Sunday, March 10, 2013

Gentle Into That Good Night

Dawn arrived in fits and starts, as if it too had been caught sleeping. Margaret, however, was awake, had been so since four am. She'd dressed herself, combed her hair, started a pot of coffee, and was sitting, posture expectant, at the short side of the kitchen table that she'd once painted an antique white. Now, however many years later, the table was finally a true antique, she thought, and smiled.

As she did every morning at this time, she remembered to remind herself that she lacked not only a destination but the means to reach it. She had given up her car some time ago, after she had complained that everything looked distended, as if the world had become the fun house she'd run through as a teenager in Iowa, in the middle of May when the carnival came to town. She'd been chasing Tom, the older brother of her best friend; once she managed to catch up with him and circled her arms around his waist from behind, a move caution would have discouraged. He'd whipped around, pulled her pigtails, and said, "Aww, whatcha doin', Maggie?" Together they'd gazed at the distorting mirror before them, which Margaret was pleased to see lent her the curves of an older, different sort of girl. But then she saw Tom blushing, and lost her nerve, jerked her arms away from him. And that was that. Later Tom died in Korea. Funny, because not very many American men had died in Korea, and yet Tom had managed it, by chance or poor judgment she couldn't say.

How had she gotten on about Tom? Oh, the fun house, and her eyes. First there were the cataracts. The doctor had diagnosed them, and he'd removed them, too, but then something else had gone wrong: macular degeneration. So she sat at home, most days, watching the shimmering clock, thinking it cruel that old people are subject to an excess of free time just when they're no longer able to use it. It felt not so different from being nine years old, sitting on the hot front stoop in July, and waiting, hoping, willing something, anything to happen. Which it never did. But at least then she could reassure herself that she had her whole life in front of her, so many things yet to happen.

Sometimes now her mind would take trips that lasted for hours. She couldn't really fault it for wanting to escape now and then; once she'd read how prisoners placed in solitary confinement sometimes start to hallucinate, because their brains need to do something with themselves, and that had made sense to her, even then. Now she might be wondering when the mailman would arrive (he was late one afternoon, by nearly a quarter hour), and she'd find herself opening the letter notifying her that she'd been accepted to the University of Iowa, Class of 1953, and then driving with Martin in his convertible to the dead-end dirt road affording an acceptable view of the university, which they'd outright ignored in favor of kissing, sometimes for an hour or more. And later, the babies, Sam with spiky hair and Sarah with no hair at all, what an ugly baby she'd been, poor thing...

With a start Margaret would realize that the mailman had come and gone, and it was past time to prepare dinner. Another oddity of aging was that one or two bites of food were all she ever required. Any more food than that irritated her stomach.

Once she'd loved gardening, but lately her arthritic thumbs and fingers were swollen and misshapen past recognition. Just when she might have spent hours happily digging in the dirt, her hands had betrayed her. But she wouldn't complain. She'd never been a complainer and did not wish to start such foolishness at seventy-nine years old. Instead she'd just close her eyes and watch the movies in her head. So many reels, so many decades. Black-and-white, color, and with her eyes shut the pictures weren't even slightly cloudy. No, they were clearer now than they'd ever been.

7 comments:

Kate Rivera said...

I am calling my mom. Thanks for this Sarah.

Bibliomama said...

You got skills. :)

Emily said...

I keep hoping the pictures become clear when I'm old. I'd hate to be old and be as fuzzy about my children's babyhood as I am now.

De said...

Ah, it was nice having this cup of coffee with Margaret v

V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios said...

Have you read the book Evening by Sarah Minot? This piece reminds of that--the way it slips between past and present and out of time altogether. As I get older and see how my brain works differently than it did when I was younger, I can begin to imagine what it might be like in old age...

Christine said...

Yes, I agree with De--this was a great read as I sit here with my tea. I have a cataract encroaching on my vision right now. It is both fascinating and terrifying.

ozma said...

Damn, now I'm getting sad.
People don't write, people don't call. What is our old age going to be like?