By Karen Brode
The old woman sat silently listening to the quiet sounds of the ticking clock and occasionally reaching down to pet the cat that rubbed against her legs as he paced back and forth in the room. Her eyes were dim and her hair was pinned up and back away from her face, but there were some straggling hairs that fell limply against her neck.
Her housedress was old and faded, and even the rocking chair she was sitting in was warped and didn’t rock properly. It didn’t matter much to her.
The room was filled with memories. A table in the corner was covered with photographs of people she used to know but now sometimes when she looked at them, she couldn’t remember their names. It surprised her that many of the things she had thought would seem important to her weren’t important at all.
There was someone who had been very important to her, but she had never told him and now the situation had begun to haunt her. Her life had been an artificial life. She had lived someone else’s life while her real life passed her by.
She found herself thinking of him at odd moments. When she took her teeth out at night, she would look at herself in the mirror and laughingly ask, “Wouldn’t he think I’m a pretty sight now?” She would try to imagine what it might have been like if they could have been together and grown old with each other. Would her heart still beat a little faster at the sight of him? Would she still try to dress up a little and look her best instead of wearing these old rags? And then she would look back at herself in the mirror and see tears coursing down her wrinkled cheeks for a man who had been dead eight years now – a man who had never known that she loved and adored him.
She had attended his funeral. She had been careful even then to cry her saddest tears alone. She had gone back to the cemetery after everyone had gone away and planted a red rose bush near his head -just as a wife might’ve done for a beloved husband.
She cried bitter tears of sadness and anger as she sat in the pavilion provided for weary visitors at the cemetery. For so many years she had hoped that something might happen that would bring them together, but a lifetime had gone by without that happening. She had wanted to tell him many times, but too many things stood in her way. Even now, she wanted to tell him, but instead she picked up her cane and her purse and slowly walked out of the cemetery.
She remembered how his smile had made her feel alive and wonderful and happy. When she first met him she felt better almost at once just knowing he was in the world with her. But her feelings sat inside her heart day after day, year after year moldering away. When she had been younger, she had cried many times in desperation that she would never have what she wanted, and life had gone on and she had gone on with it.
She didn’t worry too much about the dwindling bank account or the ache in her back. A lot of times, her thoughts wandered to years ago. It all still seemed crystal clear like it had happened yesterday. She could remember the way he had looked at her or a wink or a smile or a conversation word for word. She had hoped that in time, she would forget him, but the memory of him had turned golden and precious to her.
Just last night she had dreamed of him. When she woke, she was startled to realize that she was 84 years old and no longer the young woman he had known. The neighbor boy was coming to shovel snow from her walkway. She winced and reached for her arthritis medicine. She put one foot on the floor and saw that it was swollen. The skin on her legs looked like sagging hose. She sat on the edge of her bed for a minute looking at her hands folded in her lap. They looked like two pieces of over-fried chicken because they were so brown and gnarled and wrinkled. She couldn’t remember when she had begun to look so terribly old. She wondered what he might look like by now if he had lived. He might be wheelchair bound by now. His legs had been bad the last time she saw him, but it hadn’t mattered. She would’ve gladly pushed his wheel-chair or kept blankets wrapped tightly around him when he was asleep. She wouldn’t have minded feeding him. She loved him! Everyone else in her life had been a bit of an imposition but he would never have been.
She would sometimes tell herself she wasn’t being fair. She had never wall-papered a room with him or argued with him about money. He was a dream and never a reality and surely it was impossible to compare the two. But even so, she still knew deep in her heart that he was the man she should’ve been with as surely as she knew that she was getting old and would die soon.
When she had been young, death had seemed ominous and threatening and it had scared her to think of leaving behind all that she knew. But as the years passed, death had begun to seem more like a friend or a dark lover. It fascinated her to think that he had already passed through the portals of death. Sometimes when she thought of him, he didn’t seem so far away. Perhaps he now knew and understood all the things she had never been able to tell him.
That night as she got ready for bed, she looked out at the lawn and noticed the shovel lying in a drift of snow. There was a full moon and she sat on the couch in the dark and noticed how lovely the moonlight was streaming through the windows. The snow that lay on the ground reflected the moonlight and the calm dim light inside her house was ethereal and soothing. She didn’t think she had ever seen such a beautiful night. Soon she found that she was too sleepy to get up and go to bed, and she fell asleep on the couch.
The next morning when the neighbors came, they found her on the couch and it seemed as if she had simply fallen asleep. The woman from next door said that she hardly ever left the house, and she had been a good neighbor. She had made pies for bereaved families when she had been younger. The people who had gathered assured themselves that she had had a good life and it was okay for her to die now.
Clutched in her hand they found a bright red rose in full bloom and that startled them a little. Where could she have gotten such a beautiful summer rose like that in February?
Karen Brode grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.