I’ll Let You Know When I’m Dead

by Phyliss Merion Shanken

Henry caught a hint of heavy breathing somewhere in the bedroom, but these days he couldn’t quite trust any noise that entered his large, pear-shaped ears. On too many embarrassing occasions, the old man’s fuzzy hearing had betrayed him.

The approaching sound was closing in. Was it emanating from a human being or maybe from an animal, let’s say, a small ape who was desperately foraging for food? With each wheezy exhale, the creature inched toward Henry’s precious feather pillow, which now vibrated in synch with his skin-and-bones, shivering body. The primate wasn't a dog; Henry understood this because Reggie had died at least fifty years ago, unless somehow, as Henry humorously posited, his old companion, Reginald, had just returned as a ghost! Ha-Ha.

Since he awakened daily in a state of mystifying anxiety, Henry often concocted these kinds of internal jokes to amuse himself into a more tranquil state of mind. He continued to force a toothless smile and imagined the looming life form about to attack him but not before toppling his brimming denture cup onto the nightstand, unfortunately too little spillage to drown the poor thing!

No doubt about it; Henry’s withered and wrinkled face was about to be bitten off!

For self-protection, Henry opened only one eye to guard against the other half of the impending danger. In the dawning light, he questioned whether or not the fractionated face in front of him could be real.

Last night, as with every bedtime, he spent long hours campaigning to achieve a rare and deep sleep, but he never quite managed to arrive at that blissful sanctuary — although he didn't really know for sure if he was ever actually asleep — until after he awoke and then said, oh, maybe I really was asleep this time, and then for a number of reasons, he rejoiced: first, he established that, despite his not being able to satisfactorily warm his body, at least at this moment, he wasn’t stone cold in a wooden box; and second, after lots of tossing and turning, he must have been victorious after all, even though he thought he had only imagined his slumber in a dream.

So, when he presently perceived a balmy terrarium-like vapor accompanied by rhythmic puffing, he courageously encouraged himself to force open the other eye. I will face the alien straight on!

It didn't take long for Henry to validate his impression that the puzzle-piece figure he had witnessed just seconds ago, was she, his companion of sixty-five years, Stella, who was gawking at him the way an artist peers at the subject of her painting. Still huffing like a bulldog, she stooped over him and tilted her head sideways for a peripheral view.

Henry and Stella’s daily ritual was getting old. Well, they were old, after all.

"Stella, will you never stop checking on me?"

"Obviously not, young man!” Stella declared in her usual nasally affectionate tone, the cadence resounding throughout the room like a wannabe Ethel Merman. From habit, she wiped away the almost imperceptible perspiration above her lip, which shone upon one half of her characteristically crooked smile, her mouth lip-lined with the same bright red shade of the fifties. It was that smile that had endeared him to her so many years ago, even though her ever-present lipstick-smudged front teeth were only partially hidden behind her still fleshy lips. Again, she quickly dabbed her face with a tissue to absorb her body’s dew, the trademark tissue that she generally tucked under her sleeve, even when she wore a nightgown. These days, she had condensation in all the wrong places and no dampness where she needed it most.

At last, Henry opened his other eye.

“What do you want?” Henry demanded.

“Oh, I was just checking.”

“Not again, Stella. How many times do I have to say it? ‘I'll let you know when I'm dead!’”

“Right, Herman, but you might forget!”

“Don't call me Herman. It makes me think you're senile.”

“You know I'm only kidding, Henry.”

“That’s what they all say when they’re trying to cover.”

“It's just a nickname I gave you.”

“The only problem is: Herman’s the guy you were in love with before me.”

“Oh, that was just a silly infatuation.”

“Yeh, that's what you always say when you slip.”

“Well, thank you for your confidence in my memory,” bellowed Stella. “And don’t change the subject. If I don’t check, how will I know you're alive? Or maybe you need an ambulance or something. It would be my fault.”

“Just stay close and if you walk in the room and you smell gas, you’ll know I farted. The farting days of corpses are over!” Henry guffawed at his own punchline.

”Oh they do. I read it somewhere. If the gas builds up before you die, it can’t stay inside. It has to escape into the air.” Stella sighed. “Anyway, Henry, you know I don’t like to use that word. You should say, ‘leaving wind.’”

