Fr. Jim Kent, OFM Conv.
She doesn’t remember what she had for breakfast. Or even if she had breakfast. When she does she’ll usually have oatmeal with a pinch of cinnamon sprinkled on top. It falls warm and easy between her teeth— Dentures, that is.
I hate these false teeth, she says to herself. They make my face look like some cartoon character. Bloated and Cheshire. They’re so perfectly shaped people will think I’m putting on airs. She misses her real teeth, with the gap in the middle and the metal fillings in the molars. Enough talking to myself, she says.
The keys jiggle in the lock like reindeer in the yard. She knows he’s home. The squeak in the door and the two-steps-at-a-time to the upstairs apartment. She follows the patter across the ceiling. He goes to the refrigerator and then to the phone to call his girlfriend, “or sweetie” as she says. They talk for a short while, making plans.
After a few minutes he comes down the stairs and knocks at her door. He calls out, “Hello,” as he does every afternoon and lets himself in. “Mrs. W?” She gently grips the arms of the wingchair and leans forward. With everyone else it’s “Mrs. Worthington,” formal, distant. But not Nate. He knows to sit on her right, the good ear. He’s lived upstairs for three years, and is a God-send of a renter and a steady companion. For the first time today she can feel her heart beat and then throb. It warms her face and torso, but her curled fingers and toes remain chilled like a shrimp cocktail. She has long been aware Nate counts on her, and she needs to see him through before everything seeps away.
This, his senior year, has been stressful. Exams and interviews, training and goals, all shadowed by the Olympic Trials. And then there’s Liz, his girlfriend of two years. He rarely talks about any of it, though. Even when Mrs. Worthington prods he often changes the subject.
She knows his practice times are important. “How did you swim today?”
“Okay,” he says. “Do you need me to open anything? A can, a jar, a pack of bacon?”
“No, not today.”
She knows things are coming to an end for Nate. His shoulders are a bit hunched from the weight and his eyes have dark strokes beneath them. Mrs. Worthington also knows she can’t lighten the load. Two marriages and three sons have taught her that—and more.
“Life is hard,” she says. “Maybe that sounds harsh, Nate, but it’s the truth. Too often the truth, anyway.” She wants to say more but her thoughts fall away like the flakes in a snow globe. Her hands rest on her lap in the silent pause. It was there and now it’s gone. She waits a moment then tells him the first thing that fills her mind.
“My first husband whistled at me one day while I was watering the flowers and we were married that October. The year was 1900 and I was sixteen years old. That’s the way folks did it in those days. But he was no good. Three boys in four years and he was gone by year five. Just hopped a freight train and was gone. Never came back and left me with three little ones. He was no good. I got a job at the Berrelli’s Grocery and Dry Goods. Good thing too. Mr. Berrelli took pity on me and even gave me a discount on food. With three boys that was a real grace. I cleaned and stocked and eventually worked the cash register. But it was long hours, six days a week—all but Sundays.”
She hadn’t thought of Berelli’s in years, it seemed, but those thoughts now seized her. The grooved floor boards, the fabrics that arrived twice monthly, the breads that Mrs. Berrilli baked. “When I worked the counter I got to chat with people as they settled accounts. Most just put it in the book and paid later.”
Nate was there as he always was, with his eyes focused and ears piqued to hear the same stories told, retold, and retold again. She wanted to ask him something else, something about him and his life, but couldn’t remember.
“Did you know my middle son crossed the ocean? I’m not sure if I’ve ever told you about it. Joshua ran off at fifteen to fight in the Great War. He enlisted and trained and was all the way to Europe France before the Army and I caught up to him. He always said he faulted me for having him sent home. He let his buddies down. Well, at least he came home upright and not like a lot of them. Still, he regretted not being there, not knowing what it must have been like. Bullets and mortar— And gas. And death. What’s to know about all that except you don’t want it young. Or ever.”
She did not fear her own death. No, it was a friend that would soon one day visit. But she had learned to respect death’s grip, that relentless and agonizing stranglehold she had endured from the dying of loved ones—first, her second husband, Mr. Worthington, and then two of her sons. That pain still seared and choked, but it could not extinguish the flame of distant memory.
“They say everything happens for a reason, Nate, and I guess that’s true. Joshua thought he missed out on something and, in fact, he did. But he was the only one of my boys who learned to swim. Army taught him. When he was eighteen or nineteen, he went out fishing with a friend. At night. They claimed there was no liquor involved, but I’m not so sure. Somehow the row boat flipped and they were in the dark water. His friend went under and Joshua went after him. He couldn’t see much but heard the bubbles. Ended up grabbing him by the collar and bringing him to the surface. Saved his life, he did. What a blessing. When he got home I asked him if drink was involved. All he said was, Guess we’re glad the Army taught me to swim.”
