Artwork for podcast The Pen Is...
...Sitting at a Window
Episode 616th June 2021 • The Pen Is... • Ana & Hana
00:00:00 00:26:48

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In response to Ana's prompt to write a fiction piece on an older person living out of the end of their life and how they’re addressing trauma they experienced earlier in life, Hana reads aloud her short description of a moment in time for Alva, her protagonist. Ana pushes Hana to continue working on the aspects of writing she finds uncomfortable, including vulnerability and emotion.

Originally recorded September 16, 2020.

Hana: write a fiction piece on an older person living out of the end of their life and how they’re addressing trauma they experienced earlier in life.

Alva sits at the window and watches the clouds moving across the sky. Quietly humming to herself, she tracks the movements of sunlight and shadow on the ground and trees with her eyes and sometimes a half-raised finger, pointing at a particularly bright or dark spot. Most days, she doesn’t want to wear her glasses because the nose-pieces bite into the delicate skin on her nose, so most of the patterns outside are blurred. It was worse when they lived in the house near the airport, the sound of planes taking off and landing always throwing her back into days when loud noises meant fear and possible death, but the tasteful and deliberately calming environment of the retirement community doesn’t allow for such disruptions, so she can watch the clouds at her leisure.

Once upon a time, just sitting at the window would have been a rare luxury, time spent alone with nothing else to do, no existential worries wearing on her mind if she tried to relax. The days of children asking her unending questions and ever-present piles of laundry and dishes waiting to be cleaned are long past, with those children tending to their own families’ needs. But lately, she’s been thinking more often back to the days before she was a housewife with a comfortable middle-class life, when the stresses of daily living were a threat to her survival.

“Honey, can I get you anything?” the soft voice of the nursing assistant floats into the room, disturbing her reverie. 

She likes the earnest young woman who is so eager to please and will talk about her dreams of becoming a nurse one day, but the slight condescension of a woman calling her “sweetie,” “dear,” and “honey” when she’s never known true hardship is grating at times. She feels more kinship with the nurses, CNAs, and therapy assistants who have come to the US fleeing political upheaval in their own countries.

“Thank you, Heather, but I’m fine.” Alva turns back to the window and resumes her train of thought.

She finds conversations with others tiring these days. She’d rather continue the discussions in her head with people long gone. Full of excruciating memories and deep loss, these conversations feel like home to her in a way that inane small talk with chipper young people never will.

A therapist she saw many years ago once said, “Processing your past experiences will help you put their traumatic effects to bed.” For someone supposedly so aware of the human condition, Dr. Feelgood (she doesn’t remember his actual name) was supremely unaware of the comfort of anguish. It may not feel pleasant, reliving these memories over and over, but it feels familiar. Why would she want to say goodbye to dear faces that are long gone, even with the sharp pain she feels at the sight of them in her mind’s eye?

Alva realizes that the nursing assistant is still waiting expectantly in her doorway. She stops mid-thought and looks questioningly at her.

“Mrs. Thompson…,” she hesitates, reluctant to bring up something upsetting, but Alva is braced for the inevitable question. It comes out in a rush, she wants to get on with the rest of her day, “I didn’t see your name on the list for this week’s shuttle, which stops by the cemetery, should I add you to the group?”

Alva lets out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding as she thinks of a response. It’s no use telling this optimistic, naive girl that the bodies buried there are not the ones that make her cry out in the night or occasionally weep silent tears. Yes, it’s almost the anniversary of her husband’s death, but their relationship was a long, mostly happy one. She feels gratitude and closure when she thinks of him. She’ll go to visit him and tell him she misses him while she lays a bunch of sunflowers on his grave, but he is not one of the ghosts who haunts her.

“Yes Hazel, thank you for reminding me. You’re such a good girl to ask,” she says, again turning her head back to the window. 

As she hears the girl’s footsteps fade away down the hall, she starts to hum a tune that reminds her that everything she experienced so many years wasn’t simply a nightmare, that she is still the broken survivor who built a family and life from the ashes. A tear slides down her cheek and she smiles wryly, at home with her pain.