My good buddy, Gil, may be dying. He is getting worse each day, fighting a rare, mysterious neurological disorder. I’ve been with him every other day for the last several weeks except the week I went on vacation. It has been at the same time a great and an impossibly difficult experience. Unless he starts to get better, we are down at the end of the road, feeling the cold breath from the Other Side. Gil was being brave and hiding the seriousness of his illness from us all, but since he was admitted to the hospital weeks ago, his good friend Bill, myself, and many others have done our best to stand by his side. Today his rector and people from his church went and prayed with him. What God wills will happen; so be it.
Just now I adapted that old expression, “flying in the face of reason,” to express how I feel. Most of the time, flying in the face of reason is not something we want to do. But Reason can’t deal with Death, although it takes various highly pretentious crystallized forms and tries to. With my mom, this January, and now with Gil, I have been flying in the face of Death, acting as if we didn’t have to answer, each and every one of us, to the Grim Reaper. Meanwhile, Gil has been hand wrestling the Old Guy, who seems incredibly persistent.
I have discovered that when someone you love dies, you just have to show up and do your best. The Egyptians built pyramids for the Chosen Few, the Vikings sent their dead off on a boat to Valhalla, and Gil, being a committed Christian, gets to have Christian promises for a new home with God. I made the promises to him, along with my rector and friends. But more than that, I want to go right down to the edge of the water with him and push the boat off and watch it disappear into the distant horizon. That’s a promise I can keep, at least I hope so.
And so it was last Wednesday, that Bill and I went to Gil’s apartment and dug out some things that we thought might make his stay in the nursing home (before he was taken again to the hospital)—selected these tokens of his independent life and took them over to his room. Gil has had a long life in theatre, dance and music, knows many talented friends, and many thousands of former students and their parents. From the many precious mementos we found, we selected these things: some colorful needlework that Gil did many years ago, a picture of the original cast of the Wizard of Oz, another picture of Gil and his beloved, now deceased dog, Mac, a celtic cross image from Bill, a crucifix with an image of Jesus holding a lamb, and a little statue of a black scotty terrier. When we entered the room with these things, Gil became very engaged and interested. He wanted to touch and see them all. He nodded acceptance as we identified the place to hang each of the pictures. He read the braille on a card sent to him from a fellow teacher at the Missouri School for the Blind. We saw that old sparkle in Gil’s eyes for a little bit. He squeezed my hand hard and said “Thank you” when I left.
Gil is a devoted follower of opera, and can tell you most times which production is playing and which divas are singing. He seems to know these operas by heart. Bill had brought a “boom-box” from his place, and began to play the first disc from Menotti’s The Saint of Bleeker Street. Gil became enraptured. He moved his mouth as the soprano sang. He kept a little time, and directed a tiny bit. And though we had had trouble hearing him that day, we understood him to say, “There’s so much more when you’re there!” All and all, we spent almost an hour with Gil, surrounded by the music and a few of the things he loved. Then he tired and went back to bed. Two days later he was back in the hospital, fighting for his life.
I don’t know what’s going to happen for sure. I plan to continue flying in the face of both Reason and Death. But I do hope that last Wednesday, Bill and I helped Gil to get on the boat that is taking him to the rest of Eternity. I hope we can take him right down to the shore and help to push him off.