So, I found this on my hard drive from five years ago, nearly complete (minus the last paragraph) and decided to toss it up. By doing so, I completely violate the terms of the "five things" meme, and also revisit a fandom I left four years ago. But this was my alternate fifth piece. If anyone else out there still cares about TeddyxHenry, hope this provides a smile on a sunny Sunday.
Teddy has always known that Henry was going to die before her. He is older, male, and regularly has his organs exposed to the world. VHL isn't terminal, as he reminded her many, many times over the course of their life together, but it does have a high risk of attendant fatal complications. Unless she gets in a freak accident or gets an aneurysm, she has known, since the day she fell in love with him, that she would be the one to bury a spouse. It is statistically inevitable.
This is when he dies. He is 71 years old. They have been together 30 years. He saw Hannah graduate from med school. He got to go to Max's White Coat Ceremony. He visited Sam in Berlin, where he is working as a bioengineer for a pharmaceutical company. They have taken twenty-four vacations together, and remodeled the kitchen three times. He is three years retired, after having spent fifteen years as the executive director of the Washington-Alaska branch of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He gave wishes to 12,321 sick kids.
She is 67 years old. She performed her last high-stakes procedure five years ago. She does research now, and teaches out of the University of Washington. She loves teaching. Their house on Mercer Island has an enormous garden, which she tends, laughing at herself a little the entire time. She gardens, for crying out loud. She sees Hannah, who came back to Seattle for her residency, several times per week and talks to Max, who is in Philadelphia and constantly freaking out about which surgical specialty to choose, at least daily. She tries to call Sam every day, but he is notoriously bad at communication, and the distance only makes it worse. He worries about her, though.
They are happy. They spend their whole days together, and she thinks that, given how otherwise healthy he is, how healthy she is, they may have twenty more years of this. They could make it to fifty. But less than a month after he gives Hannah away at her wedding, a routine scan shows several tumors peppering his remaining kidney and pancreas. She's used to that. He gets tumors all the time these days. But during surgery Dr. Parness (the protégé of Cristina Yang's protégé, which should give one an idea of how absolutely young she is) realizes they are malignant, and she cannot get all of them without taking out his renal artery. She closes him up and lets them know that it's chemo first.
This time, though, feels different. Treatment is full-time, and he's just … he's tired. He fights because he is Henry, and so of course he fights. But it takes a lot out of him, and it keeps spreading — instead of the scans showing diminished tumor growth as they inevitably beat it back, they keep multiplying. Kidneys, pancreas, gone. Lungs, stomach, next. Liver, bones, consumed like candy. It's full-blown, stage IV, metastasized kidney cancer, in a 71-year-old who already only has one kidney. She doesn't need the medical degree (or two kids in the stages of medical training, which means they think they know everything) to tell her that it's Very Bad. His condition is, finally and fatefully, terminal.
Like most conversations over the course of their relationship, they are at the hospital when they finally have The Talk. Dr. Parness, who is mildly terrified of messing things up (she's still terrified of Cristina), is explaining the latest procedure she recommends trying, a bone removal.
"What are the risks?" Henry asks again, though she knows he knows them. He didn't ever go to medical school, but years of being a patient and being married to her has made him fluent. He doesn't need the doctor to explain anything to him.
"Well, we'll be removing a good portion of your hip, but we'll be using a robot, so the risks of infections or complications from the surgery itself are minimal," she says earnestly.
"But most of my hip will be gone. I could be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. It'll be like some 1950s horror movie: The Boneless Man," he says. He mimics a zombie walk in bed, noodly arms floating like they were dismembered in front of his body.
"Henry," she groans. He was being cutting, not funny, but Dr. Parness doesn't know that, so the young doctor tries laughing.
"It will limit your mobility, but in terms of risks go, it's not the riskiest surgery you've had. And you do have an incredibly strong support system at home," she nods at Teddy, "which will make the transition more livable."
"But this won't be the last surgery. And it'll still be terminal, anyways."
"Well, yes," she admits. "But this is where most of the growth seems to be right now, so if we get it, then there's a chance we could control the cancer with chemo and radiation for the next several weeks or months."
