One More Tomorrow
Toni K. Pacini
Cora slowly lifts the light cotton spread and slips stealthily from beneath it, careful not to wake Benjamin.
She whispers to me, “Quiet, Gerti Girl, let´s not wake Daddy.”
I follow her, like so many nights before.
Cora touches things as she passes them, caressing, stroking, loving, almost like she’s saying good-bye. She runs her hand across the smooth oak frame on the round mirror above the dresser that she inherited from her momma. She strokes the starched floral doily on the back of her rocking chair, the one she had once hoped to rock her baby in. As we walk down the hall, she lovingly touches each picture frame that holds the memories of her life - a life well lived, parents, siblings, friends. Days gone by but captured and encased with tender regard in a special frame.
I sit while Cora stops and lingers in front of a photo of Ben, as she often does. I hear her breath catch in her throat, a small, almost inaudible sound. “Oh, Ben, I would give anything to stop your pain; to give you the hope I know you desperately seek. I would, if only I could.”
We move on through the living room, Cora´s bare feet sinking into the plush antique rug that has served more than one generation. Our home has history, old and new. It holds the best kind of history, one of love, success, family, and laughter. This house, our home, has a warm lived-in feeling, comfortable and safe. It feels like when I curl up in autumn leaves and nap in the noonday’s sun.
It´s well before dawn and Cora, dressed in a flowing, pale, sage colored, gauze gown, appears to be a leaf floating, not a woman walking, as she effortlessly makes her way through the dim lit house. She opens the front door onto the porch. Not just any porch, but as often is the case in large homes in the South, the porch wraps all the way around the house. Ben enclosed the whole thing in thin mesh screening so the mosquitoes can only watch from afar and wish they could feed on Cora and me.
I wait obediently behind her as she opens the screen door very carefully— because its old hinges have seen better days and it squeaks and bellows like an old cowboy in his last rodeo.
Oops, I run into the back of Cora´s bare legs when she abruptly stops mid-stride. She stands very still, listening, then releases a huge breath that I don´t think she even realized she was holding. Lately, she does this a lot, holds her breath. Like she´s trying to stop time. Sometimes I nudge her, or, if she´s sitting, I lay my paw on her lap, and then she snaps out of it and breathes.
“Good - sounds like Ben´s still sleeping.”
Satisfied that we have not disturbed Ben´s much-needed sleep, she moves on to the daybed, covered with cheerful quilts and pillows. Ben put the bed out on the porch for Cora last month so she could enjoy the outdoors while resting. Of course, I follow her. A small lamp throws gentle yellow light across the bed creating a warm ambiance. Cora speaks to me as she always has; she looks me right in the eye and says exactly what she´s thinking. That´s one of the many reasons that everyone who meets Cora takes an instant liking to her. She´s authentic and as open as the sky.
“Come on, Gerti, let´s you and me have us a talk.”
Now, some folks would find Cora´s statement foolish, being I´m a dog and all, but Cora and I have been together a long time and we communicate very well, thank you, despite being different species. I remember the first day I saw Cora; I came out of the woods on the south side of the house and saw her painting the back gate. She didn´t see me. She seemed so nice, but I was afraid. The last people I approached on a farm chased me off, and yesterday someone fired a gun at me for just crossing their field. I didn´t approach her that day; instead, I camped at the edge of the woods and watched her and Ben for two days. Finally, I felt confident they weren´t like the mean people and my stomach was growling somethin´ awful.
Cora was feeding the chickens, and Ben was on the porch. I walked cautiously toward them, inching along until Cora looked up and squealed, “Look, Ben, a dog; oh, what a beautiful dog.”
At the sound of her voice, I instinctively started to bolt, but her words seemed kind. No, I admit it, even now I cannot understand human words, but I do know what humans mean by their tone, body language, and especially their eyes. Eyes tell the truth; eyes cannot lie. Dogs don´t lie, either, so we respect truth in a human.
Instead of bolting, I lowered down to my stomach, cowering in submission, hoping they wouldn´t hurt me. I had been hurt before. I cringed at the memory.
Ben came down off the porch and they both approached me slowly with these big ridiculous grins on their faces. They appeared very nice, but I had been fooled before. I prepared to run if they picked up a rock or something.
