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By Stefanie Levine Cohen


The Montréal Review, January 2013


Yorkshire Lady (oil on canvas, 70x70cm) by Paul Emsley


It's been fifteen years now that I've been changing the dining room chandelier light bulbs. Fifteen years of paying the bills and sitting in the driver's seat of the large blue Buick and cooking for one. Fifteen years since making the bed meant smoothing the covers and plumping the pillow on my side only.

I know when Eddie died, the children didn't think I'd survive. He was my whole life, my whole heart. Maybe that's what happens when you fall in love at fourteen. Even when we met as children, it felt like we already knew each other. Like we were always going to be what we already were not quite the same person, but each other's lifeblood. Fifteen years, and some days it feels like yesterday, and some days like it's been forever.

Of course, Eddie still comes to visit me in my dreams, but I don't tell the children that. They already think I'm a little loony. He came to me the night of the accident. Told me not worry, that he was with me and that it was okay. I felt so stupid, it was all my fault. I was so damned worried about the chandelier bulbs. Did it really matter if one or two were out? Who was I trying to impress, anyway? In our lives, Eddie would have shook his head and said, "Netty, Netty, why didn't you use your head?" but in my dream, he just smiled that beautiful smile that began at the corners of his mouth and went all the way up to his eyebrows. "It's alright, Netty, we all make mistakes. We all get another chance."

How can it be only three weeks since I climbed up on the table to change the burned-out bulb? I'd been watching it flicker for a few days, knowing it was only a matter of time. Finally it went dead, so I did what I've done for many years. I pulled over the small stepladder I kept in the kitchen, leaned it against the dining room table and pressed as hard as I could on the top 'til I heard it click into the open position. The stepladder was heavy-the metal left marks on my palms. Then I went back into the kitchen to get a new bulb.

I double-checked the stepladder before climbing up. I'm such a packrat-the table was covered with papers and bills that I hadn't gotten around to yet, and I had to step around them. I remember my hands shaking a little as I reached up to unscrew the old bulb and fit in the new one. I must have stepped onto some papers and my foot slid out from under me. I felt myself go down in slow motion, as though I was watching it happen to someone else. Afterward, I thought I saw Eddie there with me, reaching out his hands to catch me, but he couldn't quite grab a hold.

I didn't exactly feel the pain right away-not the big pain. I noticed the little ones-the raw skin that rubbed off my elbow when I landed on the carpet, and a hard bump to the nose. My first thought was that it felt the way it does when one of the children knocks his head into your face when he is just trying to give you a kiss. It felt like the bumps and bruises you get in everyday life, from people who love you and don't mean to hurt you, but just don't realize how fragile you are.

I turned my head to the side from where I lay on the floor, and then I saw them, clear as can be, not just Eddie but Mama and Papa too. I felt them with every part of me-warm and fragrant like perfect popovers just out of the oven. I laughed on the inside-Mama and Papa like popovers? But that's how it felt-like coming home. I tried to reach out so they could pick me up, take me with them.

But then the real pain kicked in. I've heard so many times that when an old person breaks a hip, it's all over. Please don't let it be my hip , I prayed. I need to walk. Please don't let me not be able to walk . Mama and Papa began to fade away, and though I could still feel the whisper of Eddie's embrace, it wasn't enough. Eddie , I said, I messed up . I've done it now . That's when he said it again, that we all get another chance. For what, Eddie? Another chance to change a bulb? Another chance to live another day as an old woman who tries to forget her loneliness ? He didn't answer, and soon I was overtaken by the pain, and then nothingness.

I woke up in the hospital, the one I'm in now. I'd like to know who thought it was a good idea to paint the walls gray and install these fluorescent lights right over the patients' beds. It's too bright, so I turn off the lights, but every time someone walks in, they turn them on again. Also, the TV-it's suspended from the ceiling, and sometimes, just as I'm falling asleep, I jerk awake because I'm afraid the TV will fall right out of the ceiling onto me.

I try to be grateful, though-at least the nurses are very nice. I don't want to trouble them too much-there are so many people who need them, and I'm sure many of the other patients are much worse off than me. I just have a broken leg, not a broken hip, which I'm told is excellent news. The lady in the bed next to me broke her leg too, but she didn't do anything dumb like climbing up on a dining room table. She just broke hers walking-she's got the cancer in her bones. Her name is Wanda and she must be in a lot of pain because she moans all day. I know it's not her fault, but it's very difficult to live with her.

I hear I'm one of the lucky ones. My surgery went well-the doctors were very pleased-and soon I'm moving to rehab. They think that with enough hard work, I'll walk again. With a walker, and a limp, for sure, but still, I'll be mobile.

Not everyone gets visitors, but again, I'm one of the lucky ones. My kids come to visit me-Karen during the week, in between her errands and driving the kids' carpools after school, and Jonathan on Sundays, after he brings his children back to their mother's house. His ex-wife won't let him bring the kids to see me-she says hospitals are the best place to pick up germs. I'm sorry Jonathan ended up divorced, but I never liked that woman anyway. Forgive me, Eddie, I know you're right, I shouldn't say such things. But it's true: She was never good enough for him.

I'm trying to be patient but it's hard. I can barely move and they make me use this crazy bedpan even though I keep telling them I can get to the bathroom if they'll just hold my arm. Something that really bothers me is that my toes stick out from the bottom of the huge cast on my leg. I try not to look at them because their nakedness makes me ashamed. I hate being stuck like this-dependent on everyone for everything.

