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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running for Godot

You learn to seize an opportunity when you get to my age, to latch onto it like a puppy on a leg because it may never walk by again. And besides, it’s something to do. I was having a quiet breakfast at a budget motel in Drumheller recently when a group of seniors rushed in like a flock of kindergarten children babbling excitedly about something they were about to do. They were wearing numbers pinned like diapers to their apparel so I suppose I could be forgiven for assuming they were on some form of supervised excursion from the Home, and their numbers were merely assigned for easy identification if they wandered away.

The strange thing, though, was that they were all wearing running shoes and athletic gear and doing stretches while they waited for their toast to burn. Powerful wrinkles rippled silently beneath their yoga pants and I tried not to stare; but it was difficult not to risk quick ocular sorties to identify the source of the crackles and pops that didn’t seem to be coming from their cereal bowls. They all looked so enthusiastic and animated, I wondered for a moment whether they had been pre-medicated with something.

Then one of them, a tall, thin, nervous looking woman with short grey hair sat beside me –by mistake, I imagine, because the rest had clustered together trying to fit themselves around a table so they could shout at each other more efficiently. She was wearing loose black pants, and a disturbingly dissonant neon-green hoodie that almost shouted. She smiled at me, rolled her eyes and poked carefully at a partially filled bowl of raisin bran. As I concentrated politely on trying to thicken an already decadent layer of peanut butter on my freshly toasted bagel, she muttered something. I suppose it was actually a whisper, but she was chewing at the time, so I couldn’t be sure.

“I wish I could do that,” was what it sounded like, but again, I wasn’t certain it was intended for me, so I continued slathering. “I’d feel too logy on the path,” was the addendum.

I didn’t respond, of course, so she tried it again –this time while attempting to dislodge a recalcitrant bran flake from between her teeth. Finally, in desperation, she nudged me with her elbow and spoke slowly and clearly, enunciating each syllable as if I were deaf, foreign, or challenged in some manner.

I smiled and put down my knife under intense scrutiny from the eyes she had sent to forage on the bagel. “I like a little bagel with my peanut butter,” I said, weakly, followed by a brief moment of embarrassment when she didn’t laugh.

“I love peanut butter,” she said, this time in a relatively normal cadence with a reassuring smile, still staring at my bagel. “But the organizers warned us not to eat too much before the race… Something to do with cramps, I think.” She glanced furtively at her friends at the other table. “None of us have ever finished before, but this year, it’s going to be me. I’m going to make it this time!” She sighed and wiped her mouth with a napkin. “Martha you’ll never do it, they keep saying.” She giggled like a teenager. “They only made it as far as the museum themselves last year and waited for me there…” She went suddenly silent and dropped her eyes to the table in front of her.

“And…?”

“And I never arrived… Got a cramp on the first part near the river and told them to go on ahead and I’d join them at the Museum. But it didn’t go away, so I walked back to the starting place and apologized to the race organizers for my failure.”

She seemed so ashamed of the memory, I thought I’d ask her about today’s race. “How far do you need to run this morning?”

Her grin almost split her face in two. “It’s supposed to be a half marathon,” she said excitedly. “We start at the bridge, run along the river path, and then through the badlands to the Royal Tyrrell Museum. We come back the same way.”

Suddenly, as if a switch had been flicked the entire group stood up and pretend-jogged to the door. Martha pushed the cereal bowl away, stretched, and then touched my shoulder. “It starts in about fifteen minutes; wish me well –I’ve been training all year for this…”

I smiled and told her I knew she’d make it this time, and then concentrated on my bagel while she and the group bounced out the door.

The silence following their departure was almost preternatural and although I’d been enjoying it before, I felt like there was now something missing. I’d done all the tourist things –I’d been to the museum; I’d hiked the World Heritage site at the Dinosaur Provincial Park -I’d even trouped around Drumheller in the wind and rain taking pictures of the model dinosaurs sitting coyly on park benches or crouched on lawns in front of restaurants. I’d decided to stay another day, but frankly I was already bored. It was raining again and cold with the wind. I’d already hiked every trail I could find, but in the rain, the mud in the badlands turns, well, bad. I wondered about the path the race was using, though –it couldn’t be over the same material. And if seniors could run it, surely I could at least walk it when the race was finished. They were putting me to shame.

I waited until the early afternoon to be sure everybody would have finished the course, and then simply followed the arrows chalked on the pavement. There were still a few race officials standing around, but I could see they were merely taking down the signs and tidying up. There were even a few of the seniors huddled in a little group, hoods up against the wind. At any rate, nobody made any attempt to discourage me from walking along the route, so I started out, leaning into the roaring wind, excited about having a purpose again.

The first part was rather dull –it skirted the road that led to the museum- and apart from a few motels and a Health Center conveniently near to the course, the only interesting part was the strength of the unfettered prairie wind fanned by a Venturi effect that was roaring down the highway. But the little chalk arrows soon pointed into the relative shelter of the woods by the river, and the cottonwood trees rustled their leaves in encouragement. In fact, they were swaying and creaking so loudly in the wind overhead, it sounded like continuous applause –a standing ovation. I felt protected and hidden in the relative calm on the route below their gesticulating arms; it was only when the path crossed the road again and scraped its way across the badlands that I felt the building fury once more. But the museum was still only an invisibly distant, lonely promise.

The rain started up again as I struggled along one particularly steep part of the trail. All around were striped, pale and dark, layered columns of clay and silt deposited thousands of years ago by endlessly repetitive river floods as the glaciers melted. Tiny linear crevasses streaked down each hill -eerie, parallel testaments to the ambivalence of water: deposition or erosion -nothing lasted here; nothing remained the same. A place of aboriginal myths and superstition, it was as barren and forbidding as legend, wind and passing aeons could beget. Postdiluvian, yet unfamiliar. Incongruous… And as I stood there in the dwindling light, I felt increasingly silly for even attempting the walk in these conditions; abandoned, and chilled by the rain, I was a man struggling alone and forgotten on the surface of a cold, alien planet. A stranger in a strange land…

And then, in the distance made blurry by the sheets of rain, I saw it: a flash of colour that at first I mistook for a light from the still too-distant museum -but there was only one and it soon disappeared behind one of the muddy knolls. Nevertheless, I was tired, not curious, and decided to turn around, even though I knew I was far from my goal. There seemed no sense in continuing further in the growing storm -no reward to be gained; no one even knew -or cared- that I had ventured this far on foot.

I turned my back to the wind and tightened the thin, flapping Gortex hood. I don’t know how long I stood there feeling sorry for myself, but all of a sudden I thought I heard a cough behind me.

“I’m gonna make it this time,” a thin, exhausted voice yelled over the wind and through the rain beating staccato on my hood. “My friends have already dropped out, so I phoned them and told them to meet me at the starting place.”

I felt a hand on my shoulder as I spun around and saw a grin on the familiar, hooded face. “Didn’t I tell you I’d make it this time…?”