The Ministering Angels

I don’t know what it is about illness –everybody talks about it nowadays as if it’s their fault. As if they wouldn’t get sick they were really healthy. But seems to me that lifestyle and diet can explain only so much. Some of it just happens; check with any old person -it’s like asking someone walking off a train at a station how he got there…

We all get sick. After all, health is only possible if you have something with which to contrast it. Otherwise you might just as well be asleep. Or that other thing.

Not to dwell on it, or anything, but I have to say that the conversations that swirl around me at my age, seem to have inordinately large components of disease in them. And if not specifically referenced as such, bear all the facially recognizable hallmarks thereof. The only words not shouted so we can hear them, I find, are the affliction words of maladies -not loud, but deep- to paraphrase Macbeth. And, given that I have as well, perhaps, fallen into the sere, my yellow leaf, I would it were otherwise.

It is for that reason, I suppose, that I seek out tables near younger people in restaurants and coffee shops when I am allowed the choice. It is not hard to find those autumn-deprived souls, of course, so the opportunity is almost always on offer.

Allen, however, is of a different mind whenever we meet. He seeks to compare notes, I think –to wallow vicariously in the misfortunes of other graylings who are only too willing to remonstrate with each other in barely whispered shouts about how they, also, did not escape entirely unscathed. I think it cheers him up.

It was on one such trip that I remember we had our very own remonstrance. It took place in one of the lesser known franchises that were only able to stay open by offering discounts to seniors for coffee and doughnuts. So the air was awash with the clatter of dentures gripping tasteless pastry and overly-loud greetings once we cleared the door. Everybody seemed to have monosyllabic names like Fred and John, with the occasional Edward sprinkled in for acoustic exercise. Arthritic hands waved their slow salutes, and rheumy eyes squinted in the fluorescent glare as they fought to recognize the faces of friends they’d long since given up for dead. Or at least that’s how it seemed each time Allen dragged me there.

I was in the middle of bemoaning his taste, both of the company and the venue, when he suddenly tried to paste an impatient smile between the wrinkles on his cheeks. He seemed to have difficulty clearing enough room –his face was crowded with other issues at the time- but I suppose I shouldn’t have shrugged at his attempt.

“What is it this time?” he said, disdainfully. It was his favourite coffee shop and we had arrived in time for the seniors’ Happy Hour, so Allen knew they’d marked the doughnuts down even further. The place was packed and he’d been amazed we’d even found a table.

I shook my head and shrugged. “Nothing, Allen,” I replied, pointing to the lineup at the till. “You go get us a couple of coffees and I’ll guard our table.” It seemed the sensible thing to do.

He wandered off, delighted in the line of canes that offered to vindicate his choice of time and place. Allen is short, slightly gnarled, and definitely tonsured in grey like his line mates, so he almost disappeared in the gestalt.

I had to squint to make him out, but I could see him touch one of the gaunt ones gently on his shoulder and smile a silent greeting as their eyes met. I could see their lips moving and Allen shaking his head while reaching out with his other hand to console him.

The two of them soon made their way back to the table, deep in conversation. Neither looked happy.

I recognized the other man as he sat down and smiled. “John lost his wife, last year,” Allen said, scarcely looking at me.

“Breast cancer,” John said, staring at the coffee in his hand.

“And now John has found out he has to have a prostate operation…” Allen said, shaking his head again.

“Just a biopsy… so far, at any rate,” John added for clarity. “Had my first cataract removed a couple of weeks ago, though, so the prostate apparently has to wait.”

Allen shook his head again.

John gazed at Allen now –it was his turn, apparently.

Allen sighed loudly enough to be heard over the ‘Pardon me’ shouts from various tables all around us, many engaged in listing off their respective ailments to each other at the top of their voices, and shaking their heads as necessary. “I suppose I’ve been lucky, John,” he said with false humility. “I’ve only had bouts of chest pain –especially when I walk,” he added, lest John think it wasn’t as serious as his prostate issue. It was news to me, and I was about to say something when I felt two predatory eyes stalking my face. “But my doctor reassured me after a few tests…” He recalled his eyes and dropped them onto the table in front of him. He was silent for a moment. “He plans on sending me to a specialist if it happens again, though… Or maybe to the Emergency Department.” I think he only said that to validate his claim, however, because he quickly picked his eyes up off the table again and hurled them at my face to silence any rebuttal.

