He was a skeleton. All that had been soft and round was now sharp bone, withered muscle and loose skin. His brown eyes sat in gaunt hollows of dark flesh, his cheekbones sculpted and lean. “Do I look bad?” he’d say, desperate for me to admit the inevitable. “No.” I’d smile. He’d look away, disappointed with my kind dishonesty.
Only weeks ago, when he was not yet cadaverous, when he could still walk and smile and laugh, we’d driven to Malibu and walked on the sand. And then on up to Zuma to climb his favorite bluff. Up one side, across the top and then down the other, there was a steep trail — hill on one side, a drop to the ocean on the other — that led to a ledge he loved. A small patch of earth clinging to the cliff with a jaw-dropping view of the water below.
He jumped the small crevasse, landing on the patch. His hand to me, I followed, never liking this bit but wanting to please him. And we sat, his arm around my shoulder, ocean below, the sun on the horizon, the sea breeze buffeting us. At one point I heard him sigh. I glanced up. There was a tear in his eye and a tremble in his lip. I told myself it was because of the sun.
Weeks later, in October, the skeleton could no longer move, smile, laugh. He was now in bed, three pillows under his head, two under his back. The lesions feasting on his intestines making it impossible for him to lie flat. His hands swollen and red, no longer able to grip or grasp. His feet swollen and purple, red, black. “My slippers,” he’d say between gasps and moans and sobs. “I’m cold.” And then he’d scream when I tried to put them on, his feet way too big and wounded. So when he whispered again “My slippers,” I lied, assuring him they were already on. “Thank you,” he whispered before falling asleep.
It’d been three days since I’d eaten, the fridge and cupboards bare. Sleep had come in the form of brief cat naps, seated at the foot of the bed, listening for any movement. He’d come back from the hospital only days ago with a shunt in his head and IV tubes in his chest and his arm. A health care worker had come by, once, to show me how to inject the medicine into his head, his chest and his arm. The head was once every two weeks, the chest and arm three times a day. “How old are you?” she’d said, perhaps worried that someone so young had been given such a great task. I’d told her. “And you understand the situation?” I’d nodded, shrugged. Still believed it was a phase and all would be well. She’d sighed and left.
In his less lucid moments, he’d try to bang his head against the wall, pull the tube out of his chest or scratch the tube out of his arm. It was important he do none of these so my days and nights were spent watching him. I could not leave to get food. I could not leave to get a breath of fresh air. To leave was to risk him injuring himself. I used the restroom with the door open, my eyes not leaving him. I still believed this was temporary and he’d be well.
“He’s dying,” the EMT said. It was after midnight. I’d called 911 to have them move him from the bed to the couch. It was easier for me to help him that way. And with the lesions destroying him from the inside out and his feet swollen and weeping, he couldn’t walk or crawl and I alone, exhausted, hungry, weak, didn’t have the strength to move him.
“He’s dying,” the man said again, only softer. As if realizing this was news to me. That I had yet to accept the inescapable. I heard myself speaking. A distant voice sounding hollow, disconnected, somehow cheery, thanking him for his time and apologizing for bothering them. I remember him leaving. The door closing behind him. I remember looking at the familiar skeleton now on the couch and hearing “He’s dying.” And, closing my eyes, refusing to believe it.
I had fifteen minutes. One of his friends had come by to watch him while I ran to the pharmacy to get morphine and then to Subway to get a footlong. And so, weak and dizzy, I had shoved my sneakers on and rushed down the hill to Santa Monica Blvd, filled the prescription and, armed with less cash than I anticipated – the morphine costing more than I expected – barely had enough for a six inch sandwich. If I cut the halves in half and then in quarters, I reasoned, it’d last me a few days. And he’d be better by then, right? At least I was going to eat.
The friend was gone when I got back and Couch Guy was fiddling with the tube in his chest. “Stop!” I said. His hand paused in midair and then rested by his side. Ignoring the dosage, I gave him his first spoonful of morphine and sat on the floor, the sandwich waiting, unwrapped, in front of me. I sighed, too tired and scared to take a bite.
“Jump!” he said, his voice barely a whisper. From somewhere in his morphine haze, he stood on a cliff. “Jump!” he said again. I smoothed his eyebrow with my thumb, willing him calm. He sighed and drifted back to sleep.
Witching Hour. All’s quiet. He sleeps, calm, drugged, peaceful. I watch him. Lean close. Say his name and then “I love you.” I move closer. Press my nose to his, my thumb once again gliding over his eyebrow. “I love you,” I say louder, desperate for him to hear me. He stirs. The eyes open and then close. “I love you, too,” he says and then he sleeps.
The doctor stared at me. He was speaking. We were in the hospital. The emergency room. An hour after that last “I love you, too” he’d gone into cardiac arrest on the couch. 911 was called. The same EMTs from before had arrived, trundled him into the ambulance and rushed him to Cedars. I followed soon thereafter. Chose to feed the cats, Boo and Tuxedo, and then walk down La Cienega in the predawn quiet. Knew he would not die without me.
I had power of attorney over health decisions, or something, the doctor was saying. There was silver in his hair though he looked to be in his forties. A very tan, smooth forties. I said nothing. He was explaining how they could do brain surgery but in his condition he might not survive the surgery and he might not survive recovery and it would be very difficult on his body…I interrupted. Told him “No, no surgery.” He nodded. Paused. The nurses, the other doctor, they all paused.
There was a need to comfort, I suspected. These doctors and nurses, they’d seen this marathon before. Knew I was in the final sprint. Knew my soul was torn and my spirit battered. Knew I was running on fumes and that any touch, any smile, any small act of kindness might break me. So they said nothing, allowing me this final shred of strength.
Friends showed. Family arrived. Wanted me to disappear. To leave. I ignored them, sitting close, claiming my spot and holding his hand. Believed he could feel my thumb smoothing his eyebrow. Trusted it was a comfort though he slept forever lost in a maze of tubes and machines and rhythmic beeps.
He died at 8:24 in the morning.
They wouldn’t let me watch the removal of his body. His family left without a word, acting as if I didn’t exist. His friends had gone before that. I walked down the hall and took the elevator alone. A nurse, one from before, was there when the doors opened. She reached out and touched my shoulder. I bit my lip and walked away. Quickly.
The morning sky was the bluest I’d ever seen. The world around me sharp and bright. Even the concrete at my feet as I marched up Robertson seemed somehow new and different. Everything was odd, but in a brilliant way. I felt hollow and free, the terror of what had just happened not yet elbowing past my hunger and exhaustion and delusion and grief.
I went to Ralph’s. Eyed the microwave dinners but got eight cans of cat food instead and then, realizing I now had a funeral to plan and having no idea how much coffins cost, put two cans back.
And then I walked home. Weeping.