A 2020 Conversation
Roy DeSoto startled when he heard the phone ring. He must have fallen asleep. He reached down and hit the button to answer it, raising it to his ear. The channel on the TV changed. The phone continued to ring. Shaking his head with disgust, he looked at what he was holding. He had just tried to answer the remote. Finding the phone next to him, he carefully pressed the correct button and heard the dial tone. The ringing continued, and Roy realized it was not only ringing but also vibrating against his leg. By the time he freed his cell phone from his pocket, the ring and vibration had both stopped.
He looked up to see Joanne laughing at him. “What’s so funny?” he asked her, knowing what she was going to say.
“You,” she said. “You know, you could change your ringtone so that it sounds different from the landline.”
“Sometimes I think it was simpler when the phone was attached to the wall and you had to get up and walk to the TV to change the channel.”
“I know. It was so much better when we had to get up at 4 AM so that family on the east coast could call before the rates went up. Oh, and remember how much fun it was to stand and hold the antenna so the kids could not only hear but also see Sesame Street? I miss that.”
“I didn’t say it was better. I just said it was simpler. But some things about it were better. Like you could …”
Joanne interrupted him mid thought. “Roy, who called?”
“Oh yeah,” Roy smiled at his wife and looked at his cell phone. “Johnny,” he told her. “It’s almost 10:00. You think it’s too late to call him back?”
Joanne gave him a look that let him clearly know that his question made no sense.
“Roy, honey, he called you less than 2 minutes ago. So I’m pretty sure it’s not too late to call him back.”
While the birth of a great grandchild 4 months ago had made them both feel exceedingly old, Roy was only 76 and had just fully retired from teaching new paramedics a year ago. Yet sometimes, especially when he was tired, he wondered if age was finally catching up to him.
“Did he leave a message?” Joanne asked.
Roy looked again at the phone, knowing that the answer was no. They never left messages for each other. That was something else that had gone out of style. Roy’s phone would show that Johnny had called and Roy would call him back or the other way around. Leaving a message just meant one more thing that the other one had to do before hitting redial.
“No message. You going to bed?”
“Yup. Just because you can still stay fully awake any time of the day or night, doesn’t mean I can. So, goodnight. Tell him I said hi.” But before she left the room, she obviously reconsidered that decision. She changed direction and walked back toward Roy.
“Better yet …” she said as she took the phone out of his hand, touched Johnny’s name on the screen, changed the setting to speaker, and waited. The call was answered on the second ring.
“Wrong,” Joanne said, “I stole his phone so I could say hi and goodnight before the two of you get talking. You’re on speaker.”
Roy could hear the smile in his friend’s voice when he spoke.
“Hi, Jo. How’s the baby? How’s the great grandma?”
“Sadie is perfect. And I’m not anywhere near old enough to really be a great grandmother so we are just sticking with ‘Nana Jo’ and pretending that somehow or another, baby Sadie can be the child of the child of my child without making me a great grandmother.”
Joanne took a breath and Roy expected her to say goodnight and hand him the phone. Instead she continued, “How are you, Johnny? You doing okay?”
“Yeah, I’m doing okay, Jo. As good as anyone I guess. Still healthy. How about you? Are you all okay?”
“Thank the good Lord, yes. It’s really unsettling. Everything is so weird. I’ll tell you this. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t thank God that the two of you are retired and no where near the front line. I honestly don’t know how the families handle that each day. I know I would have fallen apart. I know that there are problems and risks with being old, but thank God the two of you are too old to still be first responders of any type. Seriously. It’s not just an expression. I really do thank God for that every day.”
Roy listened intently as his wife spoke to his best friend. He knew that Joanne felt this way, but the two of them never really talked about it. She was saying more about it to Johnny right now than she had voiced to him since March.
“Thank God the two of you are retired,” she repeated. “Otherwise I can just see you both making some misguided heroic gesture and volunteering to work on the front line again.”
Johnny laughed. Not just a one syllable “Ha” that escaped because he found something humorous, but a full laugh. Roy found himself laughing as well.
“What’s so funny?”
Roy looked quickly to make sure that his wife’s expression was amused rather than annoyed. She was smiling, but not completely.
She continued without giving either of them a chance to answer her question. “Both of you, you can’t tell me that you haven’t wished you could be on the front lines helping instead of sitting trapped at home. I see it in your eyes sometimes when you watch the news, Roy DeSoto. I see you wishing you were still on the street. And if Roy thinks about it, then I know you do too, Johnny.”
