Oyster Boy Review 07  
  September 1997
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» Levee 67


Toward the End

John Gardiner

The heart attack overwhelmed him. It devastated him. It stripped him naked and left him totally alone. As he laid on the stretcher in the ambulance, there was panic and terror. At first, when he awoke in the night, he didn't know what was happening to him. The sweat, the shortness of breath, the vice-like tightening in his chest. The pain and the panic. He tried to calm himself, having known panic before, but could not manage it, and the terror had come. He grasped for his wife. Save me, he tried to call. But the words would not come, and he clasped his hands to his heart. Save me! he cried.

It was a minor heart attack as heart attacks go, but it scared him badly. So that he threw out the package of stale cigarettes he found on the coffee table when he got home from the hospital. That had been an amazingly stupid habit, he told himself. He ate boneless, skinless chicken breasts, even thought of becoming a vegetarian, and started walking briskly two or three times a day. His wife was amazed at the change in him. He guessed he was glad to be alive for that first little while. That had been a hard lesson. Hard indeed, even by the standards of this life.

And he seemed to see things more clearly after his brush with death, like the world had suddenly come up from a grey monotone to a sharp Technicolor, and he wasn't sure if it was his encounter with the grim reaper, or just quitting smoking, that caused the change. He watched carefully all that surrounded him in life. And he found himself considering carefully the things that had happened in his life. But there was one thing that he considered more than the others.

He went back to work after a couple of weeks of being home from the hospital. The doctor said it would be good for him to get back into a normal routine again as quickly as possible. He had always enjoyed his job as an accountant for a plumbing fixtures company. Ever since he'd been a kid, he'd liked working with numbers, adding this and subtracting that, and his mother had proudly told her friends that her son was going to be an accountant when he grew up. And he had not disappointed, going straight through school, always leading his class in math, venturing off to university to pursue his chosen career, and settling into a job right after—and he'd held that same job for all the years since.

But things were different since the attack. He'd lost his zeal for adding and subtracting, and would find himself sitting and gazing out his office window, watching the kids in the nearby park. And as he watched them, he felt a sense of melancholy. He remembered when he'd taken his own kids to the park, when they'd been young, and he wished he could again teach his son to play catch, or his daughter to skate. They were grown now, and out seeking their own way in the world. He'd not seen the boy for some years—not since they'd had words over the son's teenage life-style—the length of his hair, his choice of friends, including a girlfriend the father had no use for, his seeming lack of respect for nearly all things, and a host of other things. Or so it had seemed at the time. His wife still kept in touch with the boy, but he hadn't even bothered to come home after his father had suffered the heart attack.

The daughter came and visited him and his wife, but she was distant from him, preferring to spend time with her mother in the kitchen. He'd battled the girl as well, over her hair color, the amount of makeup she chose to wear, the boys that followed her home, and another apparent host of things. Or so that had also seemed at the time. She came to the hospital with her mother, but said little, and seemed to be there only to please the older woman.

And now he wondered. How had it happened that they had once been so close and had ended up in this fashion—separated—and hostile? The first thing that had come to mind after the heart attack, actually during the heart attack now that he thought about it, had been his children. He remembered them. Somehow, they had grown from boy to man, and girl to woman, and he had missed it. They had grown up right before him, but he had not allowed it, and had seemed not to notice. So that he had driven them away. One day, as he watched the children playing in the park, he felt a tear tracing its way down his cheek. He wept.

He left the office that day at lunch, as he always did, but he didn't drive home to eat. Instead, he walked over to the park, and sat for a while. It was fall and the weather had turned windy and cool over the course of the morning, so there was no one else there. He sat quietly, on a bench, with his hands in his coat pockets to protect against the cold. And he wondered again why it had unfolded the way it had. Had he been that unreasonable? He had only tried to be a good father—and it had cost him his children. Even though the doctor had said he could still expect to live a long life if he looked after himself, he could not escape the feeling that it was somehow over—and he had wasted it.

He went back to the office after lunch. His wife had called when he hadn't come home. He called and told her he was fine and lied, saying he'd had a business luncheon. He stayed the rest of the afternoon, but accomplished little with his work. He had no interest in the company's profit and loss figures.

He didn't go for his walk after work that night. He read the paper until dinner, ate little, and settled in on the couch in front of the TV afterward. His wife knew something was wrong. He'd seemed to bounce back from the heart attack so quickly, taken to the new life-style so well. But something was wrong.

"Is something bothering you?" she asked, as they were getting ready for bed.

"No," he answered, lying to her for the second time that day.