John seemed relieved –although whether it was because of Allen’s reprieve, or his membership in the club I couldn’t tell. “You just don’t know from one day to the next, do you Allen?” He resumed shaking his head in response to the same from Allen. “I mean, who’s going to be next in line, eh?”

“I know what you mean, John…”

They both looked at me to see if I could better them. I didn’t know what to do with my eyes, let alone my lips. The only thing I could think of on the spur of the moment was a theatrical sigh and a little head nod. They each sat back in their chairs, first to listen and then commiserate. I could see Allen massaging his neck after all its unaccustomed exercise; but he appeared to be limbering up for another shake.

“I’ve been a little bloated lately…” I said, improvising as I went along.

“That’s worrying,” said John immediately, while Allen started nodding his head as the plot developed.

“I Googled it…” I continued, beginning to get into it.

“Good idea,” John whispered loudly -whispers are apparently more commiseratory.

“And I realized that I could be sitting on an explosive powder keg,” I said, casting my eyes about for reaction. They were loving it, judging by the speed and range of their heads.

“And did you go to your doctor?” John asked, totally engaged in my ailment.

I shook my head, this time; I’d learned the moves. “I think I diagnosed it online, John,” I answered. “Thought I’d first wait and see if the treatment from the site I looked at would help.”

John nodded his wholehearted approval. “We have to try lots of stuff first, don’t we?” he said with his lips, while ‘and then we’re sorry,’ was written all over his face, but I ignored that. He continued to stare at me hopefully. “So, how did it work?” He lowered his eyes to half-mast in anticipation of my answer.

I shrugged. “I feel fine now, thanks John.”

He slowly raised his eyes to check my face, but I could see he was disappointed in me. “Great,” he managed to say without choking. “What’d you do?”

I shrugged again. “Stopped eating kale… I only tried it because of Allen anyway… Hate the stuff…”

I could tell John didn’t know whether to shake his head or do a congratulatory nod. Instead of situating himself in either camp, he made a show of raising the sleeve of his sweater to look for his watch. He got the wrong arm at first, but I put that down to his jealousy about my health.

Once he found the watch, though, it wasn’t long before he excused himself and left the table without his empty cup.

Allen glared at me. “You just can’t fit in, can you?” he said, but with a different shake of his head this time -an angry shake. I could tell the difference.

I cocked my head, pretending confusion. “I talked about my bowels, Allen…”

“John wanted to share the serious health issues we’re supposed to have in common nowadays.” he said, his wrinkles unable to disguise his disappointment. “Real things that matter…”

“Like your ‘chest pain’ that didn’t show up on the tests?”

“I get twinges…” he replied and shrugged. But even in the fluorescent glare, I could tell he was blushing.









Me, Myself, and It

Now that I’m retired, I’ve been thinking a lot about the subconscious. Well, I mean I have –I’m not sure if it’s doing the same. But I guess that’s just it in a briefcase: I’m not at all certain where I begin and it stops. Everything is shell-game and shadows really, isn’t it? People talk about it as if it were the brains of the office –it does everything important and then humours us with bits of information from time to time as if it were feeding a pet. I sometimes feel like I’m just a car being driven along a road somewhere.

I just wish it were a little more open about things. Why all this cloak and dagger stuff anyway? Doesn’t it trust me after all these years? Haven’t I proven a worthy shill?

Actually, that’s unfair; I realize I’m being a little ungrateful to my subconscious. In a way, it’s my business manager and it’s got way more to do than me; it runs the company while I lallygag around the body finding fault and pretending to be the boss. It probably has the best apps.

But it got me wondering the other day as I sat in the usual table by the wall in Starbucks that it always makes me choose. What if I tried an experimental takeover –but maybe just a few small steps here and there to test the waters before I attempted anything major? I realized I had to be very careful, though, because it is watching my every move. I decided to use a clever tactic: I would make a list of some of the things it does and see how much I could influence them. I have to confess that I was on pretty shaky ground here –I didn’t really know what stuff to put on the list- but, pretty soon a few items just kind of popped into my head from nowhere, so I wrote them down on one of those little brown paper napkins.

Let’s see, a little voice inside me whispered -how about ‘breathing’? That should be easy enough, I thought. So I wrote it down. ‘Heart rate’, surfaced next, so down it went. Then there was a long pause before ‘digestion’ occurred to me. I thought about that for a moment and then I crossed it off and substituted ‘saliva’. I figured I should probably start small and maybe in an easier to monitor area.

