November 25, 2009
Nanowrimo: Day 25 but really more like Day 15 for me
"But, my love, we've always known when we said good bye that it might be the last time we would see one another," Pat said in the sweet voice she uses when she is showing how much she cares. She has other voices, of course. Exasperated, cross, intellectual ... but this time she was using the voice that meshes sweet sound reason with love.
However; we both knew that this parting was different. This time we were both almost 70 years old. A transatlantic trip is physically taxing and costs almost $1000. Pat has cancer... and I am 69. Who knows what is ticking away inside me waiting to spring out of the shadows one day to drag me back in with it?
This time I said goodbye knowing that it was quite probably really the last time I would hear all of those voices I have heard for over fifty years. It was likely the last time I could touch her hand, kiss her cheek, make her carrot soup ... tell her with my hands, my actions and my body that I loved her so very much. I will hear the voices again many times, I am sure, but they will be disembodied voices over a transatlantic cable, unaccompanied by the flesh and blood warmth of breathing in her scent or exploding into spontaneous laughter or a hug.
I wished that our last day together had been better spent. Pat sat alone in that damned bed without her music, listening to the blare of the telly, waiting for a surgical procedure that never happened. She was hungry and fed up and in pain because they had stopped all food and drink at midnight the previous night. She used the cross and exasperated voices more than once during the day, and then, as Pat always did, followed up the scolding with the sweetly reasonable one as she commiserated with a nurse who had to work in such a disorganized hospital whose communication systems were in such disrepair.
Claire and I could have spent the day with Pat instead of walking to the Boots Drugstore on the Holloway Road so that Claire could purchase #7 nail polish for her daughter. On our way home we stopped at the Marks and Spencer store to buy underwear, also a command performance. Claire's daughter had ordered her to purchase decent underwear for herself; hers had holey crotches. That is holey, not holy. Claire is certainly no Virgin Mary. I bought some too ... Marks and Spencer is the best place in the world to buy inexpensive underwear. I also picked up a housecoat ... bright red, sensible and cozy ... looks like boiled wool but is softer. I knew I would likely never have another chance to purchase such an intrinsically British housecoat. Then we picked up groceries. We spent our day putting in time until Pat was out of surgery and awake when we could have helped the interminable hours pass more quickly.
I felt as if I were saying good bye to London for the last time this trip. I'd been coming here since 1977 and in many ways know this city better than most Canadian cities ... at least as long as I stay in Pat's Islington neighbourhood or make my subterranean way around the less familiar parts, popping up to explore for awhile, always knowing that that when I find the red and blue London Underground sign I can descend into the familiar rabbit warren of rail lines with their comforting names and colours and find my way back to Archway station and Pat.
Things don't change in London the way they do in Ottawa. I know that I can always find fish and chips at the little shop near the station, that the bus and tube tickets are invariably available at the little grocer's, and that the pet food store where I bought dog biscuits three years ago will still be on the same corner, and that its less popular items will be there, just a little dustier.
And I guess I always thought of Pat as being like her city ... she'd always be there waiting for my visits, just a little creakier, a little more tired, a little dustier ... like me ... but essentially still the same old Pat I'd known most of my life.
Oh I don't mean that she'd have sat there like a bag of vegetarian dog biscuits for three years waiting for me to arrive. No, that was the wonderful thing. She'd have been busily living her life between visits, just as I had, and we'd have been in touch often enough to have been kept abreast of all the important happenings in each other's worlds. We'd both have grown a little older (and perhaps gentler if not wiser) in the interim, but we'd meet, and the laughter and conversation would flow as if we'd just seen one another the day before. We seldom wept together, but we discussed everything, and we giggled a great deal.
I can't imagine a world in which Pat is no longer there for me in Islington.
"I don't want to be the last man standing." Claire had said when we met in Pat's kitchen that morning. She did not look very different from the last time I had seen her. Of course she looked different. She was fifty years older. And likely as many pounds heavier. And she'd had a stroke. But I was amazed by how little she had changed. She was still vibrant and funny and sure of herself. And still six feet tall. But it was her eyes that fascinated me. I could have been looking into the eyes of the girl I had known in my teens.
Claire and I go back as far as Pat and I do, and we share many of the same beliefs that Pat and I have in common, but our relationship has been intermittent (and considerably rockier); not steady like the one I share with Pat. Pat and Claire's friendship has had the same kind of constancy as Pat's and mine. I suspect that Pat is the one who makes it happen. She is a good friend.
It became abundantly clear during this visit that Pat is surrounded and coccooned by the friendships she has nurtured all her life. If Pat does not come through this encounter with the shadowy creature, I will be very alone but I will not be alone in my grief.
The meeting with Claire was not as predictable as the one with Pat. In fact I had no idea what to expect. I thought she might have been diminished by her stroke eleven years ago, but she wasn't. She still had strong opinions but they had been a little softened around the edges. The United Church had replaced dialectical Marxism, and mother love now supercedes all the isms. Nolan commented on Claire's strange inconsistencies and contradictions. I suspect we are all of us strangely contradictory creatures, even when we think we are fairly straightforward.
I thought of my grandfather. He was a man whose happy go lucky reputation was dominated by thoughtlessness and inconstancy ... the profligate who used women ... the Don Juan whose sole mission in life was self absorbed and hedonistic. And then I learned about a man who was himself used by my grandmother as a rung on a ladder to security. A man who helped women in need. A man respected by Eva.
And who was Eva? Was she the saint she seemed to be? The faithful wife, the tireless fund raiser and selfless nurturer of fallen women? The Anglican Mother Teresa? Or was she like Pat, a woman with an ascerbic wit and a short fuse? Or like Claire with her strong views that brook no opposition? Did Eva pat herself on the back or did she work her miracles silently and invisibly? One thing is sure, she, like all the rest of us, was undoubtedly fully human, with faults as well as virtues. The only really unoffensive people are those insipid creatures without any convictions. And, since I cannot abide them, I find them truly offensive.