by Susan Lloy
They say when you’re going to die your life flashes before you, yet this isn’t quite so. It’s rather like a film, reedited from scraps on the floor and put back together with the plot and characters all mixed up in one last fusion. At least, that’s what it’s been like for me and even though we’re all taking some train to personalized destinations, now that I’ve nearly reached my own stop, I kind of wish I was still a few stations back.
I’ve managed to remain at home with a nurse checking in on me twice a day and I feel lucky for this. She’ll be here soon and I’m waiting for my big hit of pain medication. My tumor has spread like a burst star and now I wait to die; my neurons still transmit, but more like anarchists or an ambushed Morse code whose sender is tapping some unknown beat that only he can dance to.
I look around the space and it’s filled with photographs, mostly my own, yet blended with other admired works of my contemporaries, which hang on the walls and grace the sideboards. I had been a photojournalist, documenting the social imprint of each generation, whether it was political or cultural. That is, until I got sick. In recent years I had cut back the travel and worked on a collection for a book and a documentary. They both got quite a bit of attention with a good payout and this is how I’m able to remain here with additional homecare.
I hear the key in the door and I know it’s Hazel. Hazel is young and hot and has an old-fashioned name for a fresh face and a mod flair. She’s good at this sort of thing and isn’t uneasy. She doesn’t show up in a uniform. She appears in casual, non-provocative clothing. But, sometimes I get a glimpse. A peek at her arm through her sleeveless shirt and what lies beyond; a firm breast, the hardness of the clavicle, the long ballerina neck.
“Hi, hi Arthur.”
She bursts into my living room with a bouquet of just picked flowers and tells me about her night out. Some guy had pursued her at a bar, not taking no for an answer and she ended up getting the bouncer to pitch him out. He had waited for her in his car when she spilt a couple of hours later. Fortunately, she hadn’t been alone and her male companion gave the guy a stern talking to, but now she is fearful of her favourite watering hole and is leery of going back.
I like these little stories and listen intently while she prepares my hit. Her hair is tied back and she rubs my vein, her lovely green eyes taking in all of me as the needle finds its trail. I feel the heat and then see the classic tunnel. It’s dark and there’s warm light at the far end. I want to enter and I guess this is it for me, but when I reach it I hear hard music and see punks drenched in colour dancing in some hip club that perhaps I had once frequented in New York or Berlin. It has the sense of the familiar, something I innately know. The energy is frenzied and I feel at home, cozy, as if this is my heaven. Or is it hell? I always imagined hell would be some cool scene like this, with the doorman picking out the hipsters from the sidewalk creating a fine collection of skin and sweat. I hear the old songs of my youth and they make me feel bulletproof. Pumped.
An edgy girl comes to me and whispers in my ear. I feel her warm breath and the cold of her nose chain against my face. The music makes her words unrecognizable and she takes my arm, leading me to an outside corridor. It has long glass walls on each side with installations of living, exotic animals. In a blue hued room off to the side there is a wall with two sharks. I feel sorry for them as they bang into the side of the huge tank, their sonar corrupted by percussion and screaming guitars. She indicates that she wants me to follow her, and I do, although I don’t know why. She shows me a prehistoric bird pecking at the glass. Its huge tongue licks the barrier. I turn to her, but she’s gone and I hear the glass shatter into a thousand fragments.
I awake and the vase of flowers has fallen from the coffee table. Daisies and brown-eyed Susan’s are scattered on the floor. I’m not immobile yet and slowly rise from my hospital bed, as I don’t want to leave this mess for Hazel. She’s left me some soup in a thermos and I drink it wishing I were back in my dream or flashback, which is becoming harder to differentiate.
My dreams are laced with memories, and often I can’t tell what is real or not. The disease has ambushed my brain and now things are scrambled like a great break on a pool table with all the balls diverged to the four corners of the earth. I can still do a few things; but mostly I lie here, dreaming and watching television.
