MEMOIR: Chapter 40 Bethesda II

 Chapter 40

Bethesda II

The second day was like the first. We watched another movie, had lunch in the treatment room, walked back to the hotel, and agreed to meet for dinner later.

At dusk we walked slowly from the hotel through the park with the cherry trees, then back on Wisconsin Avenue.

“You holding up okay with all this medical hoohah?” Tim asked.

“Me? I’m not the one hooked up to the machinery! How are you holding up?”

“Way better than I thought I would. But I know it’s harder for those who can only watch and feel helpless.” He glanced at me. “I wouldn’t blame you if you checked out of this about now.”

He was right about the feeling of helplessness, the deep desire to take some kind of action that would make things better. But—nothing to do, nothing but watch. Vigilant.

“No, I’m in for the long haul,” I said. “Whatever it takes. Actually, the NIH stuff is pretty fascinating. It’s all so…intense. And I don’t want to miss the cherry blossoms.”

Tim paused in front of a Chinese restaurant with a Dim Sum banner in the window. “Is this the place?”

I looked at my note on the NIH guidebook, a recommendation from Lydia, the research assistant. “This is the place.”

Our table was littered with the remains of Dim Sum: little plates we had chosen from a cart the waiter wheeled to our table. Fried dumplings and steamed buns filled with barbecued pork, spareribs, Chinese greens, deep fried shrimp balls, and cucumbers with garlic sauce.

“Ever had Ginger Chicken?” Tim said.

I leaned back and let out a long, satisfied breath. “No, but I know where we can get some in Portland. Right now, I couldn’t eat another bite. Except maybe one of those little custard pies.”

We ordered another plate, two miniature custard pies.

I poured tea from the rotund little Chinese teapot, cut a custard pie in pieces and savored the first bite. “Mmm. This is good. Tastes like what Mom used to make. Remember when she used to bake pies?”

“Sure I do. Now I’m the only one in the family who bakes.”

“You mean in your family. I bake a pie once in awhile. But I’m envious that Irene married a guy who likes to cook, so she doesn’t have to.”

I took another bite. “Jack can cook, and often does, but he hasn’t baked a pie since our courting days. Which proves he can do it, but now he butters me up by saying my pies are the best in the world. Which usually produces a pie for him.”

Tim laughed. “I cook so I know what I’m eating! Maybe I’m obsessive, but I want to know everything that’s in my food.” He looked down at his plate. “This trip excluded. I’m probably better off not knowing.”

“So you’re the obsessive one? I thought it was Irene. I mean, your kitchen is the only one I’ve ever seen without a single junk drawer!”

Tim had a piece of pie on his fork. He put it down and leveled a dark gaze at me.

“What makes you think Irene’s obsessive? Haven’t you ever noticed my own little fetishes?”

I looked down at the table, my assumptions stopped cold. Come to think of it, if I wipe my hands on the kitchen towel and then use it to dry a cup, he throws the towel in the laundry. Probably rewashes the cup later. I’ve never considered that Irene might just be accommodating Tim’s needs.

“Who do you think doesn’t want a junk drawer in the kitchen?” he said.

My eyes slid up to Tim’s face. “You?”

“Hate junk drawers,” he said. “Remember the junk drawer at the farm? Dad and Mom both tossed crap in there, empty spools of thread, cow stomach magnets, needles and safety pins, half a dirty roll of gauze, dice that didn’t match, tongue depressors, pliers, duct tape…”

I picked it up from there. “…rubber bands, bag balm, screws, .22 cartridges, playing cards with one card missing, nails, twine, electrician’s tape …”

Tim took it back. “…a hunting knife with the point broken off, rubber jar rings, broken pencils, sandpaper, broken sticks of incense…”

“Okay, okay,” I said, throwing up my hands, “I remember, it was awful. So you have a thing about junk drawers.”

“And dirt,” he said. “Don’t you remember? How hard it was to keep stuff clean in that house?”

I remembered. We tracked in dust and mud, and the oil heat layered a greasy black film on the walls. Mom and Jen and I scrubbed until the paint came off the walls, scrubbed the linoleum floors down to the black tarpaper underneath the pattern, never got the black marks off the baseboards, didn’t have a vacuum cleaner, not until that gray Electrolux canister vacuum cleaner the year Wes left for college.

