The setting sun shone on the small assembly in Scott’s room, casting tall shadows across the floor and up the far wall almost to the ceiling. Mr. and Mrs. Meyers sat by his bedside flanked by his two older sisters. I leaned against the far wall, unsure of myself amidst Scott’s family. I had offered to leave them alone with him, but Mrs. Meyers had flatly denied any such idea. She was even surprisingly receptive to Bridget’s presence, even though the two had never met before today. Mrs. Meyers’ uncharacteristic serenity alarmed me at first, but it occurred to me that she was only doing what a mother should do. A mother can often times surprise you like that. Just when you expect her to break into hysterics is just when she takes a firm hold on the situation. In the last minutes of her son’s life, she was doing just as she had done for the first twenty-two years. She knew it would do her son no good to see her suffering and she would never dream of adding to his pain.
For my part, I was greatly appreciative of Mrs. Meyers’ permissive mood. Bridget was a welcome presence in an otherwise uncomfortable situation. I felt like an intruder in this family’s darkest moment and I am certain she felt similarly. She stood beside me silently, leaning against the wall. Occasionally, she would place a comforting, though awkward, hand on my shoulder, and I would nod thankfully. Beyond that, the room remained under a heavy silence.
Scott had said little since our discussion earlier that afternoon. He was quite lethargic and seemed wholly disinterested in further conversation. Before he slipped into sleep for the last time, however, he made his best attempt at saying goodbye. He told his parents that he loved them and they told him they loved him too and always would. He thanked Bridget for coming and thanked me for sticking with him the past few weeks. I tried to say it was nothing, but the words wouldn’t come. Despite all we had gone through since we first learned of his illness, I couldn’t help but wonder where we had gotten with it all. Scott seemed to sense my apprehension, because he beckoned for me to sit down in the chair beside him.
“What’s the matter, Jack?” he said. I looked at him silently for a few moments before he added: “aside from the obvious.” I shifted uncomfortably for a moment, not sure if it was worth bringing up so close to the end, but Scott’s face was insistent.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I was just wondering…did it help?” Scott’s parents seemed confused, but he nodded.
“If nothing else, it was a nice way to spend my last few days. I can’t say I feel any more ready that I did a month ago, but think about where we’ve been and what we’ve heard. I’d say we learned a hell of a lot about living, huh?” I was still uneasy.
“I don’t want to think I failed you,” I said, my voice shaking.
“Then don’t!” he replied with a tired smile. “I don’t feel like you did.”
“But you wanted to learn about dying.” Scott shrugged.
“Well, maybe it was for you then. You might as well hang on to what happened these past few weeks and not be sore about it on my account. I’d hate for you to have wasted a perfectly good month just screwing around in a hospital.” I took a long hard look at his face, trying to decide whether it was worth trying for one last meaningful conversation, but I could tell the sickness had finally conquered his will to know. He was calm and, as much as one can ever be, ready to let go.
I’ll never know what went through his mind in the last few minutes of his life. He fell asleep shortly after we spoke and drifted slowly away. Looking around the room, I saw on the faces of those gathered the same acceptance that Scott had attained in his last hours, but I didn’t understand it. More so now than ever before, the entire situation seemed cruel and unjust. I felt surrounded by the willing acceptance of a young man’s passing in the prime of his years. As the steady tone of the heart monitor slowed, I felt an aberrant fury welling up in my chest. Though I knew there was nothing to be done for him, I hated everyone around me for not crying out in anger; as though their acceptance made them complicit in his death. I eyed resentfully the glaring light that streamed in through the hospital windows and cursed all the things I saw and felt that he never would again.
In an instant, my infuriated fever broke and I looked dizzily back at the hospital bed before me. The steady tone of the heart monitor broke into a flat buzz and the room was filled with a collective release of misery. My legs grew weak and I collapsed into a chair beside the bed, my body a heap of exhausted anguish. I don’t know how long we sat in silence before they came to take him downstairs. No words were exchanged as we filed out of the hospital room. Bridget put her hand on my shoulder as I turned down the hall. I stopped and looked at her, both our faces wet with tears. She looked as though she wanted to speak, but nothing came. Instead, she stepped forward and hugged me tightly. Then, nodding slowly, she turned and walked away down the bustling hospital corridor and disappeared. I took one last look the at room where Scott and I had passed his final month and wiped the moisture from my face. Taking a deep breath to compose myself, I lumbered away wondering just what the hell I was supposed to do now.
