The Last Words of a Man I Barely Knew
The front door to Moe’s apartment in South Brooklyn was open and so was the door to a little balcony that peered even further south, across buildings and steeples and treelines I had never met before either. I did one of those craned-neck peers and a half-hearted knock that’s less to make noise and more to push the door open and walked in after my Hello? went ignored.
Central to the room, in both location and sound, were four birds in a small cage who sounded more irritated than happy. They looked to have been given one of two uniforms to choose from, blue or yellow, and when the two blues sat on one side of the cage chirping at the yellows it looked like they were a black-and-white-striped-bird-referee away from the start of a game. Without getting up from the couch or looking up from her clipboard, the social worker responded to my Hi, I’m Joe with Do you know anyone who might want them? I didn’t, and I told her that, and before she disappeared into the other room, she took some photos of them for a few people who might.
I sat on a chair in the squawky living room that was cluttered with 93 years of relics: was that his wife in the photo on the wall? Did his family always pose like that on Christmas? Would that answering machine still work? Did he collect those jars in his kitchen for a reason? Did he really really think he’d revisit those stacks of newspapers? I certainly do that with most everything I read—isn’t that the luxury of the undying?
It became ok for me to walk into his room, and so I did, the term deathbed becoming a very real noun almost immediately. He was asking for a cup of water with ice, which, it turned out, was neither an easy thing for him to ask nor the nurse to answer. He KNOWS he can’t have it, she said to nobody in particular. I thought of the half-drunk glass of water by my bed, the one I can fill at any moment without permission.
To think: the glorious feeling of drinking from the faucet. The way you peel a lid off a cup and ignore the straw and drink right from the side so you feel the ice on your lip. The trickle down the side of your mouth. The hand-wipe. Lingering salt-water on skin. Goggle-marked eyes and chlorine. Cup after cup of water over your head when you’re 18 miles into a marathon and the sun is everywhere and your legs are tired but you feel so alive. Looking up through the rain at your favorite tree in New York. Your little Christmas tree, oh how it drinks that piney water, oh how nicely dressed it is in those lights. Maine—a road trip and a dive into cold, cold water after a lobster roll; Greece—the jump off a rock-face in Kalymnos, the jump off a pier near a restaurant in Crete that grilled a whole lemony white fish, the jumps from rock to rock to rock and into a blue in Karpathos you swore you could feel; Israel—there’s the Red Sea where you have to paddle a little bit to float and there’s the Dead Sea where you sure don’t. The times they spray water on your head in a barbershop and it looks like it feels rewarding to comb through. Did you have too much sangría and jump into the Guadalqivir River in Sevilla wearing not the faintest stitch of clothing when you were 18 and the sun had gone down? You bet. Where is your list of rivers and lakes and oceans you’ve raced in? Somewhere, but let’s start with these: Geographe Bay in Western Australia, the Ohio River in Louisville, Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho. A poem should always have birds in it, says Mary Oliver. And water, too, you think.
And so you have those moments that add together bit by bit by bit and you live your way into a relationship with water that dies before you do. A cup of water…ice, you one day struggle to ask from your deathbed. Maybe, the world replies, maybe. (He KNOWS he can’t have it, it whispers behind your back). A sign that those days of personal autonomy are over for good.
I’ve never taken part in the preparations that a concluding life brings with it, one with a vocabulary all to itself: getting affairs in order, power of attorney, final will and testament, do not resuscitate, last legs, full life, passed. But it was happening around Moe—with every phone call, every drop and pill. His 93 years wrapping up. Hours and minutes the longest measures left. I find myself saying things like, Next season, the Mets… and Oh, the expiration date is 10/2021. Those luxuries of infinitude—its delusion, at least—was also another thing Moe was at last without. The many deaths we die before we die.
The last time I saw him, he never took the cool washcloth off that was covering his eyes. He was using his hands to press the small towel around the edges of his eyes, eking out some of the final drops of water he’d ever feel, one of those unmistakably human things we all do to intensify the coolness. To feel even more. His mouth was open and he was breathing quite hard. I said Hi Moe! through the little microphone I’d use so he could hear me and he took his hand off his eyes and waved me off. Not today, he said, not today. Next week.