Paul texted me Tuesday morning. He said that he wanted to see me and would come by my place. He suggested that we should have dinner together. I strongly suspected Paul’s message had not arrived entirely out of the blue. After all, this past Monday marked what would have been another wedding anniversary for me and Lee, and I knew that my sentimental brother-in-law would have been thinking about his sister.
Plus, travel to my place required considerable effort on Paul’s part. First, it’s always a long and tedious drive from the suburbs into the city, especially nearing rush hour, and most especially during summer when road construction is at a peak. In addition, it had been raining most of the day, and it was still raining hard when Paul arrived to my home.
I grabbed an umbrella and went outside to meet him at his car. He would remain dry. It seemed the least I could do.
I darted into Paul’s car, narrowly avoiding a deep puddle near the curb. He asked where we could go nearby for dinner and a cocktail. I suggested that we go back to Dos Urban Cantinos, a somewhat upscale Mexican joint featuring unique and delicious takes on otherwise standard Mexican fare. It was just a short drive from my home. Paul knows the restaurant’s owners from his church. In fact, he and Joanne had turned me and Lee on to this place pre-pandemic. Neither Paul nor I had eaten there in a very long time.
It is a testament to its management that the restaurant had persevered to emerge on the other side when so many other restaurants had failed. When we arrived, it was still an early hour. Fortunately, the place wasn’t yet crowded with people.
Paul was warmly greeted by one of the owners, who may have been acting for our benefit when he claimed he also remembered me. Maybe he did. Regardless, there was good news. We had arrived during “happy hour.” Once seated, I was more than happy to order a cold, tart and tasty margarita.
I think I surprised Paul a bit when I mentioned that my wedding anniversary date did not make me feel sad. Rather, I explained, its importance is superseded by the approaching anniversary of Lee’s passing, a truly momentous event in my life now less than a month away.
After catching up with Paul about family news, our conversation chiefly focused on aging, health issues and the mystery of death. Perhaps I had prompted this discussion with a short account that highlighted Lee’s last days of life at home.
In part, our ensuing conversation regarding health and physical well-being was informational. For example, I might describe a close friend’s current course of treatment for cancer at a particular facility. Paul would then swap a story with me about someone he knew. We went on for a while in this fashion. However, since neither one of us has any background in medicine or any actual firsthand knowledge, I couldn’t vouch for the accuracy or reliability of the information we exchanged.
Indeed, our information exchange was merely a prelude to a more robust discussion concerning how each one of us felt about such matters. For example, I was surprised when Paul told me that his former minister, a smart and very caring woman whom I have met on several prior occasions, had gotten into a shouting match with doctors and administrators at the hospital where her husband is being treated for cancer. According to Paul, she had strenuously objected to aspects of his treatment regimen that mainly seemed designed to benefit the doctors’ and hospital’s bottom lines while failing to improve her husband’s condition. In fact, despite these costly treatments, her husband’s condition has steadily deteriorated, and she is distraught because she feels as if nobody cares. I listened to Paul’s revelations with interest. This is the same hospital where Lee received her treatment.
Even more surprisingly, Paul told me about an episode where Lee had completely lost her cool. This happened when a hospital administrator called to give my wife instructions about admission procedures and patient billing responsibilities. Unfortunately, this caller seemed blissfully unaware that Lee was already in the hospital and in fact lying in what undoubtedly would have become her death bed had we not wisely elected to leave the awful place to spend her final days at home.
I had never heard this story before now. What made it so surprising to my ears was that Lee had never raised her voice or displayed such anