Mark Halsey turned on the shower, holding his hand beneath the faucet until the stream of water felt warm. He wiped his hand on his stomach, then turned around, meeting his wife’s gaze. Rene’s big brown eyes stared at him, and for a moment, he got lost in their beauty. After forty years of marriage, she still had that effect on him.
Bending over, he slipped one arm beneath her bare legs and propped the other behind her slender back. As he straightened, he scooped her up against his chest and slowly stepped into the shower. The stream from the facet splashed against his back, spitting water against Rene’s face. Drops slid off her cheeks down to her neck and onto her chest.
Mark dipped his head, watching the water descend across her porcelain skin before he looked up and gave Rene a mischievous grin. “I think we’ve taken more showers together in the last few months than we have during our entire marriage.”
She gave him a look, one that said, You would be thinking about that right now.
He didn’t expect anything more from her. Not a playful smack on his cheek. Not a witty retort or a sassy smile. Three years ago, that was exactly how Rene would’ve reacted. But not anymore—she couldn’t speak, stand, smile, or move without someone else’s help—she couldn’t take care of herself at all. ALS had taken over her body, first corroding her vocal cords and face, then rotting inside her leg muscles, the decay destroying her ability to function on her own.
It was his role to take care of her. To feed, clothe, and bathe her, to move her in and out of her wheelchair, to make her last years comfortable and happy. Looking back at their wedding vows, he’d never imagined how hard it would be to carry out those easily spoken words, For better or for worse … In sickness and in health … till death do us part. At nineteen when he’d made that promise, he felt so optimistic about their future. They would settle down and buy a house, start a family, and grow old together. But their plans hadn’t worked out like he’d imagined. When she was fifty-four, Rene started slurring her words and after eight months of doctor visits, she was diagnosed with ALS.
He would never forget those inconceivable words. But he’d be damned if he would let ALS take away Rene without fighting back. He immediately learned everything he could about the disease, discovering that progression was different for everyone and ALS had no cure. He didn’t know how much longer they had together, but he was going to make the best of every moment.
Leaning over, his biceps strained as he slowly lowered Rene onto the plastic shower seat. He poured shampoo into his hand, gently massaging the lather through her cute pixie cut. “I talked to Brandon. He’s gonna visit next weekend.”
Rene tilted her head back and closed her eyes. As he rubbed his fingertips into her scalp, he wondered what else she would want to know about their son’s visit. “Brandon didn’t talk about any girls, so I don’t think he’s bringing home a girlfriend. But one of these days, I’m sure he’ll surprise us.”
Mark rinsed the shampoo out of her hair and ran conditioner through her thin strands. “I was thinking, we should stop by Cory and John’s later. They’re decorating the baby’s room today.”
Rene’s lips twitched. If she were able to smile, she would be, and he took her response as a sign to continue.
“Cory already hung up the green curtains you picked out. She said they look really good with the dark oak crib.”
The thought of seeing the baby’s room made his heart flutter. In just three and a half months, their first grandchild would be here. Baby Dawson had already brought so much happiness back to their family. The little guy gave them something to be excited about, instead of focusing on Rene’s illness.
Rinsing out the conditioner, he grabbed a coral colored loofah, lathering her skin until soapy bubbles covered her from neck to toe. He took longer than necessary to wash her completely, but he enjoyed this just as much as she did. In some odd way, helping her with everyday tasks made him feel slightly in control, like he could actually do something to battle this incurable disease that had stolen Rene’s body.
Outside the shower, his ringtone filled the bathroom, followed by a vibration against the vanity. He let the song fade out. Whoever it was could wait. This was his time with Rene.
The ringtone played again, followed by a chime—someone had left a voicemail. He hung the loofah over the shower handle when the phone rang for a third time.
He glanced down at Rene, who was looking up at him. Even with little expression on her face, her thoughts were clear. We should get out. Whoever is calling has something important to say. An exasperated sigh escaped past his lips before he reached for towels and dried them off.
He carried Rene to her wheelchair and wrapped a towel around his waist, then grabbed his cell and looked down at the caller I.D. John’s name appeared all three times.
Mark’s stomach tightened. His son-in-law wouldn’t call repeatedly unless something was wrong with Cory or Dawson.
