And Now For Something Different

I’ve known…I’ll call him “David,” for 32 years. Like most people, I have several circles of friends. There’s a circle of artists/writers/actors, a circle of blue-collar Alaskans, and a circle of tai chi practitioners.

David was in the artists/writers/actors circle. He’d been a child prodigy, worked in Hollywood as a writer before his 18th birthday. Later, he was known as a script doctor. If you had a problem with your script — couldn’t find an ending, the middle dragged, the opening didn’t work — you brought in David to write a fix.

He was a tall man — 6'5" — slow-moving, soft-spoken. He had black hair and a sad Abe Lincoln face. When I met him in the mid ’70s, he was coaching actors, directing plays, and working on a book that would never be finished.

We were not friends. Whatever that spark is that happens between people didn’t happen to us. I wished him well but was not interested in getting to know him. Saying that, he was a part of my life for three decades. I saw him at the same parties, dinners, plays, weddings, and birthdays I went to. He owned a spot in my clan.

The world closed in on David 16 years ago. There was a heart operation. There was a mystery illness that turned out to be Parkinson’s. He had circulation problems in his legs. And more. David moved into a one-bedroom apartment, home to an actor he’d once directed. He paid rent when he could.

I still saw him at dinners, salons, an occasional play. He had great difficulty walking, even with a cane. I’d exchange pleasantries and move on.

Two weeks back I heard he was in the hospital again, and this time he wouldn’t be leaving. The person who told me had known David for 40 years, invited him into his house on countless occasions. I asked if he’d been over to see him. He said no. I checked around. Nobody went to see him.

David was wearing headphones and listening to a CD recording of James Joyce’s Ulysses when I walked in. He was breathing through a cheap, flimsy oxygen mask, two tubes attached to his chest, and a catheter inserted into his penis. He’d lost 60 pounds, his eye sockets were purple, his hospital-pallid skin was scattershot with blood-bruises and welts. But, he was conscious, knew who I was, knew what was going on.

Janet, his ex-wife, was there. I was surprised and relieved. They’d been married and divorced in the early 1970s. I’d never met her. Janet told me she’d gone back to school and earned a nursing degree. In fact, she was going to start a new job, her first nursing job, the next day. The job was 60 miles away.

I came back the following night. I’d burned Hamlet and King Richard III onto CDs, careful to purchase the BBC radio version. I drew a chair up close, put my hand on top of his and sat. Two hours, give or take.

The next night I brought Antony and Cleopatra. Janet was there. She’d been there the day before, too, arriving after I left. And a beautiful woman — early 40s, auburn hair, maybe 105 pounds, 5'4" — was there, too. Debra is another actor David once directed.

The following night I brought three CDs on death. Janet was standing by the bed, combing his hair. She’d remarried and today is her husband’s birthday. Debra arrived with her husband. David was fighting, heaving his chest, gasping for air in order to make the next breath. Once, after several tries, he pushed his mask to one side and said, in a barely audible voice, “Help me. Help me.” He was in great pain. (I will reserve my observations about hospital staff for another time.)

We gathered around the bed and told David stories. David heard and understood everything. He moved his arm to touch each person as they talked.

Sixteen hours later, David finished his trip from terminally ill to death’s doorstep. I could actually watch life drain from his body. At the end, David was sent off by two people who loved him and one who truly wished him well.

Everybody dies, and death comes every which way: funny, tragic, boring, overdue, pointless, beside the point, tragic, unfair, too fair. . . We eat, we sleep, we fall in love, we die.

When David died, the clouds didn’t open up, the band didn’t play. He fought for a breath, took it in, and then one second turned into the next and then the next and then the next and then he was gone. Death was an ordinary moment.

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