The old hotel sits on a small bluff just in front of the Pacific Ocean, the front one long row of doors, the back a row of patio sliding doors leading out to a long grey and weathered wood deck stretching the length of the building. Our room is close to the middle of the building, putting us right next to the elderly couple. I see them for the first time as I come out of our room through the sliding patio doors to check out the view of the ocean. They are sitting in a couple of the green plastic chairs that are stacked on the deck in short piles between rooms. I am drawn to the elderly couple more than I am drawn to the sound of the surf and the blue sky over the ocean that is just now taking on the deeper hues of the late afternoon sun. But I don’t want to be rude by staring at them so I snap pictures of the pretty scenery.
I toddle down the little dirt trail that leads to the ocean, not going far, teetering along on my block feet that have been left numb, wooden and painful from chemotherapy, feeling a bit like a Weeble that won’t fall down. I have a cane in one hand and my hat on covering my bald head. I won’t go very far, fearing my feet will give out, becoming too painful, not wanting to risk getting stuck somewhere and not being able to get back. Every day now my feet have been getting a little bit better, each day more feeling coming back, the pain little by little going away. When we started on this trip from Tucson to Oregon, I was in a wheel chair. I started walking at Yosemite National Park.
One dose of chemo put me in the wheel chair. It also caused me to lose feeling in my hands. The doctor wanted me to continue the chemo and offered to give me lower doses or different kinds of chemo that may not have the same effect. She could give me no assurances about my hands and feet ever returning to normal. “Most people get their feeling back,” she said. But most people did not get the extreme reaction that I had. “Do I have to choose between living and having the use of my hands and feet?” I asked her, knowing her answer already, just wanting her to see my dilemma more clearly.
The truth was that I never believed in the chemo. I had tried to convince myself that it would work, that the chemo was like an army of good little soldiers killing off the bad cancer cells. I even went to a hypnotherapist to try to reason with the inner voices that were screaming against the chemo, telling me it would kill me. I wanted to live and I knew that the chemo gave me better odds of survival. I wanted to do everything I could do to increase my chances, not wanting to let my family down because I was too much of a baby to do the chemo. But the hypnotherapy was a failure and the inner voices continued to scream. They screamed when they stuck the large needle into my vein to pump the chemo in. They screamed louder when they sent me home with the chemo bag strapped to my waist pumping my belly full to overfull. They screamed in horror when they gave me the hazardous waste bags and clean up gloves and gown to wear if I needed to clean up any leaks of the chemo that was being pumped into my body.
I chose not to do anymore chemo after that first dose, choosing instead, cleaning up my diet, taking supplements, and travel. I would not be on this trip to Oregon if I had continued the chemo. I would be isolated at home, kept far away from any germs that could disrupt my chemo compromised immune system. I have always chosen travel therapy when things get rough. Even when I was confined to a strict work schedule and things got just a little too much; I could relieve the stress by a nice 15 minute drive down a stretch of highway, so long as the highway was headed out of town.
I head back to our room, watching the elderly couple as I pass them, as the trail winds back in front of the hotel, taking peeks at them as I look up from the trail, careful not to stare. The woman has long straight white grey hair that looks like it had once been thick but is now thinning, now it’s pulled back into a knot tied loosely on the back of her head. She is average height and a bit lanky with only that extra bit of body fat that old people gather about them. The man was also thin but taller and walks with just a bit of a hunch but not much. What catches me is how happy they are together, the man busily running in and out of their room getting supplies for a late afternoon lunch on the patio, the woman setting up the little table they pulled out from their room, covering it with a small table-cloth, centering the plates and silverware on each side, making everything look pleasing. She smiles at me as I walk past, her warm genuine smile and blue eyes pulling me in.
Mark and I take a seat on the patio next to the old couple, un-stacking a couple of the green plastic chairs, arranging them to look out over the ocean, watching the gulls and pelicans who are searching for their afternoon snack, watching as the sunset starts to take on colors. An easy conversation starts with our neighbors. They own a ranch in California and come to this hotel every summer for their vacation. This will be their last summer at this hotel because tomorrow they are going to put a down payment on a ramshackle cottage in town where they will spend their future summers, renovating and fixing it up. They are excited about the purchase and happy to have yet another project together. They are easy talkers and I get the feeling that they are happy with their life together. We talk about how lovely the sunset is from this patio and they say that is one thing they will miss at the cottage next summer. Mark pulls out his guitar, finger picking soft tunes, as we listen while relaxed and contented half smiles take over our faces, until the night chill forces us indoors.
We left the old hotel the next morning, never seeing the old couple again. I wonder about why I was so attracted to them and particularly to her. I can still see that warm smile and pretty grey hair all swooped in a bun. I can imagine her taking the hair pins out at night as she walks around in her nightgown, white grey hair falling around her shoulders, putting out a late night cup of tea for her husband who smiles back at her and adores her. I can still see her blue eyes bright against her cream peach colored skin, the wrinkles framing her face and eyes as she smiles. It is the life in those eyes that I am attracted to. She is so present and alive with those eyes.
In the days and weeks after I left the old hotel, as the woman’s smile continues to interrupt my thoughts, I realize what it is that I was so attracted to. I see me at her age and want that. I want to grow old. I had always resisted growing old. I thought of age as only getting wrinkles and new aches and pains, a slow decline. But now, after getting cancer and realizing that there is no guarantee of old age, I want it, I want old age like I want cake at a birthday party. The old woman gave me a vision of old age that is not just about wrinkles and aches and pains. When I saw the old woman I saw what living this life was all about, having a man who grows old with me, doting on me, finding new projects to dig into together, the wrinkles adding warmth to my smile, keeping that light of a life well-lived in my eyes.
Several weeks after returning to Tucson I got a card in the mail. It was from the old woman. We had never exchanged names so she had to ask the person at the front desk of the old hotel to forward the card to me. She writes:
“I don’t remember your name but that’s alright. You were a bright spot in our trip. I do hope everything is going well. Our escrow closes the 15th and then the work begins. I have enjoyed my thoughts of you, the music, and especially the smile.”