by S. J. Henderson
Who’d have believed that I’d be still causing trouble after all these years? And, better yet, with my doll-baby Elise by my side? Man, oh man. Unbelievable—and that’s saying a lot, coming from a guy famous for spinning a yarn or two.
They say the measure of a life lived well isn’t strolling up to the pearly gates in a perfectly-preserved body, but screeching up to Saint Peter with two wheels off the ground hootin’, “What a ride!”
What a ride . . .
Name one fella who doesn’t have his own bunch of bumps, bruises, scratches, and scars—souvenirs of the ride. I’ve got my share, that’s for sure.
The funny thing about scars is they might cover everything up all right, but it’s never quite the same. They end up reminders that, once upon a time, things were different.
My ears, for one. I’ll blame it on turning Tommy Dorsey up too loud—well, and probably all those years of revving motorcycle engines in the shop didn’t do me any favors. Can’t for the life of me remember the last time I could hear a blasted thing without help.
Elise leans toward me to tell me something, but I barely make out her mumbling. She’s only a few feet away, but she might as well be in the next county. I scrunch up my forehead, trying to crack the code of Elise’s words.
As if she can read my mind, my granddaughter comes from the bathroom with my hearing aids in her hands. She shakes one, testing the batteries until it sings; then the other. “Here, grandpa. They’re good to go,” she says. “Grandma said she’s not feeling very good. She’s going to rest.”
“Thanks, dolly.” I try to give her a little wink, but my eye sort of twitches instead. Darn stroke. Not that I want to draw attention to my eyes, anyway. They used to be a deep shade of brown, and just the thing for staring deeply into Elise’s eyes. One detached retina later, my eye is yellow. Yellow! Have you ever heard of such a thing? Might as well be in a circus sideshow. My granddaughter tells me no one looks at my eye, but can’t say I believe her—she’s been known to spin a yarn, herself.
Tried to keep going, you know. Drove my fancy white Honda with the tan leather interior up until last year. The kids started hiding my keys on me, those sonofaguns. Their eyes got real big when I told them I’d driven all the way to the store then rammed the shopping cart straight into the light pole on my way inside. Was that true? Or another yarn? That’s a secret between me and the shopping cart, and I’m not talkin’. The truth is, when your sweetheart needs a bag of potato chips, you go. You might scrape a little paint off your bumper, but it’s a small price to pay for the one you love.
You know what I miss? I miss reading. Elise has to read me the funnies anymore. She always manages to mess up the punchline as she describes the scene for me, but I don’t mind. Her giggle, so rare these days, tickles me more than any old funny paper. We don’t even fight over the crosswords anymore because it’s all gobbledygook to me now.
My back’s all gobbledygook, too. Used to be straight as an arrow; now it’s more like a broken arrow. That’s what I get for thinking I could ride the Jack Pine in the mud that last year—I think it was ‘66. No, maybe ‘67. Ended up playing chicken with an oak tree, and guess who won? A few years back I got so tired of lurching around staring at the floor like the Hunchback of Notre Dame I had the doc take the knife to it. All he did was leave me with an ugly pink line running right across a lump of vertebrae the size of an ever-lovin’ baseball. I’m no expert, but I don’t know if that’s an improvement.
The kids walk with me everywhere now, you know, as if the walker wasn’t bad enough. You’ve never lived until you’ve had a woman holding you and your pants up as you try to shuffle to the bathroom. You heard that right—the john! Guy can’t even get privacy to do his business or brush his teeth. Now they want to stand around and stare at my giblets. Doesn’t make any sense. I’ve only fallen, oh . . . once or twice. Who’s countin’?
Speaking of the bathroom . . .
“I need to take a trip,” I say, swinging my legs over the edge of the bed. My swing is more of a slow lurch, my legs heavier and slower than they should be.
My daughter’s at my side quicker than a flash of lightning, already clipping that dad-blamed belt around my bare chest. “No, Dad. We’re not doing that anymore. It’s too dangerous.” Her tone is firm; she’s forgotten she’s the child and I’m the father.
My traitorous eyes shift toward the bathroom door, the Promised Land. “I’ll be fine. You watch.”
But they won’t bring my walker close enough, even if I were to throw myself at it—and I’m not above such tricks.
I try to stand. My knees feel like noodles.
“Dad! No! You hurt my back last time.” Jean’s voice grows louder. She’ll wake her mother if she doesn’t hush.
“You’ve always done such a good job of protecting us.” My granddaughter this time. “Please, protect us one more time.”
My granddaughter always speaks with a chirp in her voice, always ready to do what I ask her to do. I’m not used to this side of her. I offer her an amused smile, even though the cracks in my heart are beginning to splinter. With a sigh, I surrender, allowing my daughter and granddaughter to help me to my feet, pull down my shorts, and ease me onto the bedside commode. Not what I want. As the heart-cracks split into great gaping canyons, I curl into the fetal position right there on the blasted commode. A single tear follows the roadmap of wrinkles along the edge of my better eye.
These are crazy days.
When I’m done, they help me back in bed. I turn over to Elise, napping in the hospital bed cozied up to mine in the center of our living room. She looks so peaceful, her chest rising and falling in a rhythm as steady and dependable as she’s always been. I miss lying next to her in bed—our bed, abandoned down the hallway of a thousand miles. I miss the shudder of the mattress when she makes the slightest move. I miss sitting side-by-side on the edge, holding gnarled hands and murmuring The Lord’s Prayer. It’s just not the same holding her hand, that same tiny hand I’ve clung to for over seventy-five years, through a cold metal bed rail.
It’s not fair we’re so far apart. Elise’s Pop, a wiry wisp of a man, had tried to keep us away from each other with his sharp, murderous glare and clipped words. His German stubbornness was no match for the Irish fire pumping through my veins. The only one who’d ever succeeded in separating us had been the war and good ol’ Uncle Sam. Still, Elise had never been far behind.
Everything I’ve ever done has been for her, and the family we made together. I won’t let anyone or anything take her away from me again. If she goes first, there won’t be anything left for me here. My heart will explode in my chest, broken in every possible way.
I square my jaw and pull my covers up to my chin. I won’t let God finish breaking my heart. I won’t let him take Elise first. Some might say I’m giving up, but I’m just cutting in line in front of all those saps who aren’t ready.
Here we go . . .
Man, oh man. What a ride.