Well. That was uncomfortable at best. All of them gathering around my bed to see me off. Uncomfortable and prolonged, like a slow-acting poison.
For one thing, their being here forces me to look at them.
Not that I don’t want to look at them. Some are the issue of my loins, after all.
But their being here and my being forced to look at them also brings into my periphery that damned countdown machine with the little tick marks running across it. It’s bad enough that I have to hear the little boop, boop, boop twenty-four-seven without having to watch that damned line peak with every boop. One more heartbeat gone. That’s all I see when it makes that little peak. One step closer to being the hell out of here.
And that annoying bag of whatever it is, and the smaller bag below it hanging on little silver arms coming off that silly chrome pole.
I know the damned tubes coming out the bottom of those things lead directly into me at one place or another, even though I can’t feel them.
I know the morons who run this place believe they have a moral duty to keep me around as long as they can. What I’d give to live back in the time when a “living will” meant something. When DNR meant Do Not Resuscitate instead of Do Not Rush. Or whatever the hell it means now.
I wouldn’t have to see the windows that annoying nurse insists on opening every morning after she shoves the curtains aside and sings, “Rise and shine! Wakey wakey!” I can only hope someone will do the same for her someday.
Why in the world do they put windows in hospital rooms anyway? The one time I actually enjoyed having a window was the day before the paralysis set in and took my arms.
Nurse Cranston, now that was a real nurse, a real caregiver. She moved a chair out of the way, then move my bed over next to the left window. That was so the smoke from the cigar she brought me would go out the window and she wouldn’t get busted for being humane.
I suspect they nabbed her anyway. For some other act of compassion if not for that one.
After all, as my doctor told me, “The medical industry doesn’t exist to be compassionate. It exists to make people well.”
Bullshit. He was half-right. The medical industry exists to make money. I’m only in the hospital now because the guy wants to buy a new boat. I could lie under the shade of a mesquite tree out in the middle of the damned Chihuahua desert and do exactly the same thing I’m doing here. Except there it would be over sooner and more honestly. Plus I’d serve a final purpose, feeding the coyotes and cougars and buzzards and rabbits.
No, rabbits aren’t carniverous. But what’s left after the others finished would go to nutrients in the ground. And eventually that would come up in buffle grass or something. And rabbits damned sure eat that.
Anyway, I’m glad the children have stepped out for awhile.
Not that I don’t like them.
Well, not that I don’t like all of them.
I like some of them. A few.
Really, to be technically accurate, I guess I don’t actively dislike any of them.
I do pity some of them their need because it isn’t real. Those have confused need with want.
And I pity some of them their greed. Those few must be uneasy around mirrors. I mean, knowing themselves that they aren’t here to witness the process or to say goodbye. Their sad looks and utterances and wailings are only necessary façades. And the fact that they’re only façades is as starkly obvious as a stool in a pitcher of lemonade.
I’d probably move the greedy ones into the “liked” category if they dropped the façade altogether. I’d almost be proud if they came in anxiously wringing their hands and asking the others, “Is the old coot gone yet? Well?”
But no. Despite the ridiculous veneer, they’re here only to verify that my last will and testament is finally in effect.
Odd how “need” and “greed” rhyme so readily.
Let’s see. So those are the ones I pity.
No real need to go into detail about any of them. Is there?
No. Well, except maybe their names.
I wonder if I can remember all of them.
Let’s see, there’s Twirl. That was a mistake. It was also my dear, departed wife’s only shot at naming one of our children by herself.
Then there’s Kimberly, then Arston. That was my fault. And seriously, I should have named him Arsehole. If you knew him, the reason would be apparent.
Then there’s Trent, Margaret, Winston and Chelsey.
Maybe I shouldn’t divulge those things, divulge those secrets, like about Twirl and Arston. They say you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.
None of them are dead, of course. Just my good fortune, I’m sure. But I’m equally sure that rule probably also applies in reverse. That the dead—well, the near-dead—shouldn’t speak ill of the unfortunate living.
