Small Signs

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Small Signs by Joan Kaplan

      There were small signs that things were not as they should be. Alone each meant nothing; taken together they traced the progress of decline and disintegration, or at least of unexpected change. He was not an old man, but he was no longer young. A lifetime of responsibility as a son, husband, and father had seemed ordinary enough, but its accumulated toll had begun to pepper his days with forgetfulness, distraction, and a sense that time was running out. He cried easily, not because of any sadness in his world, but because of its joy. He avoided thinking of painful things – mistakes, losses, dreams unrealized – and focused on memories that were beautiful, poignant, touching. He cried for these, for the wonder they produced in him, losing himself in a state of grace and ecstasy.

      His wife was impatient with him, reluctant to see the strong, resourceful man she had married a half-century before turning himself into a tear-stained cipher of the husband she had always looked to for strength and the solutions to problems they had faced together. She had loved him, not as much as he loved her, but more than enough to share her life with him with no regrets. She could not admit that his changing frightened her; impatience camouflaged her fear. If she admitted that he might be ill or, G-d forbid, dying, she would be lost. Their children were grown, the grandchildren too young to register any changes in his behavior. Their son saw him too often to notice subtle signs of change. Her daughter listened to her but could offer no sympathy, distracted as she was by the changes in her own life that were threatening divorce and abandonment, changes too monumental to bear. She was unable to cope with her parents’ problems and focused entirely on her own not because she did not love them but because she had only so much emotion and could spare none for anyone but herself and her children.

      His wife noticed the first sign the evening he watched an awards program celebrating the careers and accomplishments of several distinguished musicians. The photographic montage of their lives touched him and his eyes misted. The performances of their most familiar pieces moved him deeply and he allowed himself to be lost in the music – his head moving in rhythm to the soaring themes, slowing to the gentle adagios, quickening to the bright allegros, pausing at the smooth sliding glissandos, rising with the monumental crescendos and falling to the haunting elegiac laments. But it was when the performers paid homage to the composers, their heads high, eyes fastened on the honored teachers, their hands crossed against their chests with love and thanks, that he began to weep. He could not stop.

      He was moved beyond words with what he had heard, what they had given the world, and overwhelmed by how little he had added to the universe of men through his own small deeds. He had been a good man, a loving father, a devoted husband. But what, he asked himself, had he accomplished in comparison to these great men, musicians and teachers who had inspired generations with their work?

      His wife could have reassured him that he had given much to the world. His efforts had provided a safe and secure home for his family. His love had helped his children grow into good people and loving parents themselves. His wife had been cherished and happy. What more, she would have asked him, could any man have done to be proud of his life?

      But the man was inconsolable. He felt exhausted, diminished. He had created nothing memorable. His name would resonant with no one outside his family, no one beyond the small circle of friends already growing smaller by the claim of death. Whatever resonance it would have would fade, quickly; he would be forgotten, the footprints of his life blurred and indistinct, then gone. His life, begun slowly ending quickly, the years a flash of unappreciated time and momentary, passing happiness, seemed bereft of meaning.

      “Are you alright?” she asked, turning off the television.

      “Yes, yes,” he answered, embarrassed to have been seen so weak.

      “Darling, why do you cry? The music is so beautiful.”

      “I am not crying with sadness,” he answered, wiping his eyes. “It is just so beautiful that their students, now famous themselves, honor them so. Their emotions are so open, so generous. And the audience, the audience is in love with all of them.”

      “My darling,” his wife answered, feeling overcome with tenderness, “it is beautiful, but not to cry over. It is to rejoice over.”

      “Who will rejoice over me?” he whispered. “Who will cry for me when I am gone? I have done nothing to be so honored as these men.”

      “Why, you’re being silly,” she replied. “You have done so much for so many people.”

      “Nothing. I have done nothing.”

      “What’s wrong with you tonight? Why are you feeling so sorry for yourself? You’re being ridiculous. Ridiculous.” She was suddenly matter-of-fact and impatient with him.

      He said nothing, looked beyond the window out into the distance. Then he turned back to her. “What did you say,” he asked. What were we talking about?”

