ONE LAST CHANCE
“Taking a chance” comes in many forms, each implying its own form of risk……whether measured in dollars, status, influence, or at the extreme……relational success or failure.
To the young and flexible “taking a chance” may not be so final. Chances are there will be a next time, the possibility of overcoming a hurtful loss.
But what about the times……not uncommon in late-life.........when “one more time” is an unlikely possibility. What if you are facing a “last chance”? In that case you want to be making the right choice.
Small wonder the Harris brothers are struggling to find their own elusive "right choices."
It was Thursday evening. Elly and Tricia had just returned from dinner at the South End Mall. While Elly headed to the kitchen to start a fresh pot of coffee Tricia strolled slowly from room to room, surveying the fashionable order they had created from the chaos of moving day. “Everything looks so nice,” she said as she returned to the kitchen.
“It does, doesn’t it,” Elly agreed. “I couldn’t have done it without your help.”
“Of course you could have There are people here who would have helped you.” Tricia stifled a giggle. “That Tom man called twice while you were downtown. From the sound of it I’m sure he’d be glad to help.”
“Ah, yes, Tom Berry. He’s an old friend, from our school days. There was a time when he was something more than that. I think he’d like it to be that way again. But that won’t happen.”
Tricia, at nineteen, found it hard to imagine Aunt Elly with a boyfriend. True, she was still attractive---in a great-aunt sort of way. And there was her wicked sense of humor. But in the girl’s young mind Aunt Elly had always been paired with Uncle Mike. For as long as she could remember the two of them had been ‘Uncle Mike and Aunt Elly’---two parts of a single matched set.
“Aunt Elly?” Tricia asked cautiously.
“Uncle Mike got married again. He didn’t wait very long at all. Is that what you’re planning to do?”
Elly walked around the end of the breakfast bar to sit on a high stool. “Honey, I can’t tell you how much it hurts to have someone walk out of your life like that. Especially after you’ve been together so long.”
She ground her knuckles into the palm of her hand. “I guess I should have known what that old fool was up to---but I didn’t have a clue how serious it had become. I was so damn blind.”
The girl had seen Elly’s hurt before. The first time, her impulse had been to offer sympathy and comfort, until she realized that her aunt’s halting words were born not of sadness, but anger.
“It doesn’t matter how persistent Tom is,” Elly continued, shaking her head. “That’s not going to happen. Wherever I go from here, it’s going to be slow and easy. You can count on that.” She answered Tricia’s embarrassed smile with her own determined grin, then moved to the back counter to pour their coffee. She had scarcely sat down again when the phone rang.
“Hello yourself. You’re a hard one to track down.”
“Good evening, Tom.” Elly wrinkled her nose and rolled her eyes for her niece’s benefit. “Tricia said you’d called earlier.”
“That’s right. Let me explain why. You’re finally settled in. At least she said you were. That means it must be time to spend a Friday night at the club. And tomorrow night is not too soon.”
“Tom. I told you the other night. I’m not ready for that. Not yet.”
“Elly. This doesn’t have to be a date sort of thing. There’ll be time for that later. Right now it’s just a matter of having you get acquainted---back in the swing of things.”
“Back in the swing of things? What does that mean? What is there to get ‘back to?’ It’s been fifty years. I don’t even know those people. They don’t know me.”
“Don’t be silly.” Tom was not about to be sidetracked. “You know there’s not a lot to do in this town. The best of what there is, is at the club. I’ve known you for a long time. You’ve always liked the best of everything. That’s what we had back then. It’s what we can have again.”
Elly took a deep breath, letting the bubbling frustration subside. Given his temper, a shouting match with Tom Berry was never a good idea---especially not there in front of Tricia. Still, she needed to make her point.
“Tom, we’ve gone over this already. I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but I don’t know how to make it any clearer.”
He must have heard the new determination in her reply. “We just need some time together. To get to know each other again. We don’t have to be in a big hurry.”
“Listen Tom. The first thing is, I am not ready to do the club thing. In time, maybe. But not now.” She flashed a tight lipped grin at Tricia, as if to say “here comes the hard part.”
“The second thing is, I am not looking for a relationship. I don’t know how to be any more blunt than that. It’s just too soon for that.”
“You can’t just wait around and go to seed.”
“Tom. Are you listening at all? I said not now---maybe never. Is there any part of that you don’t understand?”
“I guess not.” He had not anticipated the hard edge he heard in her words. There had been a time when he was used to hearing her “No.” But in those youthful times there had usually been a teasing lilt in her words. Now he was hearing only forceful, determined denial. That had never been part of his heady daydreams about the two of them coming together again.
Elly heard his dejection. That was not the way she wanted their exchange to end. “Tom. Just because I’m not in the market for a boyfriend doesn’t mean you have to go off and pout. Please stay in touch.”
Their goodbyes were brief and formal. Elly hung up the phone and took a long drink of half-warm coffee before looking over the rim of her cup to Tricia. “There you have it, honey. Even great-aunts, old fossils like me, can have boy problems.”