“Stella, at our age, who cares?”

“It never used to matter so much because we didn’t leave wind that much.”

“Right, Stel, now between the two of us, we’re a regular fuel tank.”

“You used to do it more than you admitted, Henry.”

“Well, yes, but under the covers.”

“Do you think I didn’t know? All I had to do was lift the blanket to roll over and all the fumes fanned out. Right into my olfactory canal!”

“What’s with the anatomical words? It's a schnozzola. And — ‘leaving wind'? So proper. Like your mother is still watching you! What the heck? And, you —” Henry paused for effect, "you left wind in those days, too, Stella. Come on, admit it.”

“No, It’s not ladylike.”

“We’re beyond ladylike, don’t you think?”

Even though she was already uniformed for the day in her paisley housedress, Stella untied her waist strap, removed her barrettes that held her off-white, thinning hair behind her ears and placed the barrettes next to Henry’s denture cup on the nightstand. She had worn this hair style for at least half a century, but the strands around the clasps were looser with not many left for the barrette to anchor itself to her scalp.

She threw off her trademark moccasins, which she wore only in their home, and slipped under the duvet onto Henry’s side of the bed, enjoying his heated body, although it was a little chillier than in bygone days. He reflexively curled his arm around her and walked his fingers to the end of the sheet so he could seal her in. They repositioned themselves like one cocooned mass of left and right brain and faced the ceiling. It was as if a video of their lives were playing up there. They resumed a conversation they had started the day they met, a talk that threatened to terminate at any precious moment.

“Henry, you try to act so tough, but I happen to know that you sometimes put a mirror under my nose to see if I’m breathing.”

“Nah.”

“I caught you a few times. I just didn’t let on.”

“Well, you breathe so loud that when you don’t, I have to check.”

“Why do you have to check, Henry? I told you: ‘I’ll let you know when I’m dead!””

“Okay. You got me, Stella.” He matched her mocking tone.

“You just can’t admit all this because you think it makes you a coward, or not manly or something. You won't say it: you’re afraid you can’t live without me.”

Henry sighed deeply. “Stella, maybe you wish you would fart less but I wish you would psychoanalyze me less. It’s been a major fault of yours from the day we met.” He coughed.

Stella laughed. “Well, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

“Or a new dog old tricks.”

Stella pinched Henry’s backside, no longer as cushiony as it used to be.

There was a deja vu quality to this interaction. Perhaps they had spoken the same words yesterday, or the day before, or years before. It seems they were living in the same minute, over and over within the same reverberating universe. The familiar phrases pendulously travelled to and fro as if inside the cabinet of a grandfather clock but Time, itself, never ticked.

He gathered her icy fingers into his thick, rough palms, massaging and warming hers as he always had. He held up her cellophane covered hands and studied this showpiece, cherishing his treasure. The bulging blue veins spread like an expansive map of their lives.

They argued playfully about who had been the first to utter the golden words, “I love you,” and how he awkwardly proposed to her at her sister’s engagement party. Remember how her parents who distrusted his intentions gave him no end of trouble.

He forgot, but she remembered, every detail, about that vacation when young Stella had exuberantly blurted out, “Isn’t it romantic. Someday we’ll be old and toothless and still be in love!” He had cringed, betraying his disgust over the vision of a dark, empty space where Stella’s shiny white teeth on one side of the slanted smile shown. She cried like a two-year-old throwing a tantrum. Yes, he faked his apology, but in reality, for years, he couldn’t erase the image of beautiful Stella potentially turning into a dried-up old prune like his mother.

Ah, youngsters never believe they will age into beings that are crustier, crabbier, and covered with leathery forms of what they once were. Impossible. They had been almost babies then, with tight skin, and hair in the right places, and none of the cloud shelter that was bound to grow over their puppy-like, crystal-clear eyes — if they were fortunate enough to live another seventy years.

Should they have dreaded old age?

All this time, they must not have been paying enough attention. Should they have foreseen the droopiness of parts unknown? Could they have predicted that as partners, they would virtually bandage each other’s emotional scars, some of which were from bruises they had inflicted on each other?

