This is a little essay about a visit to an old friend who was terminally ill with cancer. It is one of a collection of essays, short stories and a novella that I am preparing for publication. I have appreciated the feedback I have gotten on my other writings. I fact, I sent the novella to to a professional editor based on a recommendation from a commentor--thanks! So I hope I will get a few readers and I am looking forward to any comments.
Maybe it would be safer if the almost dead guy was driving. I’m blinded by memories, seeing too many things at once.
“Let’s go by my house,” Henry says.
Being talked at really puts me on overload. Not only am I flooded with my memories, but now I’m thinking of his: the loneliness, the relentless decline into homelessness, all his stuff thrown out on the lawn. Some of it was stuff I gave to him: a portrait I drew of him, a Navajo blanket, the letters I sent him. All spilled out on the grass.
One of those letters I cried on deliberately because I wanted him to see the tears. I wrote to him for nearly ten years but, locked in the basement of his mind, he never answered. In fact, he never read the letters at all.
So he wants to go see that house? But this trip is for him, so I tell him to give me the directions. We are descending the hill into campus town. I don’t remember the hill. The junior high school is gone. The storefronts along Lincoln Way took bigger—how did that happen? Henry tells me to turn.
The little streets are crowded with parked cars. We thread our way through and, in a couple of blocks, he says, “Stop here.”
He’s peering out the window, seeing his memories. I see a tiny cottage with a tiny yard. He says something about how it doesn’t look like much, but he liked it, it suited him. Strangely, he seems to have happy memories of this place. I can feel his eagerness to share some of those memories with me, but I’m feeling too many things at once and want to leave. Besides I’m blocking traffic. There’s cars and people everywhere, students coming and going, and we are in the way. I say something nice about his house, but I’m looking into my rear view mirror, watching for an approaching car. Here comes one now pulling up behind me.
“We’re in the way,” I say, and I put the car into motion.
We wind our way back to Lincoln Way and I pull out into traffic. We’re driving through the U District where I used to hang out when I was in highschool. I look for Wesley House, the first place I ever smoked pot, but I can’t find it. There’s the student union, though, where I used to go folk dancing. We turn and wend our way through a maze, finally extricating ourselves from the University, and head for the house where I grew up.
There used to be a grocery somewhere near the railroad tracks, past Riverside Park. My grandmother scared the hell out of me one day in that grocery. I can still picture her standing in the aisle, a tall lady in a big coat with a hat and a vaguely unhappy expression. Looking back, I think there was always a disconnect between what my grandmother thought life should be and what it was. My dad was somewhere, picking out fruit or something. I was bored out of my mind, drifting around. I happened to drift into the aisle where my grandmother was standing and suddenly she was hugging me and she said, “I’m so afraid of dying.”
Just like that. I was maybe fourteen. I had no idea what to say. I have no idea why she was thinking about death there in the aisle of a grocery store. It was just a random moment in life, the kind of moment usually spent thinking about something boring or irritating or trivial, but she was thinking about dying.
I don’t mention the grocery to Henry. We turn up Oakdale Ave. and my mind fills up with of layers and layers of memories of ordinary days, trivial moments of walking along the shady tree lined street. I know that there will be a brick house painted white on the corner: there it is. I always liked that house. Then we drive by my house, where I grew up. Just drive past. I don’t want to linger and get sentimental. Besides my brain is full. My eyes are so full of memories that I can hardly see to drive.
I wanted to see Ames again after thirty years of absence. I wanted to marinate myself in memories, but, now that I’m here, I am fending the memories off like a soldier dodging incoming.
So what to do now? We decide to go look at the wetlands park. This is something new, something not related to my past or Henry’s. The city has recreated a watermeadow of native plants with a park and a science center. Henry gives the directions and we arrive a few minutes later.
It’s early evening in Iowa and the summer sun is radiating laser-like at us from high in the western sky. I get out of the car and wait for Henry. He moves slowly, careful of the tumors all over inside his body. He’s smiling, though. We cross the parking lot to the interpretive center, but the door is locked. Too late; it’s closed. Oh, well. Neither of us is in the mood to be disappointed, so we just shrug, and say, well, we’ll take the long way home. Before turning away, however, we stop to read the dedication plaque, and there I see a name: Heidi Avens.
Heidi. She used to sit next to me in English class in high school. We weren’t friends. I have a very clear memory of her though; a slender blonde with nice, even features. Pretty. I wanted to look like her. If some magical being had appeared and offered to swap my body for hers, I would have accepted without hesitation. In fact, I would have been willing to swap my whole life for hers. In those days, when I was fifteen, sixteen, I thought that I was the only bozo on the bus. Yes, in a heartbeat, I would have traded my scalding, paralyzing, hectoring internal dialog for Heidi’s snow princess looks and air of self-confidence.
And there’s her name on a plaque: Volunteer of the Year at the restored wetland. In fact, she might be in the building right then, maybe helping to close up for the day. She might walk out and see me.
Of course, we would not recognize each other. And, if we did, there wouldn’t be much to say. It’s just another weird thought on a disconcerting day.
