Nervously jangling the few keys on his keyring in
time with a song he was
quietly humming in his head, Tyler swaggered across the parking lot trying
to pretend he wasn't afraid. But there was a hesitation in his step, an
almost palpable panic in the cool October air, a shivering shallowness in
his breath. Those sad eyes belied a confusion and fear of something
deeper. Clearly this was not a situation Tyler was ready to meet, nor a
decision he was ready to make.
Jagan Gopanishad lay mostly still in the aluminum railed hospital bed. Though the white sheets were pressed and very recently clean, there were small unmistakable stains here and there. The air seemed too thick with something, perhaps darkness, perhaps death, almost as if breathing it in would bring a smothering blackness into the lungs. Jagan's long black hair was disheveled and unkept; it had been impossible to wash for several days now, and it was piled there like a small rabbit's den on the blue-white whiteness of the pillow case beneath his head.
37-year old Sari sat by the side of her son's bed, holding his left hand in both of hers, praying quietly to herself, her small form wrapped in a lovely golden silk shawl, her back to the hallway door which stood barely ajar. Her eyes were heavy and tired, dark circles beneath them. Yet there was a beauty and a pleasant resolve in her face which felt like peace. As she looked into the gaunt and yellowed, wizened face of her 19 year old son, she remembered him as he was before: full of life and joy, a great comfort to so many in the extended family of their Indian community of Plattesville. She nearly smiled as she remembered that beautiful long hair of his, how striking and stunning he always had looked, his soft face and dark eyes framed by the radiant dark beauty of that black hair. He was a friend to so many... so tender, so strong, so loving, so very full of life.
Sari's husband Firooz and she had not always been on the same side of discussions about their son. Firooz resented that Jagan had chosen not to follow his father's footsteps and remain in the family business. His elder daughter wasn't expected to do so. But Jagan was the eldest son. It had been his responsibility, Firooz believed, to uphold the family tradition and help to establish this first American generation of the business they had brought over from India. Too often, it seemed, Firooz felt Sari had been too close to Jagan, too permissive of his Americanized ways, too willing to allow his tendency to stray from his Indian roots.
Sari had always adored her son. "I love you, Jagan. It is beautiful to be with you here now. Are you comfortable?" she asked, though perhaps not expecting to really have much of an answer. She had been sitting here beside his bed most of the last three weeks as his condition continued to decline. When he originally fell ill almost a year ago the doctors of Plattesville's tiny clinic had at first thought it was tuberculosis since he was born in India and so many cases of tuberculosis had been diagnosed in the Indian community over the last three years. But tests very soon ruled out TB and set the family on another more challenging path.
Tennis shoed footsteps squeaked and smunched across the shiny linoleum hallway floor as they approached the nurses station. Two nurses were there this afternoon, one writing chart notes and the other inventorying and preparing little water cups and medication for upcoming rounds. Tyler looked at his watch to see if it matched the large wall clock behind the desk. The blue dial of his digital racing watch claimed "16:22" as its verdict, though he noticed it was twelve minutes after four on the nurses' clock. "Right on the dot," he said to himself, adding his customary ten minutes. A small sign on the wall marked Hospice Visiting Hours from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm.
Tyler cleared his throat softly as if to quietly announce his arrival at the nurses station. "Can you tell me where to find Jagan Gopanishad's room?"
"You must be a good friend," one of the nurses looked up and smiled. "Jagan's been here nearly a month now, and we still can't pronounce that name!"
Tyler smiled, warmed by her comment, his deep full blue eyes nearly tearing up as he looked at the nurse writing chart notes. But he just smiled. "Yes," he thought to himself, " a very good friend."
"Jagan's a sweet boy," she said. "He's there, in 2B, just down the hall on your left." She indicated a room only a few more steps away now, fourth door to his left.
