July 13th, 2006 —
The Last Gift
“The results have not changed Candace. We had hoped that with these latest treatments that something would change but it hasn’t. I’m afraid I don’t have anything else to tell you.” He spoke the words unable to look her in her eyes. Candace knew what the results would be; she had a feeling for a long time. But the results didn’t mean the end, not to her. If she had a few weeks to live she would not spend them dying.
“That’s alright Dr. Carl, I knew this was coming and I’m okay with it. Who knows what the good Lord has planned for me. I guess I’ve used up all of my miracles and it’s time the good Lord used them on someone else. I have a lot of things to do before I go and living is one of them.” Candace rose from her chair very slowly knowing that from that moment on, every thing she did on a daily basis would take on a new meaning.
As she walked out the door she turned around, looked at Dr. Carl, smiled and sighed. Her gaze moved from one picture to another on the mustard colored walls behind the doctor’s desk. She took another deep breath and said, “Really Carl, in all the years I’ve known you, you would think that your taste in art and paint color would have improved. Do your self a favor, change the color of the walls at least and get some real art on those walls, it makes taking news like mine a lot easier to bear.” She chuckled as she walked out the door. As she passed the office managers desk on her way out, she grabbed a handful of chocolate mints. Unwrapping one, she looked at the coin shaped piece of dark chocolate before putting it in her mouth and letting it liquefy before chewing what was left of it. Candace closed her eyes as the minty chocolate found its way down her throat. She was always careful about her weight, eating sweets and junk food. She didn’t have to do that any more. Today, it tasted different. It brought back memories of the first time her grandfather had given her a piece of the dark chocolate candy he said was named after her grandmother, Patty.
Candace waited for her car to arrive before heading to her next appointment. She decided to cancel it as once Dr. Carl told her there was nothing else that could be done; there was no point to see the nutritionist. So she decided she’d go see Lawrence before heading home. It was a nice day and Candace wanted to enjoy the weather before the heat came to claim it. She walked the few blocks to where Lawrence had been. As she got closer to their usual meeting place, she sat on the bench and smiled. It was time. And while the thought of dying made her sad, she knew she was ready. She was tired and she didn’t want to fight any more. If the doctor said there was nothing else they could do, she believed them. If that was the case, then that meant God was ready for her. She was going home. The thought bought her a sense of peace.
“Oh Lawrence. You had to be the first one I told. There’s nothing else they can do for me and it looks like I’ve got to get some things in order. It’s not much, but I want to be sure every thing is done. You know how much I hate others fussing over me. I don’t want to burden any one once I’m gone.” She smiled, closed her eyes and felt the wind blow through her short curly silvery hair. It was starting to get warm and she didn’t want to deal with the hot musty air today. She gathered her purse, rose slowly from her bench and headed to the car. What was left to say? Talking to him always brought her a sense of peace. The driver had the door opened for her as she steadied herself first before taking her place in the back seat.
Steven, her driver, had been with her for years. He would probably miss her the most. He told her once, on their many drives into the country, that when the day came for him to retire, he’d retire from this job. It couldn’t get any better any where else. Ms. Candace had spoiled him for any one else. Steven knew the news could not be good. He didn’t see his employer’s usual gleam in her eyes. “Ms. Candace if it weren’t for you, I’d be sitting at home watching CNN all day long. I won’t work for no one else Ms. Candace. You are one fine and fair lady.”
Candace wondered if he knew something about her latest results. How could she tell Steven that she was dying and that soon he’d be without a job? When Dr. Carl told her the news, she accepted it. She was prepared for it. But now, watching Steve drive away, she felt a bit of anger. Her dying was fine with her but it also meant that things would change for Steve. What would Steve do once she was gone? If she didn’t tell him, the shock would be too much for him. She didn’t want to hurt him. She owed him more than that. If she told him, even though he would be upset, he would at least be prepared. Perhaps she could inquire amongst her friends if any one was looking for a driver. Steve was more than a driver. He had become her friend throughout the years, even joining her on several vacations so that she wouldn’t have to rely on any one to get her around. She knew he wouldn’t work for any one else but she also knew if she suggested it and pushed it, he would. Candace couldn’t see Steve sitting on his couch, day after day, no matter how much he enjoyed CNN. She was blessed to have him in her life. She wanted more for him. She was blessed to have so many people in her life and now she had to face telling them all that she was dying. Or did she?
Candace did not want to deliver such gloomy news to any one. She knew the minute she did that things would change. People would change. People would be sad. She didn’t want that. Candace wanted things to stay the same. People die, she reasoned. And those left behind would mourn them. They would miss them, but after awhile, their lives would continue as before. Candace didn’t want any one to feel unhappy while she was still living; she knew there would plenty of that once she was gone. She wanted whatever time she had left to be filled with happy moments, good memories and smiles. Candace didn’t want to lie to any one but she didn’t want to be the cause of any one’s grief either. If she had six days, six weeks or six months to live she wanted all those in her life to live them with her. There would be plenty of time after she was gone for the mourning. One could choose to die or to live. Dying was inevitable; it’s how you live that makes it acceptable; easier to let go. Candace had lived a good life. If it was her time to go, that meant God wanted her home. What an honor that was for her.