He ran a hand over his mouth, trying to hide his panic from Rene. He didn’t want to worry her.
Leaning against the vanity, he clicked on John’s name, and held the phone against his ear. His heart beat wildly in his chest. Please be nothing. Please be nothing. Our family can’t handle anything else right now.
John answered the phone, sounding breathless. “Finally.”
“What’s up?” Mark kept his tone light, hoping Rene didn’t notice the tremble in voice.
“Cory’s in labor.”
“Her water just broke and we’re on the way to the hospital.”
Mark rubbed one of his temples. Holy shit. If Cory’s water had broken, then the baby was coming, ready or not. At five and a half months, Dawson would be premature and underdeveloped. He might be too little to survive.
The blood rushed out of his face. No, no, no. This was not supposed to happen. Their grandson was Rene’s saving grace. The light in her world of dark despair.
Clutching the phone, Mark took a steadying breath before speaking again. “We’ll be there as soon as possible.”
Rene Thran followed Debbie past a beach house and stopped in the grass before her shoes touched the sand. Across the beach, a group of teenagers gathered around a stone-encased fire pit. The bright flames lit their shadowed figures and the fading sun reflected off the aluminum cans clasped in several hands.
She bit her lip. Were they drinking pop or beer? She didn’t want to get into trouble. If she got a ticket for underage drinking, her parents would kill her. She’d be grounded her entire senior year. One night out with her cousin so wasn’t worth it. She glanced back at the path, trying to remember how to get to her cousin’s lake house from here.
Debbie fluffed her bangs and lowered her tank top, revealing her ample chest. “What’s wrong?”
“Are you sure Roy won’t care that you’re bringing me?”
“Yes. He’s super chill and he’s bringing a friend with him, too.” She opened a tube of lipstick and smeared a bright red color across her lips. Making a smacking noise, she extended the tube to Rene. “Want some?”
She shook her head. “That’s all you ever think about—boys, boys, boys.”
Debbie slipped the tube into the back pocket of her jean shorts. “So what?”
“I’m just saying, there’s more to life than boys.”
“Stop being such a goody two-shoes.” Debbie moved her eyebrows up and down. “You need to live a little, starting tonight.”
Rene put a hand on her hip. She opened her mouth, then closed it. The practical part of her wanted to remind Debbie of why boys and beer weren’t high priorities on her list. But two shirtless guys were making their way across the beach, heading in their direction. Maybe her cousin was right. It was about time she had a little fun.
“Hey girls,” said one of the boys. He was short and muscular, while the other boy was slightly taller and wore cut-off jeans that fit snugly over his narrow waist. He had light brown hair sprinkled across his tan chest, all the way down to his chiseled abs. Long, shaggy hair fell across his broad shoulders, swaying as he walked.
Nervous adrenaline pumped through her veins, sending her heart into overdrive. Holy cow. He was really cute. She quickly ran a hand through her long brown hair.
The boys stopped in front of them, bringing a sweet, herby aroma along with them. Had they been smoking pot? Dread weaseled in beside her nerves, and her stomach twisted in knots. So what if they were cute? She should make an excuse and turn around now. Debbie would understand.
The lighter haired boy held out his hand to her. “I’m Roy and this is my friend, Mark.”
She mumbled hello, barely able to speak as Mark shook hands with Debbie, then her. She let her hand linger in his, enjoying the way his calloused palm felt against her soft skin.
Mark smiled. “You girls want some beer?”
Now would be the perfect time to make an excuse and leave, but with Mark looking right at her, she couldn’t think straight. He had such deep green eyes she could get lost in them. Heat formed in her cheeks and before she had a chance to respond, Debbie nodded and looped arms with her, pulling her toward the sandpit.
The boys kept pace beside them, waving at a few people playing sand volleyball a few yards away.
As they grew closer to the bonfire, the sound of voices rose above the crashing waves and a few heads turned in their direction. Debbie dropped her arm and squeezed Rene’s hand, whispering, “I think Mark is into you.”
“Yeah. So have fun and let loose for once, okay?”
“All right.” Rene tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. She didn’t need Debbie to remind her that she was so out of her element.
