by Alan Dalby
Dedicated to the Memory of my Father:
Dale Galvin Dalby
James sat quietly in a small cold room, in an uncomfortable orange chair, staring at a blank TV screen. It seemed like he was surrounded by silence, even with the comings and goings of the so-called nurses out in the hallway. Every once in a while he would hear loud moaning from an elderly man in the next room. Down the hallway was a locked door that you could only get into if escorted by a staff member, and even then you needed a good reason. James knew every time that door opened, because the cries of the people trapped behind it would emerge. They were the ones who were not mentally fit to be on their own. These were the ones that were locked away and forgotten. Their only moments of fleeting hope were whenever that door opened. The most common cry was “Let me out! I just want to go home!”
The only sound that James heard when all else was quiet was the pumping of the oxygen machine. Attached to this monstrous device was a clear thin plastic tube that ran from the machine, into the mask covering his father’s frail face. Once healthy plump and a bit red at all times, James could now see every contour of his father’s skull through the pale wrinkled skin that was stretched over it. Looking at him was like looking at a ghost. Pale white, thin as his own skeleton, covered only by a thin white sheet. James was sure he must have been freezing. He was a healthy young man and he had to keep his coat on, his arms crossed tightly to help warm him. The rain poured down outside. It had been that way all summer long. The entire earth seemed clouded over, dark and bleak. Sitting in this small room in this place were people come to die, looking outside at the darkness of the morning, Jim felt an overwhelming depression. Is this life? Is this where it comes to? What it is all building up to?
James’ mother arrived to spell him so that he could go get ready for work. Her face was full of more emotions than we are told exist. James was never one to get visibly emotional, and hugs were strictly off-limits, even to family. He walked over to his father, who’s kind eyes opened with a smile. Even here, in this place he would pay any amount of money to escape from, slowly edging off the cliff of life and into the unknown, he found a smile inside himself for his son. James told him that he was leaving for work. His father pulled off his oxygen mask temporarily to say “Have a good night.” The mask went right back on. His father had to catch his breath. James smiled and walked away from the bed, past the orange chair, and stopped at the doorway. “I’ll see you later.” He said.
Out in the hallway, his mother chased him down to ask how the morning went. Then she offered him five dollars for gas. James could have refused it, but he’d have ended up with the money anyway. He told his mother goodbye and slowly made his way up the wide empty hallway toward the front door of the building. As he passed by the bulletin board he saw a very familiar sight; an old woman in a wheelchair. Every day and every night she sat there by the board. She cradled a stuffed bunny that had seen better days under her right arm and held a post card in her shaky hand. She would always be there, always with her rabbit, and always reading the same post card. James wondered, did she read it over and over? Or did she just stare at it? He never saw any family visit her, yet she was always there by the front door as if she were expecting visitors. Every time James walked in she would look up with a smile and ask “Did you call your brother today?” James didn’t have a brother. He would just smile back and walk away as quickly as possible. Every time he walked out of the building, passing her by, she would say “Dinner was lovely tonight.” James would not look back. He made his way out of this horrible depressing place as quickly as he could, and dove straight into his car, lighting up a much needed cigarette.
It was pouring rain once more as James closed up the store. It had been two years since he had been there, and returning to work felt bitterly sweet. The cool night air stood surprisingly still as if all life had stopped around him. The strip mall was dark and empty. His was the only store that stayed open past ten o’clock, still taking delivery orders until midnight. By the time the store was cleaned up, the driver was cashed out, and all of the paperwork was complete, it was just slightly past two in the morning. Jim put up the hood of his trusty old parka, which had hung in retirement in his closet for far too long just waiting until the day when it’s finely stitched Papa Smiley’s Pizza logo would be donned again.
James had quit his job two years back. His father’s long term illness had finally caught up with him. James remembered the day that he came home from junior high to find an ambulance and fire truck parked just outside his house. The front door was wide open. He could see strangers inside moving around. As he drew closer, he saw his mother standing off to one side, watching with an intensity that masked her confusion. Something was horribly wrong. James tossed his backpack into some bushes and ran inside. With no words his mother looked him in the eyes and James knew. Nearly four decades of smoking had finally grasped his father with a grip so tight that nothing could be done now to pry him free of it.
