by Kay Harris
Y esterday was my ninety-eighth birthday. I walked around the activity room, conversing with my guests. Everyone was most impressed with the bouquet of late-blooming roses my daughter, Aggie, brought from the garden at our old house. After all the hoopla, Aggie loaded up the left-over cake which had been salmon shaped. I used to fish—just for fun. Half the belly and tail were left. It was a peachy-orange monstrosity that I thought would taste like those awful marshmallow peanut things, but actually it was only a tinted vanilla cover-up for my favorite double fudge. I marched over to Aggie and said, "I have something to tell you."
"Are you OK, Daddy? The party wasn't too much for you was it?"
Aggie stews about my health. Our conversations center around the diet forced upon me, and the regularity of my eliminations. She popped two fingers covered with lumps of frosting in her mouth, staring at me with those round blue eyes set in cheeks that haven't been so plump since she was in diapers. Aggie should pay more attention to herself and her own eliminations.
"I'm fine—just fine. But, I want to say thank you—and good-by."
"Tonight's the night, Aggie. Call tomorrow. I'll be gone."
"Oh Daddy, that's nonsense. You're going to make it until at least a hundred."
"No Aggie. Prepare yourself. My time has come. You're always hearing about it. People lasting for the visit of a long-lost child, or for another Christmas, or for one more birthday. Then pffffft, they're gone. This is it, Aggie. My one more birthday. And now it's over."
Aggie made sure she got every last piece of that cake packed up in the carton, didn't even leave one bite for the nurses, and frumped out to the car. Her parting words were, "Your hearing must be getting worse." Then she bellowed, "You're going to make it to at least a hundred." She did leave the roses. Petals had already fallen on the table. They don't seem to last long in September. In a softer voice she said, "Talk to you tomorrow, Daddy."
I thought—No way. This is definitely the end of the line.
Last night, I did the same thing I've done every night since I've been in this place. Stared at the ceiling, waiting. They've told me I can have "a little something to help me sleep." But I behave, so they don't slip it to me. I know what meds I take. They're for my problem, and that's all. I don't need them numbing me. The body's finally going, but my brain's as good as ever. Not brilliant. I don't claim that. But I had another article published in The Messenger a few months back: "Changes to the Mowbray Waterfront in the '50's." And, they wanted more. Now, if I wasn't so god-damned tired all the time, I could honor their request. But it takes all my energy to keep out of a wheelchair and off of a walker. There's nothing left for an article. Plus, someone would have to take me out to do research. I don't think I could tolerate Aggie's hovering.
Studying the ceiling, waiting for sleep to find me, I recalled those times camping when I was a boy. We'd hike five miles out of town to the old Hansen place—the "haunted" house. I was always jittery, but what would the fellas have said if I'd stayed home? I don't think they ever knew how nervous I was. When those damned jackrabbits bounded out of nowhere, across my path, I had a mighty hard time covering up, too.
Once we arrived, we'd plop our bedrolls in a circle around the fire—not too close to the house—roast our wienies, tell scary stories, and most of us would fall asleep by the dwindling embers.
I'd lie there, staring at the stars and listening to the snores around me, wondering if I was ever going to slip off like the rest of them. The house loomed behind me, and I was sure I'd seen a face in a window or movement on the dilapidated front porch. I'd plead with the stars—if there's a God up there, please let me go to sleep. I'm down here all alone. There's no one to talk to.
The next day, we'd hike back to town, braver men for our experience. I was a whole lot tireder.
I gazed at the black holes in the ceiling tile, hearing snuffles and farts from the other rooms, wondering why God couldn't put me to sleep for real this time.
Last night, I was positive it would happen. I folded my hands over my chest, closed my eyes, and stayed quiet. Under the room rumbles and my own steady breathing, I thought I heard a cricket chirping—probably somebody's monitor. I'm ready, I thought. It's all over. Come and get me....
This morning, there I was, jarred awake and being prodded to go on their god-damned field trip.
They took us to the zoo. Made a big deal about it. Due to the new, larger van, this was the first outing they'd ever gone on, and weren't we, oh so lucky, that we were in good enough shape to attend. I glanced around the lobby at four in wheelchairs, two leaning against walkers, and only Mrs. Miller and myself able to sit in regular armchairs. With her hands shoved into the cushion for leverage, Mrs. Miller looked like she might bolt at any moment. My speculations arose about just how lucky we were.
They'd hustled us through breakfast in order to have plenty of time for boarding the new van. My stomach was doing one of its clenching routines, and I munched on TUMS, trying to settle it. At least I was sitting in a regular chair and walking unassisted, not dependent on some fool metal contraption to get me from point A to point B.
Boarding was set for 9:00 A.M. It was nigh on to that time as we watched the volunteers come in, chatting with each other.
