This is the place where the three young women whooped my ass on the canal walking trail. I have been down to the trail and in my memory relived my sorry walking defeat to the three cheering women at the 2 mile marker. I would not attempt such foolishness now. Because I am wiser? No, because the pain in my knees and back will put me on immediate notice of the ill-advisement of such an endeavor. I haven’t grown wiser, only more decrepit. If I regard work with some notion of loss, I find a notion of desperation with the thought that I may never see the canal trail again. Well you dipshit you could drive down anytime you want and walk the canal again. True, but why would I return to a place that I have been numerous times when there is so much of the country that I have not seen at all? More bittersweet sentiments.
My father was the baby of his family, significantly younger than his siblings, and as such my sister and I are the grand babies of the family being significantly younger than our cousins. I never remember any of my cousins from my father’s side not being adults. One of my cousins and his wife left Pittsburgh before my teens. All I knew was that he lived in the south and I have only seen him twice at funerals since the early 60s. I was surprised to find out that he lived only 3 hours from where I work in Georgia. I went to visit him and his wife over the weekend.
It is odd to sit down with a couple you barely know and yet share a family history. We spoke of family members, yet from entirely different perspectives. My grandfather died in a car accident when I was a toddler, so I asked my cousin what he was like. We spoke of far flung relatives, people that I have heard names yet probably have never met.
What struck me talking to my cousin was not so much the information that I garnered about the family, but rather his mannerisms and facial expressions, the likes of which I have not seen since 1972--the last time I came home on leave from the service. Talking with my cousin was like talking with my father, their shared mannerisms and tone of voice was spooky. My father had a debilitating stroke in 1974. When I came back from the service my father’s mannerisms of speech were gone, destroyed by the stroke. So chatting with my cousin was like climbing in a time machine and listening to my dead father from 39 years ago.
My cousin’s life has not always been easy. His father died when my cousin was in his teens, my cousin’s first child died of a childhood disease, and his sister died relatively young. My cousin has known his share of pain and heartbreak. Now in his “golden” years he suffers from a pulmonary disorder and is on oxygen. Walking across a room is an exhausting effort. His wife has her share of health problems as well and her hands are cruelly deformed from crippling rheumatoid arthritis.
Despite their infirmities both have a wonderful sense of humor, are stoic about their situation, and give thanks for each other. They are very much still in love with each other after a half century of marriage. They are a cute couple to watch. They have developed an effortless symbiosis to deal with their disabilities. She brings a jar to him and without a word passing between them he opens it for her and hands it back. Every now and again he would say to me “I think I will get a glass of water” or some other minor want. A moment later she would appear from another room with his glass of water. He said to me repeatedly that she was his angel and that if she went first that he would follow within a day. Therein lays the bittersweet rub of my cousin and his wife. No, bittersweet is too tame of a term. Cruelty is more like it. We fall in love, we marry, we live together for decades, become dependent on each other for love, security and a sense of purpose, and then one dies and leaves the other to face the world alone. How terribly damned cruel life can be.
As I drove back from my visit, I found myself deeply depressed and very much missing my wife. I was glad to have visited, yet was morose over their health and the impending doom which they face. Yes they were cheerful and stoic, but still I could not get over the depressing thought that it is only a matter of time before the world shatters for them. Well that is true for all of us is it not, only a matter of time?
Joyce Carol Oates has recently published an account of the loss of her husband in her book A Widow’s Story. You can read an interview with her regarding this experience here:
PBS Newshour: Joyce Carol Oates on Widowhood's World of Absurdity
Joan Didion also wrote a book a few years ago on the same topic, The Year of Magical Thinking. Both books detail the shock and grief of the loss of a lifelong spouse. I have added both of these titles to my must read list.
So again I am drawn to the darker side of the navigation of the finite. I feel the weight of impending doom crushing down upon what little time I have left, and again regard my forth coming retirement with a jaded eye. I just can’t get beyond the notion that I am about to celebrate the ribbon cutting ceremony of the final chapters of story that is not going to end well. Bittersweet indeed!
You can read all of my retirement related posts at: