Early the morning of her eighty-fifth birthday, either God, or the old woman, or the pair of them decided she would not be alive long after her eighty-sixth. The week before, her doctor referred her to an in-home oxygen provider. “I’m not going to have anyone see me with that hose thing shoved up my nose,” she grumped angrily.
Her vehement reaction was due in part to her being claustrophobic to an extreme. Maybe even more pointedly, she could not entertain a thought that she might lose control over another aspect of her life. Well, come to think of it, there is one more reason for her strongly negative reaction. That old woman was vain.
But, who’s to say she didn’t have good reason to cling to remnants of self-respect and love? About a year before, she had her long hair bobbed. For as long as anyone could remember, she wore a beautiful chignon near the top of the back of her head. The bun remained predominantly red long after the wavy hair bordering her high cheekbones had turned silver. She was extremely proud of her hair.
When it was decided she no longer could manage her long hair, she asked me to cut it. Unable ever to refuse her tiniest request, I knew if I demolished one of the prides of her appearance, I would be held accountable ever after. She’d forget she asked me to do the deed and the blame would be too much for me to bear. The pressure was overwhelming. My mind worked like fury to find an acceptable way out.
“Well?” she said.
“Um,” I said. “Do you recall when you were trimming the front of your hair?”
“Yes. What of it?”
“You remember dropping my expensive hair trimming scissors?”
“Yes . . . how do you know about that? You weren’t in the room.”
True. The clattering noises of my precious scissors against the wall, the vanity, and then the floor told me at the time she must have thrown them. I breathed a little easier.
“I don’t know exactly how it happened, but they are terribly out of alignment. I’m afraid they will pull more hair than they cut. Why don’t I make an appointment for you to get a professional cut and perhaps a loose perm to get your hair used to being shorter?”
She accepted my offer and we got past the negative milestone with loud lamentations, but without excessive tears. I kept reminding her of the things she would keep forever. Her youthful looking arms and legs, her own teeth, the dimple in her left cheek, her sky blue eyes made even more sparkly by state-of-the-art crystal lenses, and her special made-to-fit-her-small-frame recliner.
She reminded me of the items she had to deal with that she’d rather do without. Oxygen bottles of all sizes, both full and empty, which took up excessive space in the family room. The oxygen generating machine that brought cockroaches into the new house. (The exterminator arrived close behind the bugs and they quickly and dramatically were dispatched).
And then, there was the wheelchair. When unused, it had to be parked out of her sight. However, it went everywhere with us, so the contraption stood in the dining room at the ready to take its traveling companion to the car or on a little trip to the powder room at the opposite end of the house. (The corner at the end of the hallway and the entrance to that little room are the only design flaws in the entire house. The designer did not, nor did the builder, nor did either of us foresee how it would be.)
For the remainder of that winter, and through spring and summer, the old woman held occasional court in the front parlor where she sold or gave away her prized possessions. I stood out of her sphere, but ready to assist, and watched while she reclined gracefully on her magnificent one-hundred-fifty-year-old chaise and attentively listened to her petitioners. When she was satisfied her treasures would continue to receive all the adoration and respect she had given them, the goods changed hands. Petitioners with the best stories got the best deals. The chaise and a very decorative oak coat tree went to a local dramatic production group. Much later, I got a twinge of nostalgia when I saw them in a play.
On one crisp fall evening, the old woman was scheduled to meet with the representative of a local bridge group interested in receiving a box of playing cards, tally sheets and other bridge party favors. I had taken away her dinner tray and settled myself into one of my small platform rockers.
While we wait for the man in our story to arrive, I must relate to you the history of my two matching rockers. Many years ago, when the old woman wasn’t old at all, she worked in a local furniture store. She had this thing about furniture, and being in close proximity to daily buying opportunities, she ended up with much more furniture than she needed. Special to her was a pair of platform rockers small enough to fit a short person. I always thought the dark green color was hideous, but they rocked in any direction, they swiveled, and I had to admit they were very comfortable.
After she had the chairs for fifteen years or so, and before she came to reside with me, she moved from her rambling ranch house in the country to town where she bought a small craftsman near Sequoia Park. Long story short, in the process of downsizing, she gave me the two chairs. Well, the first thing I did was to make them mine. I had them recovered and the worn swivel mechanisms replaced. Afterward, they seemed to sit a bit lower, but they were as comfortable as ever and rocked just fine. They served me well for a ten minute power nap on my lunch hour.
So, there we were, she in her recliner and me in one of my rockers when the doorbell rang. I rose out of my chair to admit a smallish young man dressed all in black. I led him into the family room and to the owner of the bridge supplies.
The young man’s black hair was smoothed back away from his face. On his nose rested a pair of round, clear lenses, one in front of each eye, with thin wire extensions which reached over his ears. He wore sensible black shoes with rounded toes and which sported a good inch-and-a-half of rubber sole underneath them. Wearing a questioning smile of youth, he stood tall before the old woman.
After we glanced quickly at each other and silently agreed the young man looked very studious, she greeted him and invited him to sit in the platform rocker nearest her chair.
The young man backed up to the rocker and bent himself to sit. Thinking about it now, I’m not at all sure where he imagined the chair seat would be. Had he grown in height recently? Did he forget about differences made by his elevated shoes? Whatever it was, he quickly found out the low chair was way lower than he thought.
He unlocked his knee joints and cannon-balled down, butt-first into the here-to-fore comfortable chair which swiftly gobbled him up, and then wildly flung itself backwards to land at rest on the carpeted floor. Whether his strange descent was the unexpected outcome of a sitting gone wrong, or the unholy surprise of it, or the wind actually was knocked out of him, he laid there for seconds before responding to his predicament.
Quick to recover, I began to have great concern for our guest, and concern for him led immediately to concern for the little old woman. I looked at her. She began to cough and splutter. All the alarms in my head began to ring.
In one swift, smooth motion, I grabbed the young man’s right hand which he helplessly waved in the air above him, yanked him to his feet, shoved the box of things into his arms, and pulled him to the front door which I flung open with my free hand. As I shoved him out onto the front walk, he muttered some kind of phrase with the words, “thanks” and “sorry” all mixed up.
“You’re very welcome!” I slammed the door shut and hurried back into the family room. As quickly as I could, I got the old woman into her emergency oxygen mask. All the while, she resisted, shaking her head back and forth in what I thought was some kind of fit. But, I insisted she capitulate, and soon she stopped fighting the mask.
She breathed in a few shallow breaths and the coughing subsided. As I watched anxiously, she took off the mask. “Well. That was something,” she said.
“Yes.” I righted the chair. “He certainly was surprised. And so was I, for that matter.”
“I didn’t know you could move so quickly,” she said, and began again to laugh and cough and splutter.
Laughing with her, I reached for the oxygen.