In the five years that I’ve known Byron, he lost almost everything in a house fire, and for over three years he and his daughter had to shuffle around from home to home while they rebuilt. He had broken his hip twice, but persisted through rehab and still managed to show up to class anyway. Rain, sleet, walker or wheelchair couldn’t keep him away. Not bad for a man upwards of 90 years old.
Byron and I were classmates. In my head he was a friend of mine, but I hesitate to say that aloud because the truth is, I wasn’t a very good friend in return. Outside of writing class and our group lunches after, I didn’t give much of my time to him.
In my second year, I got a little braver with my writing, and decided to begin work on my memoir project. With trepidation I wrote about a brief fling I’d had with a 41 year old man when I was just 19. This class consisted mainly of seniors whom I was becoming quite attached to. Slowly they’d taken me in as a sort of surrogate daughter, a feeling I’d been missing for a long time. I wrote about this infatuation during my Denny’s era when I worked the night shift. I described the staff, and how the cook in the kitchen used to play Robin Hood and feed us poor workers all sorts of yummy things once the management went home. As I’d begun to read the story aloud, however, I realized I’d forgotten to edit it and take out the sex scene. It wasn’t graphic, but considering the audience and my extreme shyness, it just didn’t seem appropriate. I forged ahead, blushing be damned. When I finished, there was silence, and I thought Ooops.
Byron leaned his tall, lanky body forward and looked at me with big hands clasped together. I braced myself, as he spoke in his gravelly voice. “I used to own a Denny’s in Southern California. I always wondered where the food was disappearing to. Now I know!”
The ice was broken.
And it thawed completely last year. As class commenced for the new quarter, I knew better than to offer critiques because I was having a shit day and would end up taking it out on everyone’s work. Keeping quiet in my little corner, I felt sad because I could see Byron’s mind deteriorating on the paper before me. Scattered sentences, repeated paragraphs, his weakened voice lost track of the words, and all around the room the silence was heavy because nobody wanted to speak the truth.
Afterwards, as I wandered slowly to the parking lot, a young man approached me and motioned to the car where he had just settled Byron into his seat. “Mr. Citron would like to speak to you.” The aide said politely. I walked over, trying to muster a smile.
“Hi Byron!” He looked me square in the eye.
“Why didn’t you comment on my story?”
“Um,” I stammered. “I’m… tired today, I guess. I didn’t say anything about anyone’s!”
“But you didn’t say anything about mine. I hope you wrote some things down. I need your help!” It was almost a reprimand, but the thing about Byron was that his scowls and growls were often hiding a smile.
“Next time, Byron, I promise.” I sensed he knew the story was a mess, and was calling me out for not saying so.
A month later, several of us were having lunch after class, and I asked Byron how he was doing. It was a blustery November day, he was bundled up in his chair at the Chinese restaurant, his grumpy demeanor topping my usual dourness.
“How ya doing, Byron?” He thought for several seconds before answering, his square jaw moving slowly back and forth as he rolled his words around in his head.
“They said I have bone cancer. Shooting me up with all kinds of drugs, different treatments. I don’t know what for.” With a sudden shift, he began to talk about the weather, and how he could never figure out his damn email. I just sipped my water in silence.
Last week I learned the end was near for Byron. Expected, yes, but sadness engulfed me all the same. I told my friend Josh who had waited on us at our last holiday luncheon in December. “Was he the feisty old guy in the wheelchair?” He laughed. “He was cranky, but he was alright at the end. He was awesome!”
Yes, feisty is a word for Byron; at 95 years old he’d survived his share of life.
I wanted to write a letter to him, but the task before me was daunting; how to say farewell without saying goodbye? He was a smart cookie, and would know if he was being written off. So, I pondered, and in my dilemma I buried my denial. If I didn’t write the letter, Byron wouldn’t die. He’s a feisty old guy, he’ll hang on, demanding his sugary Cokes and fatty butter from his caretakers.
I wasn’t strong enough to visit, and truthfully I wanted to remember him at a more festive time, with his friends. I’ve sat by one deathbed too many in my lifetime already.
My mind kept floating back to that day at the car, Byron chastising me. I remember being surprised at his having noticed. For most of my life, it was always my outspoken ways that went noticed, and rarely with admiration. It is my silence that goes unheard, and ignored. Byron had heard my silence.
Everyone comes along in a lifetime for a reason. I needed to be heard when I had nothing to say.
Byron passed away in his sleep this morning, I hope with peace in his heart. Another stone laid to rest in my path.
There’s still time for you, time to buy and time to choose. There’s never a wish better than this when you’ve only got 100 years to live…
© Kymberlie Ingalls, February 12th, 2013
Lyrics: 100 Years / Five For Fighting
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