As the years went by, his father adjusted to the oxygen tanks. The feeling of the plastic tube constantly intruding into his nostrils became natural. Many things changed. Some that would have anyway; James going to the mountains every weekend with his father for instance. The child became a teenager. Soon the teenager became a man. High School ended and so James moved onward. He got a steady job at a Pet store, met a girl, and moved in with her. All the while he kept in touch with his parents. Most of the phone calls and visits were to ask for a little financial help. They really couldn’t afford it, but they were his parents, so they pitched in all that they could. James stayed afloat for the year’s lease he and his girlfriend had on their apartment. Then one day, he lost everything. His job, his girlfriend, and his apartment, all seemed to vanish into thin air. He had no choice but to move back home.
James quickly found a new job, and a much better one to boot. He stopped by a small pizzeria called Papa Smiley’s and took a seat, waiting for the only person in the store to finish up throwing a pie together before tossing it in the oven. Once she was done, he stood up and politely asked for an application. She handed him the paper and a pizza box to write on. The phones in the store started ringing off the hook. James had finished up his application and set it on the counter. He watched the young woman in distress answering phones, making pizzas, and cutting them all by herself as this onslaught continued. He asked if he could do anything to help. A surprised look hit her face and she showed him to the cutting table.
“Just make sure none of the pizzas fall out of the oven and onto the floor. That would help a lot for the moment.” She went back to making the pizzas and James went to work scooping them up with a large spatula-like instrument as they came out of the oven. The young woman would rush over to the cutting table intermediately and toss the right pies into the right boxes. She started cutting as the phones started ringing again. James rushed over and with a friendly voice began putting the phone lines on hold. An hour passed before the lunch rush ended. The young woman grabbed James’ application off of the counter. “First off, you’re hired.” She said with a loud relieved laugh, shaking a full bag’s worth of flour off her apron. “Now then, let’s see what you will be doing.” She looked over James’ experience and noticed that he had been in management at his last job. “You want to be a manager?” She asked.
That all seemed so long ago; faded memory of better times. James got into his little turquoise Hyundai Excel hatchback. He sat for a while, smoking a cigarette and looking at his store, the store that after three years had welcomed him back with open arms. He had to learn a lot of new things, but he picked up on them quickly as usual. The new computer system, all of the new products, all of the new co-workers. It was a little jarring, but it was nice to feel like his life was getting back into motion. He had quit originally for two reasons. Mainly because of his growing dependency on alcohol just to get through each day. His dog had an inoperable tumor and was going to be put to sleep soon. To top it all off, his dad had gone down hill a lot from the day James started working at Papa Smiley’s.
James always thought of his father as the strength of his family, the backbone. Even after being diagnosed with emphysema and being put on oxygen, he was a hardy man who kept his life going full force. By the time James quit Papa Smiley’s, his father had been forced by his physical limitations to retire from the work that he loved. It was like saying goodbye to his second home and family, and they did all they could to help him out. Now he sat at home all day, just keeping track of his medications and growing frustrated over his mind not being as sharp as it once was. He was still James’ father, still had the sense of humor and strong desire to get whatever he needed to do done. The problem was he had lost a lot of the physical strength and ability to do those things, another frustration that weighed on him emotionally, though he rarely showed it.
James’ mother now had two major concerns in her life, both there every time she came home from work. She had a husband who was slowly going down hill, and a son who had become a reclusive drunken shell of himself. James gained weight, lost touch with friends, and rarely left the house unless it was to hit up the liquor store. As his savings depleted, James started to sell off all of his belongings, starting with his DVDs and CDs that he had collected over the years. He used just what he needed to buy gas for his car, letting his insurance and other payments slip, and spent the rest on the cheapest whisky available. He would polish off a gallon within a few days. He couldn’t stop, didn’t want to stop, and sunk so far into another world of depression and his own inebriated mind that he nearly lost himself completely.