A moment later she turned serious. “But there’s a lesson here for you, my dear. You must never let them push you where you don’t want to go.”
Retirement for the Harris brothers had fallen far short of the ‘golden years’ dreams they and their wives had nurtured for so long. When Clint retired from Birming Fabrication five and a half years earlier he and Karen had promised themselves time to travel, to visit the places they had always talked of seeing. They had started on a modest scale---first San Francisco, then Las Vegas, followed by visits with their daughter in Kansas City and son in Sacramento.
At last, in the spring of 2002, they made reservations for Karen’s dream trip---four weeks in Europe….their own personal Grand Tour. Their excitement was over-the-top.......until that is, two weeks before their scheduled departure, when Karen received the dreadful diagnosis. It was breast cancer, in a moderately advanced stage. The trip was canceled. Put on hold, they promised themselves.
During the next eleven months Karen would endure two surgeries, the second one a double mastectomy. There would be two rounds of chemotherapy, along with a tedious series of radiation treatments. Together the two of them had shared her inevitable decline. All the while Clint prayed for healing, or at least a release from her pain. It would be the hardest thing he had ever done, watching his life mate waste away like that.
Through all those drawn-out trials Karen had been the brave and uncomplaining one. When the end drew near and Clint could not bring himself to contact the local Hospice representative---as though his call would somehow signal his acceptance of the already obvious outcome---she was the one who placed the call.
In her final weeks Karen would be the one providing comfort, helping her grieving husband prepare for what was to come. In July, 2003 Clint held her hand through their last night together. During the whole of their long ordeal he had not shed a tear. Only after the memorial service their church family held for her, did he close the bedroom door behind him and give in to the consuming anguish.
In contrast, Gary’s moment of loss had come with shocking swiftness. It had been a routine Friday afternoon, less than three months after Karen’s passing, when Christy drove the four short blocks to the supermarket. The terrible crash was only seconds in the making, the time it took a drunken young man to run a red light going twice the speed limit.
In the weeks that followed Gary had sleepwalked through his days, spending his afternoons at the long bar in Hector’s Club and equally dismal nights buried in his recliner---in front of the television set he never bothered to turn on.
Daren and Lyle, Gary’s sons, had visited from out of state, investing days in a futile effort to rekindle a life spark in their father. Only when Clint persuaded him to spend a few days at his place, did Gary begin to emerge from the darkness of his loss.
In truth neither of them could remember a formal decision to have Gary move in permanently. As Gary weaned himself from Hector’s scotch and reengaged with the world, they had simply concluded that living together was the best way for each of them to cope with his unspeakable loss.
Before long they had settled into a routine that passed for normal in their blended household. Mornings began over Gary’s breakfast---reading the paper, watching the stock- market reports, discussing the latest happenings around town. They worked around the house, put in a few hours of volunteer lawn care each week at the Senior Housing Complex, and served on the grounds crew at their church.
Except for Thursday nights in the winter, when they bowled, the brothers spent most nights in front of their own ‘designated’ TV set. Clint would be in the living room, watching an old movie, a game show, or country music channel. Meanwhile, in his bedroom Gary was likely tuned in to a twenty-four hour news channel, a whodunit, or a documentary. In the event of an important ball game they would be together in the living room.
It was there on a Sunday afternoon, during a between-inning lull, that Gary broke their silence to ask, “How long do you think it would take me to drive to Lawrence?”
Before Clint could make sense of his brother’s out-of-the-blue question, Gary was asking, “What do you suppose Claudia would say if I showed up on her doorstep?”
By then Clint was laughing out loud. “I’m really proud of you, brother. It’s been two weeks. You haven’t even mentioned her name since the morning after the reunion. I didn’t think it would take this long.”
“Hey, I don’t even know if she’ll talk to me,” Gary replied. “But, if I wait much longer she might forget about me altogether.”
“I doubt that. Have you called her?”
“No. But she mentioned her daughter’s name when we were visiting. That’s where she lives. I found the address on the internet and made a map showing how to get there. I’m thinking I might just drop in. You know, kind of a surprise thing.”
Though Gary’s remark may have sounded casual and off hand he had, in fact, spent days thinking about how to reestablish contact with Claudia. He could phone, or write, or just drive up and knock on her door. No matter what course he chose, there was a distinct possibility she would not welcome his attention.
After all, she had walked away from him at the reunion without a second thought. To show up unannounced at her front door might risk an unpleasant scene in front of her family. But at least they would be face to face. He would see her reaction for himself.
“When do you plan to spring your surprise?”
“It’s only three o’clock, and it’s sixty miles to Lawrence. I could be there by four-thirty. We might go out for dinner.”
“Or you might be an unwelcome guest right at dinner time.”
Gary paused to mull that possibility and revisit his timetable. “Good point. I probably ought to get there around seven o’clock. That would be better. We could go out for coffee instead.”
There, he told himself, so much for the easy part. Now came the more complicated piece of his hopeful scheme---the idea he had been considering for the last few days.
