to come. She hadn’t seen him since her ninetieth birthday party threemonths earlier, when the whole family had come out to Brookhaven, Mis-sissippi, to celebrate with her. Robert came up from New Orleans to seeher only three or four times a year, and she was looking forward to seeinghim.
She looked out at the sky. There were four buzzards circling slowly
and gently over the farm. She remembered the rhyme she’d learned someeighty years earlier. “One for sorrow. Two for joy. Three for a letter. Fourfor a boy.” Well, she’d be getting a boy today. Robert. She’d actually be get-ting two boys. Robert would be coming with his friend, Joseph.
Patty Lou had long since stopped worrying about Robert being gay.
At first, being Mormon, she’d worried that he’d go to hell, but he stillseemed like a decent man. Then she’d worried about him catching AIDS. But he’d told her six years ago he had the AIDS virus, and he still seemedokay. He’d been taking medication right from the start and assured herhe’d be fine for many years to come. Now she just worried she wouldn’tsee him enough.
Patty Lou went and sat back down on her sofa. She had a window
unit air conditioner, which the family had forced her into buying fiveyears ago, threatening not to visit her again during the long summermonths unless she got one; but even though it was 90 degrees outside, shedecided to wait until closer to the time Robert and Joseph were comingbefore turning it on. She still believed natural air was healthier. She’dlived eighty-five years before getting an air conditioner, hadn’t she? Andnow, facing leukemia, she needed all the natural air she could get.
It wasn’t the same kind of leukemia her daughter, Marsha, had died
of twenty-one years earlier. Patty Lou still remembered seeing her daugh-ter in her temple clothes in her casket. She herself hadn’t converted till af-
ter Marsha’s death, doing so largely so she could be with her daughteragain. Marsha had had acute leukemia, while Patty Lou had chronic. There was more to the name than that, but she couldn’t remember it. Patty Lou remembered when she’d been diagnosed ten years earlier. Thedoctor had said, “With this disease, I’m afraid you’ve probably only gotten years to live.” Patty Lou had replied, “Well, I’m eighty. I’ll take it.” Butnow that the ten years had passed and the Leukeran pills no longerworked, ten years didn’t seem like enough. She knew heaven would benice, and it would be great to be with Marsha again. Patty Lou had hadMarsha sealed to her in the temple by proxy after joining the Church, andshe felt that the afterlife with her would be pleasant enough. She just was-n’t ready to go yet. Was it being selfish to still want to live when you wereninety years old? It might be, but she couldn’t help it. She liked beingalive.
As it neared noon, Patty Lou turned on the air conditioner in the
living room, and she heated some field peas and green beans on the stove. She also heated some mashed potatoes and a pot roast she had cooked ear-lier. The family had always loved her cooking, though it was simpleenough. It was one thing she could still do, so she did it. She ate well, eventhough she was just cooking for one most days. She wanted to stay healthy,and she was in pretty good shape, except perhaps for a bruise or two lately.
Around 12:30, Patty Lou heard the dogs barking outside. She went
to the door and saw Robert and Joseph walking up. Robert had dark hairand a graying beard, and Joseph was short and Italian-looking. Robert wasforty-three, the same age his mother had been when she died, and Josephwas fifty-five. How could her grandson be so old?
“Hi!” said Robert as she opened the screen door. “How’re you do-
“Okay.” They hugged, and both boys gave her a kiss. “Here. We brought you some treats.” Robert handed her a bag, and
she saw inside it a pack of chocolate-covered peanuts, some peanut buttercups, and a pack of maple-covered peanuts. She loved peanuts.
“Thank you,” she said. “Come on in the kitchen. Dinner’s ready.”The boys went in the bathroom to freshen up after their
two-and-a-half-hour trip while Patty Lou poured some Coke. She knew theChurch frowned on caffeine, but she also knew Robert liked Coke, so shealways served it when he came to visit. The boys soon joined her at thekitchen table, which was already set. Robert’s father, Henry, had made the
DIALOGUE: A JOURNAL OF MORMON THOUGHT, VOL. 40, NO. 4
table some forty-five years earlier. He’d left New Orleans to come back tothe country after Marsha had died and had married a local woman, Joann,a Baptist, a few years later. He no longer came to the Mormon meetings,but he still came by Patty Lou’s house every few months to bush-hog herweeds.
