by D.L. Glenn
Gallows Humor so to speak. A man decides to go out on his terms.
|Doctor Varner patted me forlornly upon my wrist and gave me a pained smile. The smile was a well-practiced and probably well-used expression of dignified attention to the prescribed details involved in one’s pending demise. It was a fake, I was sure. But I had long since given the man the benefit of the doubt in regards to his prowess and candor. He had done what he could; it was not enough. The simple sigh and smile routine was all he could summon. I still liked the guy. Fuck being an oncologist. He was a better guy than me. No way I could routinely give someone a scientist’s edition of the Last Rites and keep up appearances. He probably had a tee time.
He left me to my thoughts, his gait out of the room purposeful, as if he wanted to get clear to let me cry on it a bit. The waiting rooms were full of criers, I had noted on so many recent occasions before being spared waiting rooms from then on. My family's visits were a notorious bastion of tears and sobbing. Maw-Maw was the worst. She had buried two sons, one daughter, two husbands and either four or five siblings, not to mention the rate of attrition that age had vetted upon her friends and distant relatives. To see me dark-eyed and hollow, hobbling and heaving from time to time over the last few months was probably the last straw for her. I figured she wouldn’t be too far behind me. The emphysema had her figured out.
Carol, my sister was not a crier. Neither of us was by nature. It wasn’t that we were too hard or too self-important to let off a few streamers when duty dictated such an event. Nor were we the hardened vets of the domestic terrorism that usually keeps quiet in the South (but explodes gloriously in public…oddly enough during football season!) We were more Cavanaugh than Chellette. Cavanaugh’s maintained their bearing through thick and thin and though I was a dead man rolling and things were not exactly peachy keen, we acted accordingly.
In the ‘painful death after an endearing life’ versions of prolonged illness chicks love to watch on Lifetime movies, there is always the strong sibling or Mama that holds up in the dying’s presence but sneaks away to some bedroom or toilet or lets off just enough privately to let the big one be Oscar-worthy when she wails and tosses shit around screaming, “Why!” I figured Carol was saving it for the Big One. Like the Doc, I shrugged it off. I was actually sorry to be dying for the family’s sake. It had been a while since someone dropped out and it being me this time, everyone had to rethink the casting call. Leave it to the fuckup brother to push ahead in line and get the pecking order all into disarray.
Learning that the doctors had put the L by your name on the Win-Loss column must never be subtle and I gave myself a little thumb-click’s worth of the pump on principle. The stuff never did much good these days. I had mentioned this to Varner sotto voce and told him with a sly wink if he had any of the good stuff lying around, I wouldn’t mind taking a load off, if he caught my drift. He assured me that when the time came, he would toss in some Comfortably Numb sauce. But until then, he warned me to keep my mind sharp enough to make my amends and my time above ground as useful as possible. Unfortunately, “useful” meant having to relive old tales from my childhood, folks making sure I was right with Jesus- at least enough to satisfy the Baptists sprinkled throughout my blood kin, the criers, the nurses, the TV,- all the while living in one bed until I was nearly dead enough to be sent to another. Some lady from a hospice service had stopped by the week before, assuring me that the insurance plans I had covered dying in a “clean, well-lighted place,” to quote Papa H. I guess I was happy I paid the premiums.
Sitting up in the bed as the thumb juice eased itself in, I looked out the vertically rectangular window for the umpteenth time. The view was mostly of the rest of the hospital, with my room sitting in the crook of the U that made up the place. There was a little bit of Rainer Street visible five floors down but any chance of making out people was ruined by distance and the failing brain. I noted for personal posterity that the news of my inevitable demise was delivered on a rainy, dreary day. Picturesque almost, the penultimate backdrop for such sobering…sobering? Fuck that , I clicked the thumb juice again. News. Certainly, despite all the rigmarole of treatments and prayer, it was news to me.
