That little blue jacaranda tree was the finest wedding present two elderly people like Claude and me could have given each other. We thought of it as the baby we were far too old to have.
Now I couldn't look at it without having to fight back tearful memories of that horrible night three years earlier when Hurricane Natalie's winds propelled something forcefully—almost explosively—against the side of the house. Both of us awoke with a start.
Claude put his hand on mine. "Don't go outside, Ruth. The hurricane will be gone by morning. We'll check for damage then."
Although we stayed inside, I don't believe either of us got much sleep after that. Instead we lay there listening. Listening and wondering. Would the hurricane do any further damage to the house before heading further north?
With the first light of dawn came the welcome sound of silence. Hurricane Natalie had moved on, eager to do her damage elsewhere.
But what damage had she done here? That was the question that concerned us.
After throwing a robe on—I didn't take time to look for my slippers—I ran to the living room. Claude was right behind me. I opened the front door and stepped outside.
Squishing our way through mud and wet grass, we moved cautiously to our bedroom's side of the house and began looking for the place Natalie had targeted just hours earlier.
"There." Claude pointed to a good-sized hole in the siding. The exposed woodwork was slightly cracked. "What hit it?"
I spotted the projectile before he did and burst out crying. In between sobs I finally managed to say, "Our tree. Our beautiful little jacaranda tree. Natalie broke it in two. She threw part of it at the house."
I turned my gaze from the five feet of treetop that lay crumpled on the ground in front of me to the three or four feet of stump Natalie had graciously left in the ground. As if we would need a lasting reminder of our loss.
Claude wrapped his arms around me. "Maybe Ronnie can cut that stump down close to ground level. I don't know if he can get the roots up, though. I'll call and have the nursery bring another tree."
His sigh grazed my cheek. "We were so looking forward to that tree blossoming once it matured enough."
I didn't respond at first. I just kept staring at the stump. But then I turned to face my loving husband. "This may sound strange, but I'd rather have Ronnie make a clean cut just below the break and leave the roots intact."
He shook his head. Playfully, I thought. "You are something else, Love. You think that sounds strange, do you? I'd say it sounds, uh..."
He obviously wanted to use a stronger word. Odd, maybe? Peculiar? Maybe even bizarre?
"Why in the world would you want Ronnie to do that?"
I scrunched my face while trying to come up with a reasonable explanation. "I just do" probably wouldn't convince him, but I had to be honest...and I couldn't think of anything better to say.
"I...I can't tell you. I don't know why, I mean. I just want him to." I paused. "Well, not exactly want. For whatever reason my subconscious is hiding from me, I think keeping what's left of our jacaranda tree is important. Haven't you ever felt that way about something that didn't make sense?"
It was Claude's turn to scrunch his face. "When God gave me those two weird, theologically unacceptable dreams and then had me turn them into the two bestselling books that made us so wealthy, that didn't make one bit of sense. I just knew I was supposed to do it."
I looked into his eyes and smiled. "You do understand then, don't you?"
He laughed. "Of course I do. But the important thing isn't whether I understand your reason for keeping the stump—or your lack of one—but the fact that I want to please my precious wife."
I pecked him on the cheek. Would he be that agreeable to my next request? "Sweetie, would you mind if we don't get another jacaranda?"
Several days later we had the nursery where we'd bought the jacaranda send workers out to plant a crepe myrtle in our treeless front yard. Although the men couldn't help but notice the clean-cut jacaranda stump at the side of the house, they didn't ask why we'd left it there.
But I couldn't look at it without asking, "Why, Lord?"
I knew God must have had a reason. And any reason He had would be good. Perfect. Even though He hadn't chosen to reveal it to me.
"Ruth!" Claude's five-alarm tone would've scared the daylights out of any regular woman.
But I wasn't any regular woman and it didn't frighten me. I was the Town Curmudgeon's wife, and three glorious years of marriage in the winter of our lives had taught me that my beloved's concept of panic-worthiness was nearly always the opposite of mine.