Lucy, the one who's in charge of keeping us busy at this place, told Mrs. Miller and me, "You're going to have to ride when we get to the zoo. Your volunteer will push you."
I said, "I'm perfectly able to get around on my own two feet."
Mrs. Miller raised up, grunting. Lucy nudged her back in the armchair, then said, "Mr. Ellis, I know that. But, it's the rules. If you were to fall, I'd be out on my ear. You wouldn't want that to happen would you?"
I allowed as how I wouldn't choose to be the cause of her termination, but said, "Only this once. I won't ride in one of those things on a regular basis. Put that in my record. Peter Ellis is 100% mobile."
Mrs. Miller didn't say a blasted thing. She still could carry half her weight if we had to move out of this place in a hurry. However, without someone to direct her, she'd never find the door.
My assigned volunteer, Mary Ann by name, commenced talking. She said she'd never been to Brookside Manor before. "I've lived around the block for years. Finally decided I should come and try to help out. Have you been here long?" She waited for my answer like it would win her the $64,000 prize.
"Too long," I told her. "Three months ago they hospitalized me—blood from my colon—lost a lot of weight. My son told me I needed more supervision. Sounds like a toddler, doesn't it? I'd stayed in our house, all alone, tending the roses, for twenty-six years. Yesterday was my ninety-eighth birthday, and this is where it'll all end...."
"Oh my, you were born in 1900. The whole Twentieth Century to tell about."
I thought—couldn't she come up with something better than that? Didn't she know? Everyone who discovered my birth year immediately made a comment like that. But I forgave her. She was such a pretty little thing. Silky blonde hair and brown eyes. I like that combination. Reminds me of a Cocker Spaniel I had once. And, this Mary Ann, she was trying so hard. The more I watched those brown eyes, the more they reminded me of Gildie, only in the last year, when she had the tumor and we finally had to put her down. Gildie'd look at me with those sad eyes, trying to wag, hurting so much she barely could move.
It made me question how much this Mary Ann really wanted to be in Brookside Manor's waiting room. She had a dimple in one cheek, too, but her smile was so small it barely flickered.
We sat and chitter-chatted for a good while. It was long past 9:00 before they even started to load. I wondered how in the hell they figured they were going to get us to the zoo, walk around there, pack us all up, and get back here for noon dinner. But that was their problem. I was just going along for the ride.
Thankfully, Leonard, my son the busy banker, had brought some of my dry cleaned clothes to The Manor last week. He stayed ten minutes before rushing off to his next appointment. Brought me a whole armful of fresh things. I can't stand it when old people forget to take care of themselves.
Also, Mary Ann said, "That's a lovely jacket, Mr. Ellis. Brown tweed will never go out of style. And it looks so nice with your coloring."
I thanked her and said, "It should last as long as I'm going to need it." Then I put my cap on. It was time to head out for the new van, at last.
We watched while they struggled with those permanently in wheelchairs, putting them on that elevator platform thing, strapping over the wheels, and jerking along, coming to rest at seat level. I wondered what would happen if a chair broke loose, and zoomed right back through those automatic double glass doors into the lobby. Could be someone's biggest thrill in years. Of course, most of them probably wouldn't even rouse enough to experience the ride. Mrs. Palmer had her head lolling over to one side, eyes closed. Her little feet in pink slippers, with daisies sewn on the fronts, hung—toes crossed. She never even startled when they bumped her onto that platform, bounced her up, and stuck her in the back corner facing Mr. Timmons, the only other man on our trip. He has white, white skin, and his mouth clenched in a smile. I always wonder what in God's name he's got to smile about. I don't dare consider why he's so pallid.
Mrs. Palmer lolled the whole trip. I don't think she had a notion she'd ever left her room.
Mr. Timmons stared straight ahead, his smile never wavering. After it was all over and one of the nurses asked if he had a good time, I saw he did blink once. I wonder if that meant "yes" or "no."
I walked up the front steps of the new van on my own steam. No one had to haul my arms from the front, or push my back from the rear, or reach down and guide each foot onto the ledge of the step to make sure I made it inside. When I got to my seat, first one in the front, nobody had to come along and grab me, saying "One—two—three," then lift me into place because I'd slid, cock-eyed, into the corner.
I sat straight, near to the window, with Mary Ann next to me. When we were belted in and ready to take off, she leaned over and said, "Mr. Ellis, you certainly get around well."
"I know," I said, "and I intend to keep it that way."
In spite of the new upholstery smell, I could detect that odor and decided to bring it up. "I apologize for the smell in here," I whispered, my mouth close to her flower-scented hair. "They've lost control."
She patted my hand. "No big deal, Mr. Ellis. I don't mind a bit."
