Saturday, March 6, 2010

When God shuts a door

Steve Leon's door had his name on it in capital letters. He was old and bedridden. He wore a catheter and had various machines and tubes plugged into him. It was possible to walk around his bed in his small room at the retirement facility and live his life through the dozens of framed photographs that hung on the walls around the bed he never left. These were the ghosts that watched over him now. His Native American mother (the head nurse said that she had been a tribal princess) seriously sitting on a grassy mound. A young and handsome Steve in his army uniform. A newly-married Steve with a wife that looked right out of a 1940s movie with her hair and lipstick. She died long ago. Steve with his young children. A grandson in a college football uniform. The writing, a biography, on the walls.

Steve was dying. Every hour or so, the head nurse would come by to check up on him. She'd make a joke and say something flirty, but she couldn't tell if it made him feel better because he was too weak, too drowsy, too old to respond. He'd just lay there, his small tired head now a part of his pillow, the rest of his thin body invisible under layers of blankets.

I once sat by his bed by myself, the faces on the walls encircling the two of us, marking the boundaries of that anonymous bubble in time, the faces that would be the only witnesses to that moment. "Tell me," I said, "you who have lived and can look back on your journey, what do I need to know?" I needed to know, I needed to know from someone who was completing his journey to tell me what lay ahead of me in mine. "Please."

I had a cold the next week, so I visited the retirement facility the week after. I was marching towards Steve's room when I abruptly stopped in front of his door. The nameplate now said 'Vacant'.

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