Our Road to Travel
A Short Story by Bobbi Holmes
“We won’t need to see you again for another six months, Mrs. Smith. How would November 8th work for you?” the woman behind the counter at the doctor’s office asked me.
November 8th, how in the hell would I know? They always ask me questions like that, as if I actually know what my plans will be six months down the road. Perhaps the better question, will I even be alive in six months to make any November appointment?
Instead I told her, “Yes, that will be fine.”
“Would you prefer morning or afternoon?”
Let me grab my appointment calendar and see what I’ve got booked for November 8th. Considering my recent social schedule, I might have something exciting planned, like a dentist appointment, meet up with the eye doctor, or a blood test.
“Mornings would be best,” I told her.
“Oh, looks like you have a birthday this week. Happy birthday!”
“Yes, Saturday, thank you.” I started feeling guilty for my silent annoyance. The girl was just doing her job, and she was trying to be friendly.
“Oh, Mrs. Smith, there must be a mistake in the records.” She frowned as she glanced from the file sitting next to her computer, up to my face.
“We must have noted your year of birth incorrectly.” She then read the birth year they had on file for me.
“No, that’s correct,” I told her.
By her puzzled expression, I knew what she was thinking. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it. Compared to other women my age, I don’t look like someone nearing her 85th birthday. Good genes combined with the fact I never smoked blessed me with a youthful complexion.
Just because I don’t lead an active social life—there are no trips to the senior center, bingo party, or some woman’s church group—doesn’t give me reason to neglect my appearance. I’ve never considered going gray, and unlike my older sister who has been wearing the same hairstyle for the last forty years, my hairdresser keeps me discretely in style.
A decade or so ago I was my dentist’s first patient to have her teeth whitened. It’s true; a bright smile removes years from a person’s appearance. I’ve always taken good care of my teeth. Until a year ago, I could boast (to just myself, of course) that I still had them all. I suppose I technically still do, but six months ago the dentist capped my two front teeth, due to hairline fractures.
Weight also ages a woman. Too thin brings out the wrinkles and too heavy adds years. Unless illness befalls me, I will never be willow thin like some women my age. I’m probably ten pounds thinner than I was ten years ago. I try to eat a healthy, well balanced diet. I regularly read the food labels when grocery shopping, something that seems to annoy my daughter. I wish she would pay a bit more attention to what she is eating.
I make an assertive effort to consume my daily share of almonds, prunes, oatmeal, and fruit to minimize my need for pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately, my doctor insists I need both blood pressure and cholesterol medications.
Glaucoma took my mother’s sight. Thus far I’ve kept my glaucoma under control, yet the glare is becoming more an issue of late, and I’ve asked my daughter if we can tint the window in my sitting room. Currently, I am forced to keep the curtains shut due to the blinding glare.
When I finally made it back to the waiting room I found my daughter there. I wondered how long she had been waiting. Normally she runs errands while I visit the doctor, and she waits for me to call her on my cellphone before coming for me.
I try to schedule my appointments so I’m not too much of an inconvenience for Kathy. She works from home, so her schedule is flexible. Yet, I know how she hates running errands and shopping. I gave up my driver’s license years ago. In truth, it was not a great sacrifice. I learned to drive in my thirties and never felt comfortable behind the wheel.
Going from the subdued office lighting to the bright sunlight makes it difficult for me to see. My daughter, Kathy, momentarily forgets that as she marches on ahead, leaving me stumbling nervously on the sidewalk; I’m afraid I might trip. She is forever telling me to stay off the step-ladder (which I need to reach the top shelf in my closet), treating me like some foolish child, reminding me I might break a hip. Ironically, if I break my hip it probably won’t be from a step-ladder fall, but a sidewalk I couldn’t maneuver.
Kathy looked back to see where I was and obviously remembered her oversight. Rushing to my side, she guided me by my elbow, apologized, and then helped me to the car.
During the day, Kathy spends hours in front of her computer. When my son-in-law gets home in the evening, I try to stay in my area of the house, so they can have some privacy. We may reside under the same roof, but I spend little time with my daughter. I wonder if she realizes how little time there really is in life.
When we got home, I was greeted by a phone call from my older daughter, Connie. My husband and I were blessed with two daughters, Connie and Kathy. I’m grateful they are close, like best friends. I love my only sister, but she and I have never been close.