"You just don't seem to be yourself," she said, concern showing in her voice.

He wanted to scream at her that he'd had a heart attack, and he could never be himself again, but he didn't. "It's year-end at work, and I've got a lot on my mind," he said instead.

"Maybe you're pushing yourself too much, too soon," she said. "Maybe you should cut back to half days."

"I'll be all right," he answered, in a firm tone that meant he didn't want to discuss it further. It was the first time in almost thirty years of marriage that he didn't want to let her in—that he wouldn't let her share what he was feeling.

He turned away from her in bed, not wanting her close. He felt alone and he wanted to be alone. She seemed to sense the want, and let him be. He lay on the edge of the bed, tucked into a fetal position, feeling exposed and vulnerable. He thought he'd coped well with the heart attack, had felt confident after getting over the initial shock, and had gained confidence every day, knowing that the further he got from the event, the safer he was. But now, it was like he had no confidence. It wasn't whether the next one would come, but that it didn't really matter.

Finally, he fell into a fitful sleep, wanting to toss and turn, feeling uncomfortable at having to lay still, but not wanting to bother his wife. During one of his frequent waking moments, and when he thought she was sleeping soundly, he got quietly up and went downstairs to the living room. He sat in the dark in his recliner chair, gazing into the near blackness that surrounded him, tired and wanting sleep, but anxious and not wanting sleep. The tiredness prevailed, and he slept.

At first, the sleep was deep, dark, and dreamless, and he luxuriated in it, feeling snug and secure, relaxed and peaceful. But a dream came, suddenly, out of the shadows.

He was outside with green grass and blue sky all around him, and someone was running—children in bright orange uniforms. He seemed to have to concentrate inside the dream, and as he did, saw his son, as a boy again, playing soccer, as he had once done. Suddenly, the image of his son became so clear and bright there was a surrealness to it; the rest of the field was blurred and hazy, filled only with dark shapes.

As he watched, the boy gathered the ball into his feet, and started up the field, weaving his way through a myriad of the faded, blackened shapes, until, suddenly, another figure rose up to dominate the vision—the goalie, against whom his son looked small and insignificant. But the boy moved deftly this way and that, causing the Goliath to move too suddenly to one side, and he knifed the ball past the seeming giant for a sure goal. The father felt exhilarated even within the dream. "What a move!" he heard one voice say. "What a shot!" exclaimed another. "You must be very proud of that boy!" said a third, and he felt a pat on his back. He beamed.

But he had little time to relish the feeling. He awoke and found himself sitting still in the darkness of the living room. Nothing had changed. He crept back up the stairs to the bedroom, and slipped quietly back into bed with his wife. He slept, but it wasn't much of a sleep, and he was glad when the morning made its presence known.

He didn't feel like going into work, so he phoned and said he was sick. This caused a space of dead air on the phone, his secretary afraid to know what manner of illness had befallen him, perhaps fearing the worse. He sensed her apprehension and told her he just had a bit of a cold, but thought he should rest—not let himself get run down—and you could hear the relief in her voice as she agreed that was probably a wise course of action.

He watched game shows in the morning, like he had for the couple of weeks he'd been home after the heart attack. His wife busied herself in other parts of the house, seemingly aware that he wanted solitude as he had on the previous night, so it was strangely quiet between them, and he could feel uneasiness in the house as he watched the TV. But he said or did nothing to ease the apparent sense of uncomfortableness.

He ate little at lunch, only half the sandwich she made for him. Then, he got his coat from behind the kitchen door, and announced that he was going for a walk. He saw the look of worried concern on her face, but chose to ignore it, almost as if he wanted to somehow injure her.

He walked for some time, probably longer than he should have—he was still supposed to take it easy and walk a route that would keep him close to home in case he got tired—but he didn't seem to consider it. Finally, though, he felt himself growing tired, his chest heavy and his legs like lead, so he knew he wouldn't make it home without resting. He turned into a restaurant that seemed to be conveniently located exactly at the point of no return.

There was no one else in the place, and he took a booth near the back. He wasn't sure what to order. He'd usually have had a coffee, but that was no longer allowed, unless it was decaf. He'd try for that, or maybe have a weak tea—the doctor'd said that would be okay once in a while.

The waitress approached. "Can I help you?" she asked politely. She was a young woman, maybe his daughter's age, pretty in a plain sort of way, but with a look he had always found attractive. He stared at her as his daughter came to mind. It was probably an inappropriate look to give a young woman. He broke off the contact, embarrassed.

