June 11, 2012
On Sunday, Celia came to lunch and told Alice that her arms felt numb. She could not pick up her fork. Alarmed, Alice called one of the aides to the table and within minutes more aides arrived. Off went Celia to the nurse’s station and then into an ambulance.
No one would tell Alice anything. When you’re in a place like The Place, you can’t ask about someone else’s health. As soon as the ambulance launches from the driveway, siren blaring, laws fall like steel bars around the patient. And who are you but the one she laughs with and confides in every day, two mealtimes a day, the person she has told the story of her life, its disappointments and losses, the one she phones when she sees that her clock says 7 but she’s not sure it’s 7 a.m. or 7 p.m. and her back aches too much to get up and open the blinds so will you please tell her if it’s morning or night, the one to whom she passes a note across the lunch table one recent day that says, “I do hate to be a crybaby but my legs hurt so bad,” and another that reads: “Do you ever feel like screaming?”
You are that friend, but calling the hospital and asking questions won’t work, and calling your friend in her hospital room, you decide, might only upset her.
So Alice returned to her room and Googled “numb arms,” calling me with reports on what the problem might be. Finally, she stopped. She was only making herself more worried.
But that very night when she got settled in at her table in the dining room, Alice saw Celia checking her mailbox and waited until she had wheeled herself into place before she asked, “Celia, how are you?” She didn’t mention there was no point in looking for mail on a Sunday.
“I’m a disaster,” Celia said with a small smile. “I think I’m at the point of no return.”
Celia thought that her health crisis had happened the previous day, but Alice explained it had occurred that very day at lunch time.
Without a pause, Celia began talking about a locket she’d gotten from her son long ago. Now it had vanished in all the “fuss and commotion.” Both of them became focused on the locket’s disappearance rather than on whatever had dismantled or discharged somewhere in Celia, causing numbness.
The Dapper Man came by and gave them both an orange from the fruit basket in the coffee shop. Celia put hers in the bag on her scooter. After the Dapper Man left, Celia looked down at her plate and then at Alice. “Is this lunch?”
Alice told her no, it was dinner.
They returned to the safe island of the missing locket. Where could it be? Could someone in the Emergency Room have taken it? Did it fall off in the ambulance? Why do things disappear?
This led them to things that went missing from their lives after they left their homes for The Place, not only furniture, dishes, and linens, but their husbands’ army medals, a glass candy dish inherited from a mother-in-law, a box of tiny silver spoons given to a first-born, love letters, the obituaries of friends and relatives carefully clipped from newspapers – where were these things now?
When they finished eating dinner, Celia said she was going to go to the coffee shop to get an orange. Alice didn’t mention the Dapper Man had given her an orange earlier, but when Celia announced she’d be checking for her mail on her way back to her apartment, Alice said, “It’s Sunday, Celia, and you didn’t get any mail.”
“We laughed a little about that,” Alice told me last night during our evening phone call.
She told me a few more things about her day and then came back to her main worry. “I wonder what’s wrong with my Celia.”
I asked if Celia had found out what caused her arms to go numb. Alice said she hadn’t asked and that probably Celia didn’t know.
At first I thought this was peculiar. A trip to the hospital, a release, the sense of an overwhelming health crisis (“I’m a disaster”), and no specific answer. As for Alice: all that Googling, all that worry, and still she had no insight into what had happened to her friend.
But then I realized their conversation about things vanishing was actually more to the point for both of them. The fact that things disappear is what must be faced, not the issue of how.
Among the first we learn is good-bye,
your tiny wrist between Dad’s forefinger
and thumb forced to wave bye-bye to Mom,
whose hand sails brightly behind a windshield.
Then it’s done to make us follow:
in a crowded mall, a woman waves, “Bye,
we’re leaving,” and her son stands firm
sobbing, until at last he runs after her,
among shoppers drifting like sharks
who must drag their great hulks
underwater, even in sleep, or drown.
Living, we cover vast territories;
imagine your life drawn on a map–
a scribble on the town where you grew up,
each bus trip traced between school
and home, or a clean line across the sea
to a place you flew once. Think of the time
and things we accumulate, all the while growing
more conscious of losing and leaving. Aging,
our bodies collect wrinkles and scars
for each place the world would not give
under our weight. Our thoughts get laced
with strange aches, sweet as the final chord
that hangs in a guitar’s blond torso.
Think how a particular ridge of hills
from a summer of your childhood grows
in significance, or one hour of light–
late afternoon, say, when thick sun flings
the shadow of Virginia creeper vines
across the wall of a tiny, white room
where a girl makes love for the first time.
Its leaves tremble like small hands
against the screen while she weeps
in the arms of her bewildered lover.
She’s too young to see that as we gather
losses, we may also grow in love;
as in passion, the body shudders
and clutches what it must release.
– by Julia Spicher Kasdorf
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