“Would you like to say the blessing?” Patty Lou asked Robert. He nodded and bowed his head. “Dear Heavenly Father. We thank
thee for this food, and we ask thee to bless it that it will be good for us. And we ask thee to please bless Grandma that her medicine will work andshe’ll be okay. And we ask this in Jesus’s name. Amen.”
Patty Lou liked to hear him use Jesus’s name. Robert had started go-
ing to the Jewish church in New Orleans when he’d been with his lastfriend, a Jew. She wasn’t sure God would take him to heaven as a gay per-son, but there was no sense making it worse by being a Jew. Of course, herdoctor was Jewish, and he seemed nice enough. Maybe being a Jew didn’tmatter, either.
“Your sister Joyce was up here last night for your dad’s tractor pull.
She came by for about fifteen minutes with Veronica before going to yourdad’s place,” she informed them. Joyce was a year older than Robert andalso lived in New Orleans. She came up to see her even less frequentlythan Robert, usually just for Christmas and maybe one other time a year. While Veronica was seventeen and still lived at home, Joyce’s oldest child,Mark, was twenty-seven now. He also lived in New Orleans and came upto visit his grandfather Henry several times a year. Patty Lou knew this andcouldn’t help but feel hurt that he usually never bothered to stop by to seeher as well.
“They’re doing okay?” asked Robert. “Yeah, I think so.”“Did Mark come up, too?”“I don’t know.”Mark usually rode in each of Henry’s tractor pulls, but Patty Lou
hadn’t asked Joyce if he was coming up yesterday. If he didn’t show up tovisit, it was better not to know he was in town. They were all still active inthe Church, at least, and that was some comfort. If they couldn’t be to-gether now, they might still be together later. Maybe she’d be more fun tobe with in heaven.
“Veronica still in the ROTC?”“I think so. They were only here fifteen minutes.” She took a sip of
her Coke. She had to admit, she liked it once in a while, too. “Y’all didn’twant to come up for the tractor pull?”
“It’s not really our thing.”After the meal, Patty Lou went out on the back porch and brought
in a yellow cake with chocolate icing. She brushed a few ants off the plateand set it down on the table. “I’ve got some Robbie-cake for you.” As achild, this was the only one of the several kinds of cake Patty Lou madethat Robert would eat, so it became known in the family as Robbie-cake. She still made it every time he came to visit.
“Thanks, Grandma.”When they’d finished eating, Robert washed the dishes in the sink.
The other grandkids never helped clean up. Patty Lou felt awkward aboutit, not liking to impose when they were visiting, but appreciating thethought. If they helped, it made her feel as if they thought she was weak,but their not helping made her feel unappreciated. It was bad either way. When Robert was through, they all went back in the living room to sitdown on the two sofas.
“How’s work?” asked Patty Lou, hoping she’d be able to hear over
“It’s okay,” said Robert. “A new girl just started at the library. She’s
obsessive-compulsive, so she drives me crazy.”
Patty Lou didn’t exactly know what that meant and didn’t really
care to ask. She was sorry Robert didn’t do something more importantwith his life, but no one in the family really had. Being a good person wasmore important than being successful, but why couldn’t you be both?“And how’s work for you, Joseph?”
“I just finished teaching summer school this week. I had some good
students. The fall semester starts in three weeks.”
