Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.
— Simone Weil
When I first met Fred, I didn’t know he’d be a thorn in my side for twenty years. I didn’t know yet what Dostoyevsky had meant when he’d said, “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” I didn’t know yet that the parts of us that are the most painful, the most difficult, the least susceptible to healing are the very parts that bind us most to others.
Fred and I are both ex-drunks who met while trying to stay sober. Drinking or not, alcoholics can be challenging: insecure, touchy, charming one minute and sociopathic the next. I’m no exception (God knows), and neither is Fred. I’m old enough to realize that I’m perpetually drawn to emotionally distant, wounded males, a dynamic that has played out with peculiar intensity in Fred’s case. The first time I gave him a ride home, he complained the whole way about his shyster landlord and the Filipino “butt pirate” (Fred’s term for a homosexual male) who cut his hair. Then, when I dropped him off, he said, “Thanks, angel. That was reeeaaal nice.” I’ve been stuck with him ever since.
Ours is an unlikely friendship. I live to read; Fred cracks a Louis L’Amour novel every other year. I like polenta; he eats frozen pizza. Fred has little use for what he calls the “hipster crowd.” Anything “artsy-fartsy,” whacked-out, criminally insane, or unneighborly will cause him to say, “Welcome to LA.” Anything you have to lose, yield up, or let go of: “Goodbye, Arizona.” Every Veterans Day: “All gave some, and some gave all,” coupled with a half-hour harangue on the commies at Social Security, the morons at Medicare, and the swindlers in the White House.
But Fred’s always giving a few bucks to someone in need, a struggling drunk or a down-and-out prostitute (especially if there’s a chance she’ll sleep with him). When he’s in the hospital, as he has been a good part of the last few years, he’s often helping a fellow patient with his slippers or jumping up to whisk away straws, jello lids, and syringe wrappers from the floor. But what with his abusive childhood, his tour in “’Nam,” and the years of drinking, he can also suddenly snap at me or come out fighting. He’s turned on me for no reason. He’s given me the silent treatment.
In the time that I’ve known him, I’ve often shown up for a visit in spite of my better judgment. I’ve had Fred over for holidays. I’ve sat by his hospital bed, where he lay unconscious, and prayed. I’ve dragged myself over to see him when I’m exhausted, when I feel I should be writing, when I’m hungry, stressed, and lonely. I don’t know what it is in Fred that invites, or even allows, such loyalty. Maybe it’s the times he’s taken me out to lunch on his fixed income and, by the time I’ve arrived home, left a message on my machine: “That was real nice of you, angel. Thank you so much for coming out. You always make me feel so good. You’re a real friend.”
Maybe it’s the many nights he’s called me over the years just to “check in.” I’ll ask what he had for supper, and he’ll reply, “Aw, one of them TV dinners. Then I got my candies all lined up, my cinnamon and my Milky Ways, and my water. Hell, I’ll be in my robe by eight.”
Maybe it’s that he’s suffered a series of illnesses that would have felled an ox, never mind a guy who, before he got sick, weighed maybe 140 pounds. He’s gone from occasional visits to the ER, to frequent stays in whatever ICU will take him, to his current “home,” the board-and-care section of the West Los Angeles VA Hospital. “It’s 8:43 AM here on Friday, March 27,” he’ll say when he calls, always careful to leave the exact time and date. (Fred has more than a touch of OCD.) He says, “Please come.” He says, “You’re important to me.” How can I — who almost never ask anyone to come see me, because I’m afraid they won’t — say no? How can I, trained since birth not to “bother” anybody, turn a deaf ear to someone willing to reveal such naked need?
Fred’s mellowed of late, or perhaps bowed to providence, but he can still be ornery. “Come sit beside me, sweetie,” he’ll say, patting the bed, and a minute later, with an edge to his voice, “Ya mind moving your leg, pal?” Or, when I get up to leave, “Bring me a bag of M&Ms next time you come, couldja? Just the regular kind, no peanuts.” But the kicker was a few months ago when he asked me for two Kit Kats and — selfish, thoughtless oaf that I am — I purchased an eight-pack, then drove across town to the VA and delivered them.