Not really, mind you. From the time I glanced my X-rays gleaming through the florescent light-box and that ever-so-slight widening of the tech’s eyes, nothing could be listed as breaking news anymore. Certainly, I had zilch medical training, but even I could look at the chest film and see the white, puffy nuggets nestled all over my torso. The poor tech, she actually cried. I felt for her. I was just getting a routine chest shot to rule out TB for a job I was going to take and now she had to call in the GP for a confirmation of what she knew she was witnessing. We had made small talk as she got her plates ready for the rads and I was witty and cute enough for her to be initially curious and flirtatious. I wasn’t a bad looking dude, either. Truth, be told, I was thinking about trying to work my way in. Then she realized she was looking at a dead man. I’ll bet she didn’t expect that when she changed her major to X-ray tech at the two-year.
The thumb juice was in place soon enough and I reached over and got the phone. Carol was at work. In fact, most everyone was at work. The usual dedicated relatives would be along soon enough. They watched my schedule dutifully and certainly the talk for Varner was circled in red marker on a few calendars. I wondered if I should call one motor-mouth and let the tigers run free on their time so I wouldn’t have to tell folks one by one that yes, they could cancel my Christmas card. Depending on the personalities of the many visitors I would have in the next, last, few weeks of my life, there was no reason I couldn’t have some fun with my own mortality. It was my death after all, if they didn’t like it, they could get their own.
Naw, I decided. One rarely gets the opportunity to witness a fellow human’s true emotional face when handed news of such a serious character. No sense letting this one slide. I wasn’t going to be a dick about it, either. I knew there were prayers being said on my behalf…real ones by those who sincerely loved me, believed in miracles and had made it their mission to convince God that my heathen soul was too young for His judgment. An utter waste, in my opinion but their sincerity I always found moving and I realized eventually, comforting. To be loved enough for someone for grown men like my Daddy to get down on his knees and beg for God to help me should not be taken as lightly as I took it. But I couldn’t help it ultimately. Notions of my singular persona being chips too valuable on the earth for early cashing was ludicrous. I loved one particular verse from Stephen Crane that always kept me more humble that any scripture the preacher cousins loved to spout.
“A man said to the Universe, ‘Sir, I exist!’
‘That may be true,’ replied the Universe, ‘but that fact has not in me inspired, a sense of obligation.’”
Loved that one. Succinct and utterly true. I had no heirs by my succession of ex-girlfriends- who would grieve over me in their own ways. A few of them probably happy they did not have to be widows in their late twenties and only realizing later after my passing they pissed away their best years on a dead end. My body of writing had been lauded, derided, published and blogged about but rarely royaltied or read by anyone who mattered in the fields I wrote about. Between the occasional publications of my wry witticisms about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, there were stints in restaurants, car sales, office furniture sales, landscaping and retail management. I had no orphanage to run or anything grandiose to put in the paper...on the back page mind you. Life would carry on without me just fine. I know that sounds self-centered and mean, the justification for giving up by some self-loathing bitter cynic. Nothing could be further from the truth. All things being equal, I would have loved getting old and better yet, old and rich. With a few novels for folks to ruminate upon and the occasional guest spot on Larry King. Maybe be cited tongue-in-cheek by some Poli-Sci elbow-patchers some day. Have a few kids to raise, at least one a decent middle linebacker, the other maybe an oncologist like Varner. But that wasn’t how the cookie was crumbling was it? C’est la vie.
It hadn’t taken long for the end to hasten itself. 31 years and a few odd days ultimately. It was, I noted a moment, only 126 days since I first went for that fateful physical. Varner now said only a few weeks to go and time would be up. Drawing in a breath- increasingly rasping I had noticed within the last week- I rubbed the patch of gauze and tape that covered my shaved chest. The staples itched. The surgeon, Dr. Heston, had whacked a lot of the nodules from my liver and pancreas and made a stab at my right lung for good measure. The brain, he told me, was a non-sequitor. The shit had tentacles up in there. It was a metastisizing Kraken that was killing me and he had only bought me a month longer at best with his efforts. They wanted me to take one for the team and do the whole bit. Cut, poison and burn. I took the knife but not the poison or the rads. I figured 31 years old was young enough to live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse. No way was I going to look like I left Dachau on the wheelbarrow when I went out. Being a Southerner and half a coon-ass to boot, there was no way I was going to insult folks’ cooking prowess by tossing my blackened catfish every time the doctor thought some new concoction might help science. I knew none of them would help me.