"I'll have a coffee," he said, then realized his mistake. "I mean, have you got any decaf?" he asked, correcting himself.

"Sure," she answered, and she offered him a large, friendly smile. "You take cream?" she asked, continuing the smile.

"Yeah, that'd be great," he said, "but make it milk if you don't mind."

"Sure," she answered, turning to leave.

"It's not very busy," he commented when she returned with the coffee.

"It's pretty slow in here these days most of the time since that new coffee shop went up down the street," she said. "Everybody wants to go to coffee shops these days. Old fashioned mom and pop restaurants like this one don't do so well."

"Yeah, I guess it's another sign of a changing world," he replied. She had walked back over behind the counter, but she stayed near the back of the place, close to where he was sitting.

"Hey, when that new donut shop opened, all the other girls who worked here applied for jobs there," she said. "I didn't. I always liked working here. We used to get a good crowd, a lot of kids at lunch and after school. But it looks like I made a mistake. I'm going to be out of a job."

"That would be too bad," he said.

"Oh, maybe not," she answered. "Maybe I'd finally get motivated to go back to school and finish my diploma."

"You never finished high school?" he questioned.

"No," she answered. "I never got along with my parents, and I hit the streets when I was young. Then, I got pregnant."

"Sounds like you had it kind of rough," he offered.

"Not as rough as some," she answered. "I seen people die on the streets—and get messed up with all kinds of bad stuff—but I managed to get along without any of that. I did some hooking, but I was careful who I went with, and I didn't do much of it."

He was surprised she'd revealed as much to him as she had.

"Well, you seem like a nice, young woman. You seem to have got your act together," he said to her, and he was sincere.

"You're kind," she said, and she sauntered back up to the front of the restaurant and busied herself with something. An older man came out of what must have been the kitchen area and started to talk to her. It must be the cook, he thought.

He felt better now that he'd rested, so he paid his bill, said farewell to the young woman and went back outside. He started to walk toward home, but he walked slowly, deliberately, and he couldn't help but think of his children as he walked.

His daughter had stayed in school, taken secretarial at college, and had a good job at an insurance office in town, and it seemed her orange hair and ruby red lips hadn't hurt her so much. In fact, she'd eventually stopped coloring her hair and wearing too much makeup, just as her mother had predicted. She was even dating a young lawyer.

His son had worked his way through university with absolutely no help from his parents from the time he'd left home right after high school. He was some sort of doctor, not of the medical kind, but in philosophy or some such thing. He was apparently very good at what he did. And he must make a living at it. It seemed the length of his hair hadn't held him back, and most of his wayward friends had also made good in life.

Maybe I was wrong, he thought. Maybe I didn't give them their heads when they were young. He remembered back to his own upbringing, he and his father seeming to always be able to sort out their differences. In fact, he could never remember his father so much as raising his voice at any of his four children. He'd stayed close to the old man right to the day he died, and so had his brother and sisters. Was it that they were such perfect children? Or was it that the old man had let them be?

He remembered when he'd come home drunk for the first time—actually his friends had dumped him on the front porch of his parents' house in the middle of the night and rung the doorbell. He'd been so drunk he'd been unable to stand. The old man had answered the door and helped him into the house. Gotten him undressed and put him to bed with never a word. But the next day, feeling perhaps the worst he would ever feel, he'd been up at the crack of dawn and helped split and stack two cord of firewood, even though winter was half a year off—while his father set a fast pace beside him, also with never a word. And the day after that, it seemed as if all was forgotten.

How had his father been able to walk such a fine line? If he'd tried to teach such a lesson to his own son, they'd have ended up screaming at each other, and the boy would have stormed off in a huff. That's the way it had become, so they could no longer talk to one another without an insult here or a venomous barb there. The daughter had become cool and distant. He thought now that he had caused it. He had overprotected. Tried to control. Only because I wanted what was best for them. Only because I loved them, he thought. Only because I cared.

He was still feeling a deep sense of melancholy when he arrived home. His chest was again feeling heavy and his legs like lead, so that he headed straight for the living room and stretched out on the couch. He slept. Deep and dreamless.

He awoke to find his wife sitting in the armchair beside the couch, knitting.

"Well, good morning," she said cheerily, when she saw he was awake.

"Hi," he answered.

"You probably needed that," she said. "I knew you weren't sleeping too well last night."

"No, I was kind of tossing and turning," he answered, yawning and stretching. He sat up.

"Did you have a good walk?" his wife asked, continuing to knit busily away, not looking in his direction.

"Yes, it was good," he answered.

