I arrived at my mother’s hospital room on April 4th, 2019 with bloodshot eyes and puffy cheeks and three days of grey stubble on my chin. I hadn’t slept since I learned she was dying, and I hadn’t been able to speak with her because she had slipped into a coma. I had waited anxiously for the next flight from my home in San Diego to Baton Rouge, two time zones away, where she was in an intensive care unit I knew well and was waiting for a liver transplant that would probably never happen.
Her doctor had known I’d be arriving after visiting hours and that time was critical, and he had left instructions to allow me into the intensive care ward and waited for me to arrive. He told me that her liver had failed from years of excessive alcohol and was unlikely to wake from a coma, but that the machines connected to her body could keep her alive for weeks or months or even longer. Even if a compatible liver transplant became available, it was unlikely that she’d survive the operation, and if she did, it was unlikely she’d survive very long after, because she’d have to stop drinking to live. In the three years since she had been put on the liver transplant list she hadn’t stopped drinking, even with the treatment programs he had recommended.
I listened silently, hearing his words but with my mind focused on the memories swirling through my thoughts. I was reprocessing every phone conversation with Wendy over the past few years, and putting words and nuances into a new context that was beginning to tell a different story than I had believed only a few days before. She had always been a private person, telling small lies to avoid questions out of habit rather than maliciousness or deceit, and speaking with her had always been more about listening to what was not said rather than what was shared.
I began to feel regretful, saddened that I hadn’t listened more closely, realizing that I had assumed her slurred speech and memory lapses were the same as always, an effect of her third or fourth glass of wine by 3 or 4 pm, around lunchtime in San Diego and when I was often distracted; but, when your liver fails your body no longer processes toxins, and, in a way, you act drunk all day and may not even realize it. Like with alcohol, when your liver doesn’t process toxins your brain is affected and your decisions become impaired, and she may have even decided to keep drinking in logic that made sense to her mind. In hindsight, she had been trying her best to tell me what was happening. She had tried to call a few mornings, and I had assumed she was drinking earlier and earlier, just like her family had done when I was a child, and my assumptions were so ingrained that I never thought otherwise.
I listened to the doctor explain things I already knew about the chances of her survival and the machines keeping her alive, but I let him keep talking rather than interrupt and assume I’d know everything he’d say. I could hear his words, but my mind was partially lost in thoughts replaying years of phone conversations and every word spoken even though, I was realizing, I hadn’t listened.
The medical devices keeping her alive beeped relentlessly as he spoke, the rhythm of their sounds and the graphs on their displays telling me what I needed to know. She was dying. The respirator tube down her throat seemed oversized for her relatively small face, and it filled her lungs and made her chest rise and fall once every fifteen seconds. Without it, she would quickly die. The doctor said that, as her only living relative, I could choose whether or not to keep her on life support. If I chose to disconnect the respirator, no one knew how long she’d continue to live, and he reiterated that it could be minutes to months. Her body was too weak to breath by itself, and her lungs were filling with fluid as if she had pneumonia or Covid, making her breathing more difficult and reducing the amount of oxygen her blood had available to absorb and give to her body. The respirator was connected to an oxygen supply and inflating her lungs with extra-oxygenated air to compensate for the fluid in her lungs, and a new invention on it, called the Ex-Sys, monitored her exhalation and displayed the percentage of oxygen exhaled and relate it to data from other parts of the system, though I didn’t see much use in that data in her situation.
The respirator had been keeping her alive the past three days, her doctor said, not mentioning the Ex-Sys data displayed, because, he happened to mention off-handedly, that it wasn’t very useful in her situation. He was probably right.
The IV pump wasn’t life support, in a way, because she could live several days without it. But, it fed her body fluids and nutrients and opioid pain relief and pH buffers through four tubes connected to needles in the backs of her small hands. Her petite inner arms were bruised from failed needle sticks in her veins, which never had been prominent, and she needed more of the smaller needles on the backs of her hands to compensate for less volume. Her heartbeat monitor beeped quietly and indicated her pulse was 54 beats per minute; coincidentally, I realized as the doctor spoke, the same as mine and in the same phase, like two music instruments playing in harmony.
It was almost 8:56 pm, and the doctor said he’d return by 8 am to learn what I decided. He must have waited almost an hour I thought, grateful that someone like him had cared for Wendy. He left us alone in the dimly lit with the beeping machines and a constant hum from the air conditioner blowing cold to keep out the warm, humid air of Baton Rouge that I had only felt a few times since I left home thirty years prior; in San Diego, the weather was so perfect that we had never used an air conditioner, and its sound and the feel of cold dry air in my lungs and against my skin brought back memories of growing up in the south, and I felt waves of sadness and loss and regret and collapsed by her bed and bawled and asked her why she hadn’t told me, but that was rhetorical and I knew the answer.
Wendy had always been a private person, embarrassed by her lack of education and alcoholism and for abandoning me as an infant. She had me when she was a sixteen year old girl, estranged from her family, and then she was abandoned by my father. She had had a slight nervous breakdown and fled Louisiana, ironically going to California, but returned and matured and fought for me for seven years and eventually regained custody. But, by then I barely knew her, and we developed an atypical mother and son relationship, partially because I hadn’t grown neurological bonds with her as a baby, and partially because when I was four or five years old and first forming associations and memories using words I thought she was my sister, or one of the many people in and out of my life named Wendy. After I matured, I became estranged from her and my dad, who had other children by other women who had also fled, and I saw patterns in my mother and father that I did not want for myself. At age 16 I asked a judge to emancipate me, and the courts obliged and Loiusiana law allowed me to be a legal adult on paper, though still a boy in age and maturity, and without a mother and father. But, over time, Wendy and I became best friends, and we had a love as strong as many mothers and sons and with the added, special, and unique connectivity of people who choose to love each other and knew the power of forgiveness; and because of our shared, complex history that we never discussed with other people. It was our secret, something we grew to joke about once it no longer mattered and there was no point to telling other people and therefore our private, inside joke. No matter the love we felt later in life, old habits are hard to break, and I still called my mother Wendy.
The IV pump sounded an alarm and I ensured that the tubes didn’t have an air bubbles that could cause a pulmonary embolism, but the alarm was a false positive, a conservative safety measure that’s terrifying to hear and an inconvenience to ICU nurses but benign, so I reset the pump’s computer and rested my hand on hers, carefully avoiding the needles. It looked huge compared to hers. I told her I was there, and that wouldn’t leave her, and I apologized for the loud alarm and assured her she was fine and restated that I wouldn’t leave her.
But my bravado failed and I collapsed to my knees beside her bed, still resting my hand on hers, and cursed louder than the alarm had sounded and demanded to know why she, God, or someone else hadn’t told me she was sick for so long. Doctor-patient privacy laws wouldn’t have allowed her doctor to tell me and none of her friends knew the whole story, and I held no grudge against anyone. My question was rhetorical, only an exasperated expression of the frustration I felt at The Universe in my moment of pain; to me, God and The Universe was anything I didn’t understand yet was a part in my life. If I had known, I told her and The Universe when I calmed down and stood back up, I would have made different choices and flown to Louisiana to help. I know that to be true, but it didn’t matter then, because the past can not be changed.
I cried loudly and forcibly, taking deep breaths between bouts of bawling, but I stopped when I began wheezing, my asthma tightening my chest, restricting my breathing, probably due to the cold dry air in Wendy’s room that I was unused to. I stood up and tried to focus on something, anything, to allow my breath to settle and to distract myself from ruminating on what wouldn’t change. I looked at the IV pump serial number and recalled the date of manufacture. It was before my time; coincidentally, I had led the team redesigning it, the world’s most common model from a company headquartered in San Diego, and I knew about the false positives that plagued it and knew that a false positive was terrifying and annoying, but better than a false negative that didn’t register the alarm and allowed an air bubble to pass into her blood stream. It was fine for now. The hospital had paid for the extra safety software, even the useless ones that persisted for marketing reasons and old contracts with hospital systems that resisted change. The system had cost around $350,000 without a contract that could have included other equipment in her room and at discounted prices, like bundling a home kitchen set or entertainment system.