Grinning across at his brother, Gary asked, “How about you? Are you ready for something new and different? Is it time for you to be living a little dangerously?”
“You mean driving to Lawrence? Is that ‘living dangerously’?”
“That’s only part of what I have in mind.”
Clint had not seen that devilish glint in Gary’s eyes for ages. He took that to be a good sign, though he realized it was apt to presage impending trouble. “And I’m supposed to be waiting anxiously to hear the rest of your crazy idea,” he grumbled. “Is that it?”
“Hey, it’s a good idea. A damn good one, if I do say so myself. There’s nothing 'crazy' about it. And there’s no need to wait.”
Gary was enjoying his little game, leading Clint on like that. Still he must be careful not to scare him off. “What I’m thinking about is a double date. You and me.”
“You want both of us to take Claudia out to dinner?” Clint set his puzzle aside. “That is a seriously dumb idea. What makes you think she’d buy that? Damn, you’re getting more senile than I thought.”
“Come on. This is important. The lady is half afraid of me. At least that’s how it felt the other night. I want us to spend some quality time together. But I want her be comfortable doing that. I don’t want her walking off again.”
“And you think she’d be more comfortable with me hanging around for dinner? That makes no sense. She’d be wondering the whole time what the hell I’m doing there.”
“I’m not talking about dinner. I can handle that on my own. This is something more than that. And I’m not talking about just you.” Gary’s exasperated sigh was audible. With one more deep breath he prepared to drop his bomb.
“I’m thinking about you and Elly Beyers, or Warren, or whatever her name is---being with Claudia and me for a double date.”
In an instant Clint was on his feet. In two steps he was at the couch, grabbing the television remote from Gary’s hand. One click and the TV was off. Then he turned to face his startled brother.
“Damn it, Gary, will you get real. If you want to get better acquainted with Claudia I wish you luck. Truth is, I think that’s a good idea. The two of you should get together.” He stabbed his finger at Gary’s chest. “But you don’t need me along to do that. And how the hell you can squeeze Elly Warren into your crazy scheme is beyond me.”
In a matter of seconds Gary had regained his composure. Standing, he snatched the remote from his brother’s hand and went on the offensive. Pointing to Clint’s recliner, he ordered, “Sit down.”
He had not planned to go where their escalating standoff was taking them---at least not then. But he could not let Clint’s objections go unanswered. What was the sense of two old men ignoring what they felt? There they were, nearly seventy years old and still pretending that what was important did not matter.
“Look,” Gary said, still standing in front of Clint’s recliner. “I would never do anything to dishonor Christy. You know that. And I know you feel the same way about Karen. But now, after this long, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing that. We both have some years left in us. It’s time we were living again.......not just existing. You know damn well that’s what Christy and Karen would expect.”
The hint of a tear glistened in Gary’s eye as he continued. “From grade school all the way through high school you paid attention to Elly Beyers. Whether you’ll admit it or not, you had feelings for her. I know that.” He raised his hand to cut off Clint’s predictable protest. “And for all that time I understood the truth of it. Someone like her wasn’t a least bit interested in the likes of us.”
“You’ve sure as hell got that part right.”
“Remember though, you danced with her at the reunion. And you had coffee with her after the foundation meeting. In fact, that was her idea. She asked you. That’s what you said.” This time he was wagging his finger in Clint’s face.
“It’s time to cut out the crap, brother. You’re not the screwed up kid she ignored in high school. She knows that. And I don’t suppose she’s the same girl we gawked at back then---the one who had a thing for college boys.”
“All of which means what?”
“It means you’ve got maybe one shot left at something you’ve always wanted.” Once more he motioned for Clint to calm down.
“I know it’s not a sure thing. Maybe there’s nothing to it. Hell, I don’t know if Claudia will even speak to me. But I’m going to find out. I’m going to take a chance before it’s too late. You ought to think about doing the same.”
By then there was no holding back the tears. Gary’s eyes were red and his voice threatened to crack. “Clint, I’ve had all the hurt I can take. I want something better, something more. I didn't know what that might be.......then I saw her the other night.
"What if Claudia and I could make it work? If I give up now I’ll never know. I’m not going to take that chance.”
Without waiting for a response, Gary started for the kitchen, and out the back door. Moments later he drove out of the driveway, headed for the interstate.
Meanwhile, Clint remained stoically anchored in his recliner, chewing his lip as he processed his brother’s impassioned outburst. Did Gary have it right? His challenge had sounded a bit like Elly’s prodding insistence that she would settle for only the truth--- and do only what she wanted to do.
Was it his own timidity that kept him from pursuing what he had always considered an impossible possibility? And if it was, what could he do about it?
As always, dear reader, if you have friends or family who might enjoy a dose of Geriatric Adolescence I invite you to share our address (octoberyears.blogspot.com) with them. That is the best way I know to spread the word. The blog's right sidebar lists all the earlier chapters, so they can always start at the beginning.