Sunday, July 15, 2012

Dying, Part Six: The Old Man

            The next morning, I arrived at Scott’s room to find that he had a roommate, something that had not happened for the entirety of his stay.  Now, however, a man of greatly advanced age lay in an identical hospital bed a few feet away from Scott with his eyes shut tightly.  I gave Scott a quizzical look, but he just shrugged weakly.  Tiptoeing over to the side of his bed, I sat down in a chair and looked over at the new arrival.
            “How are you doing?” I asked, turning my attention back to Scott.
            “I’m still alive anyway,” he replied, his voice wavering feebly.  “I think I’m on six different medications to keep me that way, but they don’t think I’ll last much longer.  Maybe a day or two from now.  My parents were here all night; they just left a few minutes ago.  Dad said they’d be back as soon as they could.  They left to go pick up my grandmother.”
            “That’s good,” I said.  “Any other visitors?”
            “Bridget popped her head in around dawn to see how I was,” he answered with a sly smile.  I smiled back, happy to see him in some semblance of a good mood.
            “Oh?  What did she have to say?”
            “You know,” he said, a wily look on his face.  “She professed her love for me; asked if I wanted a parting kiss before I died.”  I raised my hand to punch his shoulder, but thought better of it and laughed instead.
            “Nah, we talked about you a little, actually.  She somehow got the idea that you’re some kind of nice guy.”
            “Hah, silly thing to think.  She say anything else?” I pressed.
            “Oh, not too much,” Scott replied, clearly enjoying himself.  “She mentioned how worried you were about me.  Did you really cry?”  His knowledge surprised me and my face grew warm in embarrassment. 
            “She told you about that?!” I said, nearly shouting.  I couldn’t believe my confidence had been betrayed.
            “No,” he said, laughing.  “It was just a guess.  Remember how you cried when we broke that car window outside our dorm room?  Classic Henk.”  I sighed heavily, trying to sound furious, but Scott just laughed harder until he flew into another coughing fit.  I moved as if to help him, but balked.  It occurred to me that I had no idea what I could do, so I sat back in the chair and watched him.  He took a few sips from a water cup and breathed a heavy sigh. 
            “What have you been up to when you’re not wasting away in this hospital?” 
            “Nothing too interesting,” I replied.  “Job searching a little, but the outlook is bleak.  Other than that I spend most of my time avoiding doing things for my parents.  This whole dying thing is actually quite a help with that.”  Scott chuckled.
            “Glad I could contribute to your being a deplorable son.”
            “I’m eternally grateful.”  I looked up at the old man snoozing across the room.  “So what’s the deal with this fella?”  Scott looked over at him and shrugged.
            “I don’t know, he’s been asleep since they brought him in here this morning.”  Much to our surprise, the old man turned and looked at us.
            “I’m not asleep, son, there’s just not that much to look at around here.”  Reaching over to the little bed remote, he raised the head until he was sitting upright.  “What brings someone so young to the hospital?” he asked. 
            “Dying,” Scott replied disinterestedly.  “You?”
            “Oh, the same I expect,” he said.  “This old body is just about used up.”
            “I guess this one is too,” Scott said grimly.  “I would have liked to get a little more mileage out of it though.”  The old man laughed, but there was something peculiar in his voice.  He seemed to laugh with the remembrance of past happiness rather than as a reflection of current delight, as though he knew he should, but needed to look back to something that once made him happy in order to cut through the melancholy of the present. 
            “We’d all like a little extra time to enjoy the things we love, but our time comes when it comes I suppose.”  The old man shifted his tired body like rusty gears trying to force yet another turn. 
            “With all due respect, sir, it’s easy to have that sentiment when you’ve lived as long as you have.”  Scott moved with a similar fatigue.  “I feel a little cheated out of a few life experiences.  You’ve had a lot more time to do great things.”
            “Oh, I don’t know about that,” the old man replied.  “Just because I had more time, doesn’t mean I did any better with it.  Sure, I did lots of wonderful, good things, but I did plenty of the bad things too.  I had years and years to succeed, but I had just as many years to fail.  The innocence of a young life is something to cherish.  Some of the things I’ve done, I’ll regret my entire life.”
            “Sure,” Scott replied.  “It’s not all good, but maybe I don’t want to miss out on all the bad either.  Life is life, you know?  I’ve met a few people in my time here and they’ve all lived so much more than I ever will; or at least have the potential to.  I’ll never sell a car, or save a life, or comfort the sick and dying.  Even Roger,” he said, and then paused for a moment realizing the old man couldn’t know who Roger was.  “I met this kid who tried to commit suicide.  We had this whole discussion about living and dying.  The point is though, he’s got all the potential in the world and what do I have?  I know I’m going to die and I’m not unhappy with the way I’ve lived, but I just wonder what the value of it was.  I’ve hardly done anything compared to these people.  What value has my life really had?”  It hurt me to hear what Scott was saying, because I felt that he had been very important in my life, but I didn’t know quite what to say.  The old man looked thoughtful for a few moments before he spoke again.
            “Well young man, I’ll tell you what’s always gotten me by.  I’m not going to go into detail, but I’ve been a pretty bad guy in my life time.  I even spent a little time in a cell way back in my younger days.  The one thing that kept me going in harder times was the idea that everyone matters in their own way no matter what they’ve done in their life.  What gives us real worth is being human in general.  That’s already enough.  Some people might have achieved a lot of good and some people may have done terrible things, but what never changes is that they are people and a person never loses their intrinsic value.  At least that’s the way I’ve always seen it.” 
