We received the news today. It is a death sentence.
I sit motionless, thoughtless, as the words from John’s voicemail echo and re-echo in my head: “I have cancer.”
I cannot think or move or breathe. Then I almost laugh. This is a joke, I thought, a very bad joke. Or maybe, it’s a ploy, another crisis fabricated by my best friend who, admittedly, is a drama magnet.
Simply put, John craves attention. And he will do anything to get it. John’s life is filled with crisis, both real and imagined. That’s the downside. The upside is, he is endlessly entertaining. That is, if you have a picket-fence mentality, like mine.
We are opposites, John and I. But in our contrast lies the secret to our long-time friendship. It’s trite to say, “opposites attract.” But in our case, the differences have for 24 years provided the fuel for a continuing and stimulating curiosity about the strangeness of the other, that has sustained our friendship.
While I am steady, loyal and predictable, John is peculiar, mercurial and erratic. And John is witty. He never managed to finish school. In fact, he never finished anything to my knowledge.
I, on the other hand, suffer from serious and chronic pangs of guilt. Even the most trivial of projects can trigger a bout of psychic torment. The misery descends like a sudden thunderstorm on a sunny day, even before the job is begun. The mere possibility that I might neglect my duty to complete some self-assigned chore, that I might be behind schedule or that I might overlook or half-heartedly complete a task, haunts me like a cloud of noxious gas.
John, on the other hand, works hard to avoid work. This gets him into constant scrapes. He is perpetually short of money. Dunning notices relentlessly remind him he is at risk of losing his car or home or running water. At times, he is homeless. He often goes without food. His financial problems inevitably become my financial problems. I’ve considered giving him a stipend every month, just for my own peace of mind. So far, I haven’t done so, but only because I am certain that no matter how much I give him, John will find a way to stay in need. Because, like I said, he craves attention more than anything, even more than food or running water. And then, there’s also the fact that I vicariously, and secretly, celebrate his rebellion.
When I first heard the news, I was skeptical. But then, a mutual friend confirmed it. Annette had been roped into taking John to the emergency room. He couldn’t drive because his brakes were shot. I knew this because John always let everyone know if he couldn’t pay for something. Sooner or later, one or another of his many friends would step forward and offer to take care of the problem. He was waiting to see which one of us would pay for his new brakes. Of course, he had driven until the brakes were so worn they had to be replaced, not merely repaired. And even if his minivan had been roadworthy, a circumstance seldom occurring, he probably didn’t have gas money.
This wasn’t the first time he had gone to the emergency room. In fact, he had been to the ER three times in the last year, complaining of kidney stones. Each time, the doctors pumped him full of painkillers. He would enjoy a warm, soapy shower in the spotless bath attached to his private room. The nurses brought him plates of food and flirted with him. His sheets were clean. And he was discharged with several prescriptions for more pain medicine, enough for a binge. He would be semi-conscious for a week.
But this time was different. The hospital did a scan. The scan showed a deformity. It was pancreatic cancer, late stage, untreatable. John was told he had only 60 days to live.
I wasn’t convinced. Cancer? 60 days?
My chin and shoulders droop. I stop breathing; then suck in deeply. The air is thin. Everything is hazy, out of focus. I look down, then raise my eyes. But I do not really see anything at all. I cannot comprehend it, this number, this quota, this deadline. I tell myself, It’s just an estimate. Not a precise date. Not an appointment. Not a death sentence. But it was. Yes, it was.
John comes out of the house, bounding down his stoop. He greets me as if it is just any other day. I look at him closely. In the brilliant October warmth, patches of sun and shadow play over his face, as he looks back at me. It seems as if, to him, 60 days is the same as 60 years. He is his ever, cheerful self.
“The doc says I have 60 days! But I’m going to beat this! I’m not dead yet!”
I nod, unable to speak, still flipping through the files in my mind. Cancer! A new problem to solve. How do we beat cancer?
There is no file. There is no appeal. There is no strategy. There is not even a defined problem. There is . . . nothing. My file on eternity is empty.
I move quickly from denial, to shock, then negotiation. Okay. Okay. John has a date, 60 days from today. Everyone has a date. My aged pets have a date. My mother can no longer hold her glass of tea, unassisted. She has a date, not far in the future. My dad’s date has come and gone. My brother’s date has come and gone. My cousin’s dad passed in his sleep. I begin to list all the folks I know whose date has come and passed.
It’s just a date. I have a date too. Everyone has a date. All of us, every living thing, has a death sentence. We just don’t know what date that is. So we ignore it. It’s as if it’s somewhere in eternity. But it may be next week. It may be tomorrow. It may be in the next few minutes.
The only difference here is, John has been given his date. Same as those on death row. But nothing has really changed. He’s had that date since he was born. I’ve had my date since the day I was born too. I just don’t know what it is. This is just another day, like any other day, with sunshine dapples, and sweet breezes and soft shadows. Along with the secure feeling that the paradise that is now will continue.
I shudder. A chilling thought occurs to me. 60 days is dang specific! I fast forward 60 days and almost instinctively, I want more time. More time for preparation. There is never enough time for preparation!