I was much closer to my brothers. I had three of them. In some ways my parents had two families. First came the three boys, and then years later my sister arrived. Dad was thrilled to finally get a girl, yet she didn’t turn out to be the sweet little girl he imagined. Oh, he adored her, but she was always a tomboy with a volatile temper. I arrived two years later, a mistake. However, I never felt like a mistake. I was the surprise blessing, the little girl they had been waiting for.
All but my sister, Mildred, are now gone. I was just a child when Daddy died. I think it was harder on Mildred than on me. I was always a mama’s girl. Mama has been gone for over thirty years now. No one has a clue how profoundly I still miss her. The youngest of the brothers died when we were all young adults. My eldest brother passed away not long after Mama. Days after my husband, Robert, died I lost my last brother.
Of course, they were much older than Robert. Robert was in his early sixties when he died, a lingering death that took two years to complete the unsavory task. Kathy was there, as was our son-in-law, helping us get Robert to the hospital twice a week for medical treatments and witnessing the drastic change in my husband’s personality.
Once, when Kathy expressed her frustration, I gently reminded her it would be over soon enough. I think she forgot her father wasn’t going to live forever, and he really was reaching the end of his road. She preferred to relish in her annoyance at the inconvenience as opposed to facing the harsh truth of death’s finality. Don’t misunderstand me—Kathy loved her daddy dearly. But I suppose we all cope with death in our own way.
“Mom, Uncle Ed called me about Aunt Mildred,” Connie told me. By then, I was sitting in my leather recliner in my small sitting room taking Connie’s call.
“What’s wrong?” I normally spoke to Mildred on a daily basis. She and Ed had moved into the Masonic home almost ten years earlier, a move Mildred resisted yet one Ed had been looking forward to since he was a young man. It was something I always found peculiar. With me living in Texas and Mildred and Ed living in California, we were lucky if we saw each other once a year.
“They’ve moved Mildred into her own room.” I knew immediately what that meant, and my heart fell to the floor. A separate room meant assisted living. They would eventually give Ed a smaller room, where he could go on living independently at the home—free from the burdens of an ailing wife. She would hate it there; I knew Mildred. I told myself I needed to call my nephew, their only child, and make sure he checked on his mother. I didn’t particularly trust Ed to act in the best interest of my sister.
When I finally got off the phone, I went into the living room to tell Kathy the news. I found her sitting on the couch, her laptop computer propped up on her knees.
“Poor Auntie Mildred,” Kathy said sympathetically, after I told her. Maybe Mildred and I were never close like Kathy and Connie, but she tried to be a good aunt to my daughters. I always knew Mildred was jealous, never having daughters of her own. During our regular phone conversations she would remind me of how lucky I was to have two such wonderful girls, commenting how they were always there for me.
Daughters, they are a blessing. I adore my three grandsons, but I wish Connie had also been blessed with a daughter, as was Kathy.
Kathy’s oldest is a boy—my first grandchild. Oh, how I adored that boy. I was never one who longed for grandchildren, and I was quite surprised how totally in love I was with that child—so was Robert. Robert swore he only wanted girls, but when his first grandson, Bobby, arrived, he was over the moon.
Bobby and I were close. He called me Ma, and I remember how he and his younger sister would race after our car when we had to go home, both crying for us to return. Today he is in his early thirties, and I am lucky if he calls me two or three times a year. I can’t really complain, he doesn’t call his mother much either, and when he was little, he was even closer to her.
Connie’s two sons are good boys. Well actually, all three of my grandsons are good boys. Although, they are now men. Her oldest is attending college in Colorado, and I see him as often as I do my eldest grandson. Of the three boys, Jeff, Connie’s youngest, makes more of an effort to reach out to me. Perhaps it is because he is the only one of the three with a child. Family is important to Jeff. I like to think Jeff and I have a special bond.
My only granddaughter, Charlotte, is a constant reminder of why I find daughters so special. Of the four, she lives the farthest away—in Hawaii. Her husband is in the military. In spite of that, she talks daily to her mother on the phone, and she calls me at least once a week.
She’s given me two beautiful great-grandchildren—a boy and a girl. I’ve yet to meet the grandson, but she is coming for a visit in four months. One of the sweetest things she ever shared with me came up when we were discussing guardianship of her children, if the unthinkable ever happened.
“If something had happened to my parents, I would have wanted to live with you, not Aunt Connie,” she told me. I was shocked. Connie adores Charlotte, and the feeling is mutual. Yet, Charlotte explained that for as much as she loved her aunt, I would be the one she felt more at home with if she had lost her parents.
