BY DON HERALD
Copyright is held by the author.
I FIRST notice him huddled in a mostly unoccupied corner of the large reception area of the medical practice. He seems totally oblivious to all the bustle of bodies and hum of low voices swirling around him.
Working Guy is maybe in his early 30s. Thin, lightly bearded face almost as if the beard is struggling unsuccessfully to gain a solid place to start on his cheeks and chin. Slightly bent, wire rim glasses perched low on his nose, occasionally slipping to the point of falling, only to be absentmindedly pushed back up into position as if it was a frequent occurrence. A shiny, quilt fabric winter jacket almost fully zipped to the collar in spite of the near tropical temperature of the waiting room. He’s working with focused intensity on several white pages, heavily highlighted in yellow and orange strokes. The pages are positioned awkwardly on a small folder that threatens to escape his lap and slip onto the floor at any minute.
A very odd fellow indeed. I go back to squinting hopelessly at a fuzzy TV monitor that is providing a breathless update on the latest scandal at our national broadcaster.
Minutes pass. Working Guy suddenly gets up and moves perhaps 40 feet across the room to drop heavily into a vacant chair beside a pleasant looking Older Woman. She looks at him as if in expectation that some greeting would be exchanged but none is offered. Working Guy quickly settles the papers on his narrow lap and continues to scribble rapidly.
Strange behaviour indeed. My observing is interrupted by the calling of my name from deep inside the inner waiting area of my doctor’s office suite.
Lest you get the wrong impression about the inner waiting area, it’s a narrow hallway, tightly lined on both sides with an assortment of metal framed chairs that were likely bulk-purchased at a local used furniture outlet. The pale green walls have no pictures. The carpet is stained with several dark angry splotches. I notice a small ragged tear just starting in the middle of the carpet about four chairs down from me. Mercifully, there are no ancient issues of People or Sports Illustrated with the address labels carelessly ripped out. I just stare straight ahead and wonder how much my doctor paid for the chairs.
A few minutes later, Working Guy and Older Woman slowly move down the hallway and choose side by side chairs directly in front of me. If I want to be totally bold and a bit weird myself, I could easily lean across and touch one or both on the knee. I smile and nod slightly as if to break the ice, openly acknowledging our shared but forced intimacy in the hallway.
Older Woman smiles, eyes blue and bright. Her round, ruddy face framed by a halo of silver-white curls is pleasant to look at. She vaguely reminds me of my elderly grandmother. Working Guy is head down and has no clue of my attempt at being friendly toward Older Woman. That’s fine by me as I am beginning to feel that I won’t like him, probably because of the thinly veiled coldness in his manner toward Older Woman.
I am just about to offer up something concerning the cold, unseasonal weather to Older Woman, when she whispers a bit too loudly to Working Guy.
“What’s happening with the house?”
Silence from Working Guy.
“I’d really like to know what’s happening with my house.” This time her voice is a bit louder and mildly urgent.
“Mom, I’ve told you a dozen times in the last week. It’s all been taken care of.” His tone is clearly dismissive and annoyed.
“Oh dear, I must have forgotten again. Tell me. I worry so about my house.”
With a deep sigh, The Son continues to deliberately work on his papers but speaks to his Mother in clipped grunted sentences as if she were a forgetful, pain-in-the-ass child.
“There’s a provisional offer to purchase from the McGregor’s. It’s conditional on the sale of their house. But it’s not selling. Yesterday I signed an extension at the lawyer’s for another three months. Their house may not sell by the beginning of April. If that happens, you agreed we would list it with Sally Thompson. Remember Sally? From your church?”
For the very first time, The Son shifts in his chair to look at his Mother. He waits.
The Mother seems to be processing this information slowly. She nods but once again her face looks troubled.
“But I’m paying for my room and board at . . .” She hesitates as if trying to remember the name. “Grace Manor?” she asks.
Her left hand involuntarily grasps a blue lanyard about her neck. I can see it has faint white letters and a room pass card dangling from an over-sized clip at the bottom. The Mother holds the lanyard away from her chest as if to read the words on it. But she squints and tries unsuccessfully to move it in and out as if that will make the words come clear. Since we are all sitting outside an eye doctor’s office, I realize she will have no luck in finding the name she wants on the lanyard.
“No, Mom. It’s Bridge Haven. That’s where you are living now. Remember?”
“Oh yes, that’s it. Bridge Heaven. I rather like that name, don’t you?” The Mother pauses, apparently choosing her next words carefully. “But if my house doesn’t sell, how will I pay my room and board?”
“I’ve made arrangements to pay the fees. When we agreed that you should go live at Bridge Haven”, he emphasizes the “Haven” word slowly and with a slight, quite noticeable rise in his tone, “I told you then that I had already made arrangements at the bank to cover the expenses until your house was sold. Remember?”