By the time we got to the zoo, it was after 10:00. They hauled out the chairs and issued one to me. Mary Ann and I brought up the rear once we finally went through all the disembarking procedure and hit the trail. We were right behind Mrs. Palmer, whose cheek bounced on her scrunched-up shoulder when we crossed every bump in the path. Her volunteer, a woman with a broad backside we could barely see Mrs. Palmer's little head around, kept trying to get her attention with talk of the plants still in bloom and the baby zebra hiding behind a bush. Her efforts were in vain.
We all gathered at the exhibits. They tried to make sure each one of us saw something, but at wheelchair level it's like being a little kid. Those fool fences hit you right at the eyes. There was a lot of jockeying to get the chairs in position for advantageous views.
Mr. Timmons' smile stayed the same. He was as happy looking at the penguins as he'd been staring at the door handle of the van on the trip over.
Mrs. Miller grunted and had to be held in her chair each time we stopped. I think I saw a flash of recognition when we came to the gorilla playground.
After an hour, we'd visited five exhibits. I said to Mary Ann, "The roses are still in bloom. I saw them from the entrance. Do you suppose we could go see the garden?"
"I'll ask for permission," she said, patting my arm.
"We used to grow them, you know. Had fifty bushes and quite a few climbers at our old house. I'd rather be with the roses than with these poor caged creatures."
Mary Ann received the OK, as long as we were back by 11:30. So, we made our escape.
Of course, it's late in the season. The blooms are waning, if not downright bedgraggled. But, the sun warmed our shoulders as we watched the cottontails bouncing in and out under the vine-covered fence in the midst of yellows, pinks, and fading reds.
I told Mary Ann about my years teaching history at the high school, and then about my job at the museum that I had to quit when I got sick. I had been at the museum since right after my wife, Lila, died in '72.
When I retired from teaching, Lila and I did a lot of touring. After she was gone, my travels stopped. I did take one trip on my own with a group from the Botanical Society. The night boatride on the Seine, passing the Eiffel Tower glimmering from base to top, was too much without Lila's hand in mine. About the time my journeys ended, the Mowbray Historical Museum needed a curator, and no one was as qualified as me.
Mary Ann talked about volunteering she'd done in the elementary school, helping slow readers, one-on-one. "After Markie's death, I couldn't go back," she said, watching a bunny hop closer, a foot at a time. We stayed still, keeping our voices low, and this little rabbit came within six feet of us, watching, twitching his nose.
"Markie?" I asked.
"My seven-year old son. He had problems reading so I helped out in his class." She never took her eyes off that bunny. I thought—she's trying to mesmerize him to hop right into her lap. "At the lake...Markie swam out too far," she said. "Before we could get to him...."
She was sitting on the grass next to my chair. I put my hand on her shoulder and said, "We lost a child, too. He was barely five." The cottontail still hadn't moved. It was as if he'd turned to stone, except his nose which kept right on a-twitching.
"When I was a boy I used to go on camp-outs every summer. On our hikes to the old Hansen place, we saw jackrabbits bounding across, all along the road. I never remember them on the way back." Another bunny bounced up behind the first one, a foot at a time, cautiously. "Those jackrabbits jumped out of nowhere. Used to startle me the way they'd bolt directly in front of me."
"Jackrabbits. Hm—my grandfather had a ranch in Colorado. We saw them all the time. Startled me, too. Grandpa used to complain they were 'too damned assertive.'"
"Recalling them makes these little guys look pretty pitiful," I said.
"Oh, I don't know. They stick together. They're doing OK."
"You're right. Never have I visited this garden that there haven't been cottontails by the fence. They're doing OK."
"Almost 11:30. It's time to head back. We don't want to be late," Mary Ann said. I think she was a bit sorry.
On our return to The Manor, I told her about the article I wanted to write: "The First Fishing Fleet out of Mowbray."
Mary Ann figured we could get special permission to go back to my museum and to the library. "As long as we bring a wheelchair." She must have seen my disgusted expression because she quickly added, "Following the rules is very important to Lucy." I conceded that seemed to be the case.
With the big outing and all these ruminations tonight, I should be sleepy. But, I'm not. Staring at the black holes in the ceiling, I've been thinking about those jackrabbits. Counting sheep jumping fences is supposed to put you to sleep. Maybe counting jackrabbits bounding across your path will do the same thing. Or, maybe counting cottontails gathering in a bunch will do it.
By the time we were ready to leave the rose garden, other bunnies had clustered at the fence, sitting still as stone, watching us, and each other, noses twitching.
After a short while, I decided that this bunny stuff wasn't getting me anywhere and to think about the fishing fleet. As long as I'm awake, anyway, I might as well concentrate on something productive.
Mary Ann said she'd come for me next Monday. We'll start my research. The Editor at The Messenger will be pleased to get another one of my articles. After we do my work, I'm going to take Mary Ann to the bakery for some double fudge cake, my treat. She seems like a reasonable young woman. Maybe I can convince her to leave the wheelchair in the car.
Copyright©2003 Kay Harris