When the Lights Go Out

by Joseph Williams

I’ve pissed myself again.

The idea hits me slow and billows out the same way the liquid does over my legs and my sheets. I try to sit upright and can’t. I try to turn over and can’t. My legs are too weak. My arms are too weak. I am too weak for much of anything.

Hurry! Do something before she gets back!

I can yell all I want but commands quit working on my body years ago. Nothing will stir me anymore.

The smell should have started to hit me by now, but I am used to it. When my skin isn’t soaking in urine, it is ripe with the soggy-saltine smells of old age and I am comfortable with those smells. The smells of antiquity.


That’s what I am. And what a glamorous classification: ancient! Like the lost artworks of mysterious cultures long passed away! A surviving artifact from the old temples of America! The very idol of hardship and prosperity alike!

My mind is a jewel to be cherished by those around me.

But here I am. Here. In this bed. In a wet diaper that doesn’t quite do its job. Considered deaf. Dumb. Senile. Left to die. Eroding the lines of character and life from my skin, the grip from my fingers, the faculties of my brain, with a wetness I can’t control.

I am old.

Yes, I am old. Scorned by my succeeding generations for one simple inevitability of their own lives: I am ancient, and they will be, too.

They’ve watched me in my primitive state for years, wondering how I can survive after so much wear. Silently contemptuous for my audacity to survive. At first, I never caught on to their watching because I didn’t see myself the way they did. Dried out, shriveled, small. Like an artifact in a museum. But the rings on my trunk are farther-reaching now and I don’t need their looks to tell me I am gone.

And I am gone. I am nothing but an artifact to them.

But I am living and breathing, and that makes my life inherently worthless, because my museum is a nursing home and no one will decode me for secrets of the past. I have no value to anyone, it seems, until my funeral, when tears will be shed and regrets will be told. And they forget that I am here now, alone, and wishing their regrets had come while there was still time.

I am feeble. I am starting to break. When I do, I won’t even be a passing wonder for them, a reminder that their youth will not last like they think it will.

But I am here! I am the reason that you are here!

It has become my rallying cry. A cry of anger toward my children and grand-children.

Anger has its own wretched stench. It is an easy side-track from the soggy-saltine smell and it fills me often.

Anger? No, not anger. Disappointment. And why?

The young ones do not visit me. They are never here to listen to the counsel I would give them because they forget that I have raised a field from nothing, tamed a wild horse, snared a woman, cultivated a child, sweat and bled and labored and broke my back for experience I would pass down onto deaf ears.

I, a hero of bygone days, a cornerstone of not just one generation but two and three and more, a good man and a loyal man, a man who prays with every waking breath to keep his family safe and his woman cared for, am left to wallow in my own waste in this plastic bed where all have left my side but her; where all warmth is lost on fingers that won’t grip, lips that won’t kiss, feet that won’t dance.

The shame is what boils in me, though. The embarrassment. Not the anger. Not disappointment for the lonely life I’m doomed to live. The shame. I am an adult. More than an adult. An elder.

Yet, here I will be found in a puddle of my own urine, looking incapable of thought, too helpless to even clean up after my own mess.

If it were one of the nurses, it would be fine. They treat me poorly (even worse than my grand-children) and they slap my still face when I won’t roll over for them. When I can’t roll over for them because my bones are too brittle and my muscles are slack. They swear at me and forget to check on me and let me get bedsores and keep her from being with me all the time because they know I can’t tell anyone and my hand is too weak to hold a pencil. If it were one of the nurses, I’d try with all of my might to push a little extra out for them to clean.

But I know it won’t be. And that’s why I’m ashamed. Saddened. Willing to let go. Because it won’t be a stranger coming to clean up after me. It won’t be a stranger coming to lift me up and set me down on a chair while she strips the bed. It won’t be a stranger who will take me into the bathroom to wash me off and get me fresh sheets and a fresh pair of clothes.

It will be her. Like it’s always been.

She’ll be here soon to check on me and she’ll find me lying like this because I can’t move to fix it. But that is not what hurts most.

What hurts is that I know she won’t be disgusted by the empty, rubber suit of her man in the bed. She loves the soggy-saltine stench that I’ve become and she doesn’t mind that I have only one facial expression since my latest stroke. When the medication pushes things through me and my muscles are too slack to keep them in, she holds my hand lovingly even as she wipes me clean. When I have a bad dream and can’t tell her how terrible it had been to think of losing her, she wraps her arms around my unflinching shell and tells me it’s okay.

When she finds me, she might even put me in my favorite pin-stripe pajamas because I look handsome in them. She might comb my hair into a part after she gives me a bath and brushes my decaying teeth. She might squeeze my leg, knowing that I can feel it even if I can’t react. She might even kiss my dead lips when she lays me back in bed and turns the baseball game on so she can lie down next to me.

That is why I can’t handle her finding me like this.

I am old.

Old, yes. And proud, too. And the woman I swore to take care of and provide for and protect all those years ago has inverted our roles.

But what a wonder I am! I’ve been everywhere!

Yes, and she knows it. She sees me the way I was when I was a young hero.

But I see myself as I am.

Every time that I catch myself in the mirror, the chills tickle up and down my otherwise-numbed body. Slower than before, but the same chills nonetheless. I feel like crying out and I understand why my grand-children are afraid to kiss my cheek.

I am a ruin.

A ruin.

That is the reality of the man she will find lying in his own urine. That is why I am confined to this bed even though my mind is as sharp as ever. Because I frighten the children. Because I cannot control my bladder. Because there’s not enough feeling in my lips to speak. And she will never know how much I love her. She will never know how bittersweet it is to have her treat me so well, because I still want her to think of me as her hero. Her man. Her protector. Her invincible god. And, even though I know she will always look at me like I am those things, I know that I am not.

I still am driven by the undying urge to impress her, to make her proud of me. And I can’t anymore.

It is too much to bear.

When it is time for her to leave, I know she will give me a kiss on the lips and my heart will break. She won’t know the agony I feel that I can’t place my hand on the back of her neck and return the favor with any show of passion. I can’t pick her up and carry her to bed like I used to. I can’t smile and tell her I love her. I am not a man like I used to be.

And when the nurses turn the lights off and my woman is long gone, tears will rip out of me in burning, silent streams. I might piss myself again, and I’ll cry some more because I am proud and that is the only function I can control. I’ll cry because I am a man who is scared of the night now, reduced to a child when the lights go out and my woman isn’t here to comfort me after a bad dream. I can’t roll over and touch her. I can’t get up and go to the bathroom myself so she doesn’t have to find me like this. I can’t show my grand-children how to change their oil or throw a curveball. I can’t kiss or hold or dance anyone, but especially her. I can only cry. It is the last thing that I have any control over. I am all alone and the lights are out, and I am not a man anymore.

I can’t bear her finding me like this. I don’t want her to clean me up.

3 Responses to “When the Lights Go Out”

  1. […] When a Lights Go Out « A Fly in Amber […]

  2. Helice says:

    So crushingly, depressingly sad. Well written anguish.

  3. This was a tough one to read; haunting and well-executed

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