Sunday, October 05, 2008

Horatio to Hamlet: "...Goodnight, Sweet Prince, And Flights of Angels Sing Thee to Thy Rest."

On June 23rd and 24th, 2008, I went by plane and car to visit my friend Jim at his home. He was dying. His prostate cancer had spread.

In an earlier conversation with his daughter, I had pointedly not inquired about the status/progress of the disease. She seemed equally hesitant to discuss it also; only told me the doctors had ceased the chemotherapy regimen. She implied that she and Jim hoped it was the medication that was making his so weak. When I arrived, and saw the pills the caregiver was giving him, I assume the worst: they were drugs to ease the pain, to smooth the slide into death.

I still didn't want to know the details. Death is an ugly truth; I rarely want the facts; I prefer light not to be shone too brightly on it. Death belongs in the dark; because it is darkness. It should remain in the shadows, merely a presence, only to be defeated, or at least postponed, by ignorance; like one challenges a beautiful woman: by ignoring her.

Jim could barely speak. But when he saw me he smiled. "Hi, Cliff." I smiled more broadly: I was happy. I had not come too late. He looked ninety. He was in his late sixties.

I sat next to him, held his hand. The other visitor and the caregiver who had been visiting left me alone with him; after first telling me sotto voce that Jim could understand most everything, but rarely spoke.

I sat on the side of the bed that was nearest the light from the window,

Earlier that day I had decided how I would pass my time with Jim. I had found 'The New "Oxford Book of English Verse; Chosen and Edited by Helen Gardner", in his bookshelves, in his living-room library.

When I had first picked it out of the shelves, I had seen it was crammed with slips of paper, Jim's handwritten notes, dutiful recorded, terse, all written in pencil, the penmanship small, precise, gentle. Like Jim. I had been careful not to move them as I leafed through the book to find some poems to read.

As I searched, I had thought of the many hours we had spent on prior visits, when he and I would sit in the two chairs in front of all these books, and he and I would start our late afternoon salon-de-deux by pouring two glasses of wine, placing the Encyclopedia Britannica between us, on an ottoman, and we would talk until the sun went down: of life and death, of women and children, and the Middle Ages and the Greeks, and drama...referring constantly, dutifully and lovingly to the Encyclopedia whenever a dispute arose (in these conversations we were always gentlemanly, joyfully competitive), or we were unsure of any fact. Certainty of facts was important to us.

Once again we were going to share facts; poetry's facts.

I entered the bedroom, sat by the light of the window, I asked him if he wanted me to read. "Yes," he said, slowly.

I read poems to him from Marvell and Milton, and Shakespeare and Keats, and Gray. I read to him from Donne and Auden; Arnold and Dryden. So many poets spoke of death. I had decided not to shirk their topics. Jim knew he was dying. My respect and love for him dictated I share their thoughts with him.

I read for well over two hours. I finally looked at him. He seemed tired, though peaceful. He had not responded during all that time.

He eyes were closed. I stopped reading. He opened them.

"You want me to keep reading."


After another hour he fell asleep. I left.

I got in my car. It was still light. I drove abound town. Suddenly the town became familiar to me: all the times I had been there before, I was always seemed disoriented. I couldn't tell you North from South, East from West. I had only knew how to get to Jim's house from the highway; his written directions were always required.

Today, alone, without Jim to guide or drive me, I made it my obligation to get oriented myself, to be able to get from Jim's house from any direction, to know how the streets and the boulevards and the highway in town intersected and flowed into one another. I made a point to drive by all the restaurants Jim and I had eaten at and drank at during prior visits: the seafood place across the highway, the Mexican restaurant also across the highway, the other Mexican restaurant in the shopping center, the converted-barn-house-into-a-restaurant ("Homestead") that was our favorite.

When the sun set, I went to the Mexican restaurant across the highway. It was the first restaurant Jim and I had ever attended on my first visit to him. I talked to anyone who would talk to me. I got very drunk.

The next day, I went to see Jim again. I sat by the bed. He smile again when he saw me again, but this time there was no verbal greeting. I took my place alongside his bed, kissed him on the forehead. He didn't react.

I sat and read.

An hour into my reading, he coughed; strongly.

"Should I get the..."

"Keep reading," he said.

After another coughing fit, I started to rise.


The strength of the voice stopped me in my tracks. It was Jim; hoarse and demanding, yet soothing also. He was still alive, I thought. He never did suffer fools too greatly. I read, and read and read until he slept. I closed the book, I knew I would never see him again. I tarried. He was deeply asleep. I kissed his damp forehead, told him I loved him, and whispered "Goodbye." I went to the living room and replaced the book in the shelves, notes still in place, exactly where Jim had originally placed it.

I went to the kitchen, visited the guest bedroom, the one in which I had slept on prior visits, looked at the bed, the family pictures arrayed around it, and left.

I drove around a bit, then went to the "Homestead", sat at a corner table, ordered the salmon; the dish I had ordered the last time Jim and I had eaten there.

I told the waiter to bring me and extra candle, put the candle across from me. He looked questioning at me, but I returned his with a bit of fierceness. I lit the candle, where Jim would have sat, and ate slowly. I drank a full bottle of wine. There were few people there. It was a slow evening. The young hostess, the two waiters, the owner, a dining couple to my left, another couple in the corner, and the candle and I, comprised the activity in the room. The dinner was delicious. As always. I tipped generously.

The next day, before I drove to the airport. I called Jim's daughter. She thanked me for my visit. I asked her a favor. I told her that when I left the house last night, Jim was asleep and I didn't want to wake him. So I didn't tell her Dad I was leaving today. Please say goodbye for me, and tell him I love him. She cried.

Jim died August 6th, 2008.


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