Short Story: “Counting Backwards”


Please note: This is a work of fiction.

I’ve always known that I was smart. My whole life I’ve been the kid that’s orbited around libraries, spent his time with his nose stuck in books, had people jealous of me because I knew the answer when they didn’t. I got used to it. And secretly I knew that if I were to lose anything—my strength, my mobility, even my sexuality—I could survive, as long as it wasn’t my mind.

And now here I was, facing the reality that I wasn’t the man I used to be. I had a plumber explaining to me how the drain on a tub was supposed to work. A man with a high school education was explaining a task so that my wife with few mechanical skills could easily understand it, and yet here I was, a full professor with a PhD, completely lost in his words. It reminded me of a day years before when I had been deathly ill and insisted on coming to work anyway. My vice president had talked to me, and I had seen his mouth moving and words coming out of his mouth, but they all sounded like blah-blah-blah. It was like some bad cartoon, with me as Charlie Brown in the back of the classroom facing an overbearing teacher.

I looked at the patient plumber and then at my wife. Simple, their faces were telling me. I knew it was supposed to be so, and there was a time when I would have thought so. I scored 99 percent on logic on my SAT, but that meant nothing to me here. I had to face the truth; I was losing my mind.

I smiled thinly at the plumber and told him to proceed and went into the next room. Shelly immediately knew something was wrong; she had known something was wrong for a while. A few days later, we went out to the Cheesecake Factory to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary, and she decided to talk about it.

“You’re not yourself,” she said to me as we sat down at our table. “What’s bothering you?”

“I feel like I’m losing my mind,” I said, mutely picking up the hefty menu.

She smiled and shook her head. “It’s just stress. You have too much on your plate.”

“Maybe,” I responded, then paused. “No, that’s not it. I don’t know if it’s just getting older—I hope that’s not the case—but my mind is not working right.”

“Well, none of our minds are as sharp as they used to be,” she said. “I find myself forgetting things all the time. It’s just age.”

“Age? I thought it was stress.”

“Stress then,” she said. “I just think you need to take it easier.”

“And how do I do that? I teach full time. I’m launching a new book. I’ve got our main bathroom torn into pieces. And we’re launching the school’s new website any day now. When do you propose I take it easier?”

Shelly frowned at me. “Lower your voice. No need for a lecture. I know all of that, you know.”

I sighed. “All I know is that what I depend on most—other than you—is failing me. When I come to class, I feel like my students know more than I do. I start conversations and worry I won’t be able to finish them. Yesterday I wasn’t able to subtract numbers in my head, something I’ve been able to do since I was seven!” I spat the words out as if I were sharing anger at the universe with her.

The waiter arrived and we ordered something. I don’t remember what she ordered and I ordered what I usually did without thinking. There was a long awkward pause, and I don’t know if she was waiting for me to fill in the gap, or was trying to find a solution, but I decided to speak first. When the breadsticks came, I jumped in.

“I know we talked about retiring at 66, but I’m wondering if I should be thinking about this being my last year of teaching,” I muttered quietly, then added quickly. “For health reasons.”

She glanced up at me, and I could see anger mixed with her concern. “We can’t afford that. Can we?”

I shook my head. “Not really. But I can’t see myself continuing the way I am in the classroom.” I stared ahead, lost in my own thoughts.

Shelly didn’t look at me. “Don’t you think you’re being a little selfish in all of this?”

I glanced up at her, surprised. “What are you talking about?”

“You’re not the only person who is affected by your retirement. You know, there are a lot of days when I don’t feel my best at work either.”

I stared at her and the anger roiled in my head.

“You don’t seem to understand, Shelly,” I said carefully. “I haven’t been just thinking about retirement. I’ve been thinking about suicide as well.”

The word dropped like an anvil in the middle of the table.

“Like I said,” she said quietly. “Don’t you think you’re being a little selfish?”

I could see her eyes rimmed red, but couldn’t tell if it was from anger or sadness. All I knew was that I had hurt her, something I could never bring myself to do.

“All I know,” I responded, “is that I am going crazy. My mind is not my own.”

We didn’t speak again until the orders arrived, and then just a few words here and there to reassure each other that we were still seated at the same table. We were both problem solvers, but tonight we were the problem. I couldn’t see beyond my problem simply because my mind, the thing I depended on so much to solve these things, was out of commission. And she was having a hard time understanding where I was coming from, at least that’s what I was thinking.

We finished our meal and I took care of the exorbitant ticket, and then we left the table to go. I noticed that she touched my arm in a tender way as we left, a slight signal that the conversation was not over and that I was still in her thoughts. I took her hand as we went through the heavy glass doors and headed out onto the sidewalk.

“Look,” she said on the other side, the light of the setting sun casting an orange glow across Sundance Square. She reached out and took both of my hands. “I am with you. You’re not alone. I don’t have a solution for your medical problem. But we’ll find one.”

“And if there isn’t one?” I said. “If it’s just the cost of getting old?”

She inhaled and looked me deep in the eyes.

“Then you need to remember our marriage vows. We both do. In sickness and in health.”

I raised a lopsided grin. “For richer and for poorer. We already got that one.” I looked over her shoulder at the street, then back at her. “Til death do us part.”

“You got it, mister,” Shelly added. “But let’s not rush that last piece.”

We walked back toward the parking garage and the car. We had found no answers. Maybe there weren’t any, who knew.

I didn’t know what tomorrow would bring. But I owed it to this woman to face it like a man, face it as her man.

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