So much to learn
Second chances work best when both parties are on the same page…….going in the same directions, wanting the same outcomes.
Still, though they have committed to a shared life, in some ways they may be just beginning to know each other. What did he or she like for breakfast? Did they prefer conversation with their meal, or a quiet read of the morning paper?
There they were, the two of them, contemplating a life together, yet neither of them had any idea which side of the bed the other preferred. There was so much to learn.
Today’s October Years serialization, Chapter 2 of Long Way Home, continues our excursion into the often daunting world of late-life relationships.
Claudia’s call to Elly that afternoon was loud and laughing. “I knew it,” Elly exclaimed on hearing her friend’s happy marriage news. “I just knew it. How is that guy doing? It sounds like he must be getting better.”
“He’s fine. In good spirits and full of surprises.”
“Were you expecting it? Did you see it coming?”
“Not the way it turned out.” Claudia paused, wondering if she should have anticipated Gary’s unexpected proposal. “I wanted us to spend more time together. I even thought about moving in with Sarah, so I’d be here in Tanner. But he wouldn’t settle for that. He said we ought to cut out the middle man.”
“Have you set a date?”
“That seems to be everyone’s first question.” Claudia was back in the living room, making faces at Gary as she talked. “We’ll be working on that for the next few days.”
Her visit with Elly had been light-hearted and full of good feelings. But there was also a second phone call on her schedule---one she was not looking forward to.
For as long as he could remember Dennis Hafner had bemoaned his mother’s sad experience with uncaring men. In his mind Gary Harris’ high-school desertion had been a prime example of how she had been mistreated. When he heard that Gary and Claudia had met again at their fiftieth high-school reunion, that was enough to renew his lingering resentment.
True to form, Dennis had reacted to that news in his own predictable way---with a blunt ultimatum. He had ordered Gary to stay away from his mother---forever. It was that distressing news that had sent Gary into the downward spiral which ended with his first concussion.
The couple's first bit of relational drama had played out fifty years earlier. It had been the end of their senior year of high school and Gary was caught up in his feelings for Claudia Flynn. Yet as much as he cared for her, he sensed the walls closing in on him, putting his once-proud independence at risk---suffocated by their growing connection. When the school year ended he had responded in a most dramatic way. He ran away and joined the army.
Then, just weeks earlier, in response to Dennis’ pointed dismissal, Gary had again left Claudia's pleasant company---because it seemed that was what she wanted. This time their separation had continued until the morning Gary awoke in the hospital to find her at his bedside---happy to be there and wanting to stay.
Though Dennis had since returned to his California home, Claudia had no reason to believe he would accept her good news calmly. Hearing of her intended marriage to the man he considered her tormentor was bound to set him off. Still, phone in hand, she was prepared to help him understand, and hopefully accept, the choice she had made.
“Dennis. Is that you?” Claudia took the phone to the kitchen, away from the blare of Gary’s television.
“Mom. Where are you? Where have you been? I’ve been calling all over. Barb won’t tell me a thing.” Claudia heard the relief in his voice.
“I’m in Tanner.”
“Tanner? I called Sarah. She said she hadn’t seen you.”
They were inching closer to the moment of truth. With a deep breath, Claudia announced, “I’ve been with Gary. Gary Harris.”
Dennis’ reaction was entirely predictable. “Mom, didn’t I tell you. And him too. What do I have to do? Sounds like I’ll have to explain it to him again---maybe a little more forcefully? ”
If he expected his mother to retreat in the face of his resistance, Dennis was about to be disappointed. “Son. I’ll tell you exactly what you have to do.” He must have noted the new firmness in her words. “You and Cyndi must make plans to come to Lawrence for our wedding.” There was no need for further details. She was absolutely certain she had his attention.
“Your wedding?” He was yelling now.
Claudia held the phone away from her ear, waiting for him to calm down. “Dennis, you will be invited to the wedding as soon as we set a date.” she explained quietly. “But if you plan on coming just to make a scene or aggravate my husband and me, I’d rather you stayed home.”
