The room felt small and cramped, insufficient to hold the tidal emotions that were swirling within. It was too warm, the air too humid. Sweat had collected in my crotch and armpits, and caused my ass to stick to my underwear when I would pace the room. It had come to this. This crossroad of grief, despair and finality. It had been a long journey to this point, a hard slog. There had been no highs. Only lows. The certainty, the inevitability tragic but expected. Hope a fools wish only. This time to fight no more, to recognize the futility and not waste energy that could be put to better use.
It was fitting that the sun, beyond the window glass, had hidden behind a thick overcast. Even it recognized the somber occasion and masked its brilliance in reverence. The lights of the room, similarly dim, setting the mood. I turned the page and read on.
“She weeps over Rahoon, this one is by James Joyce.
Rain on Rahoon falls softly, softly falling,
Where my dark lover lies.
Sad is his voice that calls me, sadly calling,
At grey moonrise.
Love, hear thou
How soft, how sad his voice is ever calling,
Ever unanswered, and the dark rain falling,
Then as now.
Dark too our hearts, O love, shall lie and cold
As his sad heart has lain
Under the moon grey nettles, the black mould
And muttering rain.
“How sad.” The voice whispered. “Such despair.”
“Really, I thought it was beautiful. We always remember our first real love, don’t we?”
“Read another.” The whisper seemed urgent. “Please?”
Clusters of interventions hung from the scaffolds of health all around her. Their sheer numbers testament to the expense of survival. Each with its unique ‘ping’, or ‘beep’. In the corner, the ever-present white hospital dwarf gasped each breath as the chest of the shrunken angel above rose and fell in unison.
“Are you sure? You seem tired today.”
“I am in a hurry. I want just a little more, I can’t bear to miss anything. Just a little more—please?”
“Okay, let’s see.” I turned the page. It was a book that had lingered on her bedside. It had collected dust for as long as I had known her. I had never seen her pick it up. It was one of those, ‘I’m going to get to it books” that no one ever did. There, collecting dust, perhaps only to impress visitors, to instill the impression of the erudite resident. Now, as a last-ditch effort to absorb its secrets, it had been recalled from ignominy for this special occasion.
“This one is by Derek Walcott, its called ‘Love after Love’”
“Well there is that,” the whispered voice had a hint of a smile in it. The gnome wheezed, the scaffold beeped, the clock marked the minutes.
“The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Wow, that’s pretty heavy. Fitting in a way. Right?”
There was no reply. The gnome gasped and sighed out its measured breath. The small green screen hanging from the gallows silently showed a steady beating rhythm, the numbers blinked on and off. Out in the hallway, staff people laughed and planned their weekends. The clock marked the minutes. I stared down at the pages as they blurred in my vision and waited. The longer the wait, the deeper the thought that would emerge, as it always had but now in a breathy whisper
“There are those that lack the strength of character to assume such an incredible burden of integrity. Those who cannot, pass from the earth rather quickly don’t they. That is why we are so unique. I see a lot of people that are tested, many have not been able to assume the mantle, their strength failed and they declined the opportunity. I feel that the power of the wise exists within each of us. No passing of the knowledge and wisdom is necessary. A shame that we realize it so late.”
The voice weakened near the end of the lengthy statement. The shadowy figure in the corner, breathed its measured breath bored at its own unremarkable sameness. The gallows beeped on.
I thought about her words. So true, but irrelevant in this moment. I had waited for this moment, prayed for it and been wracked with guilt because I longed for it. I thought about the statement by someone that I’d long forgotten but remembered the spirit of it.
‘I sat with my anger until it finally told me its’ real name. Its real name was grief.’
I had sat with my anger. It had not developed into grief. It was still anger. I had experienced the spectrum in past times. I thought back to the other times, other struggles, the bad old days. I had walked through hell before, but to do it just so that I could be here in this chair with my damp armpits, my facial muscles feeling too tight felt cruel even by Christian standards. That spectrum of true loss, true anger, true grief and abject fear of the future. I had to say that the despair of loss was the most crushing. You may do your best to share the others, but that one…that one...is a soul crusher.
