Walter Burlemon is my old scoundrel and I’m his girl friend, “girl, space, friend. Make sure you get that right,” Walter always says to anyone he introduces me to. “I am happily married, after all,” he makes sure to add. Married to the late Meredith Bell Burlemon, he is, “and don’t you forget it,” he always says. She was the most beautiful woman in the world according to Walter. I am the second most beautiful woman he tells me, and winks. Then he offers me his arm and we go sit on the “piazza,” as he calls it, to watch the sun setting, or to the cafeteria for “happy hour” coffee, or to the community room to tell jokes and talk about life, all of life. “Merry would be so pleased that I have you to keep me company until I go to join her,” he always says, and it always bothers me. Here is where “all of life” mysteriously stops for me as I watch my brain building a safe nest around Walter, craftily protecting the idea of permanence and late Sunday afternoons with my old scoundrel.
I’ve been visiting Walter at Wedgewood ever since my great aunt, Eva, passed away last summer. I used to check in at the front desk every Sunday afternoon, go to Aunt Eva’s room and help her “priss up to go to the parlor where we can have a proper visit,” as she would say. I’d dust her face with a little powder foundation and help her with her red, ever red and only red, lipstick. “It’s the color of my glory days,” she’d say, loudly, “And therefore I all the more don’t intend to change it to today’s color, whatever that is!” I’d ask her loudly to please consider wearing her hearing aids and she’d tell me loudly, “Ladies don’t wear things about their heads that detract from their beauty.” I’d sigh and we’d make our way to the community room for our proper visit which went the same way most every time.
Aunt Eva would only catch a word here and there of what I said, no matter how loudly I said it, and invariably, Walter Burlemon would wander in, seat himself by us and begin to talk with us, or me, really. Then Aunt Eva would get flat out mad that Walter had upstaged her and she’d grab onto her walker, pull herself up from her favorite “parlor chair,” and stalk crisply off, as well as a ninety-year-old with a walker can stalk crisply off. By this time, I would be so exasperated that I’d just let her go. But Walter never would. He’d say something like, “That Eva, she’s all wool and a yard wide, but that temper! Uff!” Then he’d go after her with a dance in his step and say some crazy thing to her like, “Miss Eva, you’re looking so fine that it’d be a shame to retire so early. Won’t you come back to the cotillion and waltz with me?” No matter what Walter said, Aunt Eva would sniff, nose up, head straight, and continue toward her room without a word. Walter would chuckle and always holler the same thing after her, “Well, if you change your mind…” Then he’d turn and wink at me. “Once a drama queen, always a drama queen,” Walter would say, referring to Aunt Eva’s days as director of our town’s little opera house. Walter and I would talk a minute or two longer, then he’d send me off to make peace with Aunt Eva who’d sniff at me as well, but always give me a hug and kiss goodbye.
Walter himself had a measure of fame within our town, as longtime organist at the Second Congregational Church, and outside the town, as one of the many fine musicians on the Community Concerts circuit. Because he lived his dream, and because he sees an unfulfilled need in me to live mine, Walter talks occupation versus calling and about what people do with life in general. I don’t think a visit has ever come and gone without Walter taking my hand in his age-spotted hands, looking at me intently through thick glasses that make his eyes look bizarrely large, and telling me, seriously, “Enjoy your hay day, your fifteen minutes of fame, kid, because life on this planet is for the physically and mentally spry, and when you can’t think or get around anymore, life will blow by you as if it never knew you.” I always tell Walter yes, I know, I know this, and to that he always says, “Don’t just know it, Luce, feel it. Take and do and be whatever you can, while you can, because life goes on with or without you. Life goes on, Luce. Like a steamroller.” When Walter sees the odd, blank look in my eyes, he always gently puts my hand back down and pats my cheeks and laughs. “One of these days Luce,” he says and winks. I hope so, I always say. Then Walter tells me one of his jokes and I tell him one of mine, to try and outdo him, but I never can. Then we hug goodbye, and that’s how Walter and I go.
Today I have an outrageous joke that a guy at work told me this past week, and I can barely wait to hit Walter up with it. In addition to freeing me up to follow my dreams, he’s working on my joke delivery technique. “Know your material,” he says. So I’ve been practicing—in the shower, in the mirror, in the car, now, on the way over to Wedgewood. If June is at the front desk and no one else is in need of her attention, I’ll try it out on her first. I park the car and run-walk to the front doors, deal with that nursing home stench that packs a wallop on entering, and hurry to see who’s at the desk. Yes! It’s June!
“June, daaaarling! How are you this fine day?” I ask cheerfully.
“Oh dear,” June says.
“June? You look ‘funny.’ Are you OK?” I ask.
“Ah, Lucy? I have some bad news…”
“Walter! Is he alright?”
“Lucy, brace yourself. Walter passed away yesterday. Heart failure,” June said to me as tenderly as one can who sees death nearly every day.
My stomach dropped out of my body and left a hollow ache. My throat tightened and I could barely breathe. I thought I would die and that was fine with me. I’ve never felt more hurt and hopeless, more bereft, more lost, more petrified of the future. I didn’t know what to do next. I could tell by hollow sounds that June was speaking. An orderly rushed to my side and helped me sit down in one of the chairs along the wall. He gave me water and spoke soothing sounds. I was trying to pass out so I could hide forever from this, but the orderly was trying to keep me awake, alert and in pain. I fought him when he broke an ammonia capsule under my nose. I yelled at him and pushed his hand away. And then the tears came and came and there was no stopping the flood of them. In between sobs I heard some part of me blurting questions of why and how and finally the tidal wave of hopelessness and fear had passed through me, past me, leaving a ghost of me, and I heard myself apologizing to the orderly and to June.
“I’m so sorry. Please forgive my behavior. I just don’t know what to do now,” I said.
“You could visit me,” a tiny, scratchy voice said.
I looked over to where the voice had come from and I saw a shriveled little lady, cute as a bug’s ear, leaning on a walker and smiling at me with all the hope in the world in her eyes. “After you finish grieving for Walter, that is,” she said in her miniature voice, and smiled at me again.
I sat there stunned. I didn’t know what to say and then I felt a calmness settle down on me, and I heard Walter’s voice in my head saying, “Life goes on, Luce, it just goes and goes.”
“Like a steamroller,” I heard myself say, and I smiled back at the cute little lady.
“My name is Minnie,” she said.
Organ pipes in Our Lady of Ta’ Pinu Basilica, Gharb, Island of Gozo, Malta
from Gozo News.com http://gozonews.com/item/special-jubilee-organ-recital-at-ta-pinu-shrine/
Missalister’s “Sundays with Walter,” copyright © 2009, was spun off the Sunday Scribblings prompt “#156 – Aging.” Click here for more on prompt #156 from other Sunday Scribblings participants.