You know, I really have to hand it to John, he’s got this retirement thing down pat –more than pat, I suppose: he’s writing it all down.
“Just in case,” he said, one day at the Tim Horton’s coffee shop where I found him scribbling thoughtfully in one of those large three-ring binder notebooks like we used in high school.
“In case of what, exactly?” I asked, sitting down at his table.
I could see his eyes running a quick analysis of the risk of my coffee spilling onto his manuscript. He reached out and moved it a few centimeters away. “In case anything happens.”
I took a little sip of the newly-moved coffee, careful to put it back in the same spot. “Like what, John? In case you’re kidnapped, or something?”
His eyes briefly chided my face and then withdrew to their accustomed roost on the binder. “No, but I live alone remember.”
I waited for an elaboration, but he obviously felt that he’d answered the question satisfactorily and occupied himself with staring at the half-full page he’d written. Then he wrote a few more words –one of which, even upside down, looked an awful lot like my name.
“I live alone too, John…” I didn’t know where to go from there so I just waited until it looked as if he’d finished writing the sentence with my name in it. “Is that important?”
He put down the pen and raised his head to look at me with a kind of resigned expression –the kind you might use on a slow pupil. “We’re both retired now,” he said, kindly. I almost thought he was going to reach across the table and pat my hand to console me. “And things change…”
That seemed rather generic. “What things change?”
He rolled his eyes in frustration at my thickness. “You know, things…”
I could almost feel the italics in his expression, but they didn’t help. “Things? Like, wrinkles, or having to get up in the middle of the night…?”
He waved me off impatiently and decided to sip at his own coffee for a moment. “Health issues,” he said, after he’d thought about it.
I have to admit that I was surprised. John was a self-confessed exercisomaniac, and since his retirement, I often saw him running in the park or bicycling along the trails, his helmet even brighter than the sunlight glinting off his orange lycra pants. He walked everywhere he didn’t bike. “What health issues, John? Muscle cramps? Allergies from riding through the woods?”
He fixed me with a prolonged stare, his eyes gripping my face like an angry parent, and then called them off and sighed. “Look, have you ever wondered what would happen if you had a heart attack or a stroke…?”
I shook my head; I hadn’t, actually. “Why would I wonder about that?”
He took a deep, frustrated breath and let it out slowly. “Neither of us have partners…”
“So, suppose something bad happened?”
“Like a heart attack, you mean?” I said, thinking I was finally catching his drift.
He blinked slowly and nodded his head. “Who would know?”
“Whether anything had happened.”
He had a point. “You thinking of buying one of those alarm buttons, or something?” I couldn’t believe it had finally come to this in our lives.
He smiled –his first of the morning- and shook his head. “No, but any port in a storm, I guess…”
“What storm, John?” He was obviously worried about something.
He looked around the room to make sure nobody was listening before he answered. “Dizziness,” he answered in a soft, semi-whisper, almost as if he was afraid of conjuring up the condition by even naming it.
“Dizziness?” I responded -but overly loudly, I guess, because he unmuzzled his eyes again. I softened my voice and leaned over the table towards him. “We all get dizzy sometimes, John. Why are you worried?”
His expression was defiant, his voice concerned. “It’s never happened before,” he answered, but without his usual bravado. “One day a few weeks ago I got out of bed and kept losing my balance. It lasted all morning…” Now even his face looked worried. He focussed his attention on my head and once again his eyes darted over to scratch at my cheeks. “I think I have a brain tumour,” he whispered, and then withdrew into himself again, his face now pale, and his hand shaking as he reached for his coffee.
We were both silent for a second or two. I couldn’t think of anything to say. Finally, I managed to ask him if he’d seen his doctor.
“I was so worried, I went to the Emergency Department at the hospital and even saw the neurologist on call.” Then he lapsed into silence, as if that were enough of an answer.
Sometimes John can be so annoying. He left me to draw my own conclusions about something serious enough to require a visit to Emergency –and a neurologist. “And…?”
He snorted and stared at the ceiling. “She didn’t think it was a brain tumour…”
“Did she do any tests… a CT or something?”
He nodded. “Pretty well everything was normal.”
He shrugged. “So, I think she missed something.”
“Why? What did she think was the cause of the problem?”
He grabbed his coffee and took an aggressive swallow, murmuring something as he did so.
“Pardon me, John? I missed that. What did the neurologist think?”
He whispered something, but it was lost in the shout of a nearby child. When I didn’t reply, he began to explain the mistaken diagnosis in a more audible voice. I still had no idea what he’d said, but it sounded for all the world like a justification. “It’s never happened before, you know,” he said earnestly. “So, it couldn’t be that…” I opened my mouth to ask what that was, but my attempt was read as a criticism and he evidently wasn’t prepared to hear it. “I’m in my seventies now; don’t you think I know my body?”
This from someone who had just told me he was worried about something bad happening to him, undiscovered. I smiled reassuringly. “And has the dizziness happened since that time?”
His face tensed and he glared at me. “Of course not!” he almost shouted at me, and then realized he shouldn’t take out his stress on a friend. He sat back and tried to smile. “I decided to change some things in my life, though… Maybe that helped.” He noticed my quizzical expression. “You know, dietary kinds of stuff.” He stretched his arms and took a deep breath. “Reduce my stress levels…”
I nodded as if I understood. I’d known him since university and he’d always been anxious. We used to go out and party on weekends and that always seemed to work. I had an idea. “Why don’t we go out for a drink tonight and talk about it like we did in the old days?
His brow furrowed suddenly and he cocked his head and looked at me as if I were crazy. “You mean like a test…?”
“Uhmm…” I had no idea what he was talking about. “What do you mean, John? We’re just gonna talk about stuff over a drink, not do acid, or anything.”
He watched me carefully from behind his eyes, trying to decide if I was making fun of him. After a few moments of silence, he smiled, gathered up his notes and extended his hand for me to shake. “She told me not to…” he said and stood up to leave. “I still think she missed something, though…” he said as he walked away, nimbly picking his way through the chairs without a mishap.