Morning Light

Morning Light


A knock on the door alerted Phil to Doctor Cahern’s arrival. He came into the exam room and sat on the stool in front of the computer. “Mr. Haberman, good to see you again.” Doctor Cahern’s handshake was brief, formal, and distant.

            “Good to see you, too,” Phil replied. He waited while Doctor Cahern entered some remarks into the computer. Finished, Doctor Cahern rotated on the stool to face Phil.

            Phil raised his eyebrows in a silent question.

            “I wish I had good news, Mr. Haberman, but I don’t.” Phil listened without interruption as Doctor Cahern launched into an explanation.

            “Stage four pancreatic cancer,” Phil repeated when Doctor Cahern finished. “That can’t be good.”

            “No, it isn’t, Mr. Haberman, but it’s what we expected.”

            Phil knew the answer but had to ask.

             “Is that all? Three to five months?” he said when Doctor Cahern told him.

            “That’s an average survival time. Every patient responds differently to treatment.”

            Sometime during the lengthy discussion of how his disease would progress and the treatment options available to him Phil had said, “Mother Nature always wins in the end, doesn’t she?” He said it jokingly, trying to ease the sting of Doctor Cahern’s diagnosis and three-to-five month prediction.

            “She does, Mr. Haberman. No one ever beats her.”

            After their discussion and before leaving the clinic, Phil had decided chemo, radiation, and surgery were out of the question. “I’m too old, and those interventions aren’t going to change the outcome anyway.”

            “No, they aren’t,” Dr. Cahern agreed.

            “Well, okay then.” Phil stood up. “I’m going to need some extra pain medication. I’m having sudden, intense bursts of pain the fentanyl patches can’t handle.” Instinctively he placed his hand on the patch on the inside of his upper left arm.

            “Of course,” Doctor Cahern said.

            Phil stopped at the pharmacy, picked up the prescription then returned to his one-bedroom apartment in Alpine Village, the retirement community where he lived with six hundred other residents who fell into the senior-citizen category.

            Phil put the container up on the kitchen table; a small brown plastic tube with a white cap containing the magic he needed to minimize the pain that was never going to go completely away. After Doctor Cahern initially suspected pancreatic cancer, Phil had researched it. He discovered it had the lowest five-year survival rate of all the cancers and was one of the most painful when it invaded bones and other organs. He knew his last weeks were going to be miserable and probably filled with unrelenting pain.

            He saw himself bed-ridden near the end, dependent on people he didn’t know to care for him, to keep him clean and comfortable, to empty the plastic bag hanging under the bed collecting his piss.

            Phil spilled the pills on the table, pushed them around with his finger and wondered; If I took them all at once would they kill me? How soon? Would several swallows of a single malt help the pills and the patch on my arm do the job? Before he reached a conclusion a burst of pain in his lower back distracted him, made him wince and suck in a quick, shallow breath. He swallowed one of the pills then moved to his recliner and waited for the pain to subside. He closed his eyes and fell into a restless sleep punctuated by fits of wakefulness between nightmarish visions of how he was going to die.

*At 5:00 in the afternoon, Phil walked to the community dining room where most Alpine Villagers ate. Marci, the hostess, led him to a table where a woman was writing on a small piece of paper, completing her dinner order. “I’m Phil Haberman,” he said, sat down opposite the woman, pulled a pencil from the container in the center of the table and began checking off his dinner choices although he was not hungry. He came to the dining room because he didn’t want to be alone, not after Doctor Cahern’s diagnosis and chilling prediction.

            “I’m Maryanne Tomkins,” the woman said. “I haven’t seen you before.”

            “I’m new.”

            “How new?”

            “I moved in six days ago.”

            “I’ve lived here for five years.”

            “Do you like it?”

            “No, not really.” The server came round, put water glasses on the table then went away with their dinner orders in hand.

            Her answer puzzled Phil. “Why do you stay if you don’t like it?” He put the pencil back in the container in the center of the table.

            “I stay because there’s no other place to wait.” Maryanne sipped some water and watched Phil open a pill bottle, remove a pill, put it in his mouth, and put the bottle back in his pocket.    “Everybody here talks about their medical ailments all the time,” Maryanne said. “It’s the major topic of conversation so let’s get yours out in the open. What have you got?”

            Phil told her.

            “How much time did they give you?”

            “Three to five months.” Phil smiled wryly and shook his head. “That’s something I didn’t want to hear.”

            “Are you afraid?”

            “Afraid of what?”


            Phil thought for a moment before saying, “No, not so much.” He paused then continued. “Well, maybe, but I’m more afraid of being helpless and in pain at the same time. That scares me the most.”

            “The end can be rough. It was for my husband.”

            “What about you?”

            “I have everything that goes with being eighty-nine, including pain, and a bladder that doesn’t give a hoot where I am.” Maryanne put her hand on the table. “See that?” Phil noticed the thumb on her right hand twitching uncontrollably. “Probably on-set of Parkinson’s, but I’m not going to my doctor to find out. What can he do at eighty-nine?”

            “I get it. I’m eighty-five.”