“Yeah, I remember,” I said. “An old farmhouse with all that dirt coming in every day, it was impossible. Sounds like you got traumatized.”

“No, I wouldn’t call it that,” Tim said. “Imprinted, maybe. I like things clean.”

He finally tried his pie. “Good. You’re right. Just like Mom used to make..”

He turned his teacup around and around in his hands.

“I was thinking about how Mom made herself a whole new life when she was older than I am now. Wondering where she got the courage to do that.”

“She needed a whole new life,” I said. “She and Dad had so little in common, and she was way beyond being a farm wife and small town PTA member.”

“You know, she suffered as much as he did when she left him, but she kept quiet about it,” I said. “Just wrote her feelings in her journal, which she let me read. But she had never had a chance at the life she dreamed about, until she left Dad. College at age 55, graduated, got a real  job with benefits, then set off on her spiritual path. I think she would say, now, that she did the right thing, even though it caused a lot of pain and her kids didn’t understand or accept it. She accepted the sacrifices, to have a chance at a life of her own.”

“Some of us didn’t cut her off or blame her.”

“That was what kept her from being sunk in depression.”

“I guess lately, just thinking about my own life, I’ve had a better handle on Dad, how it seemed like he understood when Mom left. He was angry, but if she’d come back before he died, he’d have been glad to see her.”

“Thinking about your own life…?” I prompted.

He wiggled himself into a more comfortable position and stretched his legs out straight under the table.

“It’s this way,” he said. “You get older, shit happens, you do things you’re not proud of, things happen you don’t want to remember, and you end up when you’re old and that was your life and that’s all it’s ever gonna be.”

“You’re not old, Tim,” I said. “Forty-eight isn’t old, for God’s sake.”

“Feels old, though,” he said. “Feels like getting on toward the end of things. Tired. That’s when you maybe realize that things aren’t perfect, never were, you did what you did, made mistakes, compromised, gave in, gave up, overlooked stuff, let things happen…”

He trailed off, coughed awhile, cleared his throat, wiped his eyes on his sleeve.

“…and what you have is all you’ll ever have, all you were ever going to have, and it’s not so bad. It starts to feel like enough. It has to feel like enough, because it’s all there will ever be. You just learn to live with it, learn to love it, even.”

Tim drank down his tea and poured himself some more. “It’s taken me a long time to reconcile what I thought I wanted with the life I’ve ended up leading,” he said.

Reconciliation. Maybe we all have that to do, at some point. Tim was just getting to it sooner than the rest of us. Maybe nobody ever gets the life they thought they wanted. But they get the life that brings them…something else…contentment, maybe. Tim had big ambitions as a young man, but married too young, was a father too young, and ended up divorced, living in his Honda Civic for a year, showering in the locker room in the middle school where he taught music and band, to pay off debts and child support. He had planned to paint a Mexican sunset on the side of the car and get some psychedelic fabric to recover the seats. And he had bigger plans, once he was financially stable again, climbing in the Alps, hiking the whole Coast Range, getting his own place on a mountain somewhere, with a shed to build his boats. But before he could do that, he met Irene. British, enthusiastic hiker, teacher, climber, boater—perfect for Tim. Who cared if she could cook?

“So you’ve done that? Reconciled with the life you have? Seems like you have everything you dreamed about, the mountain log cabin, the boat shed…”

“Yeah,” he said. “Reconciled. It’s a good life. Irene, the girls, Tim Jr., my teaching, my music, my friends, the National Guard Band, the boats, hiking, climbing…” His voice trailed off, his eyes drifted toward the window. “It’s the life I wanted, but I didn’t recognize right away that I already had it.”

I’d seen his tenderness with Irene, his gentle patience with his children, the way he teased and horsed around with all of them. His pride in his grown son.

“So…it’s a good life,” I said.

He grinned. “Better than good.”

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1 Comment

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One response to “MEMOIR: Chapter 40 Bethesda II

  1. Linda

    Beautiful writing and very moving. Amazing family.

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