So after Varner left me cold and the thumb juice took a hold, I reached not for the phone to spread the news to my sobbing relatives but to relay the go-code for my final plans to my brother-in-arms. The one guy I could depend on to accede to my personal wishes in the last moments of my existence.
It was 4:15. In six minutes, I figured I knew where he would be. In five, he would be starting to get there. I discussed my plan for final departure with him on numerous, healthy, occasions when such banter was just conjecture and fodder for hazy minds. It was known to my immediate family that I wished to be cremated and my ashes divvied up between thee friends from different walks of life to be cast into three different rivers. The Little River dollop went to Sammy Guilleaux. He was my best friend in high school. A kid who shared my bawdy humor. A running buddy who had my back and I, his. Wingman, occasional sycophant, trusted confidant and now married with four kids over in Winnfield. He and I went fishing in his daddy’s johnboat constantly when we got old enough to go out on our own. Little River starts out up near the little town of Georgetown, up in Grant Parish and empties into Catahoula Lake near Jena. Trickling during summer, it roars when the rain hits it. A quiet place, worthy of carrying me in little muddy doses forever.
Sara Fowler got the task of dumping me into the Pearl River. She was a throwback friend from my party days at Milsaps over in Jackson. Married and saved from Satan’s permanent clutches now seems a far cry from the wild hellion I used to know. My running buddies and I used to sling cocktails for change and would become river rats on the Pearl for years to follow. Above the reservoir, the river’s sandbars provide a sanctuary for Bohemian and Klansman alike. Many tents had I set upon the sandbars, much dope had I toked and many tops had I popped. Always, Sara and our mutual friends were there to frolic with under the stars. The friends had mostly moved on, but she and I remained close. And no, not that kind of close.
Third with the anointed dust was the buddy whose number I dialed after I learned Dillinger and I would have something in common. Arlen Udall was my closest amigo. Friends for at least ten years, through thick and thin, distance and life’s curveballs had not kept us apart. Different though we were in any number of comparisons, he and I could always be complimentary to each other’s presence. A man of enormous literary recollection and brevity, his fiery disposition over ideals he held to be truisms frequently came under the umbrella of “fuck that!” when under my scrutiny. Perhaps that proved to be the glue that ultimately bound us as friends. Initially and, I suspected, concurrently, it was actually more resin than glue.
At 4:21 I dialed him up. In my mind I could see his cell ringing as he exhaled long and satisfactorily. A fastidious man, some would say, obsessively, he made it a point to take a long draw from his pipe at 4:20. In the annals of habits, I would not argue that this in itself was a bad one. But I often joked that creatures of habit in the wild would usually be sniffed out by predators it they did not deviate. To which he replied, “yes, but in my house, I’m the fuckin’ predator.” He had enough guns to make that a truism.
“Hey man. What’s up?” The caller ID negated the uncertain “hello?”
“Just chillin’. Got the news. I’m Sean Penn, man.” Dead Man Walking. Appeals exhausted and no clemency expected.
There was a pause. Beyond a pregnant one. An actual lapse of time.
“You’re serious?” He was one of the hold-outs. The positive wavers. Science, God, sheer sacking-up- all those things would lend themselves to a positive outcome in my favor.
“Dead serious. If you pardon the pun.” I snickered a bit. “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
“Oh man. That’s fucked."
“As I Lay Dying never was one of my favorites. Suddenly I understand why.”
“And they are for sure? What about the surgery?” I could sense him laying down the pipe. Probably pacing to the kitchen for a snort of Irish. Wouldn’t have minded one myself.
“Purely for looks, man. The shit is all over me. Two weeks. I feel shittier already.”
“Dammit! Fuckin’ doctors! They never can do shit.”
“They promised me good drugs from here on out.”
“That’s not a trade-off for life.”
“Shit happens, Arley. Shit happens.”
Another pause. I heard ice tinkling in a glass. Irish for sure.
