2004 Marcia Nehemiah
A perpetually opened container of
baby aspirin sits on my night stand, its lid turned up next to it.
Alongside the aspirin, a girl in a pink dress walks on the lid of a blue
tin. A child walks toward her offering a ribboned box. The tin holds a
menagerie of tools-cuticle scissors, emery board, lemon butter cuticle
cream, itself in its own yellow tin, beeswax lip balm, self-stick
bookmarks in hot pink and orange to flag passages in my reading to
which I want to return.
It is with baby aspirin, exposed salmon-colored pills turning their faces
up at me, that I have a nightly conversation, the culmination of my
going-to-bed ritual. I brush my teeth, wash my face, apply the various
lotions and potions in which I am daily losing faith, for at the age
of 51, I'm starting to let go of the notion that I can forestall wrinkles
and lines, the curse, if you are willing to believe in advertising, of growing
old female. Yesterday , in the hospital holding pen, as I waited for my
name to be called for the yearly mammography, rather than watching the
soaps with the rest of the mesmerized herd, I picked up a woman's magazine
and unhappily wallowed in images of the young and the skinny. The
models in their stiletto heels and plunging necklines that revealed
voluptuous rather than pendulous breasts confirmed what I have come to
accept-I am now a member of a different tribe, my fellow baby-boomers'
penchant for plastic surgery notwithstanding.
night I reach for a tiny orange pill, chew the chalky tablet that releases
a momentary burst of flavor and reminds me of a bygone concoction called
(and this is true) Lick'em Maid. I purchased this childhood confection by
the half dozen-striped straws filled with artificially colored and
flavored sugar that I poured onto my tongue, immediately dyed purple or
red or green of the grape, cherry, and lime sugar.
I had heard of people taking baby aspirin as a preventative, but
never considered doing so myself until I visited the eye doctor,
innocently expecting nothing more than a stronger prescription for
you had your cholesterol checked recently?" she asked, as she swayed
in front of my dilated pupils holding a circle of light that she shined
into my eyes. I answered that I hadn't, not in at least 15 years, feeling
a twinge of guilt that I had been so neglectful.
the arteries in my eyes, Dr. Silverstein explained that her bright light
revealed cholesterol deposits, "Unusual for a person my age,"
which for once meant I was too young to expect such a thing, not so old
that I should expect it.
and analyzed blood revealed the number-239. My regular doctor, upon
receiving the results, had her nurse practitioner call to tell me to eat a
low-fat diet (I do), exercise regularly (I do) and have my blood rechecked
in six months (I would).
Stymied for a solution to avert the dreaded and promised heart attack, I
implemented my brother in law's advice: one 81mg baby aspirin a day.
As if on cue, I heard an expert doctor, ( I have unerring faith in doctors
who appear on radio talk shows) expound for 45 minutes on the benefits of
an aspirin a day . A few weeks later I heard another expert doctor caution
that her study showed a higher risk of pancreatic cancer in women who took
high doses of aspirin. What to do?
I took the aspirin some nights, but other nights, I looked at the
container and went to sleep aspirinless, deciding that I could sit trick
the heart attack gods, possibly, into confusing me with a woman who
religiously took her baby aspirin, and they would bypass me to victimize a
totally negligent woman who smoked, drank and ate Twinkies for breakfast.
few months later at my annual exam, my doctor, apologizing for the
misinformation given by the nurse, informed me that my cholesterol was so
high because the "good" good cholesterol was high. As an added
bonus, as if to make up for the mistake, she affirmed that the
"bad" cholesterol was really, really low. A question flitted
across my consciousness: Why the deposits in my eyes? Too relieved at the
good news from my doctor and too scared to entertain any other dooming
prediction, I grabbed the doubt before it had a chance to look me straight
in the eye and ask its question, and hid it away. I did ask my doctor
about taking baby aspirin and she encouraged me to continue to do so,
citing a decrease in the chance of stroke and an increase in the ability
of my blood to flow through my veins unimpeded. But last night, I decided
to let go of the aspirin and along with it the hope that I share with most
Americans that I can hold age at bay, that I can stave off the inevitable,
that I may live so well beyond my eighties that death appears as a faint
mirage on my life's horizon. I have already given up makeup (except for
eyeliner and mascara. I confess to indulging in remnants of a desire
to look presentable), and put to rest the desire to lose those
ever-present five pounds. I'm letting go of this tight grip on youth so many people seems to have, expending so much energy and work to
look good, not to mention feel comfortable in low rise jeans.
the lavender lotion and room spray that sits on my night stand behind the
aspirin actually works to induce an more relaxed attitude, which in turn
prods me toward the notion that I can thwart death. I'll take my chances
without aspirin and hope for the best, which to my way of thinking would
be a heart attack in the middle of a beautiful dream. Which is what life
is. A beautiful dream.
What will be will be.
