Everyone, at some time in their life, is going to get “the call.” Maybe it will come in the middle of the night, sometime after midnight but well after debaucherous folk are out and about and well before the decent human beings arise for their day to commence. Maybe it will be during rush hour traffic. Nevertheless, everyone will get the call. No one, at least no one that I know, will be prepared for that call to come. No matter what you hear on the end of the phone line, the words “dead” or “gone” or “crossed over” will forever be married to the scenery around you. “I was in my car driving to work and I got the call.” “I will never forget it, I was staring out the window and my cell phone rang and I just knew it was the call.” Indelibly marked, like a deep scar, into the moment marking the time that stood still in that millisecond when the news would be delivered that someone you loved had breathed their last breath. Then comes the list of lasts…the last time we spoke, the last time I saw him, the last beer, the last holiday, his last birthday, they all come flooding in before the synapse fires completely and the message reaches your heart and opens up a hole where loss begins to flood.
This call came for my husband last week. His Uncle, the one man who actually meant something to him, the one male figure who represented positive memories, the one who tossed a baseball back and forth, who taught him his own rogue rules of Rummy 500, who laughed and shared a beer and a cigarette with him…was found alone in his bed, where he had lain for what was presupposed to be at least 6 days and later turned to 12, in his own bodily excrement, near death, in apparent agony. He was taken to the local Bronx hospital, where his 6’1” frame was nothing more than a sheer sheathing of skin holding bones together in a 70 pound body. Malignant lung tumor so large it fractured his spine, liver metastasized, bleeding from every orifice, dehydrated and holding on for one last second. My husband called me, a shattered man asking me without asking (as men are prone to do) to meet him at some unknown hospital – saying only that “it’s bad, it’s my Uncle.” I immediately got the picture in my mind’s eye of a 12 year old dimpled Italian boy waiting with his baseball mitt for Uncle Frankie to come outside and toss the ball back and forth, cigarette dangling from his mouth and a cold Bud Tall Boy on the porch step. Uncle Frankie was going to make him wait now. He never did that before.
When I reached the hospital, I found my husband surrounded by his mother and one of his sisters. They really blended into the background for me because all I could see was my husband, staring at his hands which were rifling through Uncle Frankie’s wallet, looking through the photos, one after the other of my husband as a small boy, as an adolescent, and then our wedding photo. My man looked a thousand years old when he caught my gaze and I never felt more in love with him than at that moment. Years of compassion flooded through me and as he stood up and buried his head in my neck, hot tears trickled down the fold of my neck and down my shirt. I have never seen him cry, this Italian man who is so proud of being the backbone of our small family. I’ve seen his eyes well up, but never a tear spill. I have never witnessed true agony and turmoil or loss in his eyes and on his face. His brow furls, his eyes shut, his lips pursed tightly as the lump in his throat gives way and he releases only a small fraction of what he has pent up inside. When I ask the news, I am given the usual “it’s very bad” “dehydrated” “not going to make it” and then the blah, blah, blah of supposition, which I promptly tune out.
I pull the curtain back and see a man who looks nothing like our vibrant Uncle Frankie. He is in a fetal position, his thigh barely as large as my wrist, and he is mumbling. When the orderlies took him for testing and scanning, the doctor asked us to go to the cafeteria and advised that he would call us. He advised that there was severe dehydration and complete renal failure, but stated that perhaps they could hydrate him and bring him around to a moment or two of clarity and lucidity but that plans would have to be made for his final resting. We did as we were instructed and went for coffee.
An hour later, we returned to the Emergency Room. When I walked in, I witnessed a miracle, Uncle Frankie was propped up in his bed, all the way down the hallway at the other side of the Emergency Room. I could see him speaking to the nurse, he raised his hand in gesture and I called my husband’s attention to the scene and we both proceeded down the hallway. Uncle Frankie’s eyes lit up with a glimmer of acknowledgment as my husband said “This is one hell of a way to spend your 74th birthday Uncle Frankie. What’s going on with you?” He chuckled, rolled his eyes and put his hand up in the Italian gesticulation for “ah! Whatever” and then began asking about a light, pointing up to the light above the CT Scan Room door, asking what it was. I asked if I could give him a kiss and he said “Yeah, sure. I was in my apartment…” and his voice trailed off. He mumbled a moment and I couldn’t make out what he was saying when the nurse said she was bringing him for a full body scan. He raised his voice enough to say “Hey, it’s cold in here, bring me my robe from my apartment.” And off he went. This was the first and last moment of lucidity that we would receive. His sister, my husband’s mother, was to receive the last bit of vitriol left in her brother’s body when she approached him and announced herself, he closed his eyes and said quite clearly “I don’t have a sister, you aren’t welcomed here” and when she turned to announce to us all that he didn’t know her, he used what little strength he had to lift his right leg to kick her. Hatred is a funny bedfellow; running deeper than the human condition and more acrid than any substance I can name.
