It was spring, I believe, the moment this all began. I can’t be sure, but I do remember the distinct song of the warbler waking me one morning. The jittery bird sat on a limb outside my window as if it were peering in at me and singing with all its might. Barbara, my wife, always loved warblers. She had a thing for birds. I hardly noticed them unless she pointed them out to me. Of course, I heard their songs, especially in the spring, Barbara’s favorite season, but I couldn’t be bothered to identify them or categorize them as Barbara often did. I didn’t have the patience or meticulous love of all things living like she did. It was one of the many things I loved about her.
I tried to sit up, but the weight of the world sat on my chest, a lifetime of cumulative aches and pains reverberated through my old body. Sixty-eight years will do that to a man. I looked around and Barbara was nowhere to be seen in the glistening light that streamed through the open blinds. Dust so large that even my aging eyes could see it floated in the bright sunlight. I rubbed my eyes and perked up my ears to listen for Barbara. Nothing.
I looked at the clock by my bed, but I couldn’t make the time appear. My vision had declined to the point where I needed my glasses to read even the most basic of things, but like Barbara, my glasses had disappeared, and a felt a sudden panic. Had I lost them again? I didn’t have an extra pair at the moment since I had lost the other two a while ago. I groped around my night stand hoping that I had simply not seen them, but nothing greeted my thick, arthritic fingers.
I fell back into my pillow and sighed. An early spring chill filled the air and I shuddered a little. The same ceiling I had stared at for over 30 years stood above me looking down, all-knowing. The white plaster had faded and dulled over time stained by smoke and the heat from the moist radiators that warmed our room in the winter. I hadn’t smoked in over ten years, but that stuff never goes away. I winced at the thought of what my lungs looked like. As if on cue, I coughed a phlegm-filled hack that pulled me up from my pillow.
I sat up on my elbows and wavered a bit as I looked around the sun-filled room. Barbara’s chair sat empty on the other side of our bed. She often sat there knitting long after I went to bed, and on some mornings, I’d find her there knitting while she enjoyed her second or third cup of coffee. I held my breath and listened for her movements, but again my ears were met with silence.
I inhaled and exhaled heavily. I’d once been good at holding my breath. I could swim forever under water without a worry in the world, but time had taken that joy away from me. Now, I was lucky to dive under the surface for more than a few seconds before I heaved upward to catch my breath. I used to have so much fun swimming with the kids when they were young, and even when my grandchildren were little I was still adept at swimming. We had so much fun then.
I scanned the floor next to my bed for my slippers and spotted them a few feet from the end of the bed next to my glasses. How did they get over there? I always put my glasses on my nightstand. I couldn’t remember what had happened, which wasn’t much of a surprise for me. Like everything else, my memory had faded in the last few years.
My joints screamed at me as I sat up and marched over to my slippers. I grabbed my glasses and put them on my face somewhat clumsily. I almost poked my own eye, but I finally got them on my face and the view of the room improved remarkably. I glanced back at Barbara’s chair to confirm she wasn’t there. It was unlikely I’d miss her even without my glasses, but I could never be too sure. I slid my feet into my slippers and took one step toward the door when the pain struck.
It shot down my spine like an electric current and settled with a thud in my lower back. I gasped and immediately threw my hand onto my lower back bending toward the floor. I thought for a moment that I’d surely fall down, but I somehow retained my balance and made it back to my bed.
I sat down and then lay down breathing as if I had just run around the room at full speed. The pain took my breath away and I battled it with all my might. A long, silent moment passed with only the sound of my ragged breathing and that damn warbler filling the room. I wanted to throw my slippers at the bird because I blamed it for the searing pain I felt.
The pain pressed its knee to my chest and pinned me to the bed like an angry wrestler. I could do nothing but stare up at the ceiling. A prism of colors danced across my field of vision. I wanted to yell out Barbara’s name but I couldn’t garner the strength to do so. I moaned instead.
I must have fallen asleep because in the next instant when I looked around the room the light had shifted noticeably. The sunlight wasn’t as bright and the shadows cast by the blinds were dark and ominous. My east-facing bedroom windows had always been receptive to the sun’s morning greeting, something that Barbara enjoyed immensely. I, on the other hand, often complained about how it woke me too early in the spring and summer. I’ve never been a morning person, preferring instead to sleep as late as possible on days I didn’t have to go to work.
I raised my head up from the pillow on the aching stem of my neck. The pain in my back had subsided, but I felt stiff and muted. A darkened figure sat in the chair on the other side of the room.
“Barbara?” I asked.
A silence greeted me and I squinted into the shadows. I pawed face to adjust my glasses, but they were gone. I patted the bed around me thinking that they’d fallen off in my slumber, but I could not feel them anywhere. Instead, I squinted harder at the figure sitting in Barbara’s chair.
“Barbara. Is that you?”
Silence at first and then, “Good morning, Jim.”
“Barbara, why didn’t you say anything?”
“I thought you were asleep.”
Her hearing had failed her of late. She, too, felt the unkind hand of time. She still retained the beauty of her younger years, and in my mind, she glowed just as brightly as she had over 50 years ago when I met her, but little things had begun to slip. I mostly ignored them, but her hearing was getting harder to ignore. I feared that when I needed her most she wouldn’t be able to hear me call her name.
“How long have you been there?”
“I’ve been here all morning dear.”
“You have? Did you see me have an episode?”
“My back. I had another spasm.”
“I’m sorry dear. I didn’t see it. Are you sure it wasn’t a dream?”
“I’m very sure. It still hurts a little.”
She fell silent again. I couldn’t see her face in the shadows without my glasses, but her silence concerned me. Barbara had always been the loquacious one. Her chatty nature offset my gruff and brooding tendencies.
“Is something wrong?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because you’re so quiet.”
My statement was met with a sigh and some movement in the chair. I couldn’t tell what she was doing. The shadows obscured my view.
“I don’t love you anymore, Jim.”
“I don’t love you.”
I was befuddled, unsure of what I had heard, but she said it a few more times and her words jabbed into my heart like a sharp knife, and the pain exceeded even the fit of spasms I had had earlier. I struggled to respond, but words eluded me. She stood up, and I think she watched me for a moment before she turned and left the room. The pain in my back returned and I moaned loudly to no one in particular.