Under the nurse’s guidance, Marty walked into the cold exam room and shuffled over to the examining table. Awkwardly pulling up on the legs of his jeans to get comfortable, he pulled out his shirt tails to give him more room, his feet dangling in the air like a school boy’s. He sat quietly with his hands folded in his lap while the nurse, after reassuring him the doctor would be in soon, closed the door, leaving him there alone. This was the consult he feared. The one after all the tests and questions and probing. The one he was dreading over the last few days, anticipating the extremes of both worlds. At sixty-two, he had already had a number of these visits. Status report on an aging body. Joints worn out, vertebrae shifting, organs sliding into slow motion. In exchange for working hard, fate had paid him very well, yet he had not fully realized that in the bargain it was taking his physical integrity.
Silently he sat there, looking out the window at the fall colors on the trees. The wind was moving them slowly, taking a few off with each gust as payment, until eventually they were all gone and winter was here. He saw the thin branches moving stiffly as they swayed with the wind. How odd he thought, here he was watching branches twisting away from the tree as they tried to grow, while his fingers were twisting as he was trying to contract them. Sitting alone in the stillness, he couldn’t help but speculate on his future, but without this, information he could only guess and worry.
Suddenly, Theresa burst through the door. Out of breath, her hair tousled, her coat bunched in her arms, she threw her purse down on the chair, then walked over and hugged him, kissing him on the cheek.
“Sorry I’m late.” She exhaled heavily. “Have you seen the dr. yet?”
Marty shook his head no and gave her a weak smile. She smiled back and stroked his white hair, still full at his age. She scanned his face, then placed both hands on his cheeks and kissed him on the lips. “Don’t worry.”, she whispered. “You will be okay.”
As if on cue, the doctor bolted through the door with a stern look on his face and a thick folder in his hand. He stopped in front of them, stared at both of them for a second as if trying to be certain that he was in the right exam room with the right people. Satisfied, he then walked over to the x-ray display and slipped a few slides from the folder onto the clip at the top of the screen. Having placed six of them up there, he then reached over to the side of the panel and clicked on the light.
On full display were black and white visuals of Marty’s hands. Three from the left and three from the right. They could clearly see the bones of the fingers. Some of them were thick and straight while others were bending at the cloudy collections at the joints.
The doctor stood back, folded his arms and studied the images. Abruptly, he turned to face them, his arms still crossed. For a few moments there was silence as they stared back at him. “Well?” Theresa began, but could not go any further as the doctor suddenly turned back to the screen and began to point at the slides.
“As you can see, the arthritis is beginning to advance further into the joints, but that was not unexpected.”
There was silence again. This time it was Marty’s turn, “Well?” he began, only to be cut off like Theresa was.
“What this means is the medicine we have been giving you has slowed down the arthritis.” he pointed at the slides, then began to slowly lower and raise it as if conducting a small symphony. Then he stopped doing it. “Which is good. But it will not stop it.”
He turned to the two of them, his arms still crossed. He had their full attention as he continued. “Eventually you will lose the full use of your fingers. But, we can medicate you so you are in less pain as the joints become stiffer.”
“I guess it isn’t so bad if the pain is gone.” Ralph answered.
The doctor raised his finger. “Actually, I said ‘less’, not ‘none’. Unfortunately this is something that comes with this particular condition.”
Theresa laced her fingers into his, her thin digits caressing the thick knobs on his knuckles, while she looked into his face trying to assess what he was processing. He showed no emotion as he understood the information. Then he looked up at her, his face warming from her support.
“What else can we do?’ she asked the doctor.
He thought for a second, scrunched his face, then blurted out. “Move.” he stopped, staring at their expressions as he realized they needed more information. “Drier air, warmer climate. Again, wont stop it, but you will be more comfortable.”
“We have lived in Chicago our whole lives,” Marty said softly. “All of our family is here.”
“Our two sons and their wives and kids, my mother and aunts and uncles.” Theresa said as she listed the inventory, almost pleading.
The doctor uncrossed his arms and slipped them into his pants pockets. He nodded towards the slides. “Suit yourself, but you should consider it as an option, as this is what is going on now.”