He looks at her with eyes slightly squinted behind the lenses as if challenging The Mother to deny it.
“When is my car coming to Bridge Heaven? I need my car to get groceries, go to the drugstore, to see Doctor Milligan for my doctoring, visit with Dora and Martha after church.”
The Son sighs deeply and loudly. “Mom, you don’t need your car anymore now that you are living at Bridge Haven. Everything you will ever need is right there. Dora and Martha said they’d come to visit you as often as they can, weather permitting of course. Don’t you remember them telling you that?”
“Where’s my car now? I should have my car here so I can look out any time I want and see it. Maybe even go outside and brush off the snow before the ice settles on it. Take it for a spin whenever I feel like it. You haven’t sold it have you?”
The Son closes his eyes briefly. Opening them slowly, he focuses on an imaginary spot slightly above The Mother’s head.
“Your car is in the driveway at the old house. It’s there so passersby will think that you still live there. It’s best to leave it there for now, don’t you think?” I’m sure he is lying through his teeth but The Mother doesn’t pick it up.
“I want to go back home. I don’t like this place. Not at all.” She again fingers her lanyard and touches the room pass card on the over-sized clip.
“I can’t even have Kitty here. Did you know that? No cats allowed, the nurse told me when I asked her last night at supper. Where’s Kitty? Do you have him? He always liked you.”
The Son doesn’t answer. He looks guilty as hell to me. I’m pretty sure that The Son gladly took dear Kitty to the pound and had it euthanized as soon as The Mother was out of her house and on the way to the residence. After all, who would want to adopt what I figure is probably a 16 year old, grossly overweight ornery cat with its own habits and peculiarities? The Son doesn’t strike me as a cat lover.
“Mom, you know you can’t live in your old house anymore. You can’t keep up with the cleaning and outside chores that need to be done all the time. And in the spring, when the river floods up the back yard right to the house, how are you going to deal with that? Have you forgotten that the roof needs to be re-shingled before the spring rains? You just can’t live there anymore. Simple as that. End of story.”
The Son’s voice is rising slowly. He looks toward me as if embarrassed by his severe tone and catches me looking at him with a silent threat in my eyes. He stops talking and stares steadily back at me. I get the sense that he is just daring me to say something. I smile just enough to irritate him and stare straight into his eyes.
“Where’s my furniture? You said I could take some of it to Bridge . . .” She fingers her lanyard again. “Bridge whatever. All I have is my dresser, that old rocker, a couple of pictures of Dad, you and your sister and that old family Bible on the table beside my bed. Where’s my other stuff?”
The Mother is distressed, on the verge of crying. I want to reach across the aisle and take her hands in mine. Reassure her that everything will surely work out. Just give it some time. But I don’t reach out. The Son beats me to it. It’s a small victory for him. The Son 1, me 0.
“We decided to leave the house furnished until it was sold. Remember? You thought that made sense. A lived in house would sell better than an empty house, Sally said when we had her over for the property appraisal.” He pauses. “Before you came here.”
If The Son adds one more “Do you remember” to his declarations, I’m going to lean across the aisle, violently grab him by the jacket collar and give him a shake. I swear to god I am this close. But he doesn’t use the words so I sit back and silently wish him to do it just one more time.
“Where’s Bernie? He doesn’t visit me anymore. Why can’t he come live with me in my room? We could get a couple’s room. Everyone would love Bernie. He is such a friendly man. Always has a story to tell and a joke for every occasion. When’s your father coming?”
The Son seems surprised by her question. A brief flash of what I take to be concern slides quickly across his face. I’m sure I see some deep hurt in his eyes. Or maybe it’s just my imagination. Maybe it’s me wanting him to show genuine concern for his Mother.
“Mom . . .” he pauses as if gathering his thoughts, maybe getting his feelings under control. “Dad died a couple of years ago. You’ve been on your own ever since. He won’t be coming here to join you. You’ll make friends at the home Mom. It just takes time. Give it time, Mom. You’ll see . . .”
Unexpectedly, the doctor’s nurse pokes her head in at the end of the hallway and announces, “Mrs. Gooderham? Doctor Stanley will see you now.”
The Son and The Mother get up quickly. The Son is in the lead down the hall and doesn’t look back at her. She walks slowly and a bit unsteadily as if a bit confused by the unexpected interruption.
I will likely never see them again.
But their conversation will stay with me a very long time. I’m surprised at how unsettled I feel. Did I just witness a short, real-life scene from my own future? Perhaps I should tell someone. Get it off my chest.
Or maybe I’m over-reacting. Over-thinking it, once again. For a couple of years now, family and a few of my close friends have been gently telling me that I’m doing that a lot these days.
But I think not.