Weeks or months. She hates that.
Henry looks at the young, young doctor, and then says, tiredly, "Can I have a minute to talk to my wife about this, please?"
"Of course," Dr. Parness says, and quickly nods and walks out.
They're quiet for a minute. "What do you think?" he finally asks.
She shrugs. "It's a good surgery. Dr. Parness is pretty good. She's not me, but hey," she tries a joke.
"It's hard to beat one Theodora Altman," he says. "I'm just … I'm not sold that it'll work. And it's pretty drastic. They're removing bones."
"They've run the tests. The metastasizing cells are emanating from your hip now. If they get this, they will slow it for the next several weeks, hopefully. It's not a risky procedure."
"But it's not going to work long-term," he says, gently, and she's not sure what he's getting at.
"Henry, but it's not risky, and coming out of it you'll be okay. Not great, and you might be in a wheelchair, yes, but this will give you extra weeks, months," she is getting a little hysterical. "When it's being in a chair versus living an extra six months, I'm not sure what the holdup is. If you were my patient I'd recommend this!"
"I'm not your patient, I'm your husband," he says, his voice still that patient tone. He's always one step ahead of her on the VHL, holding her hand. She's never gotten used to it. She's a doctor and she's never quite gotten a handle on this disease.
"Exactly, which is why I really want you to get the damn surgery!"
"It's not about this surgery, Ted," he says.
"Then what is it about, Henry," she says, sitting on his bed and taking his hand. Pleading with him. "Tell me what it's about, then!"
"Teddy, whether or not I get this surgery — the fact is, this time, you and I both know it's probably my time," he says, putting a hand on her cheek. "And let's face it, that's something we have to talk about."
"I don't want to talk about it," she says petulantly. Because she doesn't.
"I know. I don't either," he says. "But for me — this'll be easy. I've been getting ready for it since before I met you," he reminds her. "For you and for Hannah, for Max and Sam — you're the people it's going to be hardest for. And we need to talk about that."
She's terrified of losing him. Terrified. She's lost hundreds of patients, dozens of friends in Iraq. Those were nothing. She lost Cassandra in the Twin Towers, and she's pretty sure that won't even be comparable. Henry — being married to Henry, raising children with Henry, taking care of Henry, having Henry take care of her — has been her entire world for almost 30 years. She's not sure how to redefine herself if (when) he dies. He's had at least two — and as many as 18, before they found the drug regimen — surgeries a year since they were married, so she should have been better prepared for this. She's always felt the pull of the borrowed, stolen time. But in the long interludes between surgeries and life-and-death moments, they had carved out a full, magical life. He is her partner, her other and better half.
She tucks herself against his side in the narrow bed, the way they used to whenever he was in the hospital. "If we do this surgery, you'll have a few extra months, probably," she says, breathing noisily. She is not crying. She. Is. Not. Crying. "But then after that they'll probably be other regimens to try, to keep pushing a little more."
"Is that what you want?"
"Henry," she groans. Because it is. It is exactly what she wants. She will always want more time with him.
"Is it? Because if it is I'll do it."
She knows he will. That's the thing. How long he lives from here on out, it's her decision. Would she rather see him keep fighting and give it all he has, let drastic surgeries and chemo destroy his body and put him through unimaginable pain just so she can get a few more weeks with him? And would they even be worthwhile weeks? Or should she let him go, give him the drugs and the surgeries just to manage pain? Would she be okay letting her husband go, would her husband, in the end, be okay with that? Her children? He's already so weak, already in so much pain, already willing to die or live for her.
"The one thing I don't want," he says, "is to die on the table. To go into surgery and just never wake up again."
"I won't let that happen," she breathes. "I promise." She takes a deep breath. "This surgery — it'll give us about three months, on the outside, probably. Probably more like one or two, before they need to do something else." She looks at him. "I think — I think that's enough time to say goodbye. Get everything in order. Can I — can I ask you to do this last one? We won't have them remove too much of the bone. And that'll … that'll be it."
He looks at her and nods. Okay.