One morning, about a year into his drunken unemployed haze, James was awakened by his father’s cries for help. He thought he was having a heart attack and needed to go to the emergency room. James was very hung over as usual, and was out of whisky completely. He could barely function, even in the simple task of calling for an ambulance. As he stayed on the line with the operator, he did his best not to vomit. He had to step up to the plate and be there. His mother was at work, as was his sister who lived on the other side of town anyway. James was his father’s only lifeline. At the emergency room, James called his mother and left a message. He sat there in the little curtained-off area where his father was now being taken care of by nurses and doctors. James’ father had been in the hospital many times, and his mother was very adamant about a family member always staying with him because the staff liked to turn his oxygen down far below his normal setting. Once, during one of James’ father’s many hospital stays, his mother and sister had rushed into his room to find his tube had fallen out of his nose. He was turning blue and softly asking for help. The nurses were all standing around a table chatting away, letting an old man die instead of doing their jobs.
For that reason, James did not leave his father’s side that day. Through the pain of his hangover, the sickness that overwhelmed him, he stayed. He was there for a little over an hour when his mother rushed in. James fought to maintain his strength, to overcome his current physical obstacle, so that his mother would not be left alone to deal with this. She saw in his face the paleness and nausea, knowing very well what it meant. She told him to go home and get some rest and that she would call him to let him know what was going on. Filled with guilt, shame, nausea, and a variety of other feelings, James got into his Hyundai and drove home. It turned out that his father had a dangerous blood clot, and had James not been able to get him to the emergency room, his father could have died. It was that very day that James decided not to hit the liquor store on the way home. He would not use his usual tactics of self-medicating to make this debilitating hangover go away. He spent the three most miserable days of his life after that cleaning out his system. Within a week, he was starting to feel strange. I was sobriety kicking in. That day James and his father saved each others’ lives.
As the next year went on, James got better, but he was still a recluse. He spent his days watching TV with his father, making lunch for the two of them, and having conversations that went on for hours. James learned so many things about his father that he had never known, and never would have guessed. Like when he was in college, he and his frat brothers had a tradition. Every year on Halloween, they would go downtown where the statue of Zebulon Pike sat proudly upon his horse, and they would paint the horse’s genitals neon orange. James shared some stories of mischief himself, and once or twice caught himself realizing at the end that this particular story was of an event that did not bode well for his father and mother. “Oh, so you already knew that story.” James would say with an awkward grin.
As time moved on, quickly it seemed as it usually does, James’ father got worse. His body became weak. He lost weight, and had a harder and harder time with his breathing. He saw his doctor many times, who luckily never gave up on James’ father. In that last year, the news was never good. James’ role grew immensely as his father began to take falls and could not get up. James would lift him, learning quickly exactly how to do it without further injuring him. Their conversations became less enjoyable. Mostly James and his mother would spend every word spoken to their ailing loved one reminding him of which medications to take and when. As he weakened, James’ father grew frustrated. Often James would think to himself that his father was once James’ age. He was strong. He had dreams and goals. He accomplished so much and still wanted to do more. Now he was on the verge of facing the one and only adversary that could ever win a battle with James’ father. Death.
It wasn’t long after a bad fall and another trip to the hospital that James’ father heard the words he had been dreading for years. His faithful doctor; the one who had always had the answers and never gave up on him, told him that he wasn’t going home this time. James’ father sunk. There was never a time when hope left his eyes, until that very moment. The mood coated the room and everyone in it. James’ family had tried home nurses for rehab and to check up on his father’s condition. James was always at home, always ready to help whenever need be. He had carried his father around several times, helped him with his daily routines, and didn’t understand why he couldn’t just come back home. He felt as though the doctor had given up, that this was the end of the line. So why couldn’t they just let his father be at home when it happens? James was frustrated. Then, a guilty feeling came over him. It suddenly struck him that, if his father was at a place that was caring for him, James could have more time for himself. He could get a job and have his life back. He shuddered at the fact that this thought even quickly passed through his mind and set up a barrier to keep it from coming back in.
