Dellie by Author Ellen J. Perry

Sitting on the side of her bed one Saturday morning (her body tense and rigid in contrast to her soft, worn white cotton nightgown and tattered blue chenille robe), Dellie braced for her grandchildren to come charging through the front door.  At that moment Dellie decided that she was ready for her life to be over.  With 67 years on her, she was just plain tired.  She had endured the struggle a lot longer than either of her parents and older siblings had.  So Dellie figured it was time, her death just a matter of fact that required a little advanced planning.  There were plenty of pain pills she’d been prescribed for debilitating migraines that she could, woops, take too many of by mistake.  Then “the rest is silence,” as Hamlet said.  Dellie had gotten that play off a book-trade cart and had never traded it back; Hamlet could get tiresome, she thought, but he had a couple of good points about death she’d committed to memory.  Dellie wanted silence – peace and quiet – more than anything, more than life on earth, which was damn sure full of “slings and arrows,” just like Hamlet said and just as she was certain this day was about to prove again.

Her weekdays consisted of housework, preparing to teach her Sunday school class (which was a cosmic joke because she no longer believed in anything, much less God), and baby-sitting her three grandkids, two snarly girls and one boy who at twelve was the oldest and worst-behaved of the trio.  Robby, Dana, and Michelle were as wild as the Ozarks where six generations of Dellie’s family had not so much lived as existed and tried to survive from one day to the next.  The family members’ collective experiences mirrored the landscape in northern Arkansas: rugged rocky terrain, rough high peaks and rushing rivers, heartbreak and loss lurking within the shadows of almost every steep valley.  Poverty and danger ran through Dellie’s family’s blood; there seemed no way out of such a predetermined fate.  No way out, that is, except for the quiet release that death would surely bring.  Dellie had thought more and more about it during the long hours leading up to her moment of decision on that Saturday.  She’d even gotten down a book of poems from a shelf of favorites she’d picked up from a flea market so she could have some books she didn’t have to return to the library; in a whisper, she read a line from Dickinson:  “Afraid!  Of whom am I afraid?  Not Death – for who is He?”  Dellie said to herself, “Huh.  Death is a man.  Well, that figures.”

While Dellie sat on her bed staring out the window, the grandchildren invaded her modest modular home and outright refused to catch up on their homework, preferring instead to watch wrestling on TV, forage like wild elk for her secret stashes of junk food, and beg her for money to buy more junk food at the convenience store down the road.  Moving slowly from the bed to the living room, Dellie asked the kids to do some simple chores to help out – even going so far as to put up a chore board by the TV – but they looked at her like she was crazy.  Dellie started to believe them.  She was crazy to have agreed to oversee these children while her son Dale was in Missouri for the day supposedly trying to find work.  No telling where their mother was, though the last they’d heard she was working as a bank teller in Little Rock.  She couldn’t keep a job for long, though, so her whereabouts were anybody’s guess.

Dellie finally decided she’d had enough, giving up on the Saturday chore list and retreating to her bedroom, still in her nightgown and robe at noon.  She hoped the Jehovah’s Witnesses wouldn’t come by to see what a shape she was in.  Even after closing her door she couldn’t escape the constant motion, the loud sounds booming all around her: three kids shouting and fighting in the next room, the TV volume on full blast, the neighbors bickering, a chainsaw ripping through tree limbs in the distance, cars coming and going.  Before she’d started thinking about ending it all, there were days when this disordered domestic life had almost made her want to return to the steady humming noise of the workplace where at least she’d be getting paid for her trouble.

The year before, Dellie retired from the Smithfield plant that, like many in the area, had since closed.  At the time she was ready to be done with that boring chapter of her life, ready to move forward into something new and stimulating, but fear kept getting in the way.  She asked herself once after a particularly contentious Bingo game at the church fellowship hall: “Dellie, what are you afraid of?” She knew the answer immediately: fear of disappointing people, mainly the church members, her son, her grandchildren, and most of all her dead parents who might be lingering in some in-between world and watching her every move.  This obsessive thinking started when Dellie served her husband with divorce papers just after their 25th wedding anniversary; she felt relieved but conflicted because as the family rock, she had let everybody down.  The marriage was over but the fear and echoes of failure and fragmentation remained.

Dellie’s ex-husband Frank had long since remarried, but she’d gotten word recently that Frank’s aunt Freddie (short for Freida) died of cancer up in Ohio and left a piece of property out by the lake – Freddie’s Arkansas vacation home – to Dellie alone.  Not to Frank and his new wife and family!  The property and the small cabin were all Dellie’s.  She and Freddie had stayed good friends even after the divorce; they’d shared that love of reading, of books Frank thought were a waste of time, but the gift of the cabin was such a surprise.  It was so quiet and still and perfect out there at the water’s edge.  But Dellie had the grandkids, her Sunday school class, various obligations and responsibilities.  What could be done?  She tried to accept her lot in life and wore her “Proud Grandma” t-shirts to Wal-Mart every week.  She figured she’d sell the cabin.  “How are you, honey?” her favorite check-out lady at Wal-Mart would ask her.  “Oh, just fine,” Dellie lied, smiling, hoping no one could see how close she was to giving up for good.

