I couldn’t sleep as long as she was awake. She’d say, “Herbert, you don’t need to be sitting there wearing yourself out. Go off to bed. I’ll be fine.”
I’d answer, “I will, in just a minute,” and then I’d stay in the rocking chair, wide-awake, watchful. When I heard her stuttery little snore, when I knew she was asleep, then I would go to my bed and be able to get a little shut-eye. With her asleep I let myself believe death would be satisfied with half a bite and not demand the whole banquet for one more night.
It happened slowly. Little diminishments. Not lapses of memory so much as loss of interest, she who was always keen on something. Keen on everything. The doctors had nothing to tell us, no blueprint. Only that it would be fast. It wasn’t fast.
“I made it to spring,” she said. “It’s spring, isn’t it?”
“It is. The lilac is in bloom. The rain has made it happy.”
“Happy,” she said. “That’s a curious way to put it.”
“We’re forecast for some more tonight. Thunderstorms. Tomorrow too.”
“Tornadoes,” she said.
Forecasters are paid to alarm folks but the Doppler doesn’t lie and that night in its embrace there were a least four suspicious cells and two confirmed funnel cloud sightings. In other words, a typical night in Western Kansas in May. If the sirens went off I might get a little worried but what good would worry do me? Do us? There was nowhere we were going. I could not carry her down the stairs to the basement. No we’d stay in the den which was now her sickroom and wait it out together. If that meant a tornado would carry us off, I can’t say I would have minded.
That night she asked me to read to her. “What would you like?” I asked. It was an unusual request.
Down in the basement were shelves of books our son Matt read in college. I picked one out. Charles Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities. By the time I got back upstairs she was asleep, her lower lip fluttering.
I got in my bed, formerly our bed, and turned on the lamp. I could hear the wind pouring through the trees like surf. Raindrops lashed against the window pane. I opened the book. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I didn’t get very far in, maybe a page or two—reading puts me to sleep better than anything—then I was awakened by a crash as if the hammer of Thor, the sledgehammer, had fallen upon our little house. It threw me out of bed. Lightning flashed like a strobe. I put on my bathrobe and hurried to check on my wife. That is when the siren went off.
With a sizzling explosion the whole street lit up. There was a half foot of rainwater from curb to curb, rushing down the slope. In the middle of this instantaneous lake was an elephant. It got dark. Some less incendiary flashes confirmed it: there was an elephant running down the street. Lumbering, actually, in agitated circles, in my front yard. An old elephant. What I thought had been sirens was her bellowing.
I could understand why she would be terrified. Of all places in the world to find herself, this flapjack county seat on High Plains in the middle of gotterdammerung. I went out on the front porch. The elephant stopped her agitated dance, giving me a look that seemed inquisitive, perhaps pleading for reassurance. I walked out into the rain. My bathrobe was soaked instantly, draping over my shoulders like a leaden shroud. Small step by small step, I got closer, fixing her gaze onto mine so strongly that nearby bolts of lightning didn’t break our connection. It was something profound. A recognition. I don’t know what else to call it. I was almost a body length away—elephant body—when she folded her ears backward, turned and lumbered away. I stood in the rain and watched her trot through the Ballingers’ garden on the corner and disappear. She seemed to know where she was going, playful. I felt a great sense of release, of acceptance. Of knowing, too, where I was going. That stayed with me throughout, to varying degrees. I will not forget it.
The storm was subsiding. These things come on with a bang and blast through. Soon it was like the storm never existed, the air so tame with that after-the-rain smell that could you bottle it would make you rich.
Only after putting on some dry pajamas did I start questioning. Hallucinating an elephant in my front yard? Then I had a revelation: my wife had left me, passed on, and the universe was sharing the news. But when I went into her bedroom I heard her little snore right away. She hadn’t gone anywhere. She’d slept through the storm. She seemed peaceful.
The next week in the World there was an article about two elephants from the traveling circus getting spooked during the storm and breaking free. Which explains it. At least some of it.