The lap pool–wide at both ends to allow for volleyball nets–was sixty feet long. The middle part narrowed into a dangerous Dardanelles where he had to be careful to follow the tile markers on the bottom of the pool if he didn’t want to smash his hands into the sides. He moved fairly fast, swimming with a modified butterfly stroke that allowed his body to stay in the water. It took him forty-five minutes to swim eighty lengths, the desired one mile. He always started at the shallow south end, marked in his mind as ‘even’, swimming toward the north, ‘odd’ end. By the time he reached six, turning for seven, he had established his form. At the deep, ‘odd’ end he would do a flip-turn, line up on the markers, come up and stretch his arms wide for the first stroke. The shadow of his arms had become the fan-like tail of the leaping whale he had seen on an insurance company TV ad.
He felt powerful with the borrowed
strength of the whale. Swimming toward the ‘odd’ end, he felt the water smooth and cool on his shoulders. The outside temperature was eighty-nine degrees; it was a typical North Florida August day. In the rest of the world the weather had gone bonkers. The brewing storms depicted in garish colors on TV ‘visuals’ were a combination of grand guignol and geography lessons. These days he
had too much freedom that allowed him to sit in front of the TV and watch the weather channel. Six months ago he would have been down at the barn or in the round training-pen, lunging horses. After he and Meg returned from a two-week visit to England it had been a relief during the first few days, when jet lag felt like a post-traumatic visitation of his youthful hangovers, to find that
all the work had been accomplished without him.
What he had not realized at first was that this signified the final chapter of his retirement that had started one morning a year-and-a-half ago when he was sitting on a faded canvas chair by the tack room listening to the horses munching away at their feed stations. The smell of new hay up in the loft permeated the whole barn, overwhelming him with a sense of security and well-being. The pastures were still green. The hay wouldn’t be needed till after the first frost in late December
or early January. He wanted this sense of well-being to blot out the images of the Eastern Front, the pictures of starving horses of the reconnaissance unit that had lodged permanently inside his head, unlike the shrapnel pieces that every year or so poked through the top of his skull. An unredeemable guilt for unthinkingly, even gaily, bringing his own horses into the miseries of War that had turned them into suffering skin-and-bone beasts dying in the snow on the banks of the Dnieper four thousand kilometers from home had stayed with him all these years, knowing that causing the suffering of innocents was a mortal sin.
John had appeared and, opening up the other canvas chair, sat down beside him.
“You look tired, Daddy.”
“It’s the heat.”
“I don’t think you should be climbing into the hayloft anymore,” John said.
“Last week you banged your head on the rafters. Mum worries about you.”
“She’s always worrying about something.”
“I know, but you are eighty and John Gray can help more. He’s fourteen now, perfectly able to pitch down bales. You didn’t mind when he took over mowing some of the pastures last year.”
“He’s not strong enough to stack the bales after he throws them down. I don’t imagine he weighs a hundred pounds.”
“Well, you stack them then if it doesn’t hurt your elbows.”
“My elbows are fine.”
“Only because of the cortisone shots,” John mumbled.
“Next you’ll be wondering about the state of my mind if you haven’t already done so.”
His mind had not gone yet. The proof of it was that he correctly remembered now that this conversation, marking the beginning of his retirement, had taken place two years ago, not a year-and-a-half ago as he had first thought. John Gray had had his sixteenth birthday this year.
He touched the fisheye underwater light at the ‘even’ end. It was important to keep the count true just as it was important to answer truthfully the questions posed in the Advance Directive Kit on the End of Life Issues, even if your responses would not impress your family and the authorities with your maturity and selflessness. Life and death decisions always touched on philosophy and theology, eschatology that was hard to communicate outside religious or academic settings. Even there discussions at times deteriorated into ideological ranting. Long ago, when he had first glimpsed the majesty of God, the love he had felt made him prostrate himself, yet he could not make this Love understandable to people who in their turn felt that to be true to themselves they had to remain in their chrysalises, not wanting to fly with the seventeenth century’s George Herbert: To the skie/Where I wipe mine eyes, and see/What I seek, for what I sue;/Him I view,/Who had done so much for me.
The Almost Home Advance Workshop at North Florida Regional Hospital, held on July 8th, coincided with their fifty-fifth wedding anniversary. The theme was encapsulated in the question: Do you know what will happen to you, or your loved ones, if any of you become ill and cannot make decisions for yourselves?