I inspected her respirator, a new model manufactured in San Diego by what was once a small startup company but had been purchased and absorbed by a publicly traded international corporation with a lot of contracts. It was one of 35 produced each month for between $36,000 and $75,000, depending on the software options, and I recognized the serial number and knew who had authorized its quality assurance process and who had overseen its shipment to Baton Rouge. I had overseen new manufacturing lines for the Ex-Sys, and the current manufacturing instructions included what I had hoped would be a temporary photo of my left hand pointing towards a critical step in the process that hadn’t been designed with manufacturing in mind and kept being overlooked, even with their excellent quality assurance process. I told Wendy that, and tried to smile and joke with her, and I said that I had a hand in her life support. Neither of us could know this; but, in a twist of fate I’d laugh about exactly eleven months later, the government would order one million of those respirators as part of the fancy sounding government name, Operation Warp Speed, that opened proverbial purse strings and said time was urgent. And though I don’t know how much we paid for each of those million units, I’d joke with my friends that I had a hand in either Covid relief or excessive spending, depending on the context on to whom I was speaking, and that Wendy had told me that joke. It would be a small lie to avoid resurfacing memories that I was beginning to form that evening. Like Wendy, I was a private person and told small lies to avoid questions prying into complex situations, and I knew what I’d tell the doctor in a few hours. I was with Wendy for her final moments, and I talked to her about inside jokes that no one else knew as memories swirled in my thoughts and I listened, all night, to the relentless beep of machines I had a hand in making.
I had inherited her sense of humor, centered around coincidences and ironies and puns. Her birth name was Wendy Anne Rothdram, and she had always joked that she was born WAR and that marrying a Partin had WARP’ed her. She had kept her married name, Wendy Partin, even though she had divorced my dad almost immediately after having me, and I tried to make a joke that she was still a Partin and therefore still warped, but I collapsed again and cried loudly for a long time, too fatigued to find humor in the situation, even with all of the coincidences and ironies and inside jokes between us.
A year later, during Operation Warp Speed, I would look skyward and create another inside joke with her, one that only she would have understood, and say that she was a part in Covid relief, too, and that The Universe was funny that way.
I eventually stopped crying and wiped my eyes and glanced at the bags of IV fluid and saw they were still full enough to last until her doctor returned in the morning. I recognized the names on the quality assurance label, and I knew several of people who had been a part in that process and signed off on the final inspection in their Tijuana manufacturing plant, only 16 miles from my home in America’s Finest City and only three weeks prior. I had overseen the quality assurance of that manufacturing plant, training their managers to comply with FDA quality assurance laws as part of a cross-border initiative to lower healthcare costs by using hundreds of highly qualified engineers and technicians across the border, where salaries were 1/3 of what people in San Diego made. To me, they seemed to put a little extra love into their work, perhaps because the opportunities of offshore manufacturing were new to them, and they hoped to earn what many people a few miles away had been given. Gratitude and love seem to go hand in hand.
I spent a while telling Wendy about the people who made her IV bags and their families and meals we had shared, and that I’d thank them when I returned home.
I forced myself to tell her a bit about my condo in San Diego and what was happening there. Like Wendy, I had grown up reticent to share personal details that could lead to further questions, and it was still a habit. But, she had never visited and hadn’t left Louisiana in thirty years and always asked about my life so that she could live a bit vicariously. I felt that the least I could do was share some stories and hope she could hear me. If we were lucky, the stories would give both of our minds something else to focus on, something more positive than the past or future, and I wanted our final moments together to be as full of love and laughter as possible. We laughed together often; she had been a voracious reader, and one of the quotes I recall from an author she had enjoyed, Kurt Vonnegut, was “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.” He was right, for us at least, and I had grown up laughing about things other people probably wouldn’t understand.
I held up my scarred left hand and showed Wendy the wrist watch she’d remember from her childhood. I had inherited it from our Uncle Bob just before I left Louisiana, a Rolex Oyster Perpetual that never needing winding or batteries, a mechanical marvel of that time period that absorbed energy from the motion of your arms and stored it in tiny, Swiss made springs to be released slowly, while you slept or rested. It was a Rolex, but the most unostentatious model they sold, with a simple black band and scratched acrylic face. You’d have to look closely to notice it was a Rolex. It was subtle, and despite the scratch, it was still eloquent and reliable. Uncle Bob had bought it the same year Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay brought one to the first summit of Mount Everest, and it was the same one I had seen the super spy James Bond wear in old late night movies Uncle Bob and I had watched together when I sat with him in hospice care. He was a French speaking Canadian, and when he immigrated to Louisiana in 1952 he had sought out the French speaking parts of New Orleans and splurged on the Rolex from a reputable jeweler, not knowing its history but recognizing quality and appreciating that he had achieved the American Dream and could afford a few luxuries. He had said that a spy would wear the most discrete, reliable watch possible. He was right, and his Oyster Perpetual had been working longer than I had been alive.
I told Wendy that it was old and scratched and scared, but still working and useful. “Just like me!” I said, chuckling and, for the first time in days, feeling a hint of genuine happiness shining between the clouds of worry and sadness that had depleted my sleep.
I leaned into the momentum and rotated my head to show her my greying, receding hairline and the long, arching scar across the back of my head I had had since a child, and I repeated Uncle Bob’s jokes from when he, too, had been here, in the same hospital, shaking his watch with two fingers to keep it running. “Hair today, gone tomorrow!” he’d say, and tell me that I, too, would one day be like him, and to understand that it’s more fun to laugh than to complain or fight the inevitable.
I don’t know if she could understand my words, but I hoped that she could sense my tone of voice, and feel our shared history and connection as mother and son and not just as my friend, but my mind suddenly stopped smiling and the clouds closed and blocked out the light, and all I felt was worry and sadness and regret at not having more time with Wendy. l began to wonder if her pain killers were working and how long she’d struggle when the respirator was removed, and I collapsed onto a knee beside her bed again and cried and bawled at The Universe again and again and again. I may have even cursed angrily few times, but I can’t recall the words I used.
Wendy was my best friend. She was still young, only 16 years older than I was, and we shared the same family history and pop culture references and secrets than only a few other people knew. All of our family had died young, too, and all had been alcoholics and died from complications related to alcohol or cigarette smoking between the ages of 62 and 64. All had been relatively happy, hard working people who diligently contributed to their retirement savings and never complained about social security being withdrawn from their paychecks, and all had retired and died within a few months of receiving their first social security check and before being able to withdraw from their retirement savings without paying 45% as a penalty for withdrawing before 64. Auntie Lo had died in the same hospital as Uncle Bob, and now Wendy was there. She knew the hospital well, too, and I believe her memories would have swirled just as mine were.
Wendy had received her first social security check only six months prior, and told me she hoped to travel and enjoy her retirement, just like Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo and Granny had planned for themselves before dying too young. She had inherited their retirement accounts, all held in traditional IRA’s and growing with compound interest since the 1950’s, but she hadn’t cashed them so that she wouldn’t be penalized for early withdrawals. The IRS wants to ensure you don’t start enjoying life too soon, I had joked with her, encouraging her to travel like she had always wanted to. Instead, she chose to wait until she turned 64 and could withdraw without penalties, and she managed the accumulated IRA’s of our entire family. She had learned to invest wisely from Granny, a self taught investor based on principles from Warren Buffet and a few books on her bookshelf, heavily focused on long term value and dividend stocks, and Wendy’s discounted Exxon stock from decades working there had skyrocketed during the recent wars. Granny had taught both of us about IRA’s and compounding interest, and I believe I recall everything she said, even during her final days. She had laughed and repeated what Uncle Bob had always said: you can’t take it with you. They were both were right, and Wendy had inherited their IRA’s and added them to her own and continued to grow them for another thirty years using the same principles Granny had taught us. Wendy was dying a wealthy woman, and I didn’t joke about the irony.
