My name is dr. John Smith, and I am – or rather was – a GP in a mid-sized town. I am about to retire, my own health is failing, and I wish to pass on some memories of a patient that really meant a lot to me. Of course, we had no private friendship, but I did talk to him in consultations and I bumped into him now and again in the street.
At the time I had just turned fifty, the desperation and ambition of my midlife crisis had passed. I had packed up my leather jackets and my tight training outfits, and had accepted that I would remain in my small practice for the rest of my life. My wife had long since packed up her things and left, allegedly on the grounds of my ties to the male patriarchy, and my son had a pregnant girlfriend in the capital, far from his patronizing, though always well-meaning father. What remained for me then was my own mother, whom I visited every Sunday in her home, bringing various things that she needed from the shops.
I also learnt that my only friend, Peter, my colleague at the practice, had been offered a wonderful job in the pharmaceutical industry with a huge pay, and would be transferring some of his patients who did not want a new GP that required lengthy travels to me.
I was very sad that last day I saw him in our clinic, even though I knew he would always be there for me on the phone, and that I could visit him whenever I wanted. Work not be the same.
As I went through the list of my new patients, I saw that most of them were old, including old Jacob, the subject of this story. At the time, however, he was one of many, and it is in fact because he was so typical that he has remained in my mind all these years.
I first saw him a Wednesday in June, and he was a tall thin man in his mid eighties. His face was wrinkled like sun dried-leather, and his brows were bushy, but he had a modest, almost shy smile, and very intelligent eyes. He seemed surprisingly agile for a man his age. Since this was our first meeting, he told me something about himself. He was not an educated man by any means, he had been a fisherman, and then a truck driver, but he had also been on some ship ages ago. This man is an anachronism, I thought, how many old sailors are left these days?
I listened to his chest, made examinations, did blood work, nothing unusual. He then got up and left, and the results were Ok when they arrived, which I told him the next time. It was not until August that year that he started complaining about pain and being short of breath, and I then sent him to the local hospital for further tests, knowing his age.
At this time, I was feeling a little lonely privately, and I had decided to scan all my mother’s family photos, and restore them digitally. I had nothing to do when I was alone in my apartment, and this also gave me a subject on which to chat and reminiscence with my mother. She was more than delighted, and often looked at each photo with a nostalgic smile. Everything was tied to a story, and even though she had recounted all of these stories God knows how many times, I enjoyed hearing them again. Somehow, I was reminded about who I was, and where I had come from. And this knowledge was more powerful than my wife’s irrational, but long-anticipated departure or my son’s indifference.
When I returned from these meetings, I felt that I had more energy in my work, and I spoke to the likes of old Jacob, and was more dutiful in the performance of my job. Once I asked Jacob whether he had anyone to support him during his old age, knowing that my mother at least had me.
“Do you know my age?”, he asked.
“Yes, but still…”
“Everyone I know has long since left this world, and I have no children. You see as you grow older, you will notice that one by one witnesses leave you, one by one..”
“Yes, the people who was the life you once had. Who knew you while you still were a man about town and so on.”
“I don’t think I have ever qualified for that description. I have been a nerd all my life. God knows I have tried…”
“I was a very smooth operator in my prime”, he said with a very unexpected confidence in his gray eyes.
As I looked at his face then, I tried to restore the man in my mind the way he had once been. If you straightened out his wrinkles, if you removed the bushy brows, if you corrected his back, and if you gave him a thick black mane, perhaps oiled, he would be a very handsome man!
I shuck my head at the thought. But then I looked at him, and laughed. That was a very nice moment for the two of us. And then he left.
That evening I went to the shop to get things for my mother. She was very particular about what she ate. Some people think picky eating is an eccentric and demanding cry for attention, but being a doctor I knew very well that the reason was related to bowel movements and stuff that most people feel uncomfortable discussing with others. So, I got her what she demanded. I arrived at the home around seven. Evening was falling, yet no stars were up. As I entered and walked down the white linoleum corridors towards the counter, I noticed at once something new in the glances from the nurses. As I placed my hands its surface, I knew that something had happened.
My mother had a sudden heart attack, and had passed away very suddenly in the evening. It had been very quick, she had not suffered, they told me. But somehow that did not matter. I almost ran home, locked the door to my apartment, drew the curtains and cried. I then sent an email to work, and called in sick. In fact I did not leave my home for three days, when I was forced to get food from the store. I spoke to no-one, and I only called my son four days after my mother’s death.
I have always been reluctant to burden my son with my own feelings and problems. I have always felt that parents should remain a rock in their children’s lives, and that part of being a parent is hiding those frustrations that one feels at work or elsewhere, and provide safety and security. After all, that is what remained in my own experience.
Being a doctor I have dealt with the practicalities of funerals many times. But this time it was different. Going online and visiting what seems like a brochure of various coffins somehow seems perverse. “Special autumn sale!” “20% discount on our finest model!”
And when you enter the store in person, and that slick salesman slides in front you with exaggerated sympathy, accompanied by words like “payment options” and “down payment”, it adds to a certain surrealism. And that surrealism is what remains of the person that you once were.
I walked down the shop floor feeling the fabric and texture of coffin interiors, the smoothness of their varnish. Then I was overcome by grief and asked for the bathroom. I sat there for ten minutes, staring at the tiled floors.
As I left, I had decided upon a model, and was about to wave to the salesman, when I saw him in what seemed like a very pleasant conversation with an elderly man. I heard laughter, the old man patted the young salesman on the shoulder. When the man turned, I recognized old Jacob. His eyesight was poor, I knew, and he hadn’t seen me at the far end of the shop. I withdrew into the corner, and saw him striding about the room touching the coffins one by one.
“I will take this one,” he suddenly said. Then he produced his credit card, paid and brought up what seemed like a shopping list. He had a small pencil, and then then crossed out one item. Then he left.
The whole scene had come so suddenly, that I quite forgot about my own purchase. The salesman approached me, but I stood completely stunned for a while.
“I will be back tomorrow,” I said and made for the exit.
It was late September, and there were leaves on the sidewalk. Old Jacob was three hundred meters down the road moving very slowly. I don’t know what came over me, but I followed him at a distance. 200 meters farther on there was a huge supermarket. He then vanished in a crowd, but I tracked him down in the milk section.
There he noticed me and his face lit up with that shy smile of that former smooth operator.
“Hello Jacob,” I said nervously, what are you doing here?”
“Shopping!” he said, “I needed some things”.
Then he lifted a liter of milk and placed it in his shopping cart next to a box of coffee.
“That would be it!” he said. And then he brought out his list and his small pencil, and crossed out his items. And then he left.
I never saw him again.
by Michael Henrik Wynn