Eight feet from me, Cora did the darnedest thing. She sat down. She sat right down in the Georgia red clay as if she didn´t have a care in the world for her britches. She motioned to Ben, and I´m here to tell you that it´s true, he sat down, too! I´d never seen the such, but I felt better. If they intended to hurt me, I didn´t think they´d sit down in the dirt to do it.
Then Cora reached out her right hand to me and said, “Oh, come on sweet darling, we won’t hurt you. Come on, you must be hungry.”
I stayed put, unsure, but she sounded like good people. I once had good people but I lost them. They were so kind; I know they loved me. It had been a long time since I had known the love of a pack. My hunger for love and safety surpassed my hunger for food.
Ben and Cora sat there with me in the dirt for a long time - how long I don´t know. I can´t really tell time, although I know when Ben gets home and, of course, feeding and treat time. So as my fear started to wane, I inched forward about a foot. They continued to sit and woo me. I ventured another foot; they remained where they were, their kind words encouraging me. That did it, my hunger for affection and my growling tummy took over, and I crawled right to them.
Cora reached out and gently stroked my right shoulder. Ben scratched behind my ear. I was still a bit unsure. Then Cora held her arms open wide and said, “Come on, sweet baby,” and I gave in fully to my heart, took a huge leap of faith, and threw myself into her waiting arms. Ben and Cora held and stroked me while laughing uncontrollably, like I had tickled their tummies. Humans can be odd. I felt so happy.
That was years ago. Cora says I have lived here for six years; all I know is they’ve been the best years of my life.
My hunger for food and love were quickly attended to, but it took a long time to cut and brush all of the burrs and stickers out of my long hair. I´m not full-blood Irish setter, but I take after that side of my family. My momma was red; my daddy, black. I look like my momma with daddy´s color. I guess I´m pretty ’cause Cora and other people often tell me I am.
Now here we are once again on the porch alone in the wee hours of the morning and Cora´s talking to me. She needs to talk a lot more lately than she used to. I don´t mind. I just want her to be happy.
“What am I going to do, pretty-Gerti? Ben´s so scared and sad. I can´t stand it, but I can´t fix it, either.”
I nuzzle her hand where it lies on a pillow embroidered with dozens of dragonflies. Cora runs her index finger over the fine embroidery, her brow furrowed in concentration, as if she’s drawing the dragonfly. I nuzzle closer and, in return, she strokes my head and I lean into her loving touch.
“It-is-what-it-is, girl. I would give anything to change it, but I can´t. No one can. Why can´t Ben find acceptance? I don´t mean he should like it. It´s okay to be downright angry - I am - but how can I help him come to terms with this, Gert?”
“Cora, Cora! Where are you? Cora! Don´t scare me like this. Where are you, baby?”
Cora jumps, startled by yet another of Ben´s recent emotional outbursts.
“Out here, Ben, I´m on the porch. I´m okay, come on out.”
Ben stalks out. He looks angry, but Cora and I know that´s really his scared look.
“Cora, why didn´t you wake me if you couldn´t sleep? I would have made you some chamomile tea. Are you all right? Do you need anything? Are you hurting?”
“Ben, darling, stop. I´m fine; I´m just having a chat with my Gal-Pal, Ms. Gerti. You do not have to take care of me every moment, Ben. I wanted you to sleep; you need your rest. All I do is sleep and lay around while you take care of me. You have to rest, Ben. Even Superman had to recharge from time to time.”
This porch has been Cora and Ben´s special place ever since their first real date almost twenty years ago. Ben´s from here. Here being Yarborourgh, Georgia. He grew up right here in this house, on this land. This homestead has seen three generations of Ben´s family. From the first moment he saw Cora, he was awed by her. He has talked to me about this many times. Of course, he was attracted to her physically. Cora´s tall, slender, and moves like a lady, smooth and with grace, She takes her time in all things - her thoughts, words, movements, and actions. But Ben said he first fell in love with her gentle, kind heart.
Benjamin Ronald Barnes, Jr. is one of the last real workingmen. He inherited Barnes Lumber Mill from his father, as his father did from his father. The mill has been very successful, and with new construction booming in Yarborough and surrounding areas, it has been more so of late. Ben could sit in a nice cozy office, his feet up on his desk, and bark orders to his employees, but that´s not Ben Barnes. Work doesn´t scare him. He works right alongside his crew and they respect him for it. Ben´s rugged looking, a big healthy man with thick dark hair and dancing eyes. When he laughs, it’s contagious.
