“It’s not that I can’t handle it,” he said to her, “it’s just that the time has gone so fast. A lot faster than it seemed as I was living it.” As he said those words, his withered hands began to tremble, as did his voice. John was ninety-four years old but in his mind, he had not changed since he was in his early twenties rushing the beach at Normandy during the Second World War. He was not separated from his mind, he knew how old he was, it was just that in his head, he felt the same way he did as a young man. When he looked down at his hands though, he knew different. His hands had seen so much and done so much in his ninety-four years that he found them to be a window to his past. His hands made the journey through life with him, but now, what had served him so well were little more than useless appendages placed on his lap. Arthritis will do that to a good pair of hands. He depended on them for so much once, for his very survival, but now they mostly sit, bone and ligaments wrapped in see-through skin, placed on his lap. Occasionally, they function, serving their master as an old, tired butler continues to serve long after he should have retired.
The room was sparsely decorated and in neutral colors as Gloria did not like a cluttered home or one that was too ostentatious. There were a few pictures of country scenes on the walls to decorate his room at the retirement home, but not much else. Scattered about the room were pictures of their youth, and their family. Gloria liked that because it made her feel her kids were always present even when they were not there. Both she and John enjoyed remembering when they were young and would dance to Glen Miller, Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey and Count Basie. They would speak of dance halls, dinners with friends who had passed on, and their life in the quiet suburb of Wheaton, just outside of Chicago.
“I know, Gloria, I shouldn’t complain that much, but what else is there to do? I’m bound in this damn chair for most of the day, can barely feed myself, and am surrounded by pictures of when we were younger and enjoying each other’s company. Now, I can’t even tie my goddamned shoes without someone coming here and helping me because my hands don’t work. You know how I like to be independent, but this body won’t let me.”
“John, it’s just something that you’ll have to come to grips with, whether you like it or not,” said Gloria.
“Well, John said in his gravelly voice, “I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit. One minute you’re on top of the world, have a family, a job, you don’t think it will ever end. Hell, I even miss the days when I complained about the kids wrecking the house. The boys putting holes in the wall, mud on the carpet…I miss that too. Now, this is my fate? To sit here in this chair waiting to get pushed around when I need it? It just doesn’t seem fair.”
“You said it yourself, John,” said Gloria, “life is not fair. How many times did you say that to the kids when they were growing up?”
To their kids, John was the disciplinarian, but most of the time it was with a velvet glove. He could get testy if pushed, but those times were rare indeed. He had had enough of his testiness during the war, and he preferred to let that part of him sink back into the tar pit of his mind once the war was over. Killing men with a gun or a bayonet brought the monster from the pit and in his civilian life, he preferred to let him sleep. It was not as though John was averse to his anger rising, it was just he rather preferred reason when reason was an option. Most of the time, the kids understood and acquiesced to his rules. They had a happy family. Laughter was the predominant sound throughout the house. Sometimes, when he is all alone, which is most of the time now, the laughter around the dinner table echoes through his mind, like distant thunder on a rainy afternoon. Their children had all grown up successfully, all with careers and providing John and Gloria with wonderful grandkids.
They did not come around as much as he would like, the wheels of life sometimes getting in the way, but when they did, which was maybe twice a month, he always enjoyed their company. It was their youth that he enjoyed. Their young life force was like a battery providing energy for his body and mind. He would find the strength at times to get out of the damn chair when they were around so that he could interact with his grandkids as a real person, not the wheelchair bound person he had become. Now, as the grandchildren were older, they understood, but he still did his level best to get out of “the chair” a personal prison that he hated, but needed.
The sun cut through the shears this sunny afternoon, revealing a beautiful spring day but John elected to stay in his room at the retirement home. He wanted to be in his chair, wanted to think, to talk to Gloria, his wife of seventy years. They met shortly after his return from the war at a dance hall that he visited with his war buddies one evening in 1946. She was there with some friends of hers as well. One look from across the room and both were smitten. Her brown hair cascading around her shoulders, and Donna Reed good looks struck him immediately. It was her personality that won him over though. She was soft, but firm. A mind of her own, but willing to listen. She was a strong person in every way, but every inch a woman. She was a perfect partner for John.
That night, Glen Miller’s Little Brown Jug was being played by the house band. They danced the jitter bug as though they had been dancing together for years. They were Fred and Ginger. They just fit. A year later, they were married. That simple. They rarely argued, and didn’t much understand those that did and called that a relationship. For them, marriage was not hard work at all as so many claimed, but an exercise in tolerance, compromise, and a willingness to understand each others personality quirks. Simple recipe. Oh, there were disagreements to be sure, but John reveled in them as Gloria was so practical and wise, that he always learned something from her. She was calculating, John, emotional in his decision making. They off-set each other well and made the perfect pair. Here she was again, being the rational one.
“I know what I said, Glor, but that doesn’t mean that I have to agree with it all the time,” he said. “A man can disagree with his own advice.” He smiled at that last statement. He knew that she had done it again. Made him think about his words and at the same time made him realize that she was right, again. “I just wish that we could go back, that’s all.” Now, John looked down at his hands again, sitting there on his lap, not moving. He wiggled his left index finger just to see it move. It obeyed, but like an old dog roused from a nap, it did so slowly. “Ya know Gloria, I sit here every day and think, and wish, and think.”
“John,” said Gloria, “you have to do
, not think. Sitting here all day and thinking of what once was is not healthy. You still have life, you still have family, you still have you,’ she said. John sat in his chair and pondered those words. He looked through the shears that covered the window and saw the distorted outline of the outside world. He saw the sunshine, the tree right in front of his window. He wondered how old the tree was. He thought about that tree and if it had any thoughts of its life as a sapling. Then, he thought of Gloria’s words.
“No, Gloria. This time, you’re wrong. I don’t have life anymore. I am waiting, that’s all. I am simply waiting, and waiting is not life. I replay my memories in my mind every day, even the memories of Normandy. I was scared of them once, scared of seeing in my mind what I saw that day. Now, those same memories are like an old friend that comes to visit. I still see the horror of the beachhead, but rather than being repulsed and haunted by them, they’re visitors of my past youth, enemies that have become friends, Gloria. Time has done that, like it does to many things, making those that were once enemies, friends. I can still feel, Gloria.
John shuffled a bit in his seated prison. “You know what the worst part of all of this is, Glor? The memories. They are like a window to my past, almost taunting me. They don’t mean to, but they do.” Now, John’s eyes began to tear. He felt it and let them come. “All I want to do is go back there, Glor. That’s all I want to do. I want to go back to what was—to us, our family, our youth and I can’t. I can’t.” Tears were rolling down his cheeks as he continued to look at the tree through the shears. “So, I just sit here and wait. Sit here in this room looking out my window at a tree who must be feeling the same thing. We’re both waiting. The difference is that I am plagued by memories that replay in my mind.” Now, the tears flowed freely, and John did not care. “I miss you, Gloria. I miss you so much. I want our life back, my time back. My whole life is nothing but a memory.”
Gloria’s urn sat on the window sill in the same place she was placed at three years ago after her death. John talked to her every day, just like he did this day. And like every other day, John looked at the tree through the shears…and waited.