She's the one who has to call Sam, call Max, talk to Hannah. She needs to prep them all. Once he's resting she starts with Sam, sweet and brilliant Sam. Sam is their creative, intellectual, artistic child, but he's so much more, too: In high school he starred in all the musicals and then also kicked ass at the Science Fair and captained three sports teams. Sam is the one who will listen before yelling.
She knows it's late in Germany but she dials the memorized digits. Sam's sleepy, alarmed voice goes, "H'lo? Mom, is everything alright?"
"Hey, Samuel," she says, struck not for the first time about how drastic a 9-hour time difference really is. "How's it going?"
"Good. Is Dad okay?"
"Yeah, for now," she says, taking a deep breath. "For now."
"What's that mean?" he says, his voice much calmer now.
"It means … Your dad and I made some decisions today, Sam. We're going to switch to a more palliative regimen after his surgery tomorrow."
"Palliative," Sam's voice is flat. He might be her only child not training to become a doctor but he's a bioengineer, he designs synthetic hearts and diabetes drugs. He knows the word palliative.
"Yes," she says firmly. "It's not getting any better. Any further drastic treatments are only going to add days or weeks, and at a huge cost to him physically and emotionally. He'd probably go into a coma first, then go, and he'll have a higher risk of dying due to complications. And he … he doesn't want that, Sam, he doesn't. He doesn't want to die on the table, or be so drugged up his last days … his last days that he can't say good-bye to any of us." At that point the tears overwhelm her. Sam lets her cry. "So he's having one more, that should probably give us a few months, and that's going to let us have time to say good-bye," she says. "We'll know more after he has the operation tomorrow."
Sam is quiet. She can tell he's struggling to process it. Sam has always been the introverted child, the one both of them had the most trouble reaching. "What are you thinking?" she begs, finally.
"I'm thinking I should come home soon, then," he says.
"Probably, yes," she says, trying to stay brave. "Maybe you and Max can come home in a few weeks, at the same time. I think he'd like that."
"Yeah," Sam says, and she can tell her baby boy is near tears. "Yeah. Okay. I'm guessing I was your first call? I'll give you an hour or so to call Max and then I'll send him an email. Maybe next weekend ... We'll come home, okay, Mom?"
"Sounds good, baby," she replies.
"How are you doing?"
She shrugs, though she knows he can't see her. "It's hard, Sam. It's hard."
"Don't sit alone during his surgery, okay?" Sam says. "Get Uncle Owen or Aunt Arizona or someone to sit with you."
"Promise," she says, before they say their good-byes and hang up.
Next up is Max. Max was the quarterback on the football team in high school, and that's what he is in all of their lives. He is bright and charming and relentlessly outgoing, and always the ringleader. He was the homecoming king and the one almost kicked out of Lakeside for masterminding the senior prank. That's her Max. He will run a hospital one day.
"Mom!" he says cheerfully as soon as he picks up. "Guess what I saw today? A Fontan procedure. It was probably the coolest thing I have ever seen. Did you ever perform one?"
"About two or three a year, yeah," she replies, focusing on his budding surgical career. He is a third-year med student, currently in observational rotations at Penn, but he knows he wants to be a surgeon.
"Can you show me the handwork next time I'm at home? Because the way this surgeon … I mean, Mom, you and Cristina are absolute rock stars, so if I was impressed by this chick I can't wait to see what you can do, and, also, one of my surgery profs talked about the Yang Method the other day, and I was just sitting there, laughing, because all of you guys have your names on these awesome —"
"Max," she says, cutting in gently before her starry-eyed son can continue boosting his ego through association with his famous not-really-relatives, "Max. I called for a reason."
He instantly deflates. "Is it Dad?"
She walks him through everything, quietly. He pushes back, demands why, as a doctor, she's advising a patient to stop a line of treatment, why she's not demanding more, getting more weeks and days. He's arguing, and he's damn good at it. Finally she just says, "This is what he wants, Max."
He can't argue with that. "I should come home, then," he says.
"Sam … Sam thinks you guys should pick a weekend when you can both come out, when he's still doing well," she says. "I think that's a good idea. And then you can all … I think it's a good idea."