The doctor came in at 8:23am and I slowly stood up and kept my hand on Wendy’s and told him my choice and he instructed the nurses to remove my mother from the life supporting machines I had had a hand in making. I stood aside and then, with my right hand, gently squeezed her tiny, bruised hand that no longer had IV needles. I placed my left hand beside her head and automatically, out of habit, observed the second hand with my peripheral vision as I monitored her breath rate and pulse, just like I had with hundreds of patients. I had worked as a paramedic during college to supplement the army college fund while I studied medicine and engineering, and old habits linger deeply; an analog watch allows you to watch the second hand move a quarter rotation, and you multiply the breaths times four to know the breath rate, reducing the number of numbers you’d see on a digital watch and saving your mind precious bandwidth when there were more important things to focus on. I knew her breath was shallow and she was too weak to breathe deeply, and her heartbeat was becoming more rapid, irregular and shallow, frantically trying to feed organs oxygen with blood depleted of oxygen, automatically clinging to life and fighting the inevitable. She gasped and coughed up phlegm, and then her heart rate monitor began a long, steady beep that told me what I already knew. The nurse turned it off, but I continued to squeeze her hand because I told her I wouldn’t leave her and I felt she was still there.
I tried to restrain my tears as I waited for a ineffable feeling that it was time to let go. My eyes tried to shut and my upper lip quivered and I couldn’t take a breath. I knew the feeling well, clinging to the final moments with someone and not wanting to blink, but wanting to say something, anything, that would help, and trying to restrain myself. I had felt that feeling hundreds of times before, and had felt it the first time with Uncle Bob and then with many people, most of whom I never knew but recognized that we’re all the same in the end. My love and sadness and fatigue swirled, and I stopped trying to focus anything and allowed memories to come and go and recontextualize faster than thoughts could form, more like emotions and bursts of complex feelings than conscious thought or clearly defined memories, and they were strengthening our friendship as we shared her final moments together and simultaneously creating what I realized was a son’s love for his mother, the first time I had ever felt it, and that sharpened the pain of loss because I was simultaneously losing a friend and my mother. The stronger and new emotions arose like ocean waves in a storm coming from opposite directions and violently crashing into each other and then annihilating and being reborn again, stronger and crashing again in a cycle that rippled through every cell in my body and caused me to shiver and shake and almost collapse again. I was loving and losing again and a gain, more painful each time, losing the friend I loved and loving my mother for the first time, and grieving their loss in an amplifying cycle. I fought against being drowned by the waves and tried to keep my eyes open as tears dripped down my cheeks and across my stubble and onto her face. I fought with every bit of effort I could muster, and finally allowed myself to say the final words, whatever the would be, knowing that once I begin talking I’m no longer listening, but somehow sensing it was time.
I said, “I love you, Wendy,” and mindlessly mouthed the word “love” again and again, an expression of the deepest and truest emotion I felt in the waves of sadness and fatigue and regret, and my tears dripped onto her face and chest and I squeezed her hand so she would know I was still there, and the doctor recorded her time of death as six minutes before I let go. It was time.
I planned to stay in Louisiana and settle her estate. She lived remotely, an hour upriver near the quaint town of Saint Francisville, in a beautiful home she had designed and had built with an early retirement settlement from Exxon. The cell phone reception around her home was unreliable, part of the reason we had rarely spoken in ten years, and I knew I’d be out of contact with my family and friends in San Diego. I had ways to reach my closest circle without cell coverage – I traveled to remote areas frequently and used satellite communications for emergencies – but this wasn’t an emergency, and I had inherited Wendy’s sense of privacy, perhaps only out of habit. Few people knew I had suddenly left San Diego, and I quickly wrote an email telling those who needed to know that I’d be without my phone or email for a while.
I then wrote Wendy’s obituary for the Baton Rouge Advocate, and selected a photo of her from my phone that was midway between her age now and when she was in high school, one of her smiling and with two of the dogs she had rescued and fostered, hoping people who knew her then and now would recognize her. It would be printed in the paper edition, which was still useful and used by people her age and by many in the relatively antiquated culture of Baton Rouge compared to the more digital culture of California, and posted online from April 8th to the 9th. I had hesitated writing her obituary, wondering what to write and habitually respecting her privacy, and I believe she would have been happy with the result.
Wendy Rothdram Partin, a resident of St. Francisville, LA, passed way on Friday, April 5th, 2019 at the age of 63. Wendy attended Glenoaks High School in Baton Rouge, LA, and retired from Exxon Mobil. She is survived by her son, Jason Ian Partin, of San Diego, CA. She was preceded in death by her mother, Joyce Rothdram, and her aunt and uncle, Lois and Robert Desico, all of Baton Rouge, LA. During her retirement, she became a master gardener and enjoyed helping people with their lawns. She enjoyed cooking, and took food to anyone she knew who was ill or grieving. Wendy loved animals, and worked with local shelters to foster dogs until they found permanent homes. She passed away unexpectedly from liver failure. In lieu of gifts or a service, please spend time sharing what you love with your neighbor, listen to what they love, and help each other.
I had hesitated writing about her liver failure, but I thought it was worth sharing. Hundreds of thousands of people die each year from alcohol abuse, and I hoped that one small gesture would plant a seed in someone’s mind before it was too late. I believe Wendy would have agreed.
That night, I wandered around her house, a mansion by most people’s standards, with meticulously designed and maintained gardens using local fauna, pine trees for shade and to acidify the soil for the azelea flowers that were blooming and releasing their sent, a young but growing pecan tree, and of course a single, majestic stately oak tree draped in Spanish moss that she had designed her home around. She had added a wrap around porch overlooking a fishing pond, and a steep triangle shaped roof that the French Canadians had used fend off Louisiana’s torrential autumn hurricane rains and to allow air circulation in the sweltering summers. The walls were eloquently decorated with elaborately framed paintings of dogs and wildlife, part of our Canadian great-great aunt’s collection that had been passed to Auntie Lo and then to Wendy and now to me. They were each worth more than I had earned in a year of being a paramedic, slightly less than my entire college fund or a single respirator without added software. I chucked at that, and looked skyward and told Wendy, for my sake.
And though the furniture looked like antique, Wendy had had it handcrafted by local Cajun craftsmen in the Arcadian style to match her home, a home she truly loved and it showed. We weren’t Cajun, but her side of my family had been born on Prince Edward Island in Nova Scotia, where the Cajuns had originated in the land named after their king and queen, Louis and Anna, naming our counties as parishes in the Catholic tradition. Wendy had adapted the culture and architecture of our immigrant cousins in hopes of fitting in, and though she never became an American citizen, she said she bonded more with the Cajuns born near her in Canada who had fled there and arrived in Louisiana 200 years ago, cut off from their families. As as child, I had tried to pronounce my last name as the French did, Pa’tan, not as my dad’s family did, Part-in, as in a part in history, in an attempt to form my own identity and to distance myself from people who knew our family name and their history, volunteering to leave my home and family. Unlike the Cajuns who were exiled, or the African Americans brought to the many plantations in West Feliciana Parish against their will, I had chosen to leave Loiusiana. Wendy had stayed. She had grown to love Saint Francisville as her home.
All of those memories resurfaced as I paced through rooms remarkably void of photographs of family, including of me, because Wendy had preferred no reminders of her lost relatives and loves, especially any photo that would have led a visitor to ask personal questions. I paused in her office when I saw two photos of soldiers, one of me in the first Gulf War and one of her first boyfriend, just before he died in Vietnam a few months before I was conceived in a night of mourning, and I clutched the old photos and cried for her losses and tried my best to make one last joke for her, one that she would have never heard before.
