Tisha Kroemer had never felt real fear until that moment. The moment she watched her husband fall off the roof.
It was January 9th, already a week past due for the Christmas lights to be down. Tisha walked out of the kitchen door of their ranch-style home, on her way to find her husband, with a steaming cup of coffee in her hand. A break in the cold weather was just the opportunity Hal was waiting for to do the necessary yearly chore. According to him, everything had its time and place, and damn it, everything needed to stay on schedule.
Tisha couldn’t fault Hal for his obsession with timeliness; being an airline pilot for thirty-two years made him that way. But now that he was retired, there wasn’t anything else for him to try to control. Staying on top of things around the house was important to him, even though his perfectionist attitude drove Tisha half out of her mind.
She inhaled deeply, the chill air icy and raw on her throat. The aroma of the freshly brewed French roast did nothing to fortify her nerves. How exactly do you tell the person you’ve been married to for almost 30 years that you don’t want to be married to them anymore?
She shivered and glanced up at the gray, foreboding sky, pulling her thick, woolen shawl tight around her body. Snatches of golden light peeking through clouds on the horizon told her the sun was just starting to rise. The incessant barks of the dog down the street was an additional alarm clock to wake up the neighborhood. Not like Hal needed it; awake before the first blush of light touched the sky was automatic after three decades of early flights.
She followed a trail of pine needles leading to the back of the house. Hal had dragged the Christmas tree to the trash for pickup later. The tree lay on its side, forlorn and bedraggled, next to the trash cans. Weeds were pushing their way through the cracks of the concrete walkway. No doubt, Hal would hit them with the weed control spray that afternoon. Or, maybe not. Not after hearing what she had to say.
She slowed her pace, thought about how she was going to form her words. For months, she locked her doubts, her desires, and her heart-breaking decision inside the black box of her heart. But then the holidays were upon them and how do you ask for a divorce before Christmas?
Instead, she waited and smiled and cheered her way through the parties and festivities. But now it was time. The moment that filled her with dread.
Just around the corner, the thump of the Christmas lights hitting the ground floated to her ears. Like a proclamation of not just to the end of a season, but to the end of a marriage as well.
Her feet stopped moving. Her lungs ceased breathing. The rapid pumping of her own heart took over all rational function. Then, with hands that slightly trembled, she held the cup of coffee before her like a preemptive peace offering, like her small gesture could take away the sting of what she was about to tell him.
Like maybe he would hate her a little bit less.
She continued around and stepped over the lights strewn on the ground. The aluminum ladder creaked, and she looked up. Hal swung one leg over the top rung to begin his descent. He turned his head slightly, caught her eye, and broke into his I’m-so-happy-to-see-you smile. Her heart gave a little lurch, just as it did all those years ago when he was a co-pilot and she was a stewardess on her first flight.
The very moment their eyes met, she knew she had wanted to marry him.
And yet…here she was three decades later…and she wanted out.
Tisha opened her mouth to tell Hal that they needed to talk, but then his foot slipped, and he was falling and everything after that moved in slow motion, so much so Tisha thought she would be able to reach out and catch him. He was falling back and down, his Carhartt jacket flapping open behind him. The blood roared through her veins like a Boeing 747 lifting for takeoff, but though she moved forward, she was too late. He crashed into the ground with a bone-crunching thud and then she was kneeling over his too-still body and crying into the phone to the 911 operator.
Tisha made her hundredth circuit around the private hospital room in the intensive care unit, her footfalls no doubt leaving a path in the linoleum floor. The smell of antiseptic and fresh bandages permeated the room. Hal was still in surgery to have the swelling and inflammation of his brain and spinal cord reduced. She had no idea how the surgery was going.
The heart machine periodically chirped, signaling its readiness to do its duty and monitor his heartbeat. The blood pressure machine was silent, waiting for Hal’s return, no vitals to record yet. The harsh fluorescent lights overhead seem to illuminate the horrible guilt fading in and out of her thoughts.
Was this God’s gruesome way of giving her what she wanted?
She stopped cold. No, not like this. This was not what she wanted.