After the thirty-fifth length, the numbers came automatically, without conscious thought. He was swimming effortlessly, his relaxed body smoothly functioning as a unit. In this watery universe, in the time frame of the forty-five minutes it took to swim the eighty lengths, the chronological order of events had become scrambled, the natural order reversed. The unseen, increasingly shorter future lay behind him. He was swimming toward the past, seeing in black-and-white newsreels the goosestepping Nazis, the Eiffel Tower, the New York skyline, the attic in Budapest where his old school books were stored. The attic was still intact as he had seen it as a brand-new, twenty-year-old lieutenant on the eve of his departure for the Eastern Front in 1943. He was reading selections from Dante’s The Inferno in his fifth form Italian textbook.
Just as a swimmer, who with his last breath flounders ashore from perilous seas, might turn to memorize the wide water of his death–
so did I turn, my soul still fugitive from death’s surviving image, to stare down that pass that none had ever left alive.
North Florida Regional Hospital’s parking garage was a dark lair that sometimes confused people enough to make them lose their way. He and Meg walked in the heat toward the Women’s Center entrance where the Almost Home Advance Workshops were held. Inside, the wall opposite to them was dominated by a huge canvas depicting one of Florida’s springs, the blue water ready to spill out onto the walls. The spring transformed the hospital into a pleasant open space that excluded any thought of illness and the mechanics of dealing with impending death.
When he looked down to align himself on the tile markers he saw drowned spiders lying on the bottom of the pool like tiny, drawn-up, upside-down fists.
Before the advent in his life of the Advance Directive Kit on the End of Life Issues (with its questions such as: How does one reconcile what one thinks about issues, and what one feels about responses?) he had an overwhelming firsthand knowledge of random, violent death from aerial bombardments, artillery fire, machine guns, and all the other hazards of war that went beyond the abstract inevitability of the end of all life, that had cut short any thinking of the possibility of dying of illnesses or old age. The remembered over-bearing reality of death had been a simple choice between hanging from a goalpost with his hands tied behind his back, or being shot standing against a wall or kneeling at the edge of a ditch.
“This is one in a series of Margaret Tolbert’s Florida springs,” Meg said. “She has the same kind of color sense as Cezanne.”
All he could think of was that Margaret Tolbert was in junior high when their children were already in high school.
The pink lady at the desk directed them to the elevator. An attractive young woman standing to one side said: “Push the down button. The Almost Home Workshop is held in the basement.”
He didn’t think he and Meg were that obvious. It didn’t occur to him a few minutes ago walking over from the parking garage that they had been measured, sized, and packaged like garments to hang on racks among other similar sizes.
The elevator came and they stepped inside. In a few seconds the elevator door opened with a sigh. People were shuffling in one direction, some supported by walkers, some leaning on others that made them look like playing cards in the first, tentative stages of building a house of cards. I am the way into the city of woe,/I am the way to a forsaken people,/I am the way into eternal sorrow. They had entered the vestibule of Dante Alighieri’s Hell.
At the right-hand side of the corridor (just wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs) stood at intervals an honor guard of young women. They were pleasantly, reassuringly smiling. He would have asked Meg for a compact to see himself as people saw him but Meg didn’t carry a compact. She checked her appearance in the mirror on the back of the visor before getting out of the car. His oldest surviving friend (oldest in terms of their friendship) told him once that God in His wisdom had constructed them so that they could not see their own faces. She hailed from Lancashire where many of her strange notions originated.
The conference room from a distance announced itself with the sound of a beehive, then the volume increased and became the cheerful cacophony of a barnyard. People were bantering with old friends and acquaintances as they discovered each other.
“We sign in, get our name-tags and packets,” Meg said. “Then we find a place to sit.”
“I feel trapped.”
“Crowds always make you uneasy.” She patted his shoulder.
It was a big lecture room with rows of seats and a dais where a microphone screeched loudly from time to time. At one side of the room tables were set up with fruit, cookies, bottles of water, soft drinks, and coffee. A few people were filling their plates and styrofoam cups, confidently talking to each other. The majority sat in silence looking straight ahead at the dais as if they were afraid to catch something from their neighbors.
A pleasant-looking woman stepped to the microphone and knocked on it with her fingernail.
“I am Shirley Bloodworth, the coordinator of these sessions,” she said. “They are presented by the North Florida Regional Medical Center in partnership with WUFT TV.” She held up a yellow sheet for everybody to see. “This is the ‘Florida Do Not Resuscitate Order’. After you have read it, you can sign the patient portion, then ask your doctor to sign the physician statement part. This would direct the withholding or withdrawing of cardiopulmonary resuscitation in terminal illness situations.”