When Eddie died, I promised myself I would never be a burden on anyone. The kids begged me to move in with them, but I was barely seventy and perfectly able to take care of myself. I told them no thank you, and not to ask again. They thought I wouldn't be able to do it-that Eddie had always done everything-but they had fooled themselves, or maybe it was we who fooled them. Eddie got his first heart attack at sixty-two, and bless him, we got to keep him 'til just before his seventy-second birthday. When the doctors told me he wouldn't survive that first attack, I told them they were wrong, and I made it my job to keep Eddie alive. I prayed and begged God to let him live, and I made every deal I could think of to keep God on my side. I promised to be a good person, to give money to every charity that asked, and to never want anything for myself. I sat with Eddie when he was sick, and brought him medicine and juice and the paper in bed. I ate only the plainest food, and only a little bit, so God wouldn't think I was greedy. All I wanted was my Eddie. And for almost ten years, I got that.

But every day with Eddie was like a gift and a time bomb. Every morning I'd wake up and say a little prayer that when I turned over, he'd still be there. I'd listen for the snoring that felt like insurance to me, a promise that we'd have another day. Together, we saw grandchildren born and growing, and we celebrated every little accomplishment, not because each one was so miraculous, but because it might be the last Eddie got to see.

When we raised our own kids, we measured time in their milestones. They sat up, they walked, they went to kindergarten. They rode bikes and passed from grade to grade, until one day, they graduated and went on to make their own lives. Even though we got older, the timeline wasn't about us, it was about them. Time is completely different with the grandchildren-every one of their milestones would race against whatever time we had left. We were so grateful to see them born, to see them play and run. But they grew strong as we grew weak. They learned things we didn't even know existed. It was fine when Eddie and I did this together. But once he died, it was only me getting old, because Eddie, he didn't get that chance. And as for me, I didn't want them to see my weakness, so I pretended to be young and strong just like they were. For a long time, we all believed it, too.

I'm tired of pretending to be strong. It takes too much effort to fake it now. Of course, I can't talk about any of this with Karen or Jonathan. What would I say? That they can't know what it's like to grow old? That they don't know what it's like to not be able to get out of your chair because your legs won't unbend, or how you can be too tired to fall asleep? To want to enjoy a meal but to get full after three bites, or to eat it anyway and then get such a belly ache you're afraid you won't make it to the bathroom in time? No, they'll figure these things out on their own. That's what we wish for, isn't it? For a long life? Sometimes I wonder about that. Sometimes it doesn't seem like the best choice.

So now I'm supposed to be happy about going to rehab, so I can work hard through my pain so I can live longer. I can live longer as an old woman who's weaker every day, and who tries to keep up a façade so everyone else is happy. When Eddie comes to see me in my dreams, there's no work and there's no pain. There are smiles and warm hugs. Death doesn't seem like such a bad thing, really. When I see Eddie's face, it looks as though death agrees with him. And time? I'm not even sure what that is anymore. What can time mean to Eddie, wherever he is, wherever I'm going?

Yesterday a new nurse came in and shouted at me, "So, Mrs. Travis, you broke your leg, did you? What were you doing, skiing?"

I've always tried to be nice to people. I think most people are good on the inside. So I know the nurse wasn't trying to be mean. But I'm not deaf, just old, so there's no need to yell. And second, the skiing thing-come on. Why does everyone think it's funny to joke about the ways an old lady like me might have broken her leg? I tolerated it when the grandchildren handed me a list of answers to give to people who wanted to know how I got hurt. Skiing was number three on the list. But a grown woman who's supposed to be helpful?

"Dancing," I told her.

That's number five on the list.

"On the dining room table."

The nurse looked at me with her head tilted and eyebrows arched. She wore green scrubs and a big beeper. I noticed the way her tiny hands held her huge clipboard, and she reminded me of my granddaughter Hannah the year she dressed up as a nurse for Halloween.

"Well," I clarified, "I wasn't really dancing on purpose. I was changing the light bulb in my chandelier and I fell off the table."

"Oh my," she said, and sat down on the edge of my bed. She patted my arm. "Mrs. Travis, what were you thinking, standing on the table? Isn't there anyone you could have asked to help you?"

I wish she wouldn't call me Mrs. Travis-it always makes me feel like a person doesn't know me at all. Netty would have been fine. I tried not to pull my arm away, but her question was incredibly annoying. How many times had I been over this in my mind? Sure, I could have waited for one of the children to help me. Or I could have asked a neighbor, or called a handyman. I could go running for help every time a bulb blew out or my toaster stopped working or I couldn't figure out why my checkbook wouldn't balance. I could weep at every wedding on television, remembering what it felt like to have happiness stretching out ahead of me like a perfect dream, and I could shout out for Eddie, or Mama and Papa when I couldn't sleep at night. But what good would that do? How would that be better?

"Mrs. Travis," the nurse asked, "are you in pain?"

"No," I lied.

"Mrs. Travis," she said again, picking up my hand in both of hers and looking right into my eyes. "You really shouldn't be climbing on tables."

I looked right back at her, wanting to be very sure she wasn't kidding.

"Yes, my dear," I said, using a great deal of effort to suppress the anger that rose up in my throat. "I believe I've learned that lesson."

So tomorrow they're moving me to rehab. I'm lucky to be going. Lucky because now I know I really can't climb up on tables any more, I really can't take care of myself, and I really can't avoid being a burden. How much luck can one person have?

Ah. I can see from the window near my bed that the sky is turning a darker shade of blue, so evening must be near. Evening is my favorite time of the day. Soon I'll be able to sleep, to drift off in my dreams. I will see my future, and perhaps my past. I will see my Eddie. You were lucky, they told me. It's only a leg. You'll recover. This won't kill you.

I can only dream.


Stefanie Levine Cohen works as a volunteer for Samaritan Hospice in Marlton, New Jersey. She received her bachelor's and master's degrees in English from the University of Pennsylvania and her JD from the New York University School of Law. She is the former fiction editor of Philadelphia Stories and a long-time member of Rittenhouse Writers Group.


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