“Okay, I admit there are times when I wish I was still able to be out there helping,” Roy acknowledged, “but wishing it was possible is very different from thinking that it’s possible, Jo. Believe me, my love. You have nothing to worry about.”
Johnny was now laughing without restraint.
“You think I’m funny, John Gage? Can you honestly say you haven’t thought about it?”
“Yes, Mrs. DeSoto. I can honestly tell you that I have not thought once about volunteering to go back on the street. As for what’s so funny, I just have this very clear image of a squad pulling up to a scene now and seeing everyone’s reaction as the two of us get out.
“You know, I maybe shouldn’t admit this, but I used to imagine that we looked kind of macho, rushing into a burning building to save a victim in our turn out gear. Probably that was pure fantasy, but I’ve taken pleasure from that image for years, Jo. And now, in the span of less than 10 minutes you’ve changed all that. Now all I can see is 2 elderly men climbing out of the squad and trying to help each other to get down on the ground to help a victim. You know I was okay with needing Chet Kelly to give me a hand climbing out of an old collapsed building. I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be okay with needing him to give me a hand to get up off an old collapsed knee.”
Roy let himself relax as he watched the tension leave his wife’s face.
“Forget a collapsed knee, more like a broken hip if the two of you are left to help each other get up and down,” she said.
And now she was smiling again. “OK. Now that I have that image to dream about, I’m saying goodnight. It’s always good to talk to you, Johnny. Stay safe, okay?”
“That’s the plan, Nana Jo. Same for you. Stay safe.”
Joanne leaned over and kissed her husband goodnight. As she headed for the stairs she yelled out, “Goodnight, boys. Don’t talk all night.”
There was an extended silence before Johnny asked, “Is she gone? Are we still on speaker?”
“Hold on,” Roy said as he waited to hear the bedroom door close. Since there was a bathroom attached to their bedroom, Roy knew that once Joanne closed the door, she wouldn’t emerge again until morning. The family room where Roy was sitting was below the guest room so he never had to worry about keeping Joanne awake by watching TV or talking on the phone.
“OK,” he said when he heard the door close. “She’s gone to bed. And yes, you’re on speaker. I’m not going to sit here and hold the stupid phone to my ear. You used to be able to hold a phone with your shoulder, but that doesn’t work any more. She can’t hear us so it won’t keep her awake if we talk.”
“You know, Roy, I just have to say, you’re sounding more and more like an old man every time I talk to you.”
“I am an old man, and so are you. I know everyone always made a big deal about you being the youngest one at the station, but I don’t think I need to remind you that you’re only a year younger than I am, ‘Junior.’ I don’t know why everyone thought there was a big difference between 26 and 27 back then. I’m fairly certain that there is almost no difference between 75 and 76. We are both ‘old men.’”
“There is one big difference.”
“Really? Do tell. What might that difference be?”
“You, my friend, are a great grandfather, and I am not. Great grandfathers are really old.”
“I know! I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one. How the hell did I become a great grandfather?”
“Well, you see, when a man and a woman love each other very much…”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s not the first baby that makes you old. It’s when the baby has a baby and then that baby has a baby.”
“I don’t know, Roy. Maybe it is the first baby that makes you old. I know that technically you were only a year older than me back then, but you were way older than me. I was out looking for dates while you were figuring out how you were going to pay for college for 2 kids. I think that makes you older even if you’re younger, which you aren’t, but even if you had been I think you would have been older. You know what I mean?”
Roy had to laugh. “It still scares me when the answer to that question is yes, but, yes. I think I know what you mean.”
“So it sounds like Joanne is having a tough time. Is that new or did I just miss it before?”
“No idea,” Roy admitted. “She’s never talked about any of that stuff before tonight. At least not with me. I mean, we talk about the virus, but never like that. I don’t know if it’s new or just something she kept to herself. Sounds like she’s been thinking about those days more lately. I know I have.”
“Yeah. So, Roy, I talked to Charlie Dwyer today.”
“Really? Wow, I haven’t talked to him in, I don’t know, it has to be 10 years or more. How is he? Is he still living in New York?”