Mark leaned over the cooler, his shorts growing tight around his butt. He turned around, catching her gaze.
She immediately looked away, playing with a loose thread on her jean shorts. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him smirking, as if he thought it was funny to catch her staring at him. Her hopes rose a little. Maybe her cousin was right and she did have a chance with Mark. He seemed a little rough around the edges, like he didn’t have a care in the world, but there was something about him that had her intrigued.
He handed her a beer and she popped the top, taking a sip. She resisted the urge to wrinkle her nose. This wasn’t the first she’d drank alcohol, but beer was an acquired taste, and she didn’t drink it often enough to like it.
Mark arched an eyebrow, giving her a kind smile. “We have water and pop, too. Do you want that instead?”
“Um, I’m fine with Bud Light.”
“You looked like you were about to spit it out. Let me get you a water.” He grabbed a bottle from the cooler and handed it to her.
“Do you want to sit down?” He pointed to a long log close to the fire where a couple sat on one end, making out. “There’s an open spot.”
She glanced away from the couple, looking at Debbie. Her cousin was talking to Roy and twirling a strand of hair around her manicured finger. Debbie probably wouldn’t even notice she was gone.
She looked back at Mark. “Let’s go.”
A grin stretched across his handsome face. Taking a step back, he extended his arm, allowing her to pass. “After you.”
Rene headed to the log, suddenly growing conscious about how she walked. Should she sway her hips more or less? Should she take bigger or shorter strides? She groaned internally. What was wrong with her? She needed to get a grip.
Expelling a shaky breath, she sat down on the log and waited for Mark to do the same. She pulled her shoulders back and lifted her chin, trying to appear more confident than she felt. “Is this your first time at the cabin?”
“Yeah. Roy’s been asking me to come with him all summer, but I haven’t had time. I work a lot.” She tried not to notice how big his biceps were as he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “I finally decided to take the weekend off. It’s been nice.”
“Where do you work?”
“An irrigation company. I put in underground sprinklers.”
“So that’s why you’re so tan, huh?”
“Yeah.” He took a swig of his beer, his eyes never leaving hers. “What about you? Do you work anywhere?”
She crossed her legs. “I work at Aetna Insurance.”
“Oh. Do you like it?”
“Yeah, I could see myself working in the insurance industry one day. Plus, it pays for my gas.”
His eyebrows rose. “You already have a car?”
“Don’t look so impressed. It doesn’t have a heater or power steering.”
“What kind is it?”
“It’s a Belvedre.”
He shook his head, sending long, shaggy strands sliding across his shoulders. “I should have known. You’re one of those girls.”
“What do you mean?”
“My parents are well-off, but I wouldn’t say we’re rich. They’ve worked really hard to get where they are.” She put her hands on her hips. “Do you have a problem with that?”
He chuckled. “You look really cute when you get angry.”
Rene gave him a playful shove, surprising even herself. Somehow, she felt comfortable around Mark as if she’d known him for years. “You didn’t answer my question.”
His expression turned sober as he put his hand on her knee for a brief moment. “I was just giving you crap. But in all seriousness, my family doesn’t have a lot of money. That’s why I work all the time.”
“That’s really impressive.” She uncrossed her legs and extended them, resting both feet in the sand. “How old are you?”
“Seventeen. How about you?”
“Same.” Rene glanced at the glowing fire, watching the flames dance between the pyramid of wood. One stick fell to the bottom of the pit, scattering sparks into the darkness. As she watched the small pieces descend into the sand, she couldn’t help realizing how much she liked Mark, even though she barely knew him. He was very different from most of the boys she hung out with at school. He had a good work ethic, and he wasn’t afraid to tell the truth. But she still had some concerns.
Looking up from the fire, she met Mark’s gaze. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
He shrugged. “Sure.”
“Do you smoke pot?” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I smelled something funky when you and Roy walked up to us. I’m not trying to be nosy, but …”
Mark chuckled. “You’re cute when you get nervous, too.” He sat up straighter and took another swig of beer. “And yes, we were smoking before you got here.”
Silence settled between them. She wasn’t sure how to respond. She didn’t like that he did drugs, but she wasn’t going to judge him for it either. At least he wasn’t a pothead who sat around all day, doing nothing.
