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Near the End

After celebrating sixty years of marriage to his high school sweetheart, her death unsettled him. Fred understood little about continuing life alone but was comforted by occasional visions of Anna in their bedroom, or sometimes hearing the sound of her voice coming from the kitchen.

            At first he attended church every Sunday. He joked about the “little old ladies” who vied for the empty space on the pew next to him. He had no interest in elderly women; he did not understand he too was old.

            Before retirement he was a general contractor, building custom homes and remodeling county offices. Now, after daily visits to his wife’s grave, he circled around town to view his accomplishments. These visits made him proud and kept him connected to the past.

            The guest book from his wife’s memorial service stayed within easy reach of his La-Z-Boy recliner. Some days he looked at the signatures to see who attended, angry with friends and church members who had not shown up.

            “They should have come,” he told his daughter. “Your mother and I went when people in their families died.”

            “Many of them live far away and don’t drive anymore,” she pointed out.

            “They should have come,” he repeated.

            Family friends telephoned to see how he was doing. He could hear the ring but could not understand their words. He refused to wear hearing aids or use the free government phone for those who need increased volume.

            “I can’t hear you,” he would say. “You’re mumbling. Speak up”

            Unable to hear their second conversational attempts, he would return the phone to its cradle, and walk away.

            The calls stopped.

            Most of his close friends died years ago, but one man moved to assisted living and asked Fred to visit. His daughter offered to drive him there, but he no longer remembered the name of the facility.

            “Besides,” he said, “I don’t like old people.”

            When he noticed someone using a walker, he’d say:

            “Look. They can hardly cross the street.”

            “At least they’re out there still living,” his daughter said.

            He did not answer.

            The two of them took a weekend trip to visit a distant relative.

            “Wait in the car,” he told her. “I’ll come get you if he’s home.”

            After waiting half an hour, she went in after him. Both men sat in silence. Each lost their wives in recent months and they did not know how to socialize. Nor could they hear each other. Speaking loudly, his daughter carried the conversation.

            One day Fred went missing. He was supposed to wait for his other daughter to take him to a family lunch. Although he was excited about the day’s adventure, he was not there when she arrived. His car was gone, but he never left home for long. Everyone went looking for him, without success.   

            The police were called. They checked the house for foul play but found nothing unusual.  By nightfall, he found his way to a local gas station. He did not understand where he was, or where he had been, but the attendant located an “in case of emergency” number in his wallet and called the family. Receipts found in his car showed he had driven to towns several hours away. All he remembered were train tracks and two flat tires.

            His daughters took away his license and car keys, his last remnants of independence.

            Fred's mental condition worsened. He began drinking heavily, like his father had. No one knew whether the blackouts and falls were from alcohol consumption or mini strokes.

            Family members drove him daily to his wife’s grave. He sat in the car and waited while they arranged the flowers he brought from home.

            He no longer wanted to attend church. The minister brought communion to him during weekly visits, allowing connection to his faith to continue.

            He told his family he was lucky and that life was good. He spent hours sitting in his favorite chair watching television. For him, that was enough.

            Fred celebrated his 85th birthday in December, then Christmas. Several days later, death came. His hired caregiver was sitting in the chair next to him. Although he did not understand who she was or why she was there, he liked her. Like always, the T.V. boomed loudly so he could hear. He watched bowling, an important part of his past. While eating steak, his favorite food, with a diluted glass of whiskey by his side, a sudden seizure overtook his large frame. He collapsed, dying instantly, in the home that he loved because he once shared it with Anna.

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