That’s what led up to James’ father being in this awful place. This so-called ‘rehab facility’ as one of the other doctors had described it. This was no rehab facility. It was a miniature version of Florida, only cold, dank, and depressing. It was where families dumped off their elderly members like animals at a kennel. Many were even put to sleep through the ineptness and neglect of the staff. They weren’t trained in anything helpful. These were the people who flunked out of nursing school, or didn’t have what it took to be a doctor. They were bitter and careless. They saw themselves as lunch room servers and laundry staff. Yet when any question was asked of them, they took it as a challenge. They would rant on about how they were ‘trained professionals’ and obviously knew exactly what every patient needed and when. If that were true, James’ family would not have had to take shifts looking after his father and making sure they didn’t kill him.
James woke up after his first night back at work. He yawned and stretched, even gave a little smile to a finch perched outside his window. He heard the squirrels battling it out on the roof as usual. Every morning it sounded as though a football game was being played above his bed. He showered and shaved, weighed himself on the bathroom scale. His drinking had brought him up to an unhealthy weight, and given him an unsightly body. In the past year he had dieted and worked out as he helped his father, and was now back to the thinner more handsome James he once knew. It seemed like it was going to be a good day. He got dressed and headed off to take his shift watching over his father. He entered the front door of the center, passing by the old lady in the wheelchair. She had her bunny and her postcard as always. “Did you call your brother yet sweetheart?” She asked. James smiled and as usual got away from her as fast as he could. When he reached his father’s room, he immediately knew something was wrong.
The room was empty. The bed had fresh sheets. James asked one of the disgruntled nurses where his father was. “How should I know?” She so kindly replied. Then a voice called to him from the help desk. James rushed over. One the other side of the locked door behind the desk, patients wandered the hallway. James could see them through the tiny window on the left side. He heard one of them banging on the door, desperate to get out. He asked the lady at the desk where his father was. She very apathetically told him that his father had been taken back to the hospital after having some sort of an attack. James rushed out of the center and slammed through the front door before the lady in the wheelchair could even mention how nice dinner was.
James found out from the front desk of the hospital where his father was. He had been moved from the emergency room to his own room up on the seventh floor. Upon arriving, James found his mother and sister there. “We tried to call you.” His mother said through her tears. James had forgotten to plug the phone in his room back in after checking his emails. Of all the times to make such a simple mistake, this was the worst. “He’s not good.” His mother said softly with a sniffle as she walked slowly over and took hold of her husband’s frail hand. Every breath taken by James’ father was strained. His entire body would arch forward and nearly convulse. Even with a massive volume of oxygen pumping in through his mask, he looked like he was suffocating. His eyes were shut. He didn’t seem responsive to anyone. Every once in a while his arms would flail about in silent desperation. That was about it.
“Take his hand.” James’ mother said, her voice growing higher in pitch as she held back her tears. “I think he knows you are there if you touch him.” James walked over and grabbed hold of his father’s hand. “I’m here dad.” He said. “It’s me, James.” His father’s arms stopped moving. He seemed to calm down a bit, but was still struggling to breathe. The nurse gave him a shot to help him rest and to ease his pain. James looked at his father and realized one terrible truth; that his father was no longer there. Physically he was, but mentally, he was gone. His brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen. His entire body was struggling to breathe, to live. His passion for life and his overwhelming desire to survive flowed through his entire body. Unconsciously he fought, as he had fought so hard before, when he was lucid and aware. His father was still that sturdy backbone, that anchor that kept his family from drifting apart. His small little family stood in the hospital room and looked over him. He often commented on their clan being only four strong. He would tell James that being a small family kept them closer, and it did.
James went to work that night. He couldn’t call in on his second shift back. It was a very slow Wednesday, as they usually were. It was nice to have so much time to get things done so that he could be out by midnight. Yet the silence was unnerving. His delivery driver was an older guy who mumbled a lot, and wasn’t much for company. James paced back and forth as the night progressed. At ten o’clock he locked the front doors, cutting off all walk-ins and only doing deliveries. At ten thirty, the phone rang. “Finally! A customer.” James said with a sigh. “Thanks for calling Papa Smiley’s, this is James, how can I help you?” James waited patiently. There was a silence on the other end with the slightest sound of sniffles. Before the voice spoke, James felt it, and knew what had happened. “Dad died.” His mother’s quivering voice said softly. James went silent. It was a moment he thought he had been well prepared for, yet it struck him down and made him feel like he’d been hit by a car. He didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing. “I’ll make sure they keep him in the room until you can get here.” His mother said.