The next day Candace woke up and thought about what to do on the first day of her life. It might sound strange to some how she could think that especially after receiving the news that she didn’t have long to live but she did consider this day the first day of her life. You see in her mind, she had a choice. She could either spend the next few weeks dying or she could spend them living and she chose to live. The news was not bad, although many would think so. Dr. Carl had given her a gift, a blessing. So many times she had read about people dying suddenly and loved ones never having had the chance to say goodbye or make peace with them. She was given the chance to say goodbye one last time therefore this first day was about living. Dying would come when she was done with all she had to do.
Candace decided a celebration would be in order and since her birthday was right around the corner no one would be suspicious of why she was having an impromptu party. The first order of business was to decide when the party would be, where and what the theme would be. Candace was famous for her theme parties and even though this was a birthday party, in reality it was a going away party, but no one had to know. Her theme would be about life; the gift of life party. She knew just what the invitation would read:
Ms. Candace Sterling requests the pleasure of your presence to celebrate her birthday at a Gift of Life party. Attire is casual. Your presence is expected. No gifts please.
With all the details put in place, she proceeded to make plans for the menu. She made a list of all who would be attending and remembered what each one liked to eat. She tried to incorporate a little bit of every thing in the menu. It would be a smorgasbord of delectable delights. She wasn’t interested in having a formal dinner. This party had to be a celebration of life; she wanted every one to be comfortable and to be them selves. Stuffy tuxedo’s and long ballroom gowns had no place in her celebration. She’d been to enough of those stuffy parties throughout her life and this party would be one no one would forget.
Once the menu had been selected she moved on to the color theme. Well, the menu was for every one’s enjoyment, she wanted the colors to be all about her. She chose the colors her mother once thought to be loud and obscene; purple and fuchsia. She could hear her mother blaring her disapproval stopping short of saying a few cuss words. But purple and fuchsia were her favorite colors and although she never used them in any of her homes, they were present in other aspects of her life. When she was married to her first husband Conrad, he was just as stuffy as her mother was, and he agreed that purple and fuchsia were garish colors and not to be seen in their home. But when she appeared in their bedroom one night with a nightie in those colors and high heeled slippers with feathers to match, Conrad’s eyes popped out and those colors were a well kept secret between them. He never agreed with Candace’s mother again each time she would comment on Candace’s choice of colors because he had fallen in love with them that one night many years before. When he passed on, Candace buried him with a silk scarf in his pocket; a purple and fuchsia silk scarf made out of the material of her nightie. She had no use for it any more.
Years went by and Candace focused her life on her many humanitarian projects and traveled extensively with the children. Conrad always felt that taking the girls to different countries enhanced their academic lives and she continued the tradition each and every year for the summers. After 10 years, she met Lawrence and while at first her family and her daughters did not approve, eventually Candace wore them out. Lawrence was accepted and they married soon after. Lawrence had become more than just a husband. Unlike Conrad, Lawrence always included her in all his business affairs, taking time out to explain what she did not understand. Lawrence was her best friend. He always listened with great interest about how her day went, about her many clubs and volunteer work. Many nights were spent in each others arms, listening to music and sharing thoughts and dreams. When Lawrence became ill and was unable to work, Candace gave up many of her projects to be at home with him. When the doctors felt that he needed to be in a facility that could better handle his care, Candace fought them but Lawrence insisted that they could still be together and moving to the assisted facility was the best for both of them. He did not want to burden her. When they moved him to the facility Candace had chosen, she made sure that his room was a replica of their room at home. She hung his favorite art work above his bed and on the opposite wall she hung their wedding portrait and pictures of his and her children.
Lawrence was a balloon man and that was one of the many things that Candace had loved about him. The little kid in Lawrence always brought out the best in her. Three months after they were married, he sent her one hundred balloons; one for each day they had been married. Now each week, Beatrice had the florist deliver helium balloons with his favorite cartoon characters. It brightened the room and made the many invasive machines more bearable to deal with.
Now it was Candace’s turn. Dr. Carl talked about her moving to a hospice when the end was near and while she didn’t disagree with him, Candace knew where she wanted to be when it was time. She would die at home when God wanted her and there would be no other way for her. She wanted to be amongst her memories. She wanted to be surrounded in love until she went home, there would be no hospice for her.
The party was to take place within a week’s time and Candace had much to do to prepare for the big night. She requested no gifts for her birthday because the theme was The Gift of Life and she wanted to be the one to give the gifts this time around.
