“Sure, I remember what you told me,” the old man said.
His name was Tom. He wore khaki pleated pants and a collared shirt; his clothes were clean and ironed but hung from his body. They were meant for a bigger man, a man with more meat on his bones and vitality in his heart.
He dismissed the woman, who also happened to be his wife and caregiver, with a weak wave. Clearing an area in front of him, he rested his elbows on the cluttered table and held his head between both hands. Blue veins ran across the back of his hands and down his arms. Band-aides covered skin tears and puncture wounds, still fresh from the most recent treatment.
Wanda crept forward silently in her orthopedic shoes and stockinged feet, bringing a grandmotherly smell cloud of light perfume and hairspray and powder. She placed her hand on his forehead and her rings spun around, getting looser on her fingers as she also started to shrink with age and disease. Her hand expertly registered two temperatures, fever and not-fever. His skin felt cool and clammy, somewhere between fever and not-fever.
“Get off,” he barked, lashing out as any sick animal will do in self-defense and looked up at her. If he had fangs, he would have bared them at that moment and then scampered off to hide in the forest. Instead he had to settle for snarl of old, dull teeth, brown with coffee stains.
She yanked her hand back with a “Harumph!” as though bitten by his sharp tone.
“Do you remember what you told me?” Tom asked.
Wanda nodded, “Of course.”
No self-respecting wife would admit to forgetting a directive given to a husband.
“You told me to cheer up because things could always get worse,” he allowed for a dramatic pause.
Wanda waited, she was anxious and hopeful that something nice would come out of her husband’s mouth. Perhaps something about how he appreciated her dedication and excellent nursing skills, and tolerance of his grouchiness and bad attitude.
“So, I cheered up and sure enough, things got worse.”
Wanda gasped, that was the lifelong advice that she gave to friends and family, strangers and neighbors. She said it out of habit; it was a reflex in her desire to help, to say something when silence prevailed and there wasn’t anything to say. Now here it was, regurgitated and bastardized. The cancer was killing more than her husband, it threatened to destroy the life they built together.
Unless she could come up with another helpful saying to boost his spirits and refocus his energy.
She gave a brave smile and wiped a tear from her eye, “No, things could still get worse. We could be at war with North Korea.”