James closed up the store at midnight. He walked slowly to his Hyundai, breathing in the cool night air. It wasn’t raining for a change, but everything was still wet from the last downpour. It smelled crisp and fresh. It didn’t feel like a night for death. Did he really get that phone call? Was his father really dead? James felt light-headed and weak. He sat down behind the steering wheel of his car and waited for nothing in particular. Then he opened his door and threw up onto the parking lot. He had always had a weak stomach, and this hit him hard. No way his father was gone. There was just no way. He needed proof. He didn’t want to see the proof. He started the engine. Some obnoxious song was playing on the radio. He turned it off. He couldn’t think straight. How to get to the hospital? He looked all around for the exit to the strip mall parking lot. From there he had to remember how to get to the hospital. He blanked out and just drove. He drove until his head cleared up enough to find his destination. He still did not want to see the proof. His dad couldn’t be dead. James parked and waited. He had reached the hospital. Now he had to get inside.
The doors opened to the elevator as it reached the seventh floor. James stepped out and was quickly and solemnly greeted by a man who spoke softly, as if that was comforting. He showed James to the room he had already been to and knew the way. There he saw from the hallway his mother and sister sitting by the bed where his father lay. James’ first thought was of panic that his father’s oxygen mask was off, and there was no tube in his nose. He no longer needed those things. James walked over slowly. His father looked rather peaceful. His head was tilted to the side on his pillow, his eyes closed. His mouth was wide open, but this was a familiar sight to James. His father often fell asleep in his chair while watching TV, his mouth wide open as he snored away.
“His hands are still warm.” James’ mother smiled with tears in her eyes. His sister’s hair was an absolute mess from grabbing hold of it and pulling it in different directions. Both of their faces were red. James grabbed hold of his father’s hand. There was warmth still, but it was fading. “His back is really warm.” His sister said. “I’ve hugged him about a thousand times.” She sniffled and stood up. His mother followed in standing, and both headed for the door. “We had our alone time with him. Now it’s your turn. We won’t come back in until you open the door.” The two exited, closing the door behind them.
There he was. James’ father; just the two of them, like it had been on so many days, warm and cold, good and bad. James looked him over and felt as if his dad were somehow still inside of this body that lay before him. James hovered, standing there and just looking. He took his sister’s advice and gave his dad a big hug. He had never really hugged his father. If he had, it was when he was a very young tot. Although lifting him up and carrying him from time to time in the past year sort of counted as hugs. He was very different from his father when it came to physical contact. James had always been very cold about it, doing all he could to avoid touching another human being, unless he was dating her. His father on the other hand was very warm when it came to giving James a pat on the back, or getting one of his backrubs from James’ sister that he so enjoyed. James often felt different from the rest of his family. They were all so extroverted and easy to talk to, while James was always happy being the unseen face in a crowd, avoiding conversations with strangers, sometimes even with friends. He also stood out in family photos as he was a good foot or more taller than his father, mother, and sister.
As he embraced his father, feeling the burning warmth of his back, he regretted his odd disposition toward expressing physical emotions. He was comforted slightly by the time they had spent together over the past few years, especially the last year, when James was sober. In this moment of loss, knowing that soon he would have to say goodbye to his father as he knew him forever, James had so many emotions and thoughts running at once that he shut down like an overworked computer. He let his dad down and stepped back. He took a seat and tried to think of things to say. He could not think. Instead, he simply sat there for God knows how long, spending his last casual visit with the man who raised him and molded him into the man he was now. He knew that he loved his father immensely, and looked up to him with a respect that overwhelmed him at this moment, and every moment they had ever spent together. His father knew that James loved him, and would miss him every day for the rest of his life. That needn’t be said. So James simply leaned in close from his seat in the nearby chair and whispered “Thank you.” After a few more minutes had passed, James got up and opened the door. His mother and sister came back in, and the three sat around their fourth member. Their leader and mentor. The source of their strength and happiness. They all stayed until he was taken away. Then they went their separate ways to deal with their own personal pain alone.
