Note: This is one of the first pieces I ever sold, but for the life of me, I cannot recall the publication. I remember having to make a slight edit before it was accepted. However, looking back at it now fifteen years later, I see a lot of improvements that can be made.
And the Muse Dies
Nobody dies of cancer instantly. It can take six weeks or six years, and even if you manage to fight if off, cancer will be what eventually kills you. It always comes back. My whole life, there had been hushed whispers that Grandma had lost a breast to cancer. Every couple of years, there would be a buzz of activity; doctor’s appointments, weekly visits, and more whispers in the kitchen. The children could not hear that the cancer had come back, but we found out. We always did.
This bout had been going on for two years. I overheard my aunts telling my mother the cancer was inoperable this time. The doctor recommended ending chemotherapy because it was killing her faster than the cancer. At that age, I could not understand why a doctor would stop giving a patient medicine, or for that matter, how medicine could be harmful. Doctors give sick people medicine to make them well, but nobody ever explained the truth. The truth is chemotherapy is a pharmaceutical chainsaw. The theory is this: They inject you with a substance that kills everything it contacts in the hopes all the cancer dies before you do. That’s it in a nutshell. It is a desperate attempt by desperate people to stop something they know will eventually kill them. If not this time, then maybe the next.
My grandmother had seven brothers and sisters that survived to adulthood. Married in her mid-teens in the Old World custom, this was the first time my grandmother had a room of her own. It was one of the few perks to being terminally ill, and of utmost importance to a twelve year old. It had been the television room in a previous incarnation, but with no children left at home and a dying wife, my grandfather converted it into the Deathroom. No one actually called it that, but you could smell the cancer in there. Add to it the enhanced gravitational pull that began at the front door of the house, I understand why my grandfather still slept in their room. The nightstand carpeted in prescription bottles, the oxygen tank with its clear plastic tube snaking into my grandmother’s nostrils, and the gray-framed hospital bed clinically referred to as “Durable Medical Equipment” in twelve-point font on the invoice was too much for him to be surrounded by all the time. I cannot blame him for withdrawing. Even now as an adult, I do not care to revisit that room.
I found myself in the Deathroom that Tuesday afternoon in August standing at the foot of the bed with my great-aunt Fatima. At the head of the bed was a priest I did not recognize. He had on the regulation priest’s all black uniform, and a purple sash hung over his neck going down either side of his dangling crucifix. He held what looked like a set of silver salt and pepper shakers from a fancy dinner table setting. Leaning over my grandmother, he moved one shaker and then the other over her in a seemingly random pattern while mumbling unrecognizable words. My grandmother clasped a rosary over her stomach because she did not have the strength to raise it the entire distance to her chest. Every time the priest paused, she would take a turn mumbling something back.
I reached over and touched my Aunt’s arm to get her attention.
“What’s he doing?” I whispered when she cocked her head toward me.
“He’s giving her Last Rites,” she whispered back in Portuguese.
“But she’s not dead,” I replied quizzically.
“Sometimes they give Last Rites when the person is close to dying,” she deadpanned, concentrating on her own rosary. “Now be quiet. I’m trying to pray.”
I watched the priest make more random, grandiose gestures with the condiment set and mumble some more as the realization set in that my grandmother was going to die this time. The worst part was she knew it. The priest was telling her so. I still cannot fathom how she laid there so serenely as one of God’s earthly representative told her in magician’s hand movements and Latin chants that she was going to die soon, and if she had anything to get off her chest, now would be an excellent time.
“Thank you for calling radio KGOD, where it’s all requests, all the time. Yahweh, Mary, and Jesus aren’t available to take your call right now, but the man in black to your right will relay anything you want to say to the Supreme Being.
He’s a pedophile, an alcoholic, and has been skimming from the Church for years, but we still like him. And so should you. Once again, thank you for calling, and remember our motto: ‘From your lips to God’s ears…through a middleman’.”
This was it. There would be no more holidays, no more birthdays, no more weekend visits. We would be lucky to get Labor Day. These thoughts poured into my head and welled up into my eyes. First, a tear down one cheek. Then one down the other. My lip began to tremble, and soon, I was crying.
The priest shot me a look that said, “How dare you interrupt God’s final act of forgiveness?” He turned to my grandmother and gently suggested that maybe this was too much for me.
Sixty-eight years of Catholicism had taught her to respect priests, if not the men, then the office. Grandma knew. She had overlooked his faults in deference to his position, but feigned respect counted for little now. In a commanding bark someone dying of cancer really should not be able to muster, she spat out,
“The boy stays, if he wants.”
That would have been the most graceful time for me to leave, but boys have an insane desire to be adults. It often makes them better men than the men. I would have rather followed my grandfather into the backyard where he was pruning trees that did not need it, but I stood my ground. I held onto the foot-board to keep from toppling over. The overriding desire to prove themselves that is common to all boys forced me to stay in the room.
All those feelings of despair and impending loneliness came flooding back to me as I spent the day saying my good-byes to Angela. I made it to her apartment faster than I thought was possible in rush-hour traffic. Angela had delayed her departure until my day off to spend her last day in San Diego with me. Except for a small travel bag with toiletries and a few changes of clothes, everything she owned was packed in a moving truck parked in front of the building. The apartment looked much larger now that it was empty.
We spent the day lounging around on her sleeping bag eating cold pizza from dinner the night before. We reminisced, talked about our plans, and laughed our silly asses off. Neither of us initiated sex or wanted it. The urgent charge usually in the air was gone. Sex would have spoiled the moment. Somehow, make it less than it was. For the first time since childhood, I found myself wishing I could control time. I wanted to stop time, living in that moment forever. Once it was over, the likelihood of ever seeing Angela again was virtually zero, and we both knew it.
I cried the same tears as that August afternoon standing at the foot of my grandmother’s bed. They were the tears of a young boy facing the fact a hole was about to be torn in the blanket of his life. It could be patched, but it would never be the same. He would always be able to see the patch.
As five o’clock neared, we tidied up and dropped the key off to the apartment manager. We stood by the moving van promising to keep in touch like graduating seniors in the few minutes after getting their diplomas. This was my last chance to say anything in person. I told Angela that I would never forget her or the times we had together. She had helped me open new doors into myself, and she had given me comfort and inspired me when I needed it the most. She was more than a lover. Angela had become my best friend, and I loved her for it. She was my muse.
We shared one more kiss before Angela climbed into the truck and pulled into traffic. In that final glimpse of her, I thought I saw her wiping her eyes. The truck became smaller as she drove away. Making a right turn and disappearing around the corner, Angela left San Diego and me behind. Feeling drained from the catharsis, I got into my car for the six-mile drive back to my side of town. My wife would be home soon, and I needed to go about patching my blanket. I still had to drop the flowers off at Grandma’s grave.