Especially regarding health issues.
Don't get me wrong. I loved Claude with all of my heart and I would do anything to protect him and keep him safe.
That's why I never failed to be sensitive to any of the little health issues he took so seriously. I couldn't afford to ignore them. After all, my beloved was eighty-nine years old and the time might come sooner than later when one of his concerns actually proved serious.
But I wouldn't take any of them too seriously until I had a reason to. Especially since Dr. Miller had confided in me (without Claude's knowledge, of course) that his wealthiest patient had apparently turned into a first-class hypochondriac.
I smiled sympathetically. "Something wrong, Sweetie?"
"This spot...this strange spot on my forehead. I'm sure it's something dangerous. Maybe even life-threatening."
"Let me see it." Oh, for Pete's sake, Claude. How did you manage to smear chocolate icing on your forehead that way?
I'd gotten pretty good at fighting back the temptation to cackle at his useless concerns. Not only did I want to avoid embarrassing him, I didn't want to make him hesitate to share his concerns with me.
I needed to know about them. All of them. Just in case.
So once again I did as I'd done a dozen times over the previous fifteen months and followed Dr. Miller's advice. I humored him. "Don't you think applying a little soap and water might help to alleviate the problem?"
Who but my highly intelligent husband would fail to catch on to my diplomatic way of saying, "wash it off"? That's why I could get away with suggesting a simple "cure" like that.
But alas! He shook his head and narrowed his eyes as if I'd suggested standing on his head in a tub of ice water. "No, Love. That would probably make whatever it is spread even further. Would you please call Dr. Miller's office and say we'll be there as soon as we can."
"I'll give his office a call." I folded the grocery list I'd been working on, stuck it in my purse, and pulled out my phone. As many similar calls as I'd placed to Dr. Miller, I'd finally created a speed dial number for his office.
I kissed Claude affectionately before letting him out at Dr. Miller's. Then I headed to the grocery store to do my weekly shopping. Although WSUN, Sunnydale's only radio station, was playing an extremely inspirational Christian song, one that normally made my spirits soar, it failed to clear my frustrations out of the basement that time.
I growled quietly. Then I growled again. More loudly. And why shouldn't I? Claude wouldn't hear me and ask what was wrong. And, more importantly, I wouldn't have to explain.
Before Claude and I began dating, he'd already given up driving. Although Angel and Ronnie had willingly provided whatever transportation he needed, they didn't object when I assured them I was ready to serve as his chauffeur.
Taking him wherever he wanted or needed to go had worked out reasonably well. From that time to this, he never failed to thank me for my help. Nonetheless, those useless trips to Dr. Miller's office were getting old.
Don't get me wrong. I didn't mind driving him to Dr. Miller's and bringing him home again any more than Dr. Miller minded working "old moneybags" (as the doctor had once been overheard referring to Claude) into his already-overcrowded schedule.
But that always meant waiting. A very long time. Maybe Claude didn't mind just sitting in the waiting room until Dr. Miller could see him, but I hated killing time waiting for him to be ready for the return trip home.
That's why I always went grocery shopping instead of sitting in the car the whole time. That helped, but not enough.
When I came back to pick Claude up, I would undoubtedly still have to sit in the car and wait and wait and wait for what seemed like hours. I was tempted to go home and have him call when he was ready.
But I was too considerate a wife. I didn't want to make my poor hubby wait for me after all the time he had to wait for the doctor. So I ended up doing enough waiting for the both of us.
After loading my bags into the trunk of my smallish coupe—I could barely fit everything inside—and rolling the cart to the distant return-rack, I glanced at my watch. In spite of my efforts to keep from rushing, my shopping hadn't taken nearly as long as Claude's doctor visits invariably took.
So I decided to stop for gas before going back to pick him up. That would not only get us home sooner than filling up on the way, it would also cut my waiting time by a couple of minutes.