Rest in Peace, Wendy, I said, looking skyward and feeling tears swell as I tried to complete the pun. RIP WAR, I began to say, but I burst into tears and couldn’t. She had always regretted that I had joined the army to escape my family and Louisiana, and she had never gotten over her boyfriend’s death. She wished wars would end, and if she prayed it was for all people to forgive each other and to help stop innocent young people from going to war and suffering, like so many still do.
I hoped she would have chuckled at the sound of her epitaph, but I was too exhausted to smile and I laid on the floor of her office where she had fretted over her bills and planned to enjoy her retirement, staring at the photos of two young boys sent off to fight an old men’s wars, and I sobbed silently with a clenched jaw until I fell asleep and slept restlessly.
Over the next few days I sold her home and arranged an estate sale with the proceeds going to where she had volunteered, the West Feliciana Parish Humane Society on the outskirts of Saint Francisville, a town named after the Catholic Saint Francis de Agasi, the patron saint of kindness to animals. My had dad lived in the adjacent town, contrastingly named Slaughter, another favorite joke of Wendy’s. But Ed Partin and I had been estranged for decades, ever since the war, and I was unsure if he was still there. I was anxious to return home, and I was exhausted and didn’t feel like investigating what little energy I had left into hoping for something that was unlikely. Instead, I searched Wendy’s home for anything I’d like to bring to San Diego. While searching, I discovered a small wooden box engraved “Angel,” the tiny little fluffy dog Wendy had rescued and fostered, her first one with the Humane Society. As she fostered more dogs, she had searched for a permanent home for her Angel; but, in fourteen years she never found a home that would love her Angel as much as she did, and Angel had died in her lap the year before.
I opened the box and saw tiny black velvet bag filled with Angel’s ashes and embroidered with “Until we meet at the Rainbow Bridge,” a mythical place where humans and their pets reunite in the afterlife, and two tiny purple and gold hair ribbons that Angel wore when she sat on Wendy’s lap and they watched LSU football games on television together. I put Angel’s ashes beside Wendy’s, and continued searching for something to take home.
I had packed hastily and only had a small, carry-on backpack full of clothes; but I would leave the clothes if I found something, or pack it in a larger bag. But, I found something small that spoke to me, and I could carry it in my pocket. I picked up Granny’s gold retirement watch from beside Wendy’s bed, on top of the last letter Granny had written her as they forgave and began to love each other again, and the last book she had been reading, a fun fiction book from her library. She had inherited Granny’s love of books.
Wendy had inherited her mother’s watch a year after I had inherited Uncle Bob’s. It was tiny, because Granny had been petite, like Wendy, and the gold band would barely fit around the wrist of an eight year old girl. It was so small that the inscription was abbreviated, and instead of her full name, Joyce Hicks Rothdram, it said: “To J. Rothdram, 25 yrs service. CoPolymer.”
She had been proud of that watch and her service at CoPolymer, a chemical plant adjacent to where Wendy worked at Exxon. Like mother, like daughter, I thought, simultaneously sad and happy from memories of Granny and her final moments with Wendy. I put it in my bag and prepared for Wendy’s ceremony the next morning. I had scheduled it in time to catch flight home, back to the people I loved who were still alive, and a bed I felt I desperately needed.
Three of Wendy’s friends and my former stepfather joined me for the ceremony. He was a Cajun named Mike Richard, pronounced as the French would, Ree-Chard, that had been an engineer at Exxon. He hadn’t been officially my stepfather because they had never married and had only lived together, but, as a child, I had lied to friends and teachers and called him my stepfather to avoid questions or judgement, and old habits persist. He was a good man. I hadn’t spoken to him in almost 20 years, partially because there were so many phone numbers listed under his name. But he was a good man, and I had loved him when I hoped for a father at home. Old habits are hard to break, and sometimes that’s a good thing, because I was glad he was there. He had been an engineer who changed careers and designed homes, and Wendy had learned a lot from him. His Catholic family was so large that several parish phone books are filled half way with Richards, especially around Unice and the River Road communities just outside of Baton Rouge, and the Baton Rouge phone book alone had dozens of Mike Richards back then; Wendy had joked that they had a large family tree with branches like a stately oak, and that we had a family stick, and she also had secretly hoped, that she’d become a part of a larger family. She would have felt loved to know he was there.
He had been happily married for decades, and when I asked him what was different now he replied truthfully and with a joyful sparkle in his aging and wrinkled eyes, still wet with tears for Wendy’s loss: he was happy because of the love for his wife’s little girl that he had adopted. He removed his phone and showed me photos of her recent wedding and spoke of her joyfully for a few moments, temporarily overshadowing the sadness he felt for Wendy’s death. I simultaneously felt happy for him, but I was sad and surprisingly jealous; I must still be part the little boy who had hoped for more. He was unaware of my sadness or jealousy – I wasn’t proud of that feeling – and I didn’t tell him. Some secrets are okay. None of the people at Wendy’s ceremony had known him, and they didn’t know our back story.
Even Mike had been unaware of most of our history, not even known that I had been in the foster system until just before he met Wendy. She had told him that she taught me to call her Wendy so that we’d be more like friends, less like her then estranged relationship with Granny, and not that she had been a young looking teenage mom and taught me to call her Wendy so people would assume I was her baby brother, and hopefully not ask her questions about the father. Ironically, or perhaps because of that, we became friends later in life. Mike attributed that to Wendy, and admired her for being such a resilient teenage single mother, I never told Mike the truth, and on that morning we were together to say goodbye to someone we all loved and therefore there was no use in bringing up history. Besides, he was probably right.
We all stood on the bluffs of Thompson Creek near Wendy’s home, a remarkably clear stream compared to the murky rivers and bayous and swamps of southern Louisiana. Mike and I helped each other walk down the slippery, muddy bank, both of us old men now and hesitant walking down what we would not have noticed decades ago. He rested his hand on my shoulder as I knelt beside the water and slowly poured Wendy and Angel’s ashes into the clear stream.
Thompson Creek is wide but shallow, and it’s water flows slowly. The ashes settled onto the clay bottom and gradually began to break apart and drift towards the center of the stream, where the water flows more quickly. We watched pieces break away and form a meandering line towards where the Mississippi River passes Saint Francisville. Wendy had never traveled, but now she and her Angel were drifting to the Mighty Mississippi, the world’s fourth largest river, where they would pass Baton Rouge and New Orleans and enter the Gulf of Mexico and then the Pacific Ocean and then flow through all oceans and water on Earth until they met at the Rainbow Bridge. All water on Earth is connected, just as we all are, and some runs more slowly and some more quickly, and some is more clear and some more murky, but all are connected.
Tears too thick to leave my eyes clogged my vision, and my body bent over and my chest clutched tightly from emotional pain, and I gasped for breath as Mike gently squeezed my shoulder and patiently waited for me to lift myself from the mud. We stood silently until Wendy and Angel were gone, then helped each other walk back up the slippery slope and joined the others to say our final words. I collapsed again, speaking inelligably between sobs and gasps for breath and asked, again, why she hadn’t told me. “I tried!” I cried for reasons I don’t understand. “Honor thy mother and father,” I bawled. “How?” I asked. “Just be happy,” I replied, seeing the words spoken but not the speaker. I mumbled some things I don’t recall, and then it was time to leave.
Mike dropped me off at the Baton Rouge Airport, and as the plane left the runway I saw Granny’s house directly under the flight path. It was a small, 680 square foot house that was modest by almost anyone’s standards, but it had a large yard with majestic stately oak trees that both Wendy and I had climbed as children, and a small, murky stream where we had played and caught crawfish and minnows. Granny had been able to afford it in the 1960’s because of it’s undesirable location under the flight path and the loud jet engines that passed overhead. But, despite it’s location and size, she had been proud of it, like her watch, because she had earned it.
