Oct 13, 2006

Pull for the Shore

Pull for the Shore

Wilbur sits by the front window. He is wearing his down parka that says ‘1972 Olympics’ on the front. Perched on his head is his oldest ski hat. He is leaning over stiffly, trying to tie his heavy winter boots through thick leather mittens. His skier’s body is frail and desiccated. He is getting ready to go home.

He’s sure he remembers his home; a haven in a hazy mind. It was so recently – maybe yesterday or last week - that he was a young man and he'd ski through the freezing Maine winter, warm and limber. He doesn't know how he got this tired old body, these shaky hands, and these eyes that fall closed. He remembers trips to the mountains with his friends, raising an eyebrow in a silent challenge and careening down the slope faster than anybody. Even now he can feel the jumps and moguls in his thin knees.

Barbara appears before his chair. He loves her very much; but he’s confused. She could be his mother, his wife, his sister, his child. She asks him why he's wearing those winter clothes, and points outside to the green trees and overgrown lawn. He says he wants to go skiing when he gets home. Barbara holds his shaking hand and asks him where he thinks he’s going. He tells her that he’s going home to Maine. Barbara sits down across from him in the second velvet chair. She’s crying, softly, but he doesn’t hear. Wilbur decides that if it's warm outside, he'll go sailing instead. He thinks of the salty breeze and the feel of the wet mainsheet running through his hand. He hears the sea birds.

He takes off his hat slowly, reaching up in the air and finding the tassel. He worries immediately that once he gets outside it will be too cold. Barbara leans down and unties his boots and slips them off his feet. She shakes her head slightly at his two layers of woolen socks, but she lets him keep his leather mittens.

Wilbur looks out the window at the sky. A small grey arrow shoots through the sky and behind it, the blue sky turns an puffy white. He marvels at the strange things the sky can do, condensing itself in to these fantastic structures. He hears a loud buzzing noise as the structure grows longer. He’s glad to be safe from that power, at his home in his velvet chair.

Back in the kitchen Barbara has made 3 pies. There’s apple, in to the crust of which she has carved a heart, mincemeat, full of raisins and spice, and pumpkin, for which she is whipping cream. Her children are all with her. The oldest stands at the sink with her hands in soapy water. The youngest is drying dishes. The other two are quiet, watching her add sugar and vanilla to the cream.

Barbara has seen this day coming. She’s disappointed that it came when he still sometimes knew her name, still could whisper ‘good enough’ in response to ‘how are you feeling today?’. She’s crushed that it had to come at all, that somehow her strength was just not enough for the two of them, and that he’ll be gone in a few hours, leaving the house so empty.

She adds more sugar to the cream. One of her daughters is covering the pies in tin foil and carefully packing them in to a canvas bag. Grandchildren drift in, see her tears, and exit uncomfortably. She tries to tell herself there was no other way; and she goes through the days in her head.

On Thursday she woke up from a nap and he wasn’t in his chair, nor on the couch. She tore through the house, thought he might have fallen down in the street, or walked in to somebody else’s home – and then she found him, asleep in the grass, under the maple in the front yard. When she woke him up he didn’t remember which house was his.

Then it was 2 days later that he came with her to the store, and exhaustion overwhelmed him in the baking aisle. His knees shaking, his face in shame, he sat down and she couldn’t help him up. To be stranded at this routine errand, calling for help down 20 feet of sugar and flour...

Just yesterday he’d forgotten her entirely. He was worried that the fire in the stove would go out, and despite her reassurances that there was no fire, and everything was electric these days, he insisted that his wife would be unhappy if it were too cold. She held his hand and told him gently that she was his wife, and that there was nothing to worry about. He looked sincere and lost, shivering under blankets in the July heat.

And there’s the constant struggle to keep his failing body alive. He can barely feed himself, his muscles are wasting away under the Olympic parka, and his blue eyes are lost in wrinkles. She barely sleeps at night, lying awake waiting for him, to help him sit up, and steady his arm as he shuffles to the bathroom or gets a drink of water.

So there he is, in his parka, out there by the window. It breaks his heart that he’ll never ski again, and hers that he will sit in an unfamiliar hall with some young nurse who will help him lift forkfuls of those pies to his mouth, who will say to him, sing-song, ‘Wilbur, you must be such a sweetheart, look at all these presents!’. He will stumble further in to his thicket, far from any clearing of consciousness, until he is unreachable except by desperate methods of sweets and music. She knows she will see him sitting by the piano in that big hall, with the parka on, inexplicably moved by a song he can’t remember.

Barbara finishes whipping the cream and rises out of her reverie. The kitchen is warm and full of good smells. Her children surround her, carrying the canvas bag with the pies, and together they walk in to the front room where Wilbur is sitting. The grandchildren come, too, once they muster the courage to see his sad eyes and her tears.

Barbara sits across from Wilbur again. She tells him she’ll help him with his tennis shoes if he’s ready to leave, but he’s so comfortable, he can’t think why he’d be leaving home. ‘Where are we going?’, he asks. She says they're going to a place where everybody is trying very hard to help him be comfortable and well. Wilbur is sorry to hear that somebody is sick, but he tells her that he is ‘good enough’. He’ll be ok in the velvet chair.

She asks him if he'd like to bring his book of crossword puzzles to do in the afternoon. He nods gently and he smiles a little. He rises from the chair, elbows and knees shaking under his feather weight. Somebody is helping him up from behind and 'thank you' rises mechanically to his lips from a lifetime of sincere gratitude. An arm is on his shoulder. A blue velvet pillow to match his chair is pressed in to his hand. He sees a child in front of him holding a plate of cookies. The girl says ‘Grampa, it's your favorite kind.’

Somebody begins playing his favorite song, 'Pull for the Shore,' on the piano, and a flute and many voices join in. He stands there, stooped, in front of his chair, and listens. Beside him his children and grandchildren are watching his eyes.

Light in the darkness, sailor, day is at hand!
See o’er the foaming billows fair haven’s land,
Drear was the voyage, sailor, now almost o’er,
Safe within the life boat, sailor, pull for the shore.

Pull for the shore, sailor, pull for the shore!
Heed not the rolling waves, but bend to the oar;
Safe in the life boat, sailor, cling to self no more!
Leave the poor old stranded wreck, and pull for the shore.’

The tune swells to the refrain and Wilbur’s lips once again begin to move. ‘Safe in the life boat, sailor, cling to self no more’, he whispers, as the others stand around him and sing. ‘Leave the poor old stranded wreck and pull for the shore’. He holds Barbara’s hand and she leads him out the door. The air rushes in as the storm door swings open, and it’s a sweet summer day. He steps along the walk, brick by brick. The others surround him as he eases in to the car seat, and a hand presses his seat belt in to place. He feels the engine of the car start and somebody rolls down his window and shuts the door. Everyone is still singing. The song fades away as the car backs in to the street, and Wilbur gets ready for the voyage, and thinks of how happy he will be, at home, when it is over.

1. Words and Music by Philip Bliss.

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