Gail sits in her beige recliner with her feet propped up. She sighs deeply as she attempts to talk.
A trail of light green plastic tubing snakes across the living room floor in front of her. One end is tethered to a breathing machine plugged into an outlet; the other looped around her ears before disappearing up her nose.
“I am afraid to lay down at night,” she says, glancing at the floor. “I don’t think I’ll be able to breathe on my back.”
Gail is bone-thin and the chair she sits in looks as if it might swallow her in its folds at any minute.
I give her a gentle hug, afraid I might hurt her if I squeeze too tight. I cringe inwardly after the self-conscious, awkward exchange.
My nephew stands next to me. We both wear swim trunks and t-shirts. I’m holding a sack of Wendy’s hamburgers in one hand and a towel draped over my shoulder.
“Come give me a hug,” Gail says, reaching out to my nephew.
“I don’t want to get sick,” he says. Xander is six. He doesn’t understand that some types of illness cannot be passed on like a cold.
The corners of Gail’s mouth turns up slightly in a sad smile.
“I don’t blame you,” she says without missing a beat. “I don’t like being sick either.”
My mother’s voice carries from a back room.
“Xander, Gail isn’t that type of sick. Give her a hug,” she tells him.
He looks at me, then steps forward.
Inside of Gail’s body a battle is nearing its endgame.
On one side, incurable cancer. On the other, toxic chemicals keeping the biological rebellion at bay. This exquisite waltz between medicine and disease has slowly been killing Gail for years.
Doctors declared the victor early in the war, with the promise that the cancer in her lungs could be held at bay for a little while. A modern medical miracle.
At 70-years-old, Gail goes through the weekly chemo and the illness it brings, hoping to at least see her twin grandchildren, both 17, graduate high school. She’s also recently had a minor heart attack.
My mom is cleaning her already clean house. My nephew and I are there to say hello and swim in Gail’s backyard pool. She invited us when she found out I was planning to take Xander to the swim club on one of the last summer weekdays before he begins second grade. I have not been out to her house in a very long time.
Gail has known me since the day I was born, more than 39 years ago. Her and her late husband Ray lived next door to my mom and dad when I was growing up. Our families spent second Thanksgivings and third Christmases with gift exchanges together. We often rang in many a new year in their living room. I’d joke that Gail and Ray were like having a second mom and dad.
Ray was the first person we knew to own a video player. I remember watching Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” on Beta Max.
The Christmas my sister’s belief in Santa Claus began to wane, Ray climbed on our roof Christmas morning and jingled sleigh bells over her bedroom window. I remember a small part of me wanting to believe again on that day.
When I turned into a neurotic, insecure teenager, Ray would tell me to put my shoulders back and chin up whenever he saw me staring at the ground.
He was proud of me. I should be proud of myself, damn it.
Our families also rented house boats on Lake Cumberland. I occasionally took trips with Gail by myself to visit her parents’ farm in Somerset, Kentucky. I would ride four-wheelers and remember eating farm-to-table fresh eggs and sausage for the first time there. Gail’s whole family was as welcoming and warm as she was. I loved those trips.
Back in the now, Xander and I eat our lunches from Wendy’s at Gail’s dining room table before heading out the back door to the pool. It’s littered with prescription bottles.
Gail and Ray did not move to this house until after I left for college. Their son, Barry, who is about eight year’s older than me, built his house behind my parents before they moved. He operates his lawn care business here, but still lives there. That second set of parents thing was a two-way street for him as well growing up.
Gail’s backyard is beautiful with its rolling hills and lush grass that ends at a small pond and fence beyond. The pool water is blue and warm as I place my nephew in his life jacket in the shallow end.
We splash and play before Xander says he’s getting bored — a sign that he’s growing up.
On the one hand, I know he loves me. On the other though, our relationship is changing. I’m not quite able to hold his attention the way I once did. He’s growing more and more independent. My heart squeezes and sinks with heaviness in the water.
With some convincing, he agrees to stay in the pool a little longer. He tells me all about Minecraft — Zombies and ghasts and creepers, oh my!
My mom comes outside for a moment. She sighs and sits down on one of the matching lawn chairs.
“Barry’s trying to get her to go to rehab,” she says.
Gail turned down the offer for therapy after the heart attack while she was still in the hospital. She was adamant about going home.
“She’s afraid if she goes into rehab, she’ll never come back,” my mom says.
I understand Gail’s concern. I can’t name a family member I loved who went into rehab and returned home.
I respect Gail’s fear of surrender and the strength she’s had to stay alone as long as she has.
Ray died of a heart attack nearly 14 years ago, shortly after they moved here.
Gail managed the acreage and house by herself, before and after the diagnosis.
The last few days alone though have worn on Gail. The balance of scales between the cancer and her independence is clearly beginning to tip in the disease’s favor. She knows this.
“I think she’ll go though,” my mom continues. “Probably tomorrow. I’m going to pack some of her clothes.”
The rehab center promises Gail will only stay there a couple of weeks, just enough time to regain some strength. My mom goes back inside.
Xander pretended to not listen. I can see he’s weighing the meaning of our conversation. He’s still trying to piece together the first loss he’s experienced in his young life.
Jimmy, my mom’s older cousin, died a year ago. Xander occasionally brings up something that reminds him of Jimmy. As adult we forget how abstract a concept like death can be.
“Toss me, bubba,” Xander says. And I do.
Already an expert at changing the subject.
We laugh and play. I put on the best show I can for him, trying to savor the moments while grieving all the others that have already passed.
I glance back at the pond. Barry found Ray there. Ray collapsed, alone, doing yard work. There was nothing to be done to save him.
I lived out-of-state when Ray died. I didn’t come home for the funeral. I find myself choking back a sob.
I sent Gail a note when Ray died. In it, I included the lyrics to the Tom Waits’ song, “Take It With Me.” I told her when I heard the lyrics, they reminded me of the relationship they had.
In a land there’s a town
and in that town there’s
and in that house
there’s a woman
and in that woman
there’s a heart I love
I’m gonna take it
with me when I go
I’m gonna take it
with me when I go.
We’ve never discussed the letter or the song. I immediately regretted including the lyrics in the letter after I sent it. It feels a little too sentimental and over-the-top whenever I think about it.
I also wonder where Ray possibly could go with his love after he died. Do we go anywhere at all? I still occasionally listen to the song and find its melancholy beautiful.
Eventually, Xander and I get out of the pool. I go up to the house to tell Gail goodbye. Xander follows. I hug Gail again, thank her for letting us swim and promise to come back soon.
“I’ll keep you to that,” she says.
Xander doesn’t hesitate with his hug this time. I don’t remember what else is said.
I do hope Gail and I both get to see each other in her house again. I feel guilty for my sadness and not visiting more often. The older I get, the more I realize not having enough time is a growing problem.
I’m in that weird period of adulthood when the reality of losing all those seemingly once-permanent people in my life is smacking me in the face and punching me in the gut with the knowledge that my time on this earth isn’t as long as it once seemed. I’m also am left wondering if I’m happy with where I am. The question makes me uncomfortable.
As Tom sings, I’m starting to see that memories of all the people I’ve loved are the only things I really own . . . and matter. The realization is both heavy and wonderful. It also means there’s not a lot of room for wasted time.