The Leadership Class schedule indicates we will dine with the elderly as part of "Nonprofit Day" and my mind races to mushy food and enriching conversation. I claim my spot at the Day Center at a worn, fold-out table and slide around in my slick metal folding chair, awaiting further instruction. I introduce myself to my elderly table companions, note how uncomfortable some of my classmates seem. I pay a quick mental homage to my grandparents; and for a second think of sneaking out to drive north and hunt down my 85 year old grandfather, the only one I have left. I imagine him in his combine, picking corn. Smile.
He's in his early eighties, she in her late seventies. He retired years ago from a large electronics company, She, only recently from a purchasing position at the local clinic. Both, mentally sharp as tacks. Him, losing some faculties, I learn, a combination of a years ago heart attack, a more recent stroke.
She sits arms folded tight across her chest and hooks her thumbs inside her pink cardigan pulling it closed, immediately declaring, "We don't come here often, we don't need to." Then she wonders aloud, "What are YOU doing here?"
She laughs and softens some when I tell her I have no idea, but hope I'll soon find out.
I pepper them both with questions, about their past, their retirement, what they'll do now. "Frankly, up to this point, it's been a nightmare," she says. And then silence hangs there like a dark, billowy cloud.
My classmate to my right I hardly know, and me, we aren't ready for this sort of gloom. I gulp hard, ask why. I note her husband, as he reaches across and gently strokes her arm. Again, a softening. She describes a litany of paperwork, medical bills, navigating the VA for medical benefits, the nightmare of it all. "Nobody talks about this part," she says shaking her head, "But it is a full time job figuring out the health care, the pills, then there's all these changes. It's not good."
Again, palatable silence.
And then, suddenly she perks up some, "But I think I finally have it figured out. So now we have to figure out what to do with our money." She describes a "fellow from the bank." He drives from Des Moines to meet them about their finances. She laments at how much he has done for them, and I shove down thoughts of a greasy, slick banker, ripping them off.
There were annual trips they took to the Lake. We can no longer take them, he can't walk, she says. There were annual trips to Branson, no longer possible, his legs, she says.
"Well what else do you like to do together? What will you do now?" I ask. She ponders that for a second and says, "I have no idea. We traveled. Went places, we danced, it's what we've always done. Now we have the time but we can't. He can't. And I don't want to leave him or go alone. I just don't know..." her voice trails off, to someplace far from anywhere I hope to go, any time soon.
"You know, you just never imagine it'll get like this," she says. "No one tells you that you'll work your whole life for this."
"I can't imagine you would ever dream it to be this way," I say, noting my own warp speed passage of time, the days turning quickly to years, coveted moments slipping through my fingers like oil. I gulp hard, fight back my own sudden tears, "I am glad you still have each other," I say, hoping for some respite from this heavy reality suddenly hanging there like fog.
They turn to one another then and smile, clasp hands and gaze at one another for a tender, fleeting moment. She reaches over nonchalantly and checks his shirt for spills, hops up to clear their plates. I meet her with my own dish on her way back. I wonder if I should point out the lasagna she spilled down the front of her cardigan.