Okay, so no more about them. Poor little timid twits.
It bothers me to no end—well, figuratively speaking—to know they will breathe for however many years the good lord and the fates give them and then expire without ever having known what it is to actually live.
But I can’t think about that. After all, good, bad or indifferent, exciting or blasé, their life is their life. I can’t live it for them. More’s the pity.
But what about the ones I do like? Why do I like them?
Well, Roger is straighforward and authentic. Not a fake bone in his body. Melanie’s the same. And Jasper and Kent and Amilie, really.
They’re upright citizens, those kids. And upright is not a matter of degree. You’re either perpendicular to the self-serving bullshit of acting solely for the sake of appearances or you aren’t.
When those kids weep, they weep because they’re sad. Not because someone might be watching.
When they become angry, it’s because they’ve been grievously harmed. And I don’t mean “offended,” but harmed. They learned the old rhyme about sticks and stones and broken bones at an early age, and they took it to heart. As a result, they don’t spend a lot of time fretting over the opinions of people who would suffocate if breathing weren’t an automatic reflex.
And when those kids strike, it’s not to punish an imagined enemy or wreak vengeance, but to remove a threat. Period.
Oh, and they speak their mind.
Not that they’re cruel.
Well, Jasper can be a little cruel sometimes, but I don’t believe he means to be. He’s more blunt than cruel.
I’ve observed that some of the others believe him too spontaneous. That perhaps he allows his emotions to run away with him. That when he’s baited, maybe he responds without thinking.
But that simply isn’t true. Jasper is very calculating and very articulate. Very precise. Although it’s true that sometimes his utterances themselves aren’t as surgically perfect as the thought that went into them.
His retorts always are directed at a particular antagonist, though sometimes he expresses them without regard for who else might be affected. Hence, he occasionally causes some collateral damage.
My daughter Margaret is a case in point.
Now Margaret is not pregnant. She never has been, and probably never will be. Even if that milquetoast husband of hers dared inseminate her, I suspect she’s too stingy to share nutrients with another living being. Even one growing inside her.
But she looks as if she’s carrying five soon-to-be newborns: one in her abdomen, one just above each hip, and two across the back.
So say Margaret makes a snide comment about her brother’s tie. Maybe the front is hanging an inch lower than the back. And maybe then she elaborates with something like, “You MIGHT want to pay closer atTENtion to your personal apPEARance. If not for the sake your PERsonal pride, at least as a sign of resPECT to FAther.”
And of course, whatever she says is always delivered in a whiny, nasaly voice and with all the snobby intonations in all the right places. Including her drawn-out pronunciation of FAAAHther. I still have a difficult time believing I sired such a pretentious snot.
Not to denigrate her mother. Her beloved, sainted mother would never do anything like that.
Jasper is likely to eye her rotund, grossly obese form, then smile and utter, “I tied it that way in case I suddenly balloon up, dear. Like you. But yes, I can see that you would know a thing or two about personal appearance. Trying to keep up with Thatcher are you?”
Unfortunately, he’s just as likely to say that whether or not Thatcher is in the room. Even though Thatcher is a decidedly good guy and we’re all still wondering what he ever saw in my daughter.
So like I said, collateral damage.
I tell you, if I could trade Margaret for Thatcher as a creature that issued forth from my loins, I would do so in a heartbeat. I’d even use one of the remaining few hearbeats I have left.
Melanie is turned much the same way as Jasper. The girl speaks her mind, that’s for sure. And I don’t think she would lie under any circumstances.
Well, except with that chump Nelson she’s been seeing. But that’s a different kind of lie. You know what I mean. What she ever saw in that guy, I have no idea. Maybe I should have Jasper run him off. The girl could definitely do better.
Or Roger. Roger would run him off just like that.
