3rd place winner - 2007 short-story contest
Letters From the Hospice
Published: February 29, 2008
|MR. LYLE HORTON|
HORTON FUNERAL HOME
July 19, 199_
Dear Mr. Horton:
I gather everything's in order. To reiterate: you'll bury me in the family plot, next to my parents and sister. No service, a simple stone and casket. When I die they'll contact you. If you have any questions, you can call me here. I won't be going anywhere.
I'm at a place called Phoenix House, a hospice on the Connecticut shore. I've been here several weeks. They give me two months or so. Understand, I don't feel sorry for myself. Or if I do, it's jumbled up with other things.
Since coming here I've often thought of you despite our much-too-long estrangement. Sometimes I marvel, were ever two brothers so different? You, with the scholarship to Princeton--myself, dropping out of Ohio Wesleyan. You, the banker--myself, the failed Realtor turned struggling travel agent. You, the family man--myself, twice-divorced and childless.
Still, despite everything, I need to reach you while I can. Heaven help us, Howard, we're each other's only living sibling. Hard to believe we haven't spoken since Maria's funeral. Her death still infuriates me, more so than the prospects of my own.
Tired, can't write any more. Drop a line if you feel like it.
Mr. Larry Bird
c/o The Boston Celtics
I have very little time left, and while I still have the strength to do so, I want to write a note of thanks.
Thanks for playing as well as you did, as long as you did. Thanks for the off-balance three point shots. Thanks for the passing…the steals…the show time. I saw the highlight video, where you made a basket from behind the glass. No one else could have made that shot, not even Jordan. But you did.
How the hell could you play like that, especially when half the time you should have been in a hospital? I remember you in the playoffs with a ruptured disc.
Although I'm no athlete, I've always felt a certain kinship to you. Like you, I grew up in a small Midwestern town. Same credo, I'd hazard. Work hard, remember your roots, don't let your head get too big for your shoulders. Not that I've always been true to it, but I've remembered it.
Thanks again for everything.
I was surprised to hear from you so quickly.
You ask what happened. Briefly: four years ago I went to a podiatrist for bunions. He found a mole on my toe. Said something ponderous, like I don't like the looks of that. Sent me to a surgeon.
The surgeon excised it, said I had a melanoma but I had a good prognosis because the pathologist didn't think it was aggressive. Joked about my outliving him. Whacked the toe off.
When the melanoma came back I saw an oncologist who gave me injections directly into the tumor. Next came limb perfusion and then several rounds of chemo, progressively potent--made me throw up for days on end. I developed thrush and eye infections because my white cells dropped so low, but the melanoma flourished. He gave me Compazine for nausea--didn't help. Lost my hair.
Eighteen months ago I began to cough up blood. The melanoma had spread to a lung--"just a solitary lesion," so I might live two more years. They took out part of the lung. I had seizures and urinary tract infections. Then came more chemo.
Six weeks ago the nausea got worse and the whites of my eyes turned yellow. In my liver now. They offered me another round of chemo--for what? A few more months of side effects? I said I only wanted pills for pain and sleep. Then I found out about Phoenix House. The best of limited options.
At least it hasn't spread to my brain. I still can think, so far.
It's not as depressing here as you'd imagine. Bright decor, heavy on pastels and white. Doctors and nurses don't wear uniforms, which helps avoid a hospital ambiance. The building overlooks Long Island Sound. There's a porch, and a yard with several hammocks, and a garden. I spend a lot of time outside.
You mentioned that you might fly out. I'd like that.
Reverend Floyd Stangle
First Presbyterian Church
Dear Rev. Stangle,
You once officiated at the funeral of a woman named Maria Carlisle. As you may not recall the particulars, permit me to mention them. Maria was 31 when she died. Married, with two young sons. She was killed as she drove home from a 7-Eleven. A drunk ran a light and hit her full force, broadside. Her neck was broken, her aorta severed. The drunk sprained an ankle.
One of Maria's brothers marred the service. He showed up intoxicated, fell in the aisle and eventually passed out. His performance estranged him from the rest of the family. This took little effort, since he'd never been close to any of them, except Maria.
I am that brother, and belatedly ask for your forgiveness. As I come to the end of my own life--I'm in a hospice now, with cancer--I find myself needing to make amends. Sometimes I think of little else. I brood on my crimes and misdemeanors, from talking too much in the third grade to cheating on my ex-wives, and wish I might live long enough to balance all the books. A futile fantasy, I know, but powerful. Perhaps it's just a way to squeeze more time from God--Don't take me yet, I haven't finished apologizing. You must hear that often from the moribund.
Daniel J. Barth
I'm glad you came. A better visit than anticipated. I imagined us sitting with arms crossed in front of our chests, nurturing all the ancient grievances.
