J. is old and tired, hobbled by pain, looking backward to the days when she would help others and not need help herself, she says, days long gone, when a dollar was a dollar, and honest working people weren't blown about by forces they couldn't see or understand, and families lived under one roof, even if they didn't all get along. She rises slowly from the armchair, grabs hold of her walker with knobby arthritic hands, and begins the long trek to the kitchen. She straightens her back and winces, winded after a few steps, her left leg dragging along the floor like a club. She has never left the country and now will never get a chance to go. It is too late. Her world has gotten smaller, and grayer, day by day. She can't even take the garbage out by herself.
Those of us who are forced to witness the long letting go, we see ourselves in a few years’ time and grieve for ourselves. We are too impatient to grieve for her, or listen attentively to her complaints, or stoke her memories. Let her live her life again. It’s not ours. We've heard it all before -- she sounds like a broken record. It's the same conversation every time we come by. Clearly life is not always worth living, there comes a time when a body needs rest. There comes a time when a body can't go on. Nine prescriptions, food that doesn't taste right, no appetite, stupid television shows, the toilet, a dwindling savings account, and, worst of all, loneliness. Nobody calls. Nobody visits. The car sits in the driveway, undriven, forlorn, faded in the sun. Without the car there is no possibility of freedom, only dependency, no way to get to the store, no way to go to church, no way to visit the graveyard to talk to the graves. The geraniums on the deck -- she can't get to those either, so the neighbor has to water them.
Nothing tastes right. Spots in front of her eyes, vertigo that comes on without warning, devastating nausea, and always the toilet. Biology takes over, the mind yields. The feeling of being cornered, being trapped, the air-conditioning is too cool, but, no, she can't open the windows, it's too muggy out. She lies down, there's a wrinkle in the bathrobe and her shoulder hurts. The elastic around the waist of the pajama bottoms cuts into her skin, it burns and itches. Her skin is so dry, it flakes off in little patches. One thing leads to another. There have been a series of break-ins in some of the neighboring condos, the police have stepped up patrols and asked everyone to report suspicious activity. J. sits behind the sliding glass doors leading to the deck and watches the parking lot all day, looking for burglars. Sore back, sore shoulders, sore hip. She sees deer and rabbits, a ground hog and some feral cats. She used to shoo the cats away and take delight in watching the young birds, but not anymore. Life no longer interests her. She doesn't see anyone suspicious, just the neighbors going off to work and coming back tired in the evening. They don't see her sitting there.
J. wonders about her childhood sweetheart, someone named Max. No one has heard of Max before. We wonder if he is real. Maybe J. has lost her marbles even if she appears clear-headed. A healthy mind attached to an unhealthy body can play tricks on you. She remembers dances at the club and her father letting her ride in the back of his convertible with a couple of bottles of hooch under the seat. Life was simpler then, but not quite as simple as it is now, in the waning days of her existence, watching the circle of flame come closer and closer. "Max was such a handsome boy. I wonder if he's still alive." She gives details about the neighborhood where she and Max grew up but they don’t jibe with anyone else’s version of things. We stopped listening long ago. Instead, we read the paper, check our phones for messages, and daydream. She is slowly being consumed by flames while we sit there silently watching, hoping she dies soon so all the money isn't eaten up by medical expenses. It would be a shame if some of it didn’t come to the young ones just starting out.