Nothing to Forget

The sunset shrouded the bay in a mantle of gold. Ben scanned the horizon from his second-floor balcony and then leaned forward in his chair to gain a clearer view of his front yard. The jacaranda trees were in full bloom, their lush petals serving as a purple canopy for anyone strolling up the path to his house. As the maid was finishing her daily chores, she took special care to turn on certain lamps that would create the subtle tones Ben might best appreciate on an evening like this. Then, she placed a glass of iced tea on the table next to him and adjusted his jacket collar. Once she was sure he was comfortable, she left him alone with his thoughts and headed home to yet another round of household tasks.

Ben was used to being alone. At 85 years old, he had outlasted all of his friends and siblings. His wife had left him years ago and then passed away herself, and they had never had children. Now, he was ready to go, too. At this point, death seemed like just one more thought that would lead to another uncertain event. He had watched nearly everyone he knew pass away, always for idiosyncratic but inevitable reasons, and most of the ones who had lasted into old age were nothing more than empty husks waiting to blow through the fields of the unknown anyway. In moments of despair, Ben felt tired, disappointed that he hadn’t accomplished more, and hurt that no one cared.

Now in the darkness of early evening, the soft balcony lights gave form to the vase of red roses sitting on the table and the jasmine vines woven into the surrounding trellises. This is what Ben would miss the most — the rich, decadent beauty of the natural world and each sweet or torrid sensation it delivered. Yes, he still had his house, memories, and minor diversions, but what were they compared to that endless and unpredictable array of urgent sensory appeals that always felt so familiar and transient? He lifted the glass of iced tea to his lips, nibbled on a cube that had shrunk to the size of a nickle, and reveled in the tingling chill that slowly numbed his tongue.

The buzzing of his cell phone disrupted the silence, verifying his conviction that nothing would ever be the same for human culture. The world had gone from carbon copy paper to a hand-held device more technologically sophisticated than the computer system used to place Neil Armstrong on the Moon, and it was targeting him at that very moment. Although he had no idea who would be calling at that hour, he timidly hoped that the person on the other end would be someone who mattered, someone who cared, and was ready to share in a moment with him, as incidental as it might be. He answered the phone. It was a recorded message from his service provider asking him if he was interested in an upgrade. Ben wondered if this would be his last interaction with something approximating a human, a final connection with anything other than himself, a brief marriage of mismatched electrical firings.

He gazed skyward and focused on the brightest stars in Ursa Major. He had given up on the notion of a soul some time ago. It wasn’t a matter of believing or disbelieving one way or another. How could man-made definitions of universal cause-effect or transmigrational phenomena matter to anyone? The one connection he still had with others was regret, which had nothing to do with his relationship to the Cosmos. No, it was individualized, and he considered all the people he had hurt and how these pains could never be taken away, how they would be there until he wasn’t. He wanted to be relieved of all guilt in that instant, but the damage he had inflicted on others was now seared into his memory.

He thought about the different jobs he had held through the years as if to validate some pattern of worthwhile behavior. Eventually, one stray memory arrived like a nearly forgotten guest, the day a massive bolt of lightning struck the cornfield across the road from Ronnie Lawson’s farm where he had been working late, and the deafening accompanying thunder, and then for some unknown reason he remembered the night his wife left him, but this time, she turned to him as she was walking out the door, stared into his watery eyes, and said, “Forgive yourself, Ben. I forgave myself, and it taught me how to live in peace. Things happen as they do. There’s nothing to remember and nothing to forget, which means you have to forgive everyone else, too. There’s still time, you know.”

Ben awoke from his reverie and wiped the sweat from his eyes with his shaking hand. “I will, I will,” he whispered to himself. He would greet his maid with orderly thoughts and a warm smile the next morning. He didn’t want her to be blindsided by unexpected problems with which no one should have to deal, so he needed to figure out how to best manage any difficult situations that might arise due to his impending death. They would talk. He was sure they could negotiate something.