Do late-life surprises come in pairs?
From the dance floor to the bedroom. It seemed that his Second Chance was coming into focus…….until he wondered out loud, “What did it mean?”
While he struggled with her response, it was a most unexpected phone call that had her asking her own unexpected question……the one with no satisfactory answer.
Today’s October Years serialization, Chapter 5 of Long Way Home, continues our excursion into the sometimes daunting world of late-life relationships.
From the entry hall, after their night at the country club, Elly led Clint through her house to the family room. There, settled on the multi-sectional couch opposite the wall-mounted television, Clint pushed the reclining section open and stretched his legs, while Elly sat on the sofa portion---her head nestled against his shoulder.
It took only a minute for them to realize the movie she hoped to see had started sometime earlier. Without having seen the crucial beginning the story they were watching made no sense at all. Or perhaps by then they were simply not paying attention. It was a film that would have normally put Clint to sleep in minutes. Yet by then he was dealing with other, more distracting, distractions.
Elly had moved closer, under his arm, with her head on his chest. Her kiss, and the one that followed, were warm and unhurried. Her body was more responsive and her hands more adventuresome than ever before. In a matter of seconds all thoughts of a bad movie had been left far behind.
If Clint was surprised by Elly’s boldness he was also willing to respond in kind. At one point he paused, making a furtive attempt to understand. “Is this leading where I think it is?” he asked softly. Her only reply was a hand clamped over his mouth, effectively silencing his interruption.
A moment later she whispered, “I think it leads down the hall. Is that okay?”
Minutes later, in the dim light that filtered in from the hallway, Clint sat on the edge of the bed watching her undress, while he did the same. Blankets were thrown back to the floor, leaving them under a single, floral-patterned sheet. In the urgency of their embrace he touched and caressed. More incredibly, she returned his touch. Eyes closed, he was reminding himself it was Elly Beyers, the personification of his boyhood dreams, who wanted him in that way. It was almost too much to comprehend.
Later, as they lay nestled against each other he at last found the courage to ask, “Can you tell me what that meant?”
With the sheet pulled up under her chin, Elly was staring at the ceiling as she answered, “I suppose it means that we have to decide what it means. And what it doesn’t mean.”
“I have an idea of what it means to me." Indeed, at that moment Clint had not a shadow of doubt. As for her.....he was not so sure about that. "I guess I’m more interested in what you think it doesn’t mean.”
Elly knew at once how she must respond. He would be disappointed, but she owed him the truth. Rolling onto her side to face him, she tucked a pillow under her head.
“You know that I care for you very much," she whispered. "That’s why this happened. I wanted you to know how I feel.” Her words, as caring and affirmative as they were, could not hide the subtle reservation in her voice.
“Does that mean you love me?” he asked. “Because that’s what I’m feeling.”
“Ah, yes. 'Love.' That’s the question, isn’t it?” Again she was on her back, eyes closed, with her hands laced under her head. For a second or two he thought she was through, until she added, “Would it upset you to know that I don’t like that word very much? Love, that is. I like the way it feels. But not what it means.”
For long seconds Clint was silent, processing her words, wanting to understand her intent. He too was staring at the ceiling when he answered, “I remember leaving the hospital, the morning that Claudia got here. You were talking about how much she and Gary loved each other. You called it ‘unconditional love.’ And you said you weren’t sure you could ever feel that way. Is this more of that?”
Elly nodded. “It’s easy enough to talk about their love. And I think I can understand what you say about your love. The hard part is imagining that I could ever feel like that again.”
My God! How could he possibly respond to that? There they were, minutes after their lovemaking, unable to agree on what it had meant.
In his next breath those thoughts had turned to Gary and Claudia---settled, happy, and in love. How had they managed to sidestep the frustrating obstacles that came with loving Elly? Then, not sure if she was still awake, he asked, “So what does ‘love’ mean to you?”
He was sure he had waited too long. She must be asleep. Would he remember his question in the morning? Then, in the near darkness, he heard, “Love is supposed to mean trust. But I can’t trust like that anymore.”
Before he could respond she continued. “Love is about commitment. How could I ever do that again? And most of all, it’s meant to be forever. At least that's what they say. But it doesn’t really work that way. I know that much for sure.”
