Honest Work

Marilyn Gear Pilling

Your husband has the car for the weekend. You need a car to visit your friend in the hospital tomorrow morning and Sunday morning. The hospital is eight kilometres away. Should you rent a car, call a taxi, take two buses, or walk?

Your husband has the car for the weekend. You need a car to visit your friend in the hospital tomorrow morning and Sunday morning. The hospital is eight kilometres away. Should you rent a car, call a taxi, take two buses, or walk?

You decide to ride your bicycle.

There is no question of staying home. This is no ordinary friend. You met this man three years ago, when he became a consultant at the college where you’re an administrator. That very first afternoon—the three-hour meeting, coffee afterwards—you knew. All by themselves, every one of your candles with a pointed fire on top.

By morning, it’s cloudy and cold for May. To hell with riding your bike. After all, the complex land form known as the Niagara Escarpment is between you and the hospital.

You can hardly read the small print in the phone book anymore, even wearing glasses, so you call the company with the brilliant idea of giving itself the number 777-7777.

What luck, every light but one is green for the cab. You tell the driver that you are going to walk home. This is when you learn that the hospital is eight kilometres from where you live. The driver says he could not walk that distance. You tell him you are fifty-nine, and you can walk that far. How old is he?

“Thirty,” he says.

(You had hoped he would reply by saying that you don’t look fifty-nine.) He tells you that last summer he walked up the stairs of the Niagara Escarpment three times a week for exercise. He says he hasn’t started yet this year. You tell him it’s time. As the cab mounts the cut in the escarpment, you wonder whether you could really have ridden your bike.

When you reach the hospital, it’s forty-five minutes until visiting hours. You go up to the room your friend shares with three others anyway. No one notices, or maybe no one cares. You spray the germs off your hands before you go through his door.

Your friend beams at you from his bed. He is five days post-op. The only way you could tell, this past month of April, that he was facing surgery for a cancer that was “almost certain” to have spread, was that the sun had gone out in his eyes. But you can feel his warmth today, even through the clouds.

You comment on his right arm. Black and blue and yellow from wrist to elbow. He says he must be sure to hide it from his two young grandchildren, who’ll be visiting tomorrow afternoon. You ask what you can get for him and which part of him is uncomfortable. He asks for ice water, tells you about his haemorrhoid.

He wants to know what you’ve been doing and you reply that you are digging, planting, letting your head fill with lilac panicles and bleeding hearts and lime green heuchera petals. You say that the conversation you had with him a year ago about your driven nature took time to have its effect, but that this spring, for the first time in your life, you’ve been able to stop pushing yourself to accomplish things and just wallow in May as a pig wallows in the sty.

He laughs.

You tell him that you go out every morning in your bare feet and housecoat, and fill the birdbath to the brim. You describe the robin who bathed herself so thoroughly that she looked like a ruffed grouse, the pair of mourning doves who descend squeakily to the rim and finally step clumsily into the water. The cat who looks exactly like the stone—the stone this friend let you take from his beachfront last summer—that now sits in the circle of soil that surrounds your birdbath. The cat is the same shade of silver-grey, the same size, and it folds its ears in such a way that their shape is the shape of two bumps at the top of the stone. The cat nests in the warm soil beneath the birdbath and turns itself into a sculpture that echoes the stone.

Your friend’s feet are cold. You tuck your tomato-red woollen cardigan above and around the thin blue sheet that covers them.

“You are so sympathetic,” he says.

This is not spoken with the intention of flattering you. It is intended as a simple statement of fact. A simple mirroring of your behaviour. And it is accurate. You are sympathetic. You are sympathetic because you love this man.

You don’t say this aloud, the way you’d probably say it aloud to one of your woman friends. It’s a potent word, love, especially when spoken. You have to be careful. This is a married man, devoted to his wife. You don’t want to scare him away. You say instead that you are sympathetic because you’ve been where he is. This too is true.

The woman who hooks up the televisions comes in to do her job. Your friend tries to help her, though moving is difficult for him. As she untangles a cord from his bed railing, you see him turn his head slightly to read the name on her wrist tag. He knows the name of everyone who comes into the room to help him, and he uses it. Later, he mentions to Hilda, his nurse of the day, that the staff work as a team. Earlier, there’d been a spill; others hurried into the room to help Hilda clean it up. More accurate noticing. The nurse is pleased that he has seen and commented on the working habits of her colleagues. She smiles, and moves to the next patient, extra bustle in her step.

Part of your pleasure in this man is in being aware of him noticing things, the seeing that goes on no matter what else he is doing. There is no mote in his eye. As you watch Hilda gather her equipment and leave the room, still with that extra spring in her step, you remember that Simone Weil once defined love as close attention.

You ask if he’d like to walk down the hall.

“Not like,” he says, with that cloudy smile. “But I’ll do it.”

You ask if he needs help getting up.

“I can do it myself today if I take it slowly,” he says.

You skim through the first section of The Globe and Mail as he sits up with great care, inches to the edge of his bed, untangles the tubes that exit his body and lead to his IV, to the drainage bag, and to the bag that holds his urine, which, you note, is bloodier today than yesterday. He slips feet into slippers and looks around for his housecoat. You unfold and hold it ready. Yesterday, he didn’t care, did the walk in the flappy hospital gown. The niceties are reasserting themselves. A good sign.

The pair of you shuffle down the hall. A middle-aged woman holding onto a walker comes towards you. All her being is concentrated on each step. Her brown hair is white at the roots, flat on one side, sticking out on the other. As you pass the big windows of the lounge, you glimpse islands of blue in the cloud-dark sea above.