The resulting silence dragged on for long seconds. When Dennis finally replied, his mother was straining to hear his words. “Are you sure, Mom? Are you really sure. I don’t want you to be crying again.”
“I’m sure, son. He’s a good man. I’ve always known that. We really are very much in love.” She was a bit surprised at how easy it was to say that. “There’ll be no need for crying.”
“I just want you to be happy.”
“I know that,” she replied. “And the best way for that to happen is for you and Gary to be friends. That won’t be hard---not once you know him.”
“When will it be, the wedding?”
“We haven’t set a date yet. As soon as we do I’ll call you.” She was smiling to herself, pleased at how well it had gone. “And, son, thank you for helping us to make it a happy time.”
As Gary's health continued to improve and his discussions with Claudia turned to wedding plans and their future together, Clint and Elly were settling into their own routines. Wednesday afternoon, as they left the bi-weekly meeting of the Tanner Hospital Foundation, they walked side by side across the parking lot to Clint’s pickup. Though they were together, at that moment their thoughts were so disparate they might as well have been on separate planets.
It was understood that their future, unlike Gary and Claudia, was not yet gift-wrapped and labeled ‘happily ever after.’ Instead, their brief history together had been punctuated by an often-frustrating blend of different motives, different expectations, and different ways of responding.
From the beginning, their search for ‘common ground’ had been a constant. And now, as they turned from the distractions of Foundation matters, each of them was again tracking off into their own private thoughts.
Elly had returned to Tanner, her hometown, months before---looking to escape Los Angeles and the fallout from a long and bitter divorce. During her first months back in town, as she tried her best to sidestep Tom Berry’s obnoxious attention, she had been drawn to the quiet, low-keyed demeanor of Clint Harris.
In the beginning, her unexpected interest in him was more than Clint could comprehend. Although he had admired her from afar since grade school, it had remained a secret admiration---largely because he had never found the courage and the confidence to make it known. After all, in those schoolboy days, everyone knew that Elly Beyers would have never wasted her time on scruffy,‘wrong-side-of-the-tracks’ ruffians like him.
However, the Clint Harris she was coming to know was a very different matter. In recent months, in their biweekly involvement on the Hospital Foundation Board, she had watched him function as an effective and respected leader. On a more personal level, she had grown to appreciate his unselfish caring and eagerness to please. Everything about the man recommended his company. Still, their path to a stable relationship remained an erratic work-in-process.
So, while Gary and Claudia had arrived at what promised to be a ‘forever’ connection, Elly continued to struggle with the residue of bitterness and distrust from her Los Angeles divorce. In even her most upbeat moments, there was no escaping the lessons she had learned---that no man must ever be allowed to gain the trust that Mike Warren had so cruelly violated.
Though Clint, like his brother, longed for the settled promise of a permanent relationship, he had assumed from the start that his modest means and plebeian tastes would never satisfy Elly Warren. As much as he cared for her, there seemed to be no overcoming her reluctance to commit.
Until recently any future they might have together had been held hostage by the threat of Tom Berry’s persistent demands. Then, just a week before, in an explosive standoff at River Park, Elly had taken matters into her own hands. Tom, enraged and irrational, was standing before Clint, revolver in hand, ready to dispatch his bitter rival.
Standing behind Tom, she held Clint’s tiny pistol with both hands, closed her eyes, and pulled the trigger. Clint’s life had been spared and Tom lay grimacing in pain. Moments later the price of his rantings had become apparent. There was no movement or feeling in his legs. His sad stare and pleading “Why?” were imprinted in Elly’s mind, fueling a sense of guilt she might never overcome.
For twelve anxious hours Clint and Elly had waited to learn if the District Attorney would press charges against them---for the beating and shooting of Tom Berry.
In truth, Tom was quite willing to have Clint face the consequences of his assault, it was Elly’s vulnerability to more serious charges that weighed most heavily on his testimony. He was not willing to see the woman he loved, in his own myopic way, put in such jeopardy. His complete confession had left the District Attorney no choice. No charges would be brought. Clint and Elly were free to go. Still, Elly had found little relief from the burden of guilt that continued to haunt her.
