Is holding on the same as not letting go?
Everyone grieved Margaret’s death.
Mandy balked at calling her Margaret though. “Who is this Margaret? She always went by Dottie. That was how I always knew her, for decades. Suddenly, she’s Margaret? Did they even know her?”
Ivan, Dottie’s husband of over fifty years, was bigger than life. He had this old world, never say die, attitude, like a modern Zorba the Greek. If there was no way to do something, he just cut his own path. And dragged Dottie along, like it or not.
Ivan was never one to look back. Dottie would add, “Except to ensure I was keeping up, and had the snacks with me.”
Now, at the funeral, Ivan was declaring ‘Margaret was his guiding light.’
Dottie would have said, “Yeah, guiding light. You know, that thing you hang on the back of the caboose?”
Difficult as things were between them, and they were always difficult, Dottie wouldn’t leave Ivan. She couldn’t. Leaving was not in Dottie’s DNA.
It was complicated. She needed him. She couldn’t stand him. They had so much history. So much she couldn’t forget. Or forgive.
She tried. Dottie planned her escape, many times. But she never followed through. She called it her ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. They had built a life together. But if she left, who could she hold accountable? And there was plenty to account for.
Ivan’s old world view included the man’s birthright to fool around. He was very charming and flirted with waitresses without regard to how it made Dottie feel. Fluent in several languages, Ivan acted as if not understanding the words, you couldn’t possibly understand. He was like a toddler believing he is invisible because he pulled a blanket over his head. If Dottie called him on it, he would say he was just “being friendly.” It never meant anything — to him.
Dottie never had solid evidence Ivan did more than flirt. But she had plenty of suspicions. Rumors of his dancing at a club while Dottie was home with the babies. Young women knocking on their door, asking for Ivan, who had promised them a ride.
Then there were his untimely layoffs from work. It was never clear why, but again, rumors from HR about sexual harassment were hard to ignore. Dottie summed it up, “Where there’s smoke, someone gets fired.”
Ivan made a great show of cleanliness. He regularly inspected the house, running his white glove over the tops of door frames. Then he’d hold his smudged finger up as proof. She never could satisfy Ivan’s directives on how to iron his underwear.
Even after she got sick, Ivan would scold Dottie if the microwave wasn’t immaculate.
It could always have been worse. Ivan did the honorable thing and married her. But that issue became the core, around which every argument swirled. Though not mentioned for decades, her entrapment/his seduction was always in there, if you wanted to look. After everything she’d been through, Dottie couldn’t let go. And so she couldn’t leave.
Dottie let off steam with her best friend, Mandy. Dottie exercised her gallows humor fantasizing her ultimate escape with tragic death scenarios. She anticipated accidentally drowning because her swimming suit gets caught on the bottom rung of the pool ladder. Or slipping on a banana peel and getting run over by the Good Humor truck. Electrocution by hair dryer when she forgets she is still in the shower. Being smothered by a flock of molting birds. Being crushed beneath a falling hot air balloon. A fatal accident for every occasion.
Mandy was not amused, which enhanced Dottie’s enjoyment.
“I can’t get behind all this ‘I’m ready to die’ nonsense. There’s no future in it.” Mandy refused to live in the past. And she was pretty fond of the present, no matter what was happening in her life. Mandy told Dottie they had a long future to look forward to, shopping for shoes. She told Dottie, “You sound like a character in an eighteenth century tragic romance novel. Camille, or a Dickens character.”
Dottie would smile at that.
Praying for death made no sense to Mandy. “Prayers like that are an affront to God.” Mandy couldn’t understand why Dottie didn’t just leave Ivan.
Dottie said, “I can’t. It’s like we have this symbiotic relationship and need each other, even though we are toxic to each other. Of course Ivan doesn’t see it that way. When we aren’t fighting, he adores me.”
Dottie and Mandy grew up together. When kids, they sat eating hot dogs and talked about roles and relationships. Mandy said she learned more from those sessions with Dottie, than she did at university. It was sad Dottie knew so much but wouldn’t act on her own behalf.
But Dottie didn’t see it that way. Being needed gave her purpose. It wasn’t perfect but she couldn’t deny the part of her which needed to be needed. How could she walk away from that?
All Mandy could say was she hated to see her friend unhappy.
“Being unhappy seems to be part of who I am,” Dottie said. “I’d be unhappy alone too.”
Then Dottie got sick. It was serious and the jokes weren’t funny anymore. Dottie was scared straight. She wanted to live. She fought and suffered through treatments that made her wonder how much she could take. Everyone told her how strong she was. She tried to joke, “I’m just incompetent. I finally get my wish and I’m flubbing my exit.”
Dottie was in the fight of her life. Years of screaming matches didn’t prepare her for this. Mandy saw unexpected changes in her friend. She softened and was vulnerable. Dottie learned to express her needs.
Ivan cared for her, day and night, like no one else could. They needed each other like never before. They were tender with each other. They fell in love once more. And they told each other so. Their last days together made up for their years of strife.
She signed on for experimental treatments. There was always hope. They prayed together. Some days were better than others. But the bad days were hellish.
And then, one day she was gone. Dottie was such an important part of so many lives. People couldn’t believe this rock in their lives had vanished. So many looked to her for strength and common sense.
One day, Ivan met Mandy for lunch. Mandy wanted to see how her old friend was holding up.
“I don’t know, Mandy. I miss her so much. She was everything to me. I needed her. I don’t know how much longer I can continue like this. I think I’d be better off following Dottie. I want to be with her.”
Mandy couldn’t believe what she heard. “Ivan. You were always the strong one. You can’t be serious about wanting to die.”
“She was my strength, Mandy. You know that. You remember that old song, ‘Driving Wheel’?”
“Yeah, then you know what I’m talking about.”
That night, Dottie came to Mandy in a dream. It was so vivid. Dottie was so real. Mandy could smell her favorite perfume on her.
When Mandy told Dottie what Ivan said, Dottie grabbed her and said, “No! He can’t be serious, Mandy. I’m finally at peace. I’m free. I’m happy. I’m in Heaven now.” Dottie paused. “I don’t want him to die for me.” Then she gave Mandy a sly look, the meaning of which, only decades of friendship could convey. “I want him to live for me.”
Mandy awoke with a start. She looked for Dottie and then realized it was a dream. But that perfume still lingered.
Mandy called Ivan. She needed to tell him Dottie’s message.
Ivan answered and Mandy didn’t make small talk.
“Ivan, I just had the most vivid dream. Dottie came to me and I told her what you said.”
“Yes. And she gave me a message for you.”
“What did she say, Mandy?”
“Dottie told me to tell you, ‘Choose life!’”