Oscar Wakefield opens his eyes that afternoon and finds his wife, Judy, standing over his hospital-style bed, the one hospice delivered a few weeks ago. She’s wrapped in a fuzzy pink robe, her auburn hair pinned up in hot rollers. She hasn’t put on makeup yet, but he thinks she’s beautiful without it.
“Good nap?” she asks.
He nods. “What time is it?”
“Four-thirty.” She presses a button on the control panel on the plastic side rail that fences in his torso. The whirring motor hums as the bed moves to an inclined position.
On the ride up, Oscar glances across the guest room to the collection of thinking of you cards on top of the dresser. No one thought he’d make it past August, let alone to this day in mid-September, but he has a promise to keep, and not even Death can make him break it.
Once upright, he turns his attention to Judy. A worry dimple blemishes the space between her brows.
“I won’t,” he says.
“Won’t what?” Judy peels back his blankets.
“I won’t die during the ceremony.” Their daughter, Lily, is getting married this evening. “That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?” He hacks a few times.
“Of course not.” She slides a hand under his knees and pivots his legs toward the floor. “You’re too stubborn to let that happen. Now, let’s get you to the bathroom.”
After a long journey down a short hall, Oscar does his business. Judy escorts him back to bed and helps him sit comfortably.
“Would you like a snack?” she asks.
He requests the usual: saltines and juice.
While she’s in the kitchen, Oscar’s son, Kyle, peeks in the guest room door. “Hey, Pop. Mom said you were awake.”
Kyle, his wife Sarah, and his daughter Ava arrived yesterday for the rehearsal dinner. The three of them have taken over two of the bedrooms upstairs, rooms that belonged to Kyle and his sister when they were children.
Kyle steps forward and offers a half-watt smile. Faint crinkles appear at the edges of his eyes, making him look his age. Oscar still struggles to believe his son is 32. Wasn’t it just yesterday the boy was climbing trees in the backyard?
“Hello, son.” Oscar crooks a finger at him, beckoning him closer.
Kyle takes a seat in the overstuffed chair beside the mechanical bed. “What is it?”
“I need a favor.” Oscar keeps his voice low. “In the garage, by the back wall, there’s a metal shelving unit loaded with tin cans of screws and bolts and such. On the second shelf, there are a couple of glass jars. Bring me the one with my name on it, would you?”
His son looks dubious but says, “All right. Be right back.”
When Kyle’s in the garage, Judy returns with Oscar’s snack. He doesn’t usually eat much, but today is different. He’s going to need all his strength to get through it, so he chokes down every cracker on the plate and chugs all the orange juice. His wife’s face lights up with surprise.
“Someone has an appetite,” she says, collecting his dishes. “I’ll go grab your tux.”
“Okay.” He closes his eyes as she plants a kiss on his forehead, savoring the feel of her soft lips.
Judy leaves the room, and a few seconds later, Kyle returns with what appears to be an empty mason jar. Oscar Wakefield is scrawled in childish handwriting on an ancient strip of masking tape adhered to the side.
“Thank you, my boy,” Oscar says.
“What’s this all about?” Kyle asks, handing the jar to his father. “I saw two other jars next to yours. One had my name on it. The other had Lily’s.”
“You don’t remember?”
“No. Should I?”
“Do you recall winning the Turkey Trot Race when you were in first grade?”
“Sure. I set a new school record.”
Oscar grins, stretching his dry lips to their limit. “Well, when you came home that day — ”
“Daddy?” Ava’s tiny voice comes from the hall, interrupting Oscar’s tale. The four-year-old pokes her head in the doorway, her adorable face framed by a bob of brown curls. When she sees Kyle, she runs and tackles her father’s legs. “I’ve been looking for you.”
“You found me.” Kyle hoists her into his arms and turns her toward Oscar. “Say hello to granddad.”
“Hello to granddad,” she echoes, then throws her head back and giggles.
“Hi, Ava,” Oscar says. “Are you enjoying your stay?”
She nods, then buries her face in her father’s shoulder as if she’s dying of embarrassment.
Judy walks in then, holding a garment bag. She smiles at Kyle and her granddaughter. “Pookie Bear, did you tell your dad about our game of Candy Land?” she asks in her mommy voice, the one she used with Kyle and Lily when they were small.