She had the main room cleaned from top to bottom adding new curtains to match her color theme. The flowers she had chosen for that evening had to be painted in the colors she requested but once they were all in place it would be like staring at the sunset in the New Mexico sky. Candace never forgot the sunsets in the Land of Enchantment. It was mesmerizing. And when she first saw the evening sky, there they were; her colors, purple and fuchsia in all their splendid glory, dancing around the pinks, the oranges and lavenders. The room was beginning to take on a life of its own. Beatrice knew some would wonder how she could be so at peace with dying but there was something wonderful about it. It was really all about perspective. When she thought about a good memory in her life, she found herself smiling and was thankful for having been blessed to experience it but when you know you are dying, going back to those memories seem to make those moments come to life once again, this time with every detail painted just the same way it was when you experienced it for the first time. Pleased with her progress, she called Steven to get the car ready. She wanted to share her updates with Lawrence. Steve looked at her and sensed something was different.
“Ms. Candace, you look like a Cheshire cat this morning. What have you been up to?” he asked with his shaky voice.
“Ahh Steven, you know me so well. I am up to absolutely nothing. I woke up this morning ready to do battle with anything that came my way and there is nothing to be done. Every thing for the party is falling into place and I wanted to get out this morning and speak to Lawrence. I have neglected him these past few days and we’ve got some catching up to do. And when we’re done, I want you to take the rest of the day off. I know your granddaughter hasn’t seen her grand daddy in over a month. They grow up fast you know. I insist that you go there today and here…..” she said handing him a wrapped package…. “Give this to her. I know she will love it.” ”But Ms. Candace today is your usual appointment with Dr. Carl. You know you can’t be missing it now. I won’t have it. My granddaughter can see me this weekend. Her mother is coming to stock up my cupboards. Young lady thinks her daddy isn’t eating right. I try to tell her, you do right by me but my baby girl likes doing this for me, so I let her. But that’s not the issue here, you need to go see Dr. Carl.” he shook his head as he made his way around to the driver’s side of the car.
“No Steven, Dr. Carl won’t be seeing me today. So you take the rest of the day off, I insist.”
Steven drove, shaking his head from time to time as he looked in the rear view mirror. Something was up, he knew it but if she was giving him the day off, he wasn’t going to argue. He knew it was a losing battle with her. He missed seeing his newborn grand baby and this extra time with her was a gift.
The day of the party arrived. Candace left to get her hair done and then treated herself to a manicure. She picked the brightest pink color she could find and the manicurist thought for sure this was not Candace Sterling, her regular client, as her usual color was always a pale opaque white. Candace just smiled and sat back to enjoy the pampering. Steven had helped her with all the arrangements and as the deliveries of food, flowers and balloons began to arrive, he supervised it all. Candace was meticulous in all her preparations and had given strict instructions on where every thing was to go. Once the final floral arrangements were in place, and the catering staff began adding the final touches to the appetizers, she went upstairs for a nap. She wanted to be her best for when her guests arrived.
One by one they showed up; Happy to be there and yet surprised at the casualness of it all. When the last guest had officially been announced by the house staff, Candace made her appearance. Her friends were surprised to see the petite woman dressed in a long flowing skirt made of purple chiffon with a fuchsia ruffled blouse that ended with pirate sleeves sheer enough to expose the tiny muscles in her arms. On her feet was the shiniest ballerina like slippers mixed with shades of her two favorite colors. Her earrings were a bright amethyst color and on her ring finger she wore the pink ice bow ring that Lawrence had given her years before.
Steven began to applaud slowly at first and the rest of the guests soon followed. Candace smiled glowing with love for each and every one there. She made her way through the crowd, hugged each person a little bit longer than usual. She held their gaze until she felt her tears threaten to expose the real reason for the party. By the time she had greeted all of her guests, she was ready to call it a night. It was so exhausting but the night was just beginning.
The music was a platter of diversity. No sooner would a group of guests get up to do the twist, the music would change to bring on a new crowd of dancers swinging to the sounds of Tommy Dorsey and just when they thought they couldn’t swing any more, sounds from Maroon 5 would come on and those that got up to dance were not only dancing to the beat but they were in awe that Candace even knew about that group. But Candace did her homework; this party was her gift to all she loved and she wanted them all to have fun.
Soon the doors opened to another room displaying a wheel of fortune of edible delights. Every one’s favorite dish was on display and in the center of it all was a mountain of fuchsia and purple flowers with an abundance of baby’s breath that was colored in the lightest shade of pink. No one wanted to touch the food for fear of ruining the wonderful display. Every one waited for someone to make the first move when they saw Candace walk up and stick her finger in the garlic flavored hummus dip and announced, “Soups on! Dig in every one!” That’s all they needed to hear before plates were grabbed and lines were formed. Candace clapped her hands like a little girl at a carnival. She was too excited to eat and the sight of all her loved ones satiated her appetite.