“Yeah, he’s still in New York. Roy, Sherry died yesterday. It was Covid. She was in the hospital. He brought her to the ER 3 days ago. He told her that he loved her and he would see her again as soon as they let him in the treatment room. They never did. They moved her almost immediately from the ER to the Covid ICU and told him he had to leave. I guess they put her on a vent within minutes of her getting there so she was unconscious right away. He’s taken some comfort in knowing that she didn’t struggle to breathe, but still... He’s a mess.”
“Oh my God, Johnny. I’m sorry. That’s horrible. He has family in New York, right? Isn’t that why they moved there?”
“His daughter lives there. They moved to be near the grandkids. They didn’t live with her though. So right now he’s alone in his place. He tested negative, but he doesn’t believe it. So he’s totally isolating. His daughter wants to go be there with him, but he won’t let her. He tells her he’s okay but I’m sure she knows he’s not. He admitted to me that he’s just been walking from room to room, crying, ever since they made him leave the hospital. His daughter is making him face time with her like 12 times a day. They’re tight. Assuming he doesn’t get sick, he’ll make it through. She won’t let him stay lost in his grief.”
“That’s horrible. It’s good that he has you to talk to. It must be tough to listen to though. Especially when it’s a friend.” Roy stopped to consider if there was any way he could help Charlie or Johnny at this point. “It’s been so many years since I’ve talked to him, he probably wouldn’t really want a call from me right now, but if you think it would be a good thing to do, you know I’ll call. I want to help, but I don’t want to create a burden. What do you think?”
The line was silent and Roy knew Johnny was considering his answer so he just waited.
“The number that I have is his cell. I’ll send it to you. Why don’t you send him a text? But remember it’s 3 hours later there, so probably you should wait till tomorrow. Say whatever seems right, and see if he engages. If he wants to, he will. If he doesn’t he can always say he never saw it. It leaves it up to him. I’m guessing he’ll appreciate the outreach.”
“Thanks, Johnny. I’ll do that. Is there any way I can help you with all this?”
“Uh, Roy? I kind of thought that’s part of what you’ve been doing for the last 10 minutes.”
“Oh, is that what we’ve been doing? I didn’t know. How’s it going so far?”
“Not bad. I’d say just a few more years practice and you’ll have this empathy thing down pat.”
“Maybe in time for my great great grandchild you think?”
“Possibly. You should make that your goal and see how it goes.”
Roy knew that the conversation had reached a turn again, and he decided to stay silent and see where Johnny took it. Maybe the call was all about Charlie. Roy believed it was more than that. He also thought he knew where they would end up, but he wasn’t sure, and he certainly did not know what path his friend would take to get there, so he waited for Johnny to lead him to the next destination.
“Hey, Roy, you grew up around grandparents and stuff, right?”
“Yeah,” Roy said. He had not anticipated this course change, but went with it. “My grandparents and their brothers and sisters were around a lot. Did you?”
“Sure. Not only my grandparents, but everyone’s grandparents. The expectation was that you treated every elder as if he or she was a grandparent. You respected them, they respected you.
“And they talked a lot. They told all kinds of stories about everything. Oral tradition and all, you know? And believe me, you listened unless you wanted someone to complain to your mother. I learned a lot about my family and the tribe and Native American culture from so many of them.”
“Well, it wasn’t the same of course,” Roy said, “but I can remember stories that my elderly relatives would tell. They talked a lot about World War I and of course, the depression.”
“Did anyone ever talk about 1918?”
“What do you mean?”
“The last pandemic. The flu that spread all over the world. Did your family ever talk about it?”
“You know, I don’t remember that. They certainly lived through it. My parents would have been kids at that point so my grandparents generation would have been right in the middle of it all. But I don’t remember anyone ever talking about it. God knows they talked about everything else bad that happened. But not that. At least not around me.”
“Yeah, same here. I was talking to my cousin the other day and she’s done a bunch of that genealogy and DNA research stuff. She told me that it was a really big deal on the reservation. Lots of people died. Especially elders and little kids. She told me that my dad had a baby brother who died of it. He never told me. No one ever told me.”
“Well, he was probably pretty young. And if it was a baby, maybe he just never understood. Babies died a lot more often back then. He might not have lived long enough to have become part of your dad’s life even.”
