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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Fell Clutch of Circumstance

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…?”

“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?”

“Know what…?”

“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.”

“So…”

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.