A Good Man
Reading Time: 5 minutes
"A Good Man" originally appeared in Issue 16 of Tahoma Literary Review.
My parents were 50 years old when I was born. Because I spent a lot of my formative years with older people, I have a special place in my heart for the aged. So when I read Catherine Stratton's flash essay about her elderly Uncle George, I was overcome with emotion. What I like most about the essay, after its theme and titular character, is the manner in which Stratton uses an epistolary form to gently invite us to better appreciate this aging person -- a person she loves and would like us to understand the many reasons why.
He's a good man and thanks for your patience. We stand here at the front of the line because he needs more time to decide what to order for lunch; to scan the menu posted high on the wall behind the cash register.
The same menu. Always the same menu.
The line is long I know. But my Uncle George is old and has no place to rush to and neither do I, as I've carved out time. Though it's noon, and I'm guessing you're all on your lunch break. So, please, go ahead of us and thank you.
But, before you hurry by, can you take a moment to acknowledge Uncle George? I mean, to really see him and not just a slow-moving, slow-thinking old dude holding up the line?
He’s so much more than that.
He fought in World War II, you know. They took him right after high school and I'm old enough now—my kids are grown—to know that teenagers are so unformed. Newborn adults straining to make sense of an incomprehensible world that plucks up children to fight their wars.
They drafted him and dispatched him to the Philippines in a jungle far from home to fight the enemy and witness atrocities no one should see. He had no choice. That decision was made for him and for so many like him, some who never returned, like that young man sprinting past Uncle George, skirting enemy fire, who got a direct hit to the head.
“I had to wipe pieces of him off me,” he said. “Jim. I think his name was Jim. Yeah. Jim.”
Or, how they chanced upon a line of American soldiers strung from trees. Rotting. Unrecognizable.
“We didn't cut them down and bury them,” he said. “Too dangerous to linger.”
After all, they were young and wanted a future.
The war ended abruptly in a mushroom cloud. I assume you all know that. They promoted Uncle George to sergeant and shipped him off to Nagasaki, one month after the second atomic bomb fell on August 9, 1945. It was a cloudless day, the sky a striking blue, a day like any other when, at 11:01 AM, a plane with no conscience let loose Fat Man—so named by a sick sense of humor—which detonated the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT in a blaze of light 10,000 times brighter than the sun that sucked up its quarry in a fireball of pain.
Look closely and you may detect the twisted knot of guilt latched onto the far side of Uncle George’s heart.
“I ordered my men into Nagasaki after the bomb to clean up debris while I remained on base twenty-five miles away,” he breathed out, wincing.
“It’s not your fault,” I tell him.
His men found no debris, just a wasteland of suffering strewn with charred bodies and soon-to-be corpses weeping with sores. A ghost town scarred with nuclear shadows—human-shaped penumbras left seared into asphalt on desolate streets. Yet, unbeknownst to them, the bomb left behind a stealthy poison, too, invisible and odorless, the radiation that doomed those unlucky soldiers to sicken and die before they got old. But Uncle George got old. He's ninety-four now, and it haunts him still that seventy and more years ago he sent his men into a cursed place that pared years off their lives.
“How could you know?” I say.
No one tells Uncle George what to do anymore. But, little decisions become big decisions as we age and he needs more time to decide what to order for lunch. Please don't judge him. Time speeds up as we grow old. Every second shorter than the former and he’s not aware how much time has passed. He would never be rude. But I can see you’re all ready to order and have precious little time before they expect you back at work, so, please, go ahead of us.
Uncle George walks with a cane now. That’s easy to see. A walker would do better but he’s too proud to stoop so low. Old people are known to begrudge a helping hand, you know. Pride tends to last longer than bodies. You’ll find that out someday.
He may need assistance at times but please don't treat him like a child.
His son did. One evening, at a restaurant, after dessert, in front of family and friends, he asked his father, “Do you need to use the potty before we leave?”
I wanted to grab my Uncle's cane and whack my cousin on the head and scream, “What the hell is wrong with you? He’s twice your age, and he did his best and now he takes small steps and forgets stuff but he's still a man!”
That’s what I wanted to do, but Uncle George fights his own battles now and this one he chose to sit out. That was his decision and not mine to make.
Maybe I need to remind my cousin that his father wasn’t always old and feeble. He was a playboy in his youth. Imagine that? Zoomed socialites around in a red convertible. Wined them and dined them. Lit their cigarettes and opened their doors. He acted the gentleman and called men Sir. Drank high balls at business luncheons and golfed afternoons.
He was a class act. He is a class act.
Such a long line.
“Please, go ahead of us. We're not ready to order yet. Thank you, thank you.”
You all parade by like a receiving line as if here to congratulate the happy couple on their nuptials as we all hope they’ll stay together and live up to their promise to have and to hold till death do us part. Uncle George kept his promise. He loved his wife. The way he knew how. Provided for her, showed up on time and took care of her needs except for the intimacy she craved. She loved him anyway.
He was enough.
Did I mention he’s imperfect? There was that time in midlife when he drank too much and ignored his family and kept to himself. He didn't notice their pain until the day he stopped and they welcomed him back and he saw his good fortune, though his kids remained wary.
He knows loss too. Who doesn’t? But, as we age, loss doubles down and the trickle becomes a deluge and memories pile up to replace what is gone. His pile is weighty and includes the day he came home to find his wife dead on the floor. She’d been frying an egg before she dropped lifeless. He keeps an old black-and-white photo of her in his wallet. She’s young with a smile so bright and alive it’s hard to believe death could snuff it out.
Twenty minutes have passed—maybe more.
Uncle George turns to me. “What are you getting?”
“The same I always do, Uncle George. What about you?”
“I guess I'll get what I always get too,” he says.
I rest my hand on his shoulder and smile. “Surprise, surprise.”
And we laugh and laugh some more because this happens every time we meet for lunch at the same restaurant with the same menu. And, because it’s the way it is and because it’s not a bother and because we have more than enough time, we order the same meals we always do and haggle over whose turn to pick up the tab, as we always do, and walk, one careful step at a time, to a nearby table and sit down to eat lunch…as we always do.
Catherine had this to say about "A Good Man":
I have become keenly aware at how easy it is to disregard, lose patience with, or, worse, infantilize aged people. Once I might have done the same, busy as I was to check off one more thing on my to-do list. I now recognize the richness and value of people who have lived a long time and how easily we can write them off once their usefulness is no longer apparent. As aging people slow down physically and cognitively, it can be difficult to picture them as young and vital. I wrote this piece to remind us that maybe, just maybe, that person fumbling with change or asking the cashier to repeat herself for the third time, the one that is going to make us late for that very, very important “thing” we need to do, has so much to share if we’d stop to listen. This essay is an ode to my Uncle George, both to who he was then and who he is now.
Catherine Stratton is a writer/filmmaker living in Hoboken, New Jersey. Her work will appear in upcoming issues of the Delmarva Literary Review, Door is a Jar Literary Magazine and the Woodhall Press anthology, Flash Nonfiction Food, slated for a 2020 release. Her view of the New York City skyline from her balcony inspires her to write every day. You can reach Catherine at firstname.lastname@example.org.