There was no time for friends, no time for goodbyes. You reached out when time had just about run out. Don’t tell anyone, you say, it’s too exhausting. You don’t say, They’ll want to remember the immortal you of your past, and you, still very much mortal, wanted to live in the present. But it was in every word you said, the sorrow in your voice, the sadness at everything you are going to miss. I knew, the moment I heard your voice – the pain had already begun its transformations on you. I’m fighting it, you tell me. By then you had already outlived their prediction by fifteen months. When I call, dropping everything after reading your email, you say Now I am on the downhill ramp, a sentence that knocks the breath from me, a sentence that clangs my heart like a bell, and we both cry for awhile. I make a tremendous effort and promise to stop crying, because crying is for hopeless causes and you are fighting it. But these were the hopeless facts: an incurable mutation spread to your liver and bones.
Maybe I can squeeze in a few more years, you say and I rally to your hope, finding mine. A downward ramp that lasts two long slow years of grace is not too much to ask for this good man, this husband and father of two, I pray insistently to the universe. We talk of your daughter, the unexpected elegance and self-possession for just eleven years. Does she understand, I ask, and you hesitate, and I know why. If you hope, then she hopes, and knowing there is less hope than you’d hoped for is something you hope to keep to yourself. So much hope, like spilled milk. You want as much time as you can get, as normal as it can be, although normal includes inoperable tumors and losing the use of one arm, normal is living every day on borrowed time. My stamina, you say – it’s bad. Hearing your grief is unbearable. Our voices waver in and out of weeping. When the call ends, when the connection to those precious minutes breaks, I wonder if I will ever talk to you again, and I wail aloud for long minutes. It is hard to catch my breath. My heart feels like a bomb crater. Even if your best hopes come true, your time is almost up, and you are so far from ready to go. You say by email what you can’t with your voice, about the toll of the diagnosis, and now the disease. It’s devastating, you say simply. Emotionally and financially. When I ask about the pain, you tell me I live in another dimension now. Like Bukowski, you do not have time for things with no soul. You do not have time, at all. No matter how much you get it will not be enough. I am so grateful to have these few minutes with you.
I always thought, hoped, someday we might meet again, and sit at a weatherbeaten picnic table with plastic cups of foamy beer in front of us, the night illuminated by the strings of lights typical of all the midwestern summer beer tent parties held in the roped off streets of small downtowns. You would be in your habitual baseball hat – this one with a U of I logo where your son graduated from the same electrical engineering program you did, and you would tell me stories of your daughter with the gift for writing and you’d laugh at how much you sound like a certain proud dad and we would toast Jim S. and Norma Jean in the soft summer night with the June bugs and the moths bumping against the lights. You look good, you’d say, because you have always been pleasant and generous that way, and then you’d crack a joke about being completely bald, and I would say to you that you were right when you said to me that engineers are the smartest people on earth (you were teasing me, but not completely), and how lucky I was to have you as a guiding star for so much of my time here. How much better you made me, and how I still tend the seeds that you planted, and will continue all of my life. But now that conversation will have to wait.
When the corn grows tall I will always think of you. There are certain songs that will always bring you to mind. I thank you for the soundtrack of our marriage. I hope you felt some joy in your last days, and comfort. I know that you were surrounded by love. Remember when you applied to be an astronaut? When I got the news, I imagined your soul rising up from your body and rocketing into space, leaving a plume of flame burning up the atmosphere, you in your spacesuit strapped in and smiling and with your blue eyes open.