“How come I never see you have any visitors?”
Kelly was the young nurse aide who came from the hospice in the evenings to take my vitals. Young. It’s a relative term: when you reach sixty, everybody seems young. Maybe it’s partly to do with the fact you’ve forgotten what’s it like to be young. Then there’s the lyric in Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man: “Some people see through the eyes of the old before they ever get a look at the young.” But then, I’m hardly an innocent man. Anyway, I recall a comedy routine I’d seen years ago, maybe when I’d been in my early thirties. It might’ve been a George Carlin routine but I can’t be certain—hell, I’m not certain of a lot things since I started getting sicker. The routine: You become twenty-one, turn thirty; you push forty and reach fifty. After that it’s all downhill: you make it to sixty, building up speed until, if you’re fortunate, you hit seventy. Well, I’d made it to sixty but I’d never hit seventy. The routine finished with each day in your eighties being a complete cycle unto itself—hitting lunch, turning 4:30, and, finally, reaching bedtime. It was funny then; not so much now.
In her late twenties, tallish and slender, I deemed Kelly, by my younger standards, to be rather plain, wearing no makeup and typically pulling her hair back. I guessed, with her hair back, it made her job easier. Still, she had a pleasant face, and when she smiled, she smiled with her eyes. She was kind to me, attentive, and genuinely seemed to care, making small talk that didn’t seem small. Unlike Lynn, her counterpart, who came each morning. Perhaps, because of Lynn’s age—I guessed her to be in her early fifties—she’d seen it all and was therefore suffering burnout. Not that she didn’t do her job; it was just in the way by which she went about it. Lynn was clinical, asking only the questions she needed to ask regarding my condition and how I was feeling. I once asked her to have a cup of coffee and sit with me while I had breakfast—I’d never cared much for eating alone, a dislike that had manifested itself greatly since I’d become house-ridden—but she told me she had to keep to her schedule; I couldn’t fault her for that.
“Because,” I said, “this is our time together, Kelly.”
She laughed in that tuneful way of all women whose origins come from Ireland. A woman from my past, I can’t recall who but it may have been someone I’d hurt, would claim Kelly’s laugh was forced, that she was laughing only from obligation or was laughing at me, and that inside she was probably thinking, asshole. I didn’t think it was forced for either of those reasons, or out of pity for a dying old man. Nor did I think she thought me an asshole.
“You know, your morning counterpart, Nurse Ratched, seems in a hurry to be on her way and won’t even have a cup of coffee with me.”
“Jack Nicholson’s tormentor in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” I said. “A movie from the seventies. Won like, five Academy Awards. But I guess that was just a little before your time. Lynn,” I thought to add.
“Well,” Kelly said, “don’t be too hard on her. She has her whole day ahead of her and really must try to stay on schedule. I’m fortunate that you’re my last patient.”
I’m fortunate, her words echoed. Not you’re fortunate.
“That must be it.”
“Seriously,” she said. “Don’t you have family—children or a brother or a sister—friends who come to visit?”
“I have no family, no love interest, no life-long partner I can trust to not abandon me as she waits for me to abandon her. I may once have had a sister, but my memory sometimes plays tricks on me these days. If I did we were never close. I’ve an old friend who comes to visit every day, after you’re gone.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Whatever for? It’s by choice and by way of the life I chose to live.”
“Everyone should have someone,” she said, and I recalled a time in my life when I’d felt the same way. Maybe I still felt that way—everyone should. But some of us manage to make it out of this life without someone.
On a whim I asked if she could stay while I ate my dinner. Meals on Wheels was now bringing me my three squares and I didn’t really have anything to share but bottled water out of my refrigerator or a cup of tea.
Kelly looked uncertain; perhaps it went against hospice regulations. But something else mingled in her mien, which I would later, when I was alone, identify as pity. After a moment, to my surprise, relief and pleasure, she agreed to a cup of tea.
“Thanks,” I said.
As I filled the kettle with water, Kelly told me she liked the ring that I wore.
