Exit Single File

There are places on the side of the road where you can hear the traffic, but they can’t hear your screams. There are too many to count. They are in every drainage ditch, every thicket of vegetation, every vacant lot with machinery left there long enough to rust.

I often stare out the window of the bus at those places and imagine someone there is alone, afraid, and dying. It’s a morbid thought. I have a lot of those. I try to put myself in the position of the made-up person having a made-up death. I fail at that, which is surprising in a way. One would think that if I could empathize with anyone, it would be with a figment of my imagination. After all, I’m the one who wrote the owner’s manual.

Yet in my heart of hearts, I know that death is a trip we all take solo. It doesn’t matter if you are real or make-believe.  It doesn’t even matter if you die en masse. There can be some show of solidarity when you are a member of a group for whom the end is nigh, the band playing on the deck of the sinking Titanic and mutual handies aboard the hijacked aircraft on 9/11 to name just two. However, these are making the most of the last few moments of life. The escape pods are still single occupancy.

I could be wrong of course. Not being dead yet, my knowledge of human mortality is somewhat limited. There are people I’ve known over the years who have since died. You live long enough,  there is going to be some attrition. There have been cancer deaths, overdoses, and at least two suicides. No murders unless you count one aunt I never met in person. I think about them from time to time, but always in the past tense. I may not like that they’re gone, but I accept it.

With the exception of my father, they all died somewhere else and I heard about it later. I was in the room with my brother, his wife, my then wife, and Dad’s partner at the time of  his death. We all gathered around him trying to be as comforting as we could. He started breathing heavily then fell silent. We looked around at each other wondering if this was it. It wasn’t. Dad started gasping anew, heavier and faster than before. The next time he stopped, he was dead.

I’d like to think the old man was trying to fuck with us on the way out. That would be the Jennings thing to do. Sadly, this was unlikely. He had been in process of shutting down for almost a week. By the time I arrived the day before he died, he didn’t seem aware of his surroundings. He lay on the bed and his head shook back and forth. Maybe he was saying no to dying or maybe he objected to still being alive. Perhaps it was neither and just a reflex.

All I know was that on the one occasion when his eyes opened and he looked at me, there was no recognition, just displeasure. He quickly closed his eyes and turned away. It was as if the man I knew as my father had decided to leave ahead of schedule and brought in a temp to take his place. The end game of cancer is no fun. I can’t say I blame him.

Both Dad and his beleaguered stand-in exited the world alone. One day I’ll do the same, just like you and everyone else.

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