The sights and sounds of Christmas were all around him. At home, the scent of evergreen mingled with ginger and spice, and multicolored lights glittered throughout the house. This was Harry Alderwood's favorite time of year. He'd settled in Leavenworth, Washington, more than five decades ago, and he loved the way this town celebrated Christmas. Despite his eighty-six years and failing health, nothing could dampen his love of the season. Even sitting in Dr. Snellgrove's office, with its spindly artificial Christmas tree, waiting for what he was sure would be bad news, Harry didn't feel depressed. This appointment would probably drain him for the rest of the day, and yet it seemed pointless. He doubted there was anything left for Dr. Snellgrove to do. His heart was giving out; it was as simple as that.
Harry wasn't afraid of death. He often thought about it, especially with so many of his friends dying. He'd seen death, witnessed it countless times on the beaches of Normandy and the battlefields of Europe in World War II. He'd grieved when his own parents and his older brother, Ted, had passed away. He wasn't afraid, though. Maybe he should be, but why worry about the inevitable?
An exhausted young mother sat across the room, keeping her little girl entertained by reading to her. Looking at them, he found it hard to tell who needed the doctor most, mother or child. Both seemed to be suffering from bad colds. Harry was grateful for the distance between them, since his own immune system was so weak.
Harry knew this would almost certainly be his last Christmas, and that saddened him. He'd always been a man of faith, and that faith had grown stronger as he grew older. Which was a natural progression, he supposed. He wondered if the angels celebrated Christmas in Heaven; he suspected they did. Harry figured he'd find out soon enough. Meanwhile, he was determined to make his last Christmas on Earth as special as he could for Rosalie. Already he was thinking of what he might do to show his wife of sixty-five years how much he loved her. Leaving Rosalie. That was his one regret....
He was caught up in his thoughts, and the nurse had to repeat his name before he heard her. She was a young woman named Kelly Shannon - or was it Shannon Kelly? - but he affectionately called her Nurse Ratched. She didn't seem to mind.
"Coming." He needed a moment to clamber to his feet. Sometimes he forgot that his legs weren't as steady as they used to be. Not long ago, he didn't have a problem getting out of a chair, but these days he got so winded just standing, he could barely walk. Growing old wasn't for sissies, that was for sure.
Using his cane for leverage, he slowly pulled himself upright, smiled at the young mother across from him and carefully placed one foot in front of the other. More and more, walking even a few yards was a chore. Still, he waved off Nurse Ratched's offer of assistance. He took several deep breaths and winked as he walked past her. She smiled, adjusting the holly brooch she wore on her crisp white uniform.
He liked her attention to Christmas. And he was grateful that she didn't rush him. That was the problem with people these days. They all seemed to be in a hurry, stepping around him, practically pushing him aside, in an effort to get ahead in the grocery store or the parking lot. Didn't these folks realize he was moving as fast as he could? A few years ago, he used to be just like them, trying to get someplace quickly and then, once he arrived, wondering why he'd been in such a hurry.
"Your color's good this morning," Nurse Ratched said as she held open the door of the examining room and waited for Harry to move inside. "You must be feeling better."
Harry never did understand why other people made assumptions about how he felt. No one really wanted the truth. Well, okay...maybe doctors and nurses did. But when it came to friends and acquaintances, he wasn't interested in discussing his health. He accepted the likelihood of illness and the certainty of death, although he didn't want to get there any sooner than necessary.
"Have a chair." Dr. Snellgrove's nurse pointed to the one against the wall.
It took Harry a long time to reach that chair and sit down again.
The nurse, chattering in a friendly manner, checked his blood pressure, which was normal, took his temperature, which was also normal, and then after asking the usual questions, left the room, closing the door behind her.
Five minutes later, Dr. Snellgrove appeared. Harry still found it a bit disconcerting to have such a young doctor; Paul Snellgrove barely looked old enough to shave, let alone make life-and-death decisions. Harry had met a number of young physicians lately, both men and women. That was a good thing, in his opinion - even though their youth reminded Harry of his own age. But these newly minted doctors tended to be idealistic, which he approved of, and they were up on all the latest technology, treatments and medications. The only problem was that they could be a bit unrealistic, seeing death as the enemy when sometimes, at the end of a long life or debilitating illness, it was a friend. Dr. Snellgrove wasn't like that, though. Three or four years ago, he'd bought out Harry's longtime physician's practice. Harry admired the kid.