      When the family gathered weeks later to celebrate their anniversary, the man was confused. “Who is that woman with my son?” he asked his wife when they were alone in the kitchen.

      She laughed, not understanding that he truly did not know who his son’s wife was. “That’s Jackie. Did you forget?”

      “Ah, Jackie. And the small boy who stays close to her – who is he?”

      “Stop it now,” the wife answered, angry. “You’re being silly. He is David, their youngest child. What should I do, tell you everyone’s name and who they are in the family?

      I have no time for this nonsense.”

      Friends came the next day, two couples they had known since childhood. They had all grown up together, gone to school together, attended each other’s weddings, the brises, high school and college graduations, and weddings of the children. They sat at the dining room table and the man could not follow the conversation. He seemed alternately confused then frustrated, resentful then angry.

      “So, you’re not yourself tonight,” one of the men said. What’s wrong?”

      “Wrong? Nothing’s wrong. I’m just having trouble hearing you, you’re all talking at once!” declared the man. But they had not been talking at once; they prided themselves on having only a single conversation at the table so everyone could participate; there were no sidebar distractions. Yet the man was clearly distracted. He stared at his salad and the ranking utensils next to his plate. It seemed as if he were trying to determine which to use and could not decide.

      “Dear friend,” one of the women said, rising from the table and coming to him so she could embrace him and kiss his forehead. “Perhaps you’re simply tired tonight. Perhaps you would like to excuse yourself and rest?”

      “I will rest for a long time,” he said, touching her arm affectionately. “Must I begin tonight?”

      The doctor called both of them into his office after the examination was over. The man walked slowly, retying his tie, straightening his jacket. His wife’s face was creased with concern.

      “It is the early stage,” the doctor, a long-time friend, said softly but with the precision of a physician. “From what you tell me,” he looked at the wife, “things are moving quickly.

      We need to talk about this, to understand what is happening. Things will not get better.”

      They did not get better. A nurse came to help the wife care for her husband. There was no question that he would remain at home; nothing, no one, could convince her to send him somewhere, to visit him daily, to become a stranger to him. And it would be too difficult for the children to visit him in some strange, inconvenient place where the grandchildren might be frightened by so many old and sick people, the scurrying nurses and doctors.

      Soon he remained in bed throughout the day. Only at night, when the nurse might have fallen asleep, did he pull himself out of it, go to the window, open it and scream that he was being held prisoner, that they were abusing him. The police came. The woman was questioned, rudely, the nurse ignored. Neighbors shook their heads, wondering what was really going on in that house, denying the reality of what might happen, some day in the distant future, to them.

      The woman was gallant, noble in her care of her husband. She was also exhausted, drained, uncomprehending that this could be happening to them. He had become a wraith, forbidding them to shave him; he fought against their bathing him, humiliated that his wife and a strange woman should see him unclothed, his manhood shriveled. He lost control of himself and they pinned diapers to his body. He no longer spoke. He cried all the time. His wife cried with him.

      Then he refused food. He accepted only water, a few drops at a time.

      Then nothing.

      He died.

      The chapel was full, overflowing. Friends, colleagues, family, many he had not seen in years, came. People he had forgotten, but who had not forgotten him, his generosity, his friendship, his guidance and concern. Children, now grown with children of their own, came out of gratitude to the man who had helped them go to college and graduate school. Synagogue congregants came to bless the memory of a man who had contributed so much for so long to their community. Strangers who had not known him but who had benefited from the organizations he had begun and supported, that had supported them in times of great need, came to pay their respects, to honor him. The two couples that had come to diner that night when the illness was in its infancy sat with his wife and family, hugged and consoled them. And remembered him. The sanctuary was filled with love and the beautiful music of his life. Everyone there had come to celebrate him and remember how he had touched each of them in unforgettable ways. The only sadness was that he was not there to see and hear and know that he had been so loved, that he had done so much. The sacred prayer resounded throughout the room with its exquisite melody:

      Perhaps the angels would tell him, perhaps god would tell him and dry his tears.



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