Once I finished at the gas station, I drove the two blocks back to the Sunnydale Medical Services building. Claude had made a generous contribution towards its construction and I was proud of how beautifully it had turned out.
No matter how proud I was of the building, however, that didn't keep me from sighing at the prospect of sitting in the car and waiting for him to exit. He'd insisted that I not come inside and catch who-knows-what by inhaling everyone else's germs. Why wasn't he equally concerned about what their germs might do to him? I doubted that he could explain.
When I suddenly remembered the magazine I'd put in the cart to read while waiting for Claude, I slapped the steering wheel. Hard enough to hurt. My hand, not the steering wheel. I meant to ask the checker to let me put the periodical in my purse, but—old woman that I was—I forgot to.
It had probably gotten buried at the bottom of a very full bag of cold, wet perishables. By the time I could dig it out, I probably wouldn't need it any more. And in all likelihood it would have gotten too soggy to be legible, anyhow.
As soon as I pulled into the parking lot I did a doubletake. I spotted a familiar head on the old-fashioned wooden park bench that was located just outside one of the building's exit doors.
What? I was keeping Claude waiting that time? It had to happen once eventually.
I couldn't see much at that angle, but he didn't appear to be irritated. Or even bored. That was good.
I pulled closer. Ha! No wonder. He wasn't even sitting up. He'd propped his head and shoulders on one of the cast iron armrests and stretched out on the bench, where he was lounging peacefully in the sunshine.
Lounging? Double-ha! My man appeared to be sound asleep.
Claude had been napping more and more frequently the past couple of months. Several times he'd fallen asleep unexpectedly. Yet he didn't have any trouble sleeping through the night. Go figure, as they used to say.
"Sweetie," I said once when he woke up after falling asleep at the dinner table, "I can't tell you how concerned I am about those naps of yours."
"Is my cooking so boring it puts you to sleep?" I was only trying to be cute, of course. But as often as my efforts at humor fell flat, that could prove dangerous. My jokes simply weren't sophisticated enough for him to get.
"Never, Love. This meal was great."
"Did you know that...? Oh, never mind." I'm not sure he ever did catch on that he'd fallen asleep and come dangerously close to landing in the mashed potatoes.
He didn't ignore my concern, however. "No need to fret about my naps. Don't forget: I'm thirteen years older than you. Napping is normal for people my age."
Hmm. Maybe so, but I wasn't totally convinced that people his age fell asleep in the midst of other activities.
"In another few years,"—he punctuated his point with a plucky chuckle—"you'll discover that for yourself."
Then he yawned. "If my napping ever becomes a problem I'll be sure to talk to Dr. Miller about it." He laughed before adding, "For example, if I should fall asleep while I'm preaching."
I threw up my hands in frustration. Mentally, that is. What more could I do?
But then I groaned quietly. His napping was the only medical issue—and the first real issue—he hadn't insisted on having me rush him to Dr. Miller about.
Claude was still lying on the bench snoozing away with his feet propped up on the opposite armrest. He had no idea I'd come back to drive him home. Grrr. Why hadn't Dr. Miller taken as long as usual to convince his most faithful patient that his latest "problem" was nothing to be concerned about?
And, in fact, that it wasn't a problem at all.
How Dr. Miller managed to hide his laughter at Claude's frequent, always-pointless visits was beyond me. I knew less than nothing about gambling, but I would never be foolhardy enough to play poker with that man.
I pulled into the nearest non-handicapped space—Claude had adamantly refused to get handicap plates—and turned the engine off. A one-car near-miss months earlier had taught me I couldn't drive safely and pay attention to Claude's unrealistically-detailed medical reports at the same time. That day's account was certain to outdo all of the previous ones.
I beeped once. When he didn't show any signs of life I honked again. A few seconds later he turned his face in my direction, gave a half-wave, and struggled to sit up.
Pushing his feet off the armrest and maneuvering into an upright position took several excruciating seconds. Actually getting to his feet took longer. He had to grab the armrest to steady himself.
