Standing in the hallways was an out of body experience. I mean, I knew where I was and I’d gotten there on my own power, but it was too surreal. The quiet of the building was modulated by grunts and moans, and sickly sweet smells of decomposing fruit forced its was between airborne clusters of chlorine. It was a mixture of life and death flowing into and out of my olfactories. My stomach had that nervous butterfly feeling and I wondered if I would end up tossing my cookies, Adding a new layer of odors to the atmosphere. A low howl began some rooms away. I was standing in a long hallway with doors in matched pairs mirroring one another and running the length of the walkway. The howl rose in volume and in richness, giving it an emotional qualities that tugged the heartstrings and wafted a sense of piteous gloom over verything. Then the howl became a scream. Long and piercing, it was so charged with painful angst that I turned on my heel and left the building with quick, jerky steps. Outside the door Itook a deep breath, pulling in the sweetness of the air, the plain old ordinary air that we all take for granted.
On the front stoop of the building I stood and watched the cars moving this way and that, their drivers intent o destinations and staring myopically through their windshields. They were oblivious to the testement and anthem of pain that was housed in the building. The structure itself was once a house, built in the Cutter craftsman style. It had been gutted and refitted to be a veterans home. By any other name it would be called a hospice center, but the government chose to call it a convalescent home –as if the patients who left would go home in the caring love of friends and family rather than a body bag. My friend was in that building. He was one of the thousands of veterans who formed cancer clusters. Their cluster aulification being that they went to war for the nation and the environment of war, rather than the stated enemy, ripped their lives away from them and left them with untenable pain in the bargain.
Pain. It’s a simple word and one of the first that every human learned. Oh, it might have had polite substitution words –like owie or boo-boo– but the subject was pain and the dismay that it produced in thos it afflicted. Pain is the body’s alarm, a teacher once told me in science class. It is a sensation that forces the people who feel it to ascertain the cause and put and end to it, and thus the pain. It’s almost magical how well the system works.
Magical? My mind wandered back through my memories. Magical? No, I don’t think so. Pain might be the body’s alarm system, but it’s broken. A lousy system to say the very least. How magical was it that the sensation alerting you to a system fault would take over the body, preventing the victim from doing much to help themselves. As a sufferer of chronic pain, I see and feel all of the different ways that pain goes well beyond the idea of mere notification. Hell, pain can be so bad that people will do anything to shed themselves of it, even if that meant ending one’s own life. Talk about your shitty system malfunction; if Microsoft had designed, built and installed the pain system in people they’d have been sued out of business before you could say ‘stock options.’
Right now, my friend was in that building, and for all I knew it was he who made that creepy and woeful noise. He, a guy who ignored the hail of leaden hornets swarming the Vietnam air as mortar and satchel charges created successive circles of light and devastation like the ring shows of some circus from hell. Put those theings out of his mind and scramble to where I was laying. My leg was burst open where the bullet had roughly shoved aside my femur before jamming it out through the skin in a tiny explosion of its own. I was paralyzed by pain and overcome by fear, but he came and got me. He made the trip to where I was and collected me up ans campered back to the relative protection of sandbags and subterranean trenches through which people moved this way and that. It was my turn to feel pain and I held up my end admirably, experiencing the crystal clarity of absloute agony brought to light by the catastrophic trauma of war wounds.
I survived, of course, thanks to the efforts of my friend. They gave him a commendation, but they gave me top honors, a Purple Heart, a Silver Star, a promotion, And now he was the one who was feeling the unrelenting pain of his war wounds. But his wounds weren’t heroic, he merely got sick from all of the chemicals pumped into the air in combat theaters. In that unrelenting agony he was withering away, not a far ways from finally giving his all to the nation’s call to arms. That would be his greatest reward. That would be the end of his pain, and that gift was a prize of incalcuable value. I lit a cigarette and puffed on it, taking drag after drag, not tasting the flavor or feeling the little energy bursts afforded by nicotine. After a minute of this I dropped the butt to the ground and raked my heel across it, shattering it and rending it in ways similar to how cancer rips and rends life from its victims.
Back inside again, I steeled myself against the subliminal taunting of sound and odor and with a more professional pace, stepped down the hall to the room where he lay, waiting for his friend to visit. I grabbed the handle and cranked it down, releasing the latch. I let the door swing open. Laying in the bed was a miniature. Like some sort of sadistic Hummel, a tiny figure consisting of translucent skin road mapped by dark blue veins rested. He had IVs in both arms and a series of electrical monitors were connected from sensors on his body and head, wired to the little squad of monitors. They were all silent and showed no activity. I looked closely at the man’s face as if I needed to verify the bull of a man who’d saved me all those years ago. What lay in bed, covered by a light blue patient smock, already looked like death had made its visit, claiming and taking the soul of my befactor to a more pleasant climate. I stood staring at him for what seemed a long time and then the pile of humanity on the bed spoke in a gravelly whisper. “I knew you’d come.” he said.
“No way I could do anything else.” I swept my arm around, indicating the room. “Tell me about it.”
“What’s to tell? I got cancer in my bones, my lungs and my prostate. I tried chemo and shit, but it didn’t do any good. They said they found it all too late. Then, when they spotted the one cancer, they focused on it and meanwhile the other cancers had themselves a field day in me. Now they’re jusy keeping me as comfortable as they can. Lots drugs. He raised a hand extended his index finger and twirlled it. “Whoopee.” he sighed.
“You shoulda called me earlier. I could have been here for you all this time.”
“Nothing you coulda done, ‘cept sit here and let your life go to shit because you were too focused on mine. Why destroy your life too?”
“A life I wouldn’t have it it wasn’t for you. Don’t be worried about my life. I’m doing okay.” From there we digressed into ‘whatever happened to…’ discussions, pulling names out of our memories and chatting about what we liked and hated about them. It gave us some laughs. I became a fixture there at the convalescent center, welcomed in the morning and shooed away in the evening. We played Monopoly and laughed as we recalled paying for goods in Vietnames stores with the bogus dollars, telling the shopkeeprs it was milirary scrip. We discovered that some of what we always thought was funny wasn’t, in the end, very funny at all. But still, we spoke about just everything and anything, trying to trap as many moments as we could into our time together. It was a routine and a comfortable one, and so I balked petualntly when I arrived one morning to visit and was turned away. I wasn’t family so they wouldn’t tell me anything, just that I had to leave.
I was dismayed as I crossed the dayroom and headed for the building’s front door. I was stopped part way by one of the other facility residents. “He died last night.” he told me. “I guess it was about 9pm when I saw everyone running around pushing crash carts. Then things settled down and I saw them bring your friend out. He was in a bag. I’m sorry to have to tell you, but I knew they wouldn’t. He gestured to the reception desk and the busy workers moving about.
I nodded slowly. “Thanks for telling me.” I said. I mean it. I was grateful not to be stuck with suspicions and the frustration of not being able to satisfy them.
“Hoo-ah.” he said quietly.
“Hoo ah.” I replied.