The night is near and a mist is in the air, settling on the ever drooping flowers. The sunflowers no longer climb to the sky in defiance of the rain but he remembers when they were beautiful and bright. Now the seeds are dropping to the ground, birds are contemplating the next day’s feast.
He no longer stands straight, his stoop is well known to his doctor though there is little that he can do about it. Years of hard work has built it; years of hard work have torn him down.
He looks around his shop, the leather strap that drives his press is dry and worn though it has never failed him. The belts are no longer made: most presses like his have long since gone to scrap. Other equipment was improvised, some parts came in kits, other parts were found but they work. He remembers that old leaky washing machine that provided the motor that he uses to operate his grinding wheels. The craftsman pulleys still work like new and they should as they were forged in the USA, they like him, are of the past now.
Few seem interested in learning his craft these days. It lacks the bright lights of monitors and smells of oil, smoke and age. No one seems to want to get their hands dirty nowadays but when he was young everyone it seemed wanted to build something. Creating was life and he could build whatever was needed. His hands are cracked and stained, they are partially crippled from arthritis and pain. The scars they bare tell his story but no one seems to want to hear them.
The old building has seen better days. Paint peeling and faded, windows starting to leak and the roof is well worn. He remembers putting that roof on when he came back from the war. Everything seemed possible then. After all, he came home when so many didn’t. He remembers climbing that old ladder with three bundles of shingles on his shoulder. That earned him a nickname for a while, “three stacks” soon helped many friends with theirs as well.
Now and again a kid (anyone under 50) stops by and he attempts a chat as he makes repairs. So many of them have no interest in anything that cannot be plugged into the internet. Often he tries to explain what he did and how the things have changed since “his day” but mostly they interrupt him and just ask to pay. They have little interest in the fact that the big guys up the street just change parts while he can often rebuild them in a matter of minutes, saving hundreds of dollars for his customers and keeping thousands of pounds of scrap per year out of the dump. He remembers a time when he and his partner would rock a bit and share stories between jobs. His partner is gone now, just an empty chair remains. So many things feel empty now. He wonders what will become of his shop once he has gone. Will anyone value it or will it be torn asunder and the lot converted to a new pad site for a big box store?
His children never got behind what he did though they appreciate the hard work that he did to pay their ways through school. They moved off to the big cities that he never much cared for. Small towns are more his style, but it would seem they are not the style of the younger generation.
He never had a smart phone and hopes he never will. He much more enjoys a person to talk to in the room as opposed to the disjointed voice coming from a fancy talking box. Still, maybe it would allow for more conversations with the little ones though he is not sure they would call.
His life is what he made. Hard work, good friends and a loving heart. He is not sure where all the time went. He is unsure when his decline started but knows it must have been gradual, much like the drying of paint: barely noticeable to the eye yet so much happens to make a liquid become a solid.
His first close friend (other than in the war) died when he was 35. Heart they said. Many have gone since then. Mostly one at a time but more recently they seem to go in clusters. Of his living friends, only a few remain in their homes. He would rather die than go to a retirement home. Still, other than the pain, he does not feel old. In his mind he feels he should still be in his prime, yet the mirror tells him that his time has passed. He contemplates the future and any part he may have in it. He tries to imaging a renaissance of his own making, a new start and a new life though he has no idea how it can be done.
A customer comes and they share some kind words. This kid seems to have an interest in not only what he is doing but in how he does it. He appears fascinated by the way that he can fix just about anything that does not have a computer in it. How he can take a piece of scrap metal and with a few cuts and bends he can make a bracket to replace a missing one. He shares with the kid how he learned to do it and offers to teach him how when he has the time. It is an offer that he has made many times though few if any have ever taken him up on it. To his surprise, the kid asks him when they can start and they set a date.
Later the kid appears with a few of his friends. They offer to pay for the lessons but he declines as he is more than happy to share his knowledge, tools and experiences. In time, the empty chair becomes the kid’s chair. Though it felt weird at first, it also felt right. Maybe his time has not passed after all.
Time moves on and with it so too his health. He coughs more and more these days; a productive cough that his doctors had warned him was coming. He shrugs it off and tells the kid and his friends that it is nothing more than “life’s juices” but he knows that this year’s flowers will be the last he ever sees in bloom. Somehow though it feels ok; he knows his life may be leaving but that his work was worth doing and that he has made a difference. He rocks more now, he says it helps him to ignore the shaking of his legs. The kid handles more and more of the hands on parts of many of the repairs yet he supplies the knowledge. The kid lingers to every word…
---When working with the elderly we often see themes: reflections on a life well lived and enjoyed, feeling of a life never in bloom and that is now in decline or some shades in between (there are many others as well of course). In looking at quality of life, many who report a high quality of end of life stages often feel that way as they still feel useful and needed in some way, they feel this even if their health is poor. Those who report disappointment or regret often report having few current ties in the here and now. Their lives are often thought of by themselves as something that was in the past regardless of health.
While this story is a work of fiction inspired by many events throughout my career and life, it is very common. When one feels that they no longer fit in or have a real purpose, they tend to go to a dark place. As counselors, family and friends we can do much by doing as little as making a little time for the elderly. Show a real interest in their lives, listen to their stories, record them if possible for they will not be here forever; one day that chair will be empty as well. Learn from them and include them. In cases it may arguably extend their lives but even if it doesn’t it can and often does greatly increase the quality of the final stage of life and what can be better than that?
"Doc Warren" Corson III is a counselor and the clinical & executive director of Community Counseling of Central CT Inc. and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (www.docwarren.org).