I close my eyes and he's the way he used to be again.
I open them and he's not.
The dry air of the hospital has made his voice scratchy and I clear my throat before using mine. "I'm right here, Scott."
"Oh," he says, and for a moment I think he's going to say more or I'm going to say more but then he's gone away again before either of us can take the initiative.
I lean back in the hospital chair and try to take a deep breath, but can't. I haven't been able to since -- since when exactly, I'm not sure. That day in the doctor's office back in October? That may have been it. It's like something came and took the lower half of my lungs without asking permission and I can't quite adjust.
It's like half of me is slipping away.
"Bettybettybetty," he used to say, firing my name three times in quick succession like bullets. Every time I heard them part of me felt like ducking.
But part of me almost always felt like laughing, too.
And he used to grin with this far-off look in his eye, building dreams for the station or himself or the world that usually involved legal grey areas and a tenuous grip on reality. They used to call Victor the dreamer, and he was, but it wasn't a title he held alone.
I was always the realist, the one who kept things in check, the one who kept everything from collapsing around us. With Victor I felt I was doing something for the greater good, something big and almost holy.
But Scott made it seem like fun.
The door swings open behind me and I shake myself awake. The nurse -- Shari or Carrie, I've gotten bad with names -- shakes her head and frowns at me.
"You shouldn't be sleeping there, Ma'am."
I open my mouth to deny it but can't. I'm still a lousy liar. "I'm not leaving."
She's taking his temperature and I feel my stomach clench up. Every time they come in like this I get scared, like they're going to turn to me with a sad face and shake their head like they do in the movies.
Her eyes look up and hold none of the pity I fear. "Normal," she says, her fingers on his wrist to take his pulse. "Normal there too," she says after a moment, placing his hand gently on the bed.
She turns to me and I'm afraid for a moment. Then she walks towards the door and her voice comes, softer and gentler than I expected. "I'll tell them to bring you a cot, all right? These chairs are terrible for anyone's back."
"Thank you," I say, and I realize I'm almost crying.
If they had found it sooner, he might have been all right. But Scott was never the type to go to doctors and by the time he did it was sometime a little bit past too late.
We went through the motions of treatment and therapies until one of the doctors -- a young one with brown hair and a wry smile who made me think of C.J. -- sat us down in his office with us and finally said the words both of us had been fearing and waiting to hear.
I hated him a little bit after hearing the news. He had been reckless and thoughtless and had to have known something was wrong long ago and why hadn't I seen it? I hated that he only walked slowly when he thought I wasn't looking and only grimaced from the pain when he thought I had already turned my head. I hated that he was still brave and funny and kind to me even as his body turned against him.
I hated that the things I had fallen in love with were those that were taking him away.
"We've had a good life."
He stood in the doorway of the kitchen the night we got the bad news and I had a hard time looking away from the sink, hating the finality of his words.
I turned to face him then and discovered that he really wasn't sure of my answer. I looked at him standing before me, wearing clothes two sizes too big that had fit him a month and a half before, and remembered.
I remembered our four grown children and our years at the radio station, remembered the hours spent fighting each other and the hours spent laughing. I remembered the time he hid a kitten in his suit coat and surprised me with it not long after we married, and how he held a funeral service for her in the backyard fourteen years later. I remembered the pride on his face when my first book was published and how it never faded with any of the ones that followed. I remembered the way we always fit together when we danced and how he beamed at our first grandchild and how he still sometimes looked a little surprised and pleased to find me beside him.
I wrapped my arms around him, dishwater and tears wetting his shirt. "How could you even ask?"
It's four hours later. His color's gotten bad and I know before they have to tell me that there's not much time left. I wish my children were here, our wild untenable bunch scattered to the ends of the earth, but understand why they're not. This last sudden slipping away has come upon him quickly and I know they're coming as fast as they can. He won't have left the earth completely when they arrive. They'll get to say their good-byes and I'm glad for that, but they won't get to hear his and that makes tears tickle my throat.
His eyes open and I lean forward in my chair. "Scott?"
"Hey Betty," he says, a smile creeping on his face. Few things have remained unchanged about him, but his eyes still remain. I'm grateful for that. Everything else is sunken or gray or struggling.
"How are you feeling?" It's an asinine question but I still find myself asking it.
"Not so good," he says, grimacing, and I feel my chest tighten in response. I want to take the pain from him, remove it and put it in a box on a shelf or in my own heart, anywhere away from him.
"The nurse will be coming with some medication soon. That should make you feel better."
"Good," he says, and his chin moves in what I assume to be a nod.
His mouth opens and I know what he's going to say and I beat him to it. "I love you." He smiles and his feeble grip tightens on my hand as I lean in and whisper to him. "You always get to say it first."
He laughs, a sound that sounds more like a cough. "Maybe it's because I mean it more."
I take my free hand and push some hair off of his forehead. The skin is hot, I notice, and damp, and my voice wavers when I speak. "I doubt that's possible."
His smile turns into a grimace as he watches my face. "It's not looking too good, is it?"
I consider lying but can't. "No," I say, my hand still smoothing his hair. "No, it doesn't."
He doesn't answer me and I can see tears gathering in his eyes. "Tell the kids I love them if --"
"Of course," I answer, knowing he wouldn't want to finish the sentence. "Of course."
I move my hand to his cheek and stare into his eyes and I tell myself to remember this. I tell my mind to take a mental picture, I tell myself that I can't allow myself to forget anything. Especially his eyes, I decide. I have to remember his eyes, the deep brown with the vibrant sparkle. And his voice, I amend. And the way he laughed at all the wrong times. And the way he looks at me like I'm all that matters.
I tell myself to remember everything.
"I'm sorry," he says, and suddenly I'm crying.
"Don't be, sweetheart," I say, leaning over to kiss him on the forehead. "Don't be. I'm going to be all right."
He looks into my eyes and I hope he can't see through my tears that I think I'm lying. "I don't want to leave you," he says, and his voice is tired and I know he's going to go away soon. "I love you."
"I love you too," I say, my words coming in a whisper. "You'll never leave me."
His eyes close and all I can hear is the struggle to breathe. I reach for the call button and lay a kiss on his cheek.
"You'll just be in the next room."