He turned toward her, bending his leg and setting it above his knee. “I can tell it bothers you.”
“To be honest, I’m not sure what to think about it.” Rene rested her head on his shoulder. “The only thing I really know right now is that I like you.” The moment the words escaped, she clasped a hand over her mouth. Had she really just said that? What was she thinking? Maybe the problem was, she wasn’t thinking at all.
He nudged her with his shoulder. “I like you too.”
Her chest swelled. Or maybe thinking was overrated. She liked him and he liked her. She didn’t need to know anything else right now.
Mark inched forward to look at her, his face inches away from hers. “Do you, I mean …” He ran a hand through his hair. “Can I have your number?”
She giggled. “You’re kinda cute when you get nervous.”
A boyish grin spread across his face, but as he leaned back, his biceps and chest muscles bulged, and she was reminded just how manly he was.
“You didn’t answer my question,” he said in a teasing tone.
Rene tapped a finger on her lips, pretending to contemplate her decision. “Oh fine, I guess so.”
“Don’t be surprised when I call you tomorrow.”
She smiled. “I’ll be counting on it.”
He put a hand on her knee again, this time leaving it on her leg. Her heart picked up speed and she hoped he didn’t notice as he leaned in close. “I might not be perfect, but I’m the type of guy you can always count on.”
The intensity of his gaze brought heat pooling low into her stomach. She wanted to believe him, and she hoped more than anything that he was right.
But only time would tell.
Mark walked behind Rene as they weaved through the thick crowd of people, heading closer to the stage. She glanced back at him once, and he smiled at her to let her know he would keep following. Bright lights illuminated a dark backdrop with Peter Frampton scrolled across it in large capital letters. Excited voices from the crowd rose above a Lynyrd Skynyrd song as they waited for Peter Frampton to make an entrance with his band.
This concert would be epic. They were about to hear one of the best rock bands of all times. Adrenaline pumped through his veins. Not just because of the concert, but because of Rene. With her walking in front of him, all he could do was stare at her figure. Tonight she wore white shorts that accentuated her cute butt and legs, and she wore a loose fitting T-shirt that hung low over one shoulder and grew tight around her lean torso. She looked so adorable and sexy at the same time. He couldn’t get enough of her.
Turning her head, Rene pointed to two empty seats in the middle of a row. “I think those are ours.”
“Sweet. We have a great view.” His gaze traveled down to her waist again, lingering for a moment before he looked up. He gave her a teasing grin. “I’m a lucky man. I’ve already got a great view.”
Rene turned around completely, giving him a playful slap on his arm. “You’re impossible, you know that?”
“You like it.”
“You wish.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder and weaved through the crowd to get to their seats.
He followed behind her, still smiling. Over the last three months, Rene had become a little sassier. She was still the sweetest girl he’d ever met, but now she held her own. She’d become accustomed to his humor after spending countless hours on the phone, talking late into the night.
She sat down and crossed her legs, her eyes lighting with excitement. “This is going to be so much fun.”
“Heck, yeah.” He plopped into the seat next to her. Setting his elbow on the armrest, he closed some of the space between them, and caught a scent of her flowery perfume. “I’m glad we get to spend more time together.”
“I know. It sucks living so far away.”
Mark nodded. He couldn’t agree more. Rene lived in Millard, Nebraska, thirty minutes away from his parent’s house. Technically, it wasn’t that much of a distance, but with his feelings for her growing, it felt like they were worlds apart. So far they’d only seen each other a handful of times, when he could borrow his mom’s car or when she made the trip up to see him. It never felt like enough, especially since he’d only taken her out on double dates before tonight. But any time with her was better than none, and he wanted to take it slow. Rene was the real deal, and he wasn’t about to mess it up.
He reached for her hand, entwining their fingers. “Next time you visit me, would you like to meet my parents?”
“I would love to.” She squeezed his hand. “Family is really important to me.”
“I can tell you’re close with your parents. I enjoyed meeting them. They’re nice people.”
She gave him a knowing look. “You’re surprised you like them, aren’t you?”