“Y’all going anywhere?”“We’re going to San Francisco for several days next week,” said Rob-
Patty Lou nodded. The boys had spent two weeks in Europe in the
spring and now were going to California for a week, but they were comingto see her only for the afternoon. They weren’t even staying the night. Ofcourse, she knew she never had anything interesting to talk about. Shenever did anything different. Robert used to ask her to tell stories aboutwhen she was growing up, and he’d written her early history up in aforty-page booklet and given copies to everyone in the family, but there
DIALOGUE: A JOURNAL OF MORMON THOUGHT, VOL. 40, NO. 4
were no new stories to tell. At first, seeing the printed booklet had madeher feel important. But after a while, she felt dismayed that her whole life,her whole being, had been reduced to a mere forty pages. It seemedsomehow disappointing.
“How’s your blood count?” asked Robert. “It’s at 100,000. It was at 160,000, but it’s supposed to be 4,000, so
they want me to start chemotherapy tomorrow.”
“You have to go to the hospital?”“No, I just go to the doctor’s office for a half hour. They’ll give me
an IV for thirty minutes a day every day this week. Then I’ll be off it forthree weeks, and then we repeat it again the next month the same way, forfour months.”
“What’s the name of the drug?”Patty Lou got up and went to her dresser, returning a moment later
with a piece of paper. “It’s called Fludara.” She handed him the paper andlet him read about the drug.
“Possible kidney problems,” said Robert. “I guess you better drink
lots of water. Unless your feet swell up. I guess the doctor will tell you whatto do.”
“I just hope it doesn’t make me sick. Remember your mother? I
think the chemotherapy killed her before the leukemia would have.”
“Well, diarrhea isn’t supposed to be a problem,” said Robert, still
reading the paper, “but nausea might. You could be okay, though. The pa-per doesn’t say what percentage of people experience these side effects.”
“I’m just glad I don’t have to go to the hospital. People die in hospi-
tals. You never knew my sister Margaret Missouri. She went in the hospitalto have a tumor removed, and she got lockjaw and died. She was onlythirty-eight.”
“Tetanus,” said Robert. “How awful. Your whole body is just one
big charley horse for two days and then you die.”
“And my sister Nelda Sue. She was forty-four when she went in to
have her tonsils out. And she bled to death on the operating table.”
Patty Lou thought about the rest of her family. She was the ninth of
ten children, and now she was the only one left. James had died of diph-theria when he was three, and Aubrey had died in his twenties when theglass in the back of the truck he was driving caved in and the dirt he wascarrying suffocated him. Virginia, the youngest, was the last to go fiveyears ago, of cancer. Patty Lou’s parents were gone, her brothers and sis-
ters were gone, her husband was gone, her daughter was gone. She shouldbe ready to go, too, but she still wanted to stay a bit longer.
It wasn’t that the grandkids were so good to her, but she still liked
being around to see that they were okay. Her son, Shane, lived a couple ofmiles away and either he or his wife, Lisa, stopped by to see her every dayfor at least five minutes, but their two teenage sons didn’t come by any of-tener than Robert or Joyce.
No one called her, but she knew that was her fault. She could never
think of anything to say over the phone, and the conversation never lastedmore than two minutes. But Robert did write her every few months. Hereyesight was still good, so she enjoyed that. He often wrote her about hisgay friends, but that was okay. They seemed to be nice to him, and thatmade her feel good. She didn’t know if he was going to hell, but she stillwanted him to have a good life. A good life was important.
“They’ll probably stick you in a different vein every day this week,”
said Robert, “but I’m sure they have someone who will do it right andwon’t hurt you.”
“You think they’ll use a big needle?”“I expect it’ll be about medium.”“I hope I don’t start going downhill,” said Patty Lou. “I don’t want
a lingering death. I want to go in my sleep.”
“I hope you go in your sleep, too.”Patty Lou smiled. The others wouldn’t even talk about death, but
Robert did. She liked that. She wasn’t really afraid of death. She felt shewas going to heaven, maybe not the highest degree in the celestial king-dom, but heaven nevertheless. She’d always tried to be a good Christianback when she was Methodist, and she tried to be a good Mormon now. So she believed the afterlife would be good. She simply wasn’t ready to gojust yet. When she was a girl, they didn’t have running water. They had ahorse and buggy to get to town. They had kerosene lanterns for light in theevening. The world had changed so drastically since then. It certainly was-n’t all good, but it was definitely interesting. She didn’t want to miss it.