Once, you said to your friend that when you think of him, the sentence that comes most often to your mind is And Mary kept these things and pondered them in her heart. “You notice things, you say nothing, and later you ponder them in your heart.”

He turned to you that day and beamed from brown eyes in which the sun was still out. “But that’s exactly what I do.” Yes, this noticing and silent pondering is the heart of his essential life.

You are reading Jude the Obscure aloud to him when the doctor comes in. Both of you have been taking pleasure in the compound-complex sentences, the nineteenth-century diction, the space Thomas Hardy allows himself to develop a story. The doctor says he has the pathology results. You get up and leave, walk to the end of the hall, look at your watch, stand where you can see the door of his room. Far below, on the sidewalk, people are going about their Saturday errands. When you are in the world of this corridor, that world recedes further than the blue islands in the dark sky.

The doctor emerges seven minutes later. You walk back down the hall. Your heart squeaks like a mourning dove that flies towards the birdbath under which sits a suspicious sculpture. When you get to the door, your friend is already on the phone. You hear him say his wife’s name and you back away.

You don’t think that he would call his wife one second after hearing bad news. You don’t think the doctor would come in on a Saturday morning to deliver bad news. Yet, the surgeon’s “almost certain to have spread,” rings in your ears so loudly that it almost drowns out your squeaky heart.

You wait a while, then return to the room. Aggressive, nasty tumour though it was, the cancer was confined to its original site. The surgeon was surprised and pleased. This is the news your friend gives you when you sit down on the bed and take his hand.

Both of you develop a smile that goes from sea to shining sea. Your face turns hot which means red, and one tear rolls over your smile. Your friend is composed as always. He holds your gaze, as always.

Partway through the next chapter of Jude the Obscure, your friend’s wife arrives, a medley of spring colour—her clothes, the bouquet of flowers she holds. She hugs her husband, hugs you. All of you rejoice. All of you drink the banana smoothies she has brought.

Your sister has warned you. You can’t be friends with a married man if his wife doesn’t want you to be. Luckily, you are mad for banana smoothies. Luckily, your friend’s wife has chosen a smoothie with only one hundred and seventy-two calories. The two of you agree that this makes a fine lunch. She likes to keep her weight down too.

Smoothie down the hatch, you air-kiss them both and leave.

One of the pleasures of these visits has been walking through the unfamiliar neighbourhood around the hospital. Today, you enter a shop of Indian saris. The graceful lines and sparkling designs, the sheen of fuchsia, turquoise, saffron, orange, emerald green—an inundation of beauty so intense it turns painful and you have to leave.

On the way to your car the other day, you explored the wooded area of a small park on the edge of the escarpment. You happened on a place where the rock face dropped sheer to the expressway. You went right to the edge, held onto a sapling with your left hand and leaned out to see the drop. You wondered whether your friend’s pathology would knock him over or keep him here with his family and friends.

It turns out that you, like the thirty-year-old cab driver, cannot walk to your home from the cancer hospital. The distance was shorter in your mind. By the time you are two thirds of the way home, you feel like your long-gone uncle’s knackered old mare.

You are on a street with little shops. As you drag yourself along, you see, miraculously, an old friend coming toward you, coffee in hand. You tell him where you started walking, where you’re headed. You show him your weary bones, almost ready for the soup pot. “I will not suffer thy foot to walk another step,” he says. “Stay here while I get my car.”


After a bagel to supplement the banana smoothie, which now seems sparse fare as lunch, you edge beds in your front yard, then beat with your shovel clumps of dirt bound with the roots of wayward grass. When most of the precious topsoil has fallen back into the bed, you bend over and toss the grass onto a pile.

It’s early evening when you finish. You pour a glass of red wine, scoop up a handful of pretzels, and slump onto the wooden bench behind your house. Your back is against warm brick, for the sun has come out. You suck a pretzel into mush. You feel as contented as you assume a cow would feel, she who knows only this lick of salt, this green, this chewing.

A silver car pulls up beside your hedge. A woman of about fifty gets out, locks the car, and walks away. She is wearing a dowdy black suit. How can anyone wear a dowdy black suit when all creation is ruffing out like a robin in the throes of transformative grooming?

Your feet throb from walking; your hands throb from shovelling. Your mother would have said that today you did “a stroke of honest work.” Her sentence would have ended with “for a change,” but never mind that right now. You suppose that honest work, in the way she meant it, is work that you can see or smell or taste or feel with your body.

You watch a sparrow flitter and rattle into a neighbour’s eavestrough, where it has its nest. It occurs to you that love—the kind that goes from self to other—is really honest work. It exercises the muscles of your mind. It feeds blood to your heart. It fills you with a pulsing warmth that allows you to sit in the sun with no jumping in your belly and no need to get up and do the boring jobs on your to-do list.

You finish your snack, stand up and stretch, knuckle your itchy orbs; no one ever saw every little miracle of May with a mote in her eye. The radio has said that frost is possible tonight. You’d better cover your newly-planted annuals with newspaper. You’d better tote bricks to hold the newspapers down. More honest work.

All week, the ostrich ferns have been unscrolling. Tonight, you see that their tender green necks are almost erect. One round temporary eye at the tip. You kneel beside the shed, lift bricks onto the garden walk. By the time the ferns have unscrolled completely, they won’t need the eye. They’ll see the world that surrounds them with every cell of themselves.

Marilyn Gear Pilling lives in Hamilton, Ontario. She is the author of two books of short fiction and four collections of poetry. Her most recent book is The Bones of the World Begin to Show (Black Moss Press, 2009). A new book is forthcoming from Cormorant in the spring of 2013.

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