What about when they tried for the first baby and she miscarried. She sobbed for days and wouldn’t get out of bed. He was beside himself. He finally left her there and returned to his shop. She couldn’t believe he would abandon her at such a time, but a man has to provide. He was trying to handle his own grief over losing a child, but now he mourned the loss of his wife as well.

She eventually moved on but not without being obsessed about getting pregnant again. They almost adopted a child, and then in the midst of the proceedings, she became pregnant so they decided to go through with the legalities anyway. From nothing, they now were proud parents of almost twins.

“Remember how I used to make you tell me funny stories before I'd let you have sex?”

“I worked on those stories during lulls at work. It was fun. I pictured you giggling and it warmed my heart. We almost didn’t have to have sex, I was so turned on by the thought of it!”

“Sure. You? Right. That would be the day!”

“Why did we never go on a trip again, after we went around the world on that cruise ship after you retired? What was it called again?”

“Damned, if I know.” Henry shook his head.

“Henry, you do know. You always think you’re so cute when you frustrate me with your non-answer-answers. I hate when you do that.”

“You’re so beautiful when you’re angry, Stella.”

“You’re doing it again!”

“All right. All right. I’ll stop.”

“But will you ever learn? Will you ever stop teasing? Like you used to do to your sister all the time. She told me what a monster you were.”

“She exaggerated. Do you think she died from my teasing her?”

“No. Of course not.”

“Well, there you have it.”

She returned her gaze upward as she snuggled on her back but mashed her side against his still hairy but now almost white chest.

“The New Year’s Eve of our honeymoon, we took our first bath together, remember?” She didn’t wait for his answer although his chuckle told it all. “In that tiny tub in our first apartment.”

“Sure, I remember. Thank goodness the chiropractor fit me in for an emergency appointment the day after the holiday!” She could sense the smirk in his words.

“No way. You’re just putting me on!”

“Stella, you just don’t remember how crunched I was!”

“There you go again, trying to tell me I’m senile.”

“Thank goodness we moved — to a bigger tub!”

“Then the kids were born,” she said wistfully.

He could feel her forced breath on his skin. “So much for our romance.” Henry hoped Stella didn’t pick up on his own secret turmoil: He loved his kids, but sometimes, he just wished things hadn’t changed so much.

What about when he cried like a baby in her arms because he was about to lose everything in his auto parts store and she told him, Don’t worry, if we have to, we’ll move into a one room apartment until we get back on our feet, and that made him cry even more.

Stella knew the shame he had felt over his “weakness,” so, presently, she switched the topic to a more supportive one.

“Henry, you always hugged me real tight just like my dad did whenever I was afraid. You were my protector.” She felt his muscles contract somewhere in his middle.

Just after their fiftieth wedding anniversary, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. They feared it was all over then. Is this the reward for having quit smoking twenty-five years before! “You insisted it wasn’t true and the doctors looked at me like, how are we gonna to convince this guy?”

“If I didn't keep pushing, I could have ended up under the knife with nothing to show for it. Their full-proof lab studies, huh? It’s a darn good thing they repeated the test."

“That was scary, Henry. Suppose the second test was the mistake and the first one was the correct one. But you refused another test.”

“They were just trying to cover their asses!”

“Would it hurt to be sure? They said you could wait six months. I begged you to go back. You still had that cough. You wouldn’t even do it for me.”

“Well." That's all Henry could think to say, “Well—”

For some reason, a topic emerged they had avoided revisiting. As if they both arrived inside the same dream, or was it a nightmare, they recalled those rough years when they had contemplated divorce. Was the quarrel because he couldn’t stomach her bossiness and she accused him of being insensitive and self-centered? Neither of them quite recalled the details, but their bodies reabsorbed the raw, excruciating experience of it.

Stella glided her hand out from under his and pointed straight above them as if pressing the pause button of their life now cascading too quickly across the ceiling. “Remember when Billy fell out of the tree and you went after him? Billy was fine but you broke your leg.”

“I could have killed him!”

“I’m glad you never let on. He felt guilty enough as it was.”

“Yeh, I was pretty good about it, I must say. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I didn’t have to be on my feet and on crutches all day.”

Their conjoined life opened like an expanding flower while they took turns reformulating their past, encrypting old pictures into their spiritual journal. They were still alive and on the other side of the bloom at a time when moonlight flattens and arrests earth’s vegetation, and mercifully offers its final breath before it droops and lays itself down into a restful and deserved sleep.