Well, damn it. I’d snap my fingers here for effect, but the damned paralysis has them. No matter. You get the idea. Nelson’s as much a mamby-pamby mama’s boy as they come. A waste of breath in a flesh sack.
Roger will take over as me after I’m gone. I’m proud of that boy.
He’s a distinct improvement over the original model too.
Unlike me, Roger thinks things through carefully. No charging into thunderstorms for him, not without a plan. But once the thoughts have come and gelled, and once he’s determined a need for action, and once the plan is set in concrete, that boy could defeat a kraken with a paper clip.
Not one of those cutesy plastic paperclips either, but a real one.
Then again, he wouldn’t use one of the larger ones either. He wouldn’t even use the large elongated oval, much less the big, thick one that looks like someone jammed three triangles together. If Roger has a flaw, it’s his overdeveloped sense of fair play. He’d want the kraken to have a chance.
Hell, if he could, he’d give the kraken some sort of kraken shotgun and load it for him. And he’ still beat him with nothing but a paperclip.
Otherwise it wouldn’t be sporting.
Then there’s Kent.
Everyone thought Kent was going to be a lawyer. Well, an attorney. The law has nothing to do with it. Including me. My dear, departed wife and I paid for college and law school for Kent.
Six months into his final year—yes, before he’d even graduated—he took the bar exam and passed it.
Then he dropped out and moved to Chicago to pursue a career as a drapery designer and interior decorator with his soulmate, Kevin.
I and his mother—and as you might have guessed, Roger, Melanie, Jasper and Amilie—applauded him.
Oh, I did have one question, and I put it to him one time over Thanksgiving Dinner at our place. That was the last time we were all together. The year before my dear, sweet wife left us.
I had a mouthful of stuffing, gravy and turkey when the question occurred to me. I remember I put one hand to my mouth so I wouldn’t spew anything and said, “Kent, why in the world did you take the bar exam?”
He squeezed Kevin’s hand, then smiled at me and said, “To prove I could pass it. I didn’t want you and Mother to think all that money went to waste.”
Kevin immediately burst into a glowing grin and patted his left palm repeatedly with the middle three fingers of his right hand.
Of course, the Needy Greedy gang—Margaret, Winston, Raleigh, Twirl, Kimberly, Arston and Trent—burst into applause as well. I suppose they wanted to show their “solidarity” or some such nonsense. Or maybe because they hadn’t applauded back when Kent and Kevin announced their intention to move in together. I suspect they were trying to impress me.
That bunch have always been a hundred and eighty degrees out like that. All I ever wanted from them, or for them, was honesty. Authenticity.
Meanwhile, I, my wife and the others (Roger, Melanie, Jasper and Amilie) nodded solemnly. We understood.
Oh, and speaking of Amilie, she and I have a great deal in common.
I spent a lifetime in the construction trades. In my time I did it all. Framing, pouring concrete, hanging drywall, painting. You name it, I did it. I did all the interior stuff too. Wiring, plumbing, all that. Well, everything but the design stuff. But once he was old enough, Kent took care of a lot of that for me.
Amilie never liked dresses.
Her mother, bless her sainted soul, couldn’t keep that girl in a dress.
She’d wear it just long enough so her mother would lose interest and go on to something else. Then she’d spirit herself away to the room she shared with Melanie and Margaret and slip into a pair of jeans and a plaid flannel shirt and a little pair of workboots I bought her.
I had to get them for her. For five years before that she’d been stomping around the house in mine.
She was so cute with those little toddler feet in those size eleven steel-toed Caterpillar boots. Her little legs were swallowed up to the mid-thigh.
Anyway, her preferences finally came home to us when we were standing down on Main Street one cool, bright morning watching the Easter Parade.
She managed to slip away. It was no easy task for my sainted wife, keeping twelve kids corralled on a busy street on a spring morning.
When she noticed little Amilie was missing, my precious wife practically lost her mind. She told Roger and Melanie in no uncertain terms to keep a close rein on their brothers and sisters. She had to go fetch Amilie from wherever she’d wandered off too.