“No,” Ava says, then whispers in Kyle’s ear loud enough for all to hear, “I won, Daddy.”
Kyle chuckles. “Way to go, champ.”
Judy glances at her watch. “Okay, everyone, we need to get ready. Kyle, why don’t you head upstairs, please? I need to help Granddad into his monkey suit.”
Ava’s head pops up, her big brown eyes wide with curiosity. “Monkey suit? But he’s not a monkey.”
“Not yet,” Oscar says and laughs. The laughter triggers a round of dry hacks, but he doesn’t lose his grip on the mason jar in his lap.
“When do we leave?” Kyle asks.
“In an hour.” Judy unzips the garment bag and pulls out the tux by the hanger. “Your sister will have our heads if we’re late, so no dillydallying.”
“Of course not.” Kyle flashes a mischievous grin. “We wouldn’t want her to vamp into Bridezilla and destroy the town.”
“It’s her special day.” Judy lays the tux over the footboard of Oscar’s bed. “The least we can do is be there on time.”
“I know.” Kyle glances at Oscar, then at the jar in his father’s hands. It doesn’t take a genius to see he still wants an explanation.
“Later,” Oscar murmurs.
Kyle looks disappointed, but he moves on quickly, turning his attention back to his daughter. “Want to fly like an airplane?”
Ava nods emphatically.
“Okay. Spread your wings.” He supports her weight as she leans forward and extends both arms. “Prepare for takeoff.” He whisks her out of the room, leaving his parents alone.
Judy folds the limp garment bag and sets it on the overstuffed chair, then turns to face Oscar. “What is that?” She points to the jar in his hands.
“Nothing,” he says. “You can go. I’ll dress myself.”
“Right,” she scoffs. “And just how do you intend to do that?”
“I’d like to try at least, okay?” He can see she isn’t having it, so he adds, “Give me ten minutes. If I haven’t managed it by then, I’ll let you help me.”
That appeases her. “Fine. But stay close to that call button,” she says, pointing to the control panel on the side of the bed. “You hear me?”
“I hear you.”
After she closes the door, Oscar stares down at the jar. It’s a long shot, but what can it hurt?
Gripping the silver lid, he gives it a twist. Doesn’t budge. He tries again — fails. Closing his eyes, he thinks of his daughter. If this doesn’t work, he won’t walk her down the aisle on his own two feet. He’ll ride alongside her in a wheelchair pushed by an usher. Guests will stare at the living skeleton instead of the beautiful bride.
Grunting for all he’s worth, he strains his remaining muscle, and the lid comes loose. He sticks his nose in the mouth of the jar and inhales as much stale air as his lungs will allow, then holds it until his body forces him to cough and sputter it out.
Hoping for a miracle, he waits.
He curses as he replaces the lid and sets the jar on the nightstand. Apparently, his deceased mother’s instructions were nothing more than the rantings of an old hippie. Looks like he’ll be needing Judy’s help after all.
When he’s about to press the CALL button, every hair on his body stands on end. He freezes. A tingling sensation spreads over him as if he’s coated in static electricity. The tingles penetrate deeper into his flesh, causing every molecule of his being to vibrate like the tines of a tuning fork.
Energy swells inside him, crescendoing to a peak, and for a moment, he worries his shriveled carcass will burst like a popcorn kernel. That’s when he notices the pinpricks of light meandering under his skin. Holding out his arms, he stares in disbelief as tiny blue embers travel along the networks of his prominent veins. When the mysterious glowing particles crest the ridge of his knuckles, they wink out and disappear.
Wondering where they’ve gone, he examines his hands and startles when blinding white beams shoot from his fingertips. A gust of wind rears up, knocking over the greeting cards on the dresser. They land on the floor, skittering about like leaves on a blustery fall day.
After a few beats of his thundering heart, the flurry dies down, and the room is quiet. Oscar places his feet on the floor and slowly rises to his full height. There’s no dizziness. No weakness. No nausea. It’s as if he’s never been ill.
Maybe his mother wasn’t a ranting hippie after all.