Lying down in her bed a little before 1:00 her thoughts moved from Freddie to Robby, her daredevil grandson, when she heard Robby take off on the four-wheeler that his dad had given him for his birthday.  She was so tired that she didn’t even care that Robby was riding it unsupervised, didn’t make a move to call him back closer to the house.  That shattering noise he made peeling out was the final straw, and she resolved to claim Freddie’s cabin and not tell anyone where she’d be living from here on out.  She could move over there when the kids were away on a youth group camping trip in two weeks’ time.  Maybe she’d leave a note, maybe not.  The family was already torn apart so nothing more needed to be said.

Dellie could be free out there at the lake like Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, like Louise Mallard before her husband reappeared as if resurrected and Louise died of the “joy that kills.”  Frank always told her she read too much, thought too much, went to volunteer at the library too much.  Maybe he was right.  Dellie closed her eyes and tried to drown out the annoying sound of the neighbor’s lawn mower rolling up and back, on and on, until she thought she might lose her mind.  Then the dogs started barking.  She pulled the curtains, curled up under the covers, and longed for peace.

About half an hour after Robby sped off on the four-wheeler, Dana and Michelle burst into Dellie’s room, screaming and crying, red-faced.  Dellie sat bolt upright in the bed and held the girls as they all slowly descended to the floor in a heap of horror and shock.  Robby had crashed into a brick wall of the closed Smithfield plant (which is what Dellie felt like she’d been doing for years); he just hit it, hard, drove into it at top speed.  The ambulance came but Robby had broken his neck and died on impact.  Nothing to be done.  The paramedics wouldn’t let the girls get close to him.  No one was able to tell Robby good-bye, say a prayer, or do anything to ease the boy’s abrupt transition from chaotic life to the absolute and final stillness of death.

“Didn’t you hear the sirens, Mamaw?” Dana wailed.  “Didn’t you hear us hollering for you?”

Dellie knew she would be haunted by these questions for the rest of her existence.  After all the years she’d spent being the cautious and responsible one in the family, the caretaker, the rescuer, she had heard nothing when it really mattered because she wasn’t alive enough to leave the relative safety of her bedroom, turn down the TV, ask the neighbors if they could mow another time, and quiet the barking dogs in the other neighbors’ backyard.  By the time the girls had shouted for help, Robby and Dellie were both already as good as dead.

Dellie held her granddaughters for a long time and reflected on the fact that there was only one thing left to do.  Well, two things.  She had to arrange Robby’s funeral – who else was going to do it? – and then finalize her own death.  The first task was fairly straight-forward; she called her son Dale to deliver the awful news, went to see old man Wiley down at Wiley and Sons Funeral Home, ordered flowers for the casket, wrote a short obituary for a short life.  Like a mechanized thing, not a human being, she went through the motions of the service a few days later, comforted grieving loved ones as they filed in, and managed Dale’s drunken sobbing by gesturing for the younger Mr. Wiley who took Dale to the Care Room at the funeral home.

Distant and removed as she was from the sadness of the proceedings, Dellie wondered what in the world people did in the Care Room.  Sober up with coffee?  Listen to one of the Wileys read from the Bible?  Roll around on the floor?  That got her to thinking – while the preacher was up at the front telling what a fine young man Robby had been – about her pain pills.  She had them in her purse and could start swallowing them now.  Hell, within the hour she could stumble into the Care Room, collapse, pass on to the great beyond, and people would think she’d died of grief alone, grief for her precious grandson.  It would be like a Kate Chopin story but better for the absurdity of it.  Old man Wiley could even use the same flowers for her casket that she’d ordered for Robby’s.  Efficiency had always been Dellie’s middle name.

Just as Dellie reached into her purse to locate the pill bottle and started toward the bathroom with a cup of water, June Sizemore from Dellie’s Sunday school class caught up to her.  “Oh, Dellie,” June said, black mascara running down her face.  “What a awful tragedy.  Oh, Lord, help them,” June called to the ceiling.  “Bless this sweet family.”

“Thank you, June,” Dellie said.  “I need to check on – ”

“Oh, sweet Jesus, help us, what would Freddie say if she was alive?”  June flung her hands in the air, a sodden handkerchief flopping from one side to the other like a dead fish.  “Freddie would make it all right, she’d know what to do.”

As June zig-zagged off to find the head Deacon (had she gotten into whatever booze was being passed around outside in secret?), Dellie slipped into a dimly-lit chapel way down the hall from where Robby’s service was still going on.  She sat down on a pew, surrounded by sweet silence, and considered the truth of what June said.  For sure Freddie had always made everything all right, no matter what.  She was gone but Dellie remembered the last words Freddie had written to her on that wrinkled-up hospital notepaper.

Dellie, you’ll know when to go to the cabin.  It’s yours when you’re ready.  Sit out on that front porch and breathe in the quiet and read.  Don’t you let nobody take that away from you.  Not Frank, not your grandbabies, not nobody.  That space is for you to LIVE in.  And don’t pay no attention to nobody who says you’re a disappointment or don’t deserve it or whatever you might be thinking about right now.  You’ve earned it.  I’ll see you on the other side.  Love, Freddie.

Dellie moved from the chapel pew to the bathroom and flushed her pain pills down the toilet.  Great day in the morning, she hoped she hadn’t clogged the thing or old man Wiley would have a fit.  Then Dellie started to laugh a little.  She knew she shouldn’t be laughing at a time like this but the thought of old man Wiley – or better yet, his wife Beatrice J. Wiley – coming in there after the service to find the toilet plugged up with painkillers just tickled her to death.

Oh, Lord.  It nearly tickled Dellie to death.