His was a life of bricks and the skillful hands to lay them, fast and capable hands as adept as machines. His was a history thrown with gale force at walls and buildings all over town, a long constructive life of making things to last. Everywhere now in his decline were the monuments of his having passed that way, standing in red clay and mortar, signs of a man’s existence no less expressive than those of whatever poet you might wish to mention.
He was a strong man in the blue collar mold of men who had put up a nation, plain men of simple vision and exacting faith. He was a man of action and great endeavor, so that now in the lengthening shadows of life he was deserving of the grand rest due to all such men. Men of action, men in the white hair and slippers of retirement, someone who, you would think, could gladly accept a peace and Saturday afternoons, and long slow moments of reflection. But not this man. He simply could not cast away that forty-seven years of toil, could not unlace his boots and softly walk into the sunset.
And so he kept at life with the same drive of youth he had begun with, a youth he could remember only dimly in his aging body no matter how vivid in his boy-like mind. He kept at life and his things to do, with other moments and monuments to build. From back door hinges to creaking stair steps, from garage roofs damaged in a wind, to the pipes in the basement nearly as old as the man himself.
He had become a man of consummate action and undeniable success, until one Saturday morning in an inspired moment of almost fanatic resolve, he determined to conquer the upstairs toilet. It was a recalcitrant example of twenty years worth of leaks, a monument that had stood up under twenty years of stop-gap repair. On this morning he was about to have at one more obstacle in his journey through “retirement.”
He firmly mounted the stairs over laden with the machinery of his current task, a fine morning in the Fall, not in the least awed by the beast he went in search of, and buoyed on the quick energy of his attack. At ten fifty a.m., on a morning filled with sunny good cheer, a golden experience in the Fall of his life, a morning full of encouragement, he walked into battle with a monster to overcome; full of his life and unaware, and he was felled!
At the start of a perfectly fine morning in a no fanfare way at all some insignificant vessel coursing silently through his head burst!, and he began an inglorious death on the floor in the bathroom, under the toilet; wondering blankly what he had done to some great god of plumbing to be so brought down. There on the tiled floor clutching the guest towels he had grabbed on his way down. He wondered but no answer came. And he simply lay there as his life began to dim away.
In the full tragedy of his predicament the world went racing on around him through the dim edges of his perception; singing past him in the everyday bizarre and absurd goings on.
He now lay prostrate in a hospital among tubes and wires and the bright dancing points of his ebbing soul. Stretched out another second on each quiet beep; the oscilloscope lines bouncing in the silence. Around him the casual arguments and the inane discussions of his attendants, white-clad “ladies in waiting” to a comatose king. There they were administering to his simple needs and debating the fine points and differences in their sex lives, and the escalating price of groceries.
The room silently and generally filled with the banal litany of unconscious worldly happenings. He listened whether he wanted to or not as they pitied him softly in his pitiable condition. He had become a silent “vegetable” in their charge. Though they were kind and full of that pity and concern; when they departed into the real world the pity switched off at the door.
The man of bricks and mortar was quickly reduced to a silent partner in a sad hospital dance incapable of protest or agreement. Able only to observe without any real understanding. struggling to explain in his fog of a brain why his arms wouldn’t lift Exhausted by just the thought, slipping again softly into a senseless sleep, becoming lump of nothing so much as the quiet center of attention.
A man of sinew and callous, a man of great and abiding common sense sadly becoming an actuarial statistic, totally incapable of an answer for this sudden and cruel question. Left completely alone in his mute existence. He lay there unresisting while sinew dissolved and the long story of his struggle faded toward a stupid A blind ending , and fate at her cruel best dismantling his monument of a will.
In the corridors of that medical mausoleum an old woman is teetering precariously on the steep edge of widowhood. She feeds quarters into space and calls in the far-flung family: the sons and daughters somewhere out in the going-on world spinning in their own problems .The casual unmarried daughter, brought away from her growing tapestry of connubial failures. The younger tycoon son spun in the traces of success bright-eyed in his latest promotion as he is pulled unceremoniously from his space age treadmill in mid-jump, accompanied by his grasping wife having been snatched away from some new civic duty.
The oldest son, swamped by the sizes of his impossible life, unable to ever quite succeed, rescued from the brink of his most recent souring adventure by his father’s crisis. He comes willingly to the bedside filled with a condolence and grief. This is something he can manage honestly and well. He comes with his “put upon” wife put back at his side temporarily, for appearances sake, just as she was packing up her too long-lost dreams; as she quietly has been planning her departure from a failed marriage.
