This story is by Jeane Rhodes and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
So, What’s New?
“So, what’s new”? My usual opening to the weekly phone call to my sister – just an inane beginning to get the conversation started. This week’s, “So, what’s new?” got a surprising response.
“I’ve met an interesting man.” What? This is my sister who has become increasingly housebound in recent years. She is nearly 80-years-old and hasn’t dated since becoming a widow over 25 years ago. Her sons, Dan and Cullen, have been worried about her lack of interest in life outside her comfortable home in a retirement community. She does go to Bingo every Wednesday night, but other than that and grocery shopping seems to stay home, sometimes not even getting out of her pajamas and housecoat.
“Tell me more. What makes this man so interesting”?
“He just moved here from Alaska – for the warmer climate – but he doesn’t seem ready to settle down. He told me he’s applied for a job as an armed security guard.”
“How old is he”?
“I think he’s about my age. He mentioned having served in the Korean War – I guess I should say Korean Conflict, they never officially called that a war in spite of so many lives being lost. Anyway, he was a state patrolman in Alaska until he retired – he said about 15 years ago. Since then he’s had a lot of short term jobs, with the parks’ service in Alaska and things like that. He said he’s never learned to ‘sit around good.’ He’s been living in this complex only three weeks and came to Bingo for the first time this past Wednesday. We had an empty chair at ‘our table’ so invited him to join us. You know the group I usually sit with – Gary wasn’t there this week so there was an empty chair. As he accepted the invitation, he introduced himself as Alex Bufford. We filled him in on the usual routine for the evening, including the snacks that are provided by volunteers. He had picked up six bingo cards at the door and the hosts had advised him to purchase a marker, so he was all set. He said he hadn’t played Bingo since he was a kid. I explained the first game that was already projected on the screen at the front of the room. He was surprised that the games could be so complicated and said he might find this more interesting than he expected.”
“What does he look like”?
“He’s tall – I would guess about 6’1”, has mostly white hair and pale blue eyes like Dad’s were, and he looks very healthy. He was wearing jeans and a blue chambray shirt – I almost expected a cowboy hat. He was wearing rather expensive looking leather boots, not western style, more like a work boot. I don’t know what got into me – I talked mostly with him for the rest of the evening, but managed to keep up with my Bingo cards. I won $50 on the 6th round. It seemed like a good omen.”
“Have you seen him since Wednesday”?
“Yes, in fact he suggested that we meet for a walk the next day. I didn’t hesitate to say yes, even though I haven’t been walking much this past year. I didn’t even think about whether I could do it. You know, I’ve been feeling better this week than I’ve felt for years – no joint pain and no headaches. I’ve even been sleeping well. We went for a short walk on Thursday morning, then came back here for coffee and talked until lunch time. He asked if I wanted to walk over to the Lodge for some lunch and, surprisingly, walking again sounded good. After lunch I gave him a tour of the Lodge facilities. He hadn’t taken advantage of the tour when he bought his place in the complex. He seemed most interested in the library and we spent an hour or so browsing the shelves and talking about our favorite books. It turns out he’s a big Louis L’Amour fan. I read many of those years ago and am now starting to read them again.”
“Wow! It sounds like this has made a big change in your life. I’m so happy to hear it.”
“I guess it really has. We walked Friday and Saturday – and went to the Lodge for lunch. I’ve been out more in the past few days than in the past year it seems. Yet, I’m feeling good. I don’t even think about whether this will be too much. I just want to enjoy it and see what happens next. Today he had to go visit his son and daughter-in-law in Palm Springs. That was another reason for his decision to move to this area. His son and wife retired to Palm Springs from Alaska to be near their son – his grandson, who is a chef at Spencer’s Restaurant in Palm Springs.”
“What do Dan and Cullen think about all of this”?
“I haven’t talked to them since Wednesday. Dan usually calls on Sunday to check in with me, but Cullen doesn’t call weekly. I know I could have called them, but I really don’t know how to tell them. They never discouraged me from dating after Dan Sr. died, but after so many years I know this will be a shock. Especially since this happened so quickly. Just four days ago, if you had told me I would be thinking seriously about a man in my life I would have said you were crazy. Now I don’t want to think about just getting from one day to the next with as little pain as possible, the way I’ve been living for the past few years. How would you deal with telling your kids about something like this?”