It was good to catch up with news of your family and reminisce a bit, especially about Maria. I wonder, do we reunite with those already dead? Of course I hope so, but the whole thing would get complicated. The ones who died before are busy reuniting with the ones who died before them, and so forth, back to the Neanderthals. They'd need a big room. Maybe name tags too, complete with smile logo. Dan Barth, 1940-199__. Have a nice day!
You said something that astonished me, that you were jealous of me! Jealous of what? My failed careers and marriages? My gift for antagonizing kin? The chip I've carried on my shoulder? You said I've done more than you, seen more, taken more risks. Perhaps. But all that doesn't seem important now. So many times, when I've been off somewhere, I've thought of you--staying home because you didn't need to leave.
Thanks again for coming.
Thanks for your note--I'm more grateful than you know. I never expected to hear back from you.
If you decide to make a comeback, I swear I'll go through another round of chemo.
Daniel J. Barth
Dear Rev. Stangle,
I appreciate your letter and am pleased you do recall Maria.
You asked about my spiritual needs. They aren't large. For better or worse I've lacked religious fervor through the years. I've also lacked a conscious fear of death. To the contrary, I see it as a kind of sanctuary. I have feared growing old, not that that's a worry now. As for the moment of dying, I have a peculiar notion of it. Self awareness shrinks to a pinpoint and darts across the cosmos, faster and faster, until it disappears. And then nothing. But it's not a malevolent nothing.
Every day my world contracts, which isn't such a bad thing. For instance, I told you about my need to make amends. That doesn't seem so important now.
The strangest thing is happening to me.
As you know, I've never been one for deliberation. I've always rushed headlong through my life, ending one chapter and starting another, and the chapters didn't fit together very well. Not much reflection or sentimentality along the way.
It's different now. The present consists of little more than sitting on the porch, the future is a void. By default that leaves the past. I find myself inexorably sucked into it. I'll think of something and remember every detail with a wonderful, excruciating clarity.
For instance, I went to Toronto once. Some airline sponsored a promotional weekend there. They gave a reception at the Royal Ontario Art Gallery. At the reception I met a woman, married, several years younger than myself. Thin, with short dark hair and big blue eyes that sparkled with intelligence and pain. Her name was Leah. Her husband got rich making kitty litter.
So Leah and I talked, with that intimacy of strangers who never plan to meet again, and we strolled through the Gallery drinking champagne and eating caviar while a string quartet played Mozart. Afterwards we went to her hotel and spent the night together.
A small incident, a routine dalliance. No follow-up, not even Christmas cards. I liked her well enough but haven't thought of her in years. But we did exchange our business cards. I still have hers.
Now here's the hooker, Howard. Yesterday I did nothing except think about this one encounter. Replaying it. New details kept coming back to me. The taste of the caviar…the champagne bubbles…the first time we kissed, in the cab. The feel of her ribs as she lay beneath me.
I'm aware you'd rather not be reading this. You've made it clear how much you disapprove of infidelity. Even so, I had to write you. There's no one else, you see.
The past is becoming more real to me than the present.
Ms. Leah Delaney
94 Campbell St.
Towson MD 21204
I'd be amazed if you remember me. In 198__ we met in Toronto, at a re-ception. We talked at length and spent most of the evening together. At some point we exchanged business cards. I kept yours, meaning to contact you but obviously not doing so.
Recently I've had serious health problems. They've led me to reflect on people I've encountered here and there, including those I haven't seen for years. I wonder how they've fared. All this is a muddled way of explaining why I try to reach you now, despite the passage of over a decade.
In any case I hope my letter finds you well, and causes you no difficulty or embarrassment. Should you remember me (unlikely), and wish to contact me (even more so), my address is below.
Pretty weak now, so I'll be brief. I told you about a woman, Leah. After I wrote to you, I wrote to her. Amazingly, she did remember me. This weekend she came here. She says she always hoped I'd call, and almost called herself. I wonder what would have happened if she had, but there's no use rehashing the what-ifs.
She's had a rough time. Divorced the kitty litter king, who beat her up regularly. Then her son began to use cocaine. Eventually he spent two years in prison.
We talked about the evening in Toronto, and all that's happened to us since. At one point I started crying, for the first time since they diagnosed me. And then she left. At least there's one less loose thread.
Take care of yourself.
September 6, 199__
Mr. Howard Barth
75 Mariposa Circle
Oceanside CA 92054
Dear Mr. Barth:
Please accept our condolences on the death of your brother Daniel.
I'm enclosing a letter he received from Larry Bird. He said he wanted you to have it.
Mary Ellen Peterson, RN