“I guess so, maybe, but even so, wouldn’t you think someone would have mentioned it along the way? It’s not a problem for me, it’s just weird. Why would they talk about so many other things and never mention that? It isn’t just a Native American thing. I’ve asked other people. I haven’t found anyone whose family talked about it. I never learned about it in school. Did you?”
“I don’t think so. But maybe. I certainly don’t remember every history lesson I ever had. But if I had to say yes or no, I’d say no.”
“It’s almost like there was this collective decision to forget about it, pretend it never happened.”
“I would doubt the collective decision part, but I can see people deciding to forget, I guess. Or maybe it was the kind of thing people just didn’t talk about back then. You know, no sense talking about something you couldn’t control?”
“Yeah. You think we’ll do that this time? Pretend it never happened?”
“No. There are too many people recording every minute of their lives on their phones and posting it to Facebook, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people who’ll try.”
There was a break in the conversation. Roy was about to fill the silence when Johnny changed direction.
“Roy, do you think anniversaries are important? Do you think they impact our lives even if we don’t think about them?”
And Roy now knew for sure where they were headed. It had been on his mind for several days now. Maybe it had been on Joanne’s mind too, even if she didn’t realize it. He had wondered if Johnny had been thinking about it. Now he had that answer. But he started still a step away.
“Well, I know one anniversary that’s important, that impacts me even if I don’t think about it... especially if I don’t think about it, actually.”
Johnny laughed. “Yeah, I remember one year when you forgot. Your life must have been miserable at home because you were a real pain to work with for an entire month.”
Something clicked in Roy’s mind. “I’ll be damned. I never put it together before now. That was 1973. Ask me someday, and I’ll tell you why I remember what year it was, but the next year you reminded me 2 weeks ahead of time and every year after that, too, didn’t you? You always made sure I didn’t forget. That and her birthday. You always reminded me about her birthday too.”
“Yeah, well after what I went through when you forgot your anniversary, I sure as hell wasn’t going to let you forget her birthday. Our partnership might not have survived it.”
“You’re a good friend, Johnny Gage. It’s a bit late, but in case I didn’t say it back then, ‘Thanks for not letting me forget.’”
“Eventually it maybe became altruistic, but let me assure you, back then, the motivation was pure self preservation. Besides, before you go getting all grateful and stuff, you may also remember that every time I reminded you about the date, I also reminded you that you were a pain in the ass whenever Joanne was mad at you.”
“Oh yeah. That’s true. You did. Just the same, the reminders saved me more than once so I guess your efforts helped us both. So thank you.” Roy held back only a moment then added, “But that’s not the type of anniversary you’re talking about, is it?”
“I’ve always heard people talk about anniversaries like they carry some power. You know, people will say, ‘I didn’t even realize what day it was until I woke up thinking about my mother’ and stuff like that. They talk about anniversaries like they can influence your mood, or even your health, without you even being consciously aware of them. Honestly, I never experienced that, and I always thought it was a load of crap.”
Roy waited for Johnny to continue. When the silence started to feel too long, Roy prompted, “But…”
“Do you know what we were doing 48 years ago yesterday?”
“Yeah, really. To be honest I had to go back and figure out the exact dates, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. I think on some level I’ve been thinking about it since March. What about you?”
“I guess I had thought about it, but not in terms of dates, you know? Like, ‘This is something that happened,’ but I wasn’t thinking about when. But then last week, I started to get this horrible sense of dread. Like I knew something really bad was about to happen. I mean, no big change, right? What day since March hasn’t felt like something really bad was about to happen? But this was different. Less generalized. More specific. But I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.”
“So what happened?” Roy asked, “What brought it into focus for you?”
“I saw Mattie.”
“Yeah… No … I mean, it wasn’t really Mattie. Hell, I have no idea what Mattie even looks like any more. Besides, this girl was young, in her 20’s. Anyways, I was out walking, and I saw this woman, and I thought, ‘Mattie.’ You know, the weird thing is that it took me another minute to add the ‘Duntley’ to the ID. It was like I thought, ‘That’s Mattie,’ then, ‘of course it’s not,’ then ‘Mattie who?’ I’m thinking, that’s pretty messed up, right? Then I’m thinking it’s no more messed up than seeing a 20 something year old girl and thinking it’s someone you knew 48 years ago, so I guess it fits.”
“So, last night I pulled out some stuff I had from back then, and I found Tim’s obituary. I don’t know why I cut it out or saved it. I sure don’t know how it survived my various moves, but there it was with some other stuff from back then. I had to look at the date 3 times before I accepted that it could be true.