They managed to talk till 3:00. So often when the grandkids visited,
they would all just sit on the sofa in silence, struggling for something tosay. But today it had gone pretty well. Then at 3:00, Robert said he and Jo-seph had to go over and see Henry for an hour but would be back.
Patty Lou just sat on the sofa waiting for them. She didn’t really like
to read, and there was never anything good on TV on Sunday afternoon.
DIALOGUE: A JOURNAL OF MORMON THOUGHT, VOL. 40, NO. 4
She could listen to music or watch one of the videos the kids had givenher, but she preferred just sitting and thinking. She always had lots ofthoughts. She just never had anything to say. She thought again now ofthe possibility of death. She had her will made out already. She’d had itdone twenty years ago. Everyone got an equal portion. Of course, they’dhave to sell the two hundred acres and divide the money. She couldn’t di-vide the land seven or eight different ways.
Robert and Joseph came back around 4:30. The dogs barked again
but let them pass. “We went by the old buzzard tree down near the creek,”said Robert. “There must have been seventy-five buzzards in it. It was in-credible.”
“Yeah, they’re always out circling, waiting for something to die.”Patty Lou opened the pack of chocolate-covered peanuts, and every-
one ate a couple. She used a twist tie to close the package, and though theconversation had flowed pretty well before, now it seemed to flounder. “So you like San Francisco?” she asked.
“It’s great,” said Robert. “The weather’s always nice, in the 60s in
the day and 50s at night. The hills are pretty. And the city is clean andlively, not at all like New Orleans.”
Patty Lou had never been out of Mississippi, but of course she had
seen a lot on television. “Y’all planning any other trips?”
“We’ll probably go see my mom in New York for Thanksgiving,”
said Joseph. “She’s eighty-five and is having trouble walking.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.”They found a couple more things to talk about, and at 5:30, Patty
Lou heated up the supper. They ate mostly in silence.
“I want you to be one of my pallbearers,” said Patty Lou. It sounded
Robert stopped eating and nodded. “Okay. If I’m not too old by
“You won’t be.”They had cake, drinking milk with the evening meal instead of
Coke. Then they went back to the living room.
“Joann said she could take you to your doctor’s appointment a cou-
ple of times this week if it was too hard for Lisa to take you every day,” saidRobert. “She’s a retired nurse, so she could probably answer some of yourquestions, too.”
“I’ll think about it.” It was nice of Joann to offer, but Patty Lou
thought she’d feel too awkward with her, the woman who had replacedher daughter.
They sat in silence a while, looking at the wooden floor. Robert had
varnished it a few years ago on one of his trips up, but it was starting to getworn in places. Maybe if she was still alive next spring, he could do thefloor again.
Around 6:30, Robert stood up. “Well, I guess we better go before it
gets too dark. We’ll be praying for you tomorrow.”
Patty Lou hugged Robert and Joseph and opened the door for
them. “Will I see you before Christmas?”
“We’ll have to see what our schedule is like.”“All right.”Patty Lou gave Robert a jar of homemade pickles, and she stood on
the porch with the dogs as he and Joseph got in their car. They all waved,and soon the car had gone off down the curving gravel drive. Patty Loustood on the porch a moment longer after they left. There were still threebuzzards circling in the sky overhead. Three for a letter. Maybe someonewould write to her soon.
Patty Lou went back inside and turned off the air conditioner.
Then she sat back down on the sofa and stared at the floor. An hour laterwhen the sun went down, she was still sitting there, thinking.
Chemotherapy started tomorrow at 9:00, and she wanted to live.
She went to the kitchen, took out the pack of chocolate-covered peanuts,and brushed off the ants. She didn’t usually have two desserts, but if shewas going to be nauseated this week, putting on a few extra ounces nowwouldn’t hurt. She poured some milk and sat down to eat.
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