“Well …” He looked up at the brightly lit ceiling as if the right words hung from the beams. “Sometimes upper class people can be a little hoity-toity …” She opened her mouth to respond, but he continued before she could. “Honestly, I would love to have a family like yours someday. I want to have the type of job where I can provide for my family and not worry about finances.”
Rene stared at him for a moment, and he squirmed in his seat. Had he made her upset? That was the last thing he wanted to do.
His eyebrows rose as she leaned over the armrest and softly pressed her lips against his. It wasn’t the first time they’d kissed, but it still sent tingles up and down his body. As she looked at him, admiration gleamed in her eyes. “Sometimes, you act wise beyond your years.”
Shrugging, he expelled a relieved breath. So he hadn’t made her upset after all.
On stage, the lights dimmed and a loud booming voice filled the stadium. “Ladies and gentleman, please give a warm welcome to Peter Frampton!”
Mark shot out of his seat, pulling Rene up with him. On stage, someone—no doubt Peter himself—strummed his guitar, and blue and red lights turned on, revealing the band. The audience broke into a loud applause, shouting and screaming woot-woots and hell-yeahs.
Joining in, Mark cupped his hands around both sides of his mouth. “You rock!” The blare of Peter Hampton’s guitar muffled his words and the band started performing, “Baby, I Love Your Way.”
He turned toward Rene, playing an air guitar. She laughed, and the sound warmed his heart. He leaned in close to her, singing along with the band. The longer he sang, the more he realized he loved more than just her ways. He loved everything about her.
Rene’s heart beat so hard and fast, it felt like it would explode at any minute. Time couldn’t move fast enough, knowing Cory was at the hospital in labor. This would be one of the happiest or saddest moments of Cory’s life, and Rene needed to be there for her daughter. Even if she couldn’t wrap her arms around Cory anymore, her daughter had a way of knowing just how she was feeling. And right now, Cory needed to feel loved.
Mark slapped his palm against the steering wheel and slammed on the brakes. Another red light. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
He glanced in her direction and she gave him a look that said, Anger isn’t going to help the situation. You need to calm down.
The light turned green, and his gaze shot back to the road. He pressed the gas, accelerating way too quickly, and for once, she was happy she couldn’t move. Seeing the speedometer would only increase her heart rate.
Directly in front of them, an elderly man’s BMW veered into their lane, then slowed to a snail’s pace. Growling, Mark changed lanes and drove past the man, shouting profanities out the open window. Red blotches appeared on his neck, and he clutched the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles turned white.
Rene’s hand itched to reach over and grab his hand, but it lay dormant in her lap. Frustration boiled in her veins. If only she could touch Mark or talk to him, to help him calm down.
He slid a CD in the disc player and turned up the knob. Peter Frampton’s voice carried through the vehicle. Mouthing the words, his shoulders loosened slightly. No doubt the music reminded him of their concert date.
She’d been thinking about the past a lot lately, remembering those early years, falling in love with Mark. They’d shared so many fun and exciting dates. She still felt the urge to laugh whenever she thought about the time they took Gramma Kitty to Young Frankenstein, failing to consider how Mel Brook’s humor might not be as funny to a seventy-five year old. Her grandma’s face had been priceless. Or the time when Mark took her to the dinner theater, and he tried to convince her to eat frog legs. Or all the weekends they traveled to Chicago for their anniversary. Back then, there was never a dull moment.
Even now that she was sick, Mark left little room for dull moments. He’d helped her achieve most of the items on her bucket list: go ice skating at Brenton Ice Skating Rink, attend a Bears game, go on a family vacation at Honey Creek Resorts, visit Charleston, North Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, go to a Mumford and Sons concert, attend a Bulls game in Chicago.
And yet, their marriage had dark years, too. Like the time when Mark became addicted to pure cocaine, and he stole from their savings to buy it. The memory of his confession still brought tears to her eyes. Not only because of the hurt and pain he’d caused her, but also because of what he’d said. That he hated himself. All he ever wanted was to be a good husband, father, and employee. After he told her that, he admitted himself into a drug and alcohol treatment center.
