2021, February - Jonah at Sixty-One
In time, I’ve come to believe man is a canvas, brushed by those he’s known and those who knew him. Tenderly painted by some or stroked harshly by those he's wronged. While some would include bright hues to offset the dark corners, mine would surely be a thousand shades of gray, save the one black stroke that blankets the only bright spot my canvas ever knew.
As he lies on his deathbed, regret wrenches him into the past. Like a disoriented time traveler caught in a vacuum, Jonah is forced to recount the losses in his life. The loss of innocence; the loss of purpose; the loss of the one person who had made life bearable. It’s all very dismal, but the pull is absolute as he relives a plethora of painful memories. Ancient emotions compel him to believe they’re happening in the present rather than decades ago. Still, he hasn’t lost all sense. He knows these are only memories. But the pain causes his nervous system to live them as though they are real, one final time. The heart monitor spikes next to his head. Take me. He begs the universe, hoping this time it’s a full-blown heart attack. Take me. A nurse rushes in to check the machine and listens to his heart. He senses he is in no danger as she mops a considerable amount of sweat from his brow. Suddenly she notices something unusual. It is his trademark scent, something he has labeled the “pong.” Her conditioned smile instinctively fades from her round face, reacting to the sharp waft of body odour. It soaks his gown under the arms. It is an embarrassing trauma he’s lived with since he was thirteen, but there’s nothing to do about it now. She adds something to the cocktail feeding his body nutrients with a quick push of a plunger. Jonah feels an immediate sense of calm rush over him. His eyes feel fuzzy. He turns his head toward the windowed wall. Tears escape his glazed eyes over the false alarm. He feels the light touch of the nurse’s hand brush his shoulder as she leaves the room, mumbling something reassuring.
The smell of the hospice, midwinter. The food. The cleaning solution. The blood and urine and feces and death. The sweat. It all amasses to a particular scent, he deliberates. I wanted to die in the summer. The view outside his window is dismal but fitting. The universe would place him in this dreary season at end of life. Icicles drip from his window where water gathers from a hole in the gutter, freezing overnight, melting during the day. Spring is two months away. Depending on how long he is to suffer, he may yet make it to summer. He wishes he wouldn’t.
Jonah shifts slightly in his bed, careful not to dislodge the tubes keeping his sixty-one-year-old body tethered to the present. The burn of addiction enters his chest, as the scent of tobacco lingers in his room. Some of the nurses smoke. In another hour he would be wheeled to the open-air balcony by Mav, who will join him for his twice-daily constitutional. It was nowhere near enough for his addiction, but it was about all he could manage in his current state. The hacking cough that assails him for the hour to follow is most unpleasant.
He hates being chained to this existence, waiting for death. His mother drank herself to an early grave, while his father worked himself there. Both were dead before ever facing old age. Perhaps there was some dignity in it - dying before they'd been given a chance to choose. Choose or lose. But with today's treatments and medications, a person could easily outlive their usefulness, by decades, it would seem. Jonah remembers when he'd turned fifty. "For what,” he’d asked himself?
No matter. He’s no one to visit him at sixty-one, no one to care. He has made sure of that. He’s been hard on himself these last fifty years, and that kind of internal torment is his friend, his partner, his child.
It’s not how he imagined it in his youth, dying. He’d envisioned children and grandchildren gathered around his deathbed. Or no, maybe he’d track a slow walk as he follows his family out of the driveway after a thanksgiving to remember, waving goodbye. In this universe he blows a kiss, and there it is, the image they remember of him; a happy man who had lived a full life, and who had loved and been loved in return. That even he would die in his sleep with a smile on his face. But that’s a fairy-tale ending reserved for those worthy of such an end.
“You can’t do that.” His mother meant to protect him, of course. After his twin died in childbirth, he was it, and his mother at first seemed adamant he would survive. He couldn't climb a hill or walk across a stony creek without an ever-scrupulous eye. Everything boys did, everything that seemed normal was off-limits. Nothing was safe. Everything was terrifying to his mother. He hadn’t even learned to ride a bike. Still, he had loved her through all of it. He had felt confined but protected.
