In recent months, the poet, November Forest accepted the fact that she was old – not just aging but old. It wasn’t the hearing aid the doctor insisted she wear, or the reading glasses she carefully placed on her night stand between the pages of Emily Dickinson. It was mainly that the telephone stopped ringing. All her friends were dying. The only telephone calls she received these days were from credit card companies, or banks slowly explaining to her – as if she were a child – the advantages of a reverse mortgage. What would she do with all that cash? She had no plans to go anywhere. She was resigned to sitting on the back porch of her Victorian mansion watching the boats sail up and down the Hudson River destined for Albany or the distant excitement of Manhattan.
Lately, she had taken to reading the obituaries in the Daily Hudsonian even before doing the crossword puzzle or checking the guest speaker’s list for the Nyack Garden Club where she was famous for her beds of fragrant heirloom roses.
November used to be the fourth player in a regular game of Hearts every Tuesday afternoon with Sally, Penelope and Constance. Now she was the only one left; the other ladies had all passed away, and the younger, competitive players considered November too old to invite into their tight circle. She thought Well, I’ll just have to take up Solitaire.
If she was really honest with herself, she had lost her sense of adventure. Her world was becoming smaller and smaller. She hardly recognized the young girl riding on the back of a camel in Luxor, standing on a parapet in Eze overlooking the Mediterranean, or sitting at a café in Cinque Terra. Those memories were all tucked away in her photograph albums, each numbered and dated.
Today, November planned to visit her neighbor, Evelyn Post. She had been in the nursing home since March battling lung cancer – too many years singing in smoky nightclubs. It seemed like yesterday that Evelyn had commandeered November into performing in the annual Springtime Review for the church fund raiser. They used to sing, Meet me in St. Louis, Louis/Meet me at the fair, and always got a standing ovation. Evelyn really carried their act – November was just an enthusiastic sideman. Their last performance was ten years ago.
November placed a basket of freshly cut roses for Evelyn on the passenger seat of her Studebaker. Their fragrance filled the car; she thought of the many moonlit nights she and her husband, Alden, strolled through the garden, sometimes getting their shoes wet from the mist that floated off the river. Oh, she was so lucky to have had a happy marriage.
November drove along Main Street, past the post office, the drugstore, and the Presbyterian Church. Glancing in the rearview mirror she saw a boy and girl in the car behind her; their heads were bobbing and weaving to music she surely would not have understood. The boy honked his horn and shot his arm in the air, signaling to November to drive faster or move over so they could pass her and get where they were going – probably to the mall across the Tappan Zee Bridge.
The Nyack town speed limit was 25 miles an hour, and she was not about to risk getting a ticket; she just had her license renewed. Luckily the inspector had been one of her pupils in eleventh-grade English. As she parallel parked he told her, “You know, Mrs. Forest, you convinced me that Shakespeare wasn’t really such a bore. Hmm, you’re a little far from the curb, but good enough. And I think we’ll just skip the U-turn.”
“Thank you Tommy. Maybe you’d like to come over to my house one of these days for tea.
“That would be very nice, Mrs. Forest. I might just do that. I’ll give you a call when I am in your neighborhood.” November knew he was just being polite.
November passed the Helen Hayes Playhouse. The marquee was blank, and there was a rumor that the theater would not re-open this summer. Not enough interest in stage plays anymore. What was the last play she had seen there? The Glass Menagerie with Maureen O’Sullivan. She knew the play by heart – Amanda in her lilting Southern accent, The future becomes the present, the present becomes the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it.
November drove into the nursing home parking lot.
“I’m Mrs. Forest. I’m here to see Evelyn Post.”
The receptionist looked up at November, “Oh, I am so sorry. She died last night.”
“What did you say?”
“Mrs. Post passed away. Are you on the list of people we should have called?”
November’s eyes welled with tears and she felt her legs give way underneath her. She grabbed the arm of a chair, dropping the basket of roses.
November said, “We have been friends and neighbors for over sixty-five years.”
“I am sorry, Mrs. Forest. Please accept my condolences. It is always difficult to lose a friend.” Her comment struck November as perfunctory and insincere.
“Miss, my husband and her husband, Clarence, worked together at the post office.” She wanted to say more, but she could not get the words out. Besides, the receptionist was distracted by the commotion over the loud speaker, “Nurse to Room twenty-five, Nurse to Room twenty-five.”
November picked up the roses scattered across the polished linoleum floor. She caught a faint whiff of antiseptic. “Why don’t you give these roses to another patient?”
“Why that is very gracious of you.” The receptionist handed the roses to a nurse, “Here, bring these to Melville in twenty-five. He’s having a bad day.”
“Would you like a glass of water?”
“No, I’m all right. It is just that I saw her yesterday, and she seemed to be doing so well. What happened?”
“I’m really not at liberty to discuss Mrs. Post’s case. But I can tell you that she went peacefully. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am due in the nurses’ lounge.”
November drove home. It was dinnertime but she was not hungry. She pulled back the curtains at the window facing Evelyn’s house. There were lights on in the parlor and her bedroom. One of her sons was probably looking for a dress to take to the funeral home. She thought, Pick the violet and blue dress. It was your mother’s favorite.
Evelyn wondered who might buy the house – it was big enough for a large family. Evelyn and Clarence had raised four sons in the rambling house. November closed her eyes and saw them running through the lawn sprinkler, tumbling into the wet grass with her two sons while the parents sipped iced tea on the front porch and shared their daily concerns which seemed lighter for having been shared.
November boiled water and brewed a cup of Peach Pleasure tea. It was dark outside when she finished her tea– time for Golden Girls, her favorite television program. She brushed her teeth and unbraided her long, gray hair. Putting on a warm flannel nightgown, she climbed into her side of the bed. November never tired of the reruns; there was something comforting about the familiar jokes. November was like a little girl begging her mother, “Tell the story again; tell it again. Then I promise I’ll go to sleep.” She liked Blanche best of all – the sassy belle of the ball.
When the program ended with the catchy theme song, “Thank You for Being a Friend,” November turned her light out. At two o’clock the telephone rang, startling November out of a sound sleep. She fumbled for the receiver, “Hello, November, this is Evelyn. I am so sorry I left you without saying good bye.”
“Evelyn, when will I see you again?”
“My dearest friend, we know our birthday, but we never know our death day. You will just have to be patient. Alden, Clarence, and I are all here together. We will be watching over you every day. In the meantime, live.”
November sang into the phone, Meet me in St. Louis, Louis/ Meet me at the fair.
Evelyn sang back, Don’t tell me the lights are shining/Any place but there.
The morning sun filtered through the lace curtains. November stayed under the bedcovers listening to the clock ticking and felt the warmth of her cat curled at her feet. She wondered if her mind had played tricks on her during the night. She noticed that the fear she woke up with each morning – the pain that gripped her throat and made her jittery until she found her bearings – was gone. She picked up a pen; it was as if Evelyn were whispering in her ear:
The secret to life is that it is over so fast, which makes every day count for something.
The secret to life is that death is lurking around the corner, sitting on your shoulder, sneaking under the door.
Death is more impatient than you.
The secret to life is that it can end just by stepping off the curb, buckling into your airplane seat,
Swallowing a pill
Eating food with a strange and bitter taste
Crossing the railroad track and catching the engine bearing down upon you out of the corner of your startled eye.
The secret to life is to forget all that
Step off the curb
Buy the plane ticket
Take a deep breath
And trust that Spirit will give you another day.