From the Relief Society Magazine, April, 1960 –
To Die Before Thy Time
By Helen Bay Gibbons
Mary Sheridan was smiling as she hung up the telephone. It was easy to break that appointment, she thought. I’d better call Martha again right away – she is so insistent, and the luncheon does sound tempting.
For a moment she glanced outside at her flower bed, neat and colorful behind the billowy, white Priscilla curtains. Mary took great pride in her excellent housekeeping. She enjoyed creating for her husband and children the peace and comfort of a clean, uncluttered home. Her eyes surveyed the shiny kitchen, and discovered in the corner a small boy’s Cub Scout cap, carelessly crumpled.
“Oh, dear, if forgot about Jamie’s scout program this afternoon.” She tapped her toe impatiently. “Well, it isn’t very important. Jamie will understand about the luncheon,” she reassured her sinking spirits. Remembering the Cub Scout commitment really troubled Mary, for she was a conscientious person, but deliberately pushing aside her misgivings, she raised the telephone.
That’s when she heard the voices. Her startled senses suddenly became aware of an unexpected conversation.
“Who else is coming in to see Dr. Sterling today, Sue?”
“Not too many patients. A Mrs. Mary Sheridan just called and changed her late afternoon appointment to Friday.”
Many blocks away, Mary listened silently. She was a very proper person who usually wouldn’t dream of eavesdropping, but hearing her own name mentioned, curiosity conquered. she held the receiver quietly – straining to hear the muffled voices of her doctor’s nurse and receptionist amid the background of doctor’s office noises. Apparently no one there had noticed the telephone ajar on its cradle, and the earlier connection with Mary’s line remained unbroken.
“Mary Sheridan!” she heard the nurse exclaim. “Did you check with Dr. Sterling to see if it would be all right to postpone the appointment?”
“No. I thought it was just a routine matter. Is it important?”
“I don’t know for sure. Dr. Sterling had asked Mrs. Sheridan to come back today so that he could discuss with her the results of the tests we ran. Where are the lab reports?”
Mary sat stiff and attentive. she heard the rustle of shuffled papers, and a comment or two that she just could not make out. Then she heard the nurse exclaim, quite clearly:
“Oh, dear. This is a bad one!”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not an expert at assessing lab reports, but see what it says: ‘evidence of widespread malignancy.’ It’s sad when a case like this occurs. I don’t envy Dr. Sterling. Of course, he’ll check and double-check, run more tests, and do all that he can, but when his efforts fail, he must face the patient. It must be terribly difficult to tell a woman that she has only a few months left to live.”
Mary felt a heavy agony begin to grow inside her.
“Only a few months left to live.” Her shocked mind repeated the phrase over and over. Its chilling force paralyzed her muscles and she sat with the telephone frozen in her grip, totally unconscious of the click of the other receiver, and the buzz of the dial tone.
“It isn’t true – I don’t believe it,” Mary cried aloud at last. But even as her ears heard the words, she realized that she did, too, believe it. A fear of just this sort of thing had taken her to Dr. Sterling’s office in the first place. She put down the telephone, buried her face in her arm and wept.
She cried only a short time, however, for Mary Sheridan had never been inclined to hide from reality. Always, when something went wrong, or when something had to be done, she had gone to work with a kind of aggressive energy to resolve her problems. Now that the first force of the shock was receding a bit, her mind probed urgently inward, and she began dispassionately examining her own soul. What was to be done? She tried to weigh her strengths and weaknesses just as she might have inspected the items in her daughter’s back-to-school wardrobe.
“Here I am,” she finally admitted to herself, “just another middle-aged matron with a somewhat dusty mind and well-polished furniture. I have carefully cultivated my flower garden, and neglected my character. I live with my drab spirit in a lovely, cheerful house.”
“How did it happen?” she kept asking herself. “Dear, generous Dan works overtime to buy the things I want, and we are all too busy to have much time together. Oh, Jamie and Louise, how I’ve neglected you.”
It did not take long for Mary to realize that there was much to do. And being very conscientious, she wiped away her tears, rose to her feet, and began to rearrange her way of life.
“Now, boys,” said the den mother, Mrs. Whitney, “will you please stand, one at a time, and introduce your guests. Mothers, welcome to our Cub Scout party.”