“It was 48 years ago yesterday that we brought in a sick girl with a pet monkey that had a virus. 48 years ago tomorrow everything fell apart. Tim Duntley showed up at Rampart with the same virus. Brackett collapsed. I climbed off the side of a building with nothing but a safety belt and a rope, and ended up hanging unconscious from that belt and rope 100 feet above the street. A few hours later I lay on a cooling blanket and listened to you take the call that Tim had died from the virus that I now had.
“I knew I was going to die that day, Roy. I was 26 years old and I knew for sure that I was not going to live to see 27.”
“Yeah,” Roy said, “I was sure too. So was Dixie. We both knew that you and Brackett were going to die within hours. It was one of the few times in my life that I felt absolutely no hope. I knew that the two of you were going to die.”
“I was so sick. I couldn’t talk. I watched you standing over by the wall. I wanted to say something. I wanted to tell you I was scared, that I wasn’t ready to die. I kept trying to say something. I couldn’t figure out if it was my brain or my voice that wouldn’t work right. I’d open my mouth, but no words would come out.”
“Joe Early wouldn’t let me get any closer. They knew you and Tim probably got it from the monkey, but no one really knew how Brackett got it. He had on full protective gear the one time he was near the monkey. Atlanta still thought it might be airborne.”
“You know, Roy, when I was on that scaffold and knew I was going to pass out and knew I was probably going to fall, I wasn’t scared. It never even occurred to me that my equipment might not catch me. I never thought for one second that you and the guys wouldn’t be able to get me safely back up top. I felt like crap, and I was pissed that I climbed all the way down there and wasn’t going to be able to help the guy, but I wasn’t scared for even a moment. But when I came to on that roof and it sunk in why I had passed out, man it was a different story.
“In all my years as a firefighter, a paramedic, a rescue man, nothing ever scared me as much as that stupid virus. I knew I was going to die. I was afraid that you were going to die. I was afraid for Brackett and Early and Dixie. Hell, I was even afraid for Morton.”
“I know. Me too.”
“When I woke up from that coma, I thought it was a mistake. I thought that maybe I was hallucinating. Or maybe I was in Hell. The nurse kept telling me I was okay, and I didn’t believe her. The last thing I remembered was knowing that this was what death felt like, and it pretty much sucked. I had been so sure that I was going to die, I couldn’t grasp the fact that I hadn’t. Brackett finally told me that if I was dead, so was he and he wasn’t so I needed to snap out of it.”
“Sounds like something Brackett would have said,” Roy noted. He waited for Johnny to continue, but he didn’t. So Roy did.
“All those years, all those fires and rescues, no matter how bad, there was some way to assess it. Some way to measure the risk and figure out the best approach. Our skills, our knowledge, our caution, our planning, heck even our courage, it all made a difference. When we went to a fire or on a rescue, there was certainly random stuff that we couldn’t see or predict, but whether we succeeded or failed always had a whole lot to do with who we were.”
“Right,” Johnny said. “We had a sense of control. Some at least. Maybe sometimes it was even false. We thought we had control when we had none, but even then, that belief made a difference.”
“In all the years we fought fires and worked rescues, I never felt completely out of control,” Roy said.
“Except that once,” Johnny said.
“Except that once,” Roy agreed.
Both men were silent. Roy remembered the sense of dread, the overwhelming hopelessness of those few days. A chill engulfed him and caught his breath as he considered the current potential for a repeat of that experience. Despite his resistance, he saw loved ones, family and friends, laying in that bed, overcome with fever, trying without success to speak. Only this time he wasn’t relegated to a spot near the wall. This time he wasn’t allowed in the room at all, and his heart broke at that thought.
Both men remained silent. The slight sound of them each breathing kept them connected over the phone line, kept the tie between them strong, despite their silence. Eventually it was Johnny who spoke.
“Roy? You okay?”
“I guess. How about you?”
“More or less.”
“Hey, Johnny, I have a question for you, for me, for both of us.”
“OK. What is it?”
“So, I understand why we are talking about this today. I understand why now, why today, why this year. I’m glad we are.”
“Me too,” Johnny said. “But that’s not a question.”
“No, but it’s a necessary statement to correctly frame the question.”