If I correctly interpreted his distressed look, one of his feet must have been asleep. Maybe both.
Watching my poor husband struggle to get up from the bench was one thing, but watching him walk unsteadily towards the car made me sigh.
Did he realize how awkwardly he walked now and how close he occasionally came to falling? He'd always managed to catch himself, but I refused to think about what might happen the first time he failed to.
No matter how thankful I was that Claude was basically in good health, I was all too aware of his physical limitations.
As I reached over to unlock the passenger door, I couldn't keep from fretting about not having a newer, more practical vehicle. Claude had millions of dollars in his various bank accounts. We could afford anything that had more room than my ancient car. A tractor trailer would be overkill, of course, but he could easily pay for one.
Several times I'd hinted about wanting a new car, but he seemed to be strangely satisfied with my old one. Even though he didn't hesitate to spend money on whatever either of us wanted—our tastes weren't the least extravagant—I didn't think I should insist on a change he wasn't ready for yet...
Claude climbed in. It took every ounce of my patience to keep from jumping out and running around to close the door for him. As much trouble as he had reaching for the handle, I dreaded the day he would fall out.
Relieved at not having to wait for him to come out of the doctor's office, I smiled at him even more warmly than usual. "Hi, Sweetie. How did everything go with Dr. Miller?"
I always greeted my hubby cheerfully when I picked him up. And why not? I was not only glad to see him, I knew Dr. Miller's report would be good.
He had proven to be an expert at couching "nothing wrong" in such diplomatic terms that Claude always felt assured that the current "threat to his health" wasn't severe enough to fret about. But Dr. Miller was also smart enough to promise his persistent patient that he would check the current condition again at his next annual physical to confirm that it had gone away on its own.
My dear husband never questioned my cheery greetings. He hadn't caught on that I already knew he wasn't any closer to death than before. And I knew that those good reports left him in a good mood.
They always did.
But would he be in a good mood this time?
Had Dr. Miller been able to diplomatically reveal the "awful truth" about Claude's life-threatening chocolate facial discoloration while struggling hard to keep from breaking out in very unprofessional laughter? And how had Claude reacted to the news about that "issue" being the silliest one yet?
I moaned silently at the prospect of finding out.
To my amazement, however, Claude greeted my smile with a smile of his own. That explanation must've gone more smoothly than I'd feared.
But when I looked at his face more closely, I saw that he was only pretending to smile—and straining quite hard to make it look genuine. Even after being married to Claude for a relatively short time, I could easily distinguish between his pleasant smiles and his faux smiles.
No way was my sweetie fooling me.
"You don't mean to tell me Dr. Miller actually found something wrong this time...?" I sighed. I hadn't intended to express my doubts so unsympathetically. The problem was, I knew the truth.
I looked into his eyes before continuing. "Sweetie, I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
He reached over and patted me on the shoulder. "Apology accepted. How often have I needed to apologize for making you drag me to the doctor's office over nothing?"
I leaned over and met his lips with a soft kiss.
Then I cocked my head. "You usually look relieved after seeing Dr. Miller. But this time you look...troubled. What is it? If something is actually wrong this time, please tell me what it is. We'll deal with it together."
My sympathy was genuine. So was my promise of support. Nonetheless, I couldn't believe Dr. Miller had discovered anything more than a mysterious chocolate icing smear.
So I let my mind wander for several seconds. My next cake would have vanilla icing. Or lemon. Or maybe caramel or buttercream.
Not chocolate, though. No more chocolate-anything until Claude forgot about that day's visit to Dr. Miller and specifically requested it.
He nodded and then squeezed my hand. "I appreciate your support more than I can possibly tell you. As for what's bothering me..."
He didn't just pause. He came to a dead stop.
Don't drag this out, my dearest. Just say it. Get it over with. No matter how embarrassed you'll be admitting it.
"Do you know what Dr. Miller told me?"
I pressed my teeth together. Hard. To keep from opening my mouth and snapping at him. Just what I didn't need was a rhetorical question rather than the straight answer he didn't know I already knew.
