“Souvenir,” Ensign, July 1977, 24
The words, by now, had almost lost their meaning: his mind still said them and sometimes he could even hear them struggling painfully up through his throat—“Don’t let her die, don’t let her die”—but most of all they had become a sort of numbing chant that helped to shut out the world barreling noisily on, irreverently and incongruously, while she lay up there clutching the white sheet and praying, he suspected, to be allowed to go.
The whole thing, to Cary, seemed wrong: the leaves turning yellow too early, then the weather becoming suddenly and unseasonably hot, and now the too-happy sounds of children as they threw bread crumbs to the ducks and splashed in the water along the edge of the lake. He wanted to stop them, ask them if they realized what they were doing, yet he knew it was no concern of theirs, that they were innocently ignorant, wholly oblivious to the fact that, beyond the trees of Liberty Park, beyond the noisy traffic of downtown, up on the avenues in a quiet hospital room a thirty-seven-year-old woman was dying of cancer.
Even the word woman, as he thought it to himself, was not right. She was still just a girl and, in a way, scarcely different from their daughter, now eighteen, who would be starting her first year at the University in another week. Yet that was really a lie too, and he knew it the moment he thought it, because Veda hardly even resembled herself anymore, let alone reflected Libby or any other young girl just out of high school.
He didn’t like to think of her thinness, of the way her eyes, day by day, seemed to sink back in the hollow grayness under her bony brow, and he tried to fix his attention now on anything else, on the way the bark had evidently been gouged on the trunk of a tree and now seemed to be healing over, or the way a particular leaf, the sun coming through it now from the other side, acquired an almost startling luminosity. But he found it difficult to keep his mind on anything for very long. Within seconds almost he would feel the impatience rising up within him, and the recurring thought that time was running out and that, if he could only think, there might still be avenues untried, some hope yet unexplored. But he remembered again the feeling he had had—a tinge of surprise followed by the shiver of recognition—when, years ago, he had read that the Kennedy infant had died, or that, much more recently, doctors had been unable to save Onassis. Surely, he had thought, surely there were doctors somewhere, the best surgeons, the top medical specialists, that could be summoned, flown in from New York or Stockholm, or Geneva, if only expense were no obstacle. It had been hard for him, as a boy, to think that even the famous and the wealthy were not immune to the mundane humilities of measles and mumps, that there was not some magic talisman out there somewhere that could protect one against anything if only the check were large enough or carried the proper signature; even now he found it difficult to give up the idea that, if only he could read the right things or query the right people, the possibility of hope was still there and death was not inevitable.
“All we can do now is pray,” Veda’s mother had said, months ago. And there were times when he was certain the praying had helped. The last time he had laid his hands on her dark hair and asked, once again, that she might be made well, he had honestly felt, despite a twinge of selfishness, that the prayer had been heard. But something frightening was happening now, something he didn’t like to think about. Only two days ago, just as he had kissed Veda’s cheek and started to leave the bedside, she had reached out for his hand and clung to it, pleading, as much with her eyes as with her voice, from behind a pained smile: “Cary—please let me go.”
He shifted his weight uneasily now and looked around him. A father was lifting his little boy up to the drinking fountain; two other boys ducked behind trees, firing imaginary guns, then scampered off in the direction of the aviary. Maybe Libby would be back already. It was still more than forty-five minutes earlier than she had said, and yet he was tired of trying to think of what to do with the rest of the time. He looked off through the trees. There was something restful, even soothing, about Liberty Park—especially at this time of year. Even here it was hard to keep his mind from drifting up the avenues to the figure breathing quietly against the sheets in the small white room, yet it was easier than sitting alone in the empty house, walking from room to room, listening always for some unknown sound but hearing only the steady ticking of the clock. Looking through the boxes of things he had saved for Libby had somewhat eased the morning hours, but after spending half of the afternoon at the hospital (“Go home, Cary,” Veda’s mother had said, “and try to get some rest.”), he couldn’t face going back to the empty house just yet and had turned off 7th East on 9th South and driven into the park.
It was surprising, almost shocking, it occurred to him, how long it had been since the last time he had come here. In those days before Saltair had burned down and the Rainbow Rendezvous metamorphosed into The Terrace, he and Veda had inevitably driven home by way of the park on warm summer nights, taking time to walk by the lake and the sleeping merry-go-round. And up until Libby had been ten or twelve, he had brought her here on special “Daddy-Daughter Dates,” letting her choose cotton candy or a snow cone, and leaving it up to her whether they rowed around the lake or visited the monkeys and the birds. Today too, he suddenly realized, was going to be a sort of Daddy-Daughter Date—their first in a long, long time. He looked at his watch and grew impatient; almost as though they were his own mementos, his own memories, he could feel himself becoming excited about the boxes he had taken down from the hall closet. He glanced once more at his watch, thought again of Veda with a little twinge of pain, then decided to walk quickly through the aviary and then drive home, even if it would still be a little early.