"You must have gone for quite a distance," she said. "You were gone for quite a while."

"I stopped at a restaurant for a coffee," he said. "I felt a little tired."

"You feel better now?" she asked, continuing the line of questioning, still not looking up.

"Yeah, I think so," he answered. "What time is it?"

"About four," she answered.

"I'm hungry," he said.

"I can fix something," she said.

"Let's go out," he suggested.

"What's the occasion?" she asked, looking up for the first time, stopping her knitting.

"Nothing in particular," he answered.

That night, as they were getting ready for bed, he finally spoke to her about what had been on his mind for the last while—since he had come so close to his own conclusion. "Was I too hard on the kids?" he asked, as he buttoned his pajama top.

"I wouldn't say that," she answered quietly.

"Where did I go wrong?" he asked.

"You did what you thought was right," she answered.

"It doesn't seem to have been the right way to do things," he said. "I drove them away."

"You just didn't want them to grow up," she said. "You wanted them to stay small forever, and they couldn't."

"I just wanted them to be good kids," he said

"And they were," she answered. "They were good kids, typical kids, who didn't always do the right things—at least not the way you looked at it."

"I wanted what was best for them," he said.

There was a pause, as they both got into bed.

"Is this what's been bothering you?" she asked, pulling the covers up over them.

"Yeah, I think it is," he said.

She leaned over and kissed him lightly on the lips.

"I love you," she said softly.

"I know," he answered, returning the kiss.

"Goodnight," she said, and he turned out the light.

He slept better that night than he had for the previous night, it was a dreamless sleep, and he woke feeling rested and fresh. His wife was already up, her side of the bed empty. It was Friday, and he'd decided the night before not to go back to work for the final day of the week, but rather to wait and return on Monday when he'd try to make a new beginning and get re-interested in adding and subtracting, and other tasks associated with his chosen profession.

He wrapped his housecoat around him and went downstairs to the kitchen. As he approached, he thought he could smell bacon cooking. But how could that be?

He entered the kitchen. His wife was busy in front of the stove—cooking—bacon and eggs—poached eggs. The table was set for two, complete with orange juice.

She turned and saw him. "About time you were getting up," she remarked.

He smiled. "Bacon?" he questioned.

"Just two slices," she answered. "It's a treat. You won't get this kind of treatment every day, but a little bit like this shouldn't hurt you, and I know how you like your bacon."

"You're the treat," he said, stepping to her side and giving her a quick kiss on the cheek.

They ate breakfast mostly in silence, with just some looks-like-a-nice-sort-of-day conversation. The bacon tasted great.

"It's not too late," she said, as she was cleaning up.

"Too late for what?" he asked.

"To let them know you love them," she said.

He said nothing.

"I know it's never been an easy thing for you to do," she said.

"How would I even begin after all this time?" he asked. "They must hate me pretty good."

"They don't hate you," she said. "They love you, but they're like you—stubborn."

"They've turned out okay, haven't they?" he mused.

"Yes, they have," his wife answered, "and you had a lot to do with that."

"Do you think so?" he asked.

"I know so," she answered. She paused. "You should let them know. It's not too late."

"I don't know," he said, and he got up from the table and left the room, effectively ending the exchange.

He went for his walk that morning. He walked to the office where his daughter worked, and he arranged to arrive about lunch. She said it was a pleasant surprise. She was meeting her fiancŽ. Would he join them? He agreed, and perhaps made a start.

That afternoon, he went out in search of hockey tickets. His son had always been a fan, and that'd been one of the things the father and son had always done together before the trouble had started. Maybe the two of them could again share the camaraderie of a night at the rink, and find some common ground in that male domain. Perhaps it would also mark a beginning.

He had resolved to try. The girl had been receptive. They had talked of this and that over lunch, nothing too personal at this early stage of starting over, and he'd found it difficult at first, but by the time he accepted the check, the three were laughing like they had always been the best of friends. Perhaps it was a start. He had no idea whether the boy would respond when he mailed him a hockey ticket, but he hoped he would. He'd like to know him again.

His life had almost ended. He realized now that he'd thought he was immortal, that he'd go on forever, that there'd always be time. The heart attack had made him realize that time was short; that it could run out at any moment—even while you slept snug and secure in your bed with your faithful life's companion at your side. Perhaps he could expect to live a long life if he looked after himself, as the doctor had said, but he'd get his affairs in order. And he'd made a start. Death would not catch him so unprepared again. It would come—there was no doubt about that—but he would be ready. Perhaps then the devastation would be less. And that was all he could hope for as he lived toward the end.