"I'll talk to Sam," he promises before hanging up.
Next left is Hannah Banana, the hardest conversation and the one that she has to do in person. Hannah had loved Seattle Grace growing up — she could still remember when both her parents worked there — and had turned down Mass Gen and Johns Hopkins residencies after Columbia Med to come back. Once her dad had gotten sick, she had tried to be more involved in his treatment, but the internship year had been more insane than she had even anticipated; besides, treatment and Henry's illness has forever been something handled by the two of them, nobody else. It is a part of their marriage bond, and they prefer it that way. Hannah is both of them, Teddy and Henry, all at once: She is exactly like Teddy, but she is, devotedly and undoubtedly, a daddy's girl. Hannah will be devastated.
She knows her daughter is somewhere in SGMW, and so she texts her and asks her to meet her in the cafeteria. "Hey, Mom," she says, her voice chirpy when she finds her. Hannah is at the glorious golden phase of her life: recently married, loving the internship, everything slotting neatly into its place. There's a glow, and it makes it hard for her to sometimes see anyone else's problems.
"Hey, baby. How's work going? Did I catch you at a bad time?" She schools her face carefully.
"No, no, it's crazy but it's good. I was with Dr. Reyes today," Dr. Reyes specializes in children's oncology. Hannah is much more interested in long-term treatment of patients than cutting, but oncologists do their internships in another field before transferring over, so she was completing a surgical internship before transferring into the oncology residency program. "It's so sad, but fascinating," she replies. "I wanna talk to Aunt Arizona about it. If she thinks peds oncology would be a good fit. I know I was thinking surgical oncology but I think this is better. I keep meaning to call her or ask her out to lunch or something."
"I think you'd be great with them, honey, but it'd be hard."
"I know, but there's always going to be something hard about being a doctor, you know? I want the hardness to be worthwhile."
A lump forms in her throat. "I have something pretty hard I need to talk to you about, actually," she admits.
Hannah cries. A lot. Hannah gets out her cell to call the head of oncology, to call Dr. Parness, to call Owen (though he has absolutely zero power now), to call Lexie. She tells Teddy that it's just a pride thing; that Henry is being too proud to possibly be in a chair and that she (Teddy) is too proud to act as her husband's nurse for the rest of his life.
"Hannah," she finally says, gripping her daughter's hands. "I would change bedpans for your father. This is the hardest decision I've ever had to make. This is me, as a wife, making the decision, with my husband. Your dad wants to be able to say good-bye, and he wants to remember things, and he would absolutely keep pushing on with surgeries, if that's what I wanted, but I can't. I can't make him, Hannah, all right? He's my husband; he's the love of my life. I am not okay with this, but … it's what's going to happen, Banana. We can't stop this, this time. It's terminal. You've seen the charts. You know it's terminal. And he needs you to be strong, okay, baby?"
All Hannah can do in response is cry more. Eventually Teddy sends her back to the Pit, though she's pretty sure that's a terrible idea, and tells her to come visit her dad that evening.
Henry finally wakes up around 6 p.m. She's sitting in a chair reading the latest issue of NEJM. "Hey," she says, moving to sit beside him. "I talked to all the kids, and the boys are coming home next weekend. Your surgery is tomorrow at 11 a.m."
He nods. "Are you going home tonight?"
She balks. "Of course not, Henry." And so she stays.
Lexie would let her observe the surgery from the gallery, even though she no longer has privileges, but she honestly can't bear it. It will just lead to a buildup of frenetic energy, energy that could only be excised through surgery, and she doesn't do surgery anymore. She forced Hannah to keep working, and knows that Hannah will probably pop in several times, but she has actually opted to sit out in the waiting room. She'd meant to call Arizona for company but had completely forgotten. Lexie, however, had called in reinforcements; barely ten minutes after the surgery began, Owen appeared at the waiting room door. Without speaking, he sat next to her.
She looks at him, her brother, wryly. He speaks first. "You know, I still remember that morning when you called me and asked me to be your witness at your wedding. I thought you were insane."
