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What Is Love?

Ted sat quietly, looking out the window at the old cherry tree. An Amsel was doing her best to get at an insect partly buried in the bark while dealing with a male who clearly had only one thing on his mind.

There were no new leaves on the tree yet, but the bright sun seemed to bring the promise of coming warmth and springtime to the gentle stirrings of the earth and life beginning to shake off the slumber of winter.

A moan from Chris drew Ted’s attention back to the room and to the antique coach. He watched Chris try to turn onto his back, the effort exhausting him. After a few moments, there was again only the sound of his hoarse breathing that had become part of their lives for the past two years.

Ted turned his gaze back to the window and garden that he and Chris had created together over the past thirty years, always arguing about what plant should go where and whether that Evergreen in the back corner had gotten too big to stay or not. That was some fight they had over that Evergreen, Ted yelling that plants growing healthily was a virtue and Chris screaming that proper garden management always involved culling and trimming. It had clearly been a matter of earth-shattering importance.

Chris moaned again, drawing Ted’s attention once more to the couch where even the heavy blanket could not completely hide the gaunt, skeletal body of the once healthy, robust man who had become the love of his life nearly a half-century before. Oh, what he would have given to have had this picture flash before him each time he and Chris had gotten into one of those noisy, life-and-death arguments over stupid things.

Ted tried to remember where he had heard the saying that, “We get too soon old and too late smart.” It sounded profound, like it should have been some famous, learned philosopher. Or maybe it had just been something someone had dreamed up to put on a carnival ash tray. Regardless, it’s truth was painfully clear.

A framed picture on the dark stained end table next to the couch caught Ted’s eye. It was an old photo of Chris and Ted. They were standing next to each other, near the lake at the center of the botanic gardens. Chris, with a mischievous grin, had one arm draped over Ted’s shoulder as he pointed mockingly at the very small fish, still dangling from the fishing rod, that Ted was holding.

The image took Ted back to that day so long ago. Chris, six years older than Ted, had upper arms that were as big around as Ted’s legs. He never got tired of teasing Ted about being so thin and scrawny that a strong wind would probably blow him away. When Ted’s rod suddenly bent, he jumped up, shouting, “I’ve got one! I’ve got one.” When all he hauled out of the water was that small bluegill, Chris saw an opportunity not to be missed. Ted gritted his teeth and exhaled sharply as he remembered again all the teasing.

Chris’ low cry of pain as he clutched at his belly yanked Ted back to the present. “Why won’t he let me give him better pain medication?” he wondered. “Those Oxycodone pills just aren’t getting the job done.”

He looked again at the picture, then at the cancer-devastated body on the couch in front of him. The thought, “Who is the strong wind going to blow away now?” drifted suddenly into his memory of that day as the perfect response. Ted immediately frowned and clinched in embarrassment and remorse.

He pulled up a chair close to Chris and sat down, slowly stroking his hair. Another image appeared in his memory from long ago. The concrete post he was standing on, the green metal guardrails extending in both directions along the road, the river below, and the steel girders of the bridge above. He could hear the echoes of his father’s screams. “I ain’t gonna have no cock-sucking queer living under my roof, by god. Get the hell out of here and don’t ever come back if you want to stay alive.”

Would he have jumped? He no longer could say for sure. All that he remembered was this deep voice behind him asking him about the quality of the view up there. Ted turned around slowly and stared at this big man. He took several long, deep breaths as he studied the man’s kind eyes and reassuring voice. Finally, Ted said, “Who are you?”

“My name is Chris. C’mon down and  tell me what’s goin’ on.” When Ted didn’t move, Chris stepped closer and held up an inviting hand. “I’m hungry and you’re lookin’ pretty thin, kid. Let’s go get something to eat and you can tell me all about it.” Ted looked back down at the river for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders and jumped down to the roadway.

The memory seemed to fade and Ted stood up and walked into the kitchen to get a glass of water. Try as he might, he could not recall how it was that he somehow immediately trusted Chris enough to tell him about the fights with his father, his attempts at dating girls that left him feeling empty and like a fraud, and fearful of experiencing any emotion at all. Chris seemed to understand everything and described his own similar experiences. Ted still remembered the strange feeling that he was a legitimate human being slowly emerging as the afternoon and evening progressed. When Chris found out that he no longer had a place to to sleep, he invited Ted to come home with him. It was to become Ted’s home as well.

Ted walked around the kitchen and then in the living room, letting his eyes caress all the little things they had accumulated over more than forty years together. Chris had framed Ted’s college degree and Physician Assistant certification and hung them prominently on one wall. Chris would tell everyone that he was the family brawn and Ted was the brains – but it was deeply satisfying to him that he had made it possible for Ted.

A loud cry startled Ted. He turned to see Chris sitting on the edge of the couch, doubled over in pain. Ted hurried to his side, caressing him gently. When the pain subsided a bit, he helped him to slowly lay down again.

“Chris, why are you so stubborn? Those Oxycodone pills just aren’t doing the job anymore.  Why won’t you let me give you morphine injections? You don’t have to suffer like this.”

Chris looked at Ted for the longest time, a mischievous grin slowly appearing on his face. “Oxycodone pills don’t do a damn thing for you if you don’t take ’em. Did you know that?”

Ted’s mouth dropped open and his eyes opened wide. “What in the hell are you talking about?”

Chris reached into the pocket on his robe and pulled out a small box. When he took off the lid, Ted saw a week’s worth of pills inside.

“Where in the hell did you get …” Ted’s stomach clinched as he suddenly realized that Chris had simply not taken any of the pills for the last several days. “Why…”

Chris’ smile faded again. “I’ve decided to let Oxycodone do a different job – when I take a week’s worth all at once.”

“We talked about this before. You suffered a week of unmanaged pain just to get the pills I refused to give you?” Ted stared wide-eyed for a moment, then reached angrily for the box. “No, I still won’t let you do it!” he shouted.

Chris pulled the box away from Ted’s reach. “You know I love you, right?”

Ted sank to the floor, put his hands to his face, and sobbed uncontrollably.

Chris waited patiently, just as he had on that bridge so long ago. Then, “Right?”

Ted looked through his tears, finally managing to whisper, “You love me to the moon and back.”

Chris gently laid his hand on Ted’s cheek. “That’s right. So – you do know.”

Ted pressed Chris’s hand more firmly to his cheek. “I know.”

“Would you please bring me a glass of water – and then just sit here near me? I want your face to be the last thing I see and your voice be the last thing I hear.”

When Ted returned, he sat down near Chris. “Before I give you this water … You know you gave me my life back again, right?”

Chris stared at him with raised eyebrows and a questioning look.

Ted handed him the glass of water. “Right?”

Chris took the glass and smiled again. “I know you love me, too.”

Ted smiled through a fresh flood of tears, slowly handing Chris the pills. After he had given him the last one, he sat down on the couch and helped Chris lay his head in his lap, cradling his head in his arms. After a few minutes, Ted started speaking softly about that amazing, wonderful day when they were officially married. Chris smiled and stroked Ted’s arm.

The night passed slowly by. There were intervals of great peace and quiet followed by Ted’s recounting another special memory from their decades together. Chris stopped responding after a while. His breathing became slower and slower. As the first light of dawn was appearing, Chris took one last breath –  and then all was quiet and still.

When the morning sun reached the garden and the birds began fluttering and chirping, Ted stood up and slowly, gently laid Chris’ head on the pillow.

(c) Roger Voight, 2024

1 thought on “What Is Love?”

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