One day in September I found myself in a very pretty tudor style home in Los Angeles sitting at someone else’s kitchen table, peeling the skin off someone else’s peach and feeding it to someone else’s husband. Ben and I had just walked through his garden together and sat in the shade of two trees that couldn’t have been more different, one a fir, the other walnut. I couldn’t help but think how this day was so different than all the other days of my life. We watched a squirrel diligently search among the elephant grass for seeds. It was a simple pleasure. A delight I would have missed had it not been for Ben.
He was charming and gentle and had as great a smile as one could have. He looked cute in his cargo pants, deck shoes and izod shirt that carried all the hues of blue. Ben was a pretty cool guy and his wife Jan was in that rarified strata of an even cooler girl. It dawned on me that a peek into their world was a vast and touching glimpse for me. My own timeline uncertain, Ben’s would end sometime in 2012. The insidious fingers of a brain tumor swept through the left side of his brain slowly extinguishing what once was a fine and majestic man.
Ben had outlasted 99% of the pack as his 6 year battle wound down. His bio markers responded well to Atavan, a drug that slowed down the deathly crawl of the cancer. The others with his diagnosis lasted six months or less. A second surgery in January eradicated the second onslaught of micro tumors and a miraculous remission was surely at the door. Sadly, somewhere in his brain the seed that spawned the cancer fingers could not be found no matter the invasive search.
I had an aha moment and was willing to bet on the squirrel. He would find that seed if given the chance, a face mask and surgical gloves.
Ben’s ability to piece together a coherent sentence was almost gone. “What time okay truck” was now passing for “what time is lunch” He would pick up a pen and try to eat with it. His gait was unsteady and his general life force down for the count.
It’s a good story to sit with a dying man and hear about his life, tap his wisdom and share it with anyone who will listen as a way of trying to save what we so often throw away. It’s a great day when you can be touched by someone else’s profundity as they stare down the face of death. This is not that. I can’t understand Ben … barely a word. I am crazy curious about him and desperate for that scavenger hunt that is not to be.
How did I get here? I am standing in for one of my good friends who owns the company providing the caregiver for them. We had a personnel glitch and rather than disappoint a new client, I took the morning shift. The real help should be here around 1:30. He’s eating lunch now and I like him, I like her. I like them as a couple. She is deeply present as a wife and committed to his care and comfort. He is committed to not leaving her behind. I am convinced he lives to touch her beautiful blonde hair.
She went into the office and I was happy to give her that time back. Her work I am guessing, defines her, is her comfort, her one sure thing. I can’t imagine the misery and despair that will close in on Jan when Ben goes off-line. I am feeling it myself as I stand up from the kitchen table to say goodbye to him. Bee the caregiver is ringing the doorbell. When I arrived in the morning I was anxious for Bee to get here. Now that she is here I feel somehow cheated. I wanted more time with Ben.
He sees that I am going, puts his hand in his food bowl and struggles to stand. It is all I can do to stop the food from spraying everywhere. I take him in my arms as if he were mine. I hug him huge and kiss the deep scar on the top of his head. I see the gratitude in his eyes and he asks if he will see me again. “Will you me who later.” I said yes, off course, I will check in on him from time to time.
In that second I realized just how painful deeply connecting with someone can be. I did it anyway.Ten years ago this precious gift would have been lost on me. The thought of loving someone for only four hours would have been absurd.
I grab his hand and squeeze it, give Bee a hug and glide over the front door sill as if the outside air were waiting only for me. I pull out of their circular motor court in my fancy car passing Bee’s Corolla parked on the street. She would now do the heavy lifting. Opening her heart day in and day out as best she can doing what needs to be done. Jan and Ben will pay for that companion and compassion. I’d like to think I gave it for free.
Only later today did the true cost roll up on me as I nurse the new little hole In my heart for a man I never knew and a woman I will now silently grieve with.