The plane continued to ascend and I saw my dad’s grandmother’s house a few block’s from Granny’s, and in my mind’s eye I saw the path between them that my parents met as teenagers and where my life began half a century before, and I shuddered I said goodbye to everyone and closed my eyes and allowed my memories to flow on their own for the rest of the flight home.
I arrived in San Diego and went straight home to my condo on Balboa Park, near the airport but in one of the most desirable places on Earth, and was greated by an eight year old girl who jumped up and hugged me and told me she was sorry my mommy had died. She gave me a trinket she had bought for me while I was in Louisiana – with Cristi’s help – and I gave her Granny’s gold watch and showed her the engraving and told her that “J” stood for Joy, a slight lie because Granny went by Joyce, but it was how I felt at that moment.
She beamed and said it was beautiful and asked for my help in putting it on, and as I strapped the old gold watch around her tiny wrist I smiled and realized that Mike was right, and I was as happy for him as I was for myself at that moment.
As I had suspected, Granny’s watch fit her perfectly. She had never owned an analog watch, and though the battery had long since died I showed her how to set the time. I looked UNcle Bob’s Rolex, still set to San Diego’s time, and I rotated the dial on her watch until the hands showed 2:20pm and told a joke I remembered from Uncle Bob, that even a broken watch is right twice a day. She didn’t understand because most kids used phones or digital watches now, but she laughed with me and that made me laugh more and we laughed together for a few moments. I asked her what time it was, and she exclaimed, “Time to play!” and she was right, and we went outside and played in the park for a long while.
One day I may explain to her who Joyce was and why social security may not matter and how to invest wisely and live moderately and retire early, practical things on my mind even in times of strong emotions, but that day was not the day, and it was time to play. I didn’t look at my watch, so I don’t know when we returned inside.
Later that evening, Cristi and I sat on our balcony overlooking Balboa Park, relaxing silently and appreciating the view across 3,800 acres of what we felt was our version of paradise, listening to palm leaves rustle and the subtle sound of Pacific ocean waves and the din of downtown traffic. “It really is America’s Finest City,” I said, “We’re lucky.” She rested her hand on mine and remained silent; we said the same thing so often that it was more of a feeling shared between us than a comment leading to conversation. I finally felt like talking about the previous week, surprised that so much had happened and I had gone through such strong waves of emotions in only eight days. I told her a few things that had happened and that I was surprised about feeling jealousy for Mike’s happiness, that I had thought the little boy inside of me was gone. But I avoided, for then, the part about saying “Honor thy mother and father” and “Just be happy.”
I hadn’t processed the week yet, and I didn’t want to speak prematurely. I’ve always taken a long time to understand things, and sometimes I spoke without thinking, especially when I was tired, and I rarely knew why I said what I said. But, those words had been echoing in my mind ever since I mumbled them mindlessly on the banks of Thompson Creek, and how to honor my mother and father had been one of the first, and last, things Cristi and I had discussed about religion decades ago. The books fo Matthew and Luke say that when Jesus said how to be perfect, he only listed six of the ten commandments and to love God with all your heart, and if you needed to do more then give all you had to the poor. Of the six commandments, he said the ones most of us can recall and make sense, to not do things like kill or lie or steal or adulter or bear false witness, but he also said to honor your mother and father, and no where in the new or old Testaments does it say how to do that. The Buddhist Pali Cannon has examples of how to honor one’s mother and father for each of those unique situations, but no generalized instructions; instead, The Buddha had said that if you’re mindful and observer your thoughts come and go without controlling them, then you learn to see the truth without needing to be told. The Koran gives exacting details about how to liver your life, including what percentage of your money to give and the priorities when there are many people in need, ranking your family first and then orphans and then the poor, and I had worked with foster youths for fourteen years and sometimes volunteered at a homeless shelter – giving away everything seems a bit extreme – but I still didn’t understand things any better. The Hindu Bhagavad Gita is a set in a war between kingdoms with family members fighting each other, not unlike the American Civil War, where brother fought brother, and not unlike Cane and Able; and throughout the epic poem, a chariot rider who becomes Krishna repeatedly says to his driver to do your duty and to trust God, but I’ve never known what that was, God or duty. When I’ve been questioned about my religious beliefs, I’ve said it was a long story. I’ve been processing it since I was emancipated from my family thirty years prior.
A long time ago, I had decided to never discuss religious beliefs with people – or to shared almost any opinion – because I had seen so much death and had held the hand of so many people during their final breaths that I had come to believe, ironically, that any opinions or beliefs, no matter how well intended, can create doubt, and I’ve never seen feelings such as doubt, worry, or anxiety benefit anyone, especially those who know they are dying.
I’ve held the hand of too many people I loved as they took their final breath, people I loved and people who had been trying to kill me without knowing me, and I performed CPR on dozens of patients of all races and religions and sexes and ages without knowing their names, and fought as best I could to keep oxygen in their lungs and blood flowing to their organs as we rushed to a hospital with machines that could, possibly, save them, only to feel them pass and then stare into their nameless faces, still covered in my sweat that had dripped as I applied chest compressions or inflated their oxygen mask until my arms screamed for relief. I’ve seen adamant aethisists question what they believed in fear of the unknown, replaying every evangelical word in their minds in last minute moments of doubt that didn’t help them, wondering if they had been wrong, anxious about the unknown; and devout Christians doubt a God that allows suffering, or blaming themselves, wondering if they had been wolves or sheep, or wishing they had said or done more or less of things, or mended healed wounds. Forgiven. Some pondered if their consciousness would return to a single source and resurface again, like a wave of water appearing temporarily and crashing upon a shore and then returning to the ocean to manifest as another wave in a continuous flow, and some hoped they’d reunite with loved ones with their memories intact, perhaps at the Rainbow Bridge and finally doing what they had always dreamed of. Or they feared loosing the memories to which they had become attached, and felt sadness at all of the things they would miss, or joy at finally forgetting what had plagued their minds for too long. Many never put thought into it; or, at least, I have no idea what they felt or thought or experienced. And though many profess beliefs or repeat words told to them, perhaps hoping faith will follow, no one I know knows the truth, and I believe that I never know the right words to say or how people hear them. I grew to strive to be silent, sometimes failing but always striving, and I tried to be still, and to listen. I can’t listen while talking, and I tried to refrain from saying anything I didn’t know to be true, so there wasn’t much to say. If I did speak, I tried to allow my words flow on their own, without my biases surfacing, as I did with Wendy; though, as I mentioned, I rarely knew their names.
When I wasn’t sad about death or worried that my words would cause harm, I was angry about it. When I was younger, after the war and as a peacekeeper in the Middle East, I reflected on how repeating beliefs caused war and death and suffering and rarely led to peace and happiness. I agreed with Ben Franklin who said, despite saying he never offered his opinion, “for in my opinion, I’ve never seen a a good war or a bad peace.” I had seen both, and knew from history that religion had caused more wars than anything else, from ancient wars and inquisitions to modern wars and prosecutions for differences that, ironically, are only our conditioned biases. Even when wars were over resources, it was always a belief in us vs. them, and blind alligience to a person, god, or ideal rather than the fact that we’re all human and on a giant spaceship called Earth, with a growing population and limited natural resources and imaginary boundaries fueled by imaginary currencies; and that we will all die.
