At our 50th high school reunion, Nelson told me he was also wounded in Vietnam, so we bonded like brothers. I could see Nelson was battling cancer. We exchanged email addresses and promised to get together.
Back in the ’60s, Nelson’s dad owned a meat market still famous today for its Italian sausage. Nelson worked every day while I played sports.
Now he was lying in his bedroom with the TV tuned to a one-sided 24-hour news channel. After bathing his body and spreading salve over his bedsores, the hospice caregiver pulled an adult diaper over Nelson’s spindly legs and up around his waist. Then he lifted the sheet and blanket to Nelson’s shoulders and tucked him in. As I admired his gentle touch and compassionate care, the hospice guy thanked us for our service and I thanked him for his.
After he left, I pulled a chair up close to the bed and watched Nelson doze, enjoying the after-effects of a warm bath. The words spewing from the TV grated on my mind as I tried to imagine who would be waiting to welcome Nelson on the other side. Suddenly, he opened his eyes and recognized my presence. His lips were so dry and cracked, he winced when he tried to smile. As I reached for a lemon-flavored Q-tip on his night stand, he mumbled something I couldn’t understand.
“Nelson, can I turn off the TV?”
“No. Leave it on.”
“What did you say before? I didn’t hear you.”
“Hold my hands,” he said and I did. “Tighter,” he said, so I clasped more strongly.
“Too hard,” he whispered. I loosened my grip slightly and we stared into each other’s eyes, the TV noise interfering with our connection. Several minutes passed.
“Nelson, can I change the channel?”
“No,” and his eyes flared, alarmed, fearful he would miss some important news.
How can he listen to this stuff, I thought, my anger rising.
“Well, Nelson, looking at your body, you don’t have far to go,” I blurted. “You’ve burned it out.”
After several deep breaths, I continued in a softer tone.
“You’ve done great, Nelson. You’ve got a successful business, a nice home, a caring wife and a loving family. You can be proud of your accomplishments. If you gotta go, now’s a good time to cross over. Many people are waiting to greet you – your Ma and Dad, all the soldiers you rescued and recovered in Vietnam. They’re waiting for you, man. So just let go whenever you want.”
My feelings shifted from anger to shame. I meditated, trying to envision Nelson passing over to a peaceful party on the other side. The longer I stay with these feelings, I thought, the more they’re supposed to change me, to teach me, to transform into understanding, acceptance and wisdom. But they didn’t.
For two hours I watched Nelson drift into and out of morphine sleep while we waited for his wife to return from running errands. Five days later, he crossed over.
How’d we get so far apart? We all want the same things in life: Love, peace, freedom, friends, health care, a steady income and a loving family. At his death bed, I let partisan politics divide us. Someday I’ll learn this lesson. With so many important things in common, nothing should keep us apart.