Henry and I get back in the van and head south on one of Iowa’s innumerable gravel roads. The sun is slanting across our vision, washing the colors out of the landscape and darkening the shadows. Its early fall and the fields are in stubble. Some leaves are still hanging on in the trees, but most, like the birds, have flown away. I can’t get used to the flatness, the lack of boundaries, the way the sky meets the horizon in a circle.
We wander around, driving into the sun, turning south, driving into the sun again. Henry guides me through a back way into Des Moines, so we can slip home without a lot of traffic. He lives embedded in a close, tight neighborhood of little houses and big trees. He has a tiny apartment in an old, comfortable brick building.
The apartment is nestlike, packed full of his stuff. He managed to save the portrait from the foreclosure debacle, and it hangs on the wall. I recognize the Navajo blanket on the couch; that’s a memory of a trip we took together in the seventies. Like most of our shared memories, it’s painful for me to recall; I was mad at Henry that day. He had been crowding me for days, invading my silences with excessive talk, pushing me for a closeness I did not feel, trying to impress me when I would have been more impressed if he had been less insecure. We were a couple of fuckups back then.
But most of the stuff is new to me: framed pieces he has selected over time, odd objects d’art from the years we did not share, gifts from friends I don’t know, walls and walls of books we have not discussed. And Henry has changed. He has always been sweet, given to enthusiasms, full of cheerfulness and ideas, but now he has become like his apartment: comfortable, quiet, welcoming. It’s like being inside his mind to sit here on his soft deep couch surrounded by hundreds of books and dozens of mementos.
I used to have a fantasy, back in the days when Henry was just a black hole into which all my letters vanished, that someday when we all got old we could live together and prop each other up. By “we” I meant Henry, my brother and sister, their spouses, my husband and me. I imagined a collection of cabins on some land in Canada. Whoever had the eyes could drive, whoever still had back muscles could carry stuff, whoever had ears could answer the phone, and whoever still had a brain could pay the bills. I wanted Henry to be contented and loved at the end of his life.
It looks like he got there on his own. For this, I am unimaginably grateful.
He is tired from the cancer and I am tired from the multiplicity of emotions packed into the day. We pass the pipe back and forth and Henry falls asleep while I watch a couple episodes of “Game of Thrones”. Later I bring in a pillow and a blanket and cover him up. He sleeps the night at one end of the couch and I lie sleepless at the other.
I get up first.
It’s the morning of my departure, the end of the visit. We went for decades without seeing each other, and now I am leaving again.
Henry has given up coffee which means I have to face life without my breakfast fix; I try not to be grumpy about it. I should be cherishing each second of this morning, but I’m not. I have a headache. I feel impatient to be gone.
That’s one way to deal with the most wrenching moments in life: reduce them to ordinariness.
I get on his computer, read a few blogs, check my email. And then, bored, Henry still asleep, not knowing what to do with myself, I goggle Heidi Avens.
And there she is. A hit immediately. I click on it.
It’s an obituary. Heidi is dead.
I stare blankly at the obit. Not only is she dead, but she died just a few weeks ago. I just missed her.
An echoy, hollow feeling has opened up inside me. It isn’t just that someone my age is dead; nor is it that someone I know has died. I missed her. I missed her by less than two weeks. I start to read the obit.
She majored in English Literature, got a masters. Then she got sick and came home to live with her parents. Her illness, which the obit does not explain, cut her off from all the normal events of life: she never married, never had kids, never had a job or career.
But she did have a life: she volunteered. She was remembered by the other wetland volunteers as one of their most dedicated helpers. She also volunteered for a local dog rescue. She was survived by her parents and her dog.
My mind is flooded by the thought: I would have liked her. She loved nature. Like me, she volunteered at a dog rescue. We could have been friends, but I just missed her. I just missed a whole life of a person I would have liked.
Henry wakes up. I try to put Heidi out of my mind and greet him cheerfully. I do not want him to know about the huge empty hole in my chest. I don’t want him to know that I am teetering on the brink of that hole, about to start sobbing and wailing. He’s having a tough morning and goes into the bathroom for a bout of dry heaves. I hang around out the side the door and hand him a clean towel when he’s done. Then I make him some warm milk.
We talk over the game plan calmly. His books will go to Planned Parenthood. His furniture, pots and pans, and so on will go to Goodwill. He has friends that will be visiting him daily, and, after I get back home, we will phone each other every night. He will hold out in his apartment as long as he can while his power of attorney friend researches hospice placements for later on.
It’s time to go.
He keeps saying that it isn’t, that you can show up at the Des Moines airport five minutes before departure, but I’m hardwired for big airports and insist on getting there at least forty five minutes early.
It turns out Henry is right. There’s no traffic. We drive to the airport, the reverse of the trip I made six days ago, days that are already memories filling my eyes. The airport itself is nearly empty; I seem to be the only person in the world who is going to fly out of Des Moines this morning. I get out of the car and stand on the sidewalk. We smile at each other. I say it isn’t good by because I will be back. I mean that I will be there when he dies, but I don’t put it that way.
Henry says, as he always does, “Give yourself a hug and a pat on the head.”
And I say, “Give yourself one from me.”
So we are smiling and waving like happy people when he pulls away.