Monday, August 20, 2012

A Pact Between Them


            Over the past few months Libby had thought often about the task of disposing of her mother’s clothes.  A few hours after her mother’s funeral, when all except Libby and her father had left the house, she and her father were sitting at the kitchen table.  Her father had not touched the glass of iced tea Libby had placed before him. 
            “Don’t bother about Mamma’s clothes.  Just leave ‘em in her closet, and when I come back for a summer visit, I’ll sort through them.  The Episcopalians opened a thrift store last year in Mt. Pleasant; they’ll probably take some of Mamma’s sweaters and dresses.”  She paused for a moment, and a smile crept over her face.  “We’ll have to decide what to do with her shoes.”
            Jim Lambuth stared out the kitchen window.  The buds on the branches of the large hackberry were beginning to show.  “Your mother certainly liked her shoes,” he said.  “They was her weakness, I s’pose.  You know, she never paid good money for an ear of corn that was too old to roast or for a cantaloupe that was mushy.  She’d buy a good winter coat and wear it many a winter.”
            Molly was still smiling.  “But she couldn’t resist those cheap sandals with fake alligator straps or those slippers with sequins and beads.”  She moved her hand over the vinyl surface of the table as if brushing away invisible crumbs.
            “An’ your sister always says ever’body should be allowed one indulgence,” Mr. Lambuth remarked.  He shifted his weight in the small chair as if to get up from the table, but he continued to sit.  Libby’s sister, Cathy, lived nearby.
            “How many pairs of shoes do you s’pose there is in that closet?” Mr. Lambuth asked.
            “I couldn’t hazard a guess,” Libby said.  “But you’re not to worry about them. 
As I said, I’m coming back to visit in the summer.  I’ll have more time then to get rid of them.”
For several years Molly Lambuth had operated the only café in town.  She took pride in the fact that she spent her own money for her shoes and the other clothing she bought.
            After Mr. Lambuth left the kitchen, Libby stood at the kitchen sink.   She thought about the events of the last few days after her father had called to tell her that Molly’s condition had worsened.
            In the hallway of the small hospital in Mt. Pleasant, as Molly lay sedated in a room close by, a physician spoke to Libby and her father in a hushed voice.  “There is no treatment for the kind of stomach cancer Mrs. Lambuth has.  We’ll try to keep her as comfortable as we can.”  He reached up to touch the stethoscope dangling around his neck, and then he walked down the hall.
            Libby and her father spent as much time at the hospital as they could arrange, her father taking some of the days of leave he had accumulated over the years as an employee of a small oil refinery near his home.  On occasion, Molly was alert, especially at mid-morning after the effects of morphine from the previous night had worn off. 
            “I want you to pay the property taxes on the café,” Molly told her one morning.  “They’re coming due soon.  You can do this before you go back to Illinois.”
            Molly breathed heavily and then continued.  “You know that when push comes to shove you and me are the ones in this family who get things done.”  Libby had not cried in her mother’s presence since she had come to attend her a week before, but it was difficult that morning to hold back the tears.  She refused to lie to her mother by saying that Molly was talking ridiculously when she mentioned dying; they both knew the truth.  There was a practice of each speaking frankly to the other that had begun when Libby was a child.
            Just a few months before when Libby and her seven-year-old son Tobe were in Japan on an accompanied tour of duty with Libby’s Air Force husband, Libby had occasion to learn first-hand about one kind of treatment of cancer patients.  A Japanese woman who worked for a time as a maid in the Chapmans’ home developed cancer of the pancreas.  The woman died a lingering death, but neither her physician nor the members of the woman’s family told the patient her illness was terminal.  Libby felt relieved that the physician at Mt. Pleasant had encouraged her mother and the others in the family to face the reality of Molly’s impending death.
