Books are a uniquely portable magic. ~ Stephen King

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Old Man in Winter

Fiction Fridays

A friend approached me a couple weeks ago with a unique proposition. He was working on a song and he had the bones of some lyrics and wanted me to flesh them out. I told him I couldn't write poetry or lyrics and he said, no worries - he didn't want me to write the lyrics, he wanted me to write a story. Loving the idea, I set to work. Over the following weeks I will present the stories that resulted from that request.

This was the first piece:
Mrs. Folino's Man

After I presented him with that story he said - "let's try one from the old man's point of view". So I tried. I tried to write from the point of view of an old, dying Catholic man. Name four things that I am NOT... (old is arguable, I suppose) This was my first attempt. It was a little - hmmmm - precious - for my taste, but it got the ball rolling. Without further ado:

The Old Man in Winter

“Stop fussing!” I said, growing frustrated. My wife had just wrestled me out of my old pajamas and into my nicest pair. She thought the color brought out my eyes, or some such rubbish. I only knew that the collar was stiff and that it chafed against my neck. She was currently attempting to comb what was left of my hair into submission. It wasn’t going well for her. That may have had as much to do with my lack of cooperation as it did with the unruliness of my remaining hair. All the manageable hair had long since left me and what chose to remain didn’t follow her instructions well, causing her seemingly endless frustration. She was always fussing with it and patting it and sometimes I wished she’d just leave my dang head alone. The hair in my ears, however, grew in thick healthy white tufts. She didn’t seem to want to fuss with that as much, though.

“Now, Frank…” she warned, “Father Iaderosa will be here any moment and I won’t have you looking like a bowery bum.”

“Father Iaderosa. Good. I like him better than that other one.”

“Father Tim is a fine priest,” she admonished, stepping back to observe her handiwork with a frown.

“Hmmmph.” Father Tim was younger than my grandson and about twice as insolent, if you asked me. He’d slap me on the back and say, “How’s it going, Frank?” Can you imagine? A pup like that calling me Frank? As far as that’s concerned, I didn’t much care for calling him Father Tim. That collar deserved more respect than that, to my way of thinking. All this first name business and guitars at mass – I barely recognized the church any more. They call it progressive. I call it a bunch of hooey. I was glad Father Iaderosa was coming. He had a little more respect for tradition.

The priests were visiting more often these days and I took comfort in it, but possibly not the way they intended. Their increased visitation confirmed my suspicion that my last breathe was close at hand. I was ready to take it. I’d made my peace with my God and with myself and now I was just tired. I guess maybe that’s selfish. My wife and my boys – they’ll miss me I suppose. But I’ll see them again. When it’s their time. It’s my time now and I’m tired of biding it. I’m ready to leave this sick tired old body and dance with the angels. I miss dancing. I was never all that good at it, but I loved the feel of a pretty girl in my arms – spinning her round and round or just holding her real close, smelling her hair as she laid her head on my shoulder. Yes sir, that was the stuff. I felt pretty sure I’d be a wonderful dancer in heaven.

“Mr. Folino!” Father Iaderosa said, interrupting my silly thoughts of dancing on the clouds and bringing me firmly back to earth. “How are you feeling today, sir?” His voice was as big and commanding as his presence. He carefully perched his large body on the small chair my wife had readied for visitors at the side of my bed, taking my hand and looking at me with concern etched across his brow as he did so.

“If I can make it through winter, I can make it another year.”

“Ah, well!” he said chuckling robustly, “Just a couple more weeks then! Good to hear it!”

We chatted companionably for a while, then the good Father asked if I would like to receive communion and I nodded in the affirmative. I received the sacrament with even more solemnity than usual. This is not to say I ever took it lightly, oh, certainly not. But I suspected that this was the last time I’d be participating in this particular rite. This was the last winter the good Lord was going to ask me to make it through. I knew this with the same certainty that I knew my own name.

