I awoke that day to the familiar patter of footsteps pacing the hardwood floors. But that morning, the steps were hurried and palpably manic. I opened my door to find my friend pacing the house with a phone to her ear and tears on her cheeks.
“Larry just died,” she said.
Larry. Her mother’s partner. An old oak of a man whose main method of communication was a series of grunts, scoffs, and dismissive waves. Visibly racked with a pain only a dying man can feel, no one ever questioned the brevity of his speech. He dwelled in a space of solitary that young people reserve for the old; kept at a respectable distance for to be any closer would remind them of the fate that awaits their spry joints and quick limbs.
“Larry is dead…”
The words washed over me with little sensation. 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 whatever cheap courtesies I could afford. A nod. Hello. Goodbye.
He gave up the ghost a little after dawn. And in that sunrise I learned that you never really know when your last goodbye is for good.
As I watched my friend crumble before me, my male mind raced with solutions on how to fix a problem I’d never solve. In the wake of my helplessness I knew only that I should be there for her. So when she finally got in the car, I got in the fucking car too.
Her mother’s house was not the home I remembered. It was stirring with an unsettling static in the atmosphere, like something had been sucked out of the walls. The yelling, the barking, the screaming, all the laughter, that chorus clamor of an affectionately dysfunctional family…it wasn’t there. The music of the house had dwindled to a mumbled lament. 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 like a dry wood that touches water. They held each other and their grief. I stood in the doorway and felt the pressure of something I didn’t know how to articulate then. I touched their shoulders in quiet consolation as they shook under the weight of their sobbing. I left them to their mourning without a word.
I walked down the long hall. My feet moved, driven with a purpose all their own. I had been down that hall I don’t know many times before; ushered by screaming children chased by panting dogs. Walking alone then, the hall suddenly felt so much wider than I remembered. I found my feet in front of his door. Beyond was a place I had never been, in every sense of what that could mean. I didn’t know what was on the other side but my body took me there, and I followed.
Larry’s bedroom was a simple and quiet place. A fine reflection of what I had seen of his character. The walls were completely 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 began creeping in.
The light and I found him, sitting in a chair in the corner of the cold room; his head resting in his chest. His hands curled atop his lap where a blanket lay falling off his legs. The old man looked like he was 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 body in front of me. Almost heavenly, in a way–if, after all this time, you still believed in such things.
I had never seen a dead body before. It’s something your eyes see, plain as sunlight, but your mind struggles to grasp the concept. This person is gone; even with their body right in front of you, somehow you know they aren’t here anymore.
And yet, 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.
In the hallway, I could hear the women he left behind crying. Sadness was in the walls and the house seemed to creak in response. I found his bed without any real thought and slowly sat down. 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 as I smiled to myself. Realizing then what a great joke this had just become. I just said more to this man in death than I think ever had in life. That distance I kept him at, would that I have closed the gap.
”I want to believe you went somewhere. Somewhere better, I do…” Conflicted with my own beliefs of the existence of an afterlife, talking to what was left of that old tree named Larry, I felt something then. I couldn’t tell you what it was. I could only tell you it was there.
I remember hearing once that when stars die they collapse under the weight of their own gravity. The star erupts, and when the dust settles what remains of the star and its energy coalesces around it’s former orbit to form a nebula. In that room I felt a pressure then, of a star that had gone out in a tiny universe with four white walls. And there is poetry there that I will forever struggle to properly articulate.
As I stared at the body of what used to be a husband, a son, a father, I noticed he had drool slowly falling from his mouth down the side of his great wrinkled face. It made him look particularly infantile. Regressed in death, to the stage of his birth. I took a rag and gently 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 his people began to visit the house to pay their respects and be there for one and another in their own way. They all began to regale stories of the old oak. 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 at the cost of all his years.
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? Will they speak as fondly of me? You can only hope and strive to be that for people; a source of fond remembrance. In that crowded room in our wake, I couldn’t help but think that in the face of death, you can only live in spite of it. In truth, is that not life’s greatest rebellion?
As the house began to fill, I took a seat next to a friend, the youngest daughter of the now widowed Mother. She was holding in her arms her newborn niece, Mary Anne, swathed in a blanket and clutched at her breast. I sat next to these two beautiful creatures and my weary eyes just rested a while in their innocent countenance. Little Mary Anne, being fawned and awed by a love struck teenager.
Such life existed now in this house where, only moments ago, was only a vacuum of sorrow. Our own little rebellion, if we 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 wonder and contemplation. Searching the room until they found you. And then you just drown in there. You really do.
I reached out and touched her soft, porcelain hands and she grabbed my finger with a strength I didn’t know an infant could possess. In that moment, I can tell you, I felt something; love. This sudden unwavering desire for nothing but all the good of the world to befall this creature.
That feeling, it grips me as tight as her hold on my finger and does not let go. 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 ever so softly. I wipe until her face is clean and ready to be admired. And then, I laughed. I didn’t know what else I could possibly do but laugh.