            One evening, as Libby sat beside her mother’s bed in the private room, Molly asked her to help Molly to take her own life.  “I’m beggin’ you to find a pill that would end it all.  I don’t want to waste away before the eyes of those who love me most.”  Libby knew that her mother was often in intense pain in spite of the several kinds of narcotics the doctor had prescribed for her.  “You know I’ve always depended on you most.  It would break your daddy’s heart if I proposed such a thing.  You mustn’t tell him I spoke to you about it.”  Molly raised a hand feebly and then let it drop to the bed.
            “No, no—I won’t tell Daddy—I’ll tell no one what you’re asking me to do,” Libby blurted out.  As Libby was buttoning her coat, the night nurse came to give Molly her regular dose of morphine.  Libby had noticed the morphine her mother was given each evening at bedtime was in the form of a powder inside a transparent capsule.  As she lay awake that evening in the spare bedroom in her father’s house, she decided that she must find a way to carry out her mother’s final request.  She had read in a pharmaceutical guide she borrowed once from an Air Force orderly that twice the amount of morphine prescribed as a sedative for a patient with a debilitating illness might prove fatal.  If Libby could devise a plan whereby she could save one of the morphine capsules given regularly at bedtime to her mother, then she could combine the powder in the capsule with the powder in the capsule prescribed for the following evening, she could give a double dose to her mother. 
            Libby decided to honor the promise she made to her mother not to tell anyone what her mother had requested.  She would not tell Cathy, who would be horrified by the idea, and certainly she would not tell her father. 
            The next day Cathy volunteered to stay in her mother’s room from dinner time till her mother fell asleep.  Cathy had stopped by her father’s house so that she and Libby could plan the schedule for the next few days. 
            “I can go this evening to the hospital and sit with Mamma,” Cathy said.  “I don’t have to work tomorrow.  I can sleep in the next morning.”
            “I really would prefer to stay those hours,”  Libby told her.  “If you like, you could sit with her during the afternoon. Tobe is beginning to miss his father.  I need to spend more time during the day with him than I have been able to lately.  In the evenings I can leave him with Daddy.  Tobe goes to bed early, and then I can go to the hospital to sit with Mamma.”
            After Cathy agreed to the arrangement, Libby was free to continue with her plan.  That evening at the hospital Libby persuaded an inexperienced aide to let her give her mother the capsule containing the morphine.  She motioned for the aide to go out to the hall with her and whispered to the aide that her mother had been uncooperative with the night nurse the evening before.  Libby promised that she would persuade her mother to swallow the capsule.  After the aide gave Libby the capsule and left the room, Libby went to the bathroom where she put the capsule into a small pill box.  Then she dropped the pill box into her handbag.
            Libby knew that her mother would not rest nearly as well without the morphine that evening.  She was prepared to stay later than usual, if necessary.  The nurse on duty would probably look in only perfunctorily as long as Libby was in the room with her mother that evening.  Other drugs her mother was given had their effect, and not long after midnight Molly was resting with less movement than earlier.
            The next evening a different aide made the rounds with medication for the patients. “Mamma just this minute dropped off to sleep,” Libby lied.  “She’s so tired.  Couldn’t you let her sleep fifteen or twenty minutes longer?  Then I’ll wake her up and give her the medicine.”  The young aide was hesitant, but she appeared to be intimidated by Libby’s insistent manner.  She agreed to the plan, placing a paper cup with the capsule inside on the night stand before she left the room.  Libby now had the double dose her mother had begged for.
            Earlier that evening Molly had reminded Libby of the final request.  “I’ve made my peace, and I’m ready to go,” Molly said.  Her words were barely audible, but Libby heard every syllable of the utterance.
            The following evening, after a nurse came in to give Molly the usual medication, Libby used the crank to elevate the head of Molly’s bed.  Then she took the two capsules of morphine out of her handbag.  She held a cup of water to Molly’s lips so that she could swallow the capsules more easily.  Neither of the women spoke, but the expression in Molly’s eyes was one of gratitude.  Shortly after midnight, just after Libby summoned the nurse on duty at the station down the hall, Molly died peacefully.
