CW: terminal illness
It was day four hundred and fifty-eight for Paul. He weighed in at fifty-eight kilos, down from a strapping ninety-three. He was also fifty-eight years and counting. His doctor prognosed it and Paul felt old, sick, and wasted, his body no longer his own, and tomorrow would be 1999, another absolutely nothing new year.
It was years now, he’d asked Matt what Silence equals Death meant. He’d be the first to admit to being a simple guy, the one whose IQ matched his shoe size - a running joke back at the warehouse. Matt smiled broad and explained that it meant if you don’t talk, more would die. But that was before. Now, it was just a problem without solution, Paul was dying, and he was alone.
His sweaty frame slumped in the Lay-Z-Boy, the weight of his head drawing chin to sternum. Arms flailed for the TV remote, and a pile of Christmas mail fell to the floor. The screen glowed, crowds screamed, jumping up and down, but his brain wasn’t processing the scene: having fun, wet falling snow, lights of Times Square bragging that New York never sleeps, especially on New Year’s. Back in some recessed corner of his mind, he knew someone was coming soon to help him up, clean him up, and set him up to struggle through another day. His eyes closed with sleep as the ball dropped.
“Mr. Hilsen, Mr. Hilsen sir. Let’s get you up.”
A kind voice, the voice of a home care person, gently roused him. It took long minutes for his eyes to focus. Cherie had come. Yes, of course, she’d come, she was paid - it was her job.
“Oh, you came! I’m so lonely, where’s Matt. A new year, right? Matt’s coming? You will help us celebrate?” But Paul’s last words were feeble, just matching his mind, just matching his body. He felt upward pressure under his armpits.
“Come on, Mr. Hilsen, let’s get you up. Can you walk a bit on your own, or should I get your walker?”
“And Matt, he can help me, too.”
“Yes, Mr. Hilsen, yes. Matt’s not here; he’s gone, remember? Come, let’s get you cleaned up for the day. It’s a new year, Mr. Hilsen.”
Cherie was strong - Cherie was firm - Cherie was brave. She got Paul up and sitting on the bench of his walker and wheeled him into the bath. Turning first the hot water and then the cold, she kept a hand secure on his knee.
“Ok now, Mr. Hilsen, let’s sit you on the pot, and then a little bath.”
Paul felt the steam dust his dry, cracking skin. Then in the fog of his eyes, Matt was smiling. A misty day on the beach, Bridgeport and Matt had a thermos of bitter black coffee. They had laughed when Paul brought forth crumbled sugar cubes from his coat pocket.
“No plastic bag?” Matt’s eyes were forever shining, forever crinkling. “Paul, turn around. I have a surprise for you.”
And Paul felt Matt’s hand cover his eyes to close them, and then Matt was down on his knee, proposing with the coffee thermos in one hand and a gold ring in the other.
“Mr. Hilsen! I’m going to wash your hair.”
Paul felt a soft hand covering his face and recognized, in some black, sad crevice of his mind, that it wasn’t Matt’s at all. His skin felt chilled; then was vigorously rubbed dry.
“Ok, now up! What should we do on this first day of the new year? I say we go for a walk. Sound good, Mr. Hilsen?”
His body was being moved. He heard the question but could only visualize tiny sick cells, cells with bloody jaws and unending hunger ravaging up his spine, his limbs, into his brain. He could feel them crawling so distinctly that his hand went to his head and he pulled at his thin hair.
“Come, Mr. Hilsen, your hair is nice and fresh. Let’s finish. You can get your shirt on? Wonderful.”
It wasn’t wonderful. Paul remembered Matt’s smile had slowly closed to a frown as Paul’s sores and sickness became their life. Then Matt gave up as Paul wept like a child. Matt had cried too, yelling, ‘Love can’t fix every problem.’ He’d walked out of their apartment, defeated.
The problem? Paul was dying. The problem? Paul had had fun - when he was a younger man. The problem? Paul had not understood long words like ramifications, culpability, or even immunodeficiency. The problem had no solution. Paul was sick, and now alone. Fingers had bunched on the top of his pen as he printed tight block letters to apologize, to say, I love you Matt, even in sickness.