            “Waiting is hell,” Maryanne said.

            The server brought their dinners, refilled the water glasses and drifted away.

            Maryanne sprinkled salt over the boneless chicken breast on her plate. “My doctor keeps urging me to limit my salt intake. That’s a hell of a thing to tell a person my age.”

            “Yes, I guess it is.”

            “Do you have a girlfriend, Phil?”


            She smiled at him. “Well, you do now.”

            He stared at her in surprise. Finally, he managed to say, “Who?”

            Maryanne laughed out loud. “Me. I’m your girl now. When any of these old broads”—Maryanne waved her fork in the air like a lethal weapon— “try to reel you in, you tell them to buzz off. You’re spoken for.”

            Phil wasn’t sure if she was joking or not. Searching for words, he said, “Isn’t this kind of sudden? I mean, we just met.”

            “Look around this dining room. You’ll see a lot more women than men in here. Single men like you can be a hot item in this crowd. I’m staking my claim first. I don’t want you to get away.”

            Phil laughed out loud and still didn’t know if she was serious. He thought she might be and to his surprise, it pleased him.

            “Don’t worry, Phil. You’re going to like me.”

            “What if I don’t?” He suppressed a smile. “What if I don’t want to be your boyfriend?”

            “Oh, Phil, honey, you don’t have a choice. It’s a done deal.”

            “All right, I guess that settles it then.”

            “Do you drive?”

            “I do.”

            “Well, I just hit the jackpot, a boyfriend who drives.” Maryanne grinned at him.

            Phil laughed, amused by her gaiety. “Doesn’t Alpine Village have a transportation service available for the residents? What’s so important about me driving?”

            “Sixty-seven years ago, Orville—my husband—and I went to Canyon de Chelly on our honeymoon. I want to go back. You can drive me.”

            “That’s a long way from Tucson.” Phil buttered a roll he didn’t feel like eating.

            “It’s six hours by car. I looked it up.” Maryanne forked some mashed potato and gravy into her mouth. “Of course, I’ll pay for the gas.”

            Phil didn’t say anything for a few moments then said, “What did you mean when you said waiting is hell?”

            “If you stay here long enough, you’ll hear that phrase all the time. See that man over there with the red suspenders?” Maryanne pointed again with her lethal fork. “That’s Nick. He’s a sarcastic little shit, but he’s spot-on when he calls this place God’s waiting room. We’re all waiting here, Phil. Even you. It’s what old people do when there’s nothing left and their time is running down like the sand in an hourglass.”

            “That’s some description, all right.”

                “If you listen, you will hear lots of people say they’re ready.”

            “To die, you mean?”

            “Yes. They’ve got nothing left. They’re old and they’re tired. Lots of them are sick. And too many are alone, like you and me.”

            He waited for Maryanne to continue.

            “Let me tell you something. Old people always tell the truth, Phil. When you’re old you don’t need to lie anymore. There are no secrets left to hide and nobody cares what you were or how important you thought you were, or how important you think you still are.”

            “That’s an interesting viewpoint.”

            “It’s the truth, Phil.”

            “Why do you want go to Canyon de Chelly?”

            Maryanne waited a moment before saying, “Did you ever have an experience so overwhelming you knew you would remember every detail of it as long as you lived?”

            “No, I don’t think so.”

            “The morning after we were married, Orville and I got up before sunrise and stood on the canyon rim to watch the sun come up. It was stunning. The sun rose above the canyon’s far rim and bathed the world in light so sweet and pure I thought I was going to cry. I’d never seen the world so beautiful. I felt like God standing on the edge of creation with light all around me. At that moment I knew there was something greater than being alive and trapped in a body. I could have stepped off that rim and fallen forever through that light without ever stopping. I’ve wanted to feel that way again for all these years. That’s why I want to go back.”

            “All right,” Phil said, “let’s go to Canyon de Chelly.”

            Maryanne leaned into the table. “We’ll get to know each other on the drive.”

            “Get acquainted, you mean.”

            “That’s what I mean. It’s too far for a day trip. We’re going to have to spend the night.” Phil saw humor dancing in her eyes when she said, “I hope you don’t mind sleeping with me.”

            “That’s the best invitation I’ve had in a long time.” He bit into the buttered roll. It tasted good. He set about enjoying his dinner. “And I’m going to score on our first date. Now that’s something to anticipate.”

            Maryanne giggled. “I was thinking the same thing.”


            They pulled out of Alpine Village, got on I-10 and figured to pick up the 191 a few miles east of Wilcox and take it north to Canyon de Chelly. They rode in a comfortable silence for about an hour then Maryanne asked, “Are you a widower or divorced?”


            “Want to talk about it?”

            “Sure, why not. My first wife ran off with the kids, the bank account, and my best friend. My second wife died three years ago. Had a massive stroke.”

            “How many kids do you have?”

            “Two. A son and a daughter.”

            “Do you get to see them often?”

            “No. They live in Europe.”

            “When was the last time you saw them?”