“I said two, not eight,” he groused. “That’s so alcoholic! If one’s good, five is better.”
“Good to see you, too,” I told him, and I turned on my heel and left.
That is it, I thought. I need to learn how to set boundaries. I need to get rid of the deadwood in my life. So the next day I fired off a note: “Where were you when I had cancer? When have you ever picked me up? When have you ever gone out of your way? I’ve done a thousand things for you, and in all the years we’ve known each other, you’ve done about two for me” — which was not strictly true, but I was pissed.
There, I thought. I’ve finally washed my hands of that conniving ingrate. I fully expected him to strike back like the rattlesnake he was.
A few days later he called. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” he said on my machine. “I hope we get a chance to talk soon.”
That’s when I realized I was in for the long haul. That’s when I realized that something deep in me needed Fred, and — for different reasons — something deep in Fred needed me. That’s when I realized that if I wanted to be there for Fred, he didn’t owe me a thing, not even a thank-you.
After that, something shifted. I’d drive over to the hospital alone, battling the traffic on the 405, and instead of feeling sorry for myself, I’d notice the light streaming down over the San Gabriel Mountains. Instead of feeling stressed at one more errand to fit into my schedule, I began to look forward to just sitting there with someone for whom I didn’t have to try to be scintillating or euphorically happy, or even happy at all.
And so today, one more time, he’s asked me to visit, and one more time I’ve come. The Coke machine in the lobby of his building is busted. The elevator smells of hot lunch and urine. I find Fred in his second-floor room, standing with his back to the door, hunched over and sucking on his breathing apparatus, a T-shaped contraption of clear plastic that produces clouds of what looks like smoke, ironically, since smoking — along with hepatitis C, infections in both lungs, and old bronco-riding fractures — is more or less what’s killing him.
“Come in, come in. There’s a chair by the window,” he says, coughing. “Want an Ensure?”
Back in the day Fred worked for a time as a model — he was once a Marlboro Man — and he hasn’t lost his sartorial flair. He’s wearing cocoa-brown pajamas, a pair of checked boxer shorts on the outside of the bottoms, spotless white crew socks, black slippers, and a hand towel wrapped around his neck like an ascot. With his angular cheekbones and thatch of silvering hair, he might be Samuel Beckett, if Beckett had been the son of a coal miner, an ex-rodeo rider, and a former skid-row drunk.
Fred picks up the phone and rasps, “Could you send Gloria down with my medicine, please. I need my medicine right now.” Minutes later a large African American woman in a nurse’s smock with teddy bears on it appears bearing a soufflé cup of mint-blue liquid morphine. “Thank you,” Fred says, momentarily appeased, and he quaffs the dose down. After she’s left, he imperiously calls, “Gloria!”
“What?” Gloria replies from halfway down the hall.
“C’mere. I want to ask you something.”
Fred ducks his head, suddenly shy. “I wancha to meet my friend Heather. She’s a writer.”
Finished with his breathing treatment, Fred stretches out on his bed while I perch on the edge of his motorized wheelchair. The late-afternoon sun bathes the scene in a Vermeer-like light. He’s still his old, feisty, philosophical self, but he’s fading. He’s confused about whether it’s Tuesday or Wednesday. He lays out his pills on the bedspread and nervously rearranges them one way, then the next — the blue first, the yellow first, all three vertical, all three horizontal — until it’s all I can do not to slap his hand, grab the lot, and gulp them down myself.
He’s also developed a strange habit of drifting, midconversation, from first person to second: “You’re gonna need a CAT scan, pal,” he remarks.
I look around to see if someone else has entered the room, but there’s just me. “Don’t you mean you’ll need a CAT scan?” I ask, but he’s already segued into the third person, delivering his own eulogy, as he sometimes does.
“Yup, old Freddie was a warrior,” he says, gazing off toward the mountains with a wry smile. “Everybody knew and loved Freddie. He always had that certain something about him. He suffered a lot, but he bore his suffering bravely, and he never lost his spirit.”
