Visiting a dying man

A few weeks before Faye’s birth, I found myself in a kitchen with my oldest uncle. He didn’t have white rice, which I’d asked for on behalf of Claude, but he did have soup and bananas. The house was old, old, irregularly jointed, like a strangler vine that had latched to the ground, like a crooked old face with ashy wrinkles.

We sat next to each other with our soups. There were little crackers on a platter, a hovering anxiety about what my kid was doing so quietly by himself in the other room. We checked our phones, since the snowstorm was coming.

The man’s habitual rush of overwhelming energy had dwindled, and he didn’t speak unless spoken to. His spouse had to take care of him nonstop.

I said optimistic things. I didn’t have much to offer but my ridiculous ordinariness. I said our lives were going okay, and I was trying to finish my book, though I was afraid I wouldn’t manage to. I didn’t know what I would do without an academic job, I said: maybe teach high school, since I liked teaching. He said he had taught high school once, but he hadn’t liked teaching junior high. We talked about his new house under construction, and about couples counselors.

I remember clearly that we didn’t say the main thing — which didn’t need saying — that he was dying, clearly and yet ambiguously, different parts of him, different organs dying at different tempos, that he was dying quietly, with a certain courage, that he was not asking for great efforts on his behalf, at least not from me, but he wanted it to be clear that we would probably not see each other again.

He was in the business of managing expectations, or at least of insisting that the future had become unknowable. I said I wanted to introduce to him our daughter, who was due six weeks later. He said we’d see. But I also thought he had some optimistic part: he refused to resign outright from his band. He was a 1960s folk-rock musician who had lived his life off the interest income from his decade of mainstream fame.

He had an odd grace in the way he lived through this last moment of life. I thought I would have been more angsty, more melancholic or more angry.

The sky darkened and darkened and I was afraid of being trapped on the road in the storm. I decided to leave earlier than planned.

We hugged and I said I loved him.

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