Sunday, July 7, 2013
In our relentless pursuit of an uncertain tomorrow we often trample the blessing of today
Frank listened in horror as the closing bell sounded and the Dow tumbled six-hundred fifty seven points. In four days a shade over twelve-hundred points completely vanished from the marketplace. His stomach was in knots and the overpowering urge to vomit would not pass quickly. In moments Frank sailed well beyond the point of finding comfort in what he called ‘advisor speak’. Larry Saunders had been wrong in prematurely predicting the market’s bottom, but in all fairness, so had many others. “You have to ride this thing out, give it some time,” he would say; pretty sage advice for a thirty year old executive sitting on a fat 401K or hopeful parents saving for a toddler’s college fund. But for a senior who scraped a lifetime in anticipation of a few good years the loss felt like a hatchet buried in his skull.
In the case of Frank and Margaret Wilhelm, time was the enemy. A nasty visitor arrived uninvited, swooping in and gobbling up everything good in their lives. The doctors were hopeful, but so far it crushed every defense mounted against it. In the back of Frank’s mind he knew there would be no negotiations, and little delay. This kind of marauder only departed when he had taken what he came for.
Frank tapped his foot against the floor as he waited for the teller’s return to the window. Such a transaction required a witness and it came in the form of a short, rotund man in a white suit. The fluorescent lighting did little to prevent the glare of his polished scalp as he waddled to the counter. An obligatory handshake was as ineffective as his explanation of bank policies. In an effort to make his position crystal clear, Frank grasped the knot of the little man’s tie and drew him close.
“Look, Boss Hog! I’ve just about reached my limit of cartoon-like characters in my life. I’m willing to forego the thanks you owe me for profiting from the use of my money. As your pathetic little sign with tiny print indicates, I am one of your valued customers. As such I would appreciate your prompt cooperation in retrieving my funds!”
With eyes the size of flapjacks the man muttered under his breath about regulatory safeguards and pre-notification concerning large transactions. Nonetheless he retrieved a pen and added his signature to the paperwork. The bank officer flinched as Frank reached across the counter again, but this time in an effort to smooth the wrinkles he created.
“I apologize for the rash behavior. If Mrs. Hog would be so kind as to forward the cleaning bill I’ll gladly compensate you for it.”
Frank shared equal glances between the busy road and the receipt he gripped in his hand. It took everything he had to keep from fainting dead away to see an account balance of all 0’s. Within arm’s reach lay the results of fifty years of obsessive behavior. Every extra penny squirreled away, but he had to ask himself—precisely for what? For a half-century he’d break into a cold sweat when considering tapping the funds while precious needs went unmet.
Margaret’s eyes were closed as she rested peacefully upon the couch. Her cheek-bones were high and prominent again; her entire frame thinner than when they married. Frank used his index finger to gently trace the veins in her hand. They were still full of life but different now. A lonely tear crossed the threshold and rolled down his cheek as he thought back to careless comments about her weight. He frowned at the foolishness of youth—believing that their time together would be endless. Now he often woke in the middle of the night just to hold her in his arms or watch the rise and fall of her chest. For decades the grandfather clock sitting in the corner of their bedroom did nothing but annoy him, but now every tick meant something. Each swing of the pendulum ushered another memory. Both sweet and bitter were welcome, for that’s what life was. Frank placed the box next to her side and quietly slipped from the room.
These were post chemo days where Margaret showed no interest in food. Even the smell of such things caused violent reactions. The upheavals were of epic proportion and of durations that were painful to listen to. During these times Frank subsisted on takeout eaten in the car, or a cold sandwich that created minimal odor.
Throughout this ugly slice of life he tried to remain neutral and supportive in the very personal choice of treatment. Frank determined that had it been him diagnosed he would have allowed nature to take its course, but perhaps that was the cowardice rising to the surface—the easy way out. Margaret had always been the stronger of them. She talked about the four seasons and wanting to experience each phase of life in its entirety. He recalled her words with admiration. ‘Without raw, excruciating pain how will one discover the value of inner-strength? If not for dark thunderheads that spawn tumultuous seas, how will we have a deeper appreciation for the sun that overlooks placid waters and provides warmth to the very core of our souls?’ Frank didn’t need to understand completely to know Margaret’s words and thoughts had always been more profound than his.