"What can I do for you?" Dr. Snellgrove asked, sitting on a stool and sliding it over so he was eye to eye with Harry.
Harry rested both hands on his cane, one on top of the other. "I'm having trouble breathing again." This wasn't a new complaint. It'd gotten worse, though. Twice in the past week, he'd woken in the middle of the night, unable to catch his breath. Both times he'd thought he was dying. He hoped to go gentle and easy, in his sleep or something like that, not sitting up in bed gasping for air and frightening poor Rosalie into a panic.
The young doctor asked him a few more questions. Harry already knew the problem. His heart was tired, which might not be medical terminology but seemed pretty accurate, and sometimes it just took a brief pause. The pacemaker was supposed to help and it'd worked fine for the most part...until recently.
"There's not much I can do for you, Mr. Alderwood, much as I hate to admit it," the physician told him. His eyes were serious as they met Harry's.
Harry appreciated that the other man didn't look away and was willing to tell him the truth. He was ready to release his hold on life. Almost ready. There was one thing he still had to accomplish, one arrangement he still had to make, and he needed enough time to do it. "No new pill?" He'd swallowed an entire pharmacy full now. Twenty-six prescriptions at last count - not all at once, of course. Thankfully, due to his years of military service, the government helped pay the cost of those many expensive drugs.
"No, Harry, I'm sorry. No miracle pills this week."
Harry sighed. He hadn't really expected there would be.
"Your heart's failing," Dr. Snellgrove said. "You know that." Then he frowned. "I see you're using the cane instead of the walker."
Harry hated that blasted walker. "It's at the house."
"Harry, it's December." The physician looked exasperated. "The last thing you need is a fracture."
Harry dismissed Snellgrove's concern.
"I'm well aware that I'm dying," he said, leaning toward the other man. "What I'd like is your best guess of how much time I've got."
"Why is it so important to know?" the doctor asked.
"Because of Rosalie," Harry murmured. "She's forgetful and gets confused now and then, and I don't think she'll do well living on her own." Harry worried about his wife constantly. Even their children didn't realize how bad Rosalie's memory had gotten in the last few years.
Paul Snellgrove reached for Harry's chart and glanced at the top page. "You're still in your own home, right?"
Harry nodded. He and Rosalie had raised their two beautiful daughters in that house on Walnut Avenue. Lorraine and Donna now lived and worked in Seattle and had raised their families there. One or the other came home at least once a month, sometimes more often; his sons-in-law were frequent visitors, as well. Kenny, Lorraine's husband, had strung all their Christmas lights last week and brought him and Rosalie a tree. Oh, yes, Harry knew how fortunate he was in his family, how blessed.
And his grandkids...The four grandkids were adults themselves now and making their own way in life. Being around his grandchildren did Harry's heart more good than any of those pills he gulped down every morning.
"I want to move Rosalie into Liberty Orchard, that new assisted-living complex, before I die," he explained. "It's the best solution for her. For everyone."
The physician nodded. "Anything stopping you?""You mean other than Rosalie?" Harry joked. "I just need to convince her. That might take some doing, so I have to know how much time you think I've got."The young physician calmly appraised him.His daughters agreed their mother would need help sooner or later, but didn't feel the urgency Harry did. They didn't understand that he couldn't leave this life comfortably unless he knew Rosalie would be properly looked after."Tell me straight up," Harry insisted. "It shouldn't be that difficult to tell an old man how much time he's got left." He let the challenge hang between them.The physician rolled the stool back a couple of inches and made a gesture that was more revealing than anything he might have said. "Harry, I'm not God, so I don't know for sure," he murmured, "but I'll be honest if that's what you want.""I do," he confirmed.Dr. Snellgrove slowly exhaled. "The truth is, you could go at any time."The words rattled Harry. That wasn't what he'd expected to hear. He'd assumed he had a couple of months, possibly until spring. Maybe he'd even last until summer. He took a minute to absorb the reality of his situation, then nodded and said, "Okay."As if he feared he might have said too much, the physician launched into a lengthy explanation of cardiac rhythms and stenosis and congestive heart failure.Most of his words slid off Harry; instead, the thought of dying reverberated in his head. When would it happen? Would he have time to arrange for Rosalie's care?"Don't overtax yourself. Use your walker," Dr. Snellgrove was telling him."I will," Harry promised."Rest as much as you can," the doctor went on. "And, Mr. Alderwood - Harry - you'll have to stop driving. It's increasingly unsafe."Harry nodded; he'd already accepted that. More arrangements