Are we prepared? Most surely not! I want more time to prepare for separation, for saying our good-byes, for doing the things we’ve put off, for saying the things we’ve not said, for doing the things we’ve done thousands of times, for saying the things we say all the time, for . . . eternity.
As always, John pulls me back to the present. “Hey, my bird feeder is empty!”
He seldom asks me directly to do things he wants me to do for him. Well, why would he? Being a conscientious soul, I am quick to discern needs, and quicker still to solve a problem.
“See, I hung it there, just outside my bedroom window. I can watch the birds from my bed!”
John is an avid bird watcher. An aficionado, he prefers high-end, wild bird seed. When he doesn’t have money, I fill his feeder. It is a cylindrical design, clear plastic, with perches for the birds on all sides, from top to bottom, protected by a wire squirrel guard to keep out the pesky critters. The next day, I dutifully go to the gourmet grocery and purchase the most expensive wild bird seed in the store.
“Did you get the bird seed? I hope you bought the good stuff!”
As I pour the colorful seeds into the feeder, I contemplate their future. I consider the strong possibility John will never again ask me, obliquely, to fill his bird feeder. It is likely he will not live long enough for the birds to eat all of the seed I pour into the feeder. Like a sand clock, as the birds take the seeds and the seed level drops in the cylinder, John’s life will ebb away.
I imagine the seed in the feeder dipping lower and lower, knowing this is a certainty, as sure as the fact that John will stop breathing. The little birds, delightful chickadees and sparrows and finches, the fat robins, the cheeky blue jays, the stunning cardinals and the plain brown thrashers, flutter gaily, back and forth, here to there, around the feeder, singing their signature calls, alighting softly, or sometimes hovering, to reach into the feeder, the seed level infinitesimally dropping with each peck, to the moment of John’s last breath. I scrutinize the feeder, as I pour the seed into it, trying to guess where the seed level will be at the moment John exhales for the last time, and is no more. I try to comprehend time, this new time, measured by a column of bird seed, counted by each peck, as the birds flit about the feeder, and John’s life is etched away. Then I gasp, as I realize, the birds will continue to visit the feeder, just outside John’s bedroom window, even after John has passed.
Well after all, it’s just another deadline. I’ve been meeting deadlines since I can remember. There were deadlines in elementary school, high school, college, graduate school and finally, law school, where I struggled mightily with deadlines. My life was punctuated by deadlines, deadlines for exams, essays, book reports, national tests, a masters’ thesis and finally, the bar exam. Then on to real life, where deadlines took an even greater death grip, deadlines for briefs, deadlines for trials, deadlines for appeals, deadlines for bills that had to be paid, things that had to be done, the grass had to be mowed, the dishes washed, the furniture dusted, the bed made, my suits dry cleaned, my shoes shined or else, I would be a mess when I walked into the courtroom.
This deadline, John’s date with death, I dread it and I resent it. For the first time, I rebel. No! No! No! I won’t go along! I won’t comply! I won’t conform! I won’t accept this deadline! I will not!
In that moment, a seed flowered. I became, in that instant of recognition, a revolutionary. Me, the most ordinary, dutiful citizen, devoted to convention, now an anarchist, defiant, uncooperative, unyielding! No! No! Don’t leave me! Of course, this changed nothing.
After several weeks, John no longer insisted, “I’m going to beat this!”
His pain worsened steadily. He lived on pain medication, eating less and less, until he swallowed only a few bites each day. He asked for fast food. But when I brought KFC or a Big Mac, he could not take even one bite.
Finally, the pain was so great, he could stand it no more. On the 58th day, John asked me to call an ambulance to take him to hospice. It was a lovely Saturday afternoon in late December. The neighborhood children were outside, running from yard to yard or riding their bikes up and down the street, squealing and laughing. When the emergency vehicle arrived, I stood just outside his bedroom door and looked on, as three burly med techs lifted John, ever so gently, and placed him on the stretcher. He had lost so much weight, his head was large on his slender frame, his face angular, his eyes prominent over sunken cheeks.
He looked directly into my eyes, never wavering, as they rolled him out, lifted him and the stretcher down the steps, and rolled it across the grass to the waiting ambulance. It was the last time, we both knew, he would pass over his threshold. The last time down the front steps and past the enormous magnolia tree that shielded the yard from the street. This was it.
John was leaving his home, his dogs, his cherished things. He would soon leave this world. The 60th day, execution day, awaited.
He smiled and waved at me. I smiled and waved back. Then he was lifted into the open double doors of the waiting ambulance. His eyes never left mine, as the heavy doors closed. I stood there, not knowing what else to do, in the cozy sunlight. A slight breeze jostled the few leaves left on the trees, carrying a faint drift of winter jasmine. The sky overhead was brilliantly azure.
My eyes trained on the ambulance as it pulled away from the curb and slid quietly down the street. At the intersection, at the bottom of the hill, it stopped, then turned right and picked up speed as it passed out of view.
The birds merrily chirped and swirled around the bird feeder.