One evening when Father and Mother and I were in the library talking, a trained nurse came in to take Mother’s blood pressure, as the doctor had ordered. This was a new thing in Mother’s life. It alarmed her. She turned–as she always did when she was in any trouble–to Father.
“Clare,” she said urgently to him, “you must have yours taken too.”
Father scowled at the nurse. Blood pressure was something which he had been hearing more about than he liked. He had just passed his seventieth birthday, many of his old friends had died, and when he and a few other survivors met at the funerals that came often now, Father had seen some of them shaking their heads and whispering things about “blood pressure.” What angered Father about it was that it seemed able to kill healthy men–men who he had felt sure would last for the next twenty years. Like himself. He’d talk at the club with one of them in the evening, after a few games of billiards, and the next week he’d pick up the paper and see that that man had died.
Father said he wouldn’t mind if people died only once in a while, as they used to. He said we all had to die, he supposed. But he didn’t know what the matter was nowadays. Somebody died every month. And it never was a wizened old walnut, like John Elderkin, it was always some sound, healthy man. No excuse for it. When he asked his friends at the club to explain it, he never got a clear answer. All they could talk of down there was blood pressure.
He said he was beginning to hate all these funerals. They were getting to be disturbing and unpleasant things to attend. He told General Anderson he didn’t see why they kept going to them. General Anderson frowned and said they had to. “If you don’t go to other men’s funerals,” he told Father stiffly, “they won’t go to yours.” But Father said he didn’t intend to die at all if he could help it, so they couldn’t go to his anyway.
“When somebody dies, the people who loved them want to say good-bye,” Mother said. “That’s what I feel when I go to a funeral. You didn’t use to mind going, Clare.”
“Well, Vinnie,” Father replied, “that was when I was younger. But what bothers me now is those parsons. Every time I go to a funeral they get out one of their books and read the part that says that the years of a man are threescore and ten. I know that I’m seventy, but I’m as well as I ever was, hang it. I’m tired of hearing so much about this threescore and ten business.”
The trained nurse stood there waiting. Father glared at her blood-pressure apparatus, and told her to take it away. “I don’t know what it’s all about,” he said, “and I don’t want to either. I won’t have anything to do with this blood pressure.”
“Everybody has blood pressure, Mr. Day,” the nurse said.
“A lot of them have,” Father replied, “but I haven’t. I won’t.”
“If yours is all right,” the nurse explained, “this little indicator will show it.”
Mother said: “Please, Clare, let her take it, while the thing’s right here in the house, and we don’t have to pay a doctor to do it. It’s costing enough for Miss Bassett–let’s get our money’s worth somehow.”
“Oh well, pshaw,” said Father, “if it will gratify your whim, go ahead.”
Miss Bassett adjusted the strap on his arm. He sat there, red-faced and confident. She looked at the indicator. It recorded no special blood pressure.
But Miss Bassett, examining the indicator again, saw that it hadn’t worked; and when she readjusted it, the pressure was abnormally high.
“Pooh! What of it?” said Father; “all poppycock.”
“No, Mr. Day, really,” she said, “that condition is dangerous.”
Father’s face slightly stiffened. He stopped joking, rose with unwilling concern, walked away, grew quite angry, and said in a self-controlled tone that he didn’t believe a word of it.
“You ought to take aconite, Mr. Day,” the nurse told him.
“Pah! Never!” said Father.
His need seemed to be to forget it, put it out of his mind. I took some of the stable accounts out of my pocket that I had been attending to for him. He usually hated to bother going over them with me. “May I ask you about these, Father?” I said.
He thankfully sat down at the desk and examined each item, and when we had finished he seemed to have sponged off his slate.
His arteries were beginning to get in poor shape, at that time. There were lots of things about his machinery that wouldn’t have suited the doctors. I thought of how he hated to go to a dentist or oculist. I thought of how much food his digestion constantly had to put up with. But he seemed to make his machinery serve by expecting much of it. Perhaps that kept him hearty. He at least gave it no doubts to deal with, no doubts of itself.
Mother’s habitual attitude was exactly the opposite. She read books on how to take care of herself, she tried different “health-foods,” and the ominous warnings of advertisers frightened her dreadfully. But she came of a long-lived family, good hardy stock, and Father did, too, and both of them lived to a ripe and far from languid old age.
Mother used to go to the cemetery in Woodlawn with her arms full of flowers, and lay the pretty things by some headstone, as a sign of remembrance. After a while she bought a cast-iron chair and left it out there, inside the square family plot, so that when it took her a long time to arrange her flowers she could sit down and rest. This was a convenience, but unluckily it was also a worry, because absent-minded visitors to neighbouring graves began to borrow that chair. They dragged it off across the grass to sit and grieve in, and forgot to return it. Mother then had to hunt around for it and drag it back, which made her feel cross, and thus spoiled the mood she had come out in. She didn’t like this a bit.
One Sunday, when she herself was past seventy, and when Father in spite of his blood pressure and everything else was nearly eighty, she asked him if he wouldn’t like to drive out with her to Woodlawn. She hadn’t any flowers to take, but she had happened to think of that chair, though she didn’t say so to Father. She merely said that it was a beautiful day and that it would do him good to go out.
Father refused. Positively. He winked robustly at me and said to Mother, “I’ll be going there soon enough, damn it.”
Mother said that he ought to come because one of the headstones had settled and she wanted him to tell her whether he didn’t think it needed attention.
Father asked whose headstone it was, and when Mother told him, he said: “I don’t care how much it’s settled. I don’t want to be buried with any of that infernal crowd anyhow.”
Mother, of course, knew how he felt about some of the family, but she said that he wouldn’t mind such things when it was all over.
Father said yes he would. He became so incensed, thinking of it, that he declared he was going to buy a new plot in the cemetery, a plot all for himself. “And I’ll buy one on a corner,” he added triumphantly, “where I can get out!”
Mother looked at him, startled but admiring, and whispered to me, “I almost believe he could do it.”