said, “Yes, darling, I remember, and, now, I’ve come for you. It’s time for you to go.”
The two girls sat frozen in their chairs, unable to speak or move. Both saw the young woman. Both recognized her. She was younger than they remembered. She looked exactly like she did in the picture hanging above the bed. She was dressed in a long, opaque dress, of the style worn at the turn of the century. Her chestnut hair was long and flowing, and there was a look of gentle concern on her face. She looked solid enough, but not quite real.
The figure glided across the floor to the side of the bed, and took the old man by the hand. “Come darling,” she said. “It’s time”.
“Past time,” he replied. “Long past time”.
With that, he laid back gently into his pillow and heaved a deep sigh. The glow faded, and before Elena and Natasha’s startled eyes, the woman vanished. As if a spell was broken, both reached for the bed. The old man lay there, still, his eyes closed, a smile on his face… quite dead.
© 2011 by Dr. J. Lee Choron; all rights reserved un less specifically granted by the author in writing.