"You made that pretty clear," she points out. He really had. "I've been to interfaith weddings where the Jewish grandmothers are less judgmental."
"My point," he says gently, wrapping an arm around her, "is that marrying that man is probably the best decision you've ever made. Ever. And even though I was a little … skeptical at the wedding, thank you for inviting me to be your witness." She sinks into his embrace, craving support.
"You were still my best friend, Owen," she says, "I couldn't get married without you. And your judgmental face."
He laughs. "What I still don't get, though," he continues, "is why Henry?"
"What do you mean?"
"You'd seen plenty of patients, in terrible conditions, needing insurance, needing help, and the one that you randomly decide to help out by marrying — turns out to be Henry. And you two click. And you make it work and you have three beautiful children and thirty years together. It just seems ... incredibly lucky, that's all."
She shrugs. She still doesn't know why. "I don't know, it just did. It's one of those things I can't explain, that I had to do. Like you inviting me to come to Seattle. It wasn't planned, but when it came along, I had to do it.'" She smiles. "I don't know why. I was so upset about Cristina and about Arizona and it just happened. Thank God, you know?" Because she can't imagine what other way her life might have gone: Everything from deciding to go to med school on seemed like a step in the path to meeting Henry. Leading her to here. Leading her to this and to now.
"Yeah. I'm very glad you did," he says.
Arizona shows up soon after, and the surgery doesn't take long, anyways; he's awake in three hours. He's a little stoned, but, as she promised him, he did not die on a table. They both go home from the hospital two days later. She knows that it is her last time entering the hospital as the worried wife of a surgical patient. It's much worse than the feeling she had the last time she left as a surgeon.
Over the next few weeks Hannah is an overwhelmingly present daughter, as much as an intern can be. When she can't be there, she sics Josh on them, and it's lucky Henry likes him so much. Their son-in-law eats almost every dinner with them for the next several days. The boys call daily, worried, but their children's puttering just feels like white noise to Teddy and Henry. They are in their last days together, and they know it. She's still hugely uncomfortable with the idea, but their suspended state of being means that their lives move slower. They get up, she helps him get ready, they make breakfast together, sit on the sun-porch, backs resting on opposite ends of the wicker couch, trade books. Sometimes friends visit — people from the hospital, old coworkers and acquaintances from Make-A-Wish, neighbors, people they've collected over the years — but usually only for a few hours, in the afternoon. There's no longer any urgency attached to their lives. They exist in a suspense-less infinity, just him and her. They could have two days or two hundred like this. If he weren't dying, it would be wonderful. His test results show that the cancer was slowed by surgery but still spreading quickly. He doesn't have much time.
The boys fly out on a Friday; she picks up Max from his 2 o'clock flight but asks Hannah grab Sam and his girlfriend Charlotte, as they don't get in until 7. Max meets her at baggage claim lugging two backpacks of med-school texts. She frowns at them disapprovingly. This is probably their last weekend as a family.
"Mom — you did med school," he grumbles, noticing her stare. "I had to study on the plane."
"Fine," she says, putting her arm around him. "But we're probably going to see … well, everyone, this weekend. No shop talk."
"Mom, I'll have Cristina Yang and Derek Shepherd in the same room with me. Can't I at least take advantage?" he teases lightly.
"They changed your diapers," she reminds him.
He laughs, then sobers. "So how's Dad?"
"He's … trying to make the most of it," she says. "But Max, this is going to be hard, okay?"
Her son nods. The last time he looked that scared and innocent, she thinks, was when he was six and fell off the carousel, breaking his leg. They had called Callie Torres, then an ambulance. "He's retained some mobility and prefers to move around with crutches or a cane, but he can't walk for very long stretches, which is tough for him. So he mostly spends his time sitting. We make one good walk around the block in the morning and that's kind of it," she continues. "Otherwise, he's fine — he's himself. But the test results aren't good, and unless something reverses we are talking weeks." She swallows the lump in her throat.
Henry is thrilled the see Max, of course. She helps Henry stand up to hug his son, then sits him back down, gently.
"How are you feeling?" Max asks, then: "Sorry. That was stupid."