Again Elly was quiet, perhaps waiting for his reply. But he had none. How could he possibly relate to images so far beyond his own experience?
A moment later she had more to say. “Love is supposed to mean that I care as much about you as I do about me. I can’t do that anymore. I have to look out for myself. I’ve seen what happens when I put that kind of caring in someone else's hands.
"I gave all my trusting to Mike, and now it’s gone. That’s exactly how our divorce felt---like he took every bit of trust I had and threw it away. It’s hard to imagine that I’ll ever get it back.”
“Oh.” That was the extent of Clint’s response. He had no other, beyond the realization that it was time to leave. Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, he felt across the floor for his clothes. Without looking back at her he said, “I don’t know what to say. I thought you said you wanted to be with me. It felt like you just showed me that’s what you want.”
She reached across the bed and touched his bare back. “Clint, I do want you to be with me. It feels good and special. This isn’t about your commitment. It’s about whether I can ever trust that much again.”
He stood, tucked in his shirt, and walked to the foot of the bed to retrieve his shoes. A minute later, still a bit askew, he sat down on Elly’s side of the bed. There was nothing more to say, so he simply caressed her cheek and smiled.
“Clint Harris,” she said, tugging the sheet over her shoulders. “I told you before that you’re my rock. You’ve seen how I struggle. You can’t possibly imagine how good it feels to know that you’re here for me. Please, don’t let my craziness chase you away.”
“Not much chance of that,” he grinned. “By the way, did I thank you for a wonderful evening? It was everything I expected, and a whole lot more.”
“Thank you.” She pulled him down for a last kiss.
“I’ll let myself out.”
Late Wednesday morning Gary drove his new home up the driveway, around the garage, and into the backyard. Before he had turned off the ignition Clint was standing beside the motor home, waiting for Gary to open the side door.
“What do you think?” Gary asked, stepping to the ground. “It’s thirty-four feet long, gas powered, with a single slide out.” He ticked off several other features. “It’s only four years old. The guy kept it under cover, out of the weather. And I have all the maintenance records.”
“Home sweet home, eh?” Clint scanned the length of the white, green trimmed vehicle, trying to imagine it as the only home Gary and Claudia would have. “Let’s see the inside.”
“Give me a couple minutes to extend the slide out.”
Fifteen minutes later Clint had completed his tour. “I think you did good, brother,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s my idea of home. But if that’s what you two want, I think this will work just fine.”
“It will, when it’s ready. There are a few things to straighten out and fix up.”
With the wedding still weeks away, there would be time to ready the motor home for their departure. That weekend Gary brought Claudia from Lawrence to inspect her new home and take notes for the feminine input that would provide the finishing touches.
Meanwhile Gary cleaned, painted, and with the Operator’s Manual in hand, began to learn more about the motorhome’s utility systems. From a local RV dealer he purchased a pair of thick books to add to his library---one on the care and upkeep of a motor home, the other on surviving and thriving as full-time motor homers.
For Elly Warren it was a quiet, low-key weekend. Saturday afternoon she had joined Clint for an inspection of the new motor home, following quietly as Gary guided them through every corner and cubicle of what would be home for Claudia and him. Having seen the sales brochures for similar models her tour of the actual product did nothing to change her belief that their metal box-on-wheels could not possibly mean ‘home’ to anyone.
Although Claudia had returned to Lawrence, Gary repeatedly assured them that his bride-to-be had seen the motor home and shared his excitement about their new life. In fact, she was already at work planning her own improvements.
Though Elly had definite thoughts on the subject she bit her tongue, knowing it was not her place to be judging their choices. Whatever people said about young love being blind, she told herself, must certainly apply as well to old love.
Sunday, in turn, was a particularly lazy day, with nothing to be done in the garden and only a few minutes of straightening up in the garage. That afternoon Elly perused the stack of books on her ‘to read’ shelf before choosing one she hoped would hold her interest.
In truth, her reading break was not particularly successful. Her thoughts kept drifting back to Clint Harris, as they often had since the emotional finale of their night at the country club. Hand in hand with those persistent recollections came vivid, almost comical images of his bewildered frustration.
Ironically, it had been those thoughts of once-betrayed trust that fueled her determination that she and Clint should go their separate ways for a while. It would be so easy, too easy, to rely only on each other for company and companionship. That was something to be avoided. After all, she knew from bitter experience that nothing could doom a relationship faster than needing each other too much?