Now, with their Foundation responsibilities behind them for another two weeks, Clint held the pickup door for Elly, ready to register his normal complaint about too long, too-boring meetings.
“Why doesn’t Bill keep us on track? He lets those clowns just rattle on. Next thing you know you’ve got a two hour meeting. It’s one thing to be digging deeper into the matters at hand. But he lets them wander off wherever they want to go.”
Circling the truck, he climbed in behind the wheel, then paused to consider a new possibility. “You want to get a sandwich.....back at the coffee shop?”
“I could fix something back at the house,” Elly answered. “It would only take a minute.”
“I was thinking that Gary and Claudia might like to be alone for a while longer. They haven’t had a whole lot of time to themselves. God knows, they have a lot to talk about---stuff to sort out.”
Elly nodded, reminding herself again that her rough-edged, casual-talking friend was more sensitive about such things than most men she knew.
“Good thinking,” she said. “They deserve that. Besides, we have some catching up of our own to do. These last few days have been way too hectic. I’m just hoping all that craziness is behind us. It had better be. I’m too old for much more of that.”
Climbing down from the truck they started back toward the small coffee shop next to the hospital pharmacy. It was nearly one-thirty and the luncheon crowd had thinned out. The lady at the counter pointed them to a corner table. They ordered and Clint pushed his chair back, lacing his hands behind his head, glancing around the small room and the tiny garden outside the window. “I really like this place. It has lots of good memories.”
“Like what?” she asked.
He leaned forward, fingertips tapping on the table top as he retrieved snippets of earlier visits there. “Like finding out that I could talk to Elly Warren. That she’s a real person, not just a country-club princess.”
Elly laughed at that and countered. “I learned that Clint Harris is not always tongue tied. He can be quite eloquent when he puts his mind to it.”
For a few minutes their conversation ground to a halt---as each of them was transported to wherever their own thoughts led them. She considered that one of Clint’s most endearing virtues. He felt no need to be talking, simply to fill the silence. Nor did he expect her to carry on when she had nothing to say.
Finally he looked up and asked, “So, what now?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you don’t have to be afraid of Tom anymore. There’s no reason to be afraid of me. You can settle down in your hometown, just like you planned.”
“And,” Clint continued. “I'm wondering where that leave us.”
“Oh, us.” Elly tried to hold her surprised look, as though she had just caught his meaning. But her knowing laughter managed to leak through, overcoming that effort. “I hope it leaves us where we were before things started coming apart. I told you before---there are lots of things I want to do. And I’d like to do them with you.”
Clint nodded, but did not reply, so she continued. “Did you think I’d forgotten that?” she asked, wanting to be sure he understood.
“I was hoping you remembered,” he replied. “Otherwise, it's bound to get pretty lonely around here with Gary gone.”
Their sandwiches arrived and again they were quiet while they ate. By then, however, Elly was looking for something more than his silence---specifically, a sign that confirmed they were on the same page regarding their relationship. “You know that I’m not ready to move in,” she said warily.
“Yeah. I know that. So I guess we’ll keep doing what we have been doing. Eh?” He was not prepared to debate her blunt declaration. “You do your thing. I’ll do mine. And when we can we’ll meet in the middle. Right?”
“Is that okay?”
“It works for me.” And so it did---though not as well as other arrangements he had considered. But at least she was willing to meet him in the middle, not someone else. Not for the first time he remembered that a sixty-eight year old fellow, trying to win the affection of a sixty-eight year old lady, had to be flexible.
Elly reached across the table and patted his hand. “I’m looking forward to it.”
If Gary and Claudia were under the illusion that their decision to marry was the end of a process, they would soon learn that it was, in fact, only the beginning. In one sense they had loved each other for more than fifty years. Yet on a more practical level they were scarcely more than strangers.
Having committed to a shared life, they were just beginning the sometimes frustrating process of getting to know each other. Only now was Claudia learning what Gary liked for breakfast. He was still unsure whether she enjoyed conversation with her meals or, as he preferred, a newspaper and quiet.
