By Gail Mackenzie-Smith
“Chuck just called. It’s not good news,” my husband says.
I fear the worst of course. That’s how I roll these days. I fear Chuck has cancer. His wife and my best friend Holly died eighteen months ago and isn’t that what spouses do—follow their dead husbands or wives to the grave—usually within a year? My mom died ten months after my dad. Chuck has passed the year mark but what’s six months when faced with eternity?
“He has an inoperable tumor in his throat.”
I know something’s going to kill me. Now in my 60s, every little ache and pain comes with thoughts of death. What’s going to finally bring the old bitch down? What nasty little tumor or incurable disease do I have to look forward to?
My 97-year-old aunt shuffles around her tiny apartment grasping the arms of an aluminum walker. She can’t leave the house. She can’t drive or grocery shop. She’s almost deaf. I call her but our conversations are one way.
“What’s up, Aunt Mary?”
“Yes, last week.”
I don’t want to live forever and I don’t fear death. And I certainly don’t want to be a prisoner in a decaying body. Outliving my husband and daughter is not an option either.
I’ve lost my mom, dad, brother, 15 aunts and uncles, several cousins, and a few dear friends who went early—whose deaths had to be mistakes they were so young.
But now is different. Now is two years away from my mom’s death from breast cancer. Now is watching younger friends reach their time before me. I have eight dead friends on my Facebook page that I can’t delete. I jump at every late-night phone call expecting to hear that my mother-in-law has died. At 85 she’s out-lived her husband and most of her friends. A few years ago six close friends died one right after the other. Seemed like every couple of weeks she was going to a funeral. These were friends from school—friends she’s known for over 70 years. I can’t imagine.
“How does that feel, losing so many people so quickly?” I ask her.
She changes the subject and I never get my answer. It’s a stupid question anyway. How do you think it feels, Gail?
I’m tucked in a corner away from the noisy death party. What do you call the party after a funeral? It’s not a wake. Wakes happen before. A celebration? Too forced—like Madison Avenue shilling for death. I Google it and find out it’s called a reception. What a vague, crappy word. The rite deserves better.
The room is filled with family and friends drinking and laughing. My favorite uncle has died and the noise grates. I want to scream, “Shut the fuck up!” Instead I sob alone in my corner. My aunt joins me, a look of gentle confusion in her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
“Uncle Vinnie died?” I say.
She nods calmly—a sphinx—unwilling to share her secret.
The cancerous mole on my husband’s temple has grown in size from a grain of rice to a dime. He’s been trying to cure it himself with various herbal concoctions.
“Relax,” he says, “It’s basal cell, not melanoma.”
“It’s getting bigger and it’s too close to your eye.”
“I’m taking care of it,” he says.
“And your teeth. Those abscesses. What about that ultra sound for your kidney stones? Did you get the results?”
“You worry too much. I’ll be fine.”
But he’s wrong. There will come a time in all of our lives when it won’t be fine. And that’s all it takes—that one time.
It’s said that to truly embrace life you must also embrace death. I give it a try. I walk with death. During fights with my husband, I imagine him gone forever. During happy times with my husband, I imagine him gone forever. I apply this technique to my dying dog—enjoying every single second I have with him—good and bad—knowing one day soon he will disappear.
I learn gratitude. I learn to appreciate more fully and forgive more easily. But I’ve become obsessed. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think of loss. Death stalks me—not in a dark ugly way—like a buzz kill. No matter how happy I am, it lurks in a corner and watches me, a smirk on its face.
My dog dies and it hurts like a motherfucker. A year later it still hurts like a motherfucker.
Chuck will die when his inoperable tumor gets so big he can’t breath. I pull this image into my body and feel his terror. What will they do for him when his breaths shorten? What can they do? Will they medicate him out of his senses until that final tiny slip of airway closes and his heart stops? And how long will that take? A week? Two weeks? Thirty seconds is a lifetime—a minute, eternity.
Chuck says he’s researched assisted suicide in Oregon.
“I saw what Holly went through,” he says.
Excited, we tell him he can die here in California now—the laws have changed. Then we remember what we’re talking about.
My husband and I sit in Adirondack chairs watching the sun setting over a glassy lake. I don’t know where we are but there’s a clapboard house, old trees, and a grassy lawn that runs down to the water. I sense that my daughter lives in this house with her husband, three children, a dog and a cat.
My husband takes my hand. We sit quietly for a few moments then turn to each other. It’s time. We rise out of our bodies—glowing balls of light—and merge with the sun.
As I write this, my little black and tan dog is draped over my arm—his body warm, his fur thick and soft. Outside my window, bright crimson flowers bloom—the air fragrant with an unknown scent. The sky above is steel blue and dotted with tiny clouds. I touch the glass of my window and it’s cold. My little dog licks my hand with a tongue thin as a satin ribbon and my heart opens.
Gail Mackenzie-Smith has her MFA in Screenwriting and Fiction from UCR Palm Desert and has been writing a lot for Purple Clover this year. Her writing can be found here.