A vertical ripple of turbulence shot up her body, and not just from the frigid air circulating in the room. She enclosed herself in the wool shawl she was still wearing from that morning. True, she hadn’t wanted to face the hurt and anger. But never wished for Hal to be dead. She only wanted her life to be different. To be something more than the wife of an airline pilot and be someone with significance of her own. She thought she wanted to live the rest of her life without him, so she could find out who she wanted to be. And now that very real possibility was thrust upon her and she was no longer so sure.
Absentmindedly, she reached into the pocket of her shawl and caressed the wings of the airline pilot key chain, her own version of a lucky rabbit’s foot. Hal had given it to her when they were dating. It was worn down from all the times she rubbed the wings when Hal was on his flights, praying he would be safe.
But what if Hal did pull through?
How could it possibly be appropriate to ask for a divorce now? Then how long should she wait? A few weeks? Six months? A year? How long does a person wait to tell their spouse, who by the way, just came out of a life or death surgery, you’re unhappy in their marriage and want a divorce? Not to mention that said spouse had no idea of the other person’s feelings and thought that the marriage was great and wonderful.
What kind of selfish person did that?
The nurse entered the room, and Tisha sat down on the stiff faux leather hospital recliner. She pulled a tissue from the Kleenex box on the side table beside her.
The nurse gave her a sympathetic look. She walked over and patted Tisha on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. Dr. Buchanan is the best surgeon in the region. Your husband is going to be fine.”
“But what if he’s not?”
“He will be.” The nurse began to straighten up the room, then looked over at Tisha. “Have you had anything to eat today?”
Tisha stared down at the torn, crumpled tissue in her hand. “No, I was going to fix us breakfast when he finished with the lights -”
“Why don’t you head downstairs to the cafeteria and have some lunch?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll come find you when the doctor is ready to speak with you.”
Tisha hesitated, then nodded. She threw the mangled tissue into the wastebasket. There was nothing she could do here. She stood, picked up her purse and left the hospital room. She looked back and saw the nurse pull up the sheets of Hal’s unmade bed.
Tisha took the elevator to the first floor, then followed her nose to the cafeteria. The scent of cooking food, the clink and clatter of plates and plastic trays, and the conversations of doctors, nurses, and visitors were a homing beacon for respite. She picked up one of the beige plastic food trays and wandered over to the grill section.
The cook manning the grill was hunched over, and she could hardly see him over the order counter. He glanced up at her. His yellowish-white hair contrasted with his smooth coal-black skin. But more than anything it was his eyes that revealed his age; they told her he lived through many lifetimes.
“So, what can I do ya for, lady?”
His voice was like a humid breeze whispering through the leaves of a Southern magnolia tree.
A sudden eruption of pent up emotions spilled out of her. Tears began to flow, her breath became shallow.
“Oh, now, it’s alright. Old Jeb gonna make everything better. Just tell me whatcha want?”
He didn’t come from around the grill, but he placed the napkin dispenser on the counter.
Embarrassed, Tisha snatched a napkin, wiped her eyes, and calmed her breathing. She looked around, but to her surprise, no one was paying her any attention. A young woman in pale green scrubs was chatting with a gentleman in a white doctor’s coat. A middle-aged man in a business suit was talking with the cashier.
“Don’t worry about those folks. They care nothin’ about you. Not cause they don’t want to. They’ve just got their own issues. They’ll come see me when they’re ready. Or they won’t. Makes no difference to me. I’m not here to help everyone.”
“I…I don’t understand.”
“Sure you do. Why else did you come to see me?”
“I came to get something to eat.”
“Uh, huh. So what’s it gonna be?”
Tisha stared at the old man.
The old man waited.
Tisha licked her now parched lips and looked up to the menu overhead. “I’ll just have a grilled cheese sandwich please.”
“That all you want?”
“I guess I’ll have some fries with that.”
The old man clucked his disapproval and turned away. He grabbed a couple of slices of bread from the bin and brushed melted butter on them before slapping them on the grill. “Just as I said, ain’t everyone ready.” His words were barely discernable from the sizzle coming from the hot surface.
Tisha leaned forward. “Excuse me, what did you say?”
“Your order will soon be ready,” he said over his shoulder.
