The man watched people heave a sigh of relief as they entered the Delta Sky Club at Washington-Reagan International. He thought he understood their unspoken sentiments. The elevator to the Sky Club on the third floor stood immediately beyond the personal invasions now accepted as airport security. The commands here are spoken in a subdued and considerate tone, but there are extra “steps” (literally) that earlier had required him to stand in place, and raise his arms, and walk forward, and stand again… procedures that seemed new to him. He could feel the slightly bewildered look on his face, in spite of his experience as a seasoned traveler.
Now, as he watched the privileged few who gratefully took in the subdued lighting, the comfortably stuffed chairs, and the profusion of television monitors, he understood as one understands the pedestrians hurrying across the street. His feelings temporarily disengaged from the shock of the last few weeks.
“I love you man.”
Those had been the last words that he had uttered as he had gripped his friend’s hand tightly roughly a week ago. His friend was propped up on pillows as he lay beneath rumpled sheets on a narrow bed. His feet seemed to touch the foot of an institutional bed perhaps a bit too small for his 6'8" frame. The man had told his friend that he would be back, knowing that he would be returning to Washington DC for this business trip and fully intending to see his friend once again.
“I love you too.” His friend said clearly.
His friend’s voice was steady and strong this time, but his word selection was now difficult and strained. At times, his once brilliant and articulate voice was now confused and disjointed. The steroids prescribed to retard the malignant growth had also bloated his face even more than the last time he had seen him. The expression on his friend’s face told him he knew that he was losing the struggle, but there was nothing he could do about it.
It was not until he turned away, preparing to leave, that he realized that two of the remaining women in his friend’s life, had broken down in silent, wrenching tears while listening to their exchange. They had come in after his one-on-one visit, continuing their efficient dedication to his needs. His friend’s mother’s face was twisted in undisguised anguish as her watery eyes leaked, but she seemed to have no trouble in remaining quiet. His ex-wife was another story altogether. She had been his first wife, the best of a comely group, returned to him by some unimaginable quirk of fate and happenstance. All-knowing onlookers had been overjoyed at their reunion. She had finally been reunited with the love of her life, only to find herself cast in the role of his final caregiver. For months now she had been a rock, perhaps given to moments or private anguish, but serene and unruffled for all around her. Now she wept deeply, as quietly as she could, but her stiffled sobs threatened to completely overcome her.
The man had walked over and embraced her tightly for long, heavy moments.
Now he was back in Washington DC, about to return home from his planned business engagement. This trip had been a definite success from a professional view. It had left a hollow place in his heart in every other conceivable aspect.
Yesterday morning, he’d called from his departing airport to let his friend’s wife know that he was on his way. He’d made his own arrangements, and would not need her to meet him at the DC airport as she had done on his prior visit. She was happy to hear from him as always… but there was a new note of reservation in her voice.
When he questioned her on it, she explained that his friend’s mother had flown home several days earlier than she had originally planned. His friend had told his mother that he was tired and needed to somehow find peace. Well-wishers, co-workers, friends, family and associates had poured in for weeks to see him... once the word had gone out that he was now in hospice care. The tumor was now growing rampant across the left side of his brain. The fact that this author, teacher, columnist, political analyst, and newscaster could no longer consistently participate in conversation did little to deter the tide of those eager to come and say goodbye. There were also those who urged him to fight it, as if this were an option open to him. Others came to simply see him and pay their respects.
The man had rushed to DC as soon as he’d been told of his friend’s deteriorating condition. He’d known about the cancer, of course, but the prior news had been encouraging. Then things had all come crashing down.
He had made the previous trip because, of course, he had to. He’d arrived on Saturday to find his friend far too exhausted to do more than acknowledge his presence. But by coming back early the following Sunday, they had shared a few precious, stolen hours together in a one-on-one conversation unlike any they’d had over the fifty-plus years of their friendship. Throughout those hours he had tightly held his friend’s good hand. The right hand was now immobile, and unable to respond any further. The left hand was still strong and his grip left the man’s hand almost devoid of blood and circulation, but he’d only let that hand go for intermittent necessities. Gradually they’d restored the connection that had always been there. They’d found a way to achieve “the promise” and “the thanks” they'd seemed to need. They’d found a way to accomplish what the man hadn’t realized they had accomplished at the time.
They’d found a way to say goodbye.
Now the man’s friend was still in that narrow bed, but continuing to fade. He now chose to go forward on his own terms.
“I’m sure that he would be happy to see you,” his first wife said to the man on yesterday morning’s telephone call. “But it isn’t necessary.” She’d said this -- right after explaining that he’d gently asked his mother to go home.
So the man had chosen not to go back and visit his friend on this trip. There really wasn’t more to say. They’d said goodbye as only life-long friends can do.
“Life-long friends,” he said quietly to himself. He thought that phrase might yet break his heart.
Now he waited, at the Delta Sky Club and watched people come and go. As he blinked his eyes, he acknowledged that this was just a snapshot of their absurdly short lives. This thought left a bitter taste.
Soon they would call his plane, so that he could return home to his brand-new wife and the approaching end of this wonderful and horrific calendar year. He would go home and wait.