The lady behind the jewelry store counter suddenly grew still.
She’d been in constant motion, moving back and forth between me, across the counter, and the box at her side, its rows upon rows of sizing rings resting in velvet pockets. We’d been busy trying the rings on my left hand, one after another, until she’d stopped, her shift to stillness nearly imperceptible, and quietly met my gaze. Her expression was kind and her voice was patient, even though we both knew I was getting a little weepy for no reason. Even though we both knew I sounded a little insane.
She’d made the transition so expertly that I wondered if this happened a lot. If maybe it was part of the job training at the jewelry store – just as it had been for me in nursing school – to know when to become still inside, and to project an expression that was especially soft, a voice patient and kind. It was what you did, for example, when dealing with old ladies who were getting weepy for no reason, or who might be just a little bit crazy. It was what you did when you could see that the problem at hand, the thing that the old ladies seemed upset about, was not really the problem at all.
“It’s my left hand,” I had told the front desk lady, two weeks before, at the office of the hand surgeon. “I have limited range of motion in the the third and fourth digits of the left hand,” It was true that she had asked for more detail, and that she had smiled at me as she wrote it down. But by the time I’d reached my seat in the waiting room, I was already mortified; how tinny the misplaced-nurse jargon rang in my hand-patient ears, how awkward and put-on. Like I was trying to sound like some kind of expert, prove that I belonged here, knew that I was at the right doctor. I knew that I had done it for the same reason my patients sometimes had: to hide what I really was, which was an aging person who knew some medical jargon but had also come to a hand surgeon’s office for an old lady problem. A problem which – you didn’t need to be an expert to figure out – he was probably not going to be able to fix.
Shortly after my name was called, I sat across a desk from the surgeon, reviewing my symptoms with him – soreness and swelling, mostly in my left hand, very bad in the mornings, particularly noticeable after I’d written at the keyboard late into the evening, or knitted on slender needles before bed. I did the clawing demonstration of my deformity that I’d perfected at home; he was unimpressed. I geared up for my closing like a courtroom attorney. “It’s so bad now,” I paused for emphasis, holding up my bare left hand for him to see, “I can’t even wear my wedding rings.”
Like the lady in the jewelry store, he’d met my gaze, but his expression was mostly confused, the one people give you right before they raise their eyebrows and say calmly, “Really? Like, seriously?” “OK,” was all he said.
He made notes on my chart in enormous, loopy, handwriting, and, now deflated, I thought of pointing out that as a hand surgeon, he was really missing the chance to showcase his fine-motor skills with better penmanship. He held up the plastic sheet with my blue-white skeleton hands on the x-ray. “This is mild to moderate osteoarthritis in a woman 50-something,” he shrugged, as if noting that water was wet. His tone was direct but not unkind, and seemed to suggest that I, a nurse, must have known this already, and – seeing as how I had come to him anyway – also must be needing to hear it straight. About both of these he was right. Sure, I’d hoped it was something else, something he could fix – something less age-related, perhaps, less permanent – but I had known that was a long shot. I just hadn’t wanted to face the promises I hadn’t kept.
It was twelve years before, in another surgeon’s office, when despite being too young to get cancer, I learned that I’d gone ahead and done it anyway. I was following in a family tradition begun reluctantly – oh, so reluctantly – by my dad, a young and vibrant father who was gone quickly and so permanently that nobody – least of all us, his four kids – could believe it was true. So I skipped over the denial part and the anger part, too, and settled into a permanent state of bargaining. This is a nice and not-altogether-truthful way to describe the person I became then, late at night, roaming the dangerous neighborhoods of my mind under cover of darkness, dealing in the menacing, if-then street deals of a stone-cold spiritual gangster. “Come on, God, don’t do this. You owe me. You had better come through.” I did not dare imagine I would see fifty when it had ended so differently for my dad.
By day, though, I made a good show of playing by the rules, all courage and wisdom and aggressive treatments, a mother-warrior with her children in mind. I promised, over and over, that were I to live, it would be because of my kids, for my kids, always, for them. It went without saying that, were I to live, I would never, ever complain about anything to do with aging; it had, after all, become my holy grail. “Worse than getting wrinkles,” I would sometimes say, trying to pull off the indisputable authority of someone who has cheated death, “is dying before you have a chance to get them.” People would nod, and sometimes get teary; sometimes they would call me brave or inspiring. Some just said quietly, “wow.”
