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The Anniversary

by Walt Trizna

Julie Barber carefully made her way down the winding tree-lined dirt road to visit her next patient. The sun filtering through the ancient leafless maples helped to relax her and to mentally prepare her for the visit. She was a visiting nurse seeing oncology and hospice patients and she was now on her way to see Emily Taylor. She had been seeing Emily for three months, with ‘failure to thrive’ as the diagnosis, but Julie also knew that a healthy amount of dementia was mixed into the ninety-six year old patient’s milieu of symptoms.

As a young woman, Emily had been petite. As an old woman, she was beyond frail. The black hair of her youth now formed a snow-white frame around her withered face.

It was a crisp January afternoon with the sky a brilliant blue. “God, I wish Emily could enjoy this day,” Julie said. Emily was so sweet and she had a special place in Julie’s heart. She loved all the elderly patients she saw, enjoyed listening to their history and felt pride in knowing she made a difference in their final days.

As she drove, she viewed the peaceful winter landscape. The meadows were brown with dormant grass and a nearby field stood barren waiting for the spring planting. Some would find little beauty in winter’s harsh scene, but Julie found each season had its own special qualities.

She parked on the circular gravel drive and walked up to the modest farmhouse that Emily Taylor had called home for many years. Not another house was in sight, and the view went on for miles revealing the central Pennsylvania countryside. The homestead, surrounded by solitude, set Julie thinking. She has been alone for so long, the poor woman’s life reflects the scene that inhabits this place.

She walked up to the front of the house and used the brass knocker on the ancient wooden door to announce her arrival. The door opened and there stood Ruth, one of the twenty-four hour caregivers who stayed with Emily.

“How’s my patient?” asked Julie.

“Oh, you know, Julie. Ralph and the kids are set to show up anytime now. Emily is so excited.”

Julie thought, Poor thing, if this fantasy keeps her going; where’s the harm?

Julie entered the front door to a small living room furnished with plain, well-worn pieces. The house was well over a hundred years old. A sturdy dwelling, it was a small two-story structure and had the feeling of ‘no show, just practicality’ rarely found in today’s houses.

Upstairs were two bedrooms, one of which her patient hadn’t left for months. The first floor held a small cozy kitchen with a bathroom off to one side, the only part of the structure that was not original. Julie trudged up the well-worn stairs to care for her patient.

As soon as Julie entered the bedroom, Emily smiled and said, “How are you, my dear? You know Ralph and the girls will be here soon. I can’t wait to see how much the girls have grown, although they never seem to change. And Ralph, he’s always as handsome as ever. How’s your husband?”

Julie responded, “Emily, don’t you remember? I don’t have a husband.”

Emily said, “Then we should find you one. Husbands and children are why we were put on this Earth. That’s what life is all about. You are young and pretty, my girl. We must find you a husband.”

They talked awhile more, and then Julie began to care for her patient. She took Emily’s vitals, and tended to the bedsores she had developed. As Julie packed her nursing bag, she said to Emily, “I’ll see you next week. I’ll be here Tuesday”. She didn’t mention the date. The fact that it would be January 28th might disturb the old lady. But, more likely, it would have no meaning at all.

Julie walked to the bedroom door and said, “You take care, Emily.” Emily answered, “I have company coming next week. My family will be here for a visit.”

Ruth was outside the door and heard everything. “Poor thing,” she said, “all alone in the world. With her family gone all these years, I don’t know what makes her hold on like she does. She’s outlived all her close relatives. No one visits her — there’s no one left.”

“I know,” said Julie. “The only pleasure she gets is in her fantasies. And if they give her joy, who are we to disturb them?”

Julie left the farmhouse and retraced her route down the rutted dirt road to visit her next patient.

* * *

Shortly after beginning to care for Emily Taylor, Julie approached Diane, the social worker assigned to her case. In Emily’s bedroom, Julie could not help but notice a host of family pictures. There were pictures of Emily as a young bride embracing a young dark-haired man, her husband, Ralph. Other family photos showed Emily and Ralph with a baby, then more pictures with a toddler and another baby. There were photos tracing the two girls maturing, and Emily and Ralph growing older. The most recent pictured Ralph and Emily in their forties, with two girls about to reach their teenage years.

Julie enjoyed learning the history of her patients so she could better communicate with them. What she learned of Emily’s past saddened her deeply.

“Diane, would you mind if I asked you some questions about Emily Taylor? She’s such a sweet old woman, and I know she has no living close relatives. I was wondering what happened to her family in the photos.”

