by Dawn DeBraal
"Good Morning." Such a sleepy head. Bertram sat up in the bed, his hair tousled. He stretched and yawned. I gave him his cup of tea, a special brew. One I'd made myself.
I have loved Bertram for most of my life. Looking into his face, I remember many years ago when we first met as youngsters. We were playing in the lake with friends who had gathered near my father's cottage. My father prided himself on maintaining the best sandy beach on the lake. All my friends would jump into the water to swim, but Bertram always hung back. I suspected my friend didn't know how to swim.
My, he was a beautiful boy. Broad chested, a smile that melted my heart. I asked him to come into the water. He shook his head.
"I will teach you to swim," I offered. Bertram looked suspiciously at me. "Not now. After everyone has gone home, I will have you swimming in a few lessons. I promise."
"I can swim; I just don't like to," he told me, but then agreed to come back after everyone left.
The beach was silent but for the lapping waves on the shore. Bertram walked out of the woods from the trail between my house and town. He had a pair of cut-offs and a nose plug. I laughed. I know I shouldn't have laughed. He almost walked away. I didn't know how deep his fear of water was until then. I apologized quickly.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to laugh." Bertram came forward.
"I'm ready. Let's do this." He put the nose plug on. I gently talked to him, letting him know that he needed to trust me, and above all, he needed to relax. First, we were in shallow water. I asked him to lay flat in the water and trust me to keep his head above. I could see the fear in his eyes, but I could also see the man's determination. He lay back in the water, allowing me to hold his body while I asked him to float and relax. We breathed together in and out. He finally relaxed after several minutes. I removed one arm. He didn't notice. He was relaxing so much while we continued our breathing.
"And that's lesson one," I told him as he stood.
"What? That's it? I didn't learn a thing," Bertram looked quite disappointed.
"You just floated unassisted for five minutes. That's a big deal."
"No, you were holding me up," he insisted.
"At the beginning, I was, but Bertram, the last five minutes you have been floating on your own." He didn't believe me. "Come back tomorrow night. We will have another lesson." Bertram disappeared into the woods. I was excited he would be coming back.
The swimming lessons were paying off. The times I had him lying in the water, concentrating on deep breathing, made him get over his fear of the water. Bertram needed to know that he could float on his back and that he could trust me. His lungs full of air and arching his back slightly, keeping him floating. After several days He would get into the water and do the float by himself. I stood near him for moral support. He had conquered his fear of being in the water, and he had learned to trust me.
Bertram stayed longer after his lessons. I found the reason he was afraid of water was the result of a childhood accident. He fell out of a boat as a small child, not wearing a life jacket. His father jumped into the water right away, but the dark, cold water and the inability to swim paralyzed him. He never got over that fear. When most children were learning how to swim, Bertram stood onshore, building sandcastles.
It was a secret between the two of us. Weather permitting, he came every evening that summer and became a good swimmer. He was grateful for my teaching. We had bonded over that trust, and both of us knew our friendship had grown into more than swimming lessons.
The night of our high school graduation, I gave myself to Bertram and he to me. We were clueless. There were not many resources to help us be together and not conceive a child. It was terrifying, but we clung to one another. Testing, touching, tasting. It was a marvelous experience. We both admitted we would try this again.
Bertram and I laughed, but inside we prayed we had not done anything stupid. I was upset with Bertram and his patriotic duty when he signed up a few weeks later. He would have been called eventually, but Bertram felt he could pick his place if he joined. My heart stopped beating when the bus pulled away. Bertram was out of my life.
I stayed at the cottage on the lake. My parents moved to their winter home. I told them I needed to be here. My mother, especially, understood. Little did I know I had a tiny person growing inside me. Bertram came home on leave before being sent overseas. We married quietly in the town church.
I was now Mrs. Bertram Patterson. I was very proud. My parents were quite shocked to hear of our marriage, and a suitable time later, I called them, letting them know they would-be grandparents. They had the good graces not to say anything but express their joy, knowing I would be delivering seven months after our marriage.
Bertram was sent overseas. Months later, I received a telegram. He was coming home but was injured. He would be staying at the nearby base hospital until he recovered. Bertram sent several letters which arrived a few days after the telegram. He lost half of his foot being run over by a half-track, trying to move it out of a ditch.
I was nearing the end of my pregnancy when I arrived at the convalescent center in Fort Custer, Michigan. When I walked into Bertram's ward, there were several soldiers in various states of agony. It was a nightmare. Bertram lay back on his bunk; his arm draped over his face. He didn't know I was coming. He would have told me to stay home, but I couldn't. The government had flown him this far. I could drive the rest of the way to see him. His leg heavily bandaged, Bertram had lost a lot of weight. When he lowered his arm, he blinked at me as if under some kind of medication that made him think he was still dreaming.
"Claire?" I knelt next to his bed. Bertram grabbed me. Together, we cried tears of joy and sorrow. We had lost so much but still had each other. He put his hand on the baby that stirred beneath his touch. He caught his breath. Suddenly life came back to his eyes. We talked and took one another in.
Bertram was released from the hospital. I drove him back to Wisconsin. He was out of the woods as far as the missing part of his foot, but I soon learned the horrors of war were not only physical disabilities. Bertram had seen too much. He had nightmares. I didn't get much sleep those first weeks he was home. Between a newborn and trying to get him comfortable. I learned that I could use the same tricks on Bertram I used to help him overcome the fear of swimming. We sat together, and I had him concentrate on his breathing while I held his head. He would fall asleep, but then the baby would wake.
We have had a wonderful life together. We stayed at the cottage, and Bertram made it into a real house. He was able to get back to work and build an addition when our other children came along.
We have been so happy and blessed in this house. Bertram and I watched our children grow up and go off and get married. We are grandparents. Forty-four years of marriage. Not all easy, but I wouldn't trade any of it.
The cancer diagnosis was especially devastating. At a time when Bertram and I should be enjoying our retirement, he is wracked with pain, lying in bed. He has asked me over and over to put an end to his suffering. I can't bring myself to do it. But after much reading and a garden this summer, I found the perfect answer—sleeping nightshade. So potent a person hovers between sleeping and death. Many times, they don't wake.
I have made it into a tea for my love. My Bertram, who willingly took the cup in his hands. Our eyes meet. I know that he knows this time is for real. I will take away his pain for good because of my love for him.
"Drink up." I smile and tell him a story, one of love and trust. Bertram yawns and lays back down. I watch his chest rise and fall. Bertram sighs as if in a dream. I tell him our story while holding his head in my lap. I am already regretting my decision, but it's too late. It won't be long now.
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