“Hello?” It was towards dawn, and the ring of the phone had awakened me from a deep sleep.
“Cathleen, it’s Rae,” the voice said, and I recognized her distinctive Carolina drawl and slow speech even before she’d said her name. I felt strangely lucid. It had been more than a year since we’d spoken. Last April, as the forsythia was fulfilling the promise of the end of winter, Rae had died. A lethal tumor had grown in her brain, metastasizing in her lungs, taking her quickly but not fast enough.
The last time I’d seen her, she’d looked grey and tired, but she was still herself. She had been my student – I was tutoring her privately, and although she was the same age as my mother, I considered her my friend. Less than a week later, as I eventually learned from her neighbor, she’d checked herself into the hospital. The following day she could no longer speak or walk. Her daughter had flown Rae to Santa Fe so she could die near family. I’d been left wondering what happened; it was so unlike Rae to forget anything, and when I’d shown up at her house to tutor her, I was shocked to find she wasn’t at home. And the next week when I returned, after leaving phone messages, I knew something was horribly wrong before I even knocked on the door. Peeking through the window, I saw the same scene as the previous week. She still wasn’t home, and obviously hadn’t been there since my last attempt to meet with her. It was completely out of character for her; she was punctual, organized, responsible, and considerate. Where could she have gone, I had wondered on my way home. It wasn’t until the third week, when I’d returned again, ever hopeful, that I’d thought to check with her neighbor.
“Rae, how are you?” I asked deliberately, certain I was dreaming.
“Good. Very good,” she replied, but I knew from the way she said it that she was still dead, and that this conversation was something she needed to do.
“Rae,” I said, still trying to convince myself that I was actually speaking to her by repeating her name. “What is it like where you are?”
Her breathing changed, becoming short and shallow, and she was softly weeping, trying hard not to make a sound.
“Beautiful,” she whispered. “It’s beautiful.”
I felt my own breath catch on her words, and I thought of family and how we rarely speak about what matters most.
“But, Rae, why are you calling me?” I asked. I didn’t understand why she’d chosen me, and why now, a year later as the forsythia glowed yellow again. “Why didn’t you call your family?”
“We can’t. It would be too difficult for them,” she whispered, abruptly composed and matter of fact. And then she was gone again, and I stood holding the phone a moment longer, wishing I could understand, and realizing again, I didn’t say goodbye.