“I’ll have to give that some thought. Tell me more about this man – Alex – why is he applying for a job at this late stage of life?”
“We talked about that on Friday. I was wondering the same thing. I can’t imagine going back to work myself. He said that thing about not sitting around good, so I asked if there were more to it. He said he noticed an ad from this security company saying they hired older people. At first, he followed up on it just out of curiosity, then the idea of being “useful” again really took hold. He had, as I said before, had several post-retirement jobs, but has been totally retired for about five years. He was actually surprised when the company got serious about hiring him. He has to go through a lot of preliminary steps because it is an armed position. He has completed the psych eval and physical. Now they have to complete a background check. He has only applied for part-time and says he will see how it goes.”
“I wonder if you could begin with just telling Dan and Cullen that you met a new person at Bingo who is thinking of starting a new job at age 80. You wouldn’t have to fill them in on all of the details of your deeper connection with Alex for a few weeks. Oh! I just noticed the time. We are having Mary and Tim for dinner this evening and I need to get it started. I’ll call you in a few days to see how things are going, rather than waiting until next week. This is so exciting! I’m really happy for you.”
“I’m happy for me too. I’ll look forward to your call. I feel like I’m alive again and need to share this good news. There aren’t too many people I could count on to understand. Love you, sis.”
“Love you too – Bye.”
The next day my phone rang about noon and the caller ID said, “Sonja.” She rarely called me, what could have prompted this? Nervously, I lifted the receiver and said, “Hi, sis. What’s up?” I heard a sob and then,
“I got a call from Alex’s daughter-in-law this morning. She said Alex and his son got into a big fight about his seeing me and the potential new job. Alex had a heart attack. They called 911 and he was taken to the hospital, but it was too late. During the ambulance ride he asked his son to call me. His son just couldn’t manage it – he’s feeling so responsible for his father’s death – and asked his wife to make the call. Alex is gone. I just can’t believe this. I barely got to know him and was feeling so wonderful, now it’s all gone. It just feels so unfair. Also, maybe the busy days are catching up with me – today I’m aching all over and have a really bad headache starting.”
“How did you feel when you first got up this morning”?
“I didn’t really think about how I was feeling then – I was just looking forward to seeing Alex again. Now that you mention it, I was feeling fine until after the phone call. Then, I just sort of went numb for awhile and didn’t feel much of anything. Now I’m worse off than I was before last Wednesday. I’m not sure it was worth it to see how different life could be – if I was just going to be knocked down again.”
“I’m so sorry, but let’s see if we can make some limoncello out of this lemon. You’ve learned something very important about how much your physical well-being depends upon where your attention is focused.”
“You are just like everyone else – telling me my physical problems are all in my head.”
“I didn’t mean it that way. I know the challenges you have faced with chronic pain. But, the fact that the symptoms lessen when your attention is elsewhere does mean that you might get more out of life – maybe only have a bad day occasionally, rather than every day. This is tragic, but Alex has given you a tremendous gift – several days of feeling good and the knowledge that you don’t have to continue limiting your life more and more.”
“I just don’t know if I can deal with this. My life seems like a series of tragedies. I’ve always tried to be a good person, following the rules, now look what has happened. I can’t talk anymore right now. I’ll call you later.”
As I hung up the phone, a feeling of dread seemed to descend. Maybe I should fly out there to be with her. I don’t think she should be alone right now. I’ll call Dan, he’s only 90 minutes or so away from her – maybe he can get away and go check on her.
That phone call was interesting. Dan couldn’t believe his mom was actually seeing someone only to lose him so suddenly. He agreed that he needed to drive out to check on her. He said his wife, Donna, wanted to make a trip to see her mother, who lives in the same retirement complex as Sonja, and that would give them a good excuse for their sudden appearance.
Later that night the phone rang and the caller ID read, “Dan.” My anxiety seemed to increase and dread opened the door to the words, “Mom is gone. We found her in her bedroom with a bottle of pills. How could she choose to leave us like this over someone she just met?”
“Oh, Dan, I am so sorry – I should have kept her on the phone or called back right away. She was depressed before all of this happened. The upward swing and the sudden crash must have been just too much for her. I’ll come out right away to help you and your brother.”
As I ended the call, I felt an eerie sense of peace and a presence in the room. The phone rang, I lifted the receiver and heard Sonja’s voice; strong, healthy, and happy, with the greeting, “So, what’s new?”
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