            “Eight or nine years ago. I don’t get to Europe much.” His grip on the steering wheel tightened when pain blossomed in his lower back. “They’re not very happy to see me.”

            “What went wrong?”

            Phil snorted. “I went wrong. After the divorce I pulled away and didn’t make much of an effort to stay in contact when they were growing up. I was pissed off, bitter and angry. I guess I was getting back at my wife for leaving me, but it didn’t turn out that way. I didn’t get back at anybody. I don’t have much of a relationship with my kids now, and I can’t fault them for not wanting to see me.”

            They rode in silence for a long while after that, each alone with whatever thoughts roamed through their minds. Finally, Phil said, “How about you? Do you have kids?”

            “We had a daughter. Suzanne. She disappeared during her sophomore year at the university. We didn’t know why or what happened. All we knew was she didn’t return to her dorm room that night after a study session in the library.”

            “I’m sorry, Maryanne.” He felt his grip tighten again on the steering wheel as a surge of pain pulsed through his back at belt level.

            “Orville and I stayed together after Suzanne disappeared but it didn’t work. We should have split up. Both of us would have been happier if we had. We blamed each other for her disappearance. It was a stupid thing for us to do to but we did it anyway and it soured the marriage. We couldn’t forgive each other, then Orville got cancer and died.”

            They rode in a brooding silence for several miles then Maryanne broke it by saying cheerfully, “Look at us, on a road trip together, two old people hooked up like teenagers with raging hormones.”

            Phil laughed out loud and felt the tension in his body disappear. “Raging hormones? I like the sound of that.” He glanced at Maryanne and was slightly amazed when he realized he liked her.

            “I hope my hormones still remember how to rage. I sleep in the buff, you know,” Maryanne said.

            After dinner at a café in Chinle, they returned to their motel room and drank tea sitting in chairs pulled up to a small round glass table. Phil put his cup down. “Are you going to tell me what’s so important about Canyon de Chelly,”

            “I’ll tell you when we get there tomorrow.”

            “You want to go to the place you and Orville stood that day?”


            “At sunrise.” He said the words like he was stating the room temperature or his shoe size.

            “It doesn’t have to be at sunrise. The time isn’t important anymore.”

            “Maryanne, when you said trapped in a body and falling through light, do you mean....”

            She interrupted. “Don’t say it, Phil. Please.” She stood up and smiled at him. “Let’s go to bed. I want to know if my hormones still remember how to be young.”

*Phil poured coffee from the in-room brewer, returned the carafe and handed Maryanne a cup. He sipped his coffee, swallowed a pain pill and finished getting dressed.

            Maryanne took a sip, put the cup on the small table and put her shoes on. “I can’t say my hormones were youthful. More like middle-aged but they still had enough enthusiasm to get the job done.” She sat down at the glass table.

            “They did indeed,” Phil agreed. “It’s like riding a bicycle; You never forget how to do it.” He put his cup on the table next to hers.

            Maryanne stood. “Shall we go?”


The sun was already up, flooding the canyon with brilliant desert light. The sheer canyon walls and the pillars of red sandstone rising from the floor stood in bold contrast to the bright blue of the cloudless morning sky.

            Phil drove slowly along the South Rim Road, conscious of the pain in his lower back, sharper this morning, getting his attention, reminding him he too was trapped in a body.

            Maryanne leaned forward, peering out the windshield. “This is it,” she said when she saw the sign for Sliding House Overlook. “Stop here.”

            Phil pulled into a parking spot. Maryanne opened the door and got out. Phil got out and walked around the car and stood by her. She put her hand on his arm and faced the canyon. “We stood right on the canyon’s edge in all that glorious light. I knew if I stepped off that edge I would live forever.”

            “It must have been something that morning.”

            “It was, oh, it was.” I want you to understand something, Phil. I came here because I want the light.”

            “I know that.”

            “I’m not afraid.”

            “I know you aren’t.”

            Maryanne released her grip on his arm and moved toward the canyon rim.

            “Maryanne, wait.” He reached for her hand.

            “Phil, you don’t...” her voice trailed off.

            “Yes, yes I do.”

            “Are you afraid?”

            “No, not anymore.”

            “I’m ready,’ Maryanne said.

            Phil nodded. “So am I.”

            They walked toward the canyon rim together.



Robert Bishop


Robert P. Bishop, an army veteran and former teacher, holds a Master’s in Biology and lives in Tucson, Arizona. He is the author of three novels and four short-story collections (available on Amazon) and is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. His short fiction has appeared in Active Muse, Ariel Chart, Better Than Starbucks, Bright Flash Fiction Review, Clover and White, CommuterLit, Corner Bar Magazine, Down in the Dirt, Fleas on the Dog, Ink Pantry, Literally Stories, The Literary Hatchet, Lunate Fiction, The Scarlet Leaf Review and elsewhere.  


  1. Replies
    1. Hi Linda...
      Thank you for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed the story.

  2. My favorite line from this story, "When you’re old you don’t need to lie anymore."

    Loved it! It was like watching a stunning short film.

    1. Hi Aisha...
      Thank you for the kind words. I'm glad you liked the story.

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