“Can it, will you?” I say, but the truth is, another man would long ago have collapsed from despair or bitterness or exhaustion. Fred’s spirit is both why he has suffered so much and why he’s survived. His spirit is his glory and his cross. He couldn’t hide his wounds if he wanted to: two alcoholic parents, the Christmases with no presents, the Friday nights when the old man was supposed to pick him up from the boys’ home and would call from the bar at nine, shitfaced, to say he couldn’t make it. My own wounds — alcoholism, divorce, unrequited love — are more deeply buried. The fact that Fred’s are all on the surface allows me to relax around him in a way I find difficult with other people. He knows I’m not as nice as I make myself out to be, nor as self-assured. He accepts me the way I am: my tendency to focus on the unattainable; my sappiness; the way today, fidgeting with the chintzy curtain, I talk about God. I start crying; he ignores me. I grope to express my holy longing, the anguish of my heart, my grief that he’s dying; he acknowledges me without much responding — which is really all I want.
Who could have predicted that the person in the world with whom I’d be most “myself” — bereft, unknowing, unable to fix anything — would be an invalid curmudgeon? Who can explain why, sitting across from Fred in this unpromising room at the board-and-care, I’m so struck by the mystery of existence that for a second I almost stop breathing? Maybe it’s the preciousness of human creatures. That we’re alive. That in spite of our fear and anguish we’re able to sit together. No more than an atom lies between distance and closeness, silence and speech, withholding and giving. Only a breath between fear and faith, the ridiculous and the sublime, life and death. The wall that separates is also the wall that links: “metaxu,” the French intellectual and mystic Simone Weil called this phenomenon, borrowing a word from Plato.
Some days when I get up to go, Fred says, “Please stay. Don’t leave yet.” This afternoon, though, he’s ready for my visit to be over: dinner at 4:30; MacNeil/Lehrer at 6:00. In his collarless pajamas he’s like some exquisite, wasted mandarin in his last days on the throne.
“Thanks, angel,” he says. “You’re so good to me. When do ya think you can make it out again?”
“Couple of weeks maybe.” Then I begin to muse: “Sometimes I wonder why we don’t all kill ourselves. What holds us back? Some moment in our childhoods? Some summer afternoon? Some boy, some girl?”
He hacks, examines the contents of his handkerchief. “Naw, that’s not what keeps me going,” he says, waving off my suggestion. “What keeps me going, tell ya the truth — I just wanna be around to see what crazy-ass thing happens next.”
What happens next is not great. Whenever we talk, he starts saying, “I’m not going to make it, Heather. I’m never going home.” He begins referring to “the hereafter.” He keeps bugging me about a will, so I download a blank form from a website, round up another witness, and bring everything to him. “Household Effects,” “Cash,” and “All Other Assets” go to his only relative, a brother back in Ohio. I think of Fred’s bachelor apartment, the home he’ll never go back to: the smoke-stained walls, the bills lined up in military rows on the dresser, the packets of hot sauce from Taco Bell in the fridge, the pinup rodeo girl tacked to the wall of his closet, the paper lunch bag filled with spent cigarette butts on the floor by the bed, the Social Security checks accumulating in a drawer because he’s been at the VA for over a year.
When Fred’s health starts to fail in earnest, the brother, whom I’ve never met, flies in. I pick him up at the airport and bring him to the VA the next day, where I watch him and Fred greet each other for the first time in ten years.
Whenever I leave town, I start to worry that Fred will die while I’m gone. Headed to the airport one night for a red-eye to Boston, I stop by the hospital first. We watch the sun set together, and he insists on giving me the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich he saved from his lunch tray and a bottle of water for the trip. (I don’t have the heart to tell him they’ll just confiscate the water at airport security.)
Finally he’s put in intensive care for good. I drive over, and they have him in an anticontamination pod. I can see him through the glass: tied down, his hands bandaged mitts.
“You’re not taking in that coffee,” the nurse says.
I throw out my cardboard cup.
“Put on that mask.”
I put on the mask.
“Don’t touch him.”
I won’t touch him.
“Don’t wake him up.”
I won’t wake him up.