It was some hours later when we were told of the condition that this man’s body was in; the pain and suffering that he must have endured all of those days alone in his bed, soiling himself and writhing in apparent pain, suffering, and self-imposed solitude – it hung like a heavy curtain of smoke between us. I was struck, during these moments of silence, by the words that were flooding my own head, the heavy feelings that were weighing down on my conscience and in my mind, and the scenes that flashed in my mind’s eye like an old fashioned reel tape on fast forward. In the hours that followed, a fictitious scenario wound its way into my brain and instead of making up something to assuage my fears, I started to be more realistic. I thought back and realized that my husband’s beloved Uncle Frankie had pulled away from us some two years ago, only answering the vaguest of questions, answering his phone intermittently, constantly coming up with excuse after excuse about why it wasn’t a good time to visit with us or for us to visit with him. He stopped allowing us to bring him to Connecticut for Christmas a few years back, saying he had a “lady friend” and was spending holidays with her. And then he shifted. He shifted from a jovial prankster into a crotchety old geezer! He began by having an irascible temperament, making surly responses and cutting his conversations down to just slightly longer than it took a phone to ring three times. Summer clam bakes were a thing of the past, no cold beer, no old school music on the stereo, gone were all of the memories we could be making and the time to reminisce was then hurled upon us – all at his devising. As I ran all of these thoughts through my mind, sifting them to slow down by placing a mental turnstile in my brain, filtering in the memories and matching them with my thoughts one by one, I began to piece a puzzle together. Uncle Frankie died on his terms, in his way, and in his apartment.
Intermingled with this train of thought, I noticed something waxing poetic deep within the recesses of my not so undisturbed mind. I notice that I have a fascination with death. Not the act of a long and lingering death, per se, but the condition of being dead and the process of dying. I noticed this when I realized that Jim Morrison was right. He wrote a book that I read over 30 years ago entitled “No One Here Gets Out Alive!” At the time, I scoffed at the title, thinking it was overly obvious and, as any invincible 17 year old, my time seemed to be an eternity away. Now, nearing 50, having survived a bout of cancer, a failed and abusive marriage, a molested childhood, and numerous natural disasters not caused by my own actions, I see that immortality is only possible for artists who create masterpieces and authors who pen literary genius. Immortality is not possible for a commoner, such as myself.
I began to run through the day’s events and the scents that wafted from Uncle Frankie’s bedside; a smell I will not likely forget in my life time. As I leaned over his bed railing to place a kiss on his brow, the smell infiltrated not only my olfactory, but my entire soul. Indelible. Unforgettable. Permanent. They say that once you say something that it cannot be unheard; once you read something, it cannot be unread. Well, stands to reason that once you smell something, you cannot unsmell it. I began to understand something. I am not the brightest star in the sky and, sometimes, sometimes it takes me a day or two, sometimes 40 years, meh never the difference, I began to recall a poem I had read in the 7th grade and I started to understand it. On only a hand full of times in my life have I recalled this poem by Dylan Thomas and on this day, I actually remembered the first stanza quite clearly:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Death is not going gently into that good night. It is raging. It is angry. It smells like something indescribably putrid. It wreaks of regret and it longs for beauty that this world cannot nor ever will reveal. Death is not simply the absence of life. It is more than the rotted bud on the vine; putrid carrion; detritus; the end of the circle of life. It is a finality to which the living have no concept or inkling. The living have made up fairy tales about afterlives and heavens and nirvanas and lovely places where abundance flows like the collective droplets over Niagara Falls. Yet we do not know, with any certainty, only through blind faith.
I find myself looking for comfort in knowing that when I was 17, I read a book with an interesting title; here I am 42 years later remembering that girl who scoffed at the title and turned the pages until the book was done and that girl’s worst problem was knowing she would never see Jim Morrison play live. At almost 50, I realize that I am gearing up to rage against the machine, to live deliberately, to rage, rage against the dying of the light, even though I know now, quite intimately, that no one here gets out alive.