We’re all human, born from the same source but in different circumstances. I had seen this as a young soldier, the youngest out of 560,000 soldiers because of my emancipation and open to learning like a sponge tossed into a sea of older people with conditioned biases, wand when my platoon led the allied ground assault after the world’s largest armada of bombers devastated the road to Khamisiyah and slaughtered dozens of thousands of fleeing Iraqi soldiers, we pushed through thousands of their burnt bodies, searching pockets for clues to what lie ahead at the airport we were told to capture, and in bodies permanently held reaching forward for one more breath of life I found photos of their families, partially melted in pockets close to their hearts, as I would have done. At the Khamisiyah airport, survivors defended it, as instructed. Some had fought for Allah, hoping for reward in the afterlife. I don’t know what happened to them after we captured the airport, but I know that some had fought because they felt they had no choice, because they had been conscripted and faced jail or worse for them and their families if they didn’t comply; extreme, but not unlike the American draft that sent some to war and others fleeing to Canada, and ended for us in 1975. We’re lucky, and a few of us realize that and are even luckier. As far as I know, we don’t choose where we’re born or the circumstances of our families, where they were born or how much love they have to share.
In my youth, I had tried to defend innocent people from fundamentalist who had been told that regardless of what the bible or Koran said, believing it was their duty to kill and they’d be rewarded in the afterlife; and I’ve hesitated to reflect on what the bible and Koran said, do not kill, or murder or a range of nuanced words, and I allowed innocent people and children to die horrible deaths as I pondered nuances. I still don’t know what is right or wrong, and sometimes I still feel angry at myself and others for not doing more to help people. My beliefs are complex, and I’m still processing everything.
I’ve also held the hands of a few people dying peacefully, content, and without doubt; at peace with all below. That’s how I would like to pass. Regardless of religious beliefs, I admire the words attributed to Jesus, to do onto others as you would have them do onto you, so I do not offer opinions, especially when words have nuances I don’t understand, because I try to listen and I take a long time to process information and I would rather have my mind clear and free of doubt or worry when I pass. Of all written words, I most adhere to the right to remain silent, a right protected by our constitution and eternalized in our Miranda Rights. If I had an opinion to share, it would be that more people should practice their Miranda Rights.
Cristi and I had discussed religion and beliefs and our freedom to choose when we first met and were still learning who we were, and we came to the same conclusions, more or less, though we haven’t discussed those things since then and she may have evolved. I’ve become more adamant that I know nothing; though even that may be false. The opinion I’ve offered were Uncle Bob’s last words, told as a fact, and that was that he said he tried to live a life without regret, and that he tried to never harm anyone with words or actions. He wasn’t perfect. He, too, had let me be abandoned. Some people are doing the best they can with work and life, and some love their lifestyles and selves more than they love helping others, and that’s ok sometimes, too, probably. But, I was with him when he died, and I know that he didn’t harbor regrets for what couldn’t be changed, and that he had tried to learn and improve a bit each day and even up until his final breath, and that he had been right: you can’t take it with you, whatever it is.
If Cristi and I shared a common belief or philosophy on how to live, it would be to live a life without regret.
“I’d like to write that book,” I said. For decades, close friends and family had encouraged me to share my family history, but I hadn’t, partially because so many other things seemed to demand my attention and partially out of respect for Wendy’s privacy.
I chuckled and said, “Wendy would laugh if I called it ‘A part in history’.” I smiled for a genuine, blessed moment, lost in a pleasant memory. That pun had been Wendy’s favorite. My grandfather was Edward Grady Partin, and his final words were, “No one will ever know my part in history.” Even as a 17 year old kid I had laughed at how it sounded, and I knew he was probably right.
Cristi smiled and said I could talk about my small part in his story.
“I think it would help people,” she said. “And it really could help the world be more peaceful. You’d regret it if you didn’t try.”
She was probably right, but I was too exhausted to reply.
She squeezed my hand gently and we sat silently and listened to the wind rustle palm trees for a few moments, and we saw a few wisps of clouds slowly drift across the partial moon in San Diego’s clear night sky. I had always wanted my story to be useful, especially for foster youths and single parents everywhere, probably because I could empathize with them and knew the struggles they suffered. Cristi once said it could be useful for anyone who would die or wanted to end the cycle, or wondered how they could leave the world a better place their children and their children’s children, regardless of what they believe.
“Let’s go to bed,” she said. We stood up from our seats on the balcony and she held my hand and led us inside. We paused beside the bedroom and looked at an eight year old girl sleeping peacefully, wearing a gold watch permanently set to a time to play. She was safe and comfortable and fed and loved and unworried about the future, just as Mark and Luke and Paul had wished for us and what almost half of the planet would like; even in America, millions of kids go to be hungry, and many more aren’t safe or loved. We knew we were in our version of Heaven, here and now, and didn’t wish for anything more for ourselves.
“We’re lucky,” I mumbled.
My eyes were drooping and my breath was shallow and Cristi led us to our bedroom and I collapsed one last time that week, depleted, like a wave that had crashed ashore, unworried about what would happen next. I fell asleep immediately and slept peacefully and I awoke the next morning, still sad but hopeful and knowing that all things are transient, and we continued working towards living a life without regrets and leaving the world a little bit better, for posterities sake.
Four months later, on a beautiful Sunday morning in San Diego’s nearly perfect weather, I was strolling home from a busy weekly farmer’s market when I saw an old man sitting by himself in a wheelchair. He was in the bright sun beside a bus stop in front of a convenience store a few blocks up the street from a large farmer’s market in the densely packed urban neighborhood of Hillcrest. He twitched slightly with muscle convulsions that shook the super-sized drink in his hand and spilled sticky bright red fluid onto his pants. Two 99-cent hot dogs from the convenience store rested on one of his legs, untouched. The wheelchair said “property of the San Diego VA Hospital,” but the veterans hospital was several miles away along an uphill road to Hillcrest, and I assumed he lived nearby and used the VA hospital chair as his own.
His right wrist had a new admissions bracelet from Scrips Mercy hospital only a mile away along the flat ridge, and higher up his arm were several faded bands from at least one other hospital. I assumed he had been a 5150, the California police code for a potentially mentally ill patient would could be a threat to themselves or society and, by law, could receive 72 hours of free healthcare in any emergency room in California. Scrips Mercy was a charity hospital in Hillcrest, on the northern part of Balboa Park, and 24 hours a day police and ambulances and paramedics bring homeless people from all over San Diego County there because there are few alternatives for the poor or homeless, even in America’s Finest City.
The Scrips staff does their best, but by law they must release patients after 72 hours, often wheeling them out the front door without someone to pick them up, but with a list of emergency shelters in their hand. Many have no where else to go and no one to call, and they stay and become my neighbors, and many are veterans. There are many military bases there – a marine base, air force center made famous from the film “Top Gun,” and a naval base with ships and submarines and a shipbuilding yard – and 250,000 civilians earn their livelihood somehow connected to supporting those bases or developing new weapons, like the drones becoming infamous in current wars. And San Diego was a major out-processing station after WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, when we still had the draft, and many vets had no were else to go, especially those who were unable to attend college and had been drafted as boys.
Our homeless population has 4x more veterans than other cities, and our perfect weather all year keeps and few options to go elsewhere keeps them there. Their suicide rate was also 4X the national average, and with an estimated 6,000 homeless people within a small, walking radius of my home. A few centers had opened recently, but no society can afford to house and feed the poor, and they overflow into wealthy neighborhoods. I was worried whenever I saw someone alone and obviously infirm, because I knew that government resources were spread too thinly to help everyone, and though churches and nonprofits were doing their best, there were still 6,000 people in need on my daily walks alone, and few people seemed to stop and help when it wasn’t their job. I tried to help when I could without becoming overwhelmed.
I said hello and paused until he looked up. I asked if he’d like to be pushed into under the shade of the bus stop. He nodded “no” strongly enough to be noticed over his twitching body. I offered him water and he nodded no. I said my name was Jason and asked if he needed anything, and he said no in a voice that was muffled by lips that flapped in and out of his mouth and was punctuated by gasps of breath common among COPD patients. Often, they had smoked too much or had worked in polluted areas or coal mines, or had been exposed to chemicals in either Vietnam or Desert Storm – agent orange or serin – and he looked about the age to have been in Vietnam.