to make...No problem there. Harry didn't have the energy to do much more than take the simplest outing. Most days were spent in front of the television. He liked those court shows best, and the Weather Channel, too. The older he got, the more important the weather seemed to be.In Leavenworth this time of year, it was mostly cold and snowy. The stores around town counted on that snow for their tourist business, especially this close to the holidays. The entire month of December was a Christmas extravaganza here. Every weekend, there was a parade featuring an old-fashioned Father Christmas, a chubby Santa and even the Grinch, followed by a tree-lighting ceremony."Is there anything else I can do for you?" the doctor asked as Harry rose awkwardly to his feet."You got a new heart for me?" Harry managed a grin.The other man's face saddened. "Sorry."Harry thrust out his hand. He wanted to convey his thanks for everything the doctor had done and for his honesty. "Merry Christmas, Doc. And in case I don't see you again, Happy New Year."Snellgrove shook his hand warmly. "All the best, Harry. To you and your wife."In the waiting area the nurse handed him his coat, which hung on a peg on the wall. He wrapped the scarf Rosalie had knit him twenty-five years ago around his neck. He still wore it every winter. Rosalie was no longer knitting, which was a shame; she'd been an accomplished knitter. Their kids and grandkids had been the recipients of sweaters and mittens and hats, all kinds of beautifully made things.Time was...He paused and smiled as he placed his hat on his head. Time was...That phrase came to him more and more often these days. He waited a moment, then slipped his arms into the sleeves of his thick wool coat. It felt heavy on his shoulders, heavier than it had when he'd put it on earlier that morning.He wished Nurse Ratched a courteous "Merry Christmas" and prepared to leave.Leaning on his cane, he opened the door and steeled himself against the cold before he made the short trek to his car. Like the doctor, his daughters didn't want him driving anymore or going out on his own. They were right. He'd talk to them about selling the car; maybe he'd call them tonight. In the meanwhile, he'd drive very, very carefully.The skies were dark and overcast, and the cold cut right through him. He climbed into the driver's seat, then started the engine. A blast of cold air hit him as he turned on the defroster. He shivered; it seemed he was always cold. According to the doctor, being cold indicated poor circulation. In other words, Harry's heart was giving out, and this was just another symptom.With his gloved hands on the steering wheel, he waited for the windshield to defrost.He could die anytime.With that, another realization hit him. He had to convince Rosalie to move as soon as possible. But his wife could be a stubborn woman, and Harry knew he was going to need help.Bowing his head, he closed his eyes. Harry believed more fervently now than ever, although he hadn't been as faithful about attending church and reading his Bible. But when he did go to Sunday services, he walked away with something he could use in his life - a sense of God's benevolence and a desire to be right-minded and honorable. The Bible was filled with wisdom - and some darn good stories, too. Rosalie generally went to services. The church was only a few blocks away, and every Sunday morning, his wife was there. Their next-door neighbor drove her or one of the girls did, if either happened to be visiting.Another thing Harry didn't make a regular practice of was prayer. He regretted that because he believed God answered prayers. He didn't want to bother the Almighty with his own paltry concerns. Seeing that God was dealing with the big stuff like global warming and the problems in the Middle East, it didn't make sense to Harry that He'd have time to worry about one old man. An old man afraid of what would happen to his wife after he died...Only Harry didn't know where else to turn.The inside of the car became his church. With his head bowed and his eyes closed, he whispered, "Okay, Lord, my time's getting short. I want you to know I accept that. I understand you've got much bigger problems on this earth than mine, and better things to do than listen to an old man like me. Nevertheless, I hope you won't mind if I ask for your help."It's about Rosalie, Lord. The house is too much for her all by herself. Without me there to look after her, I'm afraid she'll burn the place down because she'll forget to turn off a burner or start a flood because she forgot the bathwater was running. I know you love her even more than I do and that's a comfort. Show me how to convince her to move into that fancy new complex. Let me warn you, though, Lord, my Rosalie can be stubborn. But then, I guess you've noticed that."Lord, when I'm gone, you'll have to take care of her for me." He paused and decided he was taking up too much of God's time, so he added, "Amen."When he glanced up, the cloud cover had broken and sunshine burst upon the snow, making it shimmer with light. Harry watched it for a long moment, feeling good. The problem now rested in God's hands.