“Bring me some of that. This unsweet hospital tea is some bullshit. Don't they realize they are in the South?”
“I bet. Man, Mike. I’m so sorry. This just ain’t real. It is, you know, but you know what I mean. Just unbelievable. “
I yawned. “At least I can tell Visa to get bent. I got one up on most people.”
“I tell them that and I am not dying.”
“Touché. I hate to lay this on you, but I’m gonna’ be laid up from here on out. I need you to score that item we discussed. I’ve decided to do it.”
“Unless you know someone else. Down here I don’t know anyone else. My friend Sara used to be able to but she’s all Christian now and I doubt she even knows who to talk to about it these days. It’s a lot to ask, I know. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to repay the favor.”
“Man, I’m gonna’ say this once,” his voice trembled. Hold it together, Arley.
“You might only get once,” I chuckled.
“I love you, Mike. Dearly, not queerly of course.”
“Of course. I know it, man. Ditto. You are a good friend. My best friend. Hell. My only friend right now. Sorry to put you on the spot but I figure, hell, you only get to die once.”
“I’ll get it and get on my way there A.S.A.P.”
“From what the doc just told me. That may be best. Fuck,” I clawed carefully at my chest gauze. "these stitches are itching."
“I gotta’ go. Man, take care. And I’ll see you as soon as I can get there.”
“I’ll take it any way I can get it. Auf Wiedesehen.”
The days ticked away then. Two days and a battery of self-reinforcing MRI’s after the final diagnosis, I was moved by obligatory ambulance to the Acadian River Hospice Center. Four days after that, I went from watching an episode of Magnum P.I. with my hands folded across my chest to having some nurse’s pen light flashing in my eye’s and the acute smell of that morning’s powdered eggs and OJ mixed with bile all over me. Most disconcerting. It had been one hell of a grand mal.
The Kraken now had a hook on my optic nerve and my left eye went from slightly fuzzy to dead after that jerky little episode. My left side was prone to either tingles or blistering, fiery pain, depending on the tentacle’s whim. I loved that Pryor bit about when he had the heart attack and the voice suddenly, said, “DON’T BREATHE!” Mine said, “YOU WANT IT TO TICKLE WITHOUT MERCY OR YOU WANT IT TO SIMPLY FUCKING SUCK!”
My appetite waned as the atrophy set in. It as on the decline for months anyway but when the paralysis began setting in and my shuffling to and from the john came to a cessation, the body figured it needed less. I still drank as much as I could. Carol was awesome about bringing me Coke in her purse. Coke and I were lifelong lovers. One day, she stepped out for a moment and left me with her two kids. I wondered if she had done it on purpose.
Mark, the oldest, the boy of 12, had it on his mind to ask and he asked it. I gave him kudos for bluntness.
“Are you ready to die?”
“I doubt anyone is. It seems like it has to happen, whether I wish it or not. So, yes. I guess so.”
“Does it hurt to die?” Jordan, the niece, all of five asked. She loved her Uncle Mike.
“No one knows, Little Bit. I think they will give me something so it doesn’t.”
“I don’t want you to go, Uncle Mike.” She was sniffling. So was Mark. He was old enough to know, men don’t cry, but not yet enough of one to stifle the natural event.
“Baby, I’ll miss you. But I’ll see you again one day. We’ll go and ride horses in the clouds. I’ll make you some French toast. You, me and Grandma will all go flying to the moon. I’ll just go ahead and get things ready for you to come see me one day, okay?”
“Mommy says, you have cancer.”
“Do I?” Hope not, Little Bit, I hope to Christ you never do.
“Of course not. I got yours for you already. You can’t have it back either because I sold it on Ebay.”
“To who?” Mark was amused through his red eyes. He smelled my snow-job and understood I was not patronizing him.
“I sold it to Saddam Hussein. Now he will get it and you can go play. Nobody wanted to buy mine though. They said yours was cuter.”
“Uh-uh,” she sniffled.
“They did. Yours was a pink cancer. Mine was dark brown like poo-poo. Your mommy said if she could sell mine after I get to heaven, she would buy you a Hannah Montana ticket.”