Finally I go in. He looks like Christ on the cross: sweating, bruised, hair plastered to his forehead. He’s on a ventilator, and his arms, where he’s tried to tear out the needles, look as if someone’s gone over them with a sledgehammer. I stand against the far wall, saying Hail Marys, whispering, “Jesus, Freddie, this is bad. It’s Heather, Freddie. I’m right here with you.” Two minutes later the nurse comes along with an entourage and kicks me out, saying she has to draw blood.
I stand outside the door for a half-hour, and when she emerges, I say, “I’m wondering when I can go back in and see my friend.”
“Oh, no, no, no,” she says. “You work around us. We can’t just —”
“You are an asshole,” I hiss. I’m shaking. I can feel the muscles in my face contorting in tic-like ways that I’m glad I don’t have to witness. “That is not a patient to me; that is my friend. He has been suffering for years, and he is fucking dying. Do you not get that that is a human being in there? Do you not get that he is dying?”
She flinches, and I’m glad. The next day I break my lifelong “never-sic-management-on-a-lowly-worker” rule and call her manager to complain. I don’t feel one bit sorry.
They put him on “palliative care only,” feeding him medications to relieve his suffering while nature scenes loop continuously on the overhead TV. I ask my friend Father Terry to come in, not so much as a priest but as a fellow human being and sober alcoholic. He kindly agrees. Fred never had much use for Jesus, so we don’t bring him up. We touch Fred’s arms and hold his hands and say how grateful we are that we all got sober; and that we’ll be with him, whatever happens; and that we hope to see him again someday. He probably doesn’t know we’re here, but letting the universe know that someone cares about him seems important.
It’s September 7, 2009, Labor Day. I rarely allow myself any Monday off, but this morning a friend asks me to have coffee, and I say OK. We go to a pretentious, ridiculously overpriced “coffee boutique” on Silver Lake Boulevard. Afterward I consider going to see Fred, but it’s hot, and I’m wiped out. I go home, work for a while, then lie down with a book. I have a bad feeling. When Fred’s brother calls later that afternoon and says, “Freddie’s gone,” all I can think is: Twenty years of friendship, and as Fred breathed his last, I was drinking a six-dollar cup of coffee at an artsy-fartsy cafe.
But that’s not what I want to remember. I could feel bad that I wasn’t at his side, but I choose to feel glad that I ever showed up at all. I choose to remember that he was in terrible pain, and, because I was in pain myself, we were able to share our loneliness — and that is a rare and precious gift. Who but someone so fearful of getting close could have put up with him? Who but someone so confused about the line between service and self-neglect could have meshed so thoroughly with someone so confused about the line between gratitude and manipulation? Fred died alone, but I choose to remember not my absence at his death but an earlier exchange that may qualify as our best metaxu moment:
A year ago I went east for the holidays, and right after Christmas Fred’s brother called to report that Fred had been transferred yet again from the board-and-care to the ICU. Things didn’t look good. When I returned to Los Angeles, I drove to the VA the very next morning.
When I walked into the room, his face lit up. Fred was always glad to see me, but this time he started saying things he’d never said before: “I’ve always, always loved you, Heather. You’ll never know how much.”
“Well, I’ve always loved you, too.”
“No, but I mean really loved. I kept testing you, but you always came back. I tried to push you away, but you never left. I’m so screwed up, I didn’t know how to show it, but sometimes I even wanted to give you a little kiss.”
“Oh, Fred,” I said, taking his hand, “that is so sweet. We always have had some strange kind of bond. Not romantic, of course, but —”
“Ya never know,” he interrupted. “Maybe when I get out of here . . .”
He must know time is growing short, I thought fondly. He must finally want me to know how special I’ve been to him. This puts things on a whole new footing. Finally he’s going to quit this hot-cold act. Finally we’re going to start communicating. Finally we’re going to have a real friendship. I didn’t think about the morphine he was taking.
A couple of days later he called. “That was so nice, our talk on Saturday,” I said a little shyly. “That’s probably the nicest talk we’ve ever had.”
There was a pause, as if he were groping for something, like a blind man feeling along a wall for a nonexistent door.
“You were in Saturday?” Fred asked.