Later, he understood her sickness; reality was unbearable. She'd mistaken him for his dead brother, and he'd corrected her and was slapped so hard his glasses flew across the room. He was startled. She was never the same after that. A few weeks later, strange men started accompanying her home from the bar. This was when he considered his first drink. At thirteen, he found one of his mothers' hidden bottles of vodka and forced himself to drink. It was awful, but drinking it made him feel closer to her. The burn in his abdomen made him feel safe and warm. The delirium, and the pain, and vomiting and rush of love. He now wished he’d never brought up her alcoholism.
And now, at the end of a life unlived; one born of sadness, dragged along on the coattails of depression; Jonah waits to close his eyes for good.
Another day breaks. He's never been a morning person. He's always hated mornings. But to function in society, one must have a job to go to, like it or not, or so one was told. Money earned to afford the life everyone else wanted for you. Jonah didn't want for much. In fact, he would have been quite content to avoid life altogether. People especially. Morning people the most. Now there is no job and no reason. The start of another day begs the question of whether it is even worth the effort. Should he just pull the IV out of his arm and let nature take its course? The IV is for the pain, they told him. Hydration, too, he'd heard them say. Jonah doesn't deal well with pain. Why go out in pain? He'd lived in pain.
He glances at the tattoos on his left forearm. Each is a reminder of an event in his life. His skin is still smooth. He reaches over his narrow frame to run a slow finger over one of the words imprinted on his flesh. FORGIVENESS, in Beyond Wonderland font. He coughs out an ironic laugh. He remembers his mother’s voice urging him against the ‘dangerous’ practice of inking. “Not in this lifetime, Mister,” she would have said. She was dead so soon, long before his first, but still, her voice rang true in his head. In fact, he often whispered this mantra to himself when he sensed a choice might take him in a direction his mother would disapprove of—the woman who had robbed him of adventure.
Jonah had always wished he’d been named Jack rather than his twin brother. Jack was a name used in so many nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Not all had happy endings, but Jonah always imagined himself in their place. Jack and Jill, Jack Sprat, Jack and the Bean Stock, Jack B. Nimble, Little Jack Horner. Jack wasn’t even a real name. It was a nickname. As though his mother naming him something unreal had created his destiny. Maybe if Jonah had been named Jack his life would have been fuller, or less dull, or shorter.
Christ, I could use a drink. “Clean,” for three years. No alcohol, and still, he gets struck down with this. Sepsis. How many organs were failing right now? Did they say three? Two weeks in the hospice and still not dead. Why do I linger? Meanwhile, they've carted four bodies out of the place. He has a rather spectacular view from his front room window as the ambulances pull up, lights on but no sirens. Too late. But that's the idea behind a hospice; to die in plain sight of those being paid to wait you out. He swore he could make out singing or humming and soft whispers to the dying in adjoining rooms before the declaration of death was handed out. DO NOT RESUSCITATE. It was a choice he'd made after his latest trip to the hospital when he'd received the grim news. The kidney infection had led to sepsis, and any odds of surviving seemed to deteriorate daily as symptoms worsened. The news would almost have had Jonah smiling if it weren't for the pain in his abdomen. He took the doctor's recommendations, finished his Will, and checked himself into this hospice. It's nothing close to luxurious, but it had an opening. He had his lawyer arrange that his worldly belongings be picked up by a local charity and his apartment rented to someone else. Just like that, he'd never existed. He imagines that's how he will leave the world too. His story lost to the larger lives being lived. Someone will pick up the rent where he left off. Someone will eventually fill this bed too. His body will soon be ash. Who will spread his ashes? Who cares? Just throw them into the wind in a celebratory "Hooray.” Like a handful of confetti, his final farewell to a world he'd never been a part of.