Joy Cometh in the Mourning
by Dave Wagner
[Enter Nathan, holding cell phone]
OK, Lee, well, you hang in there, bro. Don’t give that nurse of yours a hard time. Yeah. Keep in mind, she’s the one that gives you your sponge baths. Oh, I know. Shoot, I don’t know if she gives massages…ask her. Yeah, she does look Swedish…you never know. Or maybe she’s a Nazi…you better look out. Yeah, the rough stuff. Anyways. Hang in there. I’ll see you soon. Yeah. Hey, do you want any magazines or anything? I can bring them by when I come later…“The Complete Works of Ernest Hemmingway”? What, are you trying to depress yourself? Come on! Seriously, though, what can I bring you? “The Internal Organ Trader”? OK, well, I can see you’re in a fine mood, then. I’ll assume you’re all set. See you later, Bro. Ok. Bye, Lee.
[Ends phone conversation, pockets cell phone. Long pause, begins conversation with self, slowly begins to acknowledge and include audience]
Lee, Lee, Lee. How did all of this happen? Why is it that you are where you are? You’re such a good man. My brother is a good man. He’s a big man. He’s the most unpredictable, funny, bizarre person I’ve ever known. Bizarre in a good way. He just has such a different outlook on life, a different approach. And now, for him, this life is ending.
There was this time I was over at Lee’s house. He and his wife were there. His son Kyle came bursting into the house. He had just arrived home from school, the bus had dropped him off. He had to be all of 10 or 11 at the time. Anyway, he comes rushing into the room where we all were sitting, talking, and he’s carrying this art project he had done in class…kind of this empty wine bottle thing with little squares of colored tissue paper pasted to it. He was so excited. Anyway, before he could start to speak, the bottle slipped out of his hands and broke on the hardwood floor. First there was silence. Then, of course, Kyle burst into tears, but before any of us could respond, Lee was on his feet. “Nobody touch it! Wait!” he says. “Look!” The bottle had broken by the window, and the sunlight was pouring in, right onto the broken bottle. The sun was causing a jumble of colored shadows to be thrown onto the floor. The shards of glass still had the colored paper on them, and the rainbow effect was fascinating. None of us noticed this until Lee pointed it out. He broke into this huge smile, and ran to get his camera.
Of course, Kyle didn’t know what to think. He’d stopped crying, and was kind of standing there, stunned. Lee returns with his camera, and a few different lenses…he knows all about photography and stuff. He spent the next 15 minutes sizing up different shots, while his son watched quietly. The photo’s turned out great, you should see them. Kyle has a few of them on his wall. He was so proud.
But, you see, all the rest of us could think initially was, “Oops.” How sad it was; his bottle was ruined. But, Lee immediately saw it differently. I mean, who would have thought at a time like that to notice little colored shadows? Come on!
He used to always come to meet me at the airport. It didn’t matter why I was away, if he was in town when I was returning, he’d be at the airport to meet me. The schmuck would always pull the same joke. He’d have two or three of his friends there with him, and before the plane would arrive, they’d start babbling about “I can’t believe he’s coming here! And we’ll get to see him! This is SO great!” Stuff like that. Start getting the people around them to think that someone famous was arriving. He’d have his camera ready. By the time the passengers began to unload, they’d have a couple dozen people craning their necks to see who this famous person was that they were about to see. Invariably, I would be too wrapped up in my own thoughts to remember this ritual, so I’d come strolling off the plane, and up would come rushing my brother and his pals, screaming “There he is, oh my God, oh my God!” They’d be snapping pictures, and pushing a pen and paper into my hand, begging for autographs.
It never failed. I would end up signing dozens of autographs for complete strangers before reaching the baggage claim. It was hilarious. I loved it and I hated it. The looks on peoples faces, as they try to process what was happening. Like, “I know I should be happy, but God as my witness, I have no idea who this clown is, but maybe I’ll find out, and then this autograph will be worth something.”
Yeah, he was funny that way. He IS funny that way…I keep catching myself referring to him in the past tense. He’s still alive, for crying out loud! He hasn’t gone anywhere! Yet. He’s got what…2 months maybe. Is that what they said? Yeah, about two months. So he’s a goner. I mean, the cancer has spread everywhere. He had a tumor in his gut the size of a softball. How do you miss something that size? Well, Lee was no…IS no…small guy. What, 6’4” maybe? 245. They removed the tumor, but the crap had spread all over. If it was isolated, I guess they’d have a shot, I mean, if it were in his kidneys, heck, I’d have given him one of mine. But his liver, his kidneys, his spinal cord, for pete’s sake! It’s not like you can get a spinal cord transplant. I’d have given him my spine, if it would have fit him. Well, he always said I had no spine to begin with.