Steven noticed that Candace was growing tired and he insisted she go upstairs to rest a bit while the party was in full swing but Candace wanted to absorb it all. This was one of the memories she wanted to have with her on her last days.
The table of food was cleared and the dessert trays began to be introduced by the catering staff who all wore either purple or fuchsia vests with bow ties to match. As each staff member presented the delectable trays of sweet delights to the guests, Candace’s mouth began to water. She walked up to the tallest server, pinched his cheek and took a handful of pastries returning to her seat. Coffee was served and the conversation flowed. Within the hour it was time for Candace to bring the evening to its highlight.
“My friends, my family, tonight is a celebration of life. The gift of life. I have lived a long life and I have been blessed by the presence of each and every one of you. I asked for no gifts tonight because it is my turn to give to you, to all of you, to thank you for being in my life. Each and every one of you has given so much to me. Even through the dark times we all experienced at one time or another, we all came through it and saw the light of day to know that we became stronger and wiser. There is no greater gift than that. We each standing here today knows the struggles that life can bring but we also know the blessings, the gifts, the joys and the love. We are all here because of this. I want tonight to be a celebration of all of that, of all of you and of all that you have meant to me throughout my lifetime. I give all of you here tonight my blessings, my thanks and a reminder that you are all loved. Don’t ever wait until it’s too late to tell those that you love how you feel about them. Don’t ever let your pride be the guiding force that steers you away from those you love. Remember that what you do today affects tomorrow, so choose your words carefully before you speak them, and think before you act. Don’t let your anger rob you of the joy you can experience when things don’t go your way. If they didn’t turn out as you wanted it’s because God has a greater plan for you. Trust in that and you will be blessed many times over. Above all, love yourselves so that you can be free to love others. Do what makes you happy and trust that wherever you are right now is where God wants you to be.”
There was not a dry eye in the room that night. As the music continued to play and the guests all began to talk more intimately to each other, Candace knew her night was a success. Steven helped her to her room. Before he left she asked him to sit with her for a while. He sat on her lounging chair and kept his glace towards the floor.
“You know Steven, don’t you?” She asked with a whisper. “Yes mam, I do. I just don’t understand it. I don’t want to understand it but I got no choice now do I?” He still couldn’t look at her.
“Steven, I’m tired. I need to stop fighting. I need to go home. I’ve put all my affairs in order and I’ve one last thing to do. I want to know that you’ll be okay. I want to know that you won’t live your life in front of the television watching CNN all day. You’ve got your beautiful grandchild to think of now Steven. She will benefit from all the experiences in your life. You’ve got stories to tell and memories to pass on. You’ve got traditions to uphold and you can’t do that in front of the television. Promise me Steven that you will keep living until God wants you to come home. I can’t go in peace until I know that.” She waited until Steve looked up.
He had tears in his eyes. She had never seen him cry before.
“I promise Ms. Candace. It won’t be easy but I promise. I will do as you ask Ms. Candace. I will.” He stood up, walked over to her and hugged her. Candace held him for a long time.
As she prepared for bed a few moments later she could hear the catering staff clearing up the kitchen and her house staff cleaning up the rooms the guests had been celebrating in earlier in the evening. She slipped between the sheets, fluffed up her pillows and smiled. “Oh Lawrence, I’m so glad you came. I knew it would be you. Sit next to me my love. Let me tell you all about my party tonight. It was just so wonderful. Every one came. You would have been so proud of Jeremy. He got his promotion and he’s moving into a bigger house next month. His wife is having a baby and they are as happy as we use to be when we first got married. And Edgar, Oh Edgar! He’s finally done with his studies at Oxford and will be starting a new job with Smith and Barney and…..”
Lawrence reached for Candace’s hand, as she got out of bed, letting the satiny sheets fall past her waist line as she kept talking on and on about all the guests that celebrated with her that night. They walked together holding hands as they used to when they were younger. Candace’s curly hair had taken a brighter sheen that very moment.
The next morning, Steven who was always the first to arrive to get the staff started on their daily chores, walked into the den and noticed that Candace was already sitting on the easy chair that was Lawrence’s favorite up until the day he moved into the facility. She must still have some of that energy from last night left over, he thought as he reached for the coffee pot to fill the mugs with their favorite hazel nut flavored java. As he approached her, hand extended with the steaming brew, he noticed, her head tilted to one side and her eyes hermetically sealed; a peaceful smile across her face. On the table next to her were two cups of what used to be hot chocolate with swirls of white where the whipped cream was before it melted. He knew. He knew Lawrence came for her the night before. He knew Candace was at peace now as he summoned the staff to get the day started just as Candace would have wanted.
Copyright © 2006 by Sonia Agron –Word Count -4670