Or this is just a phase, a stab by the nonconformist me who eschews
anything mainstream, anything that smacks of following mass culture. So
many of my attempts to set myself apart from the herd sooner or later
humble me when I discover that I'm just a statistic in some marketers'
My containers of vitamins sit in the kitchen cabinet. I forget to
take them most of the time, and then zealously recommit to my regimen of
evening primrose oil, vitamin E, fish oil capsules, and menopause formula,
believing in the power of a potion to make me a better me.
Last night a November windstorm signaled the end of autumn. Here in the
woods, you can hear the gusty roar start a mile away and trace its path as
it sweeps over the lake and past our house that sings and whines as the
wind wails around it. Whole limbs loosen and fall to the understory, the
trees letting go of life branch by branch, limb by limb, letting in light
for the saplings below that strive to survive. Awakened from my disturbed
sleep of roiled dreams by the crash of something falling too close, I got
out of bed and walked to the window. The moon threw its white light
through the air, stars hung in the tree branches that danced like
dervishes. I found no evidence that a tree had fallen across our car or
onto our roof, or across the driveway. Did I dream the sound?
What comes, comes.
I lay back in bed, unnerved, but I didn't reach for the homeopathic
pellets of Coffea Cruda that rest next to the lamp on my night stand. The
label on the small blue cylinder says these tiny white pellets, dissolved
six at a time under the tongue, cure "sleeplessness with mental
hyperactivity. "I confess to waking some nights, without the
interposition of a fierce wind storm, at 2 or 3 a. m. I'm not
exactly plagued by thought, but I am deeply
swimming in it. Rather than turn on the light to read, which would also
wake up my husband who can sleep through a nuclear explosion but not a
night light, I lie in bed and watch my thoughts march by like a circus
entering town. The clock downstairs chimes. It's three in the morning. I
wait for the remote possibility that my meaningless thoughts might
bore me to sleep. I make promises; if I'm not asleep in one hour, I'll
take six pellets of Coffea Cruda. I'm not sure why I wait the hour. Is it
because I hate taking pills? Is this stoicism an emblem of upbringing by
Depression- era parents? The
wind continues today. Shortly after I began writing, the light on my desk
flickered and stayed lit, but my computer went black. I'd like a similar
miniscule but powerful outage to surge in my brain at my end. I want to go
out like my computer did, running and humming, light and letters moving
along the screen, the cursor beating like a heart, and then blackness.
On my night stand are two pictures of my husband. I want him to live
forever. With me. One photo, taken at my parents' house five months after
we met, shows us visibly younger, but the differences between how we
looked ten years ago and how we look now is not easy to pinpoint. Greyer
hair? More lines? How could such small and subtle changes account for such
The other picture on the night stand shows Pat's maiden voyage
in his kayak. We did not smash a champagne bottle against the side of the
little red boat, but it was an event for the grandest celebration
nonetheless, our having recently quit "the rat-race" to live
simpler lives in the mountains where we intend to reclaim our time.
Pat often says, "This is my best life ever." I don't want it to
end, but I don't want either of us to live like my father.
is dying. Or, as the doctor says, failing. Failing at what I want to know.
What else should he be doing at 86? Last March, in a misguided attempt to
extend his life, he opted for open heart surgery from which he has not yet
recovered, let alone fulfill his doctor's promise that he would be
"taking trips by the summer." Summer has come and gone, the
surgeon has collected his $100,000 and my father can barely walk.
While he lay in his hospital bed, we paced the corridors obsessed with the
doctor's promise that he would suffocate from the fluid from his lungs if
he did not have the operation. My mother and sisters asked, "How will
he live?" without the surgery. I asked, but only to myself, "How
will he die if he has the surgery?" I pictured him in a nursing home,
his heart valves efficiently opening and closing, blood surging,
while his mind slowed to a halt and his body withered. No one uttered the
Would I choose a Kevorkian-style suicide to assure a mutual death?
Would I? There are ways. When
my mother was sick two years ago, a doctor prescribed Neurontin, the
pharmaceutical du jour. It didn't help, causing terrifying nightmares, and
she stopped taking it after a week, but in the back of the closet , I
found a bottle of close to 100 pills.
"Throw these away," I said, "if you're not taking them
anymore." My eyes caught
hers as I remembered our few conversations about physician-assisted
suicide, which she says she would choose for herself and Dad, "when
the time came." But who can tell what she'd really do, the instinct
to cling to life so strong in all of us? "Unless you want to keep
them," I said, thinking that death might be a deliverance for them
both, my fear of nursing homes and vegetative states looming behind my
words. She said, "Keep
them," guiding my hand with the bottle to the back of the closet.
Ironically, the doctor that wanted to save my father's life eight months
ago is now encouraging the ending of it. He offered subtly clothed
options, not coming right out to say he would help my father die. He
suggested that death would be hastened if Dad stopped taking his daily
dosage of Cumodin. Or that too much flu shot would bring a quick end.