OK, so, how do you mourn a man that’s not dead yet? I mean, just what on earth am I supposed to do? What’s the proper way, the grown up way, to handle this? He likes to talk about it. I hate to talk about it. I’m always trying to change the subject with him, because I can’t bear it. But he says it makes him feel better to talk about it. So we talk. I tell him I’m new to this death thing. I apologize. Probably too often. I mean, I’ve had relatives that have died before, back on the east coast. Relatives I’ve met like maybe once, when I was like 7 or something. It’s like, “Remember Uncle Vinny? The one that was married to your Aunt Rosie that made you that sweater when you were in the 4th grade? Oh, come on! You remember! Here’s a picture…remember? No? Well, just as well, he died a horrible death. Hit by a truck.”
It’s hard to be shaken or moved by the passing of someone like that. But that’s as close as I’d ever been to touching death until now. Now, it couldn’t possibly be any closer. And here I was, in his hospital room, like an idiot, trying to explain this to him, and what’s he do? He breaks some mean wind. I mean, you could hear it all the way down the hall. The nurse runs in to see if he’s ok. He’s laughing, I’m pissed. The nurse looks ill. It’s a mess.
This is the same man who would boast of being able to fart the music to the Star Spangled Banner…and thought it was patriotic! Although he would say that he couldn’t hit the high note without the aid of a thong bikini. Sick pud. He told me once that after a particularly spicy Italian meal, he attempted to fart the music to “O Solo Mio.” “Was it a success?” I asked. He said, “Sort of…I ended up doing a variation that I like to call ‘I Soil-oed Me-o.’ ”
So figure that one out for me! He could be brilliant one moment, and flat out disgusting the next. Well, maybe not flat out disgusting, but, for crying out loud, show some restraint, you know? It’s not that he enjoyed embarrassing people so much as he just approached life like an adventure…you know…like, “What’s around this corner?” Like life was a big toy, a play thing. He was open and cautious at the same time. He was…IS! HE IS! Good grief! He’s not dead yet! What is wrong with me? What am I doing wrong!? Why do I feel like I’m exploring a foreign planet, for crying out loud!? How the heck am I supposed to know what’s normal and what isn’t in all this…what’s expected and what’s inappropriate? What, do I go check out books on it at the library or something? Call up a radio therapist? Beat my head against a wall?
I’m starting to wonder if it would have been easier to take if he had died suddenly. I mean, obviously I’d much rather have him not die at all, but I wonder if in some ways the suddenness of unexpected death would have numbed me, or something. I don’t know…I suppose it would be like losing an arm, or something…I mean, you know you’re going to survive and go on without the arm, but would you rather have it cut off quickly, and deal with the sudden shock of “O my God! I just got my friggin’ arm cut off!” or would you rather have it pinned and slowly crushed and ripped from your body, the whole time clinging to the hope that somehow you’ll be rescued, and your arm will be spared, and fixed, and everything will be all right somehow? I know that’s kind of graphic, but that’s kind of what I feel like…like I’m slowly, painfully losing a part of myself. I’m pinned and he’s being ripped from me, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Well, I suppose there’s no real ‘right way’ to handle all this…as though it should matter at all what I’m going through…sounds so selfish, doesn’t it? Here Lee’s dying, and I’m wondering how I’m supposed to be handling this.
[long pause] He would answer ringing payphones, and pretend that he was a dj at a radio station. “You’re the 14th caller! You win! You’re on the air right now! Who are you and where are you from?” He would convince people that they had just won a thousand dollars. One time he actually got a name and mailing address to send the money to. He sent a picture of a sucker, appropriately enough.
He would drive through at a fast food place, and when they’d ask him his order, he’d say, “I’d like one small step for man…and one giant leap for mankind…no, wait, Houston, could you supersize that? Over.” Oh, he thought that was a riot. Who thinks up crap like that, much less does it? I suppose I could start doing it. Sort of an “in memory of” type thing.
OK, so…to Lee, the man that saw things differently, I salute you. I’m sure it will all work out. How’d the Beatles put it? Obladee, oblada, life goes on. How stupid. Well, I suppose I should pick him up a couple magazines anyway.
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