Posts Tagged 'health'

Coffee with Norm

I hadn’t seen Norm in almost two years. And then on Wednesday I bumped into him in the dairy aisle at Vons.

I had to look twice to be sure it was him. Older and grayer, he carried himself with a bit of a stoop and a little shuffle in his gait. Always kind-hearted and sensitive, his somewhat older persona fit his indelible character.

We had once been very active in the Ojai photography milieu but both of us had mostly abandoned that activity for reasons that could not be clearly enunciated by either of us. Norm had a creative streak that produced some clever and cutting-edge photos. He was one of the first to create photos without the benefit of a camera. This novel idea led to a discussion some ten years ago about whether his artwork was truly a “photo” that met the requirements for submission to the annual Ojai Art Center photo contest. It did, and it won.

Norm was kind enough to send me an email the day after our Von’s tryst that told me how much he enjoyed our brief conversation surrounded by the milk, butter and sour cream. I wrote back and, with some hesitancy, asked him if he’d like to have a cup of coffee. I knew that the death of his wife, Phyllis, nearly three years ago coincided with his withdrawal from the art scene and I wondered if he might not respond to my invitation. But he did, quickly, and we settled on Java and Joe at nine o’clock two days later.

I was already sipping my usual dark roast coffee with Splenda and cream when Norm arrived, right on time. No surprise, since he was always punctual. A lot like me, Norm did not crave the center of attention and tended to cede the podium to those more verbose than he. I hoped we’d have enough to talk about before my coffee cup was empty.

I felt a bit awkward when I told him of my engagement to Jackie. Due to what seemed a reclusive demeanor, I had assumed that Norm had not fully recovered from the death of his wife, dear Phyllis. Also talented, she had been both a prolific artist and an art teacher. Conducting classes at the Art Center, she had a large following. Her illness had gradually robbed Phyllis of her ability to continue in her usual mode. So, she moved the classes to their home. Then, as she became frailer, she employed the computer and on-line instruction. Norm told me about the last year of her life when they would combine trips to Santa Barbara hospitals and doctors with lunch at favorite restaurants, walks on the beach and much conversation. It was a happy second honeymoon for them even though the outcome was ordained.

I need not have worried about Norm’s anticipated discomfort as I talked about “my Jackie.” For he had some time ago taken up with a woman in Camarillo. Introducing her to his family led to serious consideration of their relationship. However, it was not to be and their togetherness ended short of any more formal binding. Currently happy, it was like he had attended my bereavement group when he spoke of feeling guilty while enjoying himself when Phyllis could not.

We had a bit of an organ recital and lamented on those parts of our body that did not respond as quickly as they did years ago. About five years older than me, Norm had some physical setbacks but is able to work in his garden and be entertained by his children who show up regularly to check on him. He commented on my activities with “You seem to have a full schedule.” Funny, since I often don’t feel that way. Maybe it’s my lifelong need, sometimes a curse, to stay busy.

I looked up from our conversation and saw Jackie bounce into the coffee shop. Her appearance, complete with a certain impish demeanor, immediately brightened my day. Introducing her to Norm added to my enjoyment. Her hand lovingly rubbing my shoulder completed the unexpected treat. Jackie shared some words with Norm and, knowing the right time to depart, did so with an infectious smile. When she was gone, Norm looked at me and said, “She’s just like you described her, only more so.”

We spoke of photography and the increasing difficulty of aging muscles to bear the weight of the usual assortment of professional level camera equipment. Smart phones and their increasing ability to emulate the photos taken with traditional cameras occupied the next few minutes. Norm’s visits to hospitals and doctors with Phyllis had generated an interest in watching others as they sat in waiting rooms. Using his smart phone, he shared with me some of the photos he had taken of these kindred spirits. I remarked on both the unique concept and his ability to capture the moment that showed their pain, boredom or exhilaration. I was both enthralled and jealous of his art. But probably not enough to ignite my own juices.

Norm reminisced about the time we had once spent every June, hanging selected photos on the Art Center walls in anticipation of the annual show. He and I sometimes were a team, measuring, nailing, hanging and leveling the submissions. In the midst of our thoughts he said “I remember you and Ila sitting on the couch during a break. You held hands and sang together. The sight was something so warm that I wished we could have hung it on the wall. You seemed so happy.” I couldn’t remember the occasion, but he was so pumped about it that I didn’t want to break the spell. “Yes, we did that a lot.”, I said.

Like a lot of things that grow fuzzy with age, we tend to alter their true story in ways that satisfy a need, improve its reception by the listener, or we simply forget. Some stories are told so many times that they become real. I sometimes start them with the preface “I’ve told this story so many times that I’m not sure what’s real and what’s made up.” But it doesn’t matter, so long as I can tell it.