Pausing briefly then at the nurses station as if perhaps to catch his breath and make a decision whether or not to take those final ten or fifteen steps, Tyler held his smile and looked into that an angelic face directing his steps. He appreciated the kindness in her gaze, even if he didn't understand it. He appreciated the nurturing dedication she seemed to have for what he felt must be such a difficult job. He also hoped she couldn't read minds and hear his inner dialog, nor hear that deafening pounding of his heart which seemed to him nearly ready to jump out of his chest. If she noticed his thoughts or those torrential pulses in his neck and temples she didn't let on.
As he turned to walk down the hall in the indicated direction, Tyler took a deeper breath and put his key ring into the left front pocket of his baggy blue jeans. He moved in long lanky steps, and then made one last cosmetic adjustment, slowly wiping each hand on his thigh as if to prevent his sweaty cold palms from giving him away as more nervous than he wanted to appear when he arrived.
Sari heard the sound of cautious footsteps approaching the door a meter and a half behind her. Sometimes the sound of footsteps there would signify another unpleasant interruption. a nurse coming in to suction out the phlegm and fungus from her son's mouth and throat, or perhaps to adjust his bandages or give him another dosage of drugs or change his diaper. This time, though, these steps seemed different. Sari felt an almost lightness in the air and didn't feel this to be an interruptive energy approaching, though neither did she feel it to be completely familiar.
Tyler slowly pushed open the door to room 2B and cautiously peered inside. It seemed mostly dark in the room although clearly there was a light autumn afternoon sun coming in from the windows. Still, though, it wasn't the lack of light which made the room dark. It was more a feeling of darkness.
But there beside the bed there was a beautiful comfortable bubble of light in the room which immediately filled Tyler with happiness. He recognized Jagan's mother Sari, and reached out to greet her with a gentle touch on her left shoulder with his right hand. She looked up at her son's best friend from high school and her face lit up. "I am so happy you could come, Tyler. You are back from college visiting now? I am sure Jagan is very pleased you are here."
"Jagan," she said then, slowly stroking the left temple and cheek of her son's drawn and still face, "Tyler is here. He has come to tell you his stories."
There was no movement in the body or face of the young man on the bed except a very labored slow breathing in that broken frame of a thin worn being. It was difficult to imagine that this was his friend, Tyler thought. How could it be Jagan, who only two years ago was so active and full of life?
"He went down very fast," Sari said to Tyler, almost as if she had been reading his mind. She had been waiting to have someone to speak with about her son's last few months. Her husband Firooz could never talk about these difficult times. So she had to keep all of her feelings and thoughts bottled up inside. This was not easy.
Still, she had always tried to be there for Jagan, help him with the complicated medical rounds as doctor after doctor, agency after agency shuttled him back and forth, around in circles with bureaucratic demands for documents, referrals, permissions no one ever quite seemed to be able to produce in the round-about circle of denial. "If this is the state of health care in the richest nation of the world," she thought, "God help the poor people of India when this horrible disease strikes there."
"I am so glad you phoned me, Mrs. Gopanishad. I only wish that I could have been here sooner" Tyler said with a soft and pleading, almost apologetic tone. "I didn't know."
There were so many answers in those last three words, Sari thought. He didn't know.
At least, then, Tyler is not sick. These two boys were nearly inseparable for years since they first met, back at the beginning of the fifth grade when her family moved here from India and Jagan first came to school in Plattesville. When they were both juniors in high school, Tyler's family then moved away suddenly and Jagan and Tyler were separated for the first time since they met.
As Sari and Tyler looked into one another's eyes and smiled and spoke, making convenient meaningless small talk conversation as they reacquainted, Sari's mind wandered back into the recent past as she searched for answers which would never be found. Why. When. Where. Who. All of the questions she and her husband could never speak about. Seeing Tyler now she couldn't help but think, "That was, perhaps, when the real difficulties began: Tyler and Jagan were separated almost three years ago. It is all a part of the whole, and yet, if only it could have been different. . . "
Tyler's family had always been subject to the whim of the military transfer, which meant that his father's job could abruptly end and Tyler would find himself in a new school almost immediately. For the first few years of his life he had lived in seven cities and four countries. But then when he was about to go into fifth grade they had been transferred to Plattesville and had miraculously been able to stay there the longest time he had ever lived anywhere: almost six years. Incredible as it had been for him to be able to stay in the same schools for six years, it was the best six years of his life.
