What’s left of John’s body is with the Hospice organization now. What remains of his life lives inside our memories.
He lies inside a hospital bed, beside his wife, wide-eyed and brain dead, gone from us several weeks ago. Medical care is cruel, even as the doctors try to do no harm.
John’s wife’s telephone lies on a table where she can reach for it whenever she cares to call and ask me to make the journey to be with her when and if she wants it so. The last few times I spoke with her she said she felt unsure. “I still might go away for a few months immediately afterward,” she told me. “Somewhere that John and I never went and never spoke of going. I’ll let you know.”
I feel confounded, confused and numb. John has been dying for several years; the details just this moment seem unimportant to mention. I’ve told myself over and over again that I own a stoic personality (many would likely tell you that I am a cold-hearted man), and that I’ve had so much time to adjust and accept.
I don’t believe in God or in Heaven and Hell. Push aside any bitterness I felt toward the Church when I was young; I felt intense anger that dissipates as age comes on a man. Today my lack of belief has nothing to do with resentment, nor with logical argument. I just do not.
Still, neither am I so stoic as not to shed tears in private; nor can I sleep with any sense of peace except for the warm, snug feel of blankets pulled close as I go down.
I am, however, aware of my selfishness. Is each one of us human beings so self-centered, so closed inside our flesh and bone, that we must talk to ourselves of how another person’s death affects us, and not of how that death affects the dying one? Is John, without sign of any brainwave pattern, eyes wide open and staring without blinking, voice never to be heard again, somehow thinking of himself right this minute?
I just don’t know. And maybe that’s the only honest lesson that death can teach a man: You know nothing. Forget your books and stories and speeches. Forget your tender moments and your rage. Forget everything you’ve ever mentioned to a friend. Forget what passes for your mind and heart. You know nothing.
Memories remain; we all know this to be so. Chubby John, the boy whose tummy I smooched when he was a baby. Intellectual John who read each of the twenty-five volumes of Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopedia and then discussed with me the articles that struck his fancy most (we sat inside a darkened corner bedroom of a cramped house, my hysterical mother always screaming threats to cut and kill us; our discussions saved us for a while).
John the university man who could not tear himself away from his mother, visiting her each and every weekend, in spite of the fact that I tried to convince him to explore the streets of Philadelphia with me.
John the graduate who rejected my company for more than a dozen years because I thought I left my past behind when I moved far away from dear South Philly and so much closer to my own death than I could have realized back then.
John the stately Philadelphia lawyer, tall and proud inside his flannel overcoat, always keeping company with the law books he carried inside his leather bag. We had reconciled and understood that love had never for a moment disappeared.
John the singer, fan of Frank Sinatra. John’s voice mellifluous, as was mine back then. We sang in harmony as we drove across the Walt Whitman Bridge.
John the hospital patient. In and out and back again, one crisis following the one before. I was there beside him much of the time, and for that time I feel grateful, and yet I want to cry again as I write of this particular memory.
John the dead man I will never see again. Please pardon me my momentary self-indulgence. Please forgive me, John, for whatever hurt I may have caused you.
And so here and now I wait for a telephone call, a call that will eventually tug me down in spirit and bring me to my sister-in-law’s side.
I love you, brother John. I will be there.
Whenever and wherever she may need me, I will be there.