And then the caregiver dies

Harry’s wife was gravely ill. Harry put his work aside and devoted all his time and energy to helping her get better. She was in and out of New York City hospitals for two years. One operation after another. Twice she nearly died. When she was finally released from hospital and allowed to come home, still quite ill and facing a dire prognosis, Harry looked after her around the clock, changing the dressing on her surgical wounds, bathing her, feeding her, nursing her back to health, pushing himself to a punishing degree. He was not a young man.

Gradually, against the odds, Harry’s wife began to get better. Almost immediately, Harry got sick and was hospitalized with pneumonia. The doctors found cancer in his lungs. Harry phoned his younger brother, Bill, who lived upstate, and said, “We can’t seem to catch a break.” Bill said their situation reminded him of something the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote more than 1,800 years ago: Living is more like wrestling than dancing. To which Harry replied, “Most of the time we were dancing.”

Harry was given just weeks to live. He chose to die in his own home. Bill moved from upstate to the New York area and rented an apartment near his brother’s house. In those final days the cancer raced through Harry’s body and mind and he slipped in and out of consciousness. When he was conscious he could only speak in an inaudible whisper. He couldn’t eat. He was deathly thin and couldn’t raise his arms.

On a Friday evening, Bill stood by his brother’s bedside. Harry was trying to say something, but Bill couldn’t hear the words, The younger brother was getting ready to leave. He took Harry’s hand in his in an attempt to shake it and said to him, “I’m leaving now. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Harry was still trying to say something but the words would not come out. All he could do was nod his head.

Their eyes locked on each other. And then Harry tightened his grip around his younger brother’s hand. He held it so firmly that Bill was taken aback. Harry summoned up a last ounce of strength and held Bill’s hand in that strong grip for three or four seconds. Three or four seconds is a long time when you have nothing left.

Bill went back to his apartment and was still asleep early next morning when the phone rang. It was Harry’s wife. She said Harry had died an hour ago. Bill said he would come over to her house to be with other members of the family as they congregated there throughout the day. He then phoned a friend, Bob Baxter, a poet and author who lives in Niagara Falls, New York, and told him that his brother had died. And then he told him about the extraordinarily strong handshake his brother had given him the night before, even though he had been so thin and weak he couldn’t raise his arms and the poet said, “Your brother put everything he wanted to say to you into that handshake.”

That was the best thing anyone could have said about Harry and his death and the younger brother’s sense of loss.




Indestructible atoms

A man lives alone in northern New Hampshire. He is seventy years old. His second wife died two months ago. They had no children. A son from his first marriage died many years ago at the age of twenty-three.

Chest pains wake him at four in the morning. He sits up in bed and looks out the bedroom window. It’s a picture window with no blinds. Moonlight illuminates a grassy slope leading down to a river. He can hear the sound of the river through the open window. Beyond the river, a woodland of birds, quiet now, and beyond that, two tiers of mountain ranges fading into darkness. It begins to rain.

During the day he sits in front of the window and watches a variety of birds flying in and out of the trees down by the river. Squirrels venture close to the house. An athletically beautiful doe often crosses the river and approaches the house. Once he saw a fox run along the bank of the river. He loves living here.

The nearest neighbor is three miles away. The nearest hospital is fifteen miles away.

The pain in his chest is severe. Is this it? he says to himself. It occurs to him that he should at least have a dog or a cat.

He gets out of bed and goes into the living room—the irony of living room amuses him—and fills a shot glass with Jack Daniel’s. Down it goes. A biting shudder followed by a smoothing calm. He pours another shot and sits in an armchair and watches the rain. He’s not worried about his fate.

He misses his wife—and always, every day, he misses his son. His son would be forty-eight now. Hard to believe. Twenty-five years of life he didn’t have.

When he saw his son’s body in the coffin all those years ago he touched the young man’s chest. It was as hard and hollow as a barrel. This is not my son, he said to the funeral director. I don’t know where he is, but this is not him. The funeral director nodded politely.

The man talked to an Indian guru about his dead son. “Don’t worry about your son, man, your son’s all right.” The guru told the man he would see his son again. “Imagine both of you walking along together, totally happy, knowing and seeing all, and that walk will last five minutes or five thousand years.”

The man didn’t understand what the guru was saying but he would love to take that walk. In reality, though, he doesn’t suppose his son is anywhere. So what he wants to know is: How do you like your blueeyed boy Mister Death—No, that’s not it, that’s e.e. cummings—what he wants to know is, what happens to the billions of indestructible atoms that make up the human body and mind?—Indestructibility must count for something. To put it bluntly and simplistically, he wonders if, in fact, or even in fantasy, he will “see” — an ambiguous word for some kind of reunion or communion or sense of presence — his son again. His head and all the science say no, but his screaming heart says yes.

During these reflections his chest pains subside. Half the whiskey is gone and now he has a taste for coffee. It is five in the morning. The rain has stoped. If he sits up for another hour he will see the sun rise over the furthermost mountain range and he will see the birds and the squirrels begin their day. Perhaps today he will see the fox again.