Theresa turned over in bed and instinctively reached over to Marty’s side. For a few minutes, she probed, looking for the warm form of her husband, only to feel cold empty sheets. She opened her eyes, stared at the ceiling fan for a few moments before she realized her bearings. Sitting up on her elbows, she looked over at the vacant side of the sheets to validate that he wasn’t there. She then gazed at the closed bathroom door adjacent to the bedroom and not seeing a light under the door, swung her feet off the mattress and fitted her slippers on.
As she exited the bedroom and into the hallway of the second floor of the house, she walked past the closed doors of her two son’s rooms, both long gone out the house with their own families and lives. As she walked she placed her hand on one door, as if feeling for a pulse, then placed it again on the other door as she walked to the stairs leading down to the first floor. The first floor was supposed to be dark, but she saw the dull yellow of the kitchen light filtering into the hallway besides the stairs. She cautiously walked down the stairs, turned the corner and walked into the lit kitchen where Marty was sitting at the kitchen table, staring at a glass of milk in it’s center. He didn’t seem to notice her as she slid passed him, placing her hand on his shoulders and letting it slide across his back. When it had reached the end, he reached up and grabbed her hand, squeezing it.She returned his impulse as she sat down next to him.
Looking at her, he smiled faintly and then took a deep breath, exhaled it slowly, then returned his gaze to the center of the table.
“Thinking about what the doctor said?” she asked.
He nodded slowly.
“Just trying to process it.” he said softly.
They sat there quietly for a few moments. The sound of the ticking clock in the living room the only sound
“What do you think so far? she asked.
“I think I don’t want to live in a desert. I think I don’t want to live away from the boys and the grandkids. And I think that having lived in this neighborhood my whole life.” he turned to look at her. “If I left it I would die.”
She nodded. “I understand that.”
“I also think I am letting all of you down. I promised you and the boys - my family - that I would take care of you and now with this junk in my hands, I may not be able to do that anymore.” He opened his hands on the table in front of him and in the yellow light of the kitchen lamp, the twists and bends of the arthritis in his fingers were clearly evident.
She reached out slowly and placed her own hands in his. She laced her fingers in his, her fingers pushing past the swellings at the joints and pushing against the calluses of a lifetime of work. She squeezed them as hard as she dared and looked him straight in the eye.
“With these hands you fitted pipes in half the buildings in Chicago. Every time we drive downtown, you point to a skyscraper and tell us a story about the people that worked there or the risks you were taking. These hands kept food on our table and a roof over our heads.” She leaned in close to him, her eyes growing moist with emotion, “These hands put two boys through college and now you have a lawyer and a banker as sons. And through all of this, the touch of these hands have been there for me, to let me know that you will always have my back.” she paused, seeing the words sinking in as he looked up at her. “Your hands have not failed you. In doing all of these things for us, you have worn them out and while they were working, you accomplished so many things.”
She felt his hands squeeze back, the roughness chafing at her skin, but she didn’t let go. Spontaneously she kissed him on the cheek so hard her nose grew numb.
She then pulled away and smiled at him, wiping away a tear. “If you want to stay here, we will stay here. It is an option, not a prescription.”
“But it will get worse. The pain that is.”
She gave a short laugh. “That's your problem Superman. If you need the drugs, get them. If you need physical therapy, do it. For once in your life do what you need to do. This neighborhood is in me too, and I don’t want to leave either.”
She leaned forward and hugged him as hard as she could. “I will always be there for you. Whatever you need, whenever you need it. You have done so much for us, this is what all of us will do for you.”
He buried his face in her hair and breathed deeply. Filling his head with her presence and her warmth, he realized once again how much he loved this woman.
“Will you help me button my shirts when my fingers start to fail?”
“Always.” she said.
“Will you drive me around wherever I want to go?”
“Anywhere you like?” she answered.
“Will you give me a bath when I need help?’
“On that one you are on your own. I will get you a spritz bottle and a toilet brush.” and they both chuckled.
They parted, and gazed at each other threw a lifetime of sight. “We have been through many adventures together,” she said with confidence. “We will go through this adventure together also. Now get up and let’s go back to bed. I’m losing valuable sleep.” She kissed him on the lips and they both stood up, pushed the chairs in and exited the kitchen.
Shuffling up the stairs, Marty said, “You know the real reason I don’t want to live in Arizona.”
“No, why is that.” she asked with a yawn.
“Snakes.” he said. “Can’t stand them. Did I tell you about this job I was doing over by the Chicago River….” his voice trailing away as they closed the bedroom door.