“What an amazing story,” Nate said, relishing one of his favorites.
“Joshua’s gone now. Passed two Novembers ago,” she said. “Old age got him. Or did Harold go first? Anyway, both were 75 or so and slowing down. I hate it that they’re gone. It’s hard for a mother to bury her sons, even in their age.”
Nate can’t allow her to end on such a somber note and says, “What about your eldest son?”
“He’s the only one left. Junior. But everyone calls him Jun, and always have. I didn’t mind. It was certainly better than calling him after his father, reprobate that he was. No need to be reminded of him.” Her eyes look off out the window. Nate couldn’t tell if her mind had gone wandering or was just contemplating. In either case he knew to be patient. “Jun lives down south in Texas. Haven’t seen him for years. He’s feeble and can’t travel, and his wife is not much better. We were never that close anyway, at least after they got married. Some people are funny that way.”
Mrs. Worthington reaches for her tea. She has a hard time getting her fingers in the handle. They quiver and are painful to bend. That’s why she prefers those thick mugs with the wide handles. They’re easier to use and the tea stays hotter longer. Nate knows this. He also knows how cold she gets and that tea is one of the few things that warm her up.
“Nate,” she says, rubbing her arms. “I swear, I’d rather go hungry than be cold.”
“Would you like some more?”
While he’s in the kitchen she tries to recall what it is she means to ask him. Something.
Nate knows to serve the plain black tea instead of that fancy stuff the church-folks give her each Christmas. The pantry’s full of it. The teapot is still steaming, and he fills her mug two fingers from the brim. With a tremble she raises it under her nose with both hands and inhales the warmth.
She’s lost in thought or, rather, grasping for it. She thinks: What was I going to ask him? So she says, “Nate, what is it I was going to ask you?”
He waits a beat, “My swimming?”
“Oh yes, your swimming.” It floats to the top of memory: Nate is a good swimmer, on scholarship, and done very well. “Are you champion again?”
“Not this year. Just sophomore year,” he says. “NCAA champ.”
She tries to recall what stroke he swims.
“Backstroke,” he says, reading her gaze. “Two-hundred meter.”
“When’s your next competition?” These events seem to weigh on him.
“In a few weeks,” he says. The glow is back “If I do well I get to go to the Olympic Games.”
“That would be something. Would I get to see you swim on the television?”
“I’ll pray for you,” she says.
Mrs. Worthington often prays for him. She prays he does well in all his college tests and his swimming events. And tells him this. What she hasn’t told him is she only prays he does well. Maybe the Lord wants someone else to do well too. Maybe even better than Nate. So, she doesn’t ask the Lord for Nate to win. Only that His will be done. She fears Nate would not understand this.
“Is the swimming pool cold?” she say, and sips her tea.
“At first. But then you get used to it.”
She then has this perplexing thought. “Do you suppose it’s cold in heaven?”
* * *
Mrs. Worthington spends her mornings reading books, or “literature,” as Mr. Worthington used to say. She prefers novels and biographies. Her eyes are still good enough to read large print editions, and she reads quite a bit when Nate is away. Between his school breaks and swim meets he’s gone a lot. She misses him and often drifts from aloneness to loneliness. At ninety-six, all her friends have passed. Some people from the church stop by, occasionally. She is respectfully appreciative but wonders if it’s only out of their Christian duty, which is not the same as companionship. With Nate, it’s different. She realizes once he started to visit he might have felt obligated to continue. But he always comes Christmas Day, she says to herself. Drives three hours and brings his sister. I can never remember her name— Sally? Sissy? Eldora? They bring gifts and a turkey dinner. He certainly doesn’t have to do that. Must come from a good family.
For Mrs. Worthington, time does not flow steadily as through an hourglass but has become sand falling unevenly through her gnarled fingers. It slips randomly and caves in clumps, disappearing forever like brown sugar in black tea. Seasons and their holidays seem both cyclical and linear, colliding out of sequence, here and still coming. She’s aware Nate’s time is near, how he will graduate and move away and how that will likely—finally—send her home to that restful sleep. She is very much at peace with that, even pines for it, so long as she first sees Nate through.
