Those shoulders that once carried a radio pack into war, that once carried, with aplomb, the most elegant of suits, that once carried my toddling son around a backyard in Suffolk Park while dribbling a soccer ball, are now hunched over the task at hand: mounting the three steps to the porch.
He attacks this mission with the same resolute verve he has attacked all undertakings in his life.
Despite knees that have surrended to time, the handrail is grasped, a swollen foot lifted, a step conquered. Despite an enervating melancholy fuelled by the awful reality that awaits us all at life’s end, an instinct to win – honed by a life of tough challenges met – drives him on.
His wife awaits him at the top of the steps, two rivulets of tears escaping from behind large sunglasses. This is their home. Or at least it was. Now he lives in a care facility, because the increasing demands of his care have outgrown the capability of her own frail body to meet them.
This is his first visit back.
With his future shrunk so small that there’s no room for denial of death, he has one wish: to sit again on the porch. To sit with his wife.
He breathes heavily as he climbs the second step. His feet are sore in their bandages and slippers. He flinches with pain. His wife twitches with anxiety. Life for them is not what it was.
We live in a society that is built on denial. We don’t die. (Or, at least, we don’t talk about it.) We obey the rules, work hard, invest wisely, and retire to a billboard with grey hair, uncataracted eyes, white teeth and a manicured golf course. End of story.
But, the story doesn’t end there. Oh no.
Where is the billboard showing the yellow skin, the shrunken muscles, the fearful eyes? Where is the billboard showing the secret life of the elderly – isolation, depression and daytime television?
Compared to this, the war was a piece of cake. There’s no denying a Japanese bomb. You accept it, and then fight it. Or run from it. Who knows? You may survive it.
But death… no way you survive that. No matter how fat your investment portfolio is. No matter how ridiculous your religion. No matter how immortal your Facebook page. There is no bunker to shelter in, no anti-mortality gun to shoot, no beer afterwards back at base.
In a society where acquistion of stuff and compliance to a corporate agenda is the main game, accepting the reality of death runs the risk of exposing the absolute emptiness of materialism, the void at the very centre of capitalist culture. So, shut up and buy something.
He reaches the summit, having scaled the Everest of steps. My hands, supporting him, feel the rasping lungs, the racing heart. I lower him into his chair. His wife, my mother, pulls a chair close to his, and sits in it.
Getting his breath back, he looks to his wife, and raises his hand towards her. She clasps his hand in hers, and pulls it to her cheek. Her rivulets of tears are now in flood. He cries too, but through the tears his old eyes flash an understanding.
A smile cracks his face – a smile I haven’t seen in ages.
It’s a smile that celebrates the moment, the here and now (which is all we ever really have, anyway).
A smile that acknowledges the triumph of love over death.
He teaches me much, this super man.