Alone at last-part 5

We climbed down from the haystack. By now the light snow had turned to flurries and was beginning to stick to vegetation—the surrounding vastness turning white under a spreading gray sky. The road surface was clear for the moment.

I drove to the paved highway further west and headed for Estes Park. By the time we reached the town—at a bit over 7500 feet elevation in the Front Range—the snow was falling thickly and at least 6 inches covered the ground. We checked in at the motel and went to a great little pizza place on Lumpy Ridge where in clear weather there’s a great view.

The place was empty except for one other couple about our age—students at another Colorado  university about 40 miles from our school. The restaurant, which catered mostly to summer visitors, had the usual huge, fieldstone fireplace with the requisite roaring fire. We pushed two tables together in front of the fire place. The owners—a very likable middle aged husband and wife you could tell remembered well what it was like to be young—brought out the pizzas and beer and we insisted they join us.

We didn’t have to argue very much. We talked, laughed and watched the logs in the fire blaze and crumble—orange sparks rising up the chimney. The other male student had a guitar and we sang Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell songs until midnight.

The snow had almost stopped by the time we headed back to the motel, the roads recently plowed—in mountain towns like Estes Park  the local snow crews really know how to move snow.

Back at the motel Sally and I showered together and fell into bed. The sex was incredible if a bit brief—we were both exhausted.

An hour or two before dawn I suddenly woke up completely alert and reached out for Sally. Her side of the bed was empty. I sat up abruptly looking around the room—the clouds had cleared and moonlight filled the room flooding through the big, sliding glass doors that faced the white Front Range rising in towering massive stillness into the starry sky.

Sally stood naked in the moonlight looking out through the glass doors at the snow-covered mountains gleaming silver and white on the other side of the Big Thompson River Valley.

I sat momentarily stunned at what I was seeing—bathed in the gleaming moonlight she looked like a marble Greek statue with the exception of her long blond hair which in that light looked like flowing silver.

I sat up and walked over to her. I stopped a few feet away and stood staring—she was the eternal woman—every curve of her perfect body echoing the timeless mystery of the female presence in the universe.

She turned away from the astonishing view and glanced at me briefly, looking down at my body then with tears standing in her eyes turned back to the view across the river valley below.

“So much—so incredibly much—I’ll miss. So much,” she whispered more to herself than me. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

I had no idea what she was talking about but didn’t say anything. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Finally I found my voice…

“I love you Sally,” I said. I felt like I was every man who had ever lived speaking to every woman.

She never took her eyes off the view. The tears continued to flow—her lips quivering.

“I’m dying Jim,” she said. “That’s why I went away for those two semesters—tests, evaluations, second, third, fourth opinions—trips to special clinics in Europe. I have Pancreatic cancer. There’s no cure—nothing they can do. My own father is a doctor—an oncologist—there’s nothing he can do. This is my last winter. By this time next year I’ll be gone—I’ll be dead.”

She turned, her cheeks were wet but the tears had stopped. She looked directly into my eyes. “You’re my last lover, Jim. Thank you.”

***

Sally worked on her thesis completing it even as the symptoms of her cancer made the effort almost intolerable. Dr Blanchard and I helped her as much as we ethically could. I made several trips to her home in Bristol, Connecticut  and stayed with her at her parent’s house. Her father explained a great deal about her illness to me and how I could help her be as comfortable as possible. Her parents and I liked each other immediately—we got on quite well. In those final months of her life, Sally’s parents and I became quite close.

On the day of her defense she sat in a wheel chair 30 pounds under weight looking withered and exhausted but her eyes sparkled with a defiant fire. Her parents, Dr. Blanchard and I had front row seats in the conference room.

Facing the 5 member panel from the Anthropology Department she glared at them. Everybody in the department and most of the university knew about her situation. She had heard things about the upcoming defense—that it was a shoo-in. “Poor girl—trying to earn her doctorate even as she is dying—poor girl.” You could see the pity in the eyes of each panel member.

She glared at the panel—looking briefly, directly into the eyes of each member. A rigid chill went through the room. Through gritted teeth she almost hissed,

“I’ve heard the crap going around. Don’t you dare go easy on me, you bastards,” she pronounced.

In fact the panel did start out lobbing softballs but as Sally hit them out of the park the questioning soon became brutally difficult—the panel members leaned on her hard and turned the screws but Sally beat back every assault making several members look foolish at times. You could see the looks of respect bordering on intimidation—in the eyes of the board members as Sally crushed their best efforts. Her parents, Dr Blanchard and I—all of us sat with tears streaming down our faces—we were so proud.

The panel was very impressed with Sally’s sources, some of which most experts thought were no longer extant. The decision was immediate and unanimous—her dissertation was accepted.

Sally was right. She was gone before the first snowfall the following year—in Connecticut or Colorado. In her final days of lucidity she talked several times about “our” Aleph or power spot there on the lonely plains of eastern Colorado. Though we were there only once for less than an hour it was in some mystical way, a defining moment for her during that final stage of her life. The more she reflected on that event the more significance it took on for her and the greater the clarity and peace it imbued her final days with.

She regarded “our” Aleph as a very personal if not secret thing—she never even told her parents whom she adored. In one of the last conversations we had, she asked me to promise to never take anyone else there. I did and I never have.

Her parents and several others—including 2 members of her defense panel—put together a scholarship in Sally’s name.

A few days after Sally died I returned to Colorado to continue my studies—something else Sally made me promise to do. A few days after I returned to the university her father called and asked me to meet him at the airport in Denver the next day. I asked if I could book him a room at a hotel—he said no—he would only be there briefly.

When I met him the next day at the airport he wasn’t carrying even an overnight bag—just a box about half the size of a loaf of bread.

It was Sally’s ashes. He handed them to me, embraced me briefly and said before she died Sally told him to give them to me.

He said she told him I would know what to do with them.

End part five. End story.

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