“Shall I read another?”
“Not just yet. I’m still listening to the last one in my head.”
With obvious difficulty she turned her head enough so that she could see me in her peripheral vision. The green screen marked the effort by making the little blips closer together, the monster in the corner unperturbed by anything else, exhaled another measured breath.
“You’re a veteran. A Vietnam War vet. You never made it all the way home. You guys came home trained to be serial killers. People who are sympathetic enough see that journey in your eyes. It’s terrifying for them. They see the struggle and feel the darkness inside of you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you’ve been alone for so long. I’m sorry that you couldn’t let them in. I sorry that you wouldn’t let them in. And now, I'm sorry that you’ll be alone again.”
I felt my anger rise even higher. This was none of her business. I had learned that people never deserved your trust. I didn’t need some naïve Utopian lecturing me. I had learned the value of solitude, in both head and heart. Easier that way. She was only the second to break through that barrier, not without a certain amount of joy and resentment on my part. The first one had taught me the bitter lesson to begin with.
Serial killer? Maybe, but still?
“Serial killer, maybe so, but that was a long time ago.”
“People are afraid. They’re afraid that someone will swoop in and mess with their 401k, or their insurance won’t cover whatever dumbass thing they’ve done lately. You give-two-shits people scare them.” The whispered voice was imperious, voicing urgency.
“So what? Let the sons-a-bitches do whatever they do. I’ve got no time for them.”
“No time for them, or too lazy to become one of them?”
“Why are you trying to get my goat? I’d like to have what they have, you bet. I just can’t get there the way they did. I’m not crawling over the bodies to climb to the top of that pile.”
The little green arrow ticked across the screen, the peaks increasing the distance between each other. The numbers blinked higher and then lower. The machine took a breath and wheezed it out, and then another and then another. I waited. Finally, I couldn’t stand it, I had to vent.
“Okay, listen. It’s like this. They look at me, or us, we ‘others’ and I see what they see. That recognition of lethal force that they envy, when they see it on TV, but fear it when they’re standing next to it in a queue, or on a bus, killers, coping but only barely. They want a life like a sit-com, but comfortably so. Screw that.”
Silence. The gnome took a breath. The cursor blipped on. Rain began to pelt the window, wiggling down the wind-blown glass. In the hall outside, pagers pinged, a cart rolled by on three good wheels and one with a seizure disorder. The clocked marked the minutes, the precious seconds. Soon it would be too dark to read from the hated book.
“Would you like to hear the next one?”
“No,” and then softer, “not just yet. I’m sad about what you just said.
I had reached a point where I prayed for the release of caring, to the relief where I could finally be allowed to grieve. From the very beginning I wanted to grieve but I couldn’t. We knew where it would end, we knew what we would feel. But instead, I had been forced to show a brave and encouraging face while we buried our fear, dreading the future, hopeful for some foolish outcome. I had been furious this whole time, and now most especially because it was still too early to grieve.
“I know. You’ve been great you know? And I love you, you should know that too. Thank you.”
I squirmed in the stupid uncomfortable chair. It had been designed with an eye to limiting the time that visitors lingered. It was suddenly even more uncomfortable.
“I love you too,” I looked down at my boots ashamed that I was uncomfortable with that recognition.
A small hand emerged from under the grey sheet reaching into the space between us.
In the shadowed room the hand, white against the starched white of sheets. Someone should have trimmed her nails. I leaned forward and took the hand its cold engulfed in the heat of mine. I held the delicate thing in the otherwise empty room. The clock blinked the minutes away, the machine in the corner wheezed in and out, bored with the monotony of its own creation.
“Are you family?”
I knew she was looking at me, but couldn’t return it. I watched the rivulets as they tracked down the window. I heard the alarms sound. I didn’t have to look, I held her hand as it lost its grip. I wasn’t angry anymore. I was free.
The rain on the window blurred as my tears coursed down and dripped from my chin.