A few days later, James’ mother got a call from the center that had done such a poor job with their supposed ‘rehab’. They told her that somebody needed to come and pick up the belongings that were left behind by James’ father. Unable to cope with those people at this point, his mother asked James to go and pick up the stuff from the center. James got into his Hyundai and took the drive. He arrived at the center, a place he had hoped never to see again. Passing through the front door he saw the old lady in the wheelchair, holding onto her rabbit and post card. He toned out her usual question about whether or not he had called his brother and made his way down the long wide hallway toward his father’s old room. He was about to enter when the lady at the help desk snapped her fingers at him.
“Your father’s belongings are back here.” She said as she stood up from her chair. She came out from the circular desk and headed over to a large heavy looking door, jingling a set of keys along the way. She located the right key and unlocked the door. James passed the off-limits door and saw the usual sight through the little window, a group of zombie like elderly people wandering about, some screaming to get out and begging to go home. “Sir?” The help desk lady was obviously quickly growing impatient with James. She opened up the belongings closet and waited for James to enter, her fingers rapping and tapping on the door. “Just look under your last name and take the bag with your father’s stuff.” She ordered.
James entered the rather large storage room. He found himself surrounded by bags and boxes full of other people’s stuff. He slowly toured the room, touching each bag that hung in silence, like a lost puppy at the pound, waiting for it’s owner to pick it up and take it home. “Have you found it yet?” The help desk lady asked impatiently. James took the cue and found his father’s bag. He toted it out slowly, taking a few more moments to look over the vast collection of bags, boxes, people’s items left behind after they departed. “Are these all from patients who passed away?” James asked. The help desk lady rolled her eyes and snapped her gum at him.
“There’s only one way people get out of here kiddo.” She said coldly. She put her hand on James’ back and edged him out of the storage closet. She then slammed the door shut and locked it. James grasped his father’s bag to his chest and looked over to the off-limits door. A desperate old man was banging on the door yelling “Help! They are keeping me prisoner! Call the police! I want to go home!” James just wanted to punch out the help desk lady, steal her keys, and free all of the crazy patients from the off-limits area. “So, why are there so many bags and boxes in there? Why haven’t the families picked them up yet?”
“I have no idea son.” The front desk lady said. “You’d have to ask them.” She was visibly fed up with James and wanted to get back to her crossword puzzles. She took her place back behind the circular desk and got back to it. James stood in place for a few moments, his mind wandered from one place to another, finding itself standing by a calm river that suddenly exploded into a tsunami. He walked slowly past the off-limits door and stopped at the little window. The old man was still yelling about being held prisoner, but he was hobbling around the back now. A chubby old woman looked at James through the window and smiled with plump rosy cheeks. She placed a hand on the glass of the tiny window. James responded without thought, placing his hand on the glass from the other side. They withdrew simultaneously and smiled at each other. A single tear escaped from James’ right eye. He had yet to cry since his father had died, and suddenly he felt the dam breaking. He rushed down the hallway, past the wheelchair lady, out the door and into his car.
“Oh God why?” He screamed aloud as he lurched over in the driver’s seat, still hugging the bag full of his father’s belongings to his chest. Tears poured down his face. He sniffled and whipped his eyes. He cried loudly. Loud enough to draw attention, and he didn’t even care. He’ll never know how much time passed as he let it all out. The sound of tear drops hitting the plastic bag he held in his arms was completely overpowered by his sobs. It was his time to let go of his emotions, to get them all out so that he could regain his composure and stay strong for his mother and sister. He had held things together when he and his family were at the mortuary making arrangements. He had made phone calls to let people know what had happened without his voice giving into the slightest quiver. Now suddenly, his surprising strength through the past few days had broken. The bag he held onto crinkled as he hugged it tighter. The flood of tears ebbed and James sniffled as he set the bag on the passenger’s seat of his car.
He sat for a while just staring out the windshield. The sky was clouded over and the daytime seamed like a fever dream version of night. He turned on the radio and searched for a loud angry song to get his mind back together. He just wanted something numbing to get him into a state of emotional being where he felt safe to drive. He stopped on the classical music station. An odd thing happened just then. Moonlight Sonata, his father’s favorite piece of music, had just started. James lit a cigarette, sat back and listened. The song was beautiful. It fit the weather, the mood, the moment. James took a long drag from his cigarette, thinking about all of the times he had tried to quit. He had wanted his father to know that he would not end his days in the same way as he did, constantly attached to an oxygen hose. James set the burning cigarette down in his car’s ashtray and looked over at the plastic bag sitting beside him. He reached over and grabbed it. He unsnapped the top and opened it up.
