Wednesday, January 7, 2009

When I'm Old...

My job is stressful. Which has reiterated for me the lesson of everyone has got something to complain about, so I should just decide to be content with my lot.

Despite this, I somehow have the feeling that I will be eighty eight years old and tottering down the hall at the retirement center, toothlessly grumbling to myself because Barbara Ann has a corner room facing south.

And all the while, Barbara Ann is on the phone to her long suffering daughter complaining about the noise from her next door neighbor, who is deaf as a post and watches reruns of "Survivor" very loudly late into the night and secretly envies me the fact that I'm on the first floor and on a quiet hallway.

One of my favorite ladies moved downstairs, to the secure unit, because she was wandering away so often. She wandered because she couldn't remember that her husband of more than sixty years had died last summer.

We used to see her tottering around from time to time, frail and gaunt, peering around corners. "Have you seen my husband?" she would ask, in tones of anxious tenderness. "I just don't know where that man has gone to!"

We used to try redirecting her with statements like, "Isn't he at work, my dear?"

"Oh no!" she would protest, gently but firmly. "He retired from the Navy years ago. No, he's around here somewhere..."

"Well, I'm sure he'll be right back," I used to say. "Wouldn't you like a cup of coffee in your room while you wait? If I see him, I'll tell him you're looking for him."

"Oh, would you?" she would ask in utmost relief.

Every once in a while a look of complete desolation would wash over her face; she would stare about her in horror and then the expression would pass away, leaving emptiness behind.

One night we had to take turns sitting with her. It was in the empty dining room, and it was late. The only sound was of the heater purring away. The electric lights glinted off all the silverware and coffee cups.

She sat with a bowl of Frosted Flakes in front of her, eating them without milk, a few at a time. Every once in a while she would look up.

"These are delicious," she would say, in surprise. "I must pick up a box of these the next time I go out."

After another few minutes of peaceful silence, she would remark, "Aren't those flowers so fresh and pretty to look at?"

I looked at the flowers in the vase, they were wilted and browning at the edges. Her hands, as she picked at the cereal, were almost transparent with age, the bones and all the red and blue veins showed through the translucent skin. Her face beneath the unruly shock of brittle white hair was gaunt with age, the eyes staring out, red shot.

But her expression was peaceful, and when she looked about her, she saw fresh flowers and something she would pick up later for the boys to eat for breakfast. She was a salesclerk at a dress shop and had to look nice for the customers. Her youngest was soon to graduate from college, the other had enlisted in the Army; she was terribly proud of them both.

And her husband was waiting for her at home, safely retired and still dressing neatly because one can't throw off the habits of twenty years of Naval service just like that. She would get him a sweater for Christmas, as she always did.

"I do think a sweater makes a very good Christmas present," she told me, gracious, dignified, and dying.

There was no one waiting for her at home, one son was estranged from her and the other had died long before her husband did. She did not go home that night; she went downstairs where they could keep her from going out into the bitter cold trying to look for her car so she could drive home and prevent her husband from worrying himself sick.

In the month or so that followed, she would try again and again to ring him up. She would give the nurse her old number in South Carolina, every digit of it perfectly remembered, and urge her to try and get a hold of him.

"My phone is just not working," she would say, leaning against the door post. "I know I'm being a pest, but if I could just reach him...he doesn't know where I am. I never planned on staying here, you know. I can't stay the night. I just can't reach him..."

As I write this, tears are streaming down my face and I know that, at last, I am releasing the grief that I've been carrying around with me since surrendering Keith back to the desert. And it's not just the loss of his physical presence, it's the way that the distance and the circumstances make reaching him so hard. It's the loss of the easy intimacy that comes with living together.

Well, now I have had my cry and Keith called right in the middle of it and his warm and loving voice was just so...perfect. And tomorrow is my day off so I can wake in a leisurely manner and do some cleaning and go out on a few errands, do some much needed grocery shopping.

Maybe it will be a sunny day and maybe I will appreciate what I have while I have it. If I can manage to do this, then maybe when I'm eighty eight years old I'll be sitting in my rocker in the sun, drowsy and dreaming of everything life gave me.


T said...

Wow. That was so perfectly touching. I'm so glad you let it go. And that you heard from him.

Now... sleep peacefully. Feel his love surrounding you. Enjoy the fresh flowers right in front of you.


lala said...

I am sad after reading this. Your job sounds very emotionally draining.

And deployment sucks.

From A Creative Heart said...

Beautifully written. It reminded me of a sweet couple at the nursing home where I took our church teens to volunteer years ago.