Henry laughs. "I get it a lot, actually, it's fine," he says. "I'm tired sometimes but honestly not that bad. Sometimes there's a little pain too, but your mom keeps me pretty hopped up."
"Oh, I do not," she chides on cue, and it's like Old Times.
"Come on, tell me about med school," Henry says. The boys settle in to talk about Max's coursework and intramural kickball team and the girl that he's seeing, Carrie, who is a research assistant in a bio lab and a senior at Penn. Max seems smitten and she has a feeling it's getting serious. Henry makes jokes about him cradle robbing. They put on a baseball game and she futzes around, interjecting sometimes, but mostly just cleaning because it's going to be a full-house kind of weekend. Sam texts when he lands and 40 minutes later, he, Charlotte, Hannah, and Josh burst through the front door.
Henry is in his element in dinner: Surrounded by his family, the center of attention, making jokes, telling an endless supply of embarrassing stories. They've never met Charlotte before, though she's been dating Sam for over a year, and it's clear that Henry enjoys the hell of out her. Her English is tremendous and she makes fun of Sam exactly when he needs his ego deflated. Hannah's been tremulous and nervous for the last several days but having her baby brothers back calms her.
She corners Sam in the kitchen as he's pouring more wine during a couple's Scrabble-Off (Max, of course, is confident he can win without a partner). "She's nice," she says. "I can see why you're … smitten."
"Nobody says smitten, Mom, and if they did, I think it'd be a little past that," he groans, but relents. "I … I wanted her to meet Dad."
Her heart softens, and she grins. "So it's serious?" She's suspected as much for a while. She's mildly jealous of Hannah and Sam, for finding partners so young. She got so many years with Henry, but can only think of how different it might have been if they got 50 years together.
He shrugs. "I think so, yeah. I don't know yet, but I wanted …"
"I know," she says. "Your dad likes her, a lot."
"It's not just rose-colored glasses brought on by death?" his tone his half-amused, but deadly serious.
She shakes her head, her breath caught in her throat. "I've seen … sometimes dozens of people die, each week, Sammy. And I've never seen someone just accept it the way your dad can. He's … In some ways he's been waiting on this to happen since before I even met him. Knowing that it's happening soon doesn't change his outlook at all. His priorities are different than they were when we met but his outlook hasn't changed at all."
"I used to think you guys had the craziest story," Hannah says, her crinkling voice coming from the doorway. "I mean, I think I still do. But now I think it's crazy in a once-in-a-lifetime-romance way."
Teddy laughs at the memory of 17-year-old Hannah announcing she always assumed the story was a ruse. "That's the way your dad always wanted you to see it."
"It was a good story. And there's nothing wrong with a good story," Sam says. The eerie echo of his words — she's sworn she's heard them before, a lifetime ago — give Teddy pause.
"It's a great story," she replies. "The best story I'll ever tell." She loops an arm around each kid's shoulder. "Come on. Let's go make sure Max loses Scrabble, OK?"
Not so many hours later, Henry gets tired, and she helps get him into their bed. She tucks him in, folds the blankets around him multiple times, just to make sure she's got it right. Makes sure he has some water and pain meds on his end table.
"Honey, I'm fine," he says, catching her wrist with his hand. They make eye contact, and she knows that he is. She stops.
She kisses his temple, then crawls into bed beside him. She wraps herself around him gingerly — his hip is still in tremendous pain. He's exhausted, but not quite ready for sleep. They sit, quietly.
"It was great, to have Sam back," he says. "He never comes back these days. And I like Charlotte a lot."
"I did too," she murmurs, into his side.
"He said … He said he might propose, you know," Henry says.
"It's funny, that two of our three kids might get married before they're 30. It took us forever to get it together."
"What are you talking about? We got married twenty-four hours after we met."
"Yeah, but you were 40, and I was … 36? 37? I was old. It took us forever to get there."
"I wouldn't have had it any other way," he says, lightly stroking her shoulder.
"You wouldn't?" she asks, perking her head up.
"What? No. I love us," he says.
"Right, but what if we could have met ten years earlier? Or ten days earlier?" Hell, ten minutes earlier.