She’d considered giving up on their marriage, but Mark was a man of his word. He left treatment a changed person. He spent a lot of time with their family. He took her on dates more often, rekindling their relationship. He started coaching Brandon’s baseball team and Cory’s soccer team. And when she was diagnosed, he retired to stay home and take of her. She was in love with him more now than ever, and her chest ached at thought of being separated from him.
The truck swerved, catching her attention, and Mark turned into the hospital parking lot. He bee-lined for the entrance, slamming on the brakes in front of the sliding glass doors. Running around the pickup, he yanked open the door and grabbed her wheelchair. His eyes looked wild as he met her gaze. “Let’s go meet our grandson.”
She knew he’d said it for her sake, but a sliver of hope lifted her spirits. Please be okay, Dawson. Grandma wants to spend time with you before she has to go.
Mark wheeled Rene into Cory’s room, taking deep, steadying breaths. He had to prepare himself for the worst. If they lost Dawson, he’d need to be the rock for his girls.
Nurses were scattered across the dimly lit room. Some were standing near the hospital bed with John, who was clutching Cory’s hand. Tears streamed down Cory’s flushed, red cheeks.
His stomach nose-dived, plummeting to the ground. Where was his grandson? He forced his gaze away from Cory, catching sight of an incubator in the corner of the room. A bright light beamed down through the glass, but nurses surrounded it, and he couldn’t see. Was Dawson in there?
Mark let go of the wheelchair, quickly squeezing Rene’s hand as he strode past her and stopped behind the nurses. Holding his breath, he stood on his tiptoes and peered down.
A tiny baby, about the size of his hand, squirmed beneath a nurse’s touch as she checked his vitals. His little eyes fluttered open for a moment, then shut again. Faint white hair covered his wrinkly skin.
Mark swallowed hard as he stared at Dawson. His grandson was alive—he had a long way to go before he was in the clear—but he was alive, and that was all that mattered right now. Happiness spread through his chest like helium in a balloon. He resisted the urge to jump up and down, and instead, looked at Cory and grinned. After seeing the baby, he realized she was crying tears of relief.
He turned around to meet Rene’s gaze. “Dawson’s okay, Grandma.”
Rene’s eyes twinkled at the sound of her new title.
Later that day, the doctor came back with an update, saying Dawson was too susceptible to infection to be held yet. He would need to stay in the hospital for the next two and a half months, but the good news was Dawson could breathe on his own.
Relief flooded through him. He couldn’t wait to hold Dawson, but at least the baby had a good chance to survive.
A month and a half later, Mark sat in a chair beside the hospital bed, watching Cory hold Dawson. She pressed her son close to her chest, kissing his forehead. “I love you so much,” she said softly.
Dawson made a gurgling noise and Mark chuckled. “He’s so precious, honey.”
“I know. It feels unreal to finally hold him.” Cory glanced up from her son, and looked at Rene, who sat on the other side of her bed. “I’m so glad you get to spend more time with him, Mom.”
Tears slipped down Rene’s cheeks. Surely, they were happy tears, but he also knew how difficult this was for her, knowing she’d never be able to see her grandson grow up.
Cory adjusted Dawson in her lap, turning him toward Rene. “Do you want to hold him?”
Knowing the answer, Mark hopped out of his chair and transferred a bundled Dawson from Cory’s arms to Rene’s. He crouched down beside her wheelchair, propping the baby against her stomach so she could see Dawson’s face.
More tears slipped down Rene’s cheeks and a beautiful, wide smile stretched across her face.
His eyes widened. It was impossible for Rene to smile. The muscles in her face didn’t work anymore. But she was grinning from ear to ear. His heart swelled, bubbling over with elated joy.
Unblinking, he stared at Rene, capturing this special scene as if he had a recorder in his brain. When she was gone, he would replay this moment over and over again, remembering the magnitude of her love.
Where Are They Now?
Mark and Rene Halsey said their final good-byes this week. One of Rene’s favorite sayings was “I love you to the moon and back.” She left letters for Mark, her children, and her grandson. Rene was an amazing woman. She didn’t go down without a fight. While she battled ALS, she played an important role in helping find a cure by allowing doctor’s to track her progress. Mark and his family will miss Rene immensely, and they look forward to one day seeing her in Heaven.