“What are you writing?” a louder voice suddenly said in my ear, accompanied by a scraping chair noise and a sudden jiggling of the table. Brien is always like that, though. He’s a large man and sitting anywhere requires a certain amount of adjustment of his front parts.

“Oh, just making a list,” I said, hastily reaching for the napkin to wipe my mouth.

But, despite his girth, Brien has quick hands and he beat me to it. “Breathing? Heart? Saliva?” He smiled and glanced at me. “You taking up meditation or something?”

I tried to think quickly; he wouldn’t understand. “Yes,” I replied, before my conscience took over. “In a way…” it added, and I blushed –a sure give away.

His eyes have a way of retracting way into his skull when he needs to think about something in private. Suddenly, they darted out again like cuckoos announcing the hour from those German clocks. “In what way?”

Damn him; my mind went blank for a moment, but then, just as I was about to answer with a shrug, a little voice whispered from inside somewhere: ‘tell him it’s a Buddhist exercise, for god’s sake!’ “I, uhmm, I read somewhere that you can control all sorts of things with meditation…”

He leaned forward on his chair and rested his arms on the table. Only his coffee spilled, fortunately, and he used my napkin to wipe it up. “Yeah, I read about that, too,” he said, proudly. I could see that he was surprised that we’d read the same article. “People Magazine, right…?” he thought about it for a few seconds. “No, it was probably National Enquirer…” he hesitated to give it his final seal of approval. “Anyway, it was one of those magazines you see at the supermarket checkout counters, eh?” He smiled conspiratorially, as if I had been outed at last. “I just look for the good stuff and skim through it while I’m waiting.” He had a quick sip of what remained of his coffee. “Can’t remember now who they said was using it for their blood pressure, but it seemed to be working.” His eyes darted out again and fluttered around my head. “At any rate, I think they said he hadn’t had another stroke yet.”

“I hadn’t thought of blood pressure,” I admitted, making a mental note to add it to a new list.

Brien sat up straighter in his chair –a sure sign he was about to tell me something important. “I’ve been trying it since I read that article,” he said with authority. “I figured it’d save me a bundle on pills… And,” he told his eyes to stand firmly on my cheeks. “…And I realized I could start eating ice cream and desserts again.” He smiled with evident satisfaction at how things could work out for him.

Perfect, I thought, secretly planning my own small takeover plot. “Did it work?”

He cocked his head and stared at me as if I’d missed something important in the discussion. “You can’t just expect something as multifactorial as blood pressure to simply disappear overnight!”

His italics grated, but I have to admit I was impressed with his use of the word ‘multifactorial’. I don’t think he got that from the magazine. “So…?”

“So I’m working on it.” He leaned on the table again, but his face no longer looked as confident as when he was talking about the desserts. “The meditation’s the hard part, though.” He sighed and fingered the cardboard coffee cup as if it had something written on it in Braille. “You know how you’re supposed to close your eyes and clear all thoughts from your mind, breathe deeply, relax… That kind of thing?”

I nodded, but actually I hadn’t got that far in my research yet.

“Well, when I try, it’s like I’m watching a crowd go by from a window, and I’m seeing people I know.” He shrugged and sat back again. “I think of food, of an itch on my leg, of what programs I’m missing on TV…” He shook his head slowly. “I’ve found meditation seems to work better after a big meal, though. I sit in a comfortable chair, lean my head back, close my eyes…” He closed his eyes to show me how he did it. “And when I wake up, I feel a lot better, you know. It seems to me I’m getting the hang of it, eh?”

I found myself smiling at his success. “And is your pressure going down?”

He nodded, his face all happy. “My doctor thinks it’s her pills, and I haven’t the heart to disappoint her. I know she means well.”

“Are you still taking them?”

He stared at me, nodded carefully, and then a wry smile slowly usurped the happy one. “But, I’m cutting down on them.” He hesitated for a moment, uncertain whether to disclose the full extent of his scheme. “I’m taking each of them an hour or two later than it says on the directions.” A mischievous expression soon appeared. “And I’m thinking of upping it to three hours…” he added, “Even if I have to get up in the middle of the night,” he whispered, obviously proud of his clever trickery.

I thought about his blood pressure that night, and I realized I didn’t really need to go that far. In fact, I figured my office manager seemed to be doing a pretty good job behind the scenes without me. Brien obviously hadn’t vetted his staff all that well. No, I rationalized, I’m retired now, and I probably shouldn’t take on too much more at this stage. And besides, I wouldn’t do a very good job with digestion -I’ve never much liked having to deal with my bowels unless I’m feeling a bit logy.