“Remember that night Billy drove my car to a party and didn’t come back.”

“You were rubbing your arms like you were freezing but it was ninety degrees and we didn’t have the air conditioner on because you had some cockamamie notion that if we were too comfortable, it would prevent Billy from coming home alive. It was nuts.”

“Well, we both were crazy!”

“We paced back and forth all night.”

“When Billy finally showed up in the morning, remember he was so casual, oh, sorry, I fell asleep at the party and then when I woke up at 4 a.m., I didn’t want to disturb you. I figured if you heard the phone ring, you would panic.”

I didn’t know whether to slap him or —"

“— gather him up and cuddle him like a baby.”

"How could Shawna run away and put us through that again? Only two days later?”

“At least she left a note.”

“Thank goodness Shawna worked herself around, don’t you think? She’s been so affectionate and loyal to us.”

“Well, one out of three ain’t bad!”

“What about Jeffrey? Our adorable little change-of-life baby.” Stella's eyes almost twinkled!

“Don’t call him that. You know how he hates it.”

“It’s only a nickname.”

“Yeh, right, like when you call me Herman. Stella, how many times have I complained about this. You can never be wrong, Stella. Well, this time you are wrong.”

“Okay. Okay.”

“How do you think it makes Jeffrey feel? Like you didn’t plan for him and he just showed up unwelcome on our doorstep?”

“You’re right. But you’re over-sensitive because of how your mother told you you were an accident.”

“Well, sure. So I know how it feels.”

“But I don’t say it to him.”

“It doesn’t matter. Somehow he feels it. To think — we might’ve actually gotten rid of him.”

“After trying so hard for the first one. And then getting two for the price of one. Then we get the bonus change-of—“

“I’m glad you didn’t let me convince you to have the abortion!”

“How could a mother do that to her baby. And he turned out to be such a sweetie.”

If Stella hadn’t been tucked into the crook of Henry’s arm, she might not have absorbed the fluttering which emanated from somewhere inside her partner.

An inner voice sprung forth long enveloped inside of Henry: “I wish he had married a woman instead of a man. What a loss to the world. He would’ve been a great dad. I’m glad I got used to the idea but every once in a while, I wish—”

“Don’t say it, Henry.”

“It was much harder for me than for you, don’t you think?”

“Why?”

“Well, I’m a guy; what do you expect? I grew up in a different time.”

“Being a guy is no excuse for not accepting Jeffry’s choice.”

“I like Tim. Jeffrey made a good choice. Tim’s a good guy. I kinda love him like a son. Like Billy and Jeff.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear that, at least. And, thank goodness, Shawna gave us the grandchildren.”

“But they are not from us!”

“Henry. I’m glad Shawna never heard you say that. She’s our girl.”

“I meant about her being adopted.”

“I know what you meant. Hush up with that stuff. She kept her maiden name. Those kids have your name.”

“You’re right…Lately, it’s hard to control my thoughts. I want to forget about the adoption but it keeps lingering in my mind, ever since she had the first one out of wedlock. I kept thinking, she’s not even ours and now we have an illegitimate grandchild.”

“Oh, I give up. I hate when you talk like that, Henry.”

“Like I said, I can’t help it. You always complained I was too quiet, that I didn’t tell you what was on my mind. When I do, you scold me like I’m a child, your child.”

Stella started to remove herself from him, but like a cowboy lassos his mare, Henry drew her back to him. “You always accused me of trying to control you."

"I just wanted you to listen to me sometimes.”

“Like when you would take my face in your hands and force me to look at you.”

“Well, it was when you got that faraway look in your eyes like you were putting up with me but you weren’t really there.”

“Does that still happen?”

“You know, not as much.” Stella paused, perhaps needing time to figure out why she had made such a big deal over his inattention.

“I still love you, Henry, and I know you’ve tried hard over the years.”

Henry directed his puckered lips toward her forehead the way a conductor might signal a particular instrumental section with his baton, and gently brought her head to his mouth. It was one of his loud kisses.

As if peering through a murky window, they perceived the once clear potpourri of what may or may not have occurred in real time. The details are gone and so are the toxins they had felt in their reluctant veins. They chalked up these sticky times as minor misunderstandings, mushy moments in their lives, long gone, long minimized, almost erased.

