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i wrote this short story a few years ago, during a writers workshop. perhaps it can be seen as a sort of continuation of my last post.
“there’s too many … too many …….. tinsel in my head”
her face is all wrinkled in the effort to find the words. the words are there, she knows, she just can’t reach them or see them. it’s like being on the ferry back to the island for the umpteenth time – she knows it’s there, but in the dense fog she can’t see it and is still disoriented. but it’s a familiar disorientation, softened by the knowledge that eventually she’ll arrive. in the meantime, all you can do is sit there and do your best.
across from her, facing the garden beyond the big french windows, barbara has installed herself in the rocking chair. relaxed, as always, she holds finny on her lap – the most comfortable cat you can imagine. she jumps on your lap when you’re good and ready, stays soft and still there (none of that frantic kneading that other cats like to get into), and hardly ever holds it against you when you get up.
so barbara just sits there and listens. she has time.
eva’s face lights up: “no, not tinsel! thoughts! too many thoughts! they all bump into each other and i can’t tell which is which and then i … then i …”
“it gets a bit chaotic in there, doesn’t it?” barbara strokes finny. “maybe it feels a bit more chaotic than it used to but don’t forget, there’s chaos in everyone’s head. lots of it.”
a smile. eva’s smile is still so sweet, so delightful – maybe more so now after the stroke. something shiny must have crept into her that night when she just keeled over, in the middle of the dinner party. there’s something different about her since then. “it’s not the stroke, it’s not that she can’t talk so well anymore, or that her face looks a little, how should i say – well, you know, with her eyebrow drooping – no, it’s not that!” eva had tried to explain that to len a number of times, and after a while, she had gotten a little frustrated. “it’s like a halo – no, that sounds wrong; it’s – geez, see, eva’s not the only one who can’t find the words!”
eva’s smile rests on barbara. like the cat on her lap. it justs sits there, soft and loving. receptive.
barbara looks down at the cat. “there’s lots of chaos in my head, i can tell you that. should i take this teaching gig in the summer or not? what if i do? how will len react? why should i care about what he thinks? and what about the book, i only have one more chapter to write, can you believe it, and i haven’t touched it for six months. what’s all that about? and len’s wheelchair, it needs fixing, and frankly, i don’t want to do it, he’s old enough to look after himself, and – oh, i hate it. i wish i was like finny.” she sighs. finny doesn’t mind. she’s used to humans getting all wonky and worried about things, it’s just like the weather, nothing to fret over.
and eva sits there, too, opens her mouth: “balloons!”
barbara looks at her, her head a little to the side: “balloons!”
“hmmm …. balloons … oh! like all these things and thoughts, they’re all balloons?”
“yes! it’s just the words that came out of my mouth, but yes, that’s it! just let them be balloons, going up in the, in the … you know?”
a sentence or two, and the words disappear again. but the smile is still there, a big grin now –
and tears run down barbara’s face. once again, here she is, barbara, the brilliant therapist, all being a good listener, all doing the sitting-relaxed-in-the-chair thing, all showing herself off as the woman who has her life together – and here she is, across from old eva, her client, who is probably never going to fully recover from her stroke – and old eva is the one who shows her the way.
ah, maybe it could all be so easy – maybe … but then there is len, barbara’s stepson, who came into her life only three years ago, after he reconnected with his father, barbara’s second husband, fred. then fred died only six months later, a merciful death after a short battle with cancer. barbara offered len that he could stay with her in the big house, and somehow she’d slid into becoming his mother. that was strange and often trying enough but then it turned out that len was buddy-buddy with eva’s favourite niece, clara. eva had been barbara’s client for years. now, after the stroke, somehow barbara’s relationship with len had become entangled with her relationship with eva. she’d go and visit eva and bump into clara and len as they’d come out of eva’s little apartment in the extended care home.
what was she thinking, talking about len to eva? barbara’s opens her eyes wide at this huge faux pas and she sits up in the chair.
eva leans forward, “what – what’s the ladder?”
“what’s the matter? i just remembered something. i should – i shouldn’t …”
eva smiles. barbara can tell, she just knows that eva understands. she understands what it’s like not to know the words – or wait, that’s not it. that’s not barbara’s problem. she knows the words but she doesn’t want to say them. this is not something she should discuss with eva. no. chaos in her head. or wait – does eva understand more? more than that barbara doesn’t seem to be able to find the words?
“it’s different now, you know?” she hears eva saying.
for a moment barbara finds her way out of her jungle of thoughts. her eyes meet eva’s.
and then there is a while when they don’t say anything. their eyes meet in a soft place, and a connection is made between them, a band of weightless love that carries them both, as they walk together, side by side, through a small yet infinite measure of time. the hummingbirds outside the french windows whirr, a breeze lifts a few bamboo branches out of their droopy sleep and makes them swish, and little shadows from the poplars dance on the roof of the pagoda, framed so lovely by the big old gilded windows. far, far away, it seems, the sound of nursing students chatting (just really down the hallway but – yes, far away …)
slowly, eva leans forward and pats barbara’s hand.
“the … the man …. the man in the, the coach …”
barbara looks at her, “the coach? you mean …?”
that smile again. a big, open, friendly, reassuring grin now: “don’t worry about him. it’s all different now. we can’t be, we can’t be, we can’t be – strangers? strangers anymore? you and i. don’t worry. it’s all easy now.”
barbara slides back into the jungle.
strangers? they are not strangers! years and years of therapy together –
and back out again. held by the weightless band.
together. oh. they were doing therapy together? not therapist and client, but therapy together?
barbara smiles too, now. together. side by side. no-one guides the other. side by side. indeed; they are together now.
the bamboo leaves keep swishing. finny gets up and stretches. eva and barbara sit there, without words, smiling together.