He will be gone in two weeks—gone not just away on retreat, or business, not to visit family, not to the almost comatose sleep he has been going to increasingly for the past two months, but forever, to Hamlet’s “undiscovered country” as he himself would say, to the death that will us finally part.
All this I know because I just met yesterday with his hospice nurse who has told me this, as she explained, for my own sake, not his, to get me beyond denial and anger.
And, yes, I have been angry at him ever since he told me a few months back that suicide might make things easier, especially on me. We both laughed when I threatened to kill him if he so much as even tried.
The hospice nurse also told me that his periods of consciousness and lucidity will continue to diminish, both in frequency and length, until they stop completely. Yesterday there were three and all were less than an hour. Last night we talked for only about 45 minutes and he once again reminded me to be sure that his daughter Lucy gets that original Beatles Yesterday and Today album (the one with the broken dolls and meat) when she comes to visit today.
This request reminded me of the first gift he gave me—a two part CD Collection, one part red and one part blue, of all the Beatles’ greatest songs from 1962-1970. Then I was less than half his age, and he promised as he courted me that he would make sure that when we married—something he was much more interested in than me—he would be less than twice my age.
This was one of several important promises he made me, and, dammit, he managed to keep them all, even though I grew to want more. I was half way past 24 when we married; he was not yet 49. And on my 25th birthday he promised that I would catch up with him in age. He anticipated the question on my mind and the puzzled look on my face by telling me that for ten years now he had remained the same age, an age that I too would reach. Each year on his birthday he would celebrate being once again—as he is even now, with less than two weeks to live—“between 39 and death.” This is how I caught up with him, in a matter of only 14 years.
He also promised me on our honeymoon that in appreciation for my marrying someone so much older he would give me at least twenty good years (a “score” as Abraham Lincoln counted them). They have not always been perfect, but as of this morning our nearly 21 years together have indeed been good, even though he will not quite make it to the biblical three score years and ten.
When we talked last night he also told me that he had a gift for me that I was not to open until he was gone and that he would say more about it tomorrow. I already know what it is—something that he had his closest friend David help him prepare.
I not only know what it is, but also where it is, and I have even opened it, or at least a part of it. I overheard some of his conversation with David and saw David give him a large envelope, wrapped with gold ribbon. David had followed his instructions to write on the outside, just as Marshall Will Kane did in High Noon, with a quill pen, “To Be Opened in the Event of My Death.” Then I saw David, following his instructions, put the envelope underneath his mattress on the far side of the bed, close to the window.
Earlier this week, after I was sure he had gone into one of his more and more frequent nearly catatonic sleeps, I could no longer resist the temptation to pull out the envelope and bring it out to my room to look inside. But because I was sure he would know if it was gone, I took out and only looked at a part of the contents.
The first thing I noticed was that everything was in light teal blue—his favorite color and the same color as the dress he bought me for our second anniversary, the dress that I wore out with him only three times and that I wore out wearing for him at home with—as he had demanded (reminding me that “Je demande” in French meant only “I ask or request” in English)—absolutely nothing underneath. For a couple of years I had worn it as a prelude to our lovemaking and I recollect that it became so threadbare that the last time I wore it he tore it off of me.
In the envelope was a sheet of parchment on which he had written (I, of course, recognized the handwriting) in dark ink, “I gave you the twenty years I promised, and I had hoped to give more, but then came the cancer I did not anticipate. I thought our love would go into extra innings, but I’m now behind and it’s the bottom of the 9th with two out and two strikes on me. And to top that off Death has one hell of a curve ball that’s almost unhittable and of which he is justifiably proud even though one guy named Donne hit it for a home run in that remarkable sonnet you know I love.”
“Before I strike out I want to leave you with something that will help in the game of your own life. I don’t mean it to be precious or sentimental, but something that will help you carry on without me—not that you’ve ever needed me to help live your life. That something is this small set of cards that I want you to carry with you, at least for the first year after my death. They are not in any order of priority or importance, so they can be shuffled or rearranged. And after you read them you may decide to toss them as the demented blubberings of an old man whom you should not have let talk you into marrying when you were so young. At least consult them once and, as a last request (“Je demande”) from me, give them a year.”
“By the way, I think David did a good job in matching the paper stock on which they are written to that light teal blue dress I bought you a long time ago—yes, that one.”
Inside the parchment sheet on which he had written were 10—make that 11—cards. To cover up my surreptitious theft, I grabbed the first three, then put the remaining cards back inside the parchment and the parchment sheet back inside the envelope, then put the whole envelope back under the mattress where I “found” it.
The first card, like the others to follow, was actually laminated. And it consisted of simple advice. I think he wanted this card to be first, even though he had written that they were put together in random order.
That first card only had three words: FORGET ABOUT ME. I liked its simplicity, but its message, like his earlier suggestion about suicide, made me angry! What do you mean “forget about you”? You are the only one in my life, goddamit, that I will not ever be able to forget. You yourself made certain of that, you and all your fulfilled promises, all your loving gifts and days, your compassion and your calmness that got us through so much, and yes even your humor, which I think underlies the advice on this card.
The second card was easier to accept: KEEP WALKING. Before the cancer, and even up until a few months ago, we walked nearly every day, through the park, around the lake, even just to Safeway and back. Those walks were a part of him that I am already missing, and a contradiction to that first card.
The third card was downright weird, not because of its advice, but because that advice was circled and had a line through it (like a No Smoking sign), meaning DO NOT. It said, inside the circle and line: WATCH BASEBALL. And I knew that it was meant as a joke. In fact, I casually flipped it over and found writing on the other side, writing that said “Never mind. This one was for me.”
Then I thought to flip the other cards over and, sure enough, there was more on the other side of them as well. On the back of the first he had thanked me for 20 great years and assured me that I was a wonderful, life-affirming human being and that I never did need him before and certainly would not need him now. I never could get him to acknowledge that it was not a matter of need but want. And now that he is almost gone I want him more than ever. The back of the second card advised me to walk slow, to walk for exercise of my mind, not of my (“great,” he had added) body.
Having read these cards, I went back for more, putting the first three back.
On Wednesday night I read two other cards, truly random: EAT RAW VEGETABLES AND FRUIT and WATCH MOVIES. On the back, the first simply said not to get cancer like him, growing up the son of a cook and eating all that meat and cheese. The back of the second one quoted the t-shirt he still sometimes wore on our walks, Si on aime la vie, on va au cinema.
Next morning I looked at the other two: READ DANTE and DON’T LET THE DUKKHA GET YOU DOWN. One advised, on the back, “not just Inferno and Purgatorio, which are the greatest depictions ever of human suffering, but also Paradiso, where you will find compassion and joy. The back of the other told me to see the “Dante” card.
I have saved the remaining four cards for now, as I wait for Lucy to arrive to see her father for most likely the last time and to receive the Yesterday and Today vinyl album he repeatedly made me promise to deliver to her personally. As I look at the songs on this album, I hear him stirring and know that he will soon be ready to say good-bye to Lucy. I still want to know, as the Beatles themselves asked, why he is saying good-bye when I want to say hello.
I say hello to Lucy when she arrives, then check to see if he is ready for her. When she goes in for her farewell, I take out the final four cards.
One card says PRAY; on the back it reminds me to wish wellness and happiness to everyone, even my enemies. Has he become an enemy for deserting me? The second card says TALK TO ANIMALS and adds, on the back, that I will be amazed at how much they have to teach me. The third card advises me to GIVE TO OTHERS and reminds me of what I already know, that there is great pleasure and joy in giving.
The final card says LISTEN TO THE BEATLES. I think I already know what will be on the back of this card.