“What did you spend the money for mine on?”
“Coca-cola! Give me a hug and you can have some of it!” She leapt up and hugged me. She pushed against my scars and it hurt like hell but most things hurt like hell and there was no way I would let her think she had hurt me. Mark noticed it hurt, but said nothing. He was a good kid.
She mercifully let up.
“I love you, Uncle Mike!”
“I love y’all both. Y’all are good kids and I want to tell you both something.” Mark especially perked up. I realized I was the going to tell him the first last words he had ever heard from someone close.
“Life is not always fair. Life is not ever easy. There are a lot of bad guys in the world. But there is a lot of good in the world. Your mommy and daddy are good. Your Maw-Maw is good. Your country is good and God is good. It may not always seem that way, but it is your life to do with as you please. Be rich, be poor, be a fool or be a genius. But above all else, be you. You cannot live your life for someone else nor ask and expect them to do the same for you. Do well, live well, love well and remember your Uncle Mike loved you to death.” Til death.
Three days later, the breathing thing really got hard to do. Inactivity bred the tumors and now they were thinking about intubation. No more talking when that happened and with the failing motor skills, a scratch pad was useless. Veggie land was approaching.
I forbade the family to sit watch over my faltering body. Wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it if they did, but for them to walk the halls and waiting rooms with little Styrofoam cups of chicory Community in their hands seemed so pointless. Besides, Arlen got there just as things were somersaulting downhill and I didn’t want some earnestly pious uncle stopping him from carrying out my secret wishes.
He walked in nervously, having just driven 200 hundred miles with 20 federal years worth of microdot acid, disco bisquits and whatever happy pills he and Jacob had decided would work the best. Carol knew him and managed to steer him through the curious handshakes and discerning eyes of the Baptists pacing the halls. A nurse had just checked the charts and played around with IV lines to justify her pay and left as he walked in.
I could tell he was upset. There was no telling what he had been told in the hall before he came in and it was clear to him in a millisecond he had arrived just in time.
“I got the bomb, Mike.” He whispered into my ear. I nodded.
“Took you long enough, asshole.” I whispered. “Not sure if I’m early though.”
“How are we going to do this? I mean, how can we tell when you are really going?”
“They figure real soon man. My head is fucking full of it. Shit man, I’m drooling now.”
“They told me.” He reached in his jacket and pulled out an Ipod. “I got you loaded up.”
“Cool, man. You rock. Let’s get it on.”
“You want to now? That soon?”
“May as well. I’m dropping out fast. You got the goods to make it pleasant.”
“They gonna’, you know check you out afterwards?”
“No. DNR. Do not resuscitate. No autopsy. Immediately to the stove. No muss, no fuss. It’s nice when you have a little time to die and can make plans. Plus no old lady to get sentimental and try to hit you with the paddles.”
“Forethought is a damn crazy thing to have sometimes.”
“No shit. I hurt, man. Hit me with one.”
He reached in his pocket and flicked a pill in my mouth lightning quick. No one told him I couldn’t swallow worth a damn. I gagged a bit and gestured toward the ever-present water pitcher. I tried to hold back the coughing lest someone get antsy. Coughing tossed out blood a lot then.
He managed to get the straw in my mouth but had to close my drooping left lip around it so I could get decent suction. Finally I got it down.
“Dude, you sure about this? I mean, the whole thing?” He was shaking. That in and of itself was a rare occurance and, I can testify truthfully, only happened once in my lifetime.
“Of course. We talked about this. Call me curious but I say, what the hey?”
He inhaled slowly and deliberately. It was a lot to ask of a man to send his best friend into parts unknown, I knew.
“Man, this is just crazy.”
“Sanity was never one of our strong suits.”
“You got the other?”
He nodded and patted the pocket.
“Let’s go for it. You brought enough?”
“Bet your life?”
“That’s a sure bet, Arley.”
He withdrew three more pills and a syringe. The fear I felt seeing the dose in his hand, I told it to fuck itself. By God Almighty, if the man could wager his own freedom or tempt branding as a exonerated pariah, I would not delineate an iota for some trifling fear of the unknown. The pain was all I did know and that was unacceptable.