Hazel gets me all the movies and series that I like and currently I’m on a run of Berlin Alexanderplatz. It’s the Berlin I once knew, the many times I visited, weaved within that particular slice of time shadowed by the Wall. Driving in a fat, square Mercedes down wide boulevards, drinking and sniffing the evenings away in alternative cafes, engaging with the cool nocturnal creatures that roamed the Berlin nights. Following this dark tale I plan to watch I, Claudius and all the Cassavetes’ films, with sagas of murder, poison and treachery; and to remember New York when it was down and dirty. When garbage drifted throughout the streets like urban angles and when one didn’t get ticketed for drinking a beer on a stoop. I guess by now you realize that I’m no spring chicken, just a guy who lived amongst the wild ones when disorder prevailed. I miss those days.
Rita, my housekeeper, comes three times a week to freshen up and prepare meals, mostly soups and light dishes. She’s a good cook and isn’t offended when often they’re left untouched. This concoction is a mix of varied greens, garlic and minced chicken. It’s good and I sip it slowly watching the white linen curtains sway in the afternoon breeze. I see the hollyhocks swaying in the garden.
It’s summer and the weather remains warm. As I close my eyes I’m startled by a loud bang from a backfiring truck. Afghanistan. I’m here because there’s been a kill, the accidental bombing of a small village. Silhouetted against a mountain and feet set firmly on the ground, my shutter snaps at the speed of light. A woman and four children lay severed in multiple directions. The husband is too shocked to cry, but cannot take his eyes away from his family who just minutes ago took their steps and breaths along with him. I record the misery and carnage. I feel like a voyeur, still someone has to do it. Black helicopters approach off the horizon. A small doll smiles at me from the rubble. A dog cries in the distance.
I’ve always been a bachelor; never creating enough time to stay in one place and put my feet up or gather a partner. There were a few serious loves in my life, though for one reason or another, none sustained and time has made them fussy in my mind like a long, dead someone. I bought this house not so long ago as a sort of beacon, somewhere to hang my lens in this tireless world. I ended back to where I started from, in a little town on the wild Atlantic coast where I summer vacationed as a small boy.
I feel a shiver run my spine and I see myself jumping the broken ice on the shoreline, step-stoning to reach the solid mass. I miss my mark and my foot gets wet, but there’s an extra woolen sock in my skate. I’m free and travel with my shadow on the cold crystal. The sun sparkling off my blade.
“Arthur…hi Arthur. You look peaceful seems like a crime to wake you.”
Hazel lets herself in and tidies up the area around my bed. I used to sleep upstairs under the peaked ceiling and miss the pounding of the rain on the roof, the wind banging on the window, the coziness of the enclosed space. It reminds me of a tent, which was often my home on assignment. Down here I feel vulnerable. Exposed.
I’m not afraid to die and now that I can’t do much except lie here and attempt to hold on to a slice of reality between injections, I’m sort of looking forward to it. I imagine it to be a deep sleep without interruptions or dreams.
“Arthur. Let’s transfer you to the chair so that I can change your sheets. The change in position will be good for you.”
Hazel assists me, adjusting my legs to the side of the bed and pivots me to the chair, fluffing the pillow behind my back. She examines my skin for breakdown and so far it’s holding out.
“You know, Arthur, that guy that was stalking me at the bar showed up again. I went right up to him and told him to stay out of my face. He said he thought I was someone he knew. Not sure if I believe him, nevertheless I feel relieved.”
“That’s good, Hazel. I’m sure it was just an honest misunderstanding.”
Hazel runs around like someone on the clock and I guess she is, as she has other patients to visit on her rounds. She heats up some soup and pours it in a thermos along with a few fresh-baked tea biscuits that Rita made. She sets it on the bedside table.
Sometimes Hazel discusses her other patients. She delivers little jokes and anecdotes and I’m sure her reasoning is to let me know that I’m not alone with my condition. She tells me about a young mother, an older woman and a fisherman who’s on his last catch. She puts the tourniquet on my arm and my vein swells. I’m back in bed now and my thoughts melt into each other.
It’s Daleighla. She’s in a field dotted with red poppies. I loved her in my youth. I think I still do… She’s running and I want to catch her. She calls my name, “Arthur, come!” I try, but I can’t catch up and she dissolves into the forest up ahead. I fall into the long grass the colour of wheat and close my eyes, feeling every little piece of me make a break to parts unknown.