Thursday, November 21, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 21

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

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It took almost two full days to recuperate from Tuesday's little episode. I just sat in the chair or stretched out on the sofa in the den, unable to concentrate on much in the way of reading. Or listening. I didn't want to walk upstairs for fear of becoming light-headed, especially on the way down. Mostly my mind flowed in and out of memory: whenever it swung into the possibilities of the future, I used every braincell of my beleaguered being to turn it back to something else, preferably in the past that did not have to do with hospitals or death.

It was odd, the number of people who visited me – Mom and Dad, Madeleine, even Grandpa Hemon was there, and that could've been Uncle Junior in the corner's shadow, but I wasn't sure – all of them dead these many years but looking good, under the circumstances (better, I thought, than I felt). It was an odd dream, I told myself, my ship wasn't ready yet: they had come to collect me in vain.

After the first wave passed and the pain subsided, not long after the aspirin I had greedily swallowed as if it would save my life and the heating pad I strapped across my upper back felt like it had, I tried to gather up the bits of flotsam that could explain what happened.

"A panic attack," Dr. Aelius had told me the last time this happened three or four years ago. "It's not uncommon for someone of your age to experience something like this – that and a bit of back trouble."

Several years earlier, when I thought I was having a heart attack and was much too young to have one, I rushed myself into the hospital where they covered me in suction cups, then told me, "You're having back spasms – your upper back, under the shoulder blades." And then they peeled the suction cups off me and told me to go home.

So it happened again, I figured: if the heating pad took care of the back pain, the chest pain would go away. But it was scary all the same.

Why now, I wondered? Not that I wasn't under stress, perhaps, feeling old and useless, not being able to compose, dealing with a foreboding of loneliness and worrying why I still hadn't heard from Stephen since he'd last called.

But that wasn't unusual. He said he would be here for Thanksgiving – that was next week and there was so much to do. No, I thought, we'd just go out for dinner somewhere. The last thing I'm going to try to do is cook a turkey just for the two of us.

There was no point calling Dr. Aelius once I started feeling better – still tired, but not winded. I hadn't, I thought, exhausted myself though I clearly wasn't in shape enough to walk all the way to Mount Agamemnon (and up-hill to boot). But I hadn't counted on feeling so much pain from the back trouble: what had I done to bring that on so quickly?

Like any number of things that happen with age, it doesn't require a "thing" to bring it on. Simply bending over has been enough to aggravate my lower back in the past. Twisting or turning, hurrying to get dressed – that would be enough to bring it on, lately – a little bit.

In a few more weeks, I would (if I'm lucky) turn 65 – my Medicare instructions had already arrived – but it wasn't something I was particularly dreading. The worst thing was the idiocy going on in Washington, speaking of anxiety.

I was being naïve but then I had little understanding of politics and it was an embittering experience to realize the government we elect to protect us was intent on destroying our trust if not intent on destroying us outright.

Small wonder the country was full of conspiracy theorists: they've trained us to react that way. Sometimes, seeing what was happening in the world, could you even trust in God, anymore?

It was the same thing, eventually, at Selwyn-Morgan on its own scale. The in-fighting had gotten so intense it seemed everyone was out to stab everyone else in the back.

If you did nothing to protect yourself and fight back, you only made yourself even more vulnerable.

I thought it was a good thing, after Madeleine died – then, after I almost died – to leave there, making the move here. There were big adjustments to make, not just setting down in a new house in a new town but moving from a small city with access to New York and Philadelphia. The whole idea of "small-town life" was something I wasn't prepared for, the isolation in particular, out here.

Always enjoying what time and space I could find for myself, not being a very gregarious person (one of Stephen's old complaints), I found this idea of solitude a slightly deeper level than that momentary cocoon caught between appointments and daily encounters.

The coldest night of the season, so far, and the cave begins to envelope around me. I check on the food I had stocked up – most important, the cat food: yes, enough for 4 weeks.

This morning, I move slowly but feel otherwise fine – fine enough, I add, for someone just shy of 65: it's official – I'll be a senior citizen. No longer middle aged. How did this happen?

It's not the solitude that makes me sad: the idea of being isolated as opposed to being alone is different from feeling lonely. The problem with growing old is not the "old" part but the idea it's "growing," because isn't it really more a process of decay? We reach a point in our lives somewhere (do we ever really know when it happens?) that everything begins to disintegrate. As Dr. Aelius would say, "It's nothing serious, Mr. Proteus – you're just growing older."

Summer, we normally think, is the height of the year with all of its increased heat and longer days, but isn't it really the point where the decay has already begun? The first day of summer is the longest day of the year – after that, they start getting shorter. Before long, we're aware sunset is coming earlier and very soon, it is fall. Middle Age hasn't just started at a certain point – it's been in the background all along: we just didn't notice it while we were enjoying the green leaves of summer.

When we lived in Pembrick, I knew most of the neighbors (Madeleine knew more of them) and consciously or not we were all probably more aware of each others' comings and goings than we'd care to realize. It was not something I found very comforting, whether we were scrutinizing each other or not, this osmotic experience.

But here in Langley, there are neighbors I have not talked to in two or three years and some I probably haven't seen more than a few times since I moved into my grandfather's house. Walking past the Old Eckles House, it was tempting to stop and say hello, except I hardly knew Mrs. Goddeau beyond waving hello to her in passing. How many families had lived in that house since Homer Eckles died and his children sold the place? Two or three, at least. Whatever happened to Achilles, I wondered? I'd almost forgotten.

And when the place burned down five years ago – a horrible fire, so many memories lost – did anyone think of the previous memories that had been lost with it? No one, fortunately, was home when the fire'd started (except one of the cats who, maybe hiding under the bed, did not escape in time), but everything was lost.

They decided to rebuild, replacing the rich heritage of an ancient farmhouse they could not comprehend with a modern simplicity that lacked any character. Perhaps it would create some future memories for their children, they should be so lucky. Walking past, now, I recall the death of the house no one mourned beyond its inconvenience: the stuff inside, now, meant nothing to me.

In a month, winter will officially begin and yet the days will start to get longer, gradually. It may take a while before we'd notice but the progress of springtime will begin, soon.

"Death is not the end of our journey," someone told me once. "It opens a new door to start the next one." I often wondered about that.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser

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