End of Part Seven
My palms were sweating as I gripped the smooth oak of the church lectern. The podium was shaky and entirely too low for me, but I leaned on it nonetheless, happy with whatever support it could give. Looking out nervously across the small crowd in front of me, I saw a few comforting faces and a handful of unexpected ones. Scott’s parents sat in the front row with his sisters, smiling at me with somewhat misplaced gratitude. My empty chair stood in the row behind them with Bridget sitting awkwardly beside it. Near the back, I could see Roger still glaring as crossly as we had left him, but somehow more serene than before. By the exit, Corporal McGreevy stood in his fatigues. He had come to talk to me before the funeral, saying he would be shipping out this afternoon, but he wanted to come for a few minutes to pay his respects.
As for me, I had been asked by Mrs. Meyers to deliver a eulogy and was now standing uncomfortably in front of an audience of family and friends, most of which I didn’t know. I felt self-conscious and certain that most of the congregation was wondering who this dumb kid was who thought he had the right to speak at their beloved Scott’s funeral. In reality, I knew that no one was thinking that, but I couldn’t help feeling presumptuous. I stood at the parapet for quite some time, a hundred expectant looks boring into my seemingly empty skull. Looking down at the few words I had been able to write, I couldn’t help but think that Scott must be somewhere laughing at me at that very moment. A swift glance at the casket dragged my head back into focus. I hope you’re enjoying this, I thought. Turing my notes right side up, I took a deep breath.
“I had the pleasure of knowing Scott for the past five years as well as spending his last few days with him. Most of you know about his vibrant spirit and rollicking sense of humor. You know that he was a caring person who stood by those who stood by him and did so fiercely. Everyone who met Scott learned quickly that he was an intelligent and witty person who always sought to know more. More than anything else, however, Scott was a man who lived.
“When Scott learned suddenly that he had a very short time left to live on this earth, his spirit was not defeated. Over his last month of life, he sought to understand something that most of us will take a lifetime to comprehend. This journey led him across the paths of other travelers all in some way seeking answers to the same question. Some of them seemed to have it all figured out and some of them not so much. Some of them didn’t even know what they were doing. But, in the end, I think Scott did. Something about his last hours told me that he had come to the point where he was ready to go. In the end, I think he really did find what he was looking for. What that was exactly, I couldn’t tell you. Not just because it’s not my place to, but because I don’t know and I may never know. So I guess I’ll do my best to tell you what I learned instead.
“As young people, we all went through the phase of wondering who we are. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that maybe we should stop to consider that question a little more often when we’re older, and I’ll tell you why. Death, and in a large way life, doesn’t have a meaning for you unless you assign it one. That’s not to say that life is inherently meaningless. I mean quite the opposite really. The particulars in the meaning of life can be so drastically varied that meaning itself is limitless. Dying then, is itself limitless in meaning because death’s meaning is beholden to life. In his last hours, I think Scott came to understand what his life meant to him and in so doing learned the same about his death. That’s what he was trying to learn and I think, in a way, it’s what he was trying to teach me. After everything, I know I still don’t understand it, but I also know that’s ok, because what matters now is to find out what living means. If I can do that, I think that, when death finally comes, I just might be ready.”
I withdrew from the pulpit slowly and made my way back to the hushed and somewhat bewildered congregation. A few odd looks were exchanged here and there, but not even a whisper broke the silence. I took my seat next to Bridget who was one of the few people not looking at me sideways and I tried to focus on anything but the speech I had just concluded. Several seconds passed and, for a moment, it seemed like the entire service had come to a befuddled halt. Mrs. Meyers turned to me, her face stony and still red from constantly flowing tears. I felt immediately ashamed, as though my speech had been in some way offensive to Scott’s memory. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had been selfish to speak about what I had learned the past few days, rather than how much he had meant to me over the years.
Then, just as the guilt was building to a head, Mrs. Meyers’ face relaxed into a motherly smile. She placed her hand on my knee and nodded kindly. With that, she turned back to the front and the service resumed. I sighed deeply, relieved that I had not offended her and comforted by the weight of the past few days lifting off my shoulders. Though it was painful to lose so close a friend, I was grateful to Scott for what he had given me in his last days. My position in life hadn’t changed much in the past month and I think, in a way, neither did Scott’s. The things that matter the most don’t change in a month or even a year. Who you are may not change over a life time, but it might just take that long to figure it out.