Goodbye George, Hello Margaret
It takes effort to hate the things that make you unhappy. Like cold winters, rude people and when it comes to world problems that’ll never end, government corruption. I spend more time hating and being angry than I do smiling. I could go on, but what I really mean is, I strongly dislike these things just as much as being called the M-word by some young, toned, Gwyneth Paltrow look-alike with perfect breasts and a soft voice that adds a touch of sweetness to obvious condescension. Now there are those who might see this word as a courtesy, a sign of deference or respect, but in my world, ma’am is what you call someone you think is simple and safe. Old and inconsequential. Unless I become the Queen of England, don’t ever call me ma’am. It’s dismissive and ego bruising.
“Everything okay, ma’am?” asked the pretty girl, Gwyneth, again, who was waiting for me to finish filling out the fitness membership form.
I nodded mutely with a clenched jaw, trying to get my pen to work.
I shook it in the air and then scribbled more vertical lines on the top of the form before banging it on the desk. Frustration mounting, I shut my eyes and took a deep, calming breath. When I opened them, Gwyneth was looking at me intently while simultaneously tucking a loose strand of unnatural blond, lustrous hair behind her delicate little ear.
“Meditative breathing,” she said, smiling approvingly. “It’s a great technique. I use it too.” She reached across the end of the glossy white counter and rolled forward a New Body Fitness pen with the pen she had in her hand. “Here, why don’t you try this one?”
Oh, she was good. Trying to disarm me with feigned empathy.
I dropped my useless ballpoint into my oversized purse, tucking a loose strand of my own, graying and somewhat less lustrous hair behind my ear too as I reached out for the pen. I knew I was being petty. In the real world, not including my paranoia, she was just trying to be polite in her own way.
“Okay….so you just need to fill out this part here and we’ll be done,” she said, clapping her hands as if toasting the moment.
Her overbearing enthusiasm failed to change my mood. I took another deep breath, squinting back at the membership application. You’d think I was here for a job interview. Needless to say, beyond the usual contact stuff, they wanted information I really didn’t care to share.
My numbers are no one’s business.
Do you consider yourself obese? Oh, c’mon! No, I don’t, I wrote.
Do you exercise daily? If a slow walk around the block with a really distracted dog counts, then yes!
What are your goals?
My goals? My first goal would be to murder whoever created the form. I guess I still had enough self-restraint to stop my hands from writing my exact thoughts though. Instead, I contemplated writing a more typical response. Get back in shape. I was once a runner. Oh, wait…and to enjoy life again. Enjoy and smile—like how I felt as a kid from the moment I’d wake up to the moment I’d go to bed, because my day, in its entirety, revolved around twiddling my thumbs as I made life-changing decisions to watch either Scooby-Doo or Legend Zelda, with a bowl of Fruitloops or Frosted Flakes on my lap.
When I lifted my eyes, Gwyneth was busy on her cell, undoubtedly making up for lost time on social media. Stop. No one probably ever told the poor child it was impolite to be texting or sexting, or who knows what else while you were supposed to be taking care of a potential new gym member. And it wasn’t her fault I had to write yes to the overweight question. Somewhere between my second childbirth and forty-fifth birthday, my weight has edged closer to the higher end of the overweight category on the Body Mass Index calculator—causing strained back muscles that make me sometimes walk with an octogenarian stride. I’ve let myself go, living on autopilot for the past twenty years, and there’s no one to blame except myself. Maybe the founders of Netflix and Tony’s Pepperoni. They haven’t helped either.
When Gwyneth finally saw me looking, she quickly put down her phone, smiled broadly and said as though sharing a confidence, “Sorry, I’ve been waiting for an important message.”
Before I could respond, Carrie Underwood’s Blown Away ringtone bellowed from the depths of my purse. It was Hank, my husband. And since he was visiting his father at the hospital, he was probably requesting a quiet night and a little comfort food.
I dug my phone out, signaling Gwyneth to give me a minute. “Hey baby, should I call Tony’s Pepperoni?” I said, anticipating his request as I stepped away from the counter.
Hank didn’t answer. Perhaps our twenty-one-year-old daughter, Samantha, had flunked her college exams or her younger brother, Cameron, once again, was the cause of a fender bender as he practiced driving with his father. Pausing for a moment, I recited my Be Here mantra three times, as if it would give me extraordinary powers or something to stay present and not get lost in creeping dreaded thoughts.
“He’s gone, Allie…” Hank finally said.
“Gone? We ordered from him last week, didn’t we?”
