- synopsis: “dialogues with a dying man” is a memoir of a woman caring for her dying neighbor. their relationship is colored and textured by 20 years of living close to one another, by their mutual disdain for mawkish sentiment, by his unrequited passion for another woman, by jealousy, longing, and love, by the changes in their respective roles, by their different world views, and by the inexorable, often humorous, occasionally wondrous, truth of death.
- “I bet you didn’t know how hard it would be to take care of me.”
- “I didn’t know I wouldn’t know what to do.”
- “I wish I could just shoot myself.”
- “with your luck, old man, you’d miss.”
- “with my luck I’d hit you.”
- “I don’t feel good.”
- “you’re not supposed to feel good. you’re dying.”
- “what happened?”
- “dying is hard work.”
- “you’re telling me?”
- “I can still see her,” he says, apropos of nothing.
- “that heavy-set Polish woman throwing our slop to the pigs in the south of France.”
- “she had quite a heft.”
- “don’t be so smart.”
- waking from a nap he catches sight of me sitting in a chair across from him, reading a book.
- “shouldn’t you be out looking for a job?”
- “you are my job, old man.”
- “lucky you.”
- he loves to eat fruit. even if he eats nothing else, he asks for fruit. I prepare fruit for him all day long, extract the meat from the peel, cut or divide it into sections, and place it in bowls in front of him. tangerines are a special favorite. when he sees me coming with a bowl of tangerines he barely contains himself. a surge of energy pulses through him and his face lights up. he leans forward and an expression escapes him, a sound between the in and out breath, the sound of desire. his bony, trembling fingers reach for a section and he crams it into his mouth, barely savoring the juice before he reaches for another piece. he can cram all the sections from a tangerine into his mouth at one time. juice streams down his chin.
- “I want to smoke my pipe,” he says. he can barely breathe.
- “isn’t there something else you’d like to do?”
- “well,” he says, archly, “I’d like you to smoke my pipe.”
- he sleeps in a bedroom on the ground floor and, because he requires safeguarding,
I sleep in a small room up a rung of five steps. when he calls I jump from the bed and then have to hold the railing to make my way down the stairs in the dark. no matter how many times he calls I never master the feel of the steps or the interminable delay before I can reach him.
- I usually wake up 10-15 minutes before he calls out;
we have developed an attunement. or else I have a mother’s
instinct where he’s concerned.
- one night I wake up and the small room I’m in fills with fog.
through the fog I see the old man coming toward my bed.
without thinking I throw open the covers and move over to make room for him.
he climbs on top of me, intending to enter. he clutches my breasts;
his hands are like claws. “I’ve always admired your energy,”
he growls in my ear. my jaw starts to ache with his angina and I push him away.
the room clears instantly and he is gone. I sit up for a while,
listening for him, but no sound emerges from the room below.
I begin to sleep again and again the room fills with fog and again
he approaches and tries to enter me. this time he fights me and
he is very strong. I cry out, “I need protection from the energies
in this house.” a cold shudder begins at the base of my spine
and a winged being arises from my body behind me. I can see it as
a faint shadow in front of me. I sense that it is ferocious.
“my guardian angel,” I think. the fog clears
and the old man is gone. in a few minutes he calls for me.
- “I had a dream last night. it was about you.
do you want to hear it?”
- “I didn’t sleep at all last night.”
- “you didn’t perceive a sleeping self.”
- “right. I was busy perceiving a tossing, turning self.”
- one afternoon he lays down for his nap. I’m reading silently from a text, a book on Buddhist psychology. I’m at a passage relating to Tibet when he starts to talk in his sleep. he’s talking about meeting with a Sherpa man. he says, with wonder, “I can still feel where the Sherpa man’s dog licked my face.” his face glows with happiness.
- it’s not likely he’s ever met a Sherpa. his only foray overseas was when he served in WWII in Europe--England, France, and Germany. he was among the first to enter Dachau after the Germans surrendered.
- “have you ever met a Sherpa?” I ask him when he wakes up.
- “I can’t hear you. I don’t know what you’re saying.”
- I experiment. the next time he lays down for a nap I begin silently to read from “The Tibetan Book of the Dead.”
- “I know what you’re doing,” he says without opening his eyes.
- “I don’t know what I should do—get up or kill myself.”
- “I say get up. you can always kill yourself.”
- he fell foolishly and deeply in love with another neighbor when he was in his 70s. she’s twenty years his junior but kind and she visits him from time to time. he cherishes her visits. a night of pain will drain from his face when he catches sight of her.
