We arrived at his apartment in the evening, the day after he had called and said he was dying and wanted to tell J. he loved him. The next day he had severe angina – the first really intense episode since the angina attack and hospital stay that had precipitated this entire decline - and was given nitroglycerine tablets, then a nitro patch, then some morphine. When we got there he was resting comfortably in his bed, on sunny yellow sheets, wearing a dark blue nightshirt covered with white moons and stars. We didn’t stay long, and told him we’d come back the next day, which we did, arriving there around dinnertime. He refused food, though, having already eaten two big meals earlier in the day.
He moves painfully from the bathroom to his chair in the living room, stopping at the kitchen counter to collapse onto the seat of his walker and be pushed the rest of the way, eyes shut, loud moans accompanying each breath.“Let’s have some action!” he says, his eyes roaming anxiously around the room. “What are we waiting for?”
We sit in our own chairs, waiting, suspended with him in this interminable purgatory. After a cursory “hello” upon noticing us, he sits in his chair, moaning, unseeing, for a long time. Now his eyes open; I move the little rush-seated stool closer to him. “Let’s do something!” he insists, seeming agitated as he searches my face. “I think the three of us should take some action! Where are my shoes?”
“In the back room.”
“They’re hanging on a hook,” he elaborates, and then clutches at the neck of his bathrobe. “Where are my clothes?”
“Also in the back room.”
“What good are they, lying there? Let’s do something! The day is starting.”
It’s six in the evening, but no matter. “What do you want to do?”
“Shall we pretend it’s morning and we’re going to chapel?” He raises his eyebrows. “If you were going to speak to the students in chapel today, what would you tell them?”
“That I want to DIE!” The words emerge in a growl from between clenched teeth.
“Oh. I’m not sure they’re going to want to hear that.” He gives a slight, very slight, smile.
“When did we get to London?” he asks, suddenly.
“We’re not actually in London."
“No, unfortunately. If we were there we could go to the museum. Like we used to do after breakfast." He gives me another wan smile. I’m thinking fast. What to say next? “We had a lot of good times in London, didn’t we? Do you remember John W.? And Lady W.?”
“Is he dead now too?”
“No, he’s very much alive and always asks about you.”
“So we’re not in London? Where are we?”
“In your apartment in X.”
He looks at me, astounded. “Really? Amazing!”
“See, all your books are here. Simone de Beauvoir.” He looked surprised again. “Up there on the shelf. Your daughter arranged all your books for you.”
“No, they’re more by subject area. That’s a little French section up there: Simone de Beauvoir, Stendhal, Andre Gide... you have a wonderful library.”
“I think we probably will. All your children have good libraries.”
He nods, and then sits, silent. At length he rouses himself and makes an announcement to the room: “I know what we’re waiting for.”
“What is that?”
“We’re all waiting for me to die.”
A little stunned, neither of us have any idea what to say, so we are silent as well.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” he goes on. “Putting someone in their bed for months and just waiting for them to die.” He shakes his head. “I don’t think it’s Christian.”
I think hard, trying to choose between various ways of responding. Finally I take the riskiest one. “So, would you prefer the hemlock?” I ask him, speaking gently.
“No,” he says solemnly and sadly. “I wouldn’t drink it.”
“Neither would I, probably. So I guess we just have to wait.”
“I suppose so,” he says, and shuts his eyes.
(This is the latest in a many-year-long series of posts about my father-in-law, collected under the title "The Fig and the Orchid"; please click on that name under Pages, in the sidebar at left, for the whole series.)