He hasn´t laughed much lately.
“I don´t need rest, Cora. I need you, baby - I just need you.”
Ben drops to his knees beside the daybed and lays his head in Cora´s lap; they hold each other for a long time. I sit quietly, this is what I do. Cora says I´m a natural therapy dog; I take care of her and Ben. If they are sad or scared, I comfort them. If that doesn´t work, I act cute and distract them, or silly and make them laugh. Cora says I´m co-dependent, but that´s a dog’s natural state. We take care of our pack and stay close to them in times of light and darkness.
Ben slowly raises his head; he looks exhausted. Brown rings circle his eyes and hang in tiny bags. “Cora, I´m sorry I can´t go along with you on this. I agree that it ultimately should be your decision, but I can´t do it, I can´t, Cora!”
“Ben, please, my condition is only going to grow worse. You know what will happen. The doctors were very clear!”
When Cora was diagnosed in 1993 with aggressive Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, Ben had been terrified that he would lose his best friend, his love. The chemo and other treatments were brutal. Cora was sick to her stomach, had frequent nosebleeds, almost constant fatigue, and she lost all of her beautiful auburn hair. Cora couldn´t stop laughing the day Ben came home with his head shaved. Ben really doesn´t have the head for it, he was quite a sight. Although Cora teased and laughed, she adored him for his efforts to help her deal with her illness. I know she did, she told me.
Last year Cora started feeling sick again. Terrified, she put off going to Dr. Percy for as long as she could, as if not knowing for sure would magically cure her cancer. When she finally told Ben what was going on, that she feared the cancer had returned, he insisted they go to the doctor the next morning, first thing. That´s Ben´s way. When it needs to get done, Ben gets it done.
He usually can make everything right, but not this time.
Dr. Percy ran the tests and the results were all that Cora and Ben dreaded they would be. Not only was the cancer back, it had returned with a vengeance. No longer limited to Cora´s lymph nodes, the cancer now claimed her spleen as well. They had been so hopeful; we had all been so hopeful. The cancer had been gone for two years and three months. The doctors could possibly slow the growth with chemo, but not cure it. Cora knew she would be lucky to see the New Year. That was in July. I remember because it was also Cora´s birth month. No one felt like celebrating; the day went by without acknowledgment.
Ben pushed up off the floor where he sat and joined Cora on the bed.
Cora said, gently, like she talks to me when I´m hurt or scared, “Don´t get mad, Ben. I know I should have told you this before, but I´ve already put in a change of address for myself. I used my sister Laurel´s address in North Bend. We don´t need to go now, but soon. Please understand.”
Ben sprung to his feet and Cora and I both jumped. “NO, I will not let you kill yourself, and I definitely will not help you do it. We´re not going anywhere, Cora. This is our home. We stay here and we fight this thing!”
“Ben, we can´t fight this. You only get into a fight if you have a chance to win. We don´t have a chance. None. The cancer has already won, Darling. There are only three states that will allow me to die on my own terms, terms that will afford me dignity in my passing. We´re lucky that my sister already lives in one of the three, Washington. Ben, I will not take the medication until I have no quality of life left and the pain is unbearable. Darling, I don´t want to be an invalid. Please, I beg you to try and understand.”
“Allrighty then, let´s do it! Why not. We´ll both check out. Let´s go together, you know, like a party. You stay here and get ready and I´ll go get the shotgun. Should we take Gerti with us, too? Sure, why not, let´s make it a family affair.”
Ben stormed off and Cora collapsed in tears onto the bed. I jumped up and lay beside her, as close as I could get.
Hours ticked by painfully slow. The sun rose, traveled up over the top of our house and started its daily descent. Ben finally returned, and thankfully, he did not have a gun. He had showered and came out damp and in a towel. His eyes still had dark circles around them, but now they were also very red. “I´m making breakfast. What do you feel like, please, eat something?”
It was actually well past noon, the sun was slowly lowering in the west, but no one seemed to notice. Time had no meaning. Minutes were cruel and continued to pass as if they would last forever.