Father Iaderosa took his leave and my wife came in to stroke my head some more. Bless her heart, I understood. She wanted to touch me – to keep me real, I suppose. I imagine she knows as well as I do that my time is near. It’s not as easy for her to let go. When I leave, I’ll be going to a better place and she’ll be here – for a while, at least – to carry on alone. I took her hand from my head and held it to my heart. I lifted it to my lips and kissed it. I watched the tears brim in her eyes without spilling over. Oh, Lord, I do love this woman. Her hand became too heavy for me to hold, so I dropped both of our hands, keeping them joined, back to my chest. She squeezed my hand and looked away. I hated to see her so sad.

“I’m tired, dear.” I said, kissing her hand once more.

“Oh! Of course!” She fluffed my pillow and ran her hand across my head one more time. She paused for a moment in the doorway before she closed the door and for just an instant I caught a brief and shining glimpse of the girl I’d met almost fifty years before. Or maybe it was an angel.

I turned my head to look out the window. It was difficult to tell where the landscape ended and the sky began. They were both the same shade of dingy gray. It was February in Western Pennsylvania, all right. I could just barely make out the stacks from the steel mill off in the distance. I’d worked there most of my adult life. Everyone I knew had. When I retired, they’d given me a party and a clock. That clock was on my nightstand now, reminding me in a very tangible way of the passing of time.

The sky was gray, the land was gray, my remaining hair was gray; the whole world seemed to be gray. My bright blue pajamas were almost an assault on the dreariness. Perhaps that’s why I hated them so much. They were a bright ugly gash that didn’t belong in the picture.

“If I can make it through winter, I can make it another year.” I’d been saying that since I was a young man and I always meant it. Once I got too old to indulge in sledding and snowball fights, the winter months lost all their charm. The shortened days, the cold weather, the loss of color and light – they took their toll on me each year. Of course life went on. I shoveled my car out of the garage and kept my sidewalk clear so the paperboy would have a path. I went to work and I came home and I shoveled again if it needed it and I went to bed. There wasn’t much joy, but there was also always the knowledge that the sun would indeed come out again and that the drudgery that was my life in the winter would be pushed aside to make room for the joy I felt the rest of the year. Winter was just something I needed to make it through. Eventually the bulbs my wife planted would poke their way up through the ground and the lilac bush in my front yard would bloom. Eventually the world I loved would return.

Not this year, though. This year I couldn’t find that motivation. I couldn’t imagine spring flowers or sunshine on the other side of this dreary grayness. All I could see, when I looked forward on my life on this earth, was more dreary grayness. My reward, this year, wasn’t on the other side of winter – it was on the other side of life.

I rolled over and closed my eyes. Like a mantra, the bedtime prayer from my childhood ran through my head, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” It was juvenile, I knew, but it was an old habit. I wondered what sort of prayers Father Tim was teaching the children growing up in the parish now. “Yo, Jesus! Wassup!” I quickly crossed myself for allowing the blasphemous thought to even go through my head.

My prayers completed I allowed my thoughts to drift. I’d had dialysis three times this week, and that was getting to be more the norm than the exception. No. I didn’t want to think about that. I didn’t want to think about hospitals and machines and the gray, gray world. I didn’t want to think about the worry I saw etched in the faces of my wife and my boys and their families when they visited with me and I sure didn’t want to think about the fear and nervousness I saw on my great-grandchildren’s faces when they were nudged towards my bed with instructions to “say hello to Papa”. No. I thought instead of a big green field. The sun was shining and a band was playing. I had my best girl in my arms and we danced without tiring. Her hair smelled of lilacs.

The next thing I heard was sirens. There seemed to be a lot of activity and I seemed to be at the center of it. I didn’t want to be here, I wanted to go back to dancing in that field. I heard my wife’s voice, “If he could just make it through winter, I know he could make it through another year…”

“Not this year, my love.” And I returned to her in the sunshine.

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