“Billy turned out all right even though he never liked following the rules. Lucky he didn’t get into too much trouble. His best buddy, what was his name?”

“Victor.”

“Yeh, Victor. I wonder what happened to him after he got out of jail.”

“Well it was Juvenile Hall so they had to let him out when he was eighteen.”

“That was a close call for Billy. I’m glad Billy never contacted him.”

“How do you know? Billy didn’t want us to know much. He wanted to get as far away from us as possible.”

“I guess the Air Force served its purpose.”

“The good news is that after Billy turned fifty, he finally started to stay in touch. Maybe he got over his anger at us.”

“What was he so angry about anyway?”

“Darned if I know. I thought we were pretty good parents.”

“Me too.”

“As they say, you can’t control how your kids will interpret what you do or say. I’m glad I don’t think about it so much anymore. Sometimes, his anger felt like a dagger in my heart.”

“If I knew what I did or we did wrong, I’d make amends but when they don’t tell you, what can you do?” Henry could feel the contour of her upturned lips against his bare chest. “Stella, after all is said and done, I think we were a pretty good team.”

She twisted around to face him. “Yes, Henry, we were. And despite that time you made that awful face when I said we would grow old and toothless, I think you finally forgave me for getting old and ugly.”

“Come on, Stella, you get more beautiful with each passing year.”

“Even with my teeth and all the dental work? Even with my sagging breasts? Even with my hair when I’m not wearing my wig? Even with all my flab?”

“Sure thing, Stella. You are a beauty queen, my beauty queen.”

Stella’s lips quivered. A few tears had already trickled down her cheeks. She smiled coquettishly like a star-stuck teenager, “But, Henry, do you promise to let me know when you’re dead?”

“Yes, I promise.”

They both grinned but remained silent…

“I think it’s about to happen pretty soon.”

“Oh no. Don’t say that!”

“I don’t know, Stella, I just have a feeling. And you want to know something? I’m not even scared. It’s like I’m ready. It’s like this is the nature of things. You live. You die. I don't mind being dead. It's just dying that gets to me.”

“I never knew you to be so philosophical.”

“Me neither. Maybe that’s another signal that my body knows something. And, anyway, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

“When you make up your mind, Henry — ” Stella interrupted herself. “For some reason, Henry, I actually understand what you’re trying to tell me. That’s weird, isn’t it?”

Henry didn’t answer in words. He just tightened his arms around her and squeezed.”

***

A few months later, the housekeeper used her key to open the door because no one had answered the bell. She found Henry and Stella Robinson intertwined on one side of their king-sized bed. The corners of Stella's lips stretched upward toward her unblinking eyes like a buddha's. With his undershirt rolled up to reveal his grey-haired chest and his protruding newly softened belly that served as her pillow, Henry actually looked like the real Buddha. The housekeeper sniffed a few times but couldn’t determine the source of the gassy odor in the room.

They appeared so at peace that the housekeeper frantically retrieved a mirror by Henry’s nightstand to test if Henry were breathing or not. She put her ear to Stella’s chest. Then she called 911.

No one ever quite figured out how it was that Henry and Stella left this world at the very same time. Their hands were clasped like intertwining combination locks. No one could decipher what would unlink their bond. It was as if their hearts were secured and in synch within a tenderly moored vessel.

Finally, family and friends stopped theorizing about the timing. It didn’t matter. Stella and Henry were gone and that was that.

In the end, Henry and Stella may or may not have honored their pact to tell each other when either of them was dead. But the sweet truth was: The long wait was over. And — it didn’t matter anymore.

About the Author

Phyliss Merion Shanken

Phyliss Merion Shanken is a retired psychologist, who has been published in psychological journals as well as in literary publications, and weekly newspaper and magazine columns. In addition to her literary and poetry awards, she is author of SILHOUETTES OF WOMAN, PEANUT BUTTER SANDWICH and The Joys and Frustrations of Parenting, as well as a number of screenplays. She has two novels, EYE OF IRENE, and THE HEART OF BOYNTON BEACH CLUB. CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFECT STRANGERS: Memoirs of a Psychologist is the culmination of her life’s work.