When he arrived at the house, Libby was already home, standing in the kitchen in her cut-off Levis making a peanut butter sandwich. “Hi, Daddy,” he heard her mumble through the rooms. Then: “How was Mom?”
“About the same.”
“I want to go see her tonight,” she said, coming to the doorway of the living room and resting against the doorframe. “But I’ll have to go in my car because I’ve got to drop some things off at Julie’s and then afterwards I’m going to meet Cindy and those guys at Trolley Square.”
It was still hard for him to believe how grown-up she was; even in the Levis, with her dark hair hanging straight, she was a young lady instead of a little girl.
“Do you want me to come back and fix you something?” she asked, looking as if she were trying to read his gaze.
“No, no,” he assured her. “I’ll grab something up there.”
He glanced off through the doorway to the boxes visible just inside the hall. He wanted it to be something special; it was hard, though, to know how to start it. She must have followed his glance, for, immediately, he heard her voice: “Hey, what’s with all this stuff in the hall, anyway? Is it going to Deseret Industries or something?”
It was started. He hurried to the hall and began carrying the boxes, two and three at a time, into the front room. “Did you see what was in them?”
“Yah—a lot of it’s my old stuff.” She sounded puzzled.
“All of it’s yours. We saved it for you.” He brought in the last two boxes and put them with the others in the center of the living room, and then sat down on the carpet, his back against the couch. He felt excited, yet, because of something in her voice, he also felt a tinge of uneasiness.
“When was the last time you looked at any of this?” he asked, opening one of the boxes and taking out a paint-spattered set of watercolors, a bent pencil box, and a thick stack of coloring books.
“Gosh, I don’t know—last year maybe. Why?”
Last year. That seemed impossible.
“I mean Mom used to get them down from time to time. And if I ever needed anything—”
He set the coloring books aside and tried another box. There were books and toys he longed to see and touch again that he knew were not among these; the Clippo the Clown puppet, the Daniel Boone coonskin cap, the fragile records of Gulliver’s Travels, the book of Little Black Sambo. He pulled up the cardboard flaps. There were dolls and some stuffed animals inside.
“Remember Anna Livia Plurabelle?” He held up a wilted and almost faceless Raggedy Ann. “We named her after something we read in college. Henry James or James Joyce or one of those. You used to love her.”
“I still do,” Libby said, taking the doll and turning it over slowly. “She’s awfully ratty, though.” She put her down.
“How about Brahmsy?” He held up a brown bear, a large key protruding from its back where much of the imitation fur had worn away. “It used to play ‘Brahms’ Lullaby,’ remember?” He tried to twist the key but it wouldn’t turn.
“I got that out two or three times to see if it could be fixed. Seems like somebody might as well be enjoying it. I don’t know if it’s worth it, though. It’s Pretty mangy.”
Between the crossed flaps of another box he could see a thin rectangle of turquoise lace. He pulled open the box and carefully lifted out a slender flamenco doll. “Okay then, remember this? She’s good as new.”
“Sure. I had her on my dresser until just a couple of years ago, remember?”
He looked around, feeling uncomfortably helpless. He started to open a box containing paper dolls but stopped. Whatever had happened, he wondered, to the paper dolls his sister had had from Gone with the Wind? Or the coloring books of Shirley Temple or Jane Withers or the Dionne Quintuplets? He wished that somewhere, in one of these boxes, he’d find the thick book of Things to Do on a Rainy Day. He wanted to see the pages and pages of puzzles and pictures, of things to color and cut out and paste. He wanted to remember how the cover looked and how the paper smelled. But he knew the book would never be there.
“Daddy,” Libby was saying. “I don’t really understand what you’re doing.”
He looked at her. He felt sick. “I guess I don’t either,” he said.
“I mean, what do you want me to do with all of this? Are we sorting it out or—”
A pile of boxes lodged in his mind. He wanted to open them but every time he imagined himself nearing them, they seemed to jump to another place. “I don’t know,” he started saying. He felt Libby reach over and touch his hand.
“Daddy. What is it? I’ll do anything you want.” He looked at her and wanted to hug her. The sick feeling that had swept over him was leaving, yet he felt weak. He put the flamenco doll back in the box with the tissue paper and the other dolls.