“No, that isn’t what you said.”
Jeb turned from the grill. “No? Tell me then, what did I say?” A dash of playfulness appeared in his eyes.
“You said something about not everyone being ready.”
“So? You telling me that now you are? You ready to let Old Jeb help you?”
“How can you possibly help me?” The tears welled in Tisha’s eyes again.
“Ah now, you know the Lord works in mysterious ways, don’t cha? So tell me, whatcha want?”
With only a slight hesitation, she said, “I want my husband to live.”
The question caught her off guard. She’d thought maybe he was offering her some kind of say-what-you-want-and-your-wish-was-granted kind of deal. Since when did granting wishes include a justification clause? Or, maybe she was stupid for thinking the old man was some kind of genie that granted wishes.
Tisha stammered, “Because I love him.”
The old man shook his head. Disappointment crept into his eyes.
“Because when I thought I was going to lose him for real, I panicked,” Tisha blurted, her voice jumping a level to match her words. “Because I thought we made a mistake and we weren’t meant for each other. Because I thought I didn’t love him anymore. But I was wrong!” She stepped back from the lunch counter as if singed. Her heart pounded against her chest and she gulped in one breath, two, her lungs needing air like a swimmer coming up from the depths.
The old man’s gaze locked onto hers and wouldn’t let go. The wrinkles around his eyes deepened and a knowing smile appeared. He gave her an almost imperceptible nod. Go on, get it all out.
Tisha continued, her voice lower, softer, shakier. “When I saw Hal fall from the roof, all I could think was, how am I going to live my life without him?” Unable to look at the old man anymore, Tisha covered her face with her hands and quietly sobbed. She hadn’t known all those things were true until she’d said them out loud.
“Here’s your order.” He set her paper plate with the grill cheese and fries on the counter. “Will there be anything else I can do for you?”
Tisha grabbed another napkin from the dispenser and wiped her eyes. “Wait, is that it? After all that, you’re just going to hand over my food like nothing happened?”
The old man’s grin revealed a row of crooked yellowed teeth, and his shoulders came up like a kid pleading innocence. “What would you say that happened?”
She just told her most intimate secret to a total stranger. She didn’t even know how she had allowed that to happen. She was about to demand an explanation, but then someone called her name behind her.
Tisha turned to see Hal’s nurse hurry through the throng of lunch patrons as if the news she had to tell Tisha would leap from her throat without permission.
“I’m glad I found you. Your husband is out of surgery.”
Tisha’s heart stuttered, stalled, and sparked back to cruising life, all in one breath. “How is he?”
“Well, the doctor would like to speak with you.”
A loud clatter broke into their conversation, and the nurse turned away from Tisha and toward the commotion. Trays from the cafeteria tray holder were cascading onto the floor. A kitchen worker rushed over to pick them up.
Tisha wanted to grab the woman by the shoulder and force her attention back to her.
But there was no need, the nurse was already turning back. She saw Tisha’s expectant expression and a bright smile lit her face. “Your husband is going to be fine.” Her voice calmed Tisha’s heart, just like she used to do for the passengers who amped up after a rough patch of turbulence on a particularly rocky flight.
The nurse glanced at Tisha’s plate on the counter. “Oh, you didn’t have time to eat.”
“That’s okay. I want to go see the doctor now.” Before following the nurse, Tisha turned back to the old man, “Thank you.”
“Oh, don’t thank me. I done told you before, the Lord works in mysterious ways.”
Tisha lifted her eyebrows, not sure if the old man was playing with her or was being completely truthful. The noise from the cafeteria, the people, even the nurse, were no longer on her radar.
The old man broke the spell with a wink. “Besides, who’s to say that the good Lord hadn’t already worked his magic and you was just blabbering your business to a nosy old man?” The amusement was evident in his voice.
Tisha laughed with a pure sincerity that she hadn’t felt for a very long time. He was right, of course. Maybe he was just an old man who liked to get people to talk to him and Hal was always going to make it. Either way, divine intervention or coincidence, the old man helped her – and isn’t that what he said he would do?
With a loopy grin she couldn’t keep off her face, Tisha hurried after the nurse to learn more about her husband.