Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Get Better

They had sent me home to die. Or, rather, I had sent myself home to die. In my eyes, if I was going to spend the rest of my life in a “death bed,” it might as well be my bed. I wasn't getting better. And now, the people were starting to show up, getting in line to see me as if I were a carnival ride. I had never been so popular!

Joan structured it like a movie. There was a schedule and the least important characters would be first. The first people in to see me were hardly even friends. Did they think I'd have been offended if they didn't show up? One was this guy I used to see at the track named Gene. His wife and my wife were friends, but his wife couldn't make it. So, now it was just me and Gene, me in my bed, index finger still holding the page of a novel, he on the office chair pulled in from the den.

I'm sorry for the time but I'm heading out on a flight to Denver later today. Consulting, you know.

Yes, of course. Thanks for coming by.

Did you see that Sox game last night? It was a thriller.

No. I was reading and fell asleep early. Hard for me to stay awake at night and the glare from the television is surprisingly harsh on my eyes.

It was quite a thriller.


Gene left after a few more minutes, thank Christ, and I peeled open my book. Joan was going to bring me food then, I knew. I thought of telling her, finally, right then, or somehow using metaphor remembered from my younger days to broach the subject. (No honey, I'd prefer pickles to doughnuts. Do we have any of those?) I said nothing, though. How could I say anything? At this point!

I ate soup and crackers, craning my neck forward to avoid spilling broth all over my chest. Like the opposite of sitting in the front row of a movie theater – snapping your neck forward instead of back.

-----

The next day was better because my grandchildren came. As a child myself, I never understood why my parents' parents were so much happier to see me than my parents themselves. Now that I'm old, I get it. I see something in them that I could never recognize in my own kids. As a young parent, their success mattered. Everything I did to them mattered. But, these kids aren't my responsibility. They'll be as ripped apart and damaged as anyone else, but it's not my fault. So I'll give them candy and money and tell them stories that never happened.

I tell them about being a prisoner of war. I make everything up.

They didn't feed me for days, I tell them. It was just me in an outdoor cell. All I could do was look out into the Cambodian jungle and wait for rescue or death. They would come and torture me, though I had no information. They tied me down to a wooden plank and performed water torture on me, the kind of torture where you're staring up at the sky and they splash one drop of water on you at a time. A drop – then a few seconds – then another drop. How did I survive? I hummed a tune in my head, and each drop was another beat of a metronome. DROP—DROP--DROP--DROP--I've got sunshiiiine—DROP--DROP--On a clouuudy day—DROP--DROP--

Sometimes I'd have to update the story to a more modern song for their benefit. Heck, I could've been imprisoned in 2007.

DROP—DROP--I'm bringin' sexy back—DROP--DROP

They ask me how I'm feeling and where it hurts. They think bandages with cartoon characters make things better. I envy them. Then it's been twenty minutes or so and they're bored so they leave.

I look out the window and see a bird and a squirrel staring at each other in a tree. It's like a boxing match that hasn't started yet. They don't know each other, but something seems wrong, and if one got the chance it'd pummel the other. There's no wind.

-----

I wasn't getting better. My head felt heavy and the back of my neck was tight, as if a small bag of marbles was tied back there. I was beginning to see colors that didn't exist. I wondered if this is what dropping acid felt like, though the colors weren't particularly pleasant.

My wife would sit with me and we'd talk about the past. Our trip to Belize, the first time we made love, our kids and how they were beautiful but used to drive us completely nuts, so nuts that we often would laugh about driving them to Disneyland and leaving them there. They wouldn't even know we were gone, we'd say.

She touched my hands and described how they'd changed over time. They were never particularly large, but they had definition when I was young. The way I gripped someone's hand when I shook it for the first time, she said, made her feel safe. Now my hands were weathered and old. Joan was nice and said they still looked good. She still felt safe. I touched her face and she smiled. It made her sad because I was dying. It made me sad to know she could have had more.

-----

I wasn't getting better. I saw a unicorn in front of me, a hallucination to convince me that the tangible world wasn't special. It was darker than most unicorns you see. There were no rainbows or long eyelashes or princesses in sight. It was the color of egg nog with the consistency of scotch. Its face was pristine but it looked at me and frowned. This fantastical beast wasn't death coming for me. It was death's lackey, there to stare me down.

-----

On Sunday, a man showed up at the door, younger than me by only a few years but bright and robust and colorful. He introduced himself to my wife as Keith and said we'd known each other years ago at the lab in Brookhurst. Keith heard about my illness through a mutual friend, he told her.

She nodded and showed him to my room. I didn't ask for privacy but she left us with coffee -- which I was still, mercifully, allowed to drink -- and closed the door. I didn't recognize him at first.

I've known you were here for awhile, but I figured you didn't want to see me, he said. I thought for a long time about life and relationships and connections and the universe, and I decided that the life I offered wasn't the life you wanted. I understood that. I accepted it. I moved on. But, I never forgot, and I always wondered if some day you would seek me out, even if just to offer me some sort of explanation.

What can I say? Especially now. If you wanted to find me at my weakest so you'd have an advantage, you've done well.

Oh, I don't want to hurt you. Not now, you old son of a bitch. Just tell me: did you ever once consider returning? Of giving up what you thought you needed to come back?

It was hard to look him in the eyes, those pervasive, insidious green eyes I had once looked into the way I had since reserved only for my children or a newborn puppy. I exhaled -- I had been holding my breath without knowing it -- and gestured to a family portrait on the dresser.

This is my family.

What, in this breathless, overdue conversation, did he hope to accomplish? I was too old and tired to think up words to spare his feelings, then words to summarize the phony conversation I would then detail to my wife. I was too old and tired for these things and my brain didn't want it. My brain didn't want it thirty years earlier, and it sure as hell didn't want it now, especially with these colors and creatures and hallucinations.

It's evolution. This is what I said to him. We know it's happening but we still try to stop it.

Keith sat down by his coffee and poured in some cream that my wife had left in a paper cup. He held it up so I could see.

Want some?

I've been taking it black.
This is what I said to him.

-----

Keith left and Joan sat by my side for the rest of the evening. The sun was out late and we watched it, almost intently enough to see it move. I reached out and touched her hand. I told her the story of her hands, from when we'd first met decades earlier to this very moment. They were dry and plain. She hadn't painted the nails in years.

I sat up as best I could and saw colors in the sunset. Who knew if they were real? I felt like I could reach out and touch them. My wife kissed me on the cheek. I didn't get better.

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