Do you have the time?

When my most intimate companion failed to respond as normal, I feared she had suffered a stroke like the cerebral hemorrhage that took Uncle Bob years ago. Uncle Bob was the smartest guy in South Paris, the Harvard Law valedictorian who, against all expectation, had made South Paris his home until he suddently dropped dead leading the Congregational Church’s Annual Meeting. He had shown no signs of stress during worship, directing the Choir from the organ bench as he had for 25 years. Church meetings are like that — they often raise a leader’s blood pressure — but this was different! All of a sudden he was gone.

Like Uncle Bob, she showed no signs of stress before retiring last night. She is the one who has done the most of anyone to encourage my writing and publishing — filing things away until I needed them, flagging a mis-spelled word or correcting faulty grammar. I’ve depended on her every day for the past six years. She is more than an assistant. Since the day we met, I’ve turned her on. This morning is different. Nothing turns her on.

I  gently carry her to the garage, cover her with a blanket, and drive to the Urgent Care at the Southdale Mall. They admit her for tests and suggest I return in an hour in an hour or so.

“Do you have the time?” I ask.

He gives me a strange look and checks his iPhone. “It’s 10:30. We’ll text you when we’re done. Where can I reach you? What’s your number?”

“I don’t have a number.”

“Okay, how about an email?”

“I don’t have a mobile phone. You know, there are no public clocks anywhere anymore. Everybody’s in a bubble.” 

He pauses and looks up. “Hmmm. You know . . .I hadn’t thought about that! Come to think of it, I guess you’re right. “Okay . . .well, just be back by 11:30.”

Anxious and alone with an hour to kill, I wander the corridor from shop to shop before going into Macy’s. It’s easy to distract yourself shopping, and Macy’s is just the place. You can find anything at Macy’s…except a clock. “Excuse me, do you have the time?” I ask the clerk in the men’s shoe department. It’s not a question he gets anymore. He glances at his iPhone, looks up, and, with a strange look, gives me the time: “10:45.”

With forty-five minutes to spare, I remember Macy’s famous Lakeside Grille and follow the confusing signs to catch a late breakfast or early lunch. I tell the waitperson I have an important appointment at 11:30 and ask for the time. “10:50,” he says. “I don’t have a phone. Would you be so kind as to give me a heads up when it’s 11:15?” He takes my order and agrees to notify me. I scarf down the Oktoberfest special of pork schnitzel, spaetzl, and green beans, wondering what time it is. The waitperson is nowhere to be seen. I ask another waitperson, “I’m sorry. Do you have the time?”

I rush back to Urgent Care, anxious about the test results. “Mr. Stewart,” says the neurologist, “I’m sorry. We ran all the tests and the news is not good, but it’s not beyond hope.” I breathe a sigh of relief, waiting for what comes next. “She’s still alive, but she needs immediate surgery. We have a neurologist standing by.” “What’s the cost,” I ask, knowing she has no insurance. “We can replace her keyboard for $485 so you can turn her on again, but she’s old. It’s only a matter of time before she goes. Or you can buy a new one for an additional six-hundred dollars or so. Your call.”

End of life decisions, like putting down my canine companion after fourteen years– are harder than others. For months after Maggie’s death, I swore I’d never get another dog. There’d never be another Maggie. I couldn’t bear the thought of holding another Maggie in my arms when her time would come.

“I’m a writer,” I say. “Like lots of other writers, I have ADHD and sometimes, like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, I drink too much. I’m completely dependent on her for filing and saving my work. She keeps it all in her head. Besides she’s the only one I’ve ever turned on.”

“Not to worry, Mr. Stewart. If you leave her with us for 24 hours, we’ll be glad to download her memory to the new MacBook Air. We’ll treat her with great respect. We’ll take good care of things. We’ll be glad to recycle her free of charge. As Hemingway said, ‘Time is the last thing we have.'”

I leave her behind to be downloaded and recycled, grieving my loss, but consoled by the knowledge that, life Uncle Bob and Maggie, she will be in a safe place.

 — Gordon C. Stewart, author of NYT Worst Seller List Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, dedicated to my late assistant, Chaska, MN, October 30, 2019.

Father and Son – Bob and Alan

Bob Smith and his first-born child, my cousin Alan, never had what you and I would call a normal conversation. But I suspect they “talked”more deeply in their own father-son ways.

Alan’s tongue and body were held captive from birth by Cerebral Palsy. He never spoke a word that I could understand.

Each morning Alan’s mother, my Aunt Gertrude, and his father, my Uncle Bob, lifted Alan from his bed, cared for his morning needs with tender respectfulness, carried him downstairs to the kitchen for breakfast. Sitting on his father’s lap, the spoon and fork came to his mouth from the hand of his father. Uncle Bob would then carry Alan to the parlor, the back room on the first floor of the house on Porter Street, where Alan would lie until lunch. Uncle Bob came home from the Oxford County Court House for lunch every day  to be with Alan, Gertrude, and Alan’s young brother and sister, my cousins Dennis and Gwen. He would go to the den, lug Alan to the kitchen, feed him lunch…. Repeat, repeat, repeat at dinner. Carry Alan upstairs, prepare him for bed, and, as I imagine it, say a prayer that Alan could hear and understand but could not speak. He did that for 14 years.

My time with Uncle Bob and Alan dates back to my earliest years. Every summer I stayed at my uncle and aunt’s house for a week while the rest of my family stayed with my grandparents. My relationship with my cousin Dennis, only six months older than I, was special enough to separate me out for special time at the house on Porter Street.

Looking back on it now awakens me to the sense of heaviness that came over me watching Alan, seeing the joy in his eyes and the contorted smile that broke out on his face, and listening to the moans of greeting and sheer delight that came from his palsied vocal chords whenever he and I would see each other after the long year’s absences between my family’s vacations.

There was a bond deeper than words. The bond of eyes and smiles. The bond of kinship and shared joy, as well as sorrow. I always wondered what was going on in Alan’s head. Aunt Gertrude, an elementary school teacher, claimed he was very intelligent, but there was no way to measure it. Had he been born 40 years later Alan might have been a Stephen Hawking “talking” by other means, but he wasn’t. He was born in 1939. And if there was a silent bond of awkwardly expressed love between two cousins whose visits were annual, how much deeper and familiar was that bond between the father and his son?

I’ve often wondered what it was like being Alan. I’ve scolded myself in times of self-pity, and sought the deep courage and joy that emanated from Alan.

I’ve also marveled at Uncle Bob, a wrrior in the trenches, fighting despair over Alan’s plight, what might have been and would never be for him, rising to the daily-ness of it all, some days resenting it, some days wishing he could take his family of vacations like other families, some days finding comfort and courage playing a great sacred music piece on the organ of First Congregational Church of South Paris where he served as Organist and Choir Master for 40 years. Perhaps the familiar hymn tune “Serenity” set to John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “Immortal Love, Forever Full”, encouraging the love he bore for his speechless son:

Im-mort-al Love, for-ev-er full,
For-ev-er flow-ing free,
For-ev-er shared, for-ev-er whole,
A nev-er ebb-ing sea!

The heal-ing of [Christ’s] seamless dress
Is by our beds in pain;
We touch Him in life’s throng and press,
And we are whole a-gain.

At the end of really good days when joy was high with thanksgiving for the father-son bond with Alan, I imagine him walking down Main Street to the darkened church, taking his seat on the organ bench with the lights out except for the organ light, his feet pumping the pedals, his fingers flying over the keyboards and reaching for the stops to play the Widor Toccata he played every Easter, a lush oasis “in life’s throng and press.”