- “Aurelia might want some tea.”
- “Aurelia can get her own tea.”
- he’s made it to the back stairwell for a smoke. I’ve opened the back door and the air current causes the smoke from his pipe to drift about like vapors in a dream. the sky is clear; the air is fresh and faintly warm. lemon globes hang down from the tree like lanterns and blossoms drift slowly about and settle on the grass. I walk to the sink and begin to do the dishes. I’m rhapsodizing to him about pastoral beauty and the feeling of contentment. suddenly he screams like a banshee, a sound shrill and piercing, as if he’s either imploded or exploded. the hair on the back of my neck stands straight up and goose bumps erupt.
- he’s seen a cat.
- “get out of here, cat.”
- “that cat loves you, old man.”
- “it’s probably your cat.”
- “my cat knows better than to come here.”
- we’ve had a hard night, one of several in a row. he’s been restless, uncomfortable, and scared. he’s called me to him numerous times to adjust this and that and run errands even a fool would question. I’m rummy with sleep deprivation and so is he.
- this day promises to be no better than the night before it. he’s up and down and when he’s down he dozes fretfully. he complains of nightmares of hell and he fears his life will be judged harshly. he cannot justify his sins. he looks absolutely miserable. I tell him his life is filled with good as well as bad but he can only focus his attention on his failures. I decide to give him a double dose of his pain medication. he settles down and sleeps. he sleeps most of the afternoon. when he finally rouses he is disoriented but cheerful. I decide to double dose him again so we can sleep the night through.
- he decides he wants a pipe before he goes to bed and I assist him to the back stairwell where he settles down to smoke. his medication catches up to him and he can’t co-ordinate his movements. he knows from long habit what to do to load and smoke his pipe but he can’t get his hands to cooperate. tobacco spills everywhere and, intoxicated, he watches the dried leaves bounce and fall onto the steps below and then he bends way over to look at the pattern they make. I’m afraid he’ll fall forward off his perch and onto his face but he refuses help and he refuses to leave. he is completely stoned. hours go by. he nods off, wakes up and spills tobacco, watches the patterns form, then nods off again.
- with a combination of pushes and pulls and shouts I manage to haul him, against his will, up to the kitchen landing. I roll him from side to side to get a blanket under him and then I drag him across the floor to the living room. he throws up on the oriental rug. this act revives him enough to crawl to the chaise lounge. he flops onto it and sleeps.
- hours later he’s awake enough to be folded into a wheelchair. I wheel him into his bedroom and he sluggishly transfers into the bed. safe and blanketed in bed he promptly goes back to the deep sleep of the drugged. his breathing pattern shifts between rapid and shallow to deep and slow. then he stops breathing.
- then I stop breathing.
- then he starts breathing again.
- after a while I convince myself he’ll start breathing again after he stops but I can’t be sure. in the morning I anxiously go into his room. he wakes up and looks up at me.
- “is that you?” he asks in a squeaky, raspy voice.
- I nod my head.
- he looks luminous and relaxed. his face is flushed and his skin is smooth and fleshed out. he’s once again young, boyish, and innocent. “I didn’t get up once last night,” he chortles. “I slept the whole night and I saw an angel. she told me I had good times and I had bad times.” somehow he seems satisfied by this news.
- one of my last ploys is to get a hospital bed so he can lay in bed with his head elevated. I have it put in the living room, in front of his enormous window, so he can look out far over the rooftops and treetops and catch sight of the bay and the slim, delicate bridge that curves toward the horizon. at night its lights lead off to infinity.
- I envision him sitting in bed, gazing off into the distance, meditative and calm, while I sit nearby, reading poems by Rumi to him.
- he hates the bed and refuses to use it.
- when he dies it takes me a long time to grieve. I refuse to acknowledge his absence. I tell myself that he’s not where he once was but that I must have just missed him. he’s gone out or I’m busy and we haven’t connected for a while. or he must have turned the corner just as I stepped onto the street. months go by and I reason like this. then one night when the air is balmy and the moon is full I figure it out.
- I dreamt that I came down the stairs in his home. he’s gone and the house sits in silence like a living organism, placid and attentive to its noises as they rise and fall away. the clock ticks, the floors creak. early light warms the floorboards and where I brush by motes of dust stir into the current, then settle. I open windows to let in air, then go outside. outside the sun hangs like a succulent tangerine, peeled and translucent, its naked segments clinging to one another.