It’s been a long time. I’ve seen many things. I’ve felt many more.
My years are long, my breaths are numbered, and people seem to pass me by without a second thought. I cannot do many things by myself; I’ve lost control of most of my body and walking now sends painful shots of electricity up and down my legs. The slightest movement awakens a vengeful mess of teeth and hands that clenches my spine and rattles it awake. Whenever I try to lift myself up, I’m greeted with fire in my joints and shortness of breath.
I’ve seen almost a century go by. When I was born, the world was lit by candle light and our passions controlled. Ninety-three years! All of them seem so painfully long ago. I can no longer keep up, for now the world has forsaken candlelight and is lit by lightening. Feelings are let loose like stray bullets in a sprawling concrete jungle. Once upon a time, people didn’t have to scream like that. There was no need for desperate screeching and pleading. Now all I hear is cries for help.
Many of my peers gave themselves away to a tempting mistress of normality. Those still alive have distracted themselves with crocheting, knitting, cats, the Good Lord. I cannot count myself among their ranks. After my husband died, I was met with pressure to find God and stop dwelling on the past. The fiery Irish spirit of independence in me prevented that from happening.
Others may have been able to take their tragedies and put them in neat little boxes of mourning with pretty bows of distraction. I could not be so thoughtless. It wasn’t in me. Once James died, I unwrapped the widow’s Pandora’s box and showed myself a world of self-doubt and confusion.
My smoker’s cough rang out like the bells of Notre Dame.
Before I had only dipped my feet in the water of denial. I was now completely submerged. It wasn’t long before I suspected I’d drown. The waves crashed in every day now.
I was walking home from the doctor’s office today. I had gone in for a check-up at the insistence of my daughter, a slim-fingered high-strung deviation who reflected modern society far better than I. Part of me was convinced she did not care about my health and that she had read about lung cancer in some modern woman’s magazine and figured it would be nifty to check on. She offered me a ride in some huge crazed machine of an automobile, but only if she could do so on her schedule. The false jabs at caring almost offended me, until I thought of how I regarded my own mother at her age. In my youth, I could barely stand the woman who pressed herself so closely to me I suspected I’d suffocate. Once she gave me space to breathe after I married, I grew fonder of her in my own way. People had told me I would better get along with my mother at that age, and so, I did. I tried hard to appreciate her despite her leering, judgmental ways. She was old. It wasn’t her fault. By the time I was 59, as my daughter was now, I was burnt out on loving her. I wanted to quickly place her in a nursing home and visit her only on holidays. The problem with my own mother is that she never lost her wits enough to ignore the times I ignored her.
And so I walked alone, with my knees aching and my lungs working far too hard. The doctor was a man blessed with a cute face and a pleasant bedside manner. I used all the strength I could to smile at him, even when he broke the news. Why would I go through chemo? Why would I spend the funding of my children and grandchildren? Soaking up the state’s donations I received only because I was elderly?
I was far too proud for any of this.
The steady rhythm of the solid cane I used to prop myself up was crashing in my brain like waves licking a shore. My head hurt. Of course it did.
I walked for almost a mile until I hit the city park. The sidewalks were oddly welcoming and the street lights accepted me. My appointment was at four, and on an empty October night the sun had gone down by five. A nice young man regarded me with pity and a smile, but continued walking. A pretty girl looked my way and waved excitedly. I assume she worked in the service industry; she had that fake smile it so often employed.
Did she know I was beautiful once? Did she know that I too had a winning smile, before all my teeth had rotted out of my head and they filled my mouth with dentures? My smile would have been fake, too, if I had a complimentary grin to give her. My nerves were shaking like crazy. I couldn’t hold still. My joints burned.
Never in my life had I held still, except for the torturous moment I held my breath as my husband passed away. He was given a drawn out and painful expiration after a heart attack, slipping away in the hospital. I missed him, but no one seemed to understand. They failed to grasp that I, too, could feel love at my age. I was with the man for decades, and they act like because I’m old I have no passion?
Youth was so audacious sometimes. The unmitigated gall they had. To give me life insurance money, to cash out the man I had built a family with, and act like I should be grateful. I wanted nothing to do with life insurance. I simply wanted a hand to hold.
My daughter wouldn’t care, I knew. She would give a few words of condolence and let me be on my own. She’d rue how independent I was and complain to her own children, who were bored to death of hearing about it.
I can’t say I was much better at that age. At least I still had James then.
My body was screaming. With the fire in my bones and the electricity in my nerves, I took myself to a bench and closed my eyes. The moon was out, and it caught my attention. I never believed in heaven. I believed in life being a quick, bold, son of a bitch.
A boy approached me as I rested my bones. He looked confused, but concerned. His eyes were kind but alert in the way that young men often were.
“Excuse me, miss?” he said with more confidence than I expected.
“You’re excused,” I quipped, trying hard to smile. I didn’t have the strength.
“Do you need help? It’s getting late,” he looked deeply into my eyes. He reminded me of my husband. Most things did, but this was special. His hands had the same nervous twitch as James’s, and he had the beginning of laugh-lines that brought to mind my husband’s musical sense of humor.
I had the courage to ask. I was old. There was nothing to lose. “Could you sit here with me, young man? It all…hurts.”
“Sure, ma’am,” he said as he placed himself next to me on the bench. “What’s wrong? What hurts?”
I suspected there was a girl he was trying to impress. I looked off to the distance to see any hint of one. None. Not many where out at this hour.
“I’m very, very old,” I replied candidly. “I hope that answers some of your question. I just got back from the doctor..”
“Do you need me to walk you home?” He grew more confused by the minute.
I looked at him. Smiles were painful. I slowly reached in my purse and fiddled around, looking for a pill case. When I found it, I looked away from him. The pill was small and white, unobtrusive but potent. I placed it under my tongue and let it slowly dissolve. The bitter alkaline taste bit back. I didn’t mind.
“I-I do have a request, young man,” I continued looking the other way. “Could you just please hold my hand? I’m just so unsteady, and so….old…”
He seemed sympathetic, and focused his kind eyes on me. “Um…sure, miss, I guess so…”
In that moment, I closed my eyes. I felt the cool breeze lap against my old leather skin. He held my tired, shaking hand in his strong youthful grasp. He was hesitant, but I didn’t mind. It was in that time I was transported back to the moment I held James’s hand before he passed.
I was drowning in denial. Stage four. Stage four lung cancer.
My eyes closed still, I saw my husband and I felt his hand holding mine. I heard him laugh. The pill dissolved beneath my tongue.
A smile finally came across my face, and this time is was completely painless.