It was embarrassing that even after living in the States for fifty-five years he still could not pronounce ‘resuscitate’ or ‘Massachusetts’.
Not everybody was cowed by the occasion. A woman with short white hair, tailored shorts, and shirt sitting in the middle of the second row stood up waving her yellow sheet.
“I was at your June workshop. I do know what the yellow sheet is called.”
“Then what is your question?”
“Where shall I keep the yellow sheet to warn off the EMTs when they barge in to resuscitate me?”
“Your fridge would be a handy place.”
“But what if I am out shopping?”
For it is no easy undertaking, I say, to describe the bottom of the Universe; Nor is it for tongues that only babble child’s play.
He was not endowed by the American genius that could reduce all things to manageable proportions by a How To spirit that would instruct them in the building of bookcases, houses, and even in the mechanics of dealing with the awfulness of death by first sloughing off this unchangeable fact like the useless skin of an orange, then focusing on the manageable segments one by one.
The memory of standing in a queue on a soccer field waiting for his turn to be led to a goalpost to be hung popped up some nights like unwanted spam. Those persistent dreams made the yellow sheet’s warnings to would-be rescuers feel like a cruel joke. He had seen the others ahead of him struggling, staining their trousers, their tied hands behind them trying to reach the unreachable until their heads lolled to one side showing blue tongues. It was worse after he had been taken back to his cell with no explanation, understanding full well that he’d be brought down the next day
to go through the same anguish again knowing the inevitability of his own annihilation, the only choice remaining the acceptance of death with dignity that would allow him to burst through the dark glass of fear to reach Peace. Even while standing in line waiting for death he had, if not the knowledge, the intuition that this finite reality could not account for his own being, that there had to be something more to his life and death than a final gasping for breath.
“We’ll read it again when we get home and decide,” Meg said.
Outside the lecture room the honorguard of young women was nowhere to be seen. The last of the participants, the Grand Armee in retreat, was moving along the corridor toward the elevator. Meg’s hand on his arm checked him as effectively as a curb bit from overtaking the maim and the halt bunched up at the elevator door. Each new arrival at the elevator pushed the ‘up’ button without any visible result.
When Meg first told him how they would be spending their anniversary he objected, not wanting to waste their special day on something that sounded like an episode from a TV comedy where the writers of the show had run out of ideas. In the end he had to give in precisely because it was their anniversary.
Now he was glad that they had come to the Almost Home Advance Workshop. All the participants were conscious that their own demise, their death, wasn’t an abstract idea on the far horizon, and the coordinator had not romanticized the unalterable. It was good to face end-of-life issues. Imagine that you are sick and have been told that you will die soon. Would you want all possible treatments, even though your doctors don’t think they will be able to help you because you would hope for a miracle cure that would prolong your life? Yes, Not Sure, No. He chose No.
But his response had little to do with clarifying his stand on matters pertaining to life or death. It had more to do with his mother’s secretaire that held in equal measure dread and fascination for a five-yearold boy. The upper part of the desk was built like a miniature theater with a stage whose backdrop was a slightly yellowed mirror, always reflecting his own distorted face. There were little drawers on the left of the stage imitating the boxes for the audiences to sit in. The whole of the right side was taken up by a dark engraving of an old bearded man dressed in robes, sitting at a table looking intently at a human skull in front of him. Across the table lay a sleeping lion and a dog.
“He is scary. What is he doing?”
“This is Saint Jerome contemplating his death,” his mother had said.
“We all have to die.”
“Yes. He was a good old dog.”
“You’ll die too?”
“Even my father?”
“There is no escape from death for any living creature.”
They had reached the others bunched up at the elevator door like a halted convoy trying to move their wounded from the fighting zone. The little talking that there was came out in whispers as if they were in hiding, trying to avoid discovery.
“We’ll take the stairs and tell them at the desk about the elevator,” Meg announced. Then they were through the door and began to climb the stairs, hearing their footsteps echo. Suddenly he was overcome by a feeling of unexpected elation not unlike the last day of school at the beginning of the summer vacation when the joy of the holiday was still an intact token of a never-ending freedom before it unraveled into days and activities that led inexorably toward the rains of September.
“You don’t have to run,” Meg shouted after him.
He touched the fisheye underwater light at the ‘even’ shallow end and stopped. He stood up, took off his goggles and looked at his watch lying on the pool deck. It was 4:38 PM. He had entered the water at four o’clock. Today wasn’t one of his leisurely swims. The dogs came to lick the water from his shoulders.