"We could have — probably should have — had more years, yes. But if we hadn't met when we did, when I was sick, when you were sad, we wouldn't have gotten married the way we did. We wouldn't have gone through everything we went through to be together. We wouldn't be as strong, we wouldn't have known how much we could love each other. And we wouldn't have gotten those three kids in the bargain. We might have gotten some other kids, but they probably would have sucked."
"Not with our genes," she teases, then sobers. "I want the ten extra years," she admits, and tears break through her eyes. "Or the ten extra days. Or the ten extra minutes."
"Heyyyyy," he draws, hugging her tighter as she really begins to cry. "Theodora Altman, you saved my life. Literally, metaphorically, all of it. I had those thirty years because of you. And you made them … extraordinary. No, I wouldn't change any of that. I wouldn't change that you didn't change your last name. I wouldn't change that we didn't get rings for five years. I wouldn't change that fight we had about med school. I wouldn't change that terrible family vacation to Mexico. I wouldn't change the fear from realizing you got pregnant and the baby might have the disease. You hear me? None of it."
She wipes her eyes, then kisses him gently. "You saved my life too, you know."
"I do, actually," he says. "It's been extraordinary, Teddy. No matter how … how many days I have left, it's been extraordinary."
She pauses. "Are you scared?" All these years, she's always been more fearful than him. More fearful that this surgery will be his last, that a cough is something more, that a scan will come back abnormal. His steady good humor through all of it — without it, she could not have lived with the fear, would have become emotionally gnarled and stunted.
"Just for you," he says. "I know the kids will be alright, but I am worried about you. It's — it's different, because every other time, I was a little cavalier about the odds. I wanted to live, I fought for it, but it was out of my hands. Now … it's not. But I … I know that it's been a long road, and it's been a good road, and that I'm lucky that it lasted this long."
She kisses him long. Hard. "Don't worry about me," she says, the control-freak veneer cracking into freedom. I'll miss you. I'll always love you. Each day will be worth a little yes, and I'll probably be sad for a very long time — but the only reason they'll each be less, is because each of these days has been worth so much."
"You'll be OK?" he checks.
"I'll be OK," she says, and she knows that it is true.
This is how Henry dies: Surrounded by his three beautiful children, his hand in his wife's, in the home they built together, six weeks after their last weekend as a family. He is seventy-one. He was married to Teddy for twenty-nine years, ten months, and five days.
There is a beautiful funeral, arranged largely by Arizona. Sam reads Ecclesiastes and Max reads Dylan Thomas and Hannah, flanked by her brothers for strength, gives a eulogy. Teddy sits in the front pew of the church, Arizona on one side and Owen on the other. The church is filled with flowers from their garden.
When she leaves the church, the thin fall sun shines on her face. There is a reception, back at their house, and Teddy gets in the first car back so she can greet people. Zola Shepherd is driving, and she is appropriately silent. On the ride, she does the math: Statistically, she is going to live another fourteen years. Coupled with the thirty-seven before they married, the balance of her life will have been spent being Not Henry's Wife.
And suddenly she gets it. She gets why Henry didn't care if they met ten years earlier or ten minutes earlier or exactly when they did; why he was always so content to be in the moment, why he didn't stress about the surgeries and the scans and the sutures. Whether or not she spends another twenty years on the earth, alive, being Not Henry's Wife but rather Henry's Widow, she's had the best thing that could happen to her happen, and she's already had the worst thing that could happen to her happen. The rest … is water. They had their time together, clear and perfect and infinitely long and infinitely short, and the length no longer matters. Just that they had it matters.
This is how Teddy Burton dies: She is ninety-one, skin translucent and wrinkled and hair nearly gone and bones sinking into her hospital bed. She spent thirty-seven years alone, then nearly thirty married, and then another thirty-four as the grandmother who gardens. She is surrounded by her three children, three kids-in-law, one former kid-in-law, and seven grandchildren. Five are doctors or in medical school, and three have the middle name Henry. She is tired, so tired, but content. She lived a full life, she loved beyond measure, she loved back beyond measure. She is not scared. She is ready.