On Monday morning Elly strolled through the house straightening up enough to make things presentable for the housekeeper, who would arrive at eleven o’clock. Then it would be off to Portland with Esther Hammond for the indulgent shopping excursion they had been promising themselves for weeks.
It was just after ten when the phone rang. She picked it up, expecting to hear Clint’s voice. Instead she was startled to hear the deep, familiar voice of Tom Berry.
“Hi there," he said. "I was hoping I’d catch you at home.” She must have heard the hint of relief in his words.
“Tom. What a surprise. How are you.”
Indeed Elly was surprised, especially when she paused to realize how glad she was to hear his voice. Phone in hand, she walked from the kitchen to the living room. “Where are you calling from?”
“I’m right here in beautiful downtown Tanner. Actually, it might not be beautiful. But I’m back.”
“Not exactly.” He paused, wishing for a better way to say it. “I’m at the Credlan Nursing Home. You know, on North Sixth Street? It’s not quite like home, but it’s certainly better than the rehab center in Portland.”
“How are you feeling?” She heard her own words and wondered if she should be asking. She knew how blunt and insensitive his answers could be.
Surprisingly, his response was upbeat, almost cheerful. “I guess I’m as good as I’m ever going to be. Life in a wheelchair leaves something to be desired. But now that I’ve heard your voice that hardly seems to matter.”
“How long will you be in the nursing home?”
For seconds she heard only the sound of his breathing. When he finally answered, the lilt had left his voice. “I suppose forever. Here or someplace like it. Maybe an assisted living place.”
“Forever. You mean you can’t go home?”
“Elly. I live in a wheelchair. My old place is nothing but stairs---two and a half levels of them. These days I need a machine just to get in and out of bed. That’s the price of being paralyzed and weighing three hundred pounds.”
He paused for a moment, wondering if she could tell that he was stressing, perhaps over-stressing, the negatives. “Even with a full-time nurse I couldn’t live in my place. I’m making plans to put it on the market.”
“Oh, Tom. I am so sorry. I wish there was something I could do.”
Elly could not have guessed the smile her words brought to Tom Berry’s lips. “I wish there was something I could do,” he repeated to himself. How he had hoped to hear something like that.
An instant later he was providing his own response. “Matter of fact, there is something you could do. Something very special.”
“You could come visit me. I can’t think of anything I’d rather have.”
A visit with Tom? In a nursing home? That surprising possibility had never crossed her mind. The sudden thought of it was a bit disorienting. What would they possibly have to talk about? Could she even look him in the eye?
“Are you sure?” she finally asked. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“It’s the best idea I’ve had in weeks.” At least she was considering his request. That was a hopeful sign. How could he close the deal? “Elly. I’m not the same guy I was, you know. All I am now is harmless and lonely. Seeing you would really mean a lot.”
She knew she would say “Yes,” even as she considered the many reasons to say “No.”
" I have to go to Portland with Esther this morning. And tomorrow is pretty busy." She paused, imagining him there in his room, in his wheelchair. "How about Wednesday morning. Will you be there then?"
“That’s not funny,” he teased. “I’ll be here whenever you come. And I’m really looking forward to it.”
Hanging up, Elly stood for a moment staring at the phone set, as if it could answer the questions that flooded her mind. Why had she agreed to such an idea? What would be gained by seeing him? Would a simple visit ease the guilt she felt?
Just four weeks earlier Elly Warren had stood behind a ranting, half-crazed Tom Berry as he leveled his revolver at Clint Harris. In all likelihood her single gunshot into Tom's back had spared Clint’s life. Since that night at River Park she had relived that terrible moment daily, always wondering where she had found the will to pull the trigger, and never without seeing again Tom’s anguished stare as he lay writhing in pain.
The wound had produced permanent damage to his spinal nerves, paralyzing him from the waist down---and she was the one who had done that. Now his unexpected call was serving as a forceful reminder of that unwelcome truth.
There had been another, secondary outcome from that ugly incident. Clint’s angry assault on Tom and Elly’s single gunshot had created a host of potential legal problems. The possibility of criminal charges being filed against one or both of them had been very real. In the end it had been Tom’s confession, spurred by his desire to spare Elly from the risk of being found guilty, that ended those legal threats.