I couldn’t tell how tall he was because he was seated, but I believe he was about five or six inches shorter than me, so about 5’6.” He was thin and his flesh seemed weak, but his arms retained hints of former physical labor or exercise, perhaps from pushing his wheelchair, though he appeared to struggle with it now.
He was almost bald, and his forehead was bright red from the San Diego sunshine. I assumed he had been sitting by the bustop most of the day. His neck veins bulged with the extra force necessary to circulate enough oxygen to stay alive, and most of his front teeth where missing, which would explain why he mumbled and why the hotdogs hadn’t been touched. The corners of his mouth were dotted with pinpoint open sores that I did not recognize an hoped were not communicable. He had one eye open, and it was a lighter blue than the cloudless skies above us. His other eye was squinted shut. His face was wrinkled and sunburnt. Surprisingly, he was smiling subtly; or, at least seemed content and at ease. Unworried.
I leaned in closer and asked his name and rested my left hand on his wheelchair, by his head where I could see my watch, and counted his breath and the pulse beating through his neck veins. I repeated that I was Jason and asked his name, and he waved his hand as if to dismiss the idea of a name and said “Daniel or Dan or Danny; it doesn’t matter!” His hand fell back to his lap beside the other one and he clasped his super-sized drink, and I felt a wave of emotion that confused me. I dismissed it as a coincidence, because I had been thinking of Hillary Clinton a lot recently, and Hillary had wrestled at Capital High, home of the Lions; I had wrestled him many times in what they called the Lions Den, like Daniel had been tossed into after fasting, just like most of us fasted to make weight; every time I entered the Lions den I had to fast for almost two days to drop from a lean 148 pounds to Hillary’s 145 pounds, just like the character from Vision Quest had done. But I told myself that Danny’s name was a coincidence of timing that I wouldn’t have considered if not for Wendy and my puns, and I refocused.
His breath rate was expected and his pulse was high but not dangerously so. He likely had mild COPD, Chronic Obstructive Pulmanary Disease, common among smokers and coal workers and veterans who had been exposed to chemicals. I kept my hand on the top of his VA wheelchair so I could glance at the time without seeming distracted, knowing I was expected home soon.
I asked Danny if he’d like my hat, and his eye perked up and his lips formed what I assumed was a smile and he mumbled yes! I took off my LSU baseball cap and handed it to him. I usually wore a hat to protect my thinning hair from the year-round San Diego sunshine, and though I was on staff at the University of San Diego, leading project teams in engineering and entrepreneurship with a focus on medical devices, I still wore LSU caps; as I kept noticing that year, old habits are hard to break. He stuck his drink between his legs and took my hat and moved his hands so deftly that I was shocked. He seemed delighted as he bent the bill into a smooth curve and tucked the top in closer to the front, then, smiling, he slid the hat on his balding head in a quick motion and lowered the bent bill over his eyes and peered up at me with a broad smile. He looked sharp.
He said that in the army they used to fold his cap in a duck bill, like the special forces, and I assumed he had been a veteran from the Vietnam Ware era, when President Kennedy tried to use a few Special Forces teams instead of expanding the draft. I looked at his smiling face and realized that with his LSU cap pulled low and folded like a duck bill he looked like me, or what I’d probably look like in 10 to 20 more years. Of course, he was older and smaller and more frail – I’m about 6 feet tall and 205 pounds, aging but most people would say still physically fit – but we still bore a remarkable physical resemblance, perhaps because of the hat. I shuddered involuntarily, but stopped it by closing my eyes briefly and shaking my head a bit, not unlike Danny seemed to do all the time in his wheelchair.
I didn’t have time to think about my own inevitable future, because he stopped smiling and leaned towards me and began telling me stories quickly and without pausing. I could barely understand him, and I leaned in and tried to be mindful of the spittle that flew from his flapping lips as he told stories quickly and without pausing, especially because of his open sores. This was before Covid, but I knew enough about communicable diseases to be cautious. I tried to balance caution with leaning in, because I didn’t want to offend him and I was interested in hearing what he had to say, and I tried to stay alert and avoid his breath and spittle.
I stayed on one knee and listened as best I could, not really understanding everything he was saying. After a while I lost concentration, my mind wandering to where I wanted to be soon, and he paused, looked at me intently with his one good eye, and said, slowly, ensuring I was listening, “Do you think a story about an IRA is funny?”
I was shocked. Waves of confusion washed through my body, but I saw the distraction in time and refocused, trying to give my full attention to Danny. He was right, it didn’t sound funny.
“Tell them about a veteran who takes experimental medicines and falls asleep in the Los Angeles Veterans Hospital.” He opened his eye wide and pointed a finger up at me and said parts of a funny story about falling asleep in a VA hospital, like how people wouldn’t even notice, but I didn’t understand all the words and he didn’t pause before changing stories. It was as if his words were bouncing as randomly as his thoughts, and it was difficult to follow what he was saying.
“Tell them about a good friend who’s annoying, rubs dog shit under your care door handle!” He mimicked rubbing dog shit under a car door handle, and his face lit up in a joy that I didn’t understand, and he continued.
He spoke of aliens that know what we’re feeling. “From exactly,” he said, emphasizing his words by lurching his finger at my face with every syllable, “14,” point, “miles,” point, “away.”
He leaned back into his wheelchair and smiled up at me and let me process what he had just said, then he leaned forward again and continued and laughed at other people’s naiveté.
“How would you explain a duck to an alien?” he asked, smirking slyly, and allowing me time to ponder. I had no idea, because I wouldn’t know how they communicated or what they already knew of Earth, and I was pleasantly amused by the brief moment that Danny allowed me to consider what he was saying.
Suddenly, his face animated and he shouted, “ Quack! Quack!” and he laughed loudly and with his entire body, closing his eye so that crow’s feet bunched around both of them in what seemed like genuine joy, and spewing spittle from his flapping lips and slapping his hands on his food and beverage stained pants.
I felt awkward at the attention, and I glanced around at the people walking past the busstop and stopped in their cars at the red light in front of us, and saw that noticed that no one seemed to notice us, even with Danny quacking loudly between fits of laughter. It was as if we were surrounded by an invisible field of someone else’s problem. I felt a twinge of anger and cynicism; Hillcrest is America’s second largest, self defined gay community, with a huge brightly colored rainbow flag celebrating LGBT and a host of other acronyms demanding equality, yet no one stopped because, apparently I felt, not everyone who asks for recognition gives it. Hypocrites, I said to myself, then caught my negativity and refocused on Danny. He stopped laughing and resumed talking, unconcerned about the people passing us or ignoring us. He was probably used to it.
“Ha! They think a compass helps them get where they’re going,” he said with a smirk, as if he knew where he was going. I was unsure if he meant his army field navigation days, or the people staring into their phones as they walked by or waited for the traffic light to change.
“Magnetic fields aren’t important!” He said as he waved his hand backwards, towards north of Hillcrest and the hospital, and dismissed the magnetic field by saying, “It changes every 45,000 years, anyway.” He swirled a hand around his head a few times to emphasize the magnetic poles flipping. He was probably right: constant streams of volcanic lava cooling on the ocean floor are polarized by the magnetic field, and we can measure the rate of oozing and the field and assume that Earth’s magnetic field flops every 45,000 years or so. I was so distracted thinking about flip flopping magnetic fields and what that would do to us that I missed what he said next, though I know it was something about focusing on what’s real, or what’s important.