I am telling you, it was impressive.
So it is twelve years after that, and two weeks after the hand surgeon, when I am in line at the jewelry store. God, I think, there are mirrors all over this place. I keep getting distracted by my reflection, and not in a good way: every time I see it again, staring back at me, I accidentally say “ugh” out loud. I wonder why I thought skipping makeup could ever be an option at my age and if the sting and possible paralysis of Botox might actually be worth it. When they call me to the counter – “Next!” – I refocus on the task at hand: the medicine man may have failed me, but I have come with my rings, still in search of a cure.
Some time later, we have been at it quite a while, the jewelry lady and I. She is so nice, and has a soothing air about her; I wonder if she would like to be my friend. And then I realize how inappropriate that is, that of course we cannot be friends, because she has somehow also become my therapist. I am explaining – trying a less dramatic approach this time – how upsetting it is to not be able to wear my wedding rings, and she nods and says convincingly that she understands. We marvel together at how small the rings are (“Yes, just four-and-a-half!”), how long I’ve had them (“I was only twenty-one, isn’t that crazy?”), how the other one, with the four stones (“for each of my children”) was given to me long ago by my husband. How I used to wear the engagement ring and wedding ring alone on my left hand, but how strange that looks and feels to me now, after years and years of wearing all three of the rings all scrunched up together between the knuckles. Well, until recently, anyway, until my hands got so bad. She listens to my non sequiturs as if she is neither a therapist on the clock nor a jewelry store lady with a line but someone who has all day. I hardly notice when she deftly redirects me, as if I am a toddler, back to the velvet box.
When we are done with the sizing, we move on to the problems – the sticky rings, the swollen knuckles, my strained relationship with change – and their possible solutions, and things start to go downhill. Our therapist-friend relationship becomes strained. I do not like any of the options, I tell her; were I in a proper therapist’s chair, I think, I would unconsciously cross my arms. Were I in a proper therapist’s chair, and not a jewelry store, it might not seem so crazy that I am suddenly both a whiny toddler and a panicky cancer patient, neither of whom likes any of the choices at hand.
My former-therapist-friend suggests a simple solution – “We could just make all the rings a size larger!” – and you would think she has suggested my husband take a consort: in a hot second, I am wide-eyed and crazy, leaning over the counter between us in alarm. “Change them permanently?? Like, they would never be the same??” Calmly, she goes on, adding that sizing beads would keep the ring snug while allowing it to bridge the knuckle, and all of a sudden, my eyes well up and I wonder again, in a way that feels familiar, how I will survive this, how different things will look and be after this mortal threat to a shape that is all I have known, that should not be changed in this way, that is imperfect but which is so much a part of myself. “Will it look different with the beads? I mean, like, will people be able to tell?” I ask anxiously, before remembering that she is not a plastic surgeon, or a therapist, that this is not cancer, or my marriage at stake; for God’s sake, we are talking about a ring. It is then when she becomes very still. I am trying so hard not to cry.
Today, my size four-and-a-half wedding rings reside on my left hand alone, as they were in the beginning. It turns out that when those rings are worn alone, they still fit, and the sight of them as they were,with new space around them, the freedom to move about between the knuckles, reminds me of my younger hand. I mean, except for the liver spots. It turns out that it was the third ring, the one with the four children-stones, when added to the lot, that made it uncomfortable, and caused my knuckle to swell. That made it impossible to wear any of them at all.
The ring with the children-stones is on my right hand now; it has been made bigger than it used to be, with my permission, as have my children without it; like them, it likes having its own place. This process of making room, of letting go of the need to be scrunched up together, as we – I mean, the rings – had been for so long has made me weepy sometimes, and crazy, even whiny and panicky at the threat of permanent change. But it has turned out OK.
Still, I know I have complained about the aging, and I feel bad about that, about the broken promises. I just got so busy seeing the children through, aging and wrinkling. Seeing hand surgeons for arthritis, for God’s sake. At least, I think, I kept the promise to live only for my children – well, until recently, anyway, until my hands got so bad. Until the old view of those wedding rings alone, the comfort and the freedom and the space. Until that made me think that now that I have made it this far, I think I might like to live, also, for the young lovers who became aging parents, who made it far enough to not just see the children through, but to end up back on their own once again.
It is, I suppose, just another promise broken. But it is a bigger promise kept.