“You know,” he said, sinking back against the couch and hearing his own voice as though it were coming from another room, “I guess I wanted to hang onto all of my things forever. You remember—I’ve told you about different things—the little wooden fort with all the lead Indians, the jigsaw puzzles I had, the game called Mr. Ree—things like that. Anyway, I kept them—most of them—stored in boxes down in the cellar of our old home in Bountiful.” He thought of the big frame house with the wooden stairs that went down off the back porch and disappeared into darkness until you reached up and clicked on the little light bulb that hung overhead and then were suddenly surrounded by shelves of deep red jellies and purple jams, old bridles and dusty saddles. Piled against one wall were orange crates and bushel baskets, filled with broken lawn sprinklers, stray roller skates, and defunct Flit spray guns. And next to the old round washer, a torn bit of dusty black garden hose looped around its ringer, had been the boxes—some of them full of moldy textbooks from his older brothers and sisters, but most of them stuffed with the pieces and scraps of his own childhood.
“Why didn’t you ever show them to me, Dad? Were they left in the house?”
“No,” he shook his head. “No, they weren’t left in the house.” He remembered coming home from Montana, proud to be sixteen, tanned by the sun and feeling in his shoulders and chest and arms the effects of that summer on Uncle Royden’s ranch. We’ve decided to move to a smaller place now most of the kids are gone, his father had written, and his arrival home had been just in time to help move the last few loads of furniture and belongings to the white house on Rosewood Avenue. The cellar had already been emptied by then, and even when his father told him that his brother-in-law had helped haul a lot of things to the dump, he had scarcely winced, trying too hard to be a man that summer to care about clinging to childish things.
“Your Uncle Cal—he helped Grandpa and Grandma move to the new house one summer while I was away working on a farm. He never did like the way Grandpa kept the cellar, and I think he just threw everything into the back of a truck and hauled it off to the dumpground.”
He heard Libby make a little sound. Then: “How awful,” she said. “Someone could have used them.”
If he had not winced much that first afternoon in August when he discovered the cellar was bare, he had winced, more than once, the following week, and had finally taken the car and driven out to the city dump, searching for a trace of anything familiar. And as the years passed, he had spent hours pushing back through the years trying to reconstruct in his mind the contents of the boxes. Even after he and Veda had married, he would think about the puppet or the Indians or the pictures of Little Black Sambo and feel as if he wanted to smash something. What right does anyone have to throw part of another person’s life away? he had shouted at Veda once long ago, and he had made her keep everything of Libby’s—the very first stuffed animals, the little cloth picture books, all the games and puzzles and dolls—everything.
Reaching out, he opened a small box that he knew contained her first books, and he picked one out, its pages limp and curled. “This was your first Mother Goose book—remember?”
“Daddy,” she said quietly, “I guess it sounds awful, but I just don’t think it means the same to me as it did to you.” She glanced down, fumbling with the edge of her blouse, and then looked up, adding quickly, “I mean, maybe it’s because I grew up with these things—and because, even when I outgrew them, they were still there. I always knew where they were and Mom used to get them down for me once in a while. You even got them out sometimes—remember? I know they’re mine and I like them okay, but I guess it’s just different from how you seem to feel about all those things of yours—like the little Indians and stuff you used to talk about. Maybe just the idea of—”
“You know,” he said, breaking it quietly, then pausing to take a breath and letting it out slowly, “maybe you’re right. I guess maybe even if I found them now—stuffed off in some corner somewhere—they might not even be the way I remember them at all.”
“That really wasn’t what I meant. Maybe they’d be more special than ever. It’s just that sometimes I’ve thought about you finding that book again—that rainy-day book you used to tell me about—and I’ve thought how exciting it would be for you to have it again and be able to turn through the pages and remember all the hours you used to spend—”
He had thought of that too, and thinking of it now made something stir inside him.
“I wish it could be that way with some of my things, Daddy,” she went on. “But it’s just not the same. And I’m not really blaming you or Mom or—”
His eyes had drifted to the assortment of boxes surrounding them on the carpet. They had meant well, but, somehow, she seemed to be right. He thought of the puppet, Clippo, and of the Gulliver’s Travels songs that he had listened to, stretched out on the rug in front of the wind-up phonograph. And even while he helped her put the toys back in their boxes, even after she hugged him and told him, “I do love you, Daddy,” he still thought a little about the fort and the Indians.
When she finally left to take the records back to Julie, calling from the car that she would see him at the hospital, he stood on the front porch a moment, then got in his own car and drove slowly back by the park. It was quieter there now, and he felt surprisingly at ease walking among the trees. He looked up at the leaves, the late afternoon light making them all the more golden, and he thought of Veda. And he thought too, for the first time, that now, maybe, he was ready to let her go.