Waiting for the Call


By Wayne Allensworth


A certain older gentleman of my acquaintance, let’s call him “Mr. K,” is noticeably, steadily declining. He had been hale, hardy, and robust, even after receiving his doctor’s grim diagnosis. Now he appears pale and drawn. The decline has been sudden and swift, but not unexpected. Mr. K, after all, is nearing 93. He suffers from bone cancer, and his once straight and steady carriage is slowing yielding to the irresistible force of the disease’s inexorable, brutal gravity. His body is bent, and the man who once prided himself on his level of physical fitness in old age has been forced by those stubborn enemies, time and illness, to use a walker. His memory, once surprisingly strong, is fading. I always call to remind him I’m planning to drop by. These days, he forgets. Mr. K’s cherubic good humor, that child-like twinkle in his eyes, combined with a reverent acceptance of his fate—he has no relatives close by and his wife died some years ago—is strangely humbling. His only complaints concern his flagging energy and his fading memory.

I had chosen the occasion of what would have been my father’s 92nd birthday to make one of my periodic visits to the “assisted living” facility he now resides in. Mr. K, once largely self-sufficient, needs more assistance these days. He is invariably genuinely glad to see me. We met at church some years ago. Mr. K took a shine to me right away, and the affection and regard was mutual. When Mr. K could still drive to church, he was finding it harder to walk to the communion rail and kneel, but, as long as he was able, that’s what he did.

I can only imagine his loneliness, though Mr. K never speaks of his solitude, taking his company where he can find it. An outgoing man, Mr. K chats up the staff who come by to clean his room and remind him that lunch is at noon. He lights up for the staffers he particularly likes. I always take my seat in my usual chair, while Mr. K sinks comfortably into his recliner. He relishes our conversations, though we inevitably talk about the same things we always talk about. My family, my past; his family, his past. A wary uncertainty about the future of our descendants. A questioning puzzlement over what went wrong, but always a wistful reference to all things that have been right.

Mr. K travelled far from his small-town childhood, which he remembers fondly. He joined the Air Force and saw places he might never have seen otherwise. Trained in electronics, he once worked on guidance systems for planes and missiles. He enjoyed his work, and happily tells me again and again about technical problems he was assigned to resolve.

I especially enjoy his stories about life in the old America we both have in mind when we say the words “our country.” I was fortunate enough to see something of that country and the people like Mr. K who inhabited it. There’s one story I’ve heard from him more than once, but sometimes I deliberately lead him in the direction of that memory, as it evokes a certain delight in a cinephile like myself: Mr. K was working at a movie theater in his hometown and one day the projectionist was ill. The manager insisted that the show must go on—Mr. K was pressed into service to man the projection booth. There was one glitch as Mr. K was working merrily along—when it came time to change to the second reel of the movie, a Western as Mr. K recalled, instead of a wagon train in progress, the viewers got a short film intended for the warmup prior to the main feature—maybe a comedic Robert Benchley take on domestic life. He couldn’t recall the details as the audience got rather upset, and the manager, to say the least, was out of sorts, storming into the projection room to give Mr. K what for. Mr. K had to nervously get the second reel of the feature on and quick. Very embarrassing, says Mr. K, but the show, and the wagon train, went on. And he didn’t suddenly find himself unemployed.

The story has an Andy Griffith Show ring to it.

On that day, we didn’t get to the story telling. Mr. K nodded off while we were in mid-conversation. I eased out of my chair to make a quiet exit, but he stopped me before I got too far, telling me he was sorry, he just gets tired so easily. I insisted that he remain seated, but his old school sense of courtesy demanded that he rise and escort his guest to the door. I helped him get situated behind his walker and take those increasingly difficult steps to the door.

Kr. K extended his hand, and I gently grasped it. He told me how much he appreciated and enjoyed our visits, and I returned the compliment. I mentioned that today, the twelfth of June, would have been my father’s 92nd birthday. He nodded, noting that he would be 93 in a week or so. “It won’t be long now,” he said, and I knew what he meant. I told him I’d be back soon, and that he had had a good life. An overwhelming wave of emotion started to fall over me, and I tried to hold it back, but Mr. K saw it, and his eyes grew watery, his expression one of weary resolve. I leaned over and put my left arm around his shoulder, and we shook on it.

“I’m ready when the Lord calls me.”

“May God bless you, Mr. K.”

When I turned to go out my eyes momentarily locked on a copy of Leonardo’s mural depiction of the Last Supper hanging on the wall. I turned and said, “Goodbye.” He reached for my hand one more time, drawing in the emotional experience, holding it close to himself. Then he shut the door.  

On the way out, I stopped at the front desk, and the receptionist asked me how the visit went. I said, “He’s declining.” She looked up at me and nodded. “Yes.”

The spectral shadow of mortality looms over all of us. How we deal with that inevitability is an open question in every life. Hamlet’s undiscovered country from which no traveler returns can puzzle the will. It can make us wish to bear those ills we have rather than fly to the others we know not of. Mr. K tells me he is not afraid. He embraces life and accepts death. In facing the loss of his life, he has gained it. His courage and goodwill are striking, especially coming from a man who seems to have enjoyed life so heartily. He does not brood over the evil day, nor dwell on the terrors that are the natural fears of the infirm, as he waits for that call.

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of  The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood

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Wayne Allensworth

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