“Larry just died.” She said. “Larry is dead…”
The words washed over me but were never felt. A breeze through an open door, subtle and fleeting. I didn’t know him. He was but a fixture in a house to me. Someone I didn’t sit near or speak to besides what courtesies a strange greeting could afford. A nod. Hello. Goodbye.
An old man, frail and infirm in a body that was failing him. Grumpy and solitary. Racked with a pain only a dying man can feel. He gave up the ghost a little after dawn. My roommate got the call soon after. He was the domestic partner of her mother. A man she did know. And that man now, was gone.
“Larry just died”.
My last goodbye was for good.
I had only just woken up. Stirred by her familiar footsteps echoing across the hardwood floors. She paced the space between us. Her anxiety, palpable and manic, amplified with every step she took as her feet carried her across the room. My only conscious thought as a man was how to stay the tears of the woman who knew him. I only knew for once, maybe I could be of help. I had no emotional attachment to the departed. In their grief I could attend his body. Make sure the proper channels were contacted–I didn’t even know what those channels were. Nonetheless, I got in the fucking car.
The house was not the home I remembered. It was stirring with an unsettling static in the atmosphere. Not with the usual soundscape of a house full of life. The yelling, barking, the screaming, laughing–that chorus clamor of a modern, affectionately dysfunctional family…it wasn’t there. Not even the dogs made a sound. For the first time, I entered that house and was greeted by a stranger named silence.
My friend walked up to her mother whose face immediately swelled with tears she struggled to hold back. And then, she burst. They held each other and their grief. I didn’t know what to do. My mind, in it’s simplistic male design, only wanted to fix what I saw was the problem. But how do you fix death? How do you mend a loss life? How do you stay a tear? You can only let them fall. Catch them and wipe them away. You can only be a witness. You can only shut your mouth and feel helpless.
I touched their shoulders in quiet consolation. Then, I left them to their mourning without a word. To do what I came there for.
I walked down the long hall. My feet moved, driven with a purpose all their own. Action without thought. I had been down this hall a dozen times. Accompanied by screaming children and panting dogs. I walked alone now. The hall felt so much wider than I remembered. I stopped at his door. Beyond was a place I had never been. I didn’t know what was on the other side but my body took me there, and I followed.
It was a simple and quiet place. A fine reflection of what I had seen of his character. What little I had seen. The place was unadorned save for a few scattered photographs. Strange and familiar faces inside of small frames. Another family? Another life. A solitary window faced the street where the early morning sunlight struggled to be let in. The light and I found him, sitting in a chair facing the doorway. His head was resting in his chest. His hands curled atop his lap where a blanket lay falling off his legs. The old man I didn’t know, the dead stranger; he looks like he is just sleeping…
Almost like a spotlight, the sun stole into the room. The rays caused the naked white walls to shine brilliantly as they touched the atrophied limbs of the corpse in front of me. Heavenly, in a way. If, after all this time, you still believed in such things.
I had never seen a dead body before. Neither corpse nor ghost. Only the living and the dying and, sometimes, I can’t even tell the difference. It’s something your eyes see, plain as sunlight but your mind struggles to grasp the concept. This person is gone. What’s in front of you is just the remnant of a shell. No life. No pulse. Just dead. Gone. Forever. Goodbye. Goodbye. They ain’t coming back.
Still, his peaceful countenance stirred in me a sense of disbelief. What if he is just sleeping? What if he isn’t dead?
With a steady hand I placed my fingers upon the life vein in his throat, searching for a semblance of a pulse. His body had already begun to atrophy and grow stiff. It felt as if human skin had been stretched across the bark of a tree. His pulse answered me as a statue would. I felt his chest for a heart beat but it’s measure was over. No breath. No movement behind the closed veils of his eyes. No. Not dreaming. Not asleep. Unless you counted death as a state of permanent rest. He was gone.
In the hallway, I could hear the house sobbing. Sadness was in the walls and the house seemed to creak in response. I found his bed without any real thought and sat down. I found myself looking at him, studying him. Like an artist would a model he was about to paint. I don’t know how long I stared at him. I can only tell you I could not look away. Neither fascinated nor disturbed. Not afraid nor really brave. I only felt this great sense of nothing.
I felt nothing.
“Where’d you go, old man?”, I asked him, smiling to myself. I knew what a joke it was. I just said more to this man in death than I ever had in life.”I want to believe you went somewhere. Somewhere better…I do.” Conflicted with my own beliefs of the existence of an after life, talking to a corpse, I felt something then. I couldn’t tell you what it was. I could only tell you it was there.
As I stared at the body of what used to be a husband, a father, I noticed he had drool on his face. It made him look infantile. Regressed in death, to the stage of his birth. I took a rag and gently cleaned his rough face and wiped away the spit. I took his blanket and covered him up to his neck. He didn’t seem so frail then. Just a man lost to a forever kind of dream.
And then I left him. To be mourned and seen by what people knew him. One by one they began to visit the house to pay their respects and be there for one and another in their own way. Everyone was so caught up in their own head, no doubt having the same inner monologue. Contemplating the fleeting transience of mortality or, at least, struggling not to. I was praised for my kindness at handling the old man, but beneath my thanks, I could not accept it. I only did what I would have wanted for myself. He was a man once, he shouldn’t have been seen like that. It was the least I could do.
People began to regale stories of the Old Man. His grumpiness was comical to most and to my surprise, he was quite a rambunctious soul. Had you only took the time to know him, he’d have talked to you. He might have even made you laugh. Scoffed at your youth and then, perhaps, shared some wisdom purchased equivocally at the cost of all his years. The Old Man than became a Good Man to me. By his deeds done for his new found family, it spoke far louder than their words ever could.
And you couldn’t help but wonder, who will be there when my body is found? Will I make it to old age? Will I be so lucky, to pass quietly into that good night in sleep? Will they speak as fondly of me? Will I be remembered and bring a smile to those very few who knew me, truly? You can only hope and strive to be that for people. In the face of death, you can only live in spite of it. In truth, is that not the greatest rebellion?
I took a seat next to a friend, the daughter of the now widowed Mother. She was holding in her arms a newborn baby girl. The newest edition to her family, Mary Anne. A classic name for an already classic beauty. I sat next to these two beautiful creatures and just enjoyed the sight of them. Little Mary Anne, being cooed and awed by a love struck teenager who bounced her on her knees. Such life existed now in house where moments ago was only death and sorrow. Our own little rebellion, if I had anything to say about it. I edged closer to them and dove into Mary’s eyes. These great blue pools of curiosity teeming with contemplation. Searching the room until they found you. And then you drown in there. You really do.
I touched her soft, porcelain hands and she grabs my finger with a strength I had never felt in a newborn. She just won’t let go. In that moment, I can tell you I felt something. Love. I felt love. This unfailing desire for wanting nothing but the good of the world to befall this creature. Isn’t that what love is? Whatever it was, it beset me as tight as she held onto my finger. And as I am swimming in her eyes, I see her begin to drool a bit. Her spittle falling gracefully over her face, I grab some napkins and wipe it all away from the cherub face ever so softly. I clean her up till not a stain remains on her adorable face, for it should be adored by all. And then…I laughed. Aloud and sudden, it caught me by the throat.
Life, it’s such a funny thing.