Inside he found a pair of old brown slippers that he recognized from over the years. He smiled and gave an involuntary laugh followed by a sniffle. Next, two pairs of very familiar pajamas. One pair was blue, the other a different shade of blue. His father had always liked that color it seemed. He set aside the slippers and PJs, next finding his father’s ID bracelet from the center. He looked at the name, Daniel Powell Jr., and smiled. He held it between his thumb and forefinger and rubbed his father’s printed name. He thought of the last words he ever said to him; “I’ll see you later”. James saw him, but could his father see or hear him? He’d never know. He thought back on the past year and on all of the years. His mental image of his father was not of the frail old man who had been so sick, but the pillar of strength that he had known for much longer. Then he thought of all of the people inside the center that sat behind him, visible in his rear-view mirror. He thought of all the unclaimed belongings in that storage closet, and all of the lost souls wandering in the off-limits area. They were once young and strong, handsome and beautiful people. They had such pasts, each and every one of them. That’s when James shut off his car’s engine. He tucked his father’s pajamas and slippers back into the bag he was holding and snapped it shut. He stuck his father’s ID bracelet into his pocket, and stepped out of his Hyundai.
She was still there as always; the old lady in the wheelchair. She cradled her old beaten stuffed bunny rabbit and grasped onto her postcard with a shaky hand. James stopped at the entrance and looked around. He found a chair and grabbed it, dragging it over to the old lady and stopping in front of her. She looked up at him, her brown eyes filled with surprise as James took a seat in front of her. She did not say a word this time. She simply looked at him, her eyes wandering around the room and back, focusing on her visitor. “My name is James.” James said with a smile. “What’s your name?” He asked. The old lady was caught off-guard by this question. She looked around the room some more, her shaky hand gripping her postcard tighter. James lowered his head and thought for a moment. He tried to figure out what to say next.
“Edith.” The old lady’s shaky voice finally replied. James lifted his head up. A broad smile filled with warmth stretched across the old woman’s face. Through her wrinkles and frail form James saw the younger version of her, the person who lived inside her. He thought to himself, we are all this. We are all the same, just at different periods in our lives. We don’t fade away as our body’s do. Our souls remain the same. Our personalities remain. His father’s last smile proved this theory. His time spent taking care of him proved this theory. We can’t fight the aging process, we can’t look young forever. We can’t live forever. We never quit though. We don’t retire from our minds and our hearts. We are all the same people always. When we die, we are remembered not for our death or our changing physicality as time moved on. We are remembered for who we were, and everybody wants to know that when their time does come, somebody will care. Somebody will remember them.
Edith reached her arm out slowly, her postcard aimed at James. This caught him by surprise. It was a great honor to be handed something that was obviously of such importance to this woman. James gently took the postcard from her and looked at it. It was in bad shape. It was crumpled and frayed. The ink on the back was very faded, barely legible. “My son sent that to me when he was in the army.” Edith said with a smile and a voice full of pride. “He’s retired now, living with his wife and my youngest grandchild in Texas.” James looked up at her, into her brown eyes and listened intently. Edith proceeded to go on about her other two grandchildren. One was in New York trying to become a filmmaker. The oldest was a pediatrician in Denver. Edith in turn asked James about his family. He told her about his mother and sister, and his newly born nephew.
The two sat there and talked about everything under the sun. James found himself feeling odd in that he was not just humoring an old woman, but having a conversation that he was truly enjoying. He remembered his father’s response when his mother asked him how he managed to get along with every person that he came into contact with. He said quite simply that he listened to them, and was truly interested in what they had to say. Once again James found himself having absorbed one of his father’s great qualities, the qualities that made him who he was. James felt good about this discovery. If there was one person he could never feel bad about emulating, it was his dad.
© Copyright 2016 Alan Dale Dalby. All rights reserved.