Sunday, September 14, 2008
LIFE IN THE BALANCE
Early daylight began knifing its way in around the tattered edges of the shade covering a small bedroom’s east window. Eighty-six-year-old Ralph McIntire awoke and started collecting his thoughts. He was fully aware that just dragging his ancient body out of bed would bring on new aches and pains. But, for him, each new day was still a blessing. Life was for the living, and not moving around was something best reserved for the dead. So he gritted his teeth and got on with it.
Oh, on rare occasions Ralph still enjoyed a few precious moments reminiscent of the best of times. He also endured brief occasions that rivaled the worst of times. But most of his experiences remained about as average and mediocre as an old man living a plain, run-of-the-mill life can expect. He’d decided long ago that good times and bad times more or less resemble a pair of twins on a see-saw. They, too, usually just tend to balance out.
Ralph showered, shaved, and put on a clean blue chambray work shirt and his newest-looking pair of bib overalls, wound his ancient pocket watch, and stepped outside to meet the new day. The red sky in the east was a sure sign of rain. Wet weather is not always kind to people with arthritic joints, but a nice gentle rain would be welcomed by farmers and gardeners. Again, he decided things could always be worse.
Ralph’s old Chevy pickup was a far cry from the best of trucks. It was certainly not a vehicle that would turn the heads of the local young bucks or, for that matter, any females. A two-wheel drive job, powered by a well-used old straight-six engine, it delivered no thundering burst of power. It had no shiny, large-diameter chrome exhaust stacks protruding up vertically through the floor of its pickup box as did some of the new diesel-powered monsters that roared by.
Various areas of the old rig’s fenders and doors told the story of having valiantly fought, and lost, a battle with rust and now only gaping holes remained. But the old “bucket of bolts” was paid for. And it always started and got him where he wanted to go. And gassing it up was doubtless a lot less painful than filling the tanks of many modern larger, faster, more powerful fuel-guzzling models.
Ralph climbed in, started up, drove downtown and parked as near as possible to Red’s Corner Cafe. “Red’s” was not the greatest of breakfast joints. But quality, quantity, and price-wise it was decidedly not the worst. Entering, he found an empty chair at a large table where seven of his cronies were already enjoying their first cup of coffee. These silver-haired retirees didn’t make up the best-educated and most-intellectual group in the world, but they all spoke the same local language. And if a fellow ever really needed a favor, there’s a good chance any one of them would be willing to help out. Oh, a certain amount of whining, complaining, and bellyaching might be expected at first, but eventually the request for help would be granted.
“Red,” herself, came out of the kitchen to take Ralph’s order. She’d owned and operated the place for years. In fact, when she bought the little eatery, her natural hair color was a reddish-auburn. On that particular morning, Ralph thought her new coppery-red hair tone was maybe not the best dye job in the world, but definitely an improvement. The day before, the gray was expanding both ways from the part in her hair, gaining on and threatening to overtake all of the remaining artificial titian-red.
Ralph ate his breakfast while listening to the conversation of his buddies. He was well aware that hard-fried eggs, bacon, and greasy hash brown potatoes were not generally considered the healthiest of items for a breakfast, but he’d been enjoying them for as long as he could remember. And he had outlived a lot of conscientious dieters and more than a few health experts. Maybe he’d somehow developed some kind of immunity or resistance to LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
The breakfast discussion proved to be fairly flimsy in content and even less interesting than usual. Older men tend to repeat themselves, so Ralph had pretty much heard it all before. The devout optimists remained positive and hopeful, while the confirmed pessimists continued to complain and predict gloom and doom. The Democrats prided themselves on being far-sighted liberals and the Republicans refused to see anything other than the tried and true conservative side of things.
Their breakfasts finished, the discussion group broke up and the diners started to leave, some to begin the usual trivial goings-on of their average day and others, to their customary day of inactivity. It didn’t take much to satisfy some of those old codgers and keep them occupied.
Ralph climbed into his pickup truck and drove out to the Eternal Rest Cemetery to inspect the monument he’d recently purchased for his burial plot. The new granite stone was small but adequate, with his name and year of birth tastefully engraved. Eventually someone would sandblast in the date of his departure. Throughout his lifetime he had never been much of a man for “show.”
His was not the greatest of gravesites, being located in one of the least prestigious areas of the commercial burial ground. The salesperson had tried to sell him a costlier location in an area that offered beautiful shade trees and a
better view. But Ralph failed to see the advantage. He felt confident he would rest as peacefully here as he would anywhere.
Several of his friends had already chosen cremation as “the way to go,” saying it was the only way to “beat the system.” “Why stick all of that money into the ground?” they would ask. Their funeral ceremonies would be cut to the bare minimum, with their ashes spread over a favorite lake, river, or wooded area. But Ralph preferred to stick with the traditional.
Alone in the quiet cemetery, thoughts and memories of his life came and went. His had not been the greatest of lives, but certainly not the worst. An
un-skilled worker, his efforts had been menial, but employment was steady. He’d acquired no fortune, but managed to save up a tidy nest egg and qualify for a small pension. With Social Security, he would most likely be able to live out the final years of his life in reasonable comfort.
Ralph recalled his ex-wife and what was definitely not the most blissful of marriages. But it could have been worse. At least Rosa had remained with him until their six children finished high school. She said she wanted more out of life. Perhaps she just wanted a different man.
Ralph had never been proud of their split-up, and frequently recalled those age-old words of wisdom: “It takes two to make a marriage, and two to make a divorce.” But, for some unknown reason, he never felt even the slightest twinge
of guilt over their failed union. Both his heart and his conscience continually assured him that he had always done his part.
Their kids had done well. Thinking about them filled his heart with pride. Oh, sure, they all may have made a few mistakes along the way, but Ralph always thought making mistakes is a necessary part of the education that’s required for any youngster to develop and graduate into a real full-grown adult. None of their six ever wound up in prison or went into politics. Eventually they all got their feet on the ground and became solid citizens; loving, caring people who worked hard and made a good honest living for themselves and their families.
Ralph’s thoughts turned again to the future. He knew that before long his time would come to leave the land of the living. His body would rest here beneath the sod. He had paid for Perpetual Care, so was reasonably sure that soon after his passing he would be “grassed over” and the new green sod would always be neatly mowed. Perhaps the children or grandchildren would bring an occasional flower or maybe even plant a rose bush on each side of his small monument.
As for his spirit’s final destination, well, that was another story, an entirely different tale with a completely unpredictable ending. He could only hope and pray that a loving, forgiving Lord might take his hand and lead him to a home that was at least fairly comfortable, and that he would not be condemned for all time to that worst of places. Ralph believed that, at this stage, the die had already been cast, and it was too late now for making any major changes. This was one gamble he felt ready to take. He was confident that, in death as in life, things would, as do twins on a teeter-totter, continue to kind of balance out.