And the grand children, and the odd cousin or two. And lodge brothers. And all the expected legions of well wishers. And the Priest with his priestly obligations. And the curious mortician hawking his latest bargain burial just in case it might become something the family might need. And a circus of friends and family and a circus of friends and family descending with sorrow and best wishes and say handshakes. and of course the interminable memories of the old and always effusive unremembered classmate from Wilson Junior High School circa nineteen twenty-one.
In the cool intensive shadows, with his wires and probes, and the singing green screened oscilloscopes pointing out every quarter-hour the diminishing pulse of his energy the old man is left dangling silently at the far end of these computer tentacles becoming a hanger-on to life. He is unconsciously becoming an obstinate undying man dying by slow degrees. But he is holding on, simply spinning his wheels on the road to the end. With the indecision the throng begins to hope for a quicker end.
The loving family spends long moments in reflection, quietly comforting the mother, helping pass the “final” moments. In the continuing days the loving family find themselves surrounded by the comfort of places remembered, noises and sights, a house they all grew up in where whispers of his absence and crowded scrapbook memories float long into the night. where there is a coming closer together in their common sorrow, a dread anticipation waiting on the inevitable, the expected.
With the occasional spot of controversy worn thin on some late night after too many toasts to the past, there is a new silence. After too many days of waiting there is a new wish. And the old man, too strong for the grim reaper to carry off quickly still hangs on! The controversies become quiet explosions as the loving family grows weary in the extended ritual, and they begin to drop the carefully prepared roles, the pretense they have played so well becomes ragged and unconvincing and the grief is replaced with the unspoken impatience growing hourly toward indignation.
And still the old man hangs on, death abated for this bubble of time can no longer keep life at bay. It comes boiling to the surface. The house becomes a prison and the dying old man holds them with his undying, and life with its passionate humor and petty mistakes crashes on because it can not stop.
Then just when the experience begins to wear all too thin; when the little moments of confrontation inevitably become struggles of guilt and ego, when the old dying man is almost out of mind, somewhere having brought them to this point, at each other throats, but forgotten as the cause, it happens! At the end of yet another domestic upheaval, as the apologies are echoing down the moment, and the day’s end is framed in the living room’s rose-colored aura, its happens. In the lovely echoes of another beautiful Fall evening, the telephone rings! There is the surprised look of, at last!
And relief runs across each face and is quickly followed by the tight-lipped dread. But the message is one of hope. The old man has somehow shucked his jungle of electronic vines. He is conscious once more and becoming rapidly something other than dying.
The medical world has no answers for it. The facts are simple. He just doesn’t seem to be dying any longer. A great ambivalent smile spreads across the rooms full of waiting family. The space held in a silent grip for long unspoken moments. The mourning abated.
It is the mother who first breaks the noiseless breath everyone is holding. “I had never expected this!”
The days quickly build back the old man’s grasp on life. Somewhere the gods who had tagged him ready for the grim journey had loosed their demands.It was a miracle of no small magnitude to the pious among them. It was a pleasant surprise to the skeptics and quite possibly it was a disappointment to those peripheral interests, from the Goodwill Store to the Funeral Home. Those who had stood to come into a small profit administering to the dear departed and dividing the spoils.
The family collectively sighed a great sigh. The prison of waiting had burst. The old man was back among them The guilt and egos subsided, and they rushed him welcome back into their embrace.
He had not died!
The rock hard old man with his unconscious knowledge of mortality and the things to be done in a man’s life, simply assumed the time had not yet come. The ex-widow cast off her weeds and resumed a less lonely future. The children more secure perhaps in their knowledge of what’s important and what’s necessary, gathered up the luggage and the grandchildren; promised to visit more often, and to keep in contact with each other, and left! Their consciences purged and a private nurse paid in full for two months to come.
He thanked them and embraced them clumsily from his overstuffed recliner, apologized for not helping with the luggage, wished them all well, and told them not to worry. “He would live forever!”
Then as the door closed on their departure he sighed back in the big familiar chair, put his feet up on the threadbare foot rest, wordlessly put together in his mind another assault on the upstairs bathroom, smiled at the thought, stretched out on the resolve of his new beginning; and still gripped in the smile quietly died.