“Mom, this has been a rough few months for you, I’m really sorry,” Kathy commented, as I sat down on the loveseat across from her. She was right, it had been. Last month I lost my last first-cousin, Virginia. Several weeks ago one of my dear friends, George, died from cancer. While I hadn’t seen either in years, I exchanged regular phone calls with both of them.
“I’m also worried about Rachel.” I reminded Kathy. Rachel is another friend of mine, who I keep in touch with by phone. The last time we spoke she was recuperating from a car accident, and she didn’t sound good. When I tried calling her yesterday her phone was disconnected.
“You don’t have her daughter’s phone number?” Kathy asked.
“No, she lives somewhere in Alaska. I don’t remember her last name.”
“Do you want me to check online?” I knew what Kathy meant: the online obituaries. I told her yes, and gave her Rachel’s full name and the town she lived in. I sat quietly as Kathy’s fingers flew over the keyboard, making the search.
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
Something twisted inside of me. Instinctively I knew she wasn’t sorry because she couldn’t find Kate, but because she had.
“When?” I asked.
“Last week. The funeral is tomorrow.”
There was no way I could get to the funeral. I didn’t know any of those people anyway. It seemed all my friends had died already.
“I might as well take my phone out,” I said ruefully. “I can save myself twenty bucks a month.”
Kathy looked at me sympathetically.
My husband had been gone for over twenty years. My best friend had left me a decade ago, yet was still alive. Alzheimer’s took her from me.
Over the last twenty years my good friends have been disappearing—one by one—a steady procession, leaving me behind with my youthful skin, straight white teeth, and stylish hairdo.
I tried to be funny, but this wasn’t funny. Soon, I would have no one left to talk to on the phone. I missed my husband, my parents, my siblings, and my friends. They all left without me.
Kathy set the computer on the coffee table, stood up and, gave me a hug. She told me she loved me and promised me a special day for my birthday. She promised she’d spend the entire day with me. I wondered if she meant it or was again treating me like the child I wasn’t.
I had lost my appetite by the time dinner hour rolled around. Forcing myself to eat, I nibbled on a small portion of chicken, a few carrot sticks, and drank a glass of milk. Emotionally drained, I took an early shower and went to bed.
I’d been asleep for several hours when I rolled over and bumped into Robert. Drowsily, I opened my eyes and saw him sitting up in bed next to me, leaning against a pile of pillows. I’d left the bathroom light on, which helped illuminate my bedroom.
“Are you watching me sleep?” I asked, noting his intent expression.
“You seemed a little depressed tonight.”
“Rachel died,” I told him.
“Yes, I know.”
“Mildred isn’t doing well.”
“No, she isn’t. She’ll be going soon. It’s her time.”
“Robert, I hate this. Everyone is leaving me. I don’t want to stay here anymore.”
“Sweetheart,” Robert said gently, reaching out to brush my forehead. “You have Kathy and Connie, the grandkids, not to mention those beautiful great-grandbabies. Plus, you have a world full of new-friends to meet.”
“I’m too tired and too old to meet new friends,” I said stubbornly. He only laughed.
“It was always difficult for you to meet new people. But your family still needs you here. The rest of us will be waiting when it’s your time. But, you’ve a bit more road left to travel.”
“Do they really need me? I think I’m just in Kathy’s way.”
“Trust me, she needs you. Remember how she was when it was my time? Angry at me for being sick. She wasn’t annoyed because I was a nuisance, she was angry because I was preparing to leave.”
“She doesn’t act like she needs me. And I try to be helpful around here. I help with the housework, do the laundry.”
“She doesn’t need you that way. She needs you like you needed your Mama. Don’t you remember?”
I thought of my Mama and tears filled my eyes. I wanted to go to her, but something held me back.
“Maybe Kathy doesn’t always act like it,” he went on, “but she loves you dearly. She considers you one of her best friends. I also know our other daughter and our grandchildren feel the same way. So remember, even if many of your older friends have moved on, you’ve some precious ones who continue to need you in their lives.”
I sleepily closed my eyes and rolled over. I had a longer road to travel, and I was grateful Robert reminded me I would have plenty of companionship along the way. I would eventually get to the end of the road—just not as soon as many of my old friends.
Originally published as Traveling Companion, under the pen name, Anna J. McIntyre.