Talula, my seven-year-old visitor, meets the ghost of my husband in my kitchen. Her father lifts her onto the bar stool at the counter where I’ve spread out a festive buffet of beads. Lately, Talula has been creating bracelets and necklaces from plastic beads at Miss Wiseman’s after-school beading course on Mondays.
A little girl in love with beads.
Talula is shy. Her long dark hair escapes its barrette and falls across her face, hiding her expression, muffling her whisper. She keeps her focus on the boxes of colourful objects before her. Her eyes never meet mine. Beside her, her father is also engrossed in admiring this trove of millefiore glass beauties from Murano, brown and white dzi beads from Tibet, silver findings from Bali… treasures of a man long gone, also in love with beads. After an hour they prepare to leave, clutching their meticulously chosen gems. My late husband’s passion – his very soul – moves out the door with them. Talula waves goodbye.
Her father later sends me a message thanking me, saying that his daughter spoke excitedly to her classmates the following day about her new acquisitions. She has given one as a gift to Miss Wiseman. She knows these beads belonged to a man who has died.
Seventeen years after his death, the universe has sent me Talula. I cry.
The Sarasota Sag
Lately, a wizened little gremlin has been hanging around me. She never speaks, but she makes her opinions known by occasionally rolling her eyes or wrinkling up her nose in disgust. She patiently crouches by my feet, waiting until I have arranged my back before bending to lace up my shoes. She perches on my shoulder while I apply foundation to fill in the deepening crevices bleeding into my upper lip. At breakfast, she lolls on the kitchen table as I eat my whole-grain toast and lactose-free yogurt before downing my magnesium and calcium supplements. I’ve sometimes given her a good whack and sent her scurrying into some closet in my mind, where I immediately slam the door. And lock it. But recently she’s managed to escape, and I find her peering back at me in the mirror. She is a constant reminder of my decline. Really, she’s such a pest.
With my 71st birthday looming, I can no longer fend off the perception of myself as an aging matron, joining the ranks of slack-jawed, arthritic, tricep-flapping oldsters. It all came to a head on my recent snowbird getaway in Sarasota. Sitting by the pool in my Capri jeans and long-sleeved t-shirt, unable to find the psychic strength to don a bathing suit, the full realization of my encroaching decrepitude came blasting into my consciousness. The impact was reminiscent of the Florida tornado that roared its way between the two high-rises on the beach last year, and cut a swath of destruction right outside my door.
I’ve been told I come across as a particularly youthful septuagenarian. And truth be told, the seniors at the pool were not in their 70s. These oldsters were in their 80s and 90s, so I still had a buffer of 10 to 20 years ahead of me. And yet I could relate.
The first tip-offs were the varicosities. Men and women alike were doddering amidst a forest of bluish branches wending their way up their oddly bowed legs. Hey, I’ve got some of those!
I blame my older son for these painful obscenities. While alternately relaxing and rebelling within my belly 46 years ago, my feisty fetus was parked in the left half of my bicornuate uterus. Judging by his frantic rolls, punches and kicks, he was squished and already pissed off with the world. I’m truly sorry he felt that way. But after he was yanked out with mid-forceps, it was I who was left with vaginal varicosities the size of golf balls. Over time, these were cajoled with gentle inversion, soothing sitz baths and calming creams. They did recede, leaving delicate tentacles of lavender and grey rooted in one ankle and journeying to the east and west along my calf. Now, inadequate blood flow and a constant yanking sensation in my left leg must be endured forevermore.
Poolside, the women spoke to one another in voices registering soprano proportions. There was no need for everyone to hear about Claire’s daughter-in-law, still the bitch she always was. Did anyone really care to know about the details of Sharon’s bargaining skills at the Saturday flea market where she found the most adorable little enamel boxes, so useful for her pills? (Well, not the heart ones – they’re too big – but the cholesterol ones fit just fine.) Laughter resembled a startling cackle, not a low, warm resonant chortle. No, this was a definite clucking, a shrewish heh-heh, rather than an expansive ha-ha, which sounds so much younger.
Did I mention that I was sitting by the pool not taking the water, not only because I dared not be seen in a bathing suit, but also because I had lately been injured? I had needed an airport wheelchair, crutches or a cane to get to the beach, to negotiate the aisles at the grocery and to reach the bathroom at four a.m. My geriatric neighbours were also shuffling about with canes and walkers or hanging onto their equally unsteady companions. No wonder I could relate!
A few weeks ago, after walking for six days up and down New York streets, I incurred an injury brilliantly diagnosed in the most erudite of medical terms as “overuse.” In other words, I walked too much for a 70-year-old-who-should-have-known-better-than-to- cover-80-blocks-of-Manhattan-at-a-go. My throbbing leg and a painful burst Bakers cyst behind my knee thus prevented me from taking on exercise of any meaningful sort. My subsequent Sarasota holiday was a bust. Strolling the beach or walking to town was not an option. Biking, stationary or otherwise, was not possible. And swimming, if kicking, was ill advised. I had been rendered sedentary. Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies and Mars bars filled an emotional void I could barely see the bottom of, so I could expect not only a withered musculature but an inevitable weight gain as well.
The ladies around the pool had lost their waistlines. They had bulging tummies and back fat spilling over the tops of their swimsuits. They had puckered thighs that jiggled jelly-like when they tried to move from chaise lounge to shallow-end banister. Some of them had skin that seemed to shed a form of dandruff, leaving a little trail of cells behind them, so dry were they from years in the sun. But these bronze women still looked healthier than I, newly arrived from the cold Canadian north, and the pasty colour of clay. Because I would slather on 60-SPF sunblock, I would not return home with the appearance even hinting at the notion that I had just spent four weeks in the southern sunshine. No, I would remain as chalky as ever, too fearful of dying an agonizing death-by-melanoma.
But, what’s the difference, I ask you? If we die of this or of that? We’re all going to return to dust or ash, depending on what type of body disposal we’ve chosen. Does it matter if we look healthy and tanned in our coffins? Be realistic.
So, I’ve been thinking about how I will negotiate this next and, frankly, almost-final life phase. Glaring at the gremlin in the mirror, I contemplate whether there is some particular way I want to be, prior to my swan song. Flexible or stiff? Frivolous or grave? Frantic or at rest? And do I even get to choose?
All the pool octo- and nonagenarians were young once. I’m sure they were as stunned as I am to find themselves at the head of the train.
I give my gremlin one last look and decide that I might as well just get on with whatever living is left, and see if I can embrace it. And forget about what used to be.
’Cause it’s gone, baby, gone!