Time passed and the extended silence between our sentences signaled the end of our conversation. I asked Norm to call me if he wanted to do this again. Wondering if we would, we deposited our coffee cups in the trash and walked to our cars. At our age, tomorrow is a lifetime.

I stopped for some borscht

My sweet neighbor, Sue, called me a couple of days ago to tell me that she had just made some beet borscht from local, organically grown beets. Sue does stuff like that and is always sure to call me with an invitation to partake in her latest culinary masterpiece. Borscht is just the half of it. Her other delights include warm, fatty chicken soup, designed to nourish the soul as well as the body.

“Come on by anytime for the borscht” she said. I finished driving the Help of Ojai bus around noon that Friday and, remembering her offer, decided to stop by Sue’s on my way home. I sent her a text message that announced by imminent arrival.

It was warm and sunny when I got to Sue’s. I knocked on the door twice but got no response. It was unlocked. I looked through the glass in the door and noticed a beckoning pint bottle of borscht sitting on the kitchen counter. I opened the door a crack. “Hi Sue, it’s Fred, come by for the borscht.” All quiet. Thinking that Sue had left it for me, I stepped in, snatched up the deep red bottle of cold elixir and drove home. Visions of a dollop of sour cream floating on top of the borscht flew through my mind.

I carried the bottle into my house. The phone rang before I could set it down. “Hello Fred. Did you take the borscht?” I told Sue that I still had it in my hand. Then she said that she had been home, but had been tending to Ralph, her husband. He had fainted and fallen. Now in bed, Ralph couldn’t remember how he got there. Fearful of what might have caused the episode, it prompted a trip to the emergency room. The usual tests, accompanied by the emotional tension of waiting for the results, revealed nothing that rest and chicken soup couldn’t make right.

Ralph is two months older than me. That fact is not lost on me as I consider that there, but for the grace of god, go I. And I’m already well beyond my biblical four score and ten. My friends are aging and experiencing problems similar to the one suffered by Ralph. Although I can logically understand the arrival of these maladies, it’s a shock when it happens.

Minor events, an ache, a pain, a spot on my skin that appears overnight, a stomach that behaves oddly, all give rise to concerns that are overblown and, yet, disturbing. The plethora of TV ads including pills, elixirs, catheters and other medical equipment including walkers, scooters and escalators that ferry one up the staircase were, at one time, of no interest to me. Now I pay a bit more attention, glad that I have no steps in my home.

This flies in the face of how I feel. My endurance has increased as evidenced by schlepping up and down Ojai’s Shelf Road trail. My strength has increased as demonstrated by my newly acquired Charles Atlas biceps. I can, if I wasn’t such a scaredy cat, qualify for the light welterweight boxing division. I have no debilitating chronic illness. And, not to brag, my sexual prowess is legendary…sort of.

A number of years ago while driving the Help of Ojai bus, I delivered a wheelchair passenger to the hospital. As I was putting up the chair lift, a local physician stopped to chat. He commended me for volunteering for this work. And then he reminded me that we all walk down the same path. His admonition has remained with me as a reminder that time is fickle and limited.

I know that today’s good health can become tomorrow’s burden. That my ability to tie my shoes can be delegated to another. That my trips up the Shelf Road trail can be traded in for a scooter trip to Rainbow Bridge. That the Help of Ojai bus may come for me.

And that’s why I have little sympathy for those who wonder why I’m in a rush. Why tomorrow isn’t good enough. Why procrastination is my enemy. Why what I shoulda done is not in my vocabulary. But sometimes I forget and look back on a week that flashed by much too quickly. A week that had no defining moment. And then I’m reminded of Ed Scanlon.

Years ago, when Ed was a passenger on my bus, I had decided to take photos of my clients. One Friday I pulled up at St. Joes where Ed was living. When I asked Ed’s permission to take his picture, he readily agreed and asked me for a copy. I asked about the purpose of the copy and he said it was for his obituary. Strange request, I thought. I took his photo. It sat in my camera for several weeks. I’ll print it for Ed tomorrow, I thought.

One Saturday morning I turned to page two of the Ojai Valley News. The page where they display the obituaries. And there was Ed. His photo was unceremoniously clipped from a group shot and was so awful that, at first, I couldn’t believe it was Ed. But it was. If only I had promptly done what he had asked, Ed would have looked dashing instead of like yesterday’s toast.

I have no more time to procrastinate or worry about when my health will begin to falter. I know it will and I will deal with it then. But now I’ll eat my borscht with a dollop of sour cream. I won’t let it spoil, like some dream.


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