That's the writing prompt that inspired the following piece. I originally wrote this several years ago but have made some changes and additions that I think work better.
She had just answered Final Jeopardy when her terrier jumped from the couch and scrambled to the front door, his tiny bark alerting Dolores of someone's presence. She assumed it was the postman preparing to deposit today's stack of bills, catalogs, and magazines into the mail slot. Instead of the familiar sound of swishing envelopes, however, she heard the dog emit a low growl. Maybe a cat or another dog, Dolores thought.
"Hush, Tipsy. Mama's coming."
Dolores grunted as she pushed herself off of the sofa. She wasn't an especially old woman or even an especially large woman, but life had weighed heavily on her shoulders for many years and had taken a toll on her both physically and mentally.
Since Dolores hit puberty, there had rarely been a moment in her life in which she hadn't been responsible for the care of another person.
|The Convalescent Woman by Henri Matisse|
As a teenager, she'd tended to her younger siblings as her mother slowly succumbed to cancer. In the final months of sickness, Dolores took on the role of both parent and nurse. Her insomnia could be traced back to those nights of lying in bed, awaiting the sound of her mother's moan or of her siblings' cries. She would rock her younger brother as he struggled against her thin body, reminding her over and over through his sobs that she wasn't his Mama. She would cover his ears as their mother howled in pain, demanding Dolores to put the child down and come to her aid.
Though it had been 47 years, Dolores still carried the secret shame of her initial feelings the morning she reached for her mother's hand and found it stiff and cold: relief.
Her mother had insisted that she not be embalmed, pointing out that her insides had rotted so there was no need to preserve what was left of her outsides. Dolores knew that her mother's decision could also be attributed to the modest woman's loathing of the thought of being naked on the table of the local mortician. Dolores still cringed when she thought of bathing her dead mother’s body for the last time.
Tipsy was dancing a four-legged jig by the time Dolores reached the door, his nails tap-tap-tapping on the hardwood floor. There still hadn’t been a knock. Dolores pulled back the curtains beside the door. There was a man sitting on her front porch steps. His back was to Dolores, but his gray hair and posture indicated he was of advanced age. His head was cradled in his hands. Dolores couldn’t help but think of her father.
Jonas Wilbanks was not a bad man, but he had handled his wife’s illness very poorly. Mrs. Wilbanks had always handled the children and household responsibilities. Unable to stop his wife’s pain and ill equipped to handle his children’s emotional needs, he felt completely useless and, eventually, hopeless. Instead of digging in and stepping up for his family, he generally came home only to sleep and eat. Even then he said very little and did nothing to relieve Dolores of her newfound parental duties. He justified the neglect in his own mind by increasing the financial provisions which he provided, requesting first consideration for any overtime at the factory where he was employed. People around town criticized the man for practically abandoning his children and ailing wife, but Jonas kept his head down, his mouth shut and just worked harder. In those days, even Dolores resented her father for what she perceived as running away from his problems. Looking back later in life, she realized her father had been in denial about his wife’s impending death. The long hours away from home were a distraction that occupied his time and mind and allowed him to avoid accepting the blow that fate would deliver. The morning Dolores met her father on the front porch with the news of his wife’s death, the poor man seemed shocked. He wailed and wept as if she had been ripped from this life unexpectedly.
Young Dolores’s guilt increased ten-fold. She already held her secret shame of relief; now she wondered why she wasn’t more upset. But the girl had watched her mother die slowly, wasting away each day. There was no shock, no sobbing. She’d spent weeks preparing for this day.
Dolores’s father was drunk for an entire week following her burial. And the next week. And then pretty much every day following, especially once the foreman’s sympathy waned and he fired Jonas Wilbanks.
Jonas was a broken man and would never figure out how to put the pieces back together. While her friends began their adult lives, Dolores remained at home, mothering both her younger siblings and her father. Just shy of her 26th birthday, her youngest brother quit school, found work, and left home. Though still a young woman, Dolores already felt very old, and she felt older every time her Daddy would stumble home, often bloody and bruised. She would lie awake as she had over a decade before, only this time it was her father who cried in the night. When he’d grow quiet, she’d tiptoe down the hallway and find him sitting in her mother’s favorite chair, asleep with his head in his hands.
After two years, she finally walked away with nothing but a suitcase and her guilt. Dolores began a new life on her own.
Dolores unchained and opened the door but did not cross the threshold. Tipsy ran to the man and began giving him a once over with his tiny nose.
The man didn’t move, didn’t acknowledge her or the dog. She noticed hearing aids on the backs of his ears.
“Sir?” she said, a little louder this time.
The man turned and looked up at her. His face was friendly but heavy with sadness. He put his hands down onto the steps and carefully hoisted himself into a standing—yet stooped—position.
He was dressed in a short sleeved button up shirt and grey pants. His hair was silver but barely thinning as with most men of a certain age. Behind his glasses were striking blue eyes.
Holding the hand rail, he made his way to the top step of the porch. Dolores made no attempt to reenter the house or put any type of distance between herself and the man. She was generally cautious around strangers, but she knew this man meant her no harm.
“Is there something I can help you with, hon? Are you looking for someone? Are you lost? I have a phone—“
“They told me you died, Bea.”
“They told me but I didn’t believe it. I knew you’d be here waiting if I could just get to you. But all those doors, those locks, those damned locks. I couldn’t get to you.”
“Sir, I think you are mistaking me for someone else. My name is Do—“
But before she could finish, the old man covered the few feet between them much more swiftly than she imagined possible.
