What We Leave Behind
She sat on the edge of her chair, the old lady, fragile and frail in nearly every way except in spirit. Her hair had long been white, her skin the strength and texture of tissue or old leaves wilting on the branch as winter’s winds call forth the long darkness. But her spirit – ah, her spirit was like the gnarled roots of those trees that have weathered a few hundred winters, indurate and inured. To see her sitting with her head bowed and her hands folded in her lap would be to see the few remaining leaves of life that could be jostled loose and lost by the merest breeze, but to look more closely… to see her pale eyes open or her fingers grip one another was to see the undefeated roots and core of her.
Downstairs she could hear her grandchildren arguing. Full grown and in the middle of their own grown-up troubles interrupted by hers, they shouted and argued and cursed the world on her behalf as if she were incapable, instead of just unwilling. The contractors, disinterested, answered with firm indifference.
The apartment was nearly empty now, bare and hollowed and hollow.
Voices and footsteps approaching gave her a moment’s notice before they opened her door. Light fell across the floor and empty walls in a stripe projected by the frame, quickly shadowed by the two men in overalls entering, followed by a man in a suit.
"Sorry ma’am," the first man in overalls said. "Afraid it’s time."
The man in a suit pushed past the men to the old lady’s side and helped her stand, though the action proved more gesture than genuine help. In the corridor outside the room another working man moved past under the burden of a large box taped hastily shut.
Downstairs someone barked a sarcastic laugh that had the sound of incipient tears within it.
The two men in overalls nodded respectfully to the old woman and one of them picked up the chair she’d been sitting on and carried it out of the empty room. The second man gestured and asked,
"Is that going too?"
"No," the old lady replied. "Thank you. I’ll take care of that myself."
The man smiled, then glanced around the room and nodded to himself.
"Well, sorry again, ma’am, sir. I think we’re done then."
"Yes, I should think so," the man in the suit said, his arm still on the old lady’s shoulder.
The man in the overalls regarded the man in the suit for a moment as if he were about to make some retort, but then he just nodded ever so slightly.
"Ma’am." He tipped his head more properly at the old lady, then turned and left.
"I’m sorry, grandma," the man in the suit said.
The old lady patted his hand wordlessly, taking a deep breath. Like most of her generation she seemed somehow made of sterner stuff, inside. Life long ago had been harder in many ways, but mostly those ways had made harder people, she reflected. People who weren’t so easily bruised by the business of battling circumstance and fate and reality.
But then, more immediate and physical difficulties are easier to face and to handle, she thought. Hunger and cold and the unending hardship of overcoming these was easy to grasp and achieve, even if the effort was brutal and tiring. The endless rows of bleeding and groaning and weeping men on stretchers too had been easy to deal with for being immediate and tangible. The problem was visceral and straightforward, and the solution was clear, if cold and hard, and nothing that some hot water and sutures and bandages couldn’t fix, or at least assuage. And even when these couldn’t and some decisions were heart-breaking, they were nonetheless clear and undeniable and mostly, mercifully, fairly brief.
Injustice, however, was much harder to fight. The victims, no matter how many, lingered so slowly in the inexorable bureaucratic machinations, and the rights and wrongs and responsibilities so vague and diffused through so many policies and agencies that it was nearly impossible to attack, like trying to hit shifting shadows in the drag of deep water, all the while drowning.
No wonder her grandson was so stressed. An attacker could be fought off and his inflicted injuries addressed; an illness and its progress only helplessly observed.
They stood together for a moment in silence as the sounds of boots and arguments drifted out downstairs, draining from the air of the place like something vital, leaving a silence that was more of emptiness than of peace.
After a few moments the man sniffed and gestured without looking at his grandmother.
"What do you want to do with this then? I mean, it’s a bit broken, but still fine. Are you going to keep it?"
The old lady took a deep breath as she gave more consideration to the seemingly insignificant decision she’d already made. Oh, it hurt, but she felt somehow that it was time. Her eyes traced the intricate giltwork that framed the tall mirror, faded and spidered with age. She looked at their reflection, herself and the man on her arm, young and old. Oh, but she saw so much of another man in her grandson! So much. She studied his posture, his hair, his suit in the mirror next to her upright frame, and for a moment her own white hair was dark again, and her skin smooth, and her eyes alight with the smile because he’d come home when so many hadn’t.
For a moment she felt again the weight of new life in her abdomen and the handsome and decorated officer on her arm was laughing as he presented the mirror to her as a gift for their new home, a world away from the farms and the fighting and hardship and smoke.
She thought of all the times they’d stood before that mirror, his arms tight and warm around her through all the things that life and time had brought them. The new lives, new hardships, new dresses and jobs and lessons. Smiling kisses, tender caresses, mutual condolences. Slow illnesses and the flickering shadows of years and months and passing seasons after which when the sun came back one year in a spring only half a reflection of a woman remained. Older now but still strong inside.
If only memories could be evicted as easily as people. But then, if they could, what then would furnish the empty tenement rooms of a person’s mind throughout life to keep it from becoming hollow?
The old woman turned to her grandson with a shine in her old nurse’s eyes.
"I see so much of him in you," she said softly. She smiled, and her smile brought tears to the young man’s eyes too as he held her and ached for her, even as he marvelled at her strength. An early red sunset light was coming through the window, one empty window lost amongst all the others high up in the building as it faced the horizon with its own uncertain future.
The light dazzled off the old crack near the top of the mirror which hardly seemed to reflect what was there anymore so much as display stored up echoes of long ago.
"I think I’ll leave it here," the old woman said, and the younger man said nothing, but nodded, and after another few moments he helped her to cover it up with a large white sheet like a pall, and they left it alone in the silence to replay its lifetimes’ reflections for itself alone.