Diane replied, “I see you’ve noticed all the photos in her bedroom. Who could help but notice them? The little old lady’s future of a life with her family was robbed from her many years ago. Her husband and two daughters were killed. Since then, she has lived part of her life in a world of fantasy where her husband comes to visit and her children never grow old.”

It was in the mid-50’s when the Taylor family could afford their first new car. It was a black and white Chevy. It was January 28th, 1954, when Ralph went to pick up his new vehicle...

The door slammed and Ralph walked into the small, warm kitchen. The smell of a roast filled the air. Emily was in an apron stirring a pot on top of the coal stove.

“Emmy,” said Ralph, joy filled his voice, “let’s go for a ride.” “Ralph, I’m cooking dinner. Anyway, the roads are full of ice from the last storm.”

“I know Emmy, but I made it home just fine. Our car will be new only once. Where are the girls?”

“They’re upstairs doing their homework. For God’s sakes, the car doesn’t even have a heater.”

“No problem,” answered Ralph, “we’ll grab a few army blankets. They’ll keep you and the girls warm just fine.”

“You just can’t stay away from that car.” Emily said.

Ralph approached Emily and said, “That’s not all I can’t stay away from.” He hugged his wife and his hands roamed the curves of her body.

“Stop it, Ralph, the children!”

“Emmy, I guess you’ll have to wait for your ride. I’ll take the girls and be back way before dinner.”

He shouted upstairs, “Who wants to go for a ride in our brand-new car?”

The two young girls came bounding down the stairs, shouting in unison, “Me Daddy, me...”

Diane said, “There was a local farmer that was known to have a drinking problem. He was more wasted than usual when he got behind the wheel of his pickup that day.

“The two girls were in the back seat of the Chevy huddled in blankets. Of course, it was well before the time of seatbelts or airbags. The story goes that Ralph was rounding a curve when he saw the drunken farmer coming at him. There was no time for him to react. The farmer was in Ralph’s lane and hit him head-on. Everyone was killed.

“Emily was all right for awhile, as all right as anyone could be, then she lost it. She kept on talking about Ralph and the girls and how they came to visit. Gradually, all the close family she had died. She lives on that beautiful countryside; she lives in the past talking about her husband and daughters as if they were still alive.”

* * *

Tuesday arrived and it was time to visit Emily once again. Julie preferred to see Emily in the early afternoon, but she had an emergency and had to postpone Emily’s visit until the end of the day. As she drove the country road near dusk, she was aware of an unpleasant change. The desolation of the countryside was pronounced in a haunting way. The tree-lined road leading to her patient’s farmhouse now seemed bordered by lurking giants instead of the stately maples she had grown to love. The gray and colorless scene was nothing like the landscape of days past.

Julie knocked on the farmhouse door. Ruth answered immediately. “Julie, Emily doesn’t look so good. Hurry!”

As soon as she entered the bedroom, Julie could see that Emily was dying. Her breathing was shallow and her complexion gray. Julie took her vitals and shook her head. Emily’s eyes were closed.

Julie said, “Emily, can you hear me?”

In a soft, weary voice, Emily replied, “Julie, I’m so tired. Could you comb my hair? Ralph and the girls will be here soon.”

With tears in her eyes, Julie complied. After finishing, she said, “You look beautiful, Emily. Ralph and the girls will think you’re so lovely.”

As she was leaving the farmhouse, Julie said to Ruth, “I doubt she will last the night.”

Ruth and Julie said their goodbyes, and Julie began walking to her car. As she slid into the driver’s seat, she noticed a faint glow amid the fading light of the darkened countryside. The light held close to the road and followed its twists and turns. The closer it came to the farmhouse, the brighter it became. As the light entered the driveway it gained definition. Soon it morphed into a very old car. Julie froze, not knowing what to expect next.

The driver’s door of the specter opened and out stepped the glowing figure of a man. Julie recognized him immediately. It was Ralph. The back doors opened and out ran two young girls.

Julie was cemented in place, afraid to move, afraid to think. Then the hairs on the back of her neck stood as she heard the shimmering figures of the girls call, “Mom, come on, Mom. It’s time to go for a ride.”

Movement near the front door caught Julie’s eye. A glowing figure emerged from the farmhouse. Julie immediately recognized the young Emily Taylor as she appeared in the final family photo.

The youthful Emily walked towards her daughters. She held them close and kissed them. The girls responded with giggles and shouts of joy. Then Emily went to her husband. There was a long embrace and Julie thought she could hear Emily weeping.

The four apparitions climbed into the old car and disappeared down the country road with the glowing specter of the Chevy fading into the night.

Copyright © 2007 by Walt Trizna

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