Prompt: Let Me Go Easy (Indigo Girls)
He was counting breaths again, watching the slow rise and fall of her withered chest, trying to focus every thought on the slow, steady movement of her breath and not the ragged wheeze that came with each rise and fall. Yesterday he had counted ten thousand before he had to look away. Today he made it to six thousand before pins and needles settled into his own chest and he realized he was holding his breath.
Emily was dying. She had been dying for years. “We are all dying,” she reminded him whenever he let himself get carried off with grief. She would smile her kind, gentle smile whenever she said it. And it was a true thing to say. Emily had always been brave and generous with truth. That bravery, that generosity was the reason Marcus counted breaths. He couldn’t allow himself to be without her.
It was all so precarious – the life left inside of her, the humor in her smile, the recognition shining in her eyes. Her life was a fragile thing. It would slip and fracture, Marcus knew, if he stepped away or let his vigil relax for even a moment.
Emily had been dying for years, slowly devoured by the blind, insatiable, humid mouths of cancer. They ate at her from the inside, slowly reshaping her lovely face, twisting her arms and legs and shoulders into dry, brittle sticks. Marcus kept the curtains drawn and covered her with heavy blankets to press against the constant chill in her blood. She was already ghost. If he raised the covers or creased the curtains, she would vanish completely, like a wisp of candle smoke.
“We are all dying,” she had told him and it was true enough. There was no argument to be had. No counterlogic he could apply to refute the cold meal of the situation.
“Yes. I know.” It was the only thing he could say. Much better to say nothing, just sit silently beside her, counting breaths, quietly hoping he could reach ten thousand today and then beyond. He owed her that much. He owed her much more than that. She deserved his patience, his vigilance, the respectful suspension of his own life.
Marcus had never been a religious person. It was a point of pride for him that, even in this most extreme moment of his life, he had not yet turned to a faith in God he did not genuinely feel. And yet, in these same moments, keeping Emily company, counting her breaths, Marcus understood the meaning of prayer.
Prayer in those moments was an impossible, implausible hope written as a sentence in a language no one had ever spoken then sealed in an envelope with adequate postage but no mailing address or recipient name.
He was almost to seven thousand when Emily spoke. “I’m tired,” she said. Her voice so faint, so small, Marcus felt he might have imagined it.
He had imagined many different conversations between them over the past few weeks. His mind had a way of filling the silence. It was a hard thing to counter. The mind wandered like a dog tied to leash. First this way, then that. Restless. Disobedient. Impatient but fully habituated to the confines of that tether.
That tether. The thing that held them together, that held her to him. That thing was love. That thing was attention.
Marcus noticed his mind wandering, chastised himself and brought his attention back to the reality of the moment. His heart hammering with panic. If he let this attention lapse, she might slip free of that tether and slide away.
Emily stirred. She spoke but her mouth hung open, empty as a cave. A few words tumbled out, shattered syllables.
She tried again, her eyes clenched with effort.
“Don’t,” he told her, pressing his hand to her forehead.
She drew a breath. Marcus felt all the air in the room drawn inside her in one enormous breath. They sat together suspended in the airless room.
“Let me go,” she said, releasing the air back into the room. Her eyes were open, alert and watching him closely.
“I can’t,” he told her finally. “I don’t know how.”
Her eyes shone with that hard, familiar gleam. “Just stop,” she told him. “Stop counting.”
“I can’t,” he admitted. “I don’t know how.”
She smiled. It was a crippled version of her best smile, that sweet, indulgent, almost mocking smile that had been the greatest gift in his life.
“You can. You have to.”
“I can’t and I won’t.”
“Please,” she asked again.
“I can’t,” Marcus said again at last. “I don’t want to.”
Emily smiled. It was a faint, shallow smile that barely seemed to touch her face. And then she relaxed back into the bed, sinking into the sheets and shadows.
She was in the room with him. They were in the room together.
And then, she was the room itself and Marcus felt the smallness of himself sitting at the center of her, bathed in the warm breath of her love, reaching out to him and around him and through him. It pierced him like a hundred arrows. Pressed him like a hand. Cradled him with a comforting, steady assurance.
And then she was gone and he was alone. And all the shadows grew darker as they seemed to gather around him. And in the darkness Marcus realized he could not keep himself from counting.
The numbers continued.
The numbers rolled from him. The numbers were all he had.
Marcus could not stop.
And then something opened up inside and the dread filled him.
The numbers came and came and came and he could not stop them from coming.
And Marcus suddenly knew with sick twist of horror that the numbers would never stop coming.
He had not been counting her breaths all those months. He had been counting his own.
And now the breaths stretched out before him, an endless litany stretching through the minutes, hours, days, months and years.
He would never stop counting. He did not know how.