He reaches for his rented tuxedo and takes the various pieces off the hanger. As he slides an arm into the starched shirt, he whistles a happy tune. He’s fairly certain today is his last, but he refuses to be sad about it. Thanks to the jar tradition, he can go out on a high note.
When he is fully dressed and about to fasten his tie, Judy knocks once before opening his door.
“Time’s up. What in the world?” The dismay on her face is amplified by her disheveled appearance. She’s taken out the hot rollers but not yet styled her fresh curls, which jut from her head and point in all directions. Oscar tries not to laugh, but he can’t help it. Even her hair seems shocked by his accomplishment.
“I told you I could do it myself,” he says proudly.
“What’s going on?”
“I’ll explain later.” How can he tell her? She won’t believe him. “All that’s important is that I’m strong enough to get around on my own. At least, for a little while.”
Her green eyes narrow with suspicion. “Did you steal drugs from Heidi?” she asks, referring to the hospice nurse who visits every morning to check on him.
“Of course not.” He takes a few steps to close the gap between them and places his hands on her shoulders. She stares up at him, the epitome of bewilderment. “You know me better than that.”
“Was it something in that jar?” she asks.
Oscar shakes his head. Nothing gets by his wife. “Perhaps. Now please, get ready. We don’t want to be late.”
* * *
Oscar rides in the passenger seat as Judy drives them to the church. Gazing out his window, he studies the horizon. The sinking sun casts shades of tangerine and gold on the striated clouds above, transforming them into shiny ribbons adrift in a deep blue sea. Oscar concentrates on committing this postcard picture to memory.
It’s his last sunset, after all.
Minutes later, Judy parks in a handicapped space near the church’s entrance. The required permit hangs from the rearview mirror, the sole perk of terminal illness. Oscar feels good enough to walk for miles and almost tells her not to bother taking such a prime spot, but he isn’t sure how long this reprieve will last, so he keeps quiet.
Judy comes to his side of the car, opens the door, and offers him a hand as she always does.
Oscar waves her off. “I’ve got it.”
She steps back, eyes wide with wonder as he extracts himself from the seat with little effort.
“Now,” he says, offering her his elbow, “shall we watch our daughter get married?”
When they enter the church, they are immediately greeted by an usher who wants to show Judy to her seat.
Judy turns to Oscar, visibly distressed. “I can’t just leave you here. What if you get lightheaded?”
Oscar sighs. “I’m fine. Really. I’ll be sitting with you in less than 20 minutes.”
She presses her lips together and exhales through her nose. “All right, but be careful.” Reluctantly, she takes the usher’s arm and strolls into the church.
Behind him there are low voices and the clickety-clack of dress shoes on the tile floor. He turns to find the wedding party filing in. Men in tuxes enter from one side while women in identical lavender dresses parade in from the other.
Following the bridesmaids is his daughter, Lily. A hard lump rises in Oscar’s throat when he sees her in her wedding gown. His little girl is all grown up.
She has her mother’s red hair and green eyes. A faint spray of freckles dots her nose and cheeks, making her look younger than she is. He swallows, trying to free his tangled vocal cords. It seems impossible his child is old enough to begin a life and family of her own. Someday she will have children. He’ll never get to meet them, a painful fact, but his gratitude for this moment outweighs that loss.
Lily glances across the vestibule. When she sees Oscar, her jaw goes slack, and her eyes bulge, showing more white than green. She rushes forward with her bouquet of tulips in hand, forcing the lavender sea to part as she charges through.
“Dad?” She wraps her free arm around his neck and hugs him. “I thought you were going to use a wheelchair. How are you — how is this happening?”
“Magic.” He hugs her tight and breathes in her scent, a mixture of vanilla perfume and hair spray.
She releases him and looks him over. Tears glisten in her eyes.
He pats her cheek. “Don’t you dare cry. You’ll ruin your mascara.”
“I know.” Her breath hitches as she stifles a sob. “It’s just, I can’t get over it. You look great.”
“So do you,” he says.
The minister saunters over and announces it’s time to begin. Groomsmen and bridesmaids line up, two by two, and Lily and Oscar take their place at the back of the line. The organist strikes the opening chords of the processional hymn, and the first couple begins their trek toward the altar.
