THE OLD DAYS
by Maureen Mullis
It wasn’t the fall that hurt so much as the indignity of the situation. The embarrassment of landing in such a clumsy, undignified way and the myriad of looks that swept across the features of those around her: pity, disgust, horror. They ran the gamut. And they all made her feel … well what?
There were so many things she hated about being older it was hard to put her finger on which was the worst. When she looked in the mirror she was well aware of the passage of time; her hair was white, her face looked like it needed a good ironing for all the wrinkles in it. Her hands, once smooth and strong, were now achy, the skin thin and transparent and looking like they belonged to her grandmother, not to her.
But her eyes were her own. Her 18-year-old eyes were trapped in the face of an old woman, but they were her eyes.
Now the cane, that was something that had been a hard adjustment. The cane defined her somehow. It labeled her as an older person. That label also meant for everyone younger than her 82 years to avoid her, pass her by, run around her and get her behind them. Like she was a pothole on their private road.
At least she wasn’t using the walker her daughter had gotten her out in public. After this she might insist she use it, but Harriet was going to avoid that if she could. If people around her hated her cane who knows how they’d react to that stupid walker. Well, not that stupid. It did help her in the middle of the night when she needed to get up and felt unsteady. But she had no intention of using it outside her bedroom if she could help it.
Her daughter kept trying to get her to try those damned scooters in the stores when they went shopping, but it was something Harriet was still able to avoid. That would be even more embarrassing then her cane, and that stupid cane was embarrassing enough. People would rush by her trying to get past her often bumping into her without so much as a backward glance. That was how inconsequential she’d become. And at church the children running and yelling around her, weaving around her making her feel dizzy and frightened that oftentimes she would either leave early or stay late to avoid the rush of the little ones in the halls.
Although she liked where she was in her life and enjoyed her family quite a lot in her role as the family matriarch, there was much that she missed from her earlier life. Like walking. She would see people loping along without a care in the world. Like walking was something they didn’t even think about. She missed that. Not having to worry about curbs, or steps without handrails, of if there was something on the ground that might trip her up.
And running! Oh how she missed the feel of her legs pumping beneath her and the tight feeling in her chest as she struggled to breathe when she’d get a stitch in her side. She used to love going fast, her hair tangling and closing her eyes against the breeze blowing on her face as she would race along. When the girls were little she would be out with them playing tetherball or tag, and on picnics at the beach she would race them barefoot down the shoreline until they would fall laughing and choking into the surf. What she wouldn’t give to go back to that for just one day to feel it again.
She missed eating. Whatever she wanted whenever she wanted. Heaven forbid she eat pizza after 5:00, or chili or spaghetti or anything with half an ounce of flavor. When she first started staying home with the girls Jerry had worked two jobs. Harriet smiled remembering the nights he’d get home from his second job around 11:30 and they’d have a late supper together before bed. Whatever they’d felt like: frozen pizza, chili dogs, tacos, chips and dip. No, it wasn’t healthy, but they would laugh as they’d eat then fall into bed and each other’s arms without worrying about the consequences.
But the thing she missed the most was feeling like she mattered. Now, at 82, she just didn’t matter anymore, to anyone. Especially since Jerry died. She was just another old person in the way of the younger society around her. It didn’t matter what politically correct rhetoric people sputtered, at her age she was just not of consequence anymore. No one listened to her. Not like when she was younger and so active in her daughter’s school, church activities and volunteering in the community at the polling booths or the library or wherever she was needed. She would offer her opinion and the people around her would listen to her and respond.
Now, if she happened to speak, they would listen and nod and then continue on with whatever they were talking about with someone else. She was dismissed just as surely as if they’d slapped her. The thing she felt most at this point in life was in the way. She’d wager that when that one group of people put their elderly out on the ice float that there were quite a few that went willingly.
Now here she sat, in the hallway at church with a ring of faces staring down at her. Something, who knew what, had caused her ankle to turn and she hadn’t been able to stop herself from falling down. She had no idea how she was going to get back up.
“Are you all right Harriet?” her friend Charlotte called to her.
A young man grabbed her elbow and began yanking on her as if one good tug and she’d leap back to her feet. Someone else retrieved her cane and handed it to her, and yet another person was asking if she were hurt. She wasn’t, but still she felt like crying.
“What’s going on here?” a deep, warm voice asked, and Pastor Krupner was there, a slow smile playing across his face. “Ah … Mrs. Byrnes. Hogging the spotlight are we?”
Harriet gave a mental eye roll. What a stupid question, she thought, as if she was enjoying this.
She felt a pair of strong arms reach around under her arms and she was effortlessly lifted to her feet, her cane returned to her.
Pastor Krupner smiled at her. “Everything okay now? Good,” he said without waiting for a reply, and taking one of the men by the elbow lead him off already deep in another conversation.
As the others retreated, Charlotte handed Harriet her purse.
“Are you alright, Harriet?”
Harriet sighed and closed her eyes.
“Yes,” she said.
Making sure the cane was firm in her grip she made her way slowly down the hallway.
And in her mind she stretched out her arms, threw back her head, and ran.