But I didn't snap and he didn't pause long enough for me to get more frustrated. "He said, 'Claude, you're in amazingly good physical condition for being such an elderly man.'"
He turned his palms up with a there-you-have-it gesture. Then he gave me a satisfied smile. "Now you know why he upset me so badly."
Huh? I understood what he said—every word of it—but I still didn't have the first idea why he was upset. I knew I shouldn't laugh, but I couldn't cover my mouth fast enough to keep an unfortunate smirk from flying out.
Then I rolled my eyes. (I don't think he saw that.) Didn't my loving hubby want his doctor to think he was in amazingly good health?
That didn't make sense. Was Claude actually disappointed that the small chocolate smudge on his forehead turned out not to be life-threatening? Weren't hypochondriacs ever happy except when discovering new ailments to add to their collections and trying to decide which one they were terminally ill with that day?
Claude's groan—I'd obviously upset him—made me cringe with regret about my reaction. Disappointment showed in his eyes when he said, "Love, I thought you of all people would understand." At least he didn't sound angry.
"I'm trying to understand, Babe. Would you please...?" I shrugged helplessly.
"That quack knows I'm only eighty-nine and yet he had the nerve to describe me as 'such an elderly man.' I'm not old enough to be elderly. You know my favorite saying about old age..."
My eyes opened wide. He was serious. Yes, he did have a number of favorite sayings about old age, and all of them ended with some variation of "but I'm not old."
Whenever he shared one of those little gems with me, I countered playfully with, "You're not young and you're not middle-aged. Right? So what are you?" I dared not say that this time, though.
Which saying are you thinking of? I used my best eye-talk to beg him to please give me a clue.
He sighed frustratedly. "Oh, you know the one. I won't think of myself as elderly until I've outlived everyone my age. Every one of my friends, that is"
Yes, you've said that time and again, but probably never to Dr. Miller. Why is the doctor's innocent compliment bothering you so much?
He started drumming his fingers on the armrest, waiting none-too-patiently for me to respond. What else could I say?
I snapped my fingers. "Uh, Sweetie, according to that adage, you aren't ever going to grow old."
He crossed his arms. "What? You don't think I'm going to live much longer?" His petulance was anything but amusing.
"I didn't say that and you know I didn't mean it that way. I love you more than I can possibly say and I want and I need you to be around for many more years."
Preferably after you've quit acting like this. "If you don't humor me and live that long or longer, I'll never let you hear the end of it."
I looked at his face, hoping for a smile. Maybe even a chuckle. He didn't respond with either.
I would have to explain. "The problem with you growing old that way ought to be obvious. Just think about it."
He wrinkled his brow. A few seconds later he shook his head.
"I'm your best friend as well as your wife. Right?"
"But I'm not as old as you. Angel and Ronnie and Angel's parents are your only good friends otherwise, aren't they?"
"Yes, you know that's true."
"If you have any friends I don't know about, please tell me."
He shook his head. "I've already told you I don't!" Was this what he was like before he got his curmudgeonliness under control?
"So you don't actually have any friends your own age?"
He didn't respond, although he appeared to be catching on. He was obviously trying to hold back a defeated smile.
"Claude, my love, my dearest husband, how can you ever become elderly the way you've just described if you don't have any friends your age to outlive?"
"Now that you put it that way..."
I stared into his eyes. "So, are you an old man or not?"
His explosion of laughter filled the car. "I suppose I am. I just get a bit irritable when someone forces me to admit it. I'll compromise. I'm old. Maybe even elderly. But I'm not as elderly as Dr. Miller accused me of being. Fair enough?"
I smiled at him and then started the car. "Fair enough. But don't you go acting like an old man now or I might start treating you like one."
As if he hadn't already been acting like an old man. An old man who'd already forgotten to tell me what Dr. Miller said about the chocolate smear on his forehead.
Or had he "forgotten" intentionally?