When it’s Oscar and Lily’s turn to walk down the aisle, he offers her his arm. She takes hold, and together, they stroll between the pews. Lily smiles at her guests, whispering greetings to a few. Oscar doesn’t bother looking at the congregation. He only has eyes for Lily. This is a moment he never wants to forget — the time he gave away his daughter to the man she loves.
At the altar, Lily kisses Oscar’s cheek, and he shakes hands with Matt, his soon-to-be-son-in-law. Matt hasn’t seen Oscar since earlier in the week, and the astonishment on his face is almost comical.
“Take good care of her for me, son,” Oscar whispers.
“I will, sir.”
Oscar slides into the first pew and sits beside Judy. Together, they listen to their daughter say the vows they took more than 30 years ago.
When the minister pronounces Lily and Matt man and wife, Judy sniffles and dabs her eyes with a tissue.
Oscar wraps an arm around his wife and murmurs, “I love you.”
She gives him a watery smile. “I love you, too.”
* * *
At the reception hall, Oscar makes short work of his prime rib dinner. It’s been a while since he’s eaten this much food in a sitting, but his stomach doesn’t balk one bit. When a cummerbund-clad waiter comes around pouring champagne, Oscar nods like the other guests at their table when asked if he’d like some.
Judy gapes at him in horror. “You can’t drink.”
“Sure I can,” Oscar says. “It’s my farewell tour. I can do whatever I please.”
Her green eyes darken with concern, and he knows he’s stepped in it. Just because he’s at peace with dying today doesn’t mean his wife is.
“Sorry, dear,” he says. “Come on. Drink up. It’s a party. Let’s live a little.”
Worry still lingers in her expression, but she motions for the waiter to pour her some champagne. “All right. I guess I’ll join you.”
Oscar raises his glass and offers his wife a private toast. “To the love of my life — thank you, for everything.”
“Thank you.” She gets the words out, but her voice wavers with emotion. He clinks his glass against hers, and they both take a sip.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the DJ announces over the sound system, “it’s time for the bride and groom’s first dance. Let’s give it up for Matt and Lily.”
Oscar claps with the rest of the guests as his daughter and son-in-law journey to the dance floor. He and Judy watch with rapt attention as the young couple begins to sway to Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight.”
“Seems like just yesterday that was us,” Judy murmurs.
Oscar reaches for her hand, interlocking his fingers with hers. “I hope they share as many good times as we have.”
She leans her head against his shoulder. “Me too.”
When the song ends, the DJ asks the mother of the groom and the father of the bride to come to the dance floor.
“Showtime.” Oscar scoots his chair back. “Is my bow tie straight?”
Judy nods. “You look great.”
The DJ plays another vintage tune, Perry Como’s rendition of “Moon River.” Oscar takes his daughter into his arms and flashes back to another wedding — his youngest brother’s — nearly 20 years ago. Lily was six at the time, and it was the first wedding she’d attended. When they went to the reception, Lily asked Oscar to dance, and when he took her for a spin on the parquet floor, she’d stared up at him as if he were her hero, melting his heart … and not for the first time. Now, in the blink of an eye, he’s dancing with her again, but this time she is the bride.
Lily smiles up at him as Perry croons about his Huckleberry friend. Oscar can’t be certain, but he thinks there’s a flicker of admiration in her eyes. Perhaps, after all these years, she still sees him as her hero.
“I don’t know what meds you’re on today,” she says, “but they’re amazing. I didn’t think we’d get to dance.”
“I pulled out all the stops,” he says. “Couldn’t pass up the chance to dance with my best girl, now could I?”
All too soon, the music starts to fade, and their moment is over.
Lily kisses Oscar’s cheek and hugs him fiercely. “I love you, Dad.”
“I love you, kiddo.”
“Now, let’s get this party started,” the DJ says. “Grab your loved ones and get on out here. We’re going to Jump Around.”
The ’90s hip-hop classic pours from the sound system, and dozens of kids and a handful of adults flood the dance floor. Oscar spies Kyle, Sarah, and Ava among them and heads their way. He has a memory to make with his granddaughter.
“Hi, Granddad.” Ava jumps around as the song suggests, then twirls, making the hem of her purple satin dress flare. “Are you going to dance with us?”
