It is precipitous, this fall to mortality to which I have a front row seat. Seems like yesterday Uncle Bobby was waxing on about old girlfriends and pontificating about the perilous future of our country. In a matter of weeks, we are navigating new terrain. It’s unsettling, this new place, and it calls forth an oddly tireless exhaustion, driven by the grief that is moving into my soul. A grief in limbo. A larger grief is yet to come, but it has begun its insidious arrival.
Uncle Bobby is still here, but not in the same way.
I already miss the recliner chair that he spent too much time in this long winter. It’s emptiness nicks at me each time I walk into his apartment. I don’t like the hospital bed in his room. I wait impatiently for him to give me some indication that he is coming to peace. Instead, he seems defeated, agitated, and so very tired. His voice has lost its deep timbre, and today, as he tried to articulate I saw only exasperation in his attempt to moisten his own lips.
“I’m sorry for this baby talk. It’s all I have.”
No need for apologies, unless they are from the Good Lord to whom Uncle Bobby gives a nod every day. I want an apology from the Good Lord for stealing this more than good man’s dignity. I confess that I don’t understand this painful part of taking one’s leave. I want the Good Lord to cease the lessons of suffering and get on with the redemption already. Uncle Bobby deserves no less.
There is a philosophical query many of us casually engage in while we still have our physical and mental health: Would you rather lose your mind or body first?
I am now very sure of the answer. Take my mind, Good Lord, I could not bear to watch the decay of my body with full faculty.
There is nothing of Uncle Bobby’s body that hasn’t been assaulted. It is bruised from head to toe, just from shifting in his bed or the caring manipulations of nurses while they bath and change him. His eyes need warm compresses to alleviate a building film, and reading even the menu of food that he will ultimately just push around his plate with his fingers is futile. The fingers and the food? His flattened hands have lost all fine motor skills. He can no longer draw a plastic cup to his lips to drink with regular success. He tries and tries, and spills and spills. His legs have not borne his weight in three months, his toes are riddled with open cuts threatening infection. Bed sores spread on his back and bottom as he perseverates about a relentless itch that is a symptom of the overall breakdown of his skin.
He does have his hearing, though. He can hear loud and clear. His hearing is so acute that he can hear every creak in the building. His hearing often interrupts his sleep.
In a rare late-night visit this week to meet a new overnight caregiver, I was audience to the “sun downing” people make reference to in the elderly. As I spoke to Yolanda, his 11-7 guardian, I heard Uncle Bobby’s voice, not calling to anyone, but speaking in sure sentences. I quietly entered his room to see his right hand gesticulating in the air while he gave what appeared to be a speech. His voice was sure and strong, his eyes open, but not awake.
“The Congress needs to meet with the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Not just the heroes, but those who suffered as well. Our country must hear from all good men who served……”
Suddenly, Uncle Bobby is Jimmy Stewart and I am observing a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” moment, and it is entrancing. Uncle Bobby’s mind is busy, racing in the night. He has things to say, opinions to voice. He is a patriot, a World War II Veteran of the South Pacific who suffered in ways we will never know, and at night when his world is quieter he says what he has wanted to say for a lifetime. He is too much of a gentleman to foist his humble opinion on others in the light of day. A gentleman who is not yet ready to let go.
Sometime this winter I thought June it would a good time to grab a getaway on the coat tails of my daughter’s summer college experience. While she studies in Savannah, I’ll steal away to Charleston and try it on for future fit. What’s a week when I haven’t been away for more than 48 hours at a clip in nearly two years? Historic Southern charm seemed like a great idea to get the reboot I need. I root for the ocean, Spanish Moss and the sweet smell of magnolia to ease my concern that maybe this liberal Northeasterner might be “too much” for the gentile South. It’s my year of my reinvention, right?
Let’s put a pause on that, shall we?
Tonight I decided to abbreviate that trip. 72 hours is all I suspect I can stand to be away from Uncle Bobby’s journey. Even that will be a challenge. I will settle my daughter in and get back to the business of Bobby. It is the only thing that makes sense to me on this night of a nearly full moon.
They’ll be time for re-imagination galore at the end of his journey. I’m on his time for the time being. He is frightened and I am his constant. I can try on Charleston any ol’ time.
The journey? Well, the sands have picked up pace in the hourglass.
As for the Good Lord, I confess that despite my religious pause, I can’t quite seem to shake the old Catholic out of my soul. The Good Lord might want to take a listen right now.
“I need you to get busy with the business of Bobby, help him find peace and quiet his extraordinary mind. It’s time for an assist, Good Lord.”
The assist is well earned.