“It was a gift,” I said, “from a former girlfriend who was of Latvian descent.” I wondered why my memory managed to hold onto this particular recollection—Judy had been the gifter of the ring. In which side of the brain did regret reside? Apparently the cancer had not yet assailed that side. “Legend has it that a ruler of Latvia—king, or regent or whatever they called them several hundred years ago—was deposed by some invading country. Riga is an important port city on the Baltic Sea. He wore a ring just like this one. He fled and to prevent his capture, all the men in Latvia took to wearing a ring just like it, to make his capture more difficult—sort of a Spartacus thing.”
“A cool legend,” Kelly said, and I wondered if she knew who Spartacus had been, if she’d seen the movie.
“And they call Poles dumb,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“Wouldn’t have been easier if he’d just taken his off?”
While we waited for the water to boil, I asked: “Are you happy, Kelly?”
If my question surprised her, she didn’t show it.
“I think so. Why do you ask?”
“Just an observation. You seem a very pleasant sort and very happy in your work.”
“I am. I’ve wanted to do this since I was a little girl.”
“You’re very lucky in that you heard your calling early. Some people never really hear it and go through life in a reactive fashion.”
“That’s sad,” she said, as if this were a revelation.
“Yes, it is.” Then, “Are you married, Kelly?” She looked away, seemingly embarrassed, and so I added, “I’m not asking for myself you understand. I mean, surely you know there’s no future with me?”
Kelly met my eyes, smiled and told me she wasn’t married.
I poured the hot water into a ceramic teacup with a colorful floral pattern on its sides. The cup had a sort of colander sleeve that fit inside with holes in the bottom and sides for use with loose tea; I had but Twinings peppermint tea bags. The peppermint was soothing to my irritable bowel. Irritable was an understatement. These days it was downright outraged, despite eating what my doctor had prescribed as a “bland” diet. I ate only a bite or two of any meal and as a result my weight had dropped to under one-hundred-seventy pounds, a weight I hadn’t seen since I’d turned twenty. I dipped the teabag into the cup a half dozen times and then put the lid on the cup. It, too, had a floral pattern.
“That’s a beautiful cup,” Kelly said.
“It belonged to my mother.” I glanced at my watch. “Give it three or four minutes to steep. Longer if you like it stronger. Honey?”
“A large dollop of cream, if you have any.”
“Just skim milk.”
I retrieved the milk from the refrigerator and sat down across the kitchen table from Kelly.
“Anyone special in your life?” I asked and Kelly again looked away, so I ventured, “From the way you said that I’d venture you’ve recently had your heart bruised.”
Kelly’s eyes teared up and I apologized. “I didn’t mean to bring up any pain.” I pushed a box of Kleenex across the table to her. I had boxes all over the house—kitchen, bedroom, living room—since my sinuses seemed to run constantly, like the bathroom faucet I figured to let go on dripping for the new owner to fix.
“That’s okay,” she said, dabbing at her eyes. “I met someone a few months ago, a nice guy, but recently he’s been kind of distant. I think he may be getting ready to break up with me.”
“Then he’s a fool.”
“Thank you. You’re a nice man.”
“You’ll get over him,” I said, thinking, If you only knew, Kelly. “And I expect you’ll find a terrific young man because you’re a terrific young woman.”
“Thanks,” she said, managing a smile that suddenly made her look, well, terrific. At some point, I couldn’t recall when, she’d let loose her hair, making her look downright pretty.
“You’re welcome. Look, you want my dinner? My appetite isn’t so good tonight.”
“No, thank you, but you should have a couple of bites at least. You’ve lost a lot of weight, even in the last week.”
“Yeah, the twenty pounds I couldn’t lose the last ten years, and now it’s dropping like the hygrometer in my humidor when I forget to fill it with solution.”
Kelly laughed musically and I wondered if she even knew what a hygrometer might be. I forced myself to take a bite of the side dish, unadorned rice, while she removed the lid from her teacup, placed it on a saucer and added some skim milk, all before I realized I’d forgotten to check my watch.
“That book in the other room,” she asked, “When Legend Becomes Myth? Is that your name I saw on the cover?”
“Guilty. It’s a proof copy.”
“What’s it about?”
I told her.
“It sounds intriguing.”
I laughed. “That sounds real politically correct. Very non-committal.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way, really.” Then she said, “A proof copy? That means it’s not available for e-readers?”
“I’d love to read it. When will it be available?”
Kelly looked crestfallen; but her disappointment seemed for me.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She knew I wouldn’t live to see that day.
“I can let you have that proof copy, if you’d like.