“You bet I am.” Oscar extends his arms away from his sides. He wiggles one, then the other, as if the wave of motion carries over from one side to the other, a little pop-and-lock action.
“What else can you do?” she asks.
“How about this?” He backpedals his feet in a smooth display of the moonwalk. Oscar laughs when he sees Kyle and Sarah stop stone dead to watch.
“How … ?” Kyle stammers, too stunned to finish his thought.
Oscar glides backward toward his son. “Ask Mom,” he says, projecting his voice to be heard over the music. “But not tonight.”
Kyle and Sarah exchange a look, then slowly resume their timid toe-tapping shuffle.
The DJ spins another fast-paced jam, giving Oscar the chance to perform the running man, the sprinkler, and the robot.
Ava claps and cheers. “You’re the best dancer.”
Just as Oscar breaks a sweat, the DJ slows the party tempo with Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World.” He offers his hand to Ava. “May I have this dance?”
“Okay,” she says in that chipper tone only four-year-olds possess. “Can you pick me up?”
“You bet.” Lifting her is easy. She’s a wisp of a thing.
The child drapes her tiny arms around his neck. “Can’t wait till I get married. I want a fancy dress like Aunt Lily’s.”
“Don’t let your daddy hear you say that,” Oscar teases. He glances over at Kyle, who’s talking with Sarah near the cake table. His son is blissfully unaware that time is fleeting. One day, which will arrive quicker than he knows, Kyle will wake up and be responsible for walking Ava down the aisle. With any luck, he’ll take after Judy and be healthy enough to do it.
Louis’s melodic voice paints a portrait of red roses and fields of green. Oscar sways back and forth with his granddaughter, cherishing every second and thinking what a wonderful world it is indeed. When the song draws to a close, she asks to be put down. Oscar obliges.
“Twirl me, please,” Ava says.
Oscar takes her by the hand and turns her in circles.
“Whee!” she squeals. “That was fun.”
“It was. Thanks for dancing with me.” He bends at the waist and plants a kiss on top of the girl’s head. “I love you, little one.”
“Love you, too.”
“I’m going to dance with Grandma next, okay?”
“Okay. Bye.” She skips off toward her parents.
The DJ plays another retro ditty, “My Girl” by The Temptations. Oscar winds his way through the tables and finds Judy chatting with an old friend.
“Sorry for interrupting,” he says, “but I need to steal my wife.”
Judy smiles and excuses herself. “Are you feeling all right?” she asks as they walk away.
“I feel fine.” He takes a moment to admire how attractive she is in her silky emerald gown. She doesn’t look a day of her 55 years. “I wanted to make sure I danced with the prettiest woman in the room.”
She smiles and pats his arm. “Oh, Oscar.”
Taking her by the hand, he leads her to the parquet floor and gathers her into his arms.
“I’ve always liked this song,” she says.
“Me too, and so apropos.” He tightens his hold on her, bringing her body closer to his. Even after three decades, they still fit together like puzzle pieces. For a few minutes, it’s as if they are those same college kids who got married a month after graduation.
Then Judy breaks the silence. “I saw you do the moonwalk earlier. Must’ve been some strong stuff in that jar of yours.”
He chuckles. “Nice try. I promised I’d tell you about it later, and I will, but let’s just enjoy the moment, all right?”
She rests her head on his shoulder and time stands still.
Eventually the song ends, and the DJ announces the next tune. Oscar doesn’t register the title because his energy is waning. He doesn’t need help walking, but that level of fatigue is not far off. It won’t do to unravel here.
A forlorn note in his voice, he murmurs, “I need to go home, my love.”
She doesn’t say a word, just strides to their table, grabs her purse, and walks him to the dark parking lot. When they get in the car, he touches her arm to stop her from starting the engine.
“Wait,” he says.
She turns to face him, her eyes dark with worry. “What is it?”
“I want to do something before I’m too weak to do it.” He leans across the console between them, places his hands on either side of her face, and presses his lips to hers. The contact fans a dormant flame, and before long they are making out like teenagers, hands all over, with no regard for their surroundings.
When they finally come up for air, Judy is breathless. “Yowzer. You’ve still got it, Oscar.”
He brushes a stray hair from her cheek. “Promise me something.”