Mary Sheridan sat very straight in her chair, resisting the urge to hug Jamie and his scrubbed freckles. No need to embarrass him in front of his friends. There was a certain manliness about him, but Mary could still see in him the baby son she had held in her arms such a short time ago. A big grin kept popping out all over his face, and his head bobbed around excitedly. He was so lovably like Dan, big, exuberant, and perpetually in motion. As Mary glance at Jamie, she remembered uncomfortably the snowman they had not had time to make, the hike in the canyon that would have made them too dirty, and the noisy friends that were too unruly to invite into the house.
“Boy, that was a real neat party, wasn’t it, Mom!” Jamie burst out on the way home.
“Yes, it was, son, and I’m glad you invited me.”
As usual, Louise burst into the house breathlessly. “Mom, the kids are waiting outside for me. May I go over to Janet’s rumpus room. She has some dreamy new records.”
“Hi, honey,” Mary answered breezily, “run along, but be home in time for dinner. Why don’t you get the crowd together here for a platter party sometime soon? We could roll back the rugs and dance, if you like.”
Louise had an expression on her face like Christmas morning, as she dashed out. Mary’s face looked lit up, also. Perhaps it was the reflection of the afternoon sun.
When Dan saw the living room, his concern was very evident. “Mary, what’s happened to your expensive new love seat that was delivered yesterday?”
Mary’s smile was warm and affectionate. “I sent it back to the store and cancelled the order for the other pieces. Here is the refund check.”
“But, honey,” her bewildered husband frowned, “I thought you liked the new furniture.”
“Oh, this old couch is much more comfortable,” his wife reassured him, “and besides, we need lots of things more than a new love seat – like dinner now, for instance. Later, let’s hold a family council. I’ve a few suggestions – about taking a hike Saturday instead of working in the yard. This beautiful weather is too good to waste.”
Dan still looked puzzled, but smiling at the aroma of steak and onions, and patting the refund check in his pocket, he accepted the new atmosphere uncomplainingly.
Later that night, lying awake in the moon-drenched bedroom, Mary drank in deeply of the refreshing air of evening, and watched the familiar face of her husband relax into sleep. She knew that Dan had sensed something was different, but Mary had made it safely through without revealing her secret.
Wonderful Dan – always so kind and good. She remembered the day they married, promising each other, “We’ll make our lives really mean something.” Hungrily, her eyes took in every beloved detail of her husband’s appearance – his broad, muscled shoulders and strong, square hands, the funny wrinkles around his eyes.
“It’s almost too late, Dan,” she whispered, “almost, but not quite.”
She fell asleep thinking of the freckled grin of a small boy, and the joy in a teen-aged daughter’s lovely eyes.
That was the way the days passed until Friday. The children hurried home from school to a mother with time to welcome and listen to them. Dan, refreshed by the thought of the sizable refund check deposited in the bank, seemed more relaxed and secure. He seemed to find more time to spend with his family. Mary, marking and savoring every hour as it passed, knew that she must go on Friday to see Dr. Sterling and hear from him what amounted to her death sentence – the penalty which disease had placed upon her.
“Dr. Sterling will see you now, Mrs. Sheridan.” The nurse’s voice, clipped and formal, sounded strangely like doom to Mary. She shuddered slightly, but squared her shoulders as she walked down the hallway.
Dr. Sterling was examining a paper as she came in. It was the lab report, no doubt. At least, it would be a relief to know just what she might expect. In any case, Mary thought, I’ll appreciate the days that remain.
“Mrs. Sheridan,” Dr. Sterling greeted her cordially, rising and extending his hand. “How are you today? Won’t you be seated.”
“Please don’t think me abrupt, Doctor,” Mary said, sitting nervously on the edge of the chair, “but I am anxious to know the truth.”
“Well, that will be easy. We find only a small benign tumor, easy to remove. Otherwise, you are in fine health.”
Mary looked at him suspiciously, struggling to hide the quaver in her voice. “Please don’t be afraid to tell me what you really found. you see, I overheard your nurse. I already know what is on the lab report.”
“Well, Mrs. Sheridan,” Dr. Sterling smiled as he spoke, “you obviously overheard the wrong lab report. You are the fortunate one – another of my patients is not so blessed with good health. All that we must do now is make a date for taking care of that tumor.”
The afternoon sunshine was brilliant in its happy blue sky. The flowers smiled gaily. Mary missed nothing of the sights and sounds of the city streets, the earth, the sky and the people around her as she hurried home to continue her new-planned life with her husband and children.