A moth was sitting still, waiting on the beige wall by the ceiling high book cabinet. Joseph hated waiting. Just the idea of time passing by without anything happening made him feel sick to the core. But that didn’t mean he was willing to leave; he didn’t have anything to live for; at least, that’s what he kept telling himself. The heavy breathing, back aches, swollen ankles, creeks and niggles under his aging skin: at 76, his current nausea was more appealing to him than anything that required effort.
“What’s on your mind, Joseph?”
An odd question from a stranger who seemed to already know what the answer would be. He asked questions like a psychiatrist would, but was dressed in business casual and didn’t address himself as doctor or as a psychiatrist, introducing himself simply as Ernest.
“You can share what you’re thinking. Only if you want to.”
Joseph didn’t reply, looking down and away at the empty space around a nearby chair, thinking about the number of people that might have sat in that very chair, acting out this little prevarication just so he can show Ernest how little he mattered to him. Ernest put his pen down and held his position for a moment. You could cut the silence with a blunt razor. As Ernest scanned Joseph again, searching for details to find some commonality, Joseph just sat in his chair, feeling helpless, being there. -
“How did that happen?” Ernest asked politely, addressing the scar below Joseph’s left ear.
Joseph heard the question but didn’t respond.
“That scar? Is there a story behind it?”
Joseph took his time, “It was an accident.”
Ernest fell quiet, allowing Joseph to speak.
“I was five and my older brother, Adam, was eight. He asked me if I wanted my hair cut. Me being five, I didn’t know any better so I just let him. He started cutting my hair and I started to realize he was cutting it really short, too short. I told him to stop, but he kept cutting and I turned around to ask him to stop and he accidentally cut me” as Joseph raises a bony finger and traces his scar. “It was the first time I had ever been pranked. And the last. Mum and Dad were furious.”
Both Joseph and Ernest smiled for the first time.
“And where is Adam now?”
The smile drained from Joseph’s face as his muscles tensed at the thought of his brother. After a moment’s hesitation, Ernest shuffled in his chair, considering his next question:
“Do you have anyone, any family, friends in your life?”
Joseph didn’t respond, but he didn’t have to, Ernest could read the pain in his face.
“Why?” Joseph reacted sharply. “You didn’t do anything.”
“Still, family is family.”
“Don’t be sorry for something you didn’t do” Joseph said angrily. “Don’t be sorry for anything.” Joseph fought to hold back the tears that wanted to flow from his eyes. The happy memories of his long gone family began to consume him. It was time for Ernest to change his strategy.
“Are you sorry? Do you have regrets?”
Joseph looked at Ernest with disdain, “No, I don’t have any regrets.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Yes, I’m sure.”
Ernest looked at him skeptically as a chill ran down Joseph’s spine.
“Why are you…?”
Ernest held his words back for a moment.
“You’re afraid, aren’t you?”
“You’re afraid of being alone.”
A hysterical laugh burst out of Joseph, making it unclear as to if he was masking his feelings or hadn’t yet realized how he actually felt and thought that Ernest’s claim was ridiculous.
“It’s okay to be afraid.”
Joseph shook his head, “I’m fine.”
“Yes. I’m fine.”
“If you’re fine then why did you lash out like that?”
Joseph turned cold, looking back at Ernest with a spark of anger in his eyes.
“It’s okay to be afraid, Joseph. Fear is a part of life. Fear is a part of growth.”
“Growth?” Joseph snickered. “What makes you think I still have room to grow?”
Ernest hesitated, searching for the right words, rehearsing them in his head to make sure he had them in the right order.
“At 76, you still possibly have 10 years left, maybe even more if you’re fortunate. 10 years is a long time.”
Joseph leaned forward for the first time.
“Look at me. Look at my hands. Look at my hair. Look into my eyes. Do you see what I’ve gone through? Do you see what I’ve become?” Joseph gave Ernest a moment to look over his frail body. “What exactly can I do?” Joseph leaned back as if he had just won this argument, only for Ernest to throw him off:
Joseph was lost for words; silence was his response.
“Your body might not reflect it, but even at your age, your mind is still growing. As long as you’re alive you’re growing.”
Joseph stared rigidly at Ernest, but beneath the cynicism, the reactive contempt, despite his instinct to deny it or suppress it, he felt a buoyancy, a kind of optimism within him that he hadn’t felt in years.
“Your problem is that you only focus on the negatives” Ernest went on. “Everything in life has its positives and its negatives. I don’t care what situation you describe to me, how terrible that situation is, how terrible your life is, there are positives and negatives and you only focus on the negatives. Live with grace, Joseph. Recognize for yourself that your life has come with its good and its bad times, so you can remember and be grateful for those good times and can focus on those good times that still lie ahead, as you continue to grow, even at 76.”
Each word of Ernest’s speech rushed through Joseph, pinching every nerve, shocking his system. Ernest eventually stood up out of his chair and quietly walked off, so that his message could sink in, letting Joseph be.
Joseph sat in his chair for what felt to him like a long time, oblivious to the pain in his body and the fear of time ebbing inevitably away towards the ultimate oblivion, mulling over the ideas Ernest had left him with and wondering why these ideas had never occurred to him before; the notion of “living with grace”, the realization that everything came with its positives and its negatives, that there was always a choice and that he could decide for himself what mattered to him. And after what seemed like many hours of contemplation, Joseph eventually came to a simple conclusion, his conclusion, that since there are always positives and negatives to everything - to each situation, to every human being, to life - then one would be either an idiot or a fool or both not to focus on the positives.
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