“When I’m gone, remember me this way, not how I’ve been — like a living corpse.”
Her smile fades. “Don’t say that.”
“Promise me you’ll think of me as I was tonight, dancing and kissing the daylights out of you, not lying in that damn mechanical bed.”
She nods. “I promise.”
“We should get going.” He slumps back in his seat, too tired to sit up anymore. “I think the reprieve is over.”
* * *
They ride home in silence. Death is on the way, and talking about it would only spoil their lovely evening.
At home, Judy escorts Oscar to his room and helps him undress. After he’s stripped to his boxers and undershirt, she eases him into bed, pulls the blankets over his thin body, and adjusts the pillow under his head.
He nods, appreciative of her attention to detail. “Tonight was perfect, wasn’t it?”
“It certainly was.” She sits on the edge of the mattress and places a hand on his gaunt cheek. “Are you going to tell me about the jar now?”
He chuckles and starts to cough. When he catches his breath, he says, “An elephant never forgets.”
“Nope. I sure don’t.”
Oscar pauses, thinking of where to begin. “When I was about seven, I was outside playing tag with the neighbor kids. My mother called me inside and asked me to do the strangest thing. She had me talk into an empty mason jar about how fast I could run and how much energy I had. I was to list all the things I could do easily — jump, ride my bike, turn cartwheels — you name it I probably said it. I didn’t think much of it though. My mother was always a little woo-woo in her hippie ways.”
“I remember her being a little out there,” Judy says.
“When I was through listing all my youthful talents, she sealed the jar and had me write my name on it. The jar went into storage, and I didn’t see it again until she gave it to me the day you and I got married.”
“I remember a lot about our wedding day, but I don’t remember that.”
Oscar sighs. “She cornered me at the reception and gave it to me. When she explained everything, I dismissed it as hippie gibberish. It seemed silly to tell you.”
Who could blame him? At the time, his mother had been terminally ill with the same disease ravaging his own body. She wasn’t expected to live long enough to attend Oscar and Judy’s wedding, let alone show up touting nonsense about a jar. Much like Judy had assumed Oscar had stolen drugs, Oscar assumed his mother had taken something illicit that day.
“According to my mother,” Oscar went on, “the jar tradition has been in our family about as long as our tradition of dying young.”
Judy stifles a sob.
“I’m sorry, dear,” he says. “I know this is difficult, but I need you to understand. Someday, you might have to explain it to Lily and Kyle.”
“All right.” She sits up straighter and sniffles. “I’m listening.”
“Their jars are in the garage — ”
“Their jars?” Judy shakes her head. “You did this breath thing with them when they were little?”
He nods. “Yes, I promised my mother I would. Kyle didn’t seem to remember anything about it though. I don’t know if Lily does. I didn’t bring it up tonight. I didn’t want her to think I was stoned.” He takes his wife’s hand and skims the pad of his thumb over her knuckles. “Tell them that if they are ever sick like me, to open their jar and inhale their childhood breath. They’ll be given a few healthy hours to accomplish whatever they need to.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“Promise me you’ll tell them.” He holds her gaze intently.
“I’m living proof it works,” he says. “I pray by the time my faulty genes turn traitor on our children, there’ll be a cure. But if not, they at least have a shot at a last hurrah.” He coughs and this time it’s harder to catch his breath. “Speaking of which, I think mine is almost over.”
Judy’s chin quivers. Pain haunts her moist eyes. “What am I supposed to do without you?”
“Play with Ava. Keep tabs on Kyle and Lily.” His eyelids droop, but he fights to keep them open. He wants to see her face until the end. “And when you’re ready, date a little if you like.” He struggles to draw breath. “Whatever you do, keep living.”
She leans forward and kisses his cheek. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Then Oscar closes his eyes and lets go.
Judy lays her head on his chest. Tears stream down her face, soaking his undershirt with grief. When her sobs finally subside, she stands and gazes down at the love of her life. At least he’s no longer suffering. She can take comfort in that.
She wanders out to the garage, and after a bit of searching, finds the jars labeled Kyle and Lily on a shelf near the back wall. Hopefully, her children won’t fall ill like her mother-in-law and Oscar, but if they do, she’ll honor her husband’s last request and tell them all about the jar tradition.
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