“Crush those hits. I can’t swallow for shit.” I clicked the new, improved thumb juice you got at the hospice. That stuff really did the trick. Had I lived, I would have sent a letter of recognition to the chemist who had made my last hours so much easier.
Arley went into the john for a moment and returned with a pile of white powder scooped onto the water pitcher’s lid. He pulled out his big folding Case knife and scooped the powder in little bladefuls into my mouth. We went through the drinking water routine again and finally got it washed down thoroughly.
"Man that tastes like shit."
“Man, I just killed you.” He was nervous, yet Stoic.
“Don’t think that. You just sent me on the vacation of a lifetime.”
“You hope, man. I’m doing this, but I’m only hoping it turns out the way you wish.” He hooked up the IPod to my ears. Thankfully, the Kraken had not got after my hearing.
My pain was ebbing already. Had I been able, the greatest smile I had ever accomplished would have formed.
“Hit me with the good stuff.”
“Jacob says hi!” he reached into his pocket again and in an instant had the IV injected with the contents of the syringe.
“Tell him…I went happy. And thank ye kindly.”
“I just hope I’m not lying when I do.”
I clasped him on the shoulder with my good right arm as he fiddled with getting the Ipod’s playlist up and loudly.
“You’re a good friend, Arley. They broke the mold, buddy.”
He was crying now. “I love you, man. See you on the other side.”
“Here’s to hoping. Auf Wiedesehen. Go out there and tell them I’m slipping off.”
“Goodbye, Mike.” He was heaving with silent sobs by the time he hit the door.
Then there was just my dying body and my uncaring mind. The thumb juice plus the syringe washed me clean of presence. Presence meant pain and decrepit functionality. I was now free. Free to Breathe, breathe in the air. Was not afraid to care. About time, about orgasm, about money or war. I sailed colorfully on the grass, perhaps in Grandchester Meadows. I couldn’t tell and didn’t try to know.
For hours, the Kraken now had no control over my mind.
Aloft, yet bed-ridden. Dying, but alive as never before. I drew in deep draughts of wonderful cool air. My teeth and mouth clenched involuntarily, sealing in the drooling for the first time in two days. My useless left side strengthened, virile and steady though still prone in the clutches of ecstasy. And I could see, though not in the way the normal do. If I had to explain it, you probably wouldn’t have understood.
Freedom, loftiness, bliss. Flotation tantamount to rapture spinning me into a chrysalis from which mere silken strands of fleeting spirit would evaporate into the star-sprinkled night sky. I felt love, empathy, the weaving of vibrant colors upon my being. My mind was blanketed with vibrancy the likes of which I had never considered containable. I passed Jupiter and Saturn, Oberon, Miranda and Britannia, Neptune and Titan, all distorted with feedback and hallucinatory predilections edging toward the brink of mania but held at the precipice by an ebbing notion of safety due to choice. I felt hands around mine but dared not try to acknowledge the presence of anything but my rocketing towards the undiscovered country while tripping down the narrow way.
A cacophony of cymbals and gongs, the guts and glory of Saucerful of Secrets erupted upon my heart, each crash from Mason bringing my failing heart closer to an exalted rhythm. The IPod alone held me firm to any semblance of sane consciousness. My hallowed Floyd rang true to form, my blood flowing in cadence with each strike of the whammy bar, my mind splashing in puddles of exciting tints dancing helter-skelter- a chorus line of kaleidoscope dye that rose to greet me with a hug.
On cue, Wright’s organ’s simple overture after the climactic stanza took over. Angelic notes cupped my rising body in theirs hands, passing my essence over their heads in an astonishing crowd-surfing towards that wonderful disk of breathtaking Scarfe collaborations. As I felt my feet pass into its periphery, Gilmour’s simple operatic vocal saluted me as the show came to a brilliant close.
And as I passed in, through and beyond, the one remaining thought I had before the ephemeral denouement of Shine on, You Crazy Diamond was, I climbed that hill in my own way.
Then, absolutely curtains.