“Spoken like a true teacher, oh wise one. Forgive the interruption. Please continue.”
“Don’t. Not yet. Please?”
“Huh?” Johnny asked.
Before Roy could respond, Johnny took it back.
“Ignore that. I think I see. You mean we’re not ready to joke it away yet. We haven’t finished.”
“Yes. But it’s okay if you need to stop. I understand.”
“No, it’s not okay. We talk till we’re both done. You have a question. What is it?”
“Okay. We’ve been sitting here talking about one of the most profound, frightening, and hopeless times in my life and I think yours as well.”
“So, I understand why tonight. But what I don’t understand is why it took us 48 years and a new virus to get here. I mean, we’ve been through so much, talked about so much in the almost 50 years we’ve been friends. Why did this wait until now? And if not for Covid, would we ever have come to this conversation?”
“I don’t know,” Johnny answered honestly. “Maybe not. I do have the beginning of a theory forming in my head, but you know, maybe even better than I do, that sometimes the beginning threads of my theories go off in very tangential directions and quickly become irrelevant.”
Roy smiled. Johnny was finding a way to see this through to the closure that Roy needed while also easing the tension, something that Johnny needed.
“I’ll take that risk,” Roy told his friend. “Even if it’s tangential, it won’t be boring.”
“That ... has always been true,” Johnny pointed out then continued.
“OK. So, I was 26 years old. You were 27. We were relative babies. This was pretty heavy shit, and we were almost still kids. So we did what young adults do. We lived it, we coped with it, we survived it, we put it away and moved on.”
“I don’t know, Johnny.” Roy wasn’t sure about this. “I mean, you thought you were going to die. I thought you were going to die. We were both pretty deep in that.”
Johnny agreed. “And when we were in it, we were in it all the way. Which is also what young adults do. But once it was over, it was done. Think about it, Roy. After I got out of the hospital and everyone knew the virus hadn’t spread, how much time did you spend thinking, ‘Wow, Johnny almost died. I could have died too.?’”
Roy thought about that. “Honestly, probably none. You’re right. Once you were okay, I probably didn’t think about it again for a very long time. That’s terrible.”
“No it’s not, Roy. It’s not terrible. It’s being 27 years old.”
“I guess,” Roy conceded, “but remember I was really older than I was because I was worried about putting two kids through college so I was 27 but even if I’d been younger I was really older, right?”
“True. But even though you were really older you were still only 27.”
Both men were silent again till Roy said, “You know, something else occurs to me.”
He must have paused longer than he thought because Johnny jumped in.
“So? Are you going to tell me or do I have to guess? What has occurred to you?”
“Okay, don’t rush me. I’m an old man. Everything takes more time than it used to, you know.”
“Everything except the things that you’d like to prolong.”
“Really? Are we really going to go there?”
“Well, then don’t give my mind time to wander. Get to the point.”
“Okay,” Roy started. “We spent a lot of time talking about fires and rescues after the fact, right? Sometimes for days. Sometimes even for weeks. But how much of that was a form of debriefing? How much of it was trying to consider what we might have done differently?”
“Yeah, that’s true isn’t it? Even when we talked about having been afraid or upset about an outcome, there was always that element of analysis. What went wrong? What do we need to change?”
“Right. But with the virus, there was nothing to debrief. There was nothing that we could have done differently that would have changed the outcome, nothing to change the next time we were called to a scene with someone sick like that girl was. The only thing to process were ‘feelings,’ and we weren’t going to do that. I mean, did we ever do that?”
“Only with a girl, and only when she made me.”
Roy smiled and knew the conversation was coming to an end. He was about to say something about the time, but Johnny spoke again first.
“Roy,” Johnny said, shifting back to a serious tone. “Can I say one more thing before we go?”
“Of course,” Roy answered without hesitation. “After all, we talk till we’re both finished, right?”
“Right. OK, so way back forever ago when we started this conversation, Joanne was on the phone with us, and she was more than a bit distraught.”
“So, Roy, I’m thinking that maybe this whole anniversary thing has been playing on her too. Maybe that’s why she’s suddenly imagining us back responding to calls and being exposed to the virus.”
“Yeah, I thought about that, too. I’ll talk to her about it tomorrow. Thanks.”
Johnny hesitated just a moment before he continued. “So, I don’t want to tell you how to talk to your wife, but…”
“That’s never stopped you before so don’t let it stop you now.”