Since he was eleven years old and discovered competitive swimming, time for Nate was nothing more than a stopwatch, an instantaneous click, tenths-of-seconds. Time and times led to metals, records, a scholarship. It gave him honors, identity, and an ultimate goal to be an Olympian. That was the goal. In that pursuit he had become an All-American and NCAA champ. By his final collegiate year, however, he knew world and many national records were a body-length beyond his reach—barring a miracle swim. But at least he could make the team and be an Olympian. That was certainly attainable. And then at the Olympic Trials a high school teenager came out of nowhere and beat him by one-one-hundredth of a second to claim the last spot on team. At first he read the times wrong and thought he was in. But then pulled the goggles up on his forehead and looked again. He had missed out on the Olympics by one-one-hundredth of a second. Tears filled his eyes, and he slipped beneath the surface like a millstone falling into the abyss.
Not only did he fail to make the team, his swimming career is now over. Those 6:00 AM practices, the chlorine that had sealed his pores and lightened his hair, the brief blurbs in the newspaper noting his accomplishments were relegated to memories he would recount like Mrs. W’s stories.
* * *
Tea splashes piping hot into the mugs. The heat radiates through the ceramic, but he does not move his hand. He wants to feel the burn pass through his skin to the vessels beneath. Maybe he can focus on that pain for a while. Besides, the hotter the tea the longer their conversation, which is another means to distract and, for a while, help him forget.
“I am sorry if your swim meet did not go well,” she says. Without knowing, she can tell. His cheeks are pale, colorless, and the dark shadows have spread and now circumvent his eyes.
He takes a sip of tea and scalds the lump lodged in his throat.
“I didn’t make it. Didn’t make the Olympic team,” he says. “Another swimmer, sixteen years old, beat me by one-one-hundredth of a second.”
“One-one-hundredth of a second,” she says, trying to imagine how short a span that is. The split instant when the boiling water hits the tea bag and the brown begins to bleed out. Instantaneous.
The wind rattles the windows and the tree branches wave frantically. Mrs. Worthington thinks back to that day long ago when she realized Joshua has run away to The War. At least then there was something she could do.
The silence continues for a while until Nate says, “Everything happens for a reason, I suppose. That’s what I’ve been t suppose. That’s what I’ve been thinking. Maybe I became such a good swimmer so that one day I can save someone from drowning. Just like your son.”
She knew one day his swim career would be over. She had rehearsed the words she’d say to comfort him, but they are now nowhere to be found. All she can think to say is, Life is hard.
“Life is hard, Nate. When my first husband left and before I met and married Mr. Worthington, I thought I would never survive. But I had to. I had three young ones to care for and no one was there to help me. Without question, life is hard.”
“Swimming is hard” he says. “Swimming is a lot of hard work and commitment. It’s taken great sacrifice. But I’ve loved it.”
She shifts in the chair to face him more directly.
“I gave up a lot,” he says, “and missed out on a lot.”
“I never dated much in high school,” he says. “I only swam. All year round. Then, during my senior year, a fifteen-year-old sophomore got me to ask her out on a date. I was scared to death but tried not to show it. We went to the movies and then out for pizza. When I took her home, we stood in front of my car while I tried to figure out if I should kiss her or not. I didn’t even know that. But she sure did. She took hold of my arm, pulled me close and our lips pressed harder and harder. I started bending backwards until I was arched over the warm hood of my car.”
Nate slowly tilts his head to where he is looking at the ceiling, a familiar posture for a backstroker. He continues in that same measured tone, a tone that teems with controlled emotion skimming the surface.
“When she stuck her tongue in my mouth I pulled away in a panic,” he said. “It was like I was making a quick turn and kick off the wall. That cowardly reflex so embarrassed me I barely spoke to her again. I was too mortified.”
He sits up and forces his eyes to meet Mrs. Worthington’s. His hands are cupped around the mug.
“Liz and I broke up,” he says with ease and pain and no relief.
“Oh Nate, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s been coming for a while, but it still blindsided me.” He sips his tea slowly, mindful not to burn his lips. “She says I’m unsettled and immature. She wants me to go to law school, and I don’t.” He puts his mug on the macramé coaster. “Her dad’s an attorney. Has his own firm.”
“I think I love her, but don’t know how much of this is her and how much is her family. Or maybe both.” Times spent with her parents bubble to the surface: tailgating at football games, going to their house for Thanksgiving duck, attending his swim meets. “Liz told me yesterday when I returned from the trials.”
She knows it’s best to sit with this a moment, to just let the pain hurt.
He looks back up at the ceiling again and says, “I guess everything happens for a reason.”
Mrs. Worthington has remained centered and attentive to the moment, but is reminded of something from long ago. Something she rarely remembers but never seems to forget.