“I approved it several weeks ago, after having poured over it a half-dozen times and finding no errors. Besides, there comes a time when, where revisions are concerned, a writer must let his work go.”
“Trust me. I have no use for it.”
“Would you inscribe it for me?”
I nodded and grinned. “Already, I have a fan.”
Kelly smiled and told me she needed to get going. She’d finished her tea and I hadn’t even been aware she’d been drinking it.
“Listen,” I said as I got up and reached for her empty teacup. “I want you to take this, too.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t.”
“I won’t take no for an answer. My mother would want you to have it and we both know you’ll take good care of it.”
As I rinsed the cup the doorbell rang.
“I’ll get it,” Kelly said.
A few moments later I brought the teacup into the living room to find Kelly introducing herself to Patrick. He’d been good about visiting me, at times bringing along Shelly, since I’d lost my driving privileges the result of the hallucinations I started having a couple weeks ago. Shortly thereafter my doctor informed me the cancer had likely spread to my brain and so I’d given up driving. The last thing I wanted was to jeopardize other motorists. The news brought to mind a fairly recent Mose Allison blues tune, My Brain. Initially, his brain, a “cool little cluster,” is “steady working long as you keep that coffee perking;” but by the end of the tune, the result of “losing twelve hundred neurons every hour,” he’s soon to become “dumbfounded.” Dumbfounded: that’s where I was heading; soon after I could expect to become as functional as a stalk of celery, and about as interesting looking. Funny, the things that came to mind as my memory fell apart; easily, with no effort, they just popped up.
“Hi, Patrick,” I said, handing Kelly the cup, and then I stepped over to the coffee table where When Legend Becomes Myth sat. I picked it up along with the pen that sat on the morning Free Press crossword puzzle. That’s right, I work crosswords in ink, arrogant bastard that I am. Sadly, the crossword was unfinished. More and more, the clues were becoming meaningless to me. “Do me a favor, Patrick. Call the Freep in the morning and cancel my subscription, otherwise I’ll forget to do it.”
“Sure,” he said.
I scribbled a few words on the title page of Legend, signed it and handed it to Kelly. She of course opened it to where I’d written my inscription. A moment later she hugged me and left, obviously overcome with emotion.
“What was that all about,” Patrick asked when she’d gone.
“Sweet kid. Going through a tough time.”
Patrick forced himself to chuckle, a sound I hadn’t heard from him since I told him the news several months ago.
“I say something funny?”
“You’re dying and she’s going through a tough time?”
“Dying is not so tough. You’ll understand that when it comes your time, which hopefully won’t be for a long time. Sit down,” I added as I dropped to the sofa.
“How are you doing?” Patrick asked.
“Great. I finally dropped the weight I’ve been meaning to lose. Another ten pounds and I’ll be able to fit into the sport coat I wore to homecoming.”
“I should be so lucky,” he said. “You look great.”
He was lying but I didn’t tell him that. I knew I looked like death chilled over: gaunt, ashen. As bad days went, this had been a particularly good one; that Kelly had agreed to share a cup of tea with me had been the highlight. I had no idea what tomorrow might bring other than a few hours closer to the inevitable.
“Call me tomorrow, will you?” I asked. “I want to call my lawyer and make a change to my will. I want to leave my royalties to the hospice. They’re nonprofit. I know my insurance is paying most of the bill, but I want to give a little something extra back to them for the trouble I’ve put them through. I’ll need you to drive me over to his office, too, to sign the new papers. Oh, and I’ll likely need you to remind me that I want to do that.”
“Sure.” Patrick then went silent, which he’d been prone to do the sicker I became, as if he didn’t know what to say to a dying man. I resented him for that, not a lot, but a little. It’s okay, I think, for someone to resent a friend once in a while. Yet a dying man wants a sense of normalcy to the time he has left, some distraction; but I said nothing to him. I can’t say I’d act any differently were our roles reversed.
“There’s something else I wanted to tell you,” I said, rummaging through the grab bag my once cool little cluster brain had become. “Oh, yeah. Take my humidor with you when you leave tonight. I know you’ve had your eye on it since you saw it. It’s got nearly fifty sticks in it. Far more than I’ll ever be able to smoke in what’s left of my lifetime.”
“Okay,” was all Patrick managed.
