The old woman shoved her fist deep into her mouth to stifle the harsh dry cough. If they heard she was out of her bedroom, they would come downstairs and put her back to bed, scolding her all the while for having disturbed their sleep one more time. She pressed herself hard against the wooden kitchen table until the spasm passed, straining to hear any hint of sound other than her own rasping breath, the constant ringing in her ears, or the winter wind moaning around the corner of the building.
When the coughing fit subsided, she shuffled awkwardly toward the mudroom at the back of the house. She entered and closed the door to the kitchen behind her. The hooks on either side of the short vestibule were crowded with winter coats and jackets, rain slickers, and old woolen barn sweaters. The space smelled faintly of Lysol, sweat, and dry manure. A line of barn boots stood in a neat row against the north wall.
The old woman struggled into the first jacket at hand, a large, tan canvas jacket with many pockets. She didn’t zip it—her hands were too crippled and swollen with arthritis to manage something as tiny as a zipper tab. Next, she braced both hands against the wall and one-by-one, plunged each foot (right one always first, then the left) into a pair of mid-calf muck boots. They felt strange with no socks. Before her last stroke, she went out to the barn every day with her little Dickens to visit the horses, and she had always worn thick white socks under her boots. Without socks they were uncomfortable, their rough foam inserts scraped her fragile skin with every step, but she guessed it wouldn’t be for too long.
For a full minute she stood motionless before the outside door. Perhaps if she still had her husband, or had different children, this wouldn’t seem such a good idea. But she knew what was coming if she acquiesced to her son and daughter-in-law. She had lived through it with her own mother, a lingering death in a nursing home full of strangers and sickening odors. The mere thought of those smells made her gag slightly, acid rising to the back of her throat.
Her long-dead husband’s cane still stood in the far corner, and she reached out to grasp it. It was fitting that something of her sweetheart’s should take this journey with her. She opened the door and stumbled down the first step into the cold wind. With a trace of her old orderliness, she turned and carefully pulled the door firmly closed behind her.
She was going to join her little Dickens. He had been her constant companion for the fifteen years since her husband’s death. A toy terrier-pit bull mix, he had been faithful, intelligent, and he had smiled; one of those rare dogs who pull back their lips when happy to display fangs and teeth in a ferociously funny grin.
After her son and his wife insisted on moving into the farmhouse to help care for her, her daughter-in-law complained bitterly when Dickens was allowed free run of the home. The old lady had stood up for him, and for another two years the brindle dog had lain at her feet during every meal and slept curled next to her on the bed each night. Finally, he couldn’t make the leap up to her side and he slept on the rag rug next to her bed, reaching up occasionally to touch her hand with his warm, moist nose.
Then he had a seizure. It lasted only a few minutes, but it felt much longer as she held his head, stroked his side, and told him in a low, soothing voice that everything would be okay. She knew she was lying to him. It was the same lie her son told her about going to stay in Oak Haven Nursing Home. It would not be alright and she wouldn’t have it.
She shuffled carefully between the snowdrifts toward the barn, the stinging snow creeping between collar and warm neck-skin and forcing her to squint against the swirling ice crystals. When she reached the barn, she opened the Dutch door and stepped into the dark warmth. The horses shifted in their stalls. Thunder nickered and his burly head emerged over the stall-gate. Only his white star and strip were visible in the gloom, but they beckoned to her like the beacon from her grandfather’s lighthouse.
She stroked the massive head framed in soft winter curls, and he blew soft snuffles into her neck. She wished she had one last apple to give him as his tender lips gently nibbled on her crooked fingers. After murmuring a final endearment, she moved down the aisle to greet Rainy in the next stall. As she did so, a furry body wound between her legs. With effort, she bent to pet the old barn cat, Mousetache. The cat purred and rose up on its hind legs, front paws kneading her thigh. The rumbling vibrations pushed into her flesh through her cotton nightgown and they felt good.
The last time she had come to the barn with Dickens was two days after the convulsions began, just at the start of true winter. He had already had four more episodes by then, each one longer and more violent than the last. She feared losing him and wept to see his bewilderment as he emerged from each seizure. It mirrored her own fearfulness after her first stroke when she had thought she was dying. She knew now that waiting for the end was infinitely worse than the reality of death could ever be.
Dickens must have known this too. As they came out of the barn on that last visit, she turned left to return to the house; he turned right, toward the woods. She called to him, her loyal, obedient little dog, and he turned to look at her—a look of such longing and determination—then trotted away, his tail swinging in perfect metronome rhythm to his staccato footfalls. He never returned.
Her dear husband had died in the hospital with tubes and machines gasping and beeping a discordant cacophony. He was heavily drugged, and, although she believed he suffered no physical pain, she knew he had lost all ability to think and communicate. She had worried about his dreams, though, as she watched his eyelids flicker and his hands clench and jerk spasmodically as he lay in the mechanical bed.
Dickens had known a better way and so did she. She stroked Rainy’s neck one last time, sliding her hand up under the mane where the hair is always soft and warm. Then she walked slowly out of the barn, leaning on her sweetheart’s cane, and when she cleared the door, she turned resolutely to the right, toward the woods, toward her little Dickens.