He wrapped his arms around her. She could feel his body tremble as he quietly sobbed into her shoulder. Instinctively, her arms embraced his body. She patted his back and soothed him, shushed him.
It had been so long since anyone had touched her, much less held her. Her husband had been dead for almost six years, and she had no interest in dating or starting over with someone else. She had been blessed with almost three decades of marriage, but the relationship had not provided the escape she so desperately sought from her childhood. She had hoped to find a man who would take care of her, someone with whom she didn’t always have to be brave and strong and responsible.
But she instead fell in love with Erwin Mayes.
Dolores and Erwin met after he returned home from Vietnam. He was her first real boyfriend, and it didn’t take long before she became Mrs. Mayes. Dolores left her job at the small diner where she worked and became a full-time wife. They bought a house and made a home together. Neither of them wanted children, though they never actually discussed It. There was no point in explaining their reasoning since they were in agreement, especially when the “whys” were too painful to put into words.
|Weary by Cindy Suter|
Erwin was a kind man, an honest man with integrity. And he loved Dolores. But she often wondered if his love stemmed mostly from his dependence on her. Did he cling to her out of admiration or necessity? Did he fear a life without her or just a life alone?
Erwin never spoke of what he’d done or witnessed while he served his country, but Dolores knew that whatever happened during his tour had broken something inside of him. Throughout their marriage, there were periods of days, sometimes weeks, that Erwin would “go into himself” as Dolores called it. He wouldn’t leave the bedroom, wouldn’t eat, often wouldn’t even speak or acknowledge that Dolores was in the room. She would endure these days of living with a shell of her husband by keeping busy as her father had all those years before—cleaning the entire house top to bottom, planting a new garden, baking pies and cakes for all of the neighbors. She would only stop to bathe, sleep, eat, and tend to the few needs Erwin allowed to be met.
Each time Erwin went away from her, Dolores waited patiently for the door to open and for her husband to emerge, to hold her, to live again. She would make the most of the time they had together, forcing herself to focus on the life they were living and not the imminent threat of withdrawal that always loomed in the not so distant future.
Then one day, the door never opened.
Two hours later, Dolores found herself still entertaining—or rather being entertained by— the older gentleman whose name was Robert Tatum. She had made coffee and found two honey buns in the pantry for them to eat. He wore a bracelet with the name of a nursing facility only three-quarters of a mile from her own home. Or, as she had discovered, Robert’s former home where he’d lived years before with his wife.
Dolores had not encouraged him to call her Bea, but she hadn’t corrected either. Though he was obviously suffering from sort of dementia, he still possessed wit and charm. He was currently reliving the early 80s and asking Dolores if she remembered the name of this chalet or that quaint cafe.
The afternoon passed quickly. Dolores made grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for dinner. She hid a grin when Robert mentioned that her cooking had improved.
|Tom by Ray Agius|
They ate mostly in silence, broken up by Tipsy’s occasional whine for a bite of bread crust. About a half hour later, as Dolores carried the dishes to the sink, she found herself humming a song under her breath. When she returned to the dining room, Robert was staring at her. He didn’t look especially upset or alarmed, but he wore the sad expression she’d first seen on his face, now mixed with confusion.
“You aren’t Bea,” he said, very quietly.
“No, Mr. Robert, I’m not Bea. I’m Dolores. I live in this house now.”
“I’m not exactly sure, but I think she passed away. I… I can try to find out. My neighbor has a computer with the internet. Maybe I could look it up? Or is there someone I can call? A family member?"
“No,“ he whispered, “there’s no need. My Bea is gone.”
He slowly stood, tremors in his hands and tears in his eyes.
“Are you leaving?”
He dropped his head and lowered himself back into the chair.
“I don’t know how to get back to… that place.”
Dolores had grown accustomed over the years to seeing men cry, to watching them crumble. She had carefully, so carefully, swept up the broken pieces over and over. She had gently, so gently, tried to paste them back together, using bits and pieces of herself to fill in the cracks in those she loved.
Watching the tears stream down Robert’s face opened a door inside her heart that had closed the day her husband’s body had been carried from their bedroom.
After a lifetime of meeting the needs of everyone around her, she had convinced herself that her senior years would be her time, a time of rest and solitude could be the silver lining to the dark cloud that had followed her for so many years.
Dolores had filled the past six years with weekend trips to visit nieces and nephews, with reading groups and ladies’ bowling league. She had adopted Tipsy from the local shelter and nursed him back to health, both physically and mentally. She passed her days with crossword puzzles and subscriptions to a dozen different magazines. She tended her flowers and tried new recipes from the cooking shows she watched.
If anyone asked, Dolores was doing just fine. Some might say she had even flourished following Erwin’s death.
But Dolores was lonely.
No, not just lonely. She was alone.
And Dolores didn’t know how to be alone. She hated coming home to an empty house. She hated eating most meals by herself. She hated having no one with whom to share the insignificant tidbits of her day that don’t justify a phone call to a friend.
Most of all—and she had never admitted it to herself until this very moment—she hated having no one in her life who needed her. She dreaded the next however many years she lived solely meeting her own needs. How terribly unfulfilling it would be.
She thought about Mr. Robert returning back to his room at the nursing facility. She wondered if he anyone ever visited him. She thought about how his face lit up when he thought he had found his precious Bea and how despite the changes in decor, how comfortable he seemed inside his old home.
Some people need to feel loved. Some people need to feel wanted. Dolores Wilbanks Tatum needed to feel needed.
She crossed the room to where the old man sat quietly wept and placed her hand on his shoulder.
“Let me help you,” she told him.
She had never been so certain of anything in her entire life.