We then watched the hockey game for a while. The Wings were playing the Blackhawks at Joe Louis Arena and the Hawks were ahead when Patrick finally called it a night shortly after nine, taking with him my humidor, which he needed to remind me I’d given him. Unfortunately for Patrick, he missed a Wings comeback—a goal scored in overtime.
I turned off the TV and went to my den to sketch. I’d taken it up a year or so ago, out of boredom. I’d done some sketching when I was a lad—nothing I ever kept, save for a Mother’s Day card I’d made for my mother that I came across while I’d been going through her belongings after she’d passed on. It was a drawing of a log cabin in the woods. I couldn’t remember how old I’d been, but the perspective was slightly off, so I must’ve been fairly young.
When I took it up again I sketched exclusively landscapes; I’d never been very good at portraits, but tonight I made an exception. For some reason Kelly’s image, as she’d taken my blood pressure, had stayed with me: her youthful innocence, prior to my learning of her bruised heart, and compassion had imprinted itself on some part of my brain left untouched by my cancer, perhaps the creative part—was that the left side or the right? It didn’t matter.
An hour later I sat looking at the result—the perspective was good and I’d captured her expression as well as I’d recalled it and I saw in my work what I’d seen in Kelly during the week I’d known her.
By the time I went to bed I’d forgotten that Patrick had come to visit, that we’d watched the hockey game, that the Wings had won in OT, that I’d given Patrick my humidor, that I’d ever owned one.
The next morning Patrick called to remind me to call my lawyer and why. He told me he had the day off and could take me to sign the papers if they could be prepared today. I called my lawyer immediately, before I finished my cup of coffee, so I wouldn’t forget.
“What about the rest of your estate?” Frank asked me through the phone.
I waited a moment, became frantic; then I consented: “I’m sorry, Frank, my memory is spotty. Who gets it now?”
“Defenders of Wildlife. To protect the wolves in Wyoming and Alaska.”
“That’s right,” I said. I’d originally had my entire estate going to Defenders of Wildlife because I thought it horrendous what they were doing to wolves, aerial shootings, leaving poisoned meat for them to ingest, killing pregnant females and shooting pups in their dens—all because they were doing what they do: surviving on instinct, taking down a few head of cattle. All about the almighty dollar. That I was a canine kind of guy was secondary; I’d given up on man as a species to which I wanted to leave anything. Kelly had left me hope that there were some good people left in the world, so I wanted to give something back to the hospice for whom she worked. I thought a moment about leaving the remainder of my estate to the hospice, but in the end decided to leave it to the wolves: they needed protection.
Then I called Patrick and asked him if he could take me to the lawyer’s office after lunch to sign the papers.
After we hung up I noticed a dark rectangle on my liquor cabinet and wondered what was missing.
Patrick brought me home and stayed with me until the aide from hospice came. She told me her name and informed me that Kelly had been delayed by another patient and couldn’t come tonight; I stayed myself from asking who Kelly was.
The aide (already I’d forgotten her name) left and Patrick also left a short time later. Sadly, Patrick had little to contribute to conversation; but I forgave him. I found I, too, had little I wanted to discuss. I was so tired.
In my den I came across the sketch I’d forgotten I’d done the previous night and spent several minutes walking from room to room, sketchbook in hand, as if I might discover her name in one of them.
There was a woman, long ago—she had been my first lover although I couldn’t recall her name. We were together only three times. I felt no disappointment when she broke it off with me so I know I didn’t love her, or she me.
Something in the sketch reminded me of that woman from so many years ago, but it wasn’t her.
I struck my forehead with the flat of my hand, as if I could jar some memory from out of the void my brain had become.
Why is she haunting me, tormenting me now?
I looked more closely at the sketch. The paper was off white, but it didn’t show signs of aging, no yellowing.
No, the sketch isn’t of that woman.
Whoever she was, she was beautiful.
The next morning a stranger let herself into my house, telling me she was from hospice and that her name was Lynn. She startled me, as I’d been asleep. She assured me she was no burglar and had let herself into my house using the key I’d given her.
She took my vitals and asked a few questions, and then asked me to get up. I couldn’t get out of bed. She made a phone call, but I never knew to whom or why; by then I’d slipped into a coma, from which I never regained consciousness.