last month my neighbor died of metastatic lung cancer.
before he died, i summoned the courage to do the absolutely right thing and i did go see him. i didn’t need to bring food – they had that coming in constantly; i’m not a nurse so i couldn’t do any of that. but what i am good at… i am a champion story reader. i have been given the gift by God of mimicry, an ability to shift characters and dialects on a breath, so i brought a book with me to read to him and his wife. it was an anthology of humor. i didn’t know what he’d want to hear, but i knew he had a good sense of humor when he shared it.
so when i stepped into the room where he laid and i sat down and made the sincere but casual hellos with his hospice nurse, his day nurse, and his best friend’s sister who flew in from california to be with him, i started my pitch. “i would like to read to you. you don’t need food and i’m not a nurse. i can mow your lawn but it’s winter. i can walk your dogs, but that’s taken care of too. i want to read to you. is that OK?”
“oh, that would be very nice,” his wife said.
“ok.” i said, gratitude welling in my heart.
“i brought this anthology of humor my mother gave me years ago because i’m such a smartass. i think she meant to inspire me and she’s one of my biggest fans, so if you’re ok with it, i’ll go through the list of authors: let’s see . . . allen, thurber, benchley, tomlin, parker, twain, shalit … ”
“TWAIN.” he sat up in his hospice bed, his eyes both alight and wet and said it again. “Twain. I love Twain.” and then he rested back, ready, eager to hear the story. i was so relieved, i took a big breath and thought, “yes. i can do this. i can give this man a gift and i’ll do my best.” so i cracked open the book and fingered through the pages to find the only gift i could give. i felt like the little drummer boy.
finding the page and beginning my throat clearing,
“I have something to say,” he said, shifting his weight in his bed. “I have something to say.” we all looked to him. i said, “we are here to listen.”
“I have something to say… I want to tell you something…”
when a dying man with God knows what left in his system and all sorts of chemicals coursing through his veins gathers the strength to sit up a smidge in his bed say something, you listen. even if it’s the alphabet, you listen.
so we waited there. i, on the edge of my seat, strong back, attentive and appreciative, hands folded in prayer.
“I have something to say.”
“yes, i hear you,” i leaned in: squinting, nodding, holding my breath. praying.
“I want you to know …”
my heart was keeping me upright. i could hear the blood pump in my ears, ready for his words.
“I have something to say.”
i closed my eyes. began to weep, but hid it from him and his wife. i didn’t want to seem impatient.
it’s a fine line between utter, supreme attention paid to a person and perceived impatience.
“i have all day.” i whispered, closing my eyes.
more shifting in the bed. i heard him slump back with a deep sigh. it was a sigh of gratitude. not one of remorse or frustration. i gently looked at him as he moved his hands over his face, sniffled and wiped his nose with his forearm.
“I didn’t go looking for it. It came looking for me.”
i sighed. i tilted my head, turned it like a dog listening for a sound.
internally i said, “of course. no one goes looking for illness.” but i realized that even though i was silent, i was replying. simply sitting still and not saying anything was all he needed. he didn’t want a conversation, even if it was silent. i was there to give myself, not talk to the man, make him wax philosophic on the state of his life.
“It came looking for me.”
“I didn’t go looking for it.”
he began to moan, “I didn’t go looking for it. It came looking for me.”
i intuitively understood this to be a divine moment in conversation; but a conversation that was not audible. his wife and his hospice worker interpreted it as a reaction to the changes of his medication.
“now isn’t the best time, i think,” his beloved said to me as she stood up and tried to unfurl herself from her grief, stroking her loose auburn curls and rubbing her beautiful and careworn eyes, softly swooning between me and her husband and gently folding her arms across her sweater. “he gets like this because of his meds. they’re tinkering with the dosage and he’s all over the map emotionally…”
i didn’t know what to do. “of course.” i said. “whatever you wish.” i stood up, and did my best embassy cocktail party, corporate launch, serious-moment as-a-grown-up imitation.
“hey. can i have that book? it would be good for me right now,” she said. my heart filled with joy, “yes! of course, marie. you can have the book.” and i left it for her.
about 10 days later, he died quietly, not at home but at the hospital, without his wife by his side. she went back home after spending several hours by his bed, breathing and hoping and wishing but knowing. after he seemed to settle in to one of his familiar “places” in the treatment of his disease, when it was customary for him to doze off for a couple hours, she went back home to let out the dogs; after all, they had been alone since dawn and it was about 3pm. her husband would have wanted that.
as she returned home, she got a text message on her phone from one of her sons who stayed with his father saying that things had changed. it was time to come back. she had to let out the dogs. it was time to go back. she had to let out the dogs. he would want them out; he would want her beside him.
under perfect emotional conditions it takes about 25 minutes to drive to that hospital. if a woman is in labor, the drive takes approximately 1,500 “woosh woosh woosh woosh” breaths. if you’re going to see a friend who just had a baby, it takes about 50 “weee! i can’t wait!”s; if it’s your child, it can take about 300 “honey, i’m here, sweetie it will be OK”s unless you’re in an ambulance and then it’s about 500 cycles of the siren and a thousand blind turns, bumps, hearing the chains knock under the bus and pot holes.
when your lover, soul mate, best friend and spouse of 35 years is dying in front of your grown sons and their fiances and you’re back at the house letting out the dogs to pee, the time is indeterminate. it could seem a lifetime; from that first glance; the first laugh; the first easy smile; the first kiss; their first date; their wedding; the birth of their first son; the birth of their second son; the first fight; the first make-up of the first fight; the first snowstorm; the first road-trip as a family; the first days of kindergarten; the first days of high school; the first days of college; the first “hey dad, i got a job” to the first time she heard, “terminal cancer.”
she missed his final breath.
the funeral service was graceful. full of grace. he had three men in their 60s speak about him. this was a man who touched other men deeply.
during one of the “witness” stories (are they still called “eulogies”?) i learned about the first time my neighbor saw his mate from afar. it was a beautiful story: while living in arlington, va, and working for the US postal service, he called a long-time friend who was at USMC HQ at quantico to come up to arlington right away because he wanted to “show [him] something.” and he told his friend to “bring [your] swim suit.” the friend drove up in a panic — it’s about a 45-minute drive. the friend arrived at the location, put on his suit and my neighbor said, “look over there. what do you think?” his friend is a marine, so it was right in line with his training to be stealth. “who? what is it? where?” his friend asked. “it’s not a what! it’s a her!”and his friend turned and saw her and said, “if you don’t ask her out, you’re a fool. what’s her name?” and my neighbor said, “marie. isn’t that a beautiful name? marie.”
another witness spoke so eloquently i had a hard time keeping my composure. he spoke lyrically of my neighbor’s “crushing adolescence” in a challenging family. they’d known each other since their childhoods. he spoke of their time in college at separate schools and their passionate reliance on each other and their unspoken language that only a deep and lasting friendship akin to brotherhood can provide. about how he brought out the fight in his friends; that his scrappy upbringing and eyeore-like disposition showed him how to appreciate the “regular” stuff. he showed them about everyone’s fight to be seen and the fight to be heard. but he did it with eloquence and action. he taught, his friend said softly through the tremolo of his own delivery, “the difference between healing and a cure.”
i will miss my neighbor. his wife is all alone in that big house with their dogs. the boys have gone back to their homes in columbus and seattle. she said that hospice calls her often to wake her in the morning and check on her. i am going to check on her.
maybe she will let me read to her. it has been a month since she missed his final breath.