“Just tea and toast for now; I promise I´ll eat more later,” Cora replied.
Ben went back into the house and we could hear him moving about the kitchen. Twenty minutes later, he returned with tea, toast, and jam. “Come on, Cora, sit up and eat, baby; you need to eat.”
Cora sat up and Ben rested the bed tray on her lap and sat down in the chair next to the bed. They ate in silence, then sat together, the comfortable companions they were, almost one at times. Ben seemed to be slowly awakening from a dream as he returned to reality, got up, and almost robotically cleared their plates. Ten minutes later he returned with fresh tea.
“Ben,” Cora said, “I understand your pain and your anger, but you must accept the fact that I am dying; there´s nothing we can do to change that fact. All we can do is cherish every moment we have left.”
“That´s what I want to do, Cora, cherish and share every moment we have left together, but you seem hell bent on dying sooner than later.”
“That´s not true...”
Cora stopped mid-sentence. The postman, Mr. Simmons, pulled into the driveway, parked, and walked toward the porch.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Simmons,” Cora said, as brightly as she could muster.
“Hi, Cora, Ben, beautiful day. Sorry I´m running so late; my darn truck’s being a silly girl. Any-who, I have a package for you, Cora, from Washington. Must be that sister of yours. How is Laurel?”
“She´s well, Mr. Simmons. I´ll tell her you asked about her.”
“Please do that. Okay, better get back to work if I want to finish ’fore dark. Y’all take care.”
Mr. Simmons returned to his truck, got in, and turned the key. Nothing, zip. He tried again. Still not a peep. Ben went out to help. Mr. Simmons sprang out of his truck cussin´, “This old thing keeps dying on me. I swear, I oughta take her down to the creek and put her out of her misery.”
Mr. Simmons laughed heartily at his own joke. He did not notice the horror in Ben´s eyes. Ben pulled his work truck around, gave the mail truck a jump-start, and Mr. Simmons went on his way.
Ben remained in the yard and watched the postman drive down the long gravel driveway, dust billowing. Mr. Simmons was long gone, but Ben still stood there, now watching a large flock of crows gathering on the power lines by the road. The day was waning quickly and the crows always came at night to perch on the lines, like they were lined up to watch the sunset. Ben and Cora would often sit and watch their antics for hours. Now, Ben seemed disturbed by the birds, and Cora couldn´t believe it when he started screaming and throwing rocks at them. She screamed, “Ben, stop it. What are you doing? Stop, Ben, please.”
Ben dropped the rocks he held and walked slowly back to the porch, like every step was breaking his heart a little more.
Cora stood and faced him, “What was that about, Ben?”
He just stood there.
“Ben, why did you do that? Why are you angry with the birds?”
Ben sat wearily in the chair. “Mr. Simmons’ truck keeps dying; he´s going to take her down to the creek and put her out of her misery. See, everything, everywhere, everyone´s dying. Death is all around us, eating on us like a gluttonous pig. Can´t you see, Cora? I can´t take you down to the creek and put you out of your misery. I can´t. I love you.”
“I know, I know. I love you, too, Darling, but I still can´t understand why you were angry with the crows?”
“Not just crows, Cora, a flock of crows is a—Murder of Crows—murder, death, dying, it´s all too close, Cora. My whole life, I have felt strong and capable. I can usually make things better, set things straight, make it right. I can´t fix this, Cora. I´m so sorry baby; I can´t fix this.” Ben wept.
Cora led him to the daybed and they laid back against the pillows holding one another. I joined them, happy that the sorrow seemed to be subsiding for the time being, although I still smelled the stench of fear.
The sun was slipping slowly away and the colors from the sunset burst forth like new life. Cora said, “Look, Ben, what a beautiful sunset; it looks like a huge round jar of orange marmalade.”
Ben watched the sunset with his beloved wife, drinking in her face.
The sun moved on, like an ending, as it became a beginning in another place. Ben stood and gently picked Cora up and carried her to bed. As they drifted off to sleep, he said, “Tomorrow we leave for Washington, Love.”
“Tomorrow,” Cora said. “Tomorrow, what a wonderful word.”
As Ben succumbed to sleep, he thought, That may be all we have, but I have it with you, my love, one more tomorrow.