Now, back in Tanner and having made contact with Elly, Tom could only wait as the next two days passed far too slowly. He had been out of the rehabilitation center for a week. With each day the confining reality of his wheelchair world had become harder to face. But now, at least for the moment, he was caught up in the anticipation of her visit, instead of his own distressing circumstances.
It was not the stringent necessity of sitting all day long he found the hardest to deal with. Although he had been an athlete as a youngster, long years of sedentary pursuits had been both the cause and result of his obese, massively-overweight condition. Even with the full use of his legs Tom’s mobility had been seriously limited.
At home his life had been more and more lived on the main floor, avoiding the constant challenge of climbing stairs. In that respect, his present reliance on a wheelchair did not strike him as the worst of all worlds.
What was more frustrating was the prospect of permanent confinement to a care facility, and the loss of independence that meant. His mind was as alert and nimble as ever. Though he was forced to rely on others to get through the day, he felt well enough to be on his own.
There in the nursing home he was nothing more than a patient---someone to be cared for and pacified---destined to carry that label for the rest of his life. For a strong-willed, intensely self-reliant individual like Tom Berry that was a bitter pill to swallow.
At ten-fifteen Wednesday morning Elly peeked around the half-opened door to see if Tom was in his room. He was there, sitting in front of the single window, looking out at the lawn. “Is that you?” she asked.
Tom jerked around. “Elly. It’s so good to see you. Come here.” He maneuvered his chair to face her and opened his arms wide. “Just a little hug. Please.”
Self-consciously she leaned forward to embrace him, though her arms could scarcely reach around his massive shoulders. Then she stood and stepped back to take in the sight of him. Though it hurt to see his sad helplessness, she managed a smile. “How are you? Are you in any pain?”
“Nothing physical. There wasn’t much damage to the muscles, just a chipped vertebrae and messed- up nerves.”
Elly shook her head, searching for the right words and finding none. How could she listen to his damage report without dwelling on the absolute certainty that she had been the cause of it? In truth, Tom would not be above helping her remember that.
“I get by okay. This wheelchair is a real drag. But my new electric power chair should be here in the next week or so. I’m looking forward to that.” He reached for her hand, but said nothing when she pulled it away.
“The worst part is this damn place. Just being stuck with all these people who are only half here. It’s really depressing.” About then he sensed that she was tuning out his gloomy litany. It was time for something lighter. “Are you still taking good care of Clint?”
She was not smiling when she looked up at him. “I don’t ‘take care’ of Clint. We’re just good friends. That’s all.”
“I hope he appreciates how lucky he is. He sure as heck should be.”
Elly sat on the edge of the bed, wringing her hands, smiling an embarrassed smile. “I’m not sure what to say. It’s so awkward, seeing you hurt like this. And I’d rather not talk about Clint and me.”
Tom’s round face broke into a smile. “Let’s make a deal. Shall we? No one has to say anything. We don’t need to talk at all. The next time you come, and I hope you will, bring a book. You can read and I’ll watch.”
“How could I read with you watching at me?”
“I’ll look the other way then,” he laughed. “The thing is, as long as you’re here I’m not thinking about this place and how miserable it makes me.”
He was looking for her reaction. “Can you understand? For as long as I live I’ll probably live in some place like this. Having you here helps me forget that.”
For the next few minutes they continued their small talk, until Elly knew that she had to get away. Rising to leave she let Tom hold her hand for a moment. Looking up at her he explained, “I don’t suppose I’ll ever get over how strange it is.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it’s seriously strange that the person who made me like this is the only one who can make it bearable.”
“Tom.” She jerked her hand away. “That’s not fair. You left me no choice. You know that.”
“Calm down. You’re right. That was unfair. Let’s not worry about how it happened. But don’t doubt for a minute how good it is to see you again.”
Minutes later Elly sat behind the wheel of her car, still in the parking lot, making no effort to drive away. Instead she was lost in wondering at the surprising new twist to her Tom Berry connection. Would he always be there, one way or another, slipping seamlessly from one disguise to the next?
She would probably never again have to fear his physical presence. Instead that overt threat had given way to a more subtle form of persuasion---one that preyed on the guilt she could not escape. Just minutes before he had shown his willingness to play that card. How would she deal with that?
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.