I am sitting in a room alone with a dead man, trimming my toenails. It occurs to me as I press the metal edges together that the discoloration of my skin from the effort, as the fingers go bloodless around the edges, is much like his. Only no flush returns to him with the release of pressure. He is dead. It seems this way; normal. Normal that he should be dead. And yet not; I keep imagining that the chest of his striped shirt rises and falls; that he breathes. That he sleeps. But his breath when he slept invaded the whole room. Ragged, wrong, irregular. If it had stopped it would have meant one of two things: either he was dead, or you were asleep. So one didn’t get much sleep. One listened, for rate, for flux. I was only a stand-in, relieving (I hoped) those more dedicated than I. In spite of his pain — nearly constant, throwing hospice into bewilderment — he is lucky to have had these people attending to him. Loving him.
I went home yesterday afternoon (well, the day before yesterday; it is after midnight) and took a nap. Somewhere in my abdominal cavity something hurt; I broke into a sweat and huddled on the bed. Lord, this is nothing, I thought, yet I am something like him now. I rose, later, and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I marveled at how full and luxurious and youthful I looked. I had been staring for long hours at an emaciated cancer patient a day away from death.
He died four hours ago. Afterwards, after I arrived, we sat in this room together: wife, brother, sister-in-law, nieces and nephew, me. And Ron’s corpse, on the installed hospital bed, looking less like him as the minutes passed. It seems this way; normal. Maybe it’s just me; I did not know him well. Maybe it is faith. Maybe it was the length and difficulty of his dying. Occasionally someone cried, but there seemed to be more laughter than tears. We talk of Ron and other things, awaiting the arrival of his son, the main reason I am here in the first place. I met him due to the illness of his father, and I met the father and all the rest introduced by the son. It has been a year since then. They razz me and grill me to pass the time. It seems this way; normal.
I emerge from a spare room where I have slept on a mattress on the floor, after the latest night in recent memory. Nearly everyone is awake, despite similar lack of sleep. The four-year-old meets me in the hall and hugs me hello. She turns to the open door opposite and points. “That’s Uncle Ron’s shell,” she tells me. I take her small fingers and we go in. I ask her if she is sad, or scared. She says no. She stands by the bed and rubs his hand gently, where the bruise from the one-day i.v. still lingers.
“His body is cold,” she says, without withdrawing “but he’s in a better place.”
She’s actually saying that; I almost have to check to make sure she’s not lip-syncing. It’s not a platitude, coming from her. It’s real. Maybe she doesn’t understand death; but then, maybe she understands it perfectly. She runs outside to pick cherries from the tree; gets too high on the ladder, begins to cry from fright. I rescue her and tell her not to do it again and she smiles, already forgetting her mortality. But why not smile when one is rescued?
By now, it is quiet. The funeral is next Saturday; I will be out of the country. The bedroom, the old sickroom, is disassembled. And what now, after death? That is the question. (I, the bodkin, ask, though it is not the first time one has asked it.)
I have been solicited to write something for the funeral program. This may be difficult. I know mortality, I think, better than I knew this particular man — and I am only 26. I do not know even mortality very well. What should I say; that I find death normal, barring the loss it leaves in the lives of the living?
And yet, still, it seems this way.