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.









The Trail-minder

There are sometimes things you just have to do, you know. Things that cry out for justice, hoping for their rightful place, begging you to simply help them out –or pick them up. Scraps of paper are like that, for example. Or tissue that finds itself hanging helplessly from a branch. Sometimes it is a solitary glove, alone and desolate, lying prostrate on the ground hoping for a hand. It’s not boring being a trail-minder –it’s a calling.

But sympathy for the forgotten things, redemption for the cast-asides, a bag for the downtrodden –these were not what pricked my conscience initially. I first glimpsed Agape in a clump of burdock. And yet I blush to mention this, lest the more cynical of my readers suggest that it was merely a flash of enlightened self-interest that sparked my ministry. While it’s true that the plant dared me to pass untouched, I like to think I heard the scolding of a generation of mothers burdened with preload anxieties as they confronted the laundry, and the distress of innumerable hapless dogs, their coats encrusted with burrs, condemned to prolonged, painful grooming they did nothing to deserve. A trail, after all, is still a trail no matter what anathemas hide along the way.

And so it was that, on an overcast and drizzly day, as I wandered aimlessly along a well-trodden path just killing time, I had an Epiphany -like Paul on his way to Damascus, I suppose. Only I didn’t get the blinding light, or even the Voice –just a sudden sprinkle of rain and a gust of wind that sent Satan -sorry, I mean the burdock- grabbing at my clothes for all I was worth. I figured this was probably a sign or something, because after my overly loud, and heartfelt curse, the sky darkened. Okay, it was just my hood that had shifted, but stuff happens differently nowadays, eh?

Then, as if the weather had just been teasing me, and I began to free myself from the feckless hood, it occurred to me that maybe I had been singled out for some reason. And, through the Gortex still wrapped across my nose, I thought I heard the soft insistent whispers of pant legs yet unborn telling me to kill the burdock. Of course it might have been the wind –I don’t normally attack plants.

But it got me thinking that I might be on to something. There was a niche service that I could provide -and it could be done anonymously. In fact, would have to be done with nobody looking… Aye, there’s the rub. You can’t just walk around tearing up plants willy-nilly; there would no doubt be complaints from the all-powerful burdock societies, and their affiliated bush-huggers. Yes, and probably Facebook posts denigrating my character and suggesting my mental health was not really up to par. And of course, in the background, the inevitable, whispered fears of garden molestation that always arise in the more faith-oriented ecological presbyteries. I decided to switch niches –you should never waste an epiphany.

That’s when the idea of trail-minding occurred to me. Leave the plants alone, no matter the rumoured malevolence they try so hard to conceal. I started small: paper. While picking up scraps of Snickers wrappers, and the odd MacDonald’s cup may seem tedious and unrewarding to everybody but the felons, I have to say that there is also a whole undiscovered world of crumpled letters and smudged envelopes out there –names naming names, addresses begging to be researched, and information usually locked within the interstices of inner pockets along with the accompanying Kleenex. If I were of a mind, I thought, I could probably make a few Facebook posts of my own. But I didn’t want to soil the vocation that was thrust upon me to bring meaning into my life.

Still, one can’t let paper be one’s entire raison d’être can one? Sometimes, I feel more comfortable, more amused, rescuing fragments of coloured things from bush-tops and low hanging branches. I spent an entire day gathering some orange ribbons strewn along an unmarked trail last week. I could scarcely believe my luck –it’s uncommon to find so many like that. Whoever threw them away should be arrested. And to make it even harder to gather them, they were often tied where they sat. Now that’s mean. Utterly irresponsible!

It’s also rare, thank goodness. Usually, my day is limited to an envelope or two, and maybe a dirty mit or a scarf some peripatetic child has dropped. Those kind of days are necessary, of course, but sometimes there is a haul of soggy tissue paper of uncertain usage. How it finds itself under the wings of hard to reach bushes so far off the path, is a mystery. But wonders like that are part of the allure -part of what keeps me coming back.