“What’s the special occasion?” Margaret asked curiously as she smiled from the doorway.
“An extremely belated gift, my dear. Open it up.”
The wrapping fell to the floor in shreds. Flipping open the velvet case the gleam in her eye told him she still recognized them. Margaret had long ago given up on the pair of marquee cut diamond earrings. She swallowed hard against the obstruction forming in her throat.
“But, you always said they were too expens…….”
Frank wrapped his arms around her and pressed his finger to her lips.
“You’d do well to forget everything I’ve said in the past, Margaret. You married a damn fool! Far too long I’ve been a dark cloud in your life. I want to be a ray of sunshine.”
Each day for the next two weeks Frank showered his wife with a different gift, many of which she had forgotten she ever desired. Yet the final package was something that waited a lifetime. Even as a young girl she allowed dreams of such fantastic places to fill her head.
Margaret made peace with the idea of expiring somewhere in a distant land—as much as one can wrap their minds around expiring at all. What did it matter, really? She would wake one day and continue her journey, walking down another dusty road, only this time there would be no fretting over choosing a direction; the road would just run out. She found a measure of peace and comfort in that. Margret booked the flight. She supposed a great many people spent their final days in a hospital bed only reading about exciting places. It seemed to her a very hollow and empty proposition. That if she did such an unthinkable thing a part of her soul would be restless for all eternity.
She mentally prepared herself for the rigors of travel and still portions of the fourteen hour plane ride were brutal and unforgiving, but Margaret reminded herself she had been uncomfortable in her own home. More than once she caught herself grimacing from the pain, but Margaret made a conscious decision to deal with each setback by remembering that if you boiled life down to its simplest form every moment revolved around perspective. As they walked from site to breathtaking site she needed to make frequent stops to rest. Most times they were able to locate a park bench or a step, and the few times they couldn’t Frank suggested leaning against him long enough to catch her breath, and wasn’t that the way marriage was supposed to be.
Quaint, street-side café’s were as plentiful as gas stations in America. Had time allowed she would have sat a moment at each of them. She didn’t recall the name specifically, but one marvelous evening stood out from the others. In mid-sentence she suddenly forgot how to speak, everything became awkward and new as she stared at Frank across a candlelit table and saw that twinkle in his eye. Like so many others, over the years theirs had become a comfortable love, but encapsulated in that very moment there was no mistaking the spark when he reached for hand and the uneasiness in her stomach when she felt his touch. She was falling for him all over again.
The soothing musing from a violin melted away the cares of the world. Fine Italian wine felt like velvet to her tongue and a simple crescent moon held a particular fascination when viewed from beneath the Eiffel Tower. In an attempt to appreciate Michael Angelo’s original perspective they laid flat on their backs against a cold marble floor and marveled at the dome of the Sistine chapel. They laughed with the abandon of young children, and wasn’t that how marriage was supposed to be.
Memories of Vienna, above all other, would remain eternal. As they floated further down the canal, a dark blanket of night gave over its will to lunar expression. The cosmos unfolded before them—where shattered fragments of brilliance disguised as stars, danced in delight around their master, for it was he that breathed them into existence. The harmony of the heavens was undeniable as the vessel fell under its command and the world spinning around them took on a vague hue of insignificance.
As if the third act of a play had been announced earlier, Frank sensed the curtain sweeping closed. He cupped his wife’s hand in his, and with renewed conviction repeated the forty-three year old wedding vow. Margaret never heard the wavering of his voice, because she had decided years earlier it was perfect. More than anything she felt his heart speaking directly to hers, inscribing a message of love that time could not erase. In a non-descript gondola with the moon shimmering softly against their silhouettes, they shared one final passionate kiss. The sweetness of which would linger on her lips forever.