He spoke of so many things that I didn’t understand that I can’t recall them all, like tales of a giant plant with a single tap root that circled 2/3 of Earth. “What happens when they cut it?” he asked, continuing without a pause. He spoke of a one legged table and people trying to eat from it, and asked what happens when they cut the leg. I imagined people standing around a one legged table, eating and drinking mindfully, so that everyone could take turns as long as they remained balanced. He spoke enthusiastically and incessantly, perhaps happy to have someone listening for a change, even though my mind was still surprised about the coincidence of his name and his comment about an IRA and the images I formed from stories I did hear.
I listened without interrupting for 20 or 30 minutes. People passed by us without seeming to notice, carrying bags of groceries from the farmers market or walking in and out of the convenience store. Cars stopped at the traffic light in front of Danny’s bus stop and drivers checked their phones or adjusted their stereos without paying attention to us. I began to feel uncomfortable, both physically from kneeling and, for a reason I didn’t understand, slightly embarassed, as if I were watching people with more health and resources and judging myself for not being them. I’m human, and most humans seem concerned about what others think; but Danny seemed unworried, like he had been unworried if his name were Dan or Daniel or Danny, or whether or not I was listening.
I had been with Danny for almost 35 minutes and my knees were sore and my neck ached from leaning in and I remembered my bags of groceries to carry home before the fruit spoiled in the sunshine. “Danny… Danny… Danny…” I repeated until he paused and looked up at me, then I stood up.
“I have to go now,” I said, and his eye lit up and he apologized and said he was an old man who liked to talk too much and he asked me to sit and tell him about myself. I said sure, and I sat on the bench and he began speaking again. I stood up and apologized again and said I should leave, and Danny stopped shaking and glared up at me, and he opened the eye that had been squinted shut all that time and stared at me with two sky blue eyes, alert and focused.
Later that evening, when I would sit with Cristi on our Balcony and tell her about Danny, I would say that I almost shit a brick when he opened both eyes. I wasn’t expecting that, and my mind locked on to the coincidences of what he had been saying and recontextualized everything. I knew I’d be late, but I collected my bricks and kneeled beside his wheelchair again, and I stayed and leaned in and concentrated on listening to what he had to say.
“How would you explain Love to God?” he said, speaking clearly and with a calm, concentrated countenance, much different than when he had asked about describing a duck to an alien. But he didn’t give me time to ponder, and he said, “How could he explain it to you?”
He paused and I stared, mesmerized by a feeling I did not understand. He pointed a finger at my face, remarkably no longer shaking, and said, “Point to the sky,” and then he pointed to the sky and so did I. “Now touch your belly button,” and we both did.
“When they cut the chord, what did they sever?”
I felt more than thought about Wendy, and how I had missed so much of love in life until her passing. My breathing became shallow and my lip quivered.
He pointed back at the sky and said, “How do you know if it’s wind that moves the clouds?”
I mistakenly thought he said, “if it’s Wendy that moves the clouds,” and I felt sadness and quickly became lost in thought about that night in Baton Rouge, and I missed my mother. But I quickly realized my mistake and refocused, and I followed his finger to the sky, and I began to feel a wave of love building, and I watched a few small tufts of clouds drift lazily across the clear blue sky, and I felt at peace. I smiled and didn’t say anything for a moment, and then I looked back down at Danny and waited for him to begin speaking again. For the first time that afternoon, he had been silent until I was ready to listen.
He started telling stories again and kept both eyes open, but he was shaking and mumbling like before and I didn’t understand everything he said. He spoke and I listened for another 20 minutes or so about things I didn’t understand or can’t recall. When I stood to leave again I asked, again, if he’d like to be pushed into the shade. He said yes this time, and I pushed his chair under the covered bus stop in front of the convenience store with people walking to and from the nearby farmer’s market. I threw away his fly covered hot dogs and asked if he’d like some strawberries from the farmer’s market. They’re fresh, I said, and delicious. His eyes lit up and he smiled and mumbled yes, and I rested a pint of strawberries on his lap. He popped one in his mouth as deftly as he had put on my LSU hat and slid the juicy berry to the back of his mouth, where he still had a few teeth, and munched happily and thanked me through red strawberry stained gums and lips that flapped like a loose sail in the wind. I said I was writing a book and asked if I could tell his stories, and he mumbled yes and waved his hand backwards, as if brushing away my worries about quoting him. I collected my four bags of groceries, wished Danny well, and began walking home.
I was too sore to put into words, just like every time I sit or kneel too long, like on a long airplane trip to Baton Rouge, and my mind was racing from everything Danny had said, and my knees and hip and back and neck were shrieking in pain, shouting at my mind, demanding attention, and sometimes it’s difficult to not listen and I become attached to the pain and my mind won’t defocus. I hadn’t taken pain medications in over a year after having struggled with craving VA prescribed opioids for a few years – I was one of the millions of people caught in the hyper touted opioid crisis that had been in the news – and that’s another reason I hadn’t listened to Wendy as closely as I could have the previous few years, and one of my regrets. But, as Uncle Bob exemplified, I try to live and learn and improve, and I was gradually forgiving myself for not being there for her when she needed a friend.
I rarely discuss this, but the VA Healthcare System ranks me as a 75% disabled veteran due to a wide range of injuries to my spine and bones and joints, which isn’t uncommon after seven years of service and many parachute jumps and more battles than I care to recall; though, truthfully, the landings were always worse than the jumping, and because I’m here to write this the battles obviously turned out better for me than for others. And it turned out that when we blew up the Khamisiyah airport, under orders, we unknowingly unleashed the only chemical weapons in the Gulf wars, sending the nerve agent sarin into the sky in the biggest mushroom cloud I have ever seen, like a nuclear explosion you’d see on televison or the internet or in a nightmare. The explosion was deafening, and the shock waves shook the ground for miles. My platoon was the closest, forming a perimeter to keep others away and safe. By 2019, the VA had concluded that anyone within 100 miles was affected with a range of physical and psychological symptoms called Desert Storm Syndrome, now estimated to affect around 60,000 soldiers. We’re unsure to what extent the explosion caused the syndrome. I don’t have an opinion, but I read that, statistically, based on double blinded randomized clinical trials that compare thousands of different patient groups and control groups using blinded and therefore unbiased observers, Desert Storm Syndrome linked to a combination to a protein found in 40% of the population and soldiers who took a Pyridostigmine Bromide, like I had, though I had been one of the control group that claimed no symptoms when I was first asked at age 20, before I could legally buy a beer, theoretically because alcohol is dangerous and the government wants to protect us. The pills were an experimental anti nerve agent issued by the government to troops closest to the front line and at most risk from Saddam Husseins SCUD missiles and chemical weapon stockpiles, many of which had been kept at the Khamisiyah airport and fiercely defended by Iraqi troops. But, it’s difficult to separate those symptoms from ailments that occur in the general population, especially asthma and fibromalaysia and PTSD, and researchers are still trying to prove cause and effect and offer treatments to survivors of the war, though not the general population. The VA office handling the case is still called The Office of Agent Orange, a department within the VA left over from the 1970’s built upon an office that handled the consequences of experimental nuclear tests after WWII, and is still handling the Vietnam vets who were exposed to Agent Orange dropped by American airplanes. They are suffering from cancer and a range of issues, physical and psychological, and I often sat beside them in the San Diego VA hospital and listen to their stories, though I’ve never seen one fall asleep, no matter how long the wait to see a doctor. I’m lucky, because the hospital is only a few miles downhill from the Hillcrest farmer’s market, I can still drive, and I have time to spare.
I tried to not think of those things as I limped home. Instead, I directed my focus on things that made me happy. It was almost 2:20 pm. I hadn’t replaced the battery on Granny’s watch, but it was still correct twice a day, and someone important was probably looking at it and waiting for me to come home. I smiled. I still had work to do, and I was still working on that memoir about my Partin family, but there would be time for that later.
Go to the Table of Contents