“No, Allie, not him,” he said flatly. And then I thought he was referring to Baily, our monster labradoodle who’d discovered an exciting world beyond the backyard gate. But Hank’s shaky voice made it clear it was far more tragic. “Mom was feeding him her tapioca pudding and he…he shook his head for her to stop and then…he closed his eyes and …”
It took me a moment. “Oh, Hank…” I said, as the weight of what he was saying finally hit me. He’s gone. My beloved father-in-law, George. I raised my head and stared blankly at the thin layer of dust collecting on the leaves of a dying poinsettia plant and then at my ragged looking fingernails. George is gone.
Hank let out a little cry and then a tremendous wave of awkwardness of not knowing what to say next overwhelmed me. I stood in disbelief as he struggled to get words out. “He looked fine…he was…and then—wait, hold on.”
I took another deep breath, feeling a stinging sensation in my eyes so bad I closed them. He’s gone. After all the time mentally preparing for the day, I felt I’d been punched hard in the gut. We didn’t expect him to survive into the new year, but to our surprise, he did—making us mistakenly believe he was getting stronger and ready to go home in a few days.
A moment later, Hank returned. “Allie, you there?”
I stood up taller, reaching into my purse for car keys. “Yep. I’m here, sweetie.” My voice reverberated with sadness. “I’m on my way now. I love yo—"
“Okay, but hurry. I’m not sure what to do or even what to say to her.” Her, meaning his mother Margaret. Suddenly a picture flashed before my eyes—a disturbing image of Margaret yelling at the nurses and blaming them for her husband’s death. I blinked away the scene and focused on Hank.
“Most people need to be comforted at a time like this," I said. In Margaret’s case, held and restrained was more like it because I could hear her in the background, crying and telling Hank what to say to me. “I’ll be there as soon as I get Cam—he’ll want to come too.”
After a quick goodbye, I looked over at Gwyneth, who was now leaning against a high black stool and talking on her phone. “…absolutely and thank you for the opportunity,” I overheard her say.
I flapped the registration form at her with a pounding heart all while trying to maintain my composure. “Excuse me,” I said after I got her attention. “I’m gonna have to come back. My father-in-law just passed.” My lips quivered as the words reached my heart.
She obviously didn’t understand my word choice for died because she hid her phone under some papers and then bounced over with a bright smile.
Keeping my eyes on her, she quickly scanned the form before glancing at me with her wrinkle-free skin. Her smile faded. I could see she wasn’t pleased, given we’d spent the past twenty minutes going through the gym’s elaborate registration process. “When should we expect you back—uhhh…Mrs…uh—”
“Allison—Allison Montgomery,” I said, pointing impatiently to my name in big bold letters on the top of the form. Idiot.
“Allison, sorry. Did you want to reschedule, Allison, or come back later?” I could hardly think as she flipped through the schedule mechanically, inhaling deeply, and clicking and unclicking her pen. Moments later, “We can book you in on Tuesday at three o’clock, and if you need to cancel, just let us know. Does that work?”
“Sure,” I said stiffly. “That’s fine. I’ll call if it doesn’t.”
As I shouldered open the heavy gym door and hurried out into the bitter cold, my cell rang with a vulgar rap song Cameron had recently set on it for his ring tone.
He didn’t waste any time when I answered. “Did you hear?” he said, choking back tears.
“I did, honey, and I’m on my way to get you.”
“I’m at Kyle’s…” he said faintly.
Kyle, Cam’s best friend, lives ten minutes in the opposite direction. Showing up at the hospital in yoga pants and a sweatshirt would not go over well with Margaret but there was no choice, I reasoned. It would be a lot worse if I didn’t get there before the staff took George’s body away.
“Okay,” I said, sounding surprisingly calm. “I’ll be there in ten minutes. Just need to come in and change first.”
I fiddled with the radio as I drove. I was hoping to find some calming music to keep me from slipping into a downward emotional spiral. But with rush hour in full swing, all I could find was news or commercials. Feeling numb and dazed, I turned the radio off and drove in silence along the snow-lined streets amidst the fading light. Suddenly another wave of emotions crashed over me. A tear escaped, again. How was I going to cope without George? I swallowed, trying to catch my breath as warm tears rolled down my cheeks. And then unexpectedly, feelings hidden deep inside surfaced. I gripped the steering wheel a little more tightly with a racing heart. And that’s when it hit me. I realized what it might mean. It wasn’t just the darkness of George’s death I was afraid of. It was what, or who was lurking behind it…Hank’s mother…my mother-in-law, a master manipulator and the source of much of my anxiety, insecurity and frustration since the day we’d met.
Maybe I should be blaming her for my weight gain and what might become a tense marriage for Hank and me.
Hate is a strong word. Sometimes.