Trigger warning: Bad shoes, an even worse jacket, and a velvety body bag.
It was almost 3:00 in the morning when I opened the door. Two men, both smiling at me under the porch light. “Hello, we’re here for John” was all they said in explanation. I got a better look at these guys as they stepped into my living room. They both were dressed in black, and the one with the ponytail had on a mint condition, Members Only jacket. The other guy had black sneakers that looked to be one size too big, the material buckling around the velcro straps from being pulled so tight. I motioned to the first door across the hall and they left the room.
Anne and I plopped down on the couch exhausted. We had been sitting with John all night. He slipped out of consciousness in the late afternoon. His hospice nurse had me doing check-in calls every two hours so she could adjust his medicines if needed. He had passed just before midnight. Cremation had been his request, and the Neptune Society was here to do that.
I caught sight of a pack of cigarettes in one of the front pockets on Members Only guy when he walked back through the room to the front door. “We need a few things from the vehicle” I nodded as he stepped out, and looked at Anne again. We were both numb – and tired. I felt like I had been crying for seven months, and I knew I was going to be back at it soon enough. For now, rest; helping someone die was a hell of a lot of work.
John had mumbled all afternoon, as if talking in his sleep. By early evening he was only breathing. We would sit and watch him as we held his hands. It was a deep heavy breathing that seemed to involve much more exhaling than inhaling. When his hands got cold, and his body began to sweat, we told him stories, let him know it was okay for him to go if he needed to. We were offering anything we thought might make his transition easier. I even told him I would be okay, which felt like a complete, but necessary lie. Just before midnight, even the breathing stopped and he was gone.
The room fell silent, and I was the one leaving, floating, traveling over all the memories John and I had made. How we met at the college, and the awkward start to our dating. I remembered driving around in his convertible that Spring, blasting Beethoven, completely thrilled with ourselves. I saw our garden and our pond, with the hand picked, ten-cent goldfish, now fat and swirling the top of the water, checking for food. I heard our ducks in the yard, rooting for bugs in the soft dirt around the sapling Camphor tree we planted.
And then it was just John. His smile, his laugh, his jokes about my cooking, his reminder before this moment, that nothing that happens after his death could change anything that we had before.
He was in our bedroom changing his clothes the first time he told me that. I could never get over how skeletal he had become with this cancer. He was always trying to eat, and it never seemed to help. As he changed his shirt that afternoon, I couldn’t help but think it still looked like it was on the hanger. I didn’t want to hear what he had to say, but he insisted, and I gave him my attention. “There is nothing that can change what we have. Even if you got a boyfriend the day after I died, it wouldn’t change anything. It would be nice if he wasn’t better looking than me though, just a thought.”
The last time we ate out, we had just been to see the oncologist. The doctor had just told us that the weekly blood work showed the cancer was no longer responding to the chemotherapy. We sat quietly in a booth at the restaurant down the street, dejected, waiting for food we were going to push around our plates. I was so angry that we weren’t going to have even just a little more time. It had only been a few months for Christ sake! We had been positive, we had done everything they told us we should do. Had all the tests, took all the medicines, sat together for every chemo session, doing Readers’ Digest word puzzles while the IV meted our time together, in it’s succession of drips. I was considering a grouping of pictures, as I stared at the wall over John’s right shoulder. Who did these people belong to? Where did they come from? How did they come to hang on this wall in the middle of a chain restaurant dining room? John’s voice snapped me back to our table. “I think taking care of someone who is dying, is harder than the actual dying. Thank you sweets.”
When Members Only came back in he had a surfer’s grip on a yellow backboard and was carrying a deep red, velvety body bag. I leaned in towards Anne as we watched him join his buddy back in the bedroom, whispering, “Dude, did you see that body bag? All velvety? It’s fit for Elvis!” We both stifled our chuckles.
Velcro Sneakers appeared and asked if we wanted to say anything else to John before they zipped him up. Saying goodbye to my husband in a body bag, even if it was a Velvet Elvis body bag, was a little more than I could do. I politely declined and they both returned a few moments later with John, ready to leave.
I opened the front door for them and then Anne and I stood there watching. They had a whole flight of stairs to navigate. There were three steps down to the landing, where the stairs made a 90 degree angle and went the rest of the way to the first floor of the duplex we owned. If they miscalculated the landing, John could slide of the end of the board and arc on to the front lawn below. Crumpling the majesty of the velvet Elvis bag.
That’s when Velcro Sneakers caught the edge of the step and John lurched towards Members Only. Velcro Sneakers quickly regained his balance, and they both nervously smiled up at us as if to say, No worries – we weren’t really going to drop him.
“Did you see that? Near Velvet Elvis disaster!” We both laughed, and it felt good.