And what about those meals? Did he like his vegetables fresh or cooked? Would she take to the spicy Mexican fare he favored? There they were contemplating a life together, yet neither of them had any idea which side of the bed the other preferred. There was so much to learn.
Meanwhile, Gary’s recovery would include visits by the Home Health Nurse, Sarah Cummins, who was, coincidentally, Claudia’s cousin. Sarah’s first visit was scheduled for that afternoon.
The two of them were in the living room, making their way through the confusing process of creating a guest list for their wedding. They had already agreed on a modest, family oriented ceremony. Now it was a matter of deciding what ‘modest’ meant to each of them. It seemed that the details never ended.
Their deliberations were interrupted by the sound of footsteps crossing the front porch. Even before he saw Sarah through the front window Gary had turned to Claudia, “That will be Cousin Sarah. No one else uses the front door. Why don’t you let her in---maybe give her a surprise?”
If Sarah was surprised to see Claudia standing there in the open doorway she did not let on. In fact she said nothing at all as Claudia returned to her chair next to Gary’s recliner.
At that point, stethoscope in hand, Sarah spend a moment taking in the pair of them. They were gray and aging, wrinkled and a bit stooped, and at that moment wearing the brightest, youngest smiles she had seen in ages.
“I must say,” Sarah said. “It’s good to see you two together again.” She was grinning at her cousin. “The last time I saw this fellow he told me that you two weren’t speaking.”
“We got over that,” Gary grinned.
“So it would seem.” Sarah reached out to remove the cloth wrap circling his head, holding the single gauze square over his wound. Gently she removed the pad to expose the shaved patch over his right ear. The cut itself, perhaps an inch long, was healing well. After applying a fresh dressing, she carried on with the rest of her exam. Then, slipping her stethoscope and eye light back in the valise, she looked again to Claudia, who had taken a seat on the couch.
“Are you going to be his nurse for a while?”
Claudia nodded. “We’re going to be married.”
Sarah perked up at that news. “Well, good for you. If ever a fellow needed looking after, it would be this one---your husband-to-be.”
Claudia’s smile remained in place, though she was not exactly sure what Sarah was trying to say. “I’ll take good care of him.”
Sarah pulled a chair up next to the coffee table, directly in front of them. By then she was wearing her professional face. “This is very important. It’s not Cousin Sarah talking now. It’s Nurse Sarah, with something very serious for you to hear.”
That had Gary and Claudia exchanging glances, trying to image what bad news Sarah was bringing.
“The cut is healing just fine,” she began. “I’ll change it once more in a few days. From then on Claudia can do that.” She dropped the records folder back in her valise.
“Gary has already heard what I have to say about concussions,” she continued with no hint of humor in her words. “Though it seems he didn’t listen too well. Thing is, at his age that sort of injury has to be taken seriously. To have two concussions in the matter of a couple weeks can be deadly.”
Claudia had not heard Sarah’s earlier warnings. The unexpected bluntness of her cousin’s words hit hard. Putting her hand over her mouth, she prepared herself for the worst.
Sarah was smiling now, just a bit, and aiming her remarks directly at Claudia. “The doctors were surprised when Gary regained consciousness so quickly this time. Thank heavens for that. That’s usually a good sign.
"However, for reasons I don’t understand this man of yours has a knack for getting knocked on the noggin.” Claudia’s hand went back to her mouth, this time to hold back her giggling laugh.
“That’s not at all funny.” Sarah’s stern, professional tone had returned. “Because if it happens again he may not wake up at all. Not ever. Or if he does, he may not be the man you thought you married. ”
“Not ever?” Claudia repeated in a whisper. Obviously that had her attention.
“No one can say for sure. But the odds increase every time it happens.” She looked over at Gary, smiling now as she spoke. “So enough is enough. No more leading with your head. Do you hear me?”
“I hear you. I’ll try to remember that.”
Sarah rose and started for the door. “Oh, by the way, I hope I’m invited to the wedding.”
Claudia picked up the pad they were using to make their guest list. “See. Right there. You’re already on the list. As soon as we have a date, you’ll be hearing from us.”
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, beginning in October with the Second Chances story, so they can always start at the beginning.