Tears streamed down Tyler's face as he thought about it. He and Jagan had both been "new kids" that year and became fast friends. They sat together, they lunched together. They walked to school together, talked on the phone every night. They did everything together and got to know each other better than any friend he had ever had. They had many secrets together, too.
Tyler had never told anyone about any of their secrets. They had sworn secrecy together and as far as he had known, never broken that pact. But he and Jagan had been closer than just friends, too. Their junior high years were explorational years, growing, learning, sharing, trying things out.
This was a part of why it was so difficult for both of them when they were separated as juniors. They had bonded together with each other in ways they have never bonded with anyone before; no member of their family, no other friend. They understood one another. They loved one other. They were, some might even say, in love with one another.
But this is something Jagan and Tyler never talked about. There were no words in either of their family structures to describe this kind of a relationship. They could be neighbors. They could be friends. But there were no words to describe what else they may have felt. It had to remain silent.
Tyler's family was very strict and conservative. They were members of the First Baptist Tabernacle, which had some very strict views on a number of issues which Tyler knew better than to bring up at home. When he and Jagan had been experimenting with drugs, smoking and alcohol over behind the old wood shed when they were twelve, he knew better than to mention it to his parents. As it was, it was difficult enough to have them think he was a smoker or a drug user without beginning to mention anything about the even more unmentionable things he and Jagan may have done.
May have done. Tyler didn't want to remember, though, when he saw his friend here now and knew that this might be the last time the two of them would ever see one another, neither did he want to forget. He just couldn't.
Tears streamed down Tyler's face. He moved around to the other side of the bed to hold Jagan's right hand in both of his. Sari on one side and Tyler on the other, their energy seemed to light up the room with a palpable feeling of love completely surrounding Jagan. He stirred for the first time in days, and barely opened his eyes. "You came !" he said with great difficulty, his small nearly lost voice straining on a breath budget to reach out to his friend. A tear welled up under those long black lashes and curled up in the corner of his eye like he and his friend used to curl up in each others arms.
There was a long silence then, just little sighs and sniffles and quiet crying breaths, as the three of them huddled together in their tearful powerfully bonded chrysalis. All the world ceased to exist for them then, outside this tiny cocoon of memories and feelings, of pain and joy and reunion and blessings from those very best days of their lives.
Tyler and Sari seemed to be transformed in the moment, gently communing again at the altar of a beloved truth nearly lost. Tears broke down inner walls of fear and confusion, of pain and denial which words never could. Neither of them knew really how they would get along without Jagan. And yet, that would be tomorrow's pain. Today still he is here. So they instinctively knew, being here now, that they needed to receive this powerful blessing, this powerful message. They drank in the new wine of the moment like a cool mountain spring burst forth from the desert of misunderstanding and fear, and tried not to think yet about the next time they might know that thirst.
"Fa-ther . . ." Jagan tried to speak. "Is he . . .?"
"Your father has not forsaken you, Jagan," Tyler said, seeing perhaps behind the question his friend was asking. Holding back tears, he kissed him lightly on the cheek and stroked back the hair from out those sweet dimming eyes into which he looked long and deep, "I love you, Jagan. Know that I'm here for you, Guy."
Tyler turned his head slightly and wiped tears on his right sleeve, the tears glistening a bit from the sliver of golden sunlight light creeping quietly in the window behind him. The late October sun was setting behind the nearly barren trees as another quiet year was coming to a close.
Sari and Tyler both sighed gently, their breath in unison with Jagan's, their quiet loving presence merely love and compassion. The room grew darker and cooler as the sun set, fading away like the fall, harbinger of a coming colder winter of the heart which they both would soon know.
Readers of my book, URGENT WHISPERS: Care of the Dying, (c2002 LLX Press 152pp $14.95 available nationwide) will recognize some of its teachings and elements woven into the story here, too, and how they can help signficantly improve the Light and Love present in end-of-life care.
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