            At the time Libby administered a lethal dose to her mother, honoring her mother’s wish that no one else be told of the plan had not been a problem.  But as soon as the details of the funeral were behind her and she and Tobe were back in Illinois, Libby found herself on several occasions on the verge of telling her husband what she had done that evening in the hospital.  As they sat watching the evening news or an episode of Perry Mason, Libby would turn to Pat, ready to explain to him why she had to do what she had done.  But she could not bring herself to utter a sound.  The words she considered saying caught in her throat like tufts of lint on a sieve, and her palate would become dry.
            Sometimes in the mornings as Libby was preparing to leave the house for a ceramics class for Air Force wives on the base or for her weekly appointment at the beautician’s, she would walk toward the telephone, ready to make a call to Cathy.  She considered telling Cathy how pathetically Molly had begged to die, how she dreaded going into a coma and perhaps living weeks or months in that state.  Then, just as suddenly as the impulse had come to her, Libby would remove her hand from the receiver.  Gradually, the plans of the morning intervened, and she would find herself in the car on her way to an appointment.
            *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          A few months later on the third morning after Libby and Tobe arrived at her father’s house for their annual summer visit, Libby took her mother’s shoes from the the bedroom closet.  She put them in paper bags she had found in the kitchen.  She had to return to the kitchen for more bags before she took the shoes from the racks that hung on the inside of the closet door, and from the closet’s upper shelves.  The evening before she had decided to take the bags of shoes to a deep ravine beside the road that ran in front of her aunt’s abandoned farm house. 
            The wheels on the passenger’s side of the car sat treacherously close to the side of the  ravine.  Having set the emergency brake, Libby Chapman carefully opened the door on the driver’s side and slowly got out of the car.  She stood for a minute gazing at the sumac hedge on the fence row.  The road was unpaved, and dust from the surface that the wheels of the car had disturbed settled gently on the tops of her sneakers.
As Libby stood in the road , she squinted her eyes in the brilliant sunlight.  It was only ten o’clock, but the July sun was already intense in its brilliance.  As she opened the car door in order to reach into the back seat where she had placed the bags of shoes, she thought again of what the doctor had told her and her father in the hall outside Molly’s hospital room.  “There is no treatment for the cancer your mother has,” he had said, looking sympathetically into Libby’s eyes.
            After her moment of reflection, Libby began to walk toward the ravine on the opposite side of the car.  She carried two bags of shoes.  For the first time since her mother’s death, she began to feel at peace with herself.  Perhaps her returning to her mother’s house helped her to accept the consequences of yielding to her mother’s request.  Perhaps only now could she accept the fact that no one else—certainly not her father—would be able to understand the pact that Libby and her mother made.  After all, she had made a promise to her dying mother not to tell the world of their plan.    
            Standing at the edge of the ravine, Libby tossed the first bag of shoes upward.  It cast a shadow that moved quickly down the part of the slope that was flooded with sunlight.  The bag made a muffled noise when it hit the bottom of the ravine, startling   a six-lined racer.  It darted into the brilliant sun near the shoulder of the road. 
            Libby turned from the lizard for a moment to stare into the ravine.  One of her mother’s high-heeled shoes had fallen from the bag in its motion downward and had landed about midway down the slope.  She recognized the shoe as one from one of her mother’s favorite pairs.  The brown ankle straps were made of fake alligator.   Libby remembered her mother wearing the shoe and its mate to the Fourth of July rodeo in the county seat.  Then, because the hottest part of the day would soon come, she turned from the ravine and walked the few steps back to the driver’s side of the car so that she could get another bag.


One of Robert G. Cowser 's poems will appear in the 2013 edition of Southern Poetry Anthology; two of his stories were published in Fiction/Non-Fiction, published by Silver Leos of Commerce, TX; and two other stories and a memoir recently appeared in Muscadine Lines: a Southern Journal.