by MD Maurice
a last goodbye comes with difficulty even when it is expected.
|I had taken a big gulp of my lukewarm coffee Monday morning when my cell phone rang. I picked it up, saw your number on the display. I took a deep breath, preparing to hear the sound of your voice again. It was not you though, it was your sister calling to tell me you had passed away some time in the night. It had been the only possible outcome, everyone had come to understand that, but the news still came as a shock. Your sister's voice cracked with the news and we were both crying when the brief conversation ended.
I had almost called off my visit that past Saturday. You had been in the hospital for two weeks and the prognosis was not good. You had given me my space but you had finally called me and asked me to come. It had been a long week and I was tired. I had a ton of things to get done before the work week started again and I was considering putting off my visit. You had insisted that you had something important to tell me and I could not refuse.
My boyfriend offered to drive me to the hospital, a charitable act given how difficult you’d made our lives in the past few months. Before your hospitalization you were little more than an angry voice on my machine slurring insults. Early on, my boyfriend had deemed you a problematic ex-lover and a constant source of strain in our fledgling relationship. That morning, I left him in the waiting room, his face stoic and his hands buried in the pockets of his jeans. I began the walk to your room, my heels making impossibly loud clickety-clacks on the shiny linoleum.
My mind was filled with images from the past five years with you; impossibly sweet moments of passion and joy and those of bitter disappointment and anger. Being with you, living with your addiction, had turned me inside out. Leaving you to save myself had taken every bit of resolve I had in me. Now, the foundation on which I had begun my new life seemed suddenly flimsy under the blinking, buzzing hospital lights and I wondered what new heartbreak awaited me at the end of the corridor.
Your door was closed. My knock seemed amplified in the empty hallway. You called out for me to come in. You were lying on your side, wearing that awful red and black checkered flannel I’d bought you a few Christmases ago. It was buttoned down over your bloated belly and covered arms that were battered and bruised from too many injections. You were badly jaundiced but your eyes lit up for me and seemed less yellowed. There was no chair and you patted a spot on your bed. I stalled in the doorway. I had not been close to you in so many months. I did not think I was ready to be within such intimate distance of your failing body now. I wasn’t sure my heart could take it. You shifted and winced from the effort. I willed myself to move in closer. I sank down on the edge of your bed.
You asked me how things were. I told you things were good. You told me how nice I looked.
“I look tired.” I corrected.
You stretched out fingers that were so swollen with fluid that they could no longer bend. I took your hand in mine. You told me you only ever wanted me to be happy. I told you that I thought I was. You looked at me for a long moment, and then flashed me your trademark grin.
“Will you come to my funeral? It’s okay if him comes too.”
I broke apart then, my anger and my fear no longer providing a buffer for the tide of grief that pressed back against my soul. Your smile dropped from your face, you cupped my cheek and begged me softly not to cry for you.
I ran wet eyes over your body, so horribly ravaged by the alcohol. I asked you if there was much pain. You insisted they were keeping you comfortable. I asked you how long they said it would be. You answered that it could be "hours, days, weeks, maybe a month".
“But you know how stubborn I am, I might still beat this.” You said, without real conviction.
A few times your head rocked back into the pillow and you closed your eyes. As I would rise to leave, they would fly open and you’d ask me something else about work or my family. I realized you just wanted to keep me talking, keep me there with you a little longer. It was getting harder and harder to keep my emotions at bay. The tears were flowing down my face, soaking your blankets. I was fighting a loosing battle with myself.
I wanted to ask you; “why you couldn’t have stopped? What could I have done?"
I wanted to call you Grasshopper again and make you smile about something silly. I wanted to tell you how much I had loved you, that you’d been my best friend. I wanted you to know how terribly I would miss you. But I didn’t say any of those things. Instead, I thought about the errands I needed to run, the afternoon waning away outside your window and my new life waiting for me down the hall.
As I stood up to leave, your eyes were watching me. I promised I would be back, Monday maybe, after work. I told myself that I would spend more time with you, maybe even give you the absolution I knew you sought. For now though, I wanted to get back to my new life, to all the wonderful promise of things that you’d never share in. I wanted to free from this room, from this prison of pain you had sentenced yourself to. I touched your hand and kissed your forehead. I told you I would see you again soon.
I paused at the door, and turned back, “Hey Grasshopper, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming” I said, reciting our favorite movie line. You erupted in delighted laughter.
“I was hoping you were going to tell me that young cricket.” You said, smiling brightly, your eyes so warm and wet.
I swear I did not imagine then that it would be our last laugh, our last inside joke.
As I passed out into the hall, I heard you say, "I love you."
It was the one thing I had wondered. It was the only thing I had wanted to believe was true in the smokescreen and fiction that your addiction had made your life. The fact that you said it to me that day, finally and tragically sober, convinced me of its truth. Your declaration hung in the air between us and my heart ached with the knowledge of it. A strangled, "I know" were the only words I managed to get out before I fled back down the hall, the sounds of your grateful sobbing already haunting me. Truthfully, I still thought there would be time for me to go back, to ask my questions, to make my peace but I had given you so much of my life already. I had wanted to be free of you, just for that day. I wanted to walk back out into the sunshine with my new love and pretend that I was not too damaged to find happiness again. Had I known, this would be your last goodbye, I might have stayed a little longer with you. I might have held your hand a little tighter. I might have told you that I forgave you for leaving me this way.