"Pneumonia is a friend to old people," he said. My mother won't
even tell my father what the doctor has suggested, and the doctor has told
my mother not to bring Dad back to the office. It's hopeless, not even
worth the Medicare payment he could bill.
The other day I looked at my face in the mirror. Really looked at it for
the first time in a long time. I'm usually busy not seeing it, brushing my
hair, concentrating only my right or left eye as I darken my lashes
with mascara. I am rarely present to the whole face. When I caught this
incisive glimpse of me looking out from the mirror, I paused to scrutinize
the face that has over the years become less and less familiar to
me. How can I be that 50-year-old menopausal woman, the one that kids on
the street call "lady," the one who carries around with her the
shadow of a younger, beautiful woman who dressed to the nines, whom men
noticed on the street?
When it looked back at me, this somewhat used face, its mouth said,
"I'm going to die." I waited for the weight of those words to
penetrate. How long does it take that reality to sink in? I'm prepared to
wait another 30 years.
Selected reading material also has a home on my night stand. Part of my
nighttime ritual, the current issues of The Sun and The American Scholar,
as well as whatever novel I happen to be reading at the time (this week
it's The Human Stain), establish temporary lodging there. Permanent
residents, which I read from haphazardly but with great relish, are
Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from the New York Times and Toward a
Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe Menachem Schneerson.
Instead of praying every night, I read myself to sleep. I am on a search,
though I hardly row the exploring ship strenuously across uncharted or
even charted seas. I amble along looking for truth which I hope will pop
up and surprise me along my way. The pleasure of a deep plunge into the
Word, the comfort of ideas, of listening to writers unravel the
complications of life, love, and death, are enough to help fortify me for
Maybe it's all that pre-sleep reading, the voices of masters infiltrating
my sleep, starring in my dreams, that necessitate the a small pad and a
pen handy for writing ideas that come to me in my mentally hyperactive
insomnia, ideas that turn out to be good ones coming from the dream state,
like the one which I wrote in the crumbly hand of the half-awake, the one
that sparked this essay.
The last time I visited my father, he handed me a sheaf of full-sized
sheets of paper torn from a yellow legal pad, half sheets and scraps
tucked between them, each covered with his old-fashioned, trembling
handwriting. My father is writing his autobiography.
I don't ask him why he wants to do this-now at 86. I've never asked my
father a personal question. I've never dug into his soul. One doesn't with
one's parents. I assume his motives or guess at them. Like me, he writes
to leave something behind, some small something that will remain when he
disappears. Or maybe he's writing about his past because his present life
is slipping away from him in chunks, day by day. He loses a comb, the
remote control, a sock. He forgets where he puts the newspaper when it's
right by his side on the chair. And amidst of all the forgetting, he's
remembering. He writes whatever comes and then tears the papers apart to
put them in some chronological order. Details fly back to him like spring
birds that perch in a tree and call for attention. The bits of paper
muddle together, searching for some shape, some history.
His mouth palsies. He says, "I'm not sure what to write next."
Creases etch the liver-spotted skin on his cheeks. His bifocals magnify
his milky eyes. His face is so familiar he might be my reflection, but at
the same time he's a stranger. I think, "This is my father," as
if seeing him for the first time.
Reading his memoirs, I learn things I never knew about him and am grateful
for that, but I suddenly realize I know nothing about him at all. And just
as suddenly, I want to know everything. I want to know the man who lived
for thirty-four years before I was born. I've seen old black and white
photographs of a handsome soldier with a thick shock of hair wearing an
army uniform. I've seen one of him in a bulky white sweater standing on a
1930s street corner. That's only the surface. I want to know his pains and
delights, his contentments and disappointments. What haunted his life?
What still haunts him? I want to completely and finally know my father, or
rather, the man behind the father. I want to make up for the time I lost
not paying any attention to the most important man of my life, too busy or
selfish, discounting him as "just my father," a cipher. I'm
afraid that time will run out before I find the part of him that is in me.
I put the papers on the table after I finish reading and take the
condescending tone of the young talking to the old, although I don't mean
to. "It's good, Dad. I'm glad you're doing this. I want to read more
the next time I visit." My voice is perky, cheerful. I don't ask him
the questions I really want to ask. I don't tell him to pour his heart
into the writing, that his life is more than a trail of events. Such words
would pass over some line into territory he and I have never entered.
Neither of us mention death, looming so close.
His story, like all autobiography, touches only the surface. An
archaeologist who brushes dust from the artifacts he unearths, he digs
through the layers of memory, the vessel that holds everything he's lived,
and tries to recreate his colossal, beautiful, long life. But he comes up
only with shards. Time steals the details. Still, he records what he can,
waiting, as if he has time to wait for anything, for something to emerge,
waiting for pieces that gleam with meaning, for fragments that yearn
poems are copyrighted property of Marcia Nehemiah.