I was holding her hand when she passed. Since I’d never seen anyone die, I hadn’t been sure what to expect. Perhaps I thought her death would be preceded by a long sigh or some kind of final death rattle. Maybe I was supposed to see some aura or light emanating and escaping from the body I’d cherished all these years. She certainly wasn’t confused nor disoriented in her ending moments. The last words I heard her speak were lucid and clear, “Grow old along with me. The best is yet to be, my darling.” Next, she grew very still and quiet as her body slumped down a little deeper in the place we had laid together for many years. The love of my life now appeared more relaxed than I’d recalled seeing her for quite some time. Then she was gone.
Those last words were from some poem she’d heard and memorized when younger and years before we’d met. In fact, she had recited it when proposing we mate.
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith, “A whole I planned,
A youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”*
How could I say no to that wonderful young female whose beautiful brown eyes misted with the dew of tears while sharing those words that were more than mere words? They were a solemn promise that she kept to me up to her last breath. Whenever I had grown upset or frustrated by the barriers and burdens, real or imagined, that fate had dealt us in our lives she’d draw me near to hold as she softly whispered in my ear, “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be...” And like an answered prayer I’d realize my problems were vastly outweighed by the miracle of being loved by her. Now she’s gone—and I’m all alone.
The hand which I had still held in mine had grown cold, and I released it so I could use my knuckles to help me stand upright by her lifeless corpse. The thought of the loneliness I’d now have to endure during what years still remained in my life, endure without her, made me want to pound and beat my chest in rage and anger. It made me want to howl at the full moon that now began to appear, alone in the sky above us as another day had surrendered its clear and vividly colored twilight to the darkened night the way life surrenders to death. Thoughts and feelings that made me want to hurt something, anything—even myself, to offset the pain that now trapped and enslaved my heart, my soul, my mind, my very being with the misery of bereavement.
“Why would she do this? Do this to me? Leave me like this?” I savagely growled and demanded from the unhearing and uncaring cold universe I was now left to face on my own without her. “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be...”
“How can I still grow old along with you? You’re gone—you’ve left me and the best is now behind us and fading like a dulled memory! How do you trust a God that severs and cleaves the two to leave only one to remain without the other to soothe and assuage for what’s lost in the last of life? How could you have made me believe we were in His hands when He was not there when we most needed Him? Are you even listening to us, God?” I bellowed beneath the stars that appeared silently to provide consoling company for that melancholy moon in the heartless heavens above.
Sinking back down on my haunches next to my beloved’s inert remains laid on the hard floor of the cage we had shared in this zoo all these years together I began to sob. A Sub-Saharan African silverback is not supposed to cry out loud, but I didn’t care if the other animals or the zookeepers saw or heard me. A gentle wind blew through the trees making their leaves rustle ever so lightly. And for a moment I believed again I heard the lilting sound of my sweet companion’s voice comforting me, “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be...”
Grow Old Along With Me Pt. II: Aftermaths and Embers
When the zookeepers had clocked into their jobs the next morning and found us we were snuggled together at the place we’d slept with each other for many years in this now half-empty cage. I was still holding her cold dead hand when one of them stopped by to feed us. I’d neither slept nor dreamt the entire night but was too emotionally drained to feel anything else but emptiness. The first to come upon us recoiled in shock when he discovered she was dead. Me? By now I’d come to the realization they’d soon be removing her now stiffening body and that would be the last I’d ever see of the love of my life.
At first, I thought about fighting them. Though over the years the two of us had shared this cage we’d come to the conclusion that resistance was futile when it was against the hand that would not only feed you but could hurt you at their discretion. Well, between you, me, and the walls that surrounded, discretion was not their strong suit. And with that in mind, I conceded that when the first zookeeper returned with the inevitable cluster of other zookeepers my only choice was to retreat to the most distant corner of the cage while they inspected my beloved’s remains.
Return they did, and they did in mass. There were two from the medical team that usually took care of all who live in cages here and four I recognized as the ones we’d most usually see around us during the daylight hours, while there we several who I can’t clearly remember having seen before and who appeared to dominate a majority of the others by no other behavior than just being present. I was neither spoken to, nor regarded, or acknowledged. During the whole course of their unrequested and uncomfortable visit, they really paid me little to no mind. Looking back, it was as if I wasn’t even there.
I couldn’t watch when they examined my darling’s corpse so I simply turned away to look out between the bars that had separated my mate and me from the rest of the world all these years. It wasn’t their fault that she had died—but still—I had to battle the urge to hurt them, even though I admit they’d had no hand in ending my sweetheart’s life. In the end, they’re as impotent as we all are against death.
Now, here’s a funny thing. The majority of us encaged here in captivity behind bars can understand most of the words the zookeepers and those that come to watch us in our cages say to us. Ironically, none of us can recall an occasion when any of them showed the least bit of recognition in regard to what we said to them. They were clueless! We’d do our best to speak with them but they appeared to never understand a single word we said. Most of us had already given up on any hope of ever communicating with them and we try our best not to fault them for being slow.
“Do you think he killed her?” one of the ones I recognized as someone I’d seen around us during the daylight hours asked one of the ones from the medical team.
“No, there’s not any evidence of physical trauma,” the one from the medical team replied. “She was getting pretty old, you know.”
“Yeah,” the inquisitor continued, “but it seemed like she was healthy.”
“Well, he didn’t kill her, I’ll tell you that.”
“Ah, Okay. What are you gonna do with the body?”
“First, get it out of the cage. We’ll do an autopsy just to check if she died of anything that could be communicable to the other animals or us then we get rid of the carcass the way we usually do.”
“Well, guess I’ll start firing up the old incinerator then and get it ready for when you’re done.
“Yeah, why don’t you go do that and let us get on with our work?”
Throughout the years that this cage was ours’ to share we had mated many times. Nonetheless, we bore no offspring, and for the life of me, I don’t know why. While most bear young from their coupling, for those of us who do not it’s neither for lack of trying nor a lack of love for each other. I loved her more than I know ways to tell you. Still, when we lay together I could not have been happier. This she told me too was how she felt. So it seemed we were enough for each other when all’s said and done. Remembering that, made time pass somewhat less painful since the day she died.
And time did pass. The pain faded to numbness. I was glad they never brought another to my lonely cage to mate with me. She was irreplaceable and I had no desire to be with anyone else but her ever again. I was probably just too old anyway. Fate had cast me together with my one and only soul mate so I’m thankful for that good fortune. Still, I miss her every day.
I’ve no way of knowing for sure how many years a Sub-Saharan African silverback can stand before finally lying down, like my lover, for the last time. What I do know is during those times when the memory of her manifests as a dull ache in my heart and keeps me awake all night long, is if I listen carefully, I can still hear her voice. Especially when the leaves on the trees outside my cage are being rustled by a soft wind, “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be...” she reminds me. It’s then I truly comprehend the complete meaning of those words. Once this mortal coil no longer binds me to this life we’ll both be able to grow old together, united once again to watch the sunrise on all the best that is yet to come. Together anew, for eternity.
*From a poem titled Rabbi ben Ezra by Robert Browning circa 1864