He wore a straw hat, and this, I was told, was the way I would identify him, should I see him around. I looked for many months, but I never quite met up with him, though I knew the meeting place well. However, one day, I was with my friend in her vehicle, driving down La Rambla and we spotted him. She offered him a ride. Then, we sat and spoke for a long time at lunch. I told him I’d find him again, and I did, many mornings at the coffee place. We sat outside together for hours, talking about just about anything.
He taught me many new notions about the soul and auras. I had assumed this was a spiritual matter, but my friend saw it as science. He told me that one could see an aura, or some people could, and he said there was scientific proof of its existence in each of us. I accepted this, since it made sense, the way he explained it. There was so much more, too, many things we spoke about.
He told me he’d been a sculptor but had to stop, due to having pulled a muscle. I was unclear about how long ago this was. He got the pain checked out a number of times. He told me, “Maybe it’s psychosomatic, maybe all in my head.” I told him that certainly no doctor should turn him away claiming “all in your head,” that to do that was certainly not okay. He told me he felt low, that maybe it was “depression.” I responded by asking that if he felt pain bad enough to stop doing his wonderful art, then surely, wouldn’t that cause anyone to become depressed? We spoke at length about the need for passion in ones life. I told him I wanted nothing more than to see him regain that passion.
A mutual friend took him to get some tests, to see what the matter was. I ran into our mutual friend in town. He said the whole experience was rather “surreal.” Then he told me. My friend has cancer.
I didn’t realize how far along that cancer was. Not until just last night.
Another friend took him to the hospital. They kept him two months. I ran into that friend at a party a week or so ago. He explained, “I had no idea why he called, why he chose me in particular. He reached out to me and said the pain was so bad he could not sit or stand.”
During the two months, many people visited. He was loved by many here. We tried to get things to him that he might need. However, as it is in any hospital, it’s not too safe keeping valuables around. He told me he felt frustrated that bills and other affairs were piling up at home. I sure know that “limbo” feeling, when you are in a hospital and these practicalities pile up.
I had to travel to the city Monday. I told him ahead of time and tried to estimate my time of arrival. It must have been around 4pm that I got to his bedside.
He looked small, I mean, really small, like he was sunken into his bed. He was cross and grumpy at first, but then, cheered up, and we began to joke around as we often did. The whole time, he didn’t once sit up. He explained that he was in too much pain. I knew he’d be discharged the next day, and there was talk of surgery to relieve the pain from a pinched nerve. I asked myself how he would manage on his own, if he was so immobilized by pain. I knew he very much wanted to get home.
We spoke of the future. He told me he planned to turn his life around. He wanted to be more social, inviting guests over regularly. He told me he looked forward to my visit. Me and Puzzle. I told him that he was good at saving money, but maybe too good, maybe he shouldn’t be too much of a penny-pincher at the expense of personal comfort. He said he was hiring his neighbor a few times a week to cook and clean for him. “I don’t know how to cook,” he confessed. He was excited about his decision. He said he would live like royalty.
Shouldn’t we all? We are sacred. All of us. We need to honor ourselves, not deny, nor, conversely, indulge in greed, but to be respectful of ourselves.
He was set to be released Tuesday. This, indeed occurred. He tried to call me Tuesday night but I didn’t find out till the next morning, that is, yesterday. I came as soon as I could for breakfast, which turned out to be a rather late lunch. I laugh now, because he had me pick up a kilo of bacon on the way over. When I asked for this at the mercado, the women behind the counter asked me to repeat back. “Si, uno kilo,” I responded, shrugging. I explained that this was what my friend has asked for. I responded “Si” when they asked if I wanted the bacon sliced. I knew he was feeling hopeful and wanted to entertain many guests. But a kilo of bacon is one helluva lot.
I walked to his place, thinking I’d like to know the way before making the trip by bus. I couldn’t bring Puzzle, because it was too hot to take her that far. It wasn’t hard to find his house, with the sign out front declaring the home’s name. Our homes all have names, much like one would name a pet or new baby. El Refugio. That I know of, he’s not the only expat to give his home this name. What a beautiful land here, and its people so kind and caring!
It was so good to see him. His neighbor cleaned for a while, taking out the old rug and mopping the floor. We sat outdoors with coffee. Then, we came inside. The day was ending. Now, night.
I picked up groceries for him so we could have a meal. He needed many things at the house, including dish detergent. Then, I cooked supper for him. He lay in bed while eating, trying to get in as much as he could. I was concerned that he couldn’t walk well on his own. I was afraid that if he were alone, he could fall while walking even a short distance from the bed to the chair, or to the bathroom. I suggested that I spend the night. I knew this was going to be more than just one night. I told myself I’d stay as long as he needed or wanted me. I took a cab back home, grabbed whatever I could think of, including Puzzle and her stuff, and then, cabbed back. He was asleep when I arrived, at 10:10 I figure.