When Johnny didn’t continue, Roy added, “Actually, I mean it, Johnny. Don’t let it stop you. Tell me what you’re thinking. Please.”
“Okay, well, back in 1972, you and I were able to move on because once I was better, we were done with it, but just because we were done with it, that doesn’t mean that Joanne was. When you still thought I was going to die, maybe you thought about how your life would change, but you probably didn’t wonder how you and your kids would survive.”
“No,” Roy agreed. ”I wouldn’t have wondered that.”
“Joanne probably did.”
“Wondered how she and the kids would survive if you died?”
“No. Think about it, Roy. Because if you can’t let yourself see it you won’t be able to help her.”
“You and I thought I was going to die. But when Joanne closed her eyes, it wasn’t me who she saw in the coffin.”
Roy quietly entered the bedroom and slipped into the bathroom, intent on not waking his wife, but as he approached the bed he found her watching him rather than sleeping.
“Sorry,” he whispered. “I tried not to wake you.”
He bent to kiss her and found her face and pillow wet with tears. With gentle, practiced hands, he silently switched her pillow for his. She didn’t speak until he had walked around to his side of the bed and climbed in. Her back now to him, Roy heard her speak but didn’t catch the words. He raised himself on his elbow and said, “Sorry. I didn’t hear you.”
Joanne spoke quietly, “I said, I don’t like your pillow.”
He reached across and brushed her hair from her eyes. “I know, but yours is wet. I don’t want you catching a cold in your sleep.”
“That’s not how you catch a cold. You should know that.”
“I do. I take it you haven’t been sleeping.”
“Not really,” Joanne admitted. “You two talked quite a while. What did you talk about?”
“A few things. The virus.”
Joanne closed her eyes before asking, “Which one?”
“Both of them.”
Roy felt her catch her breath before she responded.
“I thought you might.”
Roy shifted, reached out, and wrapped himself around her, holding her in a way that communicated only his desire to provide comfort. Again, he brushed her hair from where it had fallen back in her eyes.
“It’s going to be okay,” he said quietly and was rewarded by feeling her adjust into his hug.
“If you say so.”
Roy was tempted to suggest that she roll over so that he could watch her face, but realized that some things are easier to talk about without eye contact.
“You must be tired,” he said.
“Any reason you can’t sleep in tomorrow morning?”
“Only an inability to sleep at all.”
Roy took a deep breath, aware that Joanne would read and react to any tension he held. “Well, if you aren’t going to sleep anyways, I was thinking that maybe we could talk.”
“Well, it occurred to me that there are things that maybe we should talk about instead of talking around.”
“Anything you want.” Roy waited, giving her the opportunity to offer direction. When she didn’t, he continued.
“I was thinking maybe it was time we talk about worries, fears, maybe even nightmares. New and old. It occurred to me that it’s pretty hard to cope with things when you need to keep them inside and face them alone.”
“It occurred to you, huh?”
Her tone and breathing let Roy know it was said without accusation.
“Well, a recent conversation might have opened my eyes to some current and past missed cues.
“It also got me thinking that it’s probably best to talk about things, even our most troubling thoughts and fears, sooner rather than later. But if we miss the opportunity at the time, maybe it’s not too late, maybe it still helps to talk even 48 years later?”
Roy held his wife tighter as he felt her inaudible sob. “Jo, I’m sorry. I know there was no way I could have protected you from being scared. But I’m so sorry for the times I left you holding that fear by yourself. I know that right now our tomorrows are scary again. But whatever we think tomorrow holds, real, anticipated or even imagined, I promise you, you don’t have to face it alone. I love you, Jo.”
“I know. I always have been sure of that.”
Roy took another deep breath and felt Joanne take it with him. Then he waited in silence, sure that she was gathering her thoughts for a conversation too long delayed. Roy grew aware that his breathing had become synchronized with his wife. As they breathed in unison he slowly also realized that Joanne was not gathering her thoughts unless she was doing so in her dreams. Any other night, Roy may have released himself from their hug and rolled over to go to sleep himself. But tonight he kissed the back of her head and closed his eyes, knowing he would spend the night with Joanne still wrapped securely in his arms. That way, at least for tonight, if there were nightmares, she could know that she didn’t have to face them alone. And he could know that too.
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Guest Dispatchers Stories by Whisper