Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Sleep Well, Don


This is not how I thought it would end. I thought I would get to talk to you again, to say goodbye to you. You called on Saturday morning but I was on the other line. I texted that I would call you right back, but I didn’t call until early evening. You didn’t answer. I called Sunday. I called Monday. And when you still didn’t answer, and I wasn't getting your nightly text messages with your always cleverly chosen Bitmoji, I contacted your daughter. 

I haven’t heard from your dad. Is he okay? 

No, he’s not, Rhonda replied. He’s asleep most of the time now. He’s basically gone. 

Sleeping? Basically gone? No. He just called me.

I replayed your voicemail. 

This is Don. I’m just calling to see what you’s up to. Nothing important. I’ll talk to you later. Love ya, hon.

You sounded okay. Well, okay considering you are 85 with bone cancer. You had already beaten prostate cancer, kidney malfunction (by having those two tubes permanently attached to your back), and, most recently, you recovered from COVID-19. Recovered!

I got mad at you when you complained about having to quarantine for 14 days after they let you out of the hospital. I reminded you that I have friends who lost family members to the virus, and that you’d be quarantined in your apartment regardless since it’s in an assisted living building, you live alone, and you’re not that social anyway. You’re right, you said. I’m just depressed.

I don’t blame you for being depressed. I know you don’t feel well and that you ache everywhere. Not to mention, this is a depressing time in the world. I'm sorry for getting mad.

Ours is a funny friendship. You’re the same age as my dad would be if he hadn’t succumbed to cancer three years ago. But you’re not a father figure to me. You are the neighbor who welcomed me ten years ago to my new home in an unfamiliar rural town. 

You are the one who shoveled the snow from my sidewalk before I even got up in the mornings. You towed my car out of the mud, tilled my garden every spring, peeled apples for my pie stand, and loaned me an orange cap after I almost got shot by a hunter. You defended me at the city council meeting yelling BULLSHIT! when our mean neighbors lied about my dogs trespassing on their property. You are the one I ran to when I discovered that six-foot-long snake in my bathroom. I can still hear you in there, one end of your hoe banging against the floor with the other end hitting the window, cussing out that snake as it fought you, while I held my breath on the other side of the door. 

You are the one who made me feel safe living in that old house.

Even after you and Shirley moved away, you came by to check on me, showing up in my backyard on your three-wheeled motorcycle. We would go out for dinner sometimes, but mostly we’d go out for ice cream. The best was that afternoon we went to Misty’s Malt Shop and each had a hot fudge sundae. We sat so long talking on the park bench overlooking the river that we went back and got a second one—yours always with whipped cream, nuts, and a cherry; mine always plain with just the hot fudge.

When Shirley died we spent more time together. As mismatched as we seem—you a retired railroad worker and semi driver; me a city girl and author with a college degree—we always have interesting conversations, even when we don’t agree on politics or the meaning of flags. We are both well-traveled and love road trips, especially in our RVs. I miss my RV. I know you miss yours too. 

We’ve been through a lot together in these past ten years. You lost Shirley. I lost Daisy. You lost the ability to walk when your knees wore out. I lost yet another piece of my heart when Jack died. You lost your will to live on more than one occasion. I lost my direction in life even more often. And yet with each other’s help we've always pulled through, always there for one another with a phone call or a spontaneous visit. 

One of the things I especially appreciate about our friendship is your nightly text messages. It may seem small, but that one small thing means a lot to me. Those little cartoonish avatars—yours with the beard and glasses, the plaid shirt, and belted jeans; mine with the blond ponytail, a few freckles, and red turtleneck—not only make me smile, they are a reminder that no matter how hard life gets, how busy or how far apart we are, there is one consistent thing I can count on: the presence of a loyal friend—you.
It is 9PM and I should be getting my nightly text from you. 

But you are asleep. 

And you might never wake up.

The bone cancer was getting painful, you told me. The doctors said it was the fast-growing kind. I didn’t believe you. I didn’t believe anything could touch you after all you had overcome (including the time the tractor rolled over on you and it took 100 stitches to sew your head back together!) I was sure you would live another decade at least. Last time we spoke, a few weeks ago, we discussed future plans. We talked about voting, me insisting you get registered in your new state. I teased you and said, Don, you have to stick around until at least the election in November!

You told many times since Shirley passed that you wanted to die. But when they found your cancer last year you broke down in tears and said, I’m not ready to go.

I was sure the virus restrictions would be lifted soon enough for me to come visit you. I was sure there was still time for me to bake you your favorite rhubarb cake. Shirley’s recipe is sitting on my kitchen counter and the rhubarb, already cleaned and chopped, is waiting in the freezer.

I’ll drive up to see him. I’ll come today, I told Rhonda this afternoon.

He’s asleep, she said. He won’t know you’re here. They’re only allowing family members, two at a time.

But I’m family, I wanted to say. You’ve even said so yourself, Don.

Today is Tuesday. You left me that voicemail on Saturday. You sounded okay. How can it be that three days later you are "basically gone?”

The hospice nurse says he’s failing fast, Rhonda texted.

Failing fast? That doesn’t sound like you. Fading, maybe, not failing. You are not someone who fails. Transitioning is how they described my dad in his final hours. However they describe what is happening with you, it seems your time to move on has come. I want to cry and tell you, no, please don't go. But as your friend, I understand. Your mind is still so strong, but your body, stubborn as it may be, has a limit. 

So I guess this is our farewell. I can almost see you driving away on your motorcycle, waving goodbye and laughing as you head down the road into the sunset, kicking up a wake of gravel dust as you travel on toward your next adventure. 

Even if you can’t read them, I’ll keep sending nightly Bitmojis to your phone to let you know I’m still here for you, that I will always love you, and that I will always be so very grateful for your friendship. 

Sweet dreams, Don. Sleep well.

Love, Beth