            “I don’t know about that,” Scott said.  “I’ve met people in my life that have done so many bad things they don’t even seem like people anymore.  One of the things I was telling Roger though, is we do have plenty of potential to make up for it.  The thing is: you need time to make up for the bad things you’ve done.” 
            “Never really seen it that way,” the old man replied.  “There are a few bad things I’ve done that I don’t think I’ll ever make up for.  Sometimes the shame of it doesn’t seem to have faded at all in twenty or thirty years.  It’s as if I’d just done them yesterday.  That being said though, I prefer not to think of a man as the sum total of all his deeds.  I consider myself a good man in my later days and you seem like a good man too.  The way I see it, a good man is a good man.”  Scott looked up at the ceiling for a while, his breath labored.  I could see him working it all over in his head.
            “I guess I just don’t want to think that my impact on this world is so small; that I’m already done mattering.”  That was about all I could stomach.  I reached deep and pulled out all the compassion I could.
            “Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, compassion not being my strong suit.  “You think you’re gonna die and the next day I’m just going to find a new best friend?  Am I the same person I was five years ago?”  He looked at me quizzically for a few seconds.
            “What do you mean?” he asked. 
            “Well, do I still hide in corners at parties?”
            “Sometimes,” he replied.  “Though I guess that’s only when you smell really bad.”
            “Right,” I said, rolling my eyes.  “But seriously.  I’ve changed a lot in the past five years and a lot of that has to do with you.  Those were important years in my development and almost all of that is going to stick with me for the rest of my life.”
            “That’s nice of you to say.”  Scott wasn’t accustomed to this kind of talk; At least not from me.  I could tell there was some discomfort in his demeanor, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me.  My best friend was about to die, after all.  I thought for a moment about all the people in the world who had lost a friend without getting the chance to really tell them how they felt towards them.  I pushed past the mental block that fought with me over the release of emotion and forced myself to face the bare facts of the situation.
            “It’s not just about being nice, Scott; and I’m not just saying this because you’re my friend.  I admire you in a lot of ways.  Just about every improvement I’ve seen in myself over the past five years has been a result of my admiration of you.  You are absolutely my best friend; but beyond that, you’re the best all around person I know.”  I finished with a deep breath, not sure if I had stopped for air before the end.  Scott was looking at me with a sort of shocked expression.  I was fairly certain he had always known how I viewed him, but the look on his face said he had absolutely never expected me to articulate those sentiments.
            “Thanks,” he said, and then added, “wow.”  We sat silently for a few minutes, with my embarrassment slowly building inside my chest.  After a while, the old man, who I had entirely forgotten existed, broke the silence and caused me to jump.
            “Well, Scott.  It certainly sounds like you’ve made an impact in this world to me and quite the positive one at that.”  Scott, still a little shocked, simply nodded.  I searched for more words to add, but the sentiment was complete.  I had never been the strong speaker between the two of us and Scott knew it.  He had never been uncomfortable with praise before, but I think the sincerity of my statement was more than he could stand. 
            We barely spoke for the rest of the day.  I was reluctant to leave the conversation as such, but I could tell there was little else to say.  For his part, Scott seemed perfectly inclined to leave it at that.  He was appreciative of the sentiment, but he also recognized the difficulty with which my words were spoken.  Whether or not he had taken the old man’s words to heart, I couldn’t tell.  Two nurses carted the old man out an hour later and we nodded to him silently.  Scott didn’t speak again until I was getting up to run out for lunch.  As I pushed my chair out of the way, he cleared his throat weakly.
            “I’m not going to ask you if really meant all that earlier; I know you’re not much of a liar.  It just makes me want to live even more, you know?  If I’m such a big deal for you, it seems like I need to be around.”
            “Well sure,” said scrambling for the right words.  “I’d rather you be around too, but you know I’ll always remember you, yeah?  I won’t forget.”  Scott looked displeased by this.
            “That’s a living comfort; the idea of me being remembered I mean.  How is that going to help me when I’m dead?”
            “Well, if you don’t mind me saying, what else is there?”  He looked at me with a perplexed expression.  “Living comforts I mean,” I continued.  “I can’t give you anything that will comfort you when you’re dead, Scott.  At least, I don’t think I can.” 
            “I suppose so,” Scott said with a limp nod.  “I guess that’s all there is then, huh?  Not to put too fine point on it.”  I sighed and sat back down in the chair.  He looked me in the eyes and broke into tired smile. 
            “I suppose I’ve learned just about all I’m gonna learn by now, eh?”
            “Hey, slow down there, Scott,” I said, unwilling to allow him to continue his current train of thought.  “I’m sure we can find you another lesson or two.”  Scott shook his head, his smile unwavering.
            “No, I don’t think so.  I can really feel it finally; more than just weakness.  Every breath is getting just a little harder.  I think we both know where this is going.”  I shook my head, but I knew he was right.  He reached over and grabbed my arm and I scooted a little closer. 
            “My parents will be here soon and they’ll tell the family, but you’d better tell all our friends.  Go get Bridget too, huh?  She told me she wanted to be here for both of us if she could.”  I nodded, a hot tear escaping down my face.  He nodded back and let go of my arm.  I paused for a moment, not sure what to do.  Scott looked up at the clock by his bedside and took a deep breath.  Something in the back of my mind begged me to find something else to say, but nothing came.  Standing up, I gave him one last smile and turned away.  The instruments hummed and the monitors beeped and the afternoon sun peaked through the hospital windows to warm the last hours in the life of my best friend.

End of Part Six