You can choose.
To be happy, to be an optimist. Or not. To see clearly or to leave the oily smudges on your glasses. To be grateful for your good luck and proud of your hard-won successes or to complain only that it was a lot of work and there were boulders in the road. To do whatever your old body is still capable of, to stretch and push it to its diminishing limit or let it dissolve like candle wax, settle and fold into shackles on your wrists and ankles, a tight band around your chest. To live – or to die – in as graceful a way as you can devise, loving fully those who deserve it, savoring each bite, each moment. Or not.
The wind has died and the shallow bay is calm, wavelets lapping against the sand. They sound like small kisses. I have left my pareu under the umbrella with my book and walked naked to the wet sand, careless of sunburn, heedless that someone could be watching from a distance, and lain where dry meets wet, ears at the tidal edge, feet under water. I imagine I was washed here from a shipwreck or that I am a female Gulliver or a tired seal, that I lie in the single place on this island where I am safe and struggle is unnecessary, where the salt water washes my wounds and carries the tiny threads of blood away, doesn’t try to drown me.
The tempest is over, the storms blown far to the east, and there will be no more on the western horizon because summer is here, bringing only blue skies and a breeze. The Tempest, remember when we had to read that in school? Furies and storms and passion, Shakespeare’s “little lives,” a phrase that floats to me now. Shakespeare, witches, Hogwart’s, wands. I am still taken by sorcery, wish I could weave a spell, make a potion, command an inanimate thing to life: dishes would spin, dogs would fly. An arcing wand, a quick flash and the man I adore would love me like he does in my imagination, his lips warm on mine, his whispered devotion filling my ears. I can’t see him; I can’t see anything; the sun is steady and hot and my eyelids are crimson, scarlet, backlit by the nuclear fire, minute veins mapped and dense.
I am old. No one sees this body in the light but me. I haven’t been naked under the sun in decades. A boy I knew from high school surfaced on my computer screen a few weeks ago – are males in high school boys or men? – anyway, there was his so-familiar face. We were a teacher’s terror then, deviling her, irreverent, brilliant. Now he remembers this diner we all went to; I only remember wishing I were sitting next to that Other Boy (whose name I don’t even remember), his thigh against mine. Tuna sandwiches on white bread, pickle chips, soda fountain Coke on rock-crystal ice. Giggling with a hand cupped over my lips, eyes down. I can smell him, the boy who sat in my row, his maleness, his gym class sweat.
My dying brother’s slope is steepening. I haven’t seen him since our Big Chill weekend in November, and it’s almost May, more months than most of us thought he would see. Since his voice disappeared, there are no phone calls. We email – pages have become paragraphs, now with days between them. I try not to imagine what a struggle it is for him to type or when they will cease to exist except on the planet where unspoken words live. I saved a recording of his voice from my phone; I will always hear him; he was picking up ice at the store.
We have had story spirals, usually Craig and Gary and me. One of us will remember a day or a prank or an injustice or a person who was an asshat or a gem from eons ago and send a message to the others, prompting. The next person riffs from there and then the next, like musicians. Three good storytellers, trying for laughs, admitting failings and humiliations, the innocent buffoonery of kids and cereal jingles. I shake my head at things one of us doesn’t remember – how could you not, I think. We are the keepers of many of each others’ secrets and we love each other despite these truths. You can’t embarrass yourself with someone who loves you this much.
There were snake stories and horse stories and musician-on-the-road stories, old girlfriend and boyfriend stories. We avoided religion and politics as only the best friends can do. Craig told Weird Cancer stories like the one about his cell phone alarm. He had set it to remind himself of a new medication schedule – every eight hours around the clock – but either the morphine or the cancer demon mistakenly changed noon to midnight. When it woke him in the dark, playing the ringtone from The Jetsons (who does that?), he hurried to the living room before it woke anyone else. But, because it’s Craig, he had to take the last few steps to the phone pretending to be some weird combination of Rosie the Robot and Frankenstein and then do a little robot dance, laughing soundlessly the whole time, before he pushed the button. He tells us about all the fabulous (his word) things he can swallow – ice-cold root beer, a strawberry smoothie, orange sherbet – as though he were reading from a four-star menu. Long after solid food had left the lists, he crowed that he had a hot dog for lunch to celebrate the start of baseball season. I tried not to wonder if it had to be pureed. I don’t know how much weight he’s lost, pictures have recently been banned, and, frankly, I try not to think too carefully or too long about any of the details. For months he had been trying hard to spare me this knowledge; I fought and fought but have finally agreed not to know. I acknowledge by these words and my original signature affixed hereto that he was right.
He has steered his canoe out of the Sea of Denial and is taking enough morphine to stay ahead of the pain and to relish the brilliant opium dreams. He finally has his arms around the idea that it’s good to be comfortable when you die. He is trying to lessen our pain, we who love him, by getting us to agree not to come, not to watch. We either have or will. His grace is enormous, is the sky, the highest mountain.
I am, at last, happy to float in this amniotic ocean, to feel the sand swirl against my neck and settle between my toes and fingers, the sun on my belly, even if it’s only a place I go in my mind. The tide won’t rise or fall in my make-believe bay; I won’t get hungry or pruney and have to go inside; I can stay as long as it I need to, as long as it takes, until there is nothing left but peace.
Craig has made his choice, and I’ve made mine.
Posted in: human beans, kissing, la-la-la-love, my baby brother
Tags: adobe soup, cancer, candace mann, craig, craig mann, craig's dying, cum gratia, death, dying, dying young, gary thill, high school english class, imaginary island, irrevocable choices, love, make-believe bay, mrs. calloway
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