“Mr. Hilsen! Concentrate. You have to straighten your arm - it will be easier for both of us!”
A crisp New Year’s Day, the park was fresh, alive. Children ran through remnants of snow, chasing pigeons. An old lady sat with moldy bread; both were wrinkled and grey. Her metal walker pulled in tight like a false shield against her fan club of small, brown birds that flew around in anticipation. Paul pushed his walker firm, feeling his feet plod after it. He was walking - he was upright - birds were singing, he would not die that day.
They had to be teenagers running, blowing through noisemakers, hysterical, screaming New Year’s kisses, then falling and rolling on each other. Paul could barely remember being that young. But, oh, yes, there was a sweet boy, played the trumpet. Paul had kissed him in the band room and felt such intense sparks. He had been young and frisky once. Then high school counselors had said, ‘given your grades and interests,’ and pushed a vocational program’s brochure across the desk. His trumpet player had gone to college far away on a music scholarship. Then a whole swath of Paul’s life was eaten up, until the day he met Matt.
He turned to Cherie. “I’d like to walk over to the pond.”
Cherie helped him the entire way, chatting about the birds and her growing grandchildren that lived in another city. As soon as Paul saw the water, his mind started to click through memories, and there was Matt, bent by the pond, feeding the ducks, a picnic blanket spread, a thermos ready. Paul had stopped to watch the stranger, and then his eyes caught Matt’s, and it was love in that very moment.
“Grip the handles, Mr. Hilsen. You almost fell there, so don’t let go. Catch your breath. We’ll go over to that bench. Look, someone is feeding the ducks!”
Ducks, wings pumping high overhead. No, Matt laughed. Seagulls! They’d taken train, then boat to The Pines, where even dogs wore bright nail polish. Yes, they’d danced and whooped amongst brethren.
Paul tried to clear his thinking, see only the water, the real ducks, but he felt exhausted. A couple strolled, hands shoved deep into each other’s back pockets. Paul had a thin smile at their beard’s tangling as they smooched. He’d loved deep like that once. Matt had walked an aisle, not a real wedding aisle but a celebration of their love and their parents had amazingly sat watching their happiness. They were a modern, gay couple - all their party guests affirmed such.
His brain suddenly strained and grasped for words. Those that came, terminally sick - alone, made Paul’s eyes tear.
“Feeling a little down, Mr. Hilsen? We’re here together you know. I’m alone too, kids gone, husband dead, I chew blood pressure medicine. Life goes on, you know, New Year’s Day keeps on coming.”
“I thought I saw Matt by the ducks.” It was a struggle to say, to think. It reminded him of those cells that were swarming, their victory in sight.
“Sit on the walker-bench, here, pick up your feet a little. I will push you, Mr. Hilsen. Let’s get you home.”
It was equally slow going back through the park. The constant stream of skateboarders and rollerbladers made the paved paths hazardous. After Cherie had pushed Paul over a field of frozen grass, she grabbed the nearest utility pole to catch her breath. Paul’s neck turned as he looked up.
“There, what’s that? That pink triangle. Matt explained it to me once.”
“Oh, Mr. Hilsen, that’s an old flyer, was a public message. A problem we still have no good solution for, you know, Silence = Death.” Cherie’s voice faded, with whatever was unsaid. “Let’s get you home, Mr. Hilsen.”
Paul dozed on the couch as his visiting helper organized his apartment. When he slowly woke, Cherie was there, clutching some mail.
“Mr. Hilsen, here. You’re awake, and you have a bunch of unopened mail. Shall we go through them together?”
Halfway through the stack, Cherie saw the Christmas Card envelope, the addressee name, the return/address unknown stamp, and her hand jerked. Paul peered, reading glasses slipping low. He saw his own awkward grade school penmanship and Matt’s last address crossed out with a firm stroke.
“Cherie, I need to lie down.”