This chapter is pure fiction. Purple prose.
Chapter 54: Joe Disappears
Nellie had ended our last conversation by saying they were “considering other options.”
I wonder. What “other options” are they considering?
What options do they have, really? Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act had passed a few months ago. It allowed for physician assisted suicide, if one could find a physician willing to sign the papers, two witnesses not related to the patient, and another physician to independently verify the “six months terminal” diagnosis of the first physician. Neither Nellie nor Joe had ever mentioned such a choice as a real option for them, and in any case they would have had to start the process months ago, and the law had only taken effect January 1. They had talked about an alternative clinic in Mexico that was said to have achieved some remarkable cures. It’s expensive, but he could borrow against his life insurance.
What other options could they possibly entertain?
Joe had some ideas of his own.
Nellie, on the phone midafternoon, her voice high and tight: “Addie, is Joe there with you?”
“No, he’s home. I dropped him off around noon, got him settled for a nap.”
“I had a bad feeling about Joe at school and got Nancy to cover my last period class so I could come home and check on him. He’s gone. There’s no note, nothing. And he still has that brace on his leg. I’ve searched all around our property…the van is here, but he’s not. Could someone have picked him up?”
“That must be it. We know he can’t get far on foot.” I smile at my little joke, but the humor goes past Nellie.
“I’ll start calling around to his friends and National Guard guys. Maybe one of them…”
If that isn’t just like Joe, to disappear when he’s in a fragile condition, without even telling his wife. He treats most of life like a game, even his own life, even when his life appears to be close to the end.
But this game is no damn fun. I take the phone into the kitchen where the teakettle sings its piercing harmonica whistle.
“Let me know, Nell. This is so odd. Do you have any reason to think…?” I take the teakettle off the burner.
“Well, this morning he told me goodbye when I left for work, but it was a different kind of goodbye. Like…like he was saying goodbye forever.” She takes a deep breath and lets it out. “Maybe that’s why I had the premonition at work. Something was just…off…this morning.”
My heart cranks out an extra beat. Where can he be?
The Sandy River rushes its churning route at the bottom of a bluff behind Joe’s house.
I try to sound confident. “I’m sure there’s some reasonable explanation. He wasn’t expecting you home so early, so maybe he went somewhere with a friend.”
Her voice trembles. “I’m hoping it’s something like that.”
“We’ll talk later,” I say.
“Yes, okay. Bye.”
I pick up my cell phone, then remember that Joe doesn’t believe in cell phone technology, and doesn’t have one of his own. I go out to the garage/wood shop and wave at Giff, who’s planing down a board with some kind of noisy machine. He shuts off the machine and pulls off his ear protectors.
“What’s up?” he asks.
Giff pulls his goggles down around his neck. “Missing? Weren’t you just with him this morning?”
“Yes, for his doctor appointment. I took him home. Nell just called—she came home early, and the van is there, but he’s gone. She’s looked everywhere.”
Giff looks down at the board he is holding, sets it down on the work table. “What in hell…? Did something happen at the doctor’s office?”
“Just the usual. No more treatments available. He’s even weaker than a few days ago. Dr. Chapman upped his morphine again.”
Giff pounds his fist on the end of the board, and the other end flips up, then down.
“Damn! But that could be the problem. Too much morphine, and he wandered off somewhere. Maybe passed out.”
“But with his leg brace…Nell would have found him by now. She’s looked everywhere.”
Giff pulls the goggles off over his head. “Get in the car. We’re going up there.”
“But…don’t you think we ought to wait a bit? Nell says she’s calling all his friends, all his National Guard buddies. Probably one of them…”
He considers for a minute, his eyes thoughtful.
“Okay, but if she hasn’t called back in an hour, call her and see what’s going on.”
“I will.” I look at my watch. Two-thirty. “I’ll call her at three-thirty, if she hasn’t called me by then.”
I realize I’m crazy scared for Joe. As I often am. I wrap my arms around myself and walk into Giff’s arms.
Giff holds me tight until I can stop shaking.
Nellie calls at 3:20, her voice strained. “Joe just called me, on Mike’s phone. They’re on their way to the cabin Mike leases from the Forest Service, back in the White River Canyon.”
Mike is Joe’s best friend, a fellow teacher, a tall, well-built blonde Amazon at least ten years younger than Joe. He’s a member of the volunteer Mountain Rescue unit, well-trained and experienced in the moods and dangers of Mt. Hood.
“But why? It’s February, for God’s sake! Is there even a trail? Joe can’t possibly hike, how…?”
“Mike’s pulling him in on the sled he uses for mountain rescues.” Her voice cracks, then breaks. “Addie, he’s…he’s going up there to die!”
“He said that? That he’s going there to die?”
“No, but it was obvious.” She pauses to breathe, gets her voice under control before she continues.
“He thanked me for getting him through this illness, and said he would always love me no matter what, and to take good care of the girls.”
She pauses again, clears her throat, takes deep breaths.
Yes, he must know he’s close to death.
“But…what if you want to be there…” I say. “I mean, don’t you even get to vote?” My own voice has gone up a register.
“Addie, you know how he is. He’s made up his mind this is the way it’s going to be. He says it will ease his mind to know all is well with me and the kids, that we’re together.”
“But…but then…Mike? Mike’s going to stay with him, however long it takes? He’s a teacher, he can’t just leave his job!”
“He said Mike’s coming back in the morning, and he wants Mike to take you in to stay with him in the cabin. Joe doesn’t want to be alone. But he doesn’t want us to be there, either. That leaves…you, I guess.” She sobs into the phone, tries to stop, fails.
White River Canyon. A cold fist squeezes my heart.
“Nellie, listen to me. We’ve skied in that area, remember? There’s a trail, but…is it groomed? Can they even get through to the cabin? I’ve never been to Mike’s place, but a Forest Service cabin—isn’t it pretty primitive?”
“I wish I knew the answers! Mike must know it’s possible to get in, and I’m pretty sure they groom the trail for cross-country skiers. Joe said Mike keeps the cabin well-stocked with supplies, water, wood, and some food, in case a skier gets stranded and needs to use it.”
“So there’s a wood stove. No electricity, I assume? Or cell phone reception?”
“No, Just propane, for the lanterns. Unreliable cell phone reception. Joe doesn’t seem at all worried about any of that. He actually sounded…excited.”
She breaks down again, her shaky breaths keeping her from talking.
“Nellie, I’m so sorry. I wish things were different.” I wait for her to calm her voice.
“Then…you’ll go?” she says. “He was really specific, said it had to be you.”
“Did he mention Giff?” I ask, hopeful.
“No, he said come alone. I guess he doesn’t want Giff to see him die, either.”
Joe knows I’ve seen people die; in fact I’ve learned how to usher people to death’s very door, and help them pass through. “Death shaman” has become my work, at the Attitudinal Healing Center I direct in north Portland.
Then why am I scared?
I had never before sat with a dying person alone in a wilderness cabin in the middle of the winter, with no cell phone reception.
And never before with someone I loved the way I love Joe.