“Bear with me, Nate.” She tries to collect and order her thoughts, but is afraid she’ll lose what she has and just goes on instinct. “When the courtship between Mr. Worthington and me had become quite serious, we had a conversation one day as we walked in the park. That was one of many things I liked about Leyland. We would do simple and spontaneous things like take a walk or go for ice cream and have the most delightful time.”
Nate thinks how Liz and he always had such scheduled dates and encounters, even if it was to study together. Almost like appointments.
“We were arm-in-arm,” she says, “a more stately posture than merely holding hands, which well-suited Leyland. He was in his late forties, a few years younger than I, and had never married. He was educated and worked in financial administration at the university. All this amounted to a certain dignity in the way of doing things. When we stopped to rest on a wrought iron bench, he turned and said: On your birthday I plan to ask for your hand in marriage. I do not assume but most certainly hope you will say, Yes.”
Warmth pumped through her veins and her cheeks glowed red, enough even for Nate to momentarily forget his disappointments. Her eyes reflected a rare moment of clarity that rose from deep within.
“Tears of joy,” she says, “tears I had never cried before, ran down my face in steady streams for love and being loved, and in that release my struggle for mere survival was cast free and clear. I felt—and evenknew—in that very instant, everything in my life had prepared me for this special and blessed moment, and without that hardship it might not have come to be. I turned to Leyland and took hold of both his hands: You are the love of my life, I said. You are the answer to my hopes and prayers. All I have been through has been worth the wait. I know now more than ever, everything happens for a reason.” She places her hands in her lap and allows the thought to linger. “Leyland shone his shy smile and, in that moment, left it at that.”
“You certainly deserved it.”
“There’s more to it,” she says. “But, first, go get us some more tea.”
Once the cups are refilled and the pot sits between them, she reaches to place her boney, vein-riddled hand on Nate’s. The back of his hand is flushed with warmth.
“Mr. Worthington and I were married for twenty-three years. They were the best years of my life, filled with admiration and the quiet contentment that comes from a love that is tried and found true. One day, when we were both in our seventies, he came home with a bouquet of lilies and told me he had bone cancer and did not have long to live. I was shocked and numb and, in two beats of a heart, that life of pain, long dormant, came bleeding back.
“He held me as I sobbed. After I composed myself, I then embraced him and spoke those words that had made so much sense and had gotten me through so many desperate situations in the past: Remember, everything happens for a reason. It felt like the right thing to say, but once the words mingled with the air it suddenly seemed so inadequate, even trite.”
Nate takes his other hand and cups it on top of Mrs. Worthington’s. “I’m sure he knew what you meant.”
“Leyland kissed me on the cheek and said, You’re reason enough.”
* * *
A couple of months later Nate graduated with a degree in business and moved away. Even though that year, 1980, the United States chose not send a team to the Olympic Games, he still struggled.
In the autumn he came to visit Mrs. Worthington as she lay in a nursing home bed and prepared to spend eternity with her dear Leyland and the two sons who had gone before. Nate is surprised to see her bedridden. Her hair is longer and bunched in clumps, and, while so much of her had shrunk, her eyes seem to have grown in size and deepened in color.
“Tell me about your job, Nate.”
“I help a big company do financial forecasting. Nothing too important, or exciting.” He pulls the chair closer to her bed and gently takes her hand. “I haven’t yet put it all together.”
She can sense he’s still a swimmer out of water. “That’s okay. It took me many years to get there.”
“As we’ve often said, everything happens for a reason.” He leans closer and gives her hand a tender squeeze. “Hard as that can be, I carry that as a mantra.”
There’s a pause as her dark eyes stare into space and she retrieves something long forgotten, a thought she cradles with care.
“Life is hard,” she says, and slowly turns toward him. “We’re human, and human things happen to us. Some things are good beyond belief and some are nothing but painful. Some things unfold over a long life, others in tick of a second.”
She reaches for some water and he says, “Would you like some tea?”
“Not today, Nate.”
She sips the water through the straw and is chilled to the bone.
“We say things to help us get through tough times or to have them make sense. Sometimes that’s all we have. But the only reason things happen is so the human and heavenly can meet. One in need, the other in desire. That’s what Leyland told me as he approached the end, anyway. And I find it to be true.”
* * *
Nate often thinks of Mrs. Worthington, and not just the afternoon conversations but all the quiet pauses and how she drank her tea with neither cream nor sugar. She just drank it black—and hot.
Not long after Mrs. Worthington’s funeral, Nate goes to the local high school and volunteers as a swim coach. The teens are in awe a former NCAA champ is teaching them techniques and strategies, but they especially like the stories he tells about Mrs. W.