I tried to be quiet. I brought Puzzle in, and she sniffed around. She barked a few times. I wasn’t sure why. She was clearly upset about something. I know why now. He was dying.
Last night, I didn’t sleep, or barely. I wondered if this was because I wasn’t accustomed to having anyone else around at night. I slept in an adjacent room. He stirred many times. I had no clue how he usually slept. I wondered why I heard no evidence of smoking in his breathing. No, it was something else I heard, and Puzzle heard it first. Puzzle is most always a sound and silent sleeper. Last night, she, too, stirred many times.
I slipped out in the morning, not wanting to wake him. I gathered twigs around the neighborhood. I came back and built a fire. A fire is sacred. It felt, somehow, like a rite. Later, I left again, figuring the local store was just opening. I managed to pick up many cleaning supplies for him and also more food. It was so late when I arrived back. Was it usual for him to sleep this late? I was putting groceries away and told myself I’d call a mutual friend and ask if he felt I should wake him or not.
Just then, the neighbor came knocking. She had a question but my Spanish wasn’t good enough for me to answer. She tried to wake my friend to ask him. We couldn’t rouse him. I knew then. This was beyond what either of us was equipped to handle. I phoned 911. I handed her my phone and she handed it to me. They had questions, which I answered. They were on their way.
When the police arrived, Puzzle seemed to accept their presence without any fuss. Two cops had arrived in one cop car. I had called our friend who came even before the cops. I tried to catch him up on what had happened. The police got a sheet around him, but he screamed in pain. I told them, “Dolor,” meaning paid. So instead, they gently lifted up the mattress under him, cradling him in the mattress so he’d feel less pain. Our friend followed the ambulance and met up with him. I stayed at his place, figuring that someone should be here. I knew that if anyone with bad intentions saw the ambulance leaving, they’d loot his home if they knew it was vacant. The neighbors were well familiar with this scenario. The same thing happened to me in Watertown once when I was taken by ambulance, but when they tried my door, I was already home! I assured everyone that Puzzle was a good watchdog but I didn’t want to leave her there alone.
I got a call not long after. They’d taken him to a local clinic. He was dehydrated. I knew he had been making a point of drinking plenty of fluids. Perhaps he didn’t take in enough. They were going to give him an IV, then send him home. Our mutual friend said two or three hours. I stayed put, waiting to hear if there was any more news.
I knew then, that staying with him had fallen into my hands. I was fine with that. Our friend called, saying the hospital personnel were saying there wasn’t much hope. He was coming home. I told myself I’d stay with him. I’d do what I could. I love this man, and this, I supposed, was how things were going to be for a while. It would all be okay.
In a way, it was. I took a nap with Puzzle. I awoke minutes before they arrived. I was outside, standing there with untied shoes and Puzzle. It wasn’t just our mutual friend, but two other expats as well. I cannot recall who it was that told me maybe I should put Puzzle inside. Then, I knew.
He had died. My dear friend, dead.
They wanted a towel. Why? To cover him, they said. Why was he in the car? Finally, someone explained. He had died en route. My friend had been holding his hand, assuring him. “You will be home soon.” She knew he understood, acknowledging her. That’s when he died.
I stood there, at the steps, holding Puzzle. They were telling me the cops would arrive soon. It took a while, then, they came, asking a few questions. I found his ID and handed it to them. I wanted to walk Puzzle. I asked one of our friends if he’d like to accompany me. I felt that perhaps he needed a breather, maybe just to chat and let out whatever would come out. The police had more questions. Then, I walked Puzzle for a bit so she could go to the bathroom. We were by ourselves.
I came back. The police were finished, but they said my friend’s body would need to be taken back so he could be officially pronounced dead. Before they left, I asked to see him. Why? Because the body is sacred.
I held Puzzle in one arm. She was calm. She placed her paw on his hand as I held it. I stroked him for a while. My friend.
I came back inside. I’m here now. It’s so silent here. His desktop computer is the loudest sound. A whir. White noise.
He’d told me earlier that he had papers for me. I was confused as to why he wanted me to have them. He said he’d had them on the table but the neighbor had moved them when she cleaned. He wanted me to find them. They were for me. About me, he said, though I wonder now why he said that. I haven’t looked too hard. I see several piles. I saw a file of bills and sales slips, another pile of more recent bills, that appeared to be stamped and paid.
I found photos. His sculptures. I’d never seen these before. One of his dreams was to teach someone his sculpting technique. To pass it on. I left the photos where I’d found them. On his table was a notebook, just a listing of when he’d had various medical appointments and a few other notes. A separate paper notated a few events that had occurred while he was hospitalized. These weren’t too detailed. The cancer had started in his lungs. “It doesn’t look good,” he had written. So it was.
He was my friend. Why it was that I felt obligated to tell this story at this time, I don’t know, except that we are all stories, our lives, our deaths. Our stories are sacred, and I take stories seriously. I believe my friend did, too.