I’m sure she had visions of that kindly old gentleman who used to hang out in front of the Rexall Drug Store on the corner of Main and First. He was always passing out candy kisses to the children he saw.
Of course, being a careful mother, my sweet, devoted wife always kept the possibility in the back of her mind that maybe he was hoping for the opportunity to do something devious. And when Amilie went missing, that thought sprang to the forefront.
So she spun away from the curb like a whirlwind to go find her baby.
And there was Amilie, for all the world to see, hand in hand with Chief O’Brien. She was leading him to our pack in response to his gentle question regarding the whereabouts of her “mommy.” And she was in her altogether.
Well, she was wearing her little panties—the ones with the little yellow ducks on them—and her matching little yellow socks.
But her pretty little yellow and white-lace Easter dress and the accompanying bonnet was gone. We never did find it.
So from then on we allowed Amilie to dress herself and wear whatever she wanted. She never got naked in public again. And she never wore a dress again.
She and her life partner, Shaniqua, took over running my construction business a few years ago. And man are they good. Shaniqua is the business manager and CFO, and Amalie is the construction manager.
I’m really tired. I wonder whether it’s typical to feel so tired. I would think after all this rest, I’d feel energized as I crossed over into the next big whatever it is.
Anyway, that’s the lot of the kids.
Roger, Melanie, Jasper, Kent and Amilie over here.
Margaret, Winston, Raleigh, Twirl, Kimberly, Arston and Trent over there.
And never the twain shall meet.
At least they didn’t all come in at once.
The Needy Greedy gang came in two groups to see whether I was still around.
That isn’t very nice, is it?
Calling them that, I mean.
Of course, I never would call them that to their face. Well, or in public. I wouldn’t want to hurt them. It’s been a good life, I guess. Interesting, at least.
And they have a right to be needy or greedy. Not a right, really. It just is what they are.
Live and learn. That’s what they have to do. Like all of us, just live and learn.
I was glad to see them, I guess.
No, I was. I was glad to see them.
All of them want their own bit of time, I suppose. With the soon-to-be deceased.
I just smiled at that thought.
Will that be my last smile?
I could smile again, but it would be just as forced as all intentional last things are. An intentional last thing isn’t. An intentional last thing is a way of wishing you’d been aware of the actual last time.
I don’t do intentional last times. It would be unauthentic.
And I’ve spent an entire lifetime eschewing things that are not authentic.
I don’t care for people who haven’t the courage to at least try to live an authentic life.
Well, except for my kids, I guess.
Roger, Melanie, Jasper, Kent and Amilie have the courage. They’re doing it. I’m happy for them. They’ll be all right.
And Margaret, Winston, Raleigh, Twirl, Kimberly, Arston and Trent. Well, they aren’t doing it. They have other priorities. They seek approval of someone other than the person in the mirror.
My approval, I guess.
They all want something, and that’s all right too. That’s only human nature.
And none of them want to ask while any of the others are around.
But how do I know what they want? How do I know what to give them?
It can’t be the money. There isn’t that much anyway. And Roger, Melanie, Jasper, Kent and Amilie will see that the others are covered.
They’re good kids. Especially Roger. With Kent’s help.
Kent didn’t finish. He isn’t a lawyer. But he knows all the stuff.
Other than that—I think they call it an estate—other than that, I have very little left to give them.
The house, the cars. An old pickup. None of them will want that. Except maybe Amilie. That old pickup is as old as I am in pickup years.
Mostly what they want is a connection, I think.
Maybe all they want is to hold my hand. Or maybe touch me as I’m on the way out.
That would be okay.
Here. Bring them in.
Bring them all in. It’s okay now.
I figured it out.
I know what they want.
Bring them all in.
I will be wonderful at dying.
Dying is the world’s most authentic act.
Nobody can do it for you.
What other people think about it doesn’t matter.
And I am the most authentic man I know.
* * * * * * *