One time, I remember finding an intriguing spot at the end of an unusually busy day of gathering. It was an isolated meadow that seemed particularly littered; it was a nexus for beer cans, wrappers and even a soupçon of little deflated balloons scattered hither and thither. Now why would you bring your kids way out there? But that’s part of the mystery that sustains me, eh? Anyway, after cleaning up as much as I could find, I decided to rest under a nearby cedar. My plans were necessarily fluid, you understand.

I leaned against the bark for five or ten minutes reading my phone apps, when an elderly couple, one of whom I’d seen coming out of some bushes a while back, arrived on the other side of the grassy knoll. They spent a few minutes sitting on the ground and glancing over their shoulders at my tree. Finally the man rose to his feet and limped over to my aging cedar. For a moment I thought he might have had another urgent text from nature, but he walked right up to the tree and stared at me.

“Was it you who passed us on the trail?” he asked with hopeful eyes, but without introducing himself.

I nodded wearily, assuming he was just another autograph-seeker.

His face broke into a wrinkled smile. “I think you dropped this,” he continued, holding out a mildewed, lacy, lingerie-like thing for me to take. Wow, I thought, I’m finally trending -people were actually helping me with stuff. Even though it looked rather small, I could see him mentally assessing whether or not I would actually put it on. But when he saw other articles of dubious merit also hanging from my pockets he winked and hurried back to his friend, no doubt sure that he’d just talked to a deviant. After they left, I noticed one of them had dropped a small pledget of Kleenex on the grass so it was definitely a bonus day. Of course every trail isn’t motherloded like that.

But looking back all these many years later, I have no regrets. I was awarded a purpose not given to many others. And as I’ve fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf, as Macbeth so aptly put it, there have been no curses -nothing loud or deep that I could hear, anyway. Okay, there was maybe a bit of mouth-honour, but hey, I imagine everybody gets that when they pick off soiled gloob hanging from branches… And I figure I’m probably in line for that which Macbeth felt should accompany old age, as honour, love, obedience and troops of friends…

Actually, I’m still waiting for those.



Retirement or Retrenchment

Ahh retirement – a drawing back, as the etymology would have it, but from what? We are all encouraged to prepare for it years in advance but until it arrives it is still a stranger.

I never thought it had dimensions, or volume; I never thought it was a place, any more than I thought that night was a destination, or that day was a region. But, retirement having arrived, I am beginning to change my mind. It is still too early to see the colours, or feel the textures, however; I am merely conscious of an envelopment –as in being wrapped loosely in a kind of gauzy curtain through which I can almost make out shapes and, with effort, hear whatever passes by. It is a world of shadows though. Pre-forms. Almost-things. And although I still miss work, it is hard to truly miss something when it has only just disappeared.

There are no markers, of course -no signposts pointing out the route, or telling me where I am. I could be anywhere -but wherever it is, I keep getting congratulated on having arrived. I find this strange, to say the least. Even if the commendations are for having finished what I started, I am still confused. Are you ever finished anything? And what does that mean? Suppose, for example, you have enjoyed what is now over? Shouldn’t the the response be tempered? Wouldn’t the wisest policy be to enquire how the person feels about the change, before congratulations are offered? Maybe it’s sympathy or an understanding face that they really need.

Or maybe just encouragement would do the trick –reassurance that even a mirror image can look different depending on the light. Depending on the perspective.

Although this may be an ambitious project and beyond my skills, I would like to track the journey from its confusing start. I am not a travel writer, but a pilgrim searching for meaning. I seek to determine if retirement is the bud-filled spring of a new life, or the leaf-strewn autumn of an older, more familiar trail. Will it be an opportunity or the slow unravelling and disintegration of the one who started life with a mewling cry?

I fear Macbeth’s devastating appraisal of his future:

‘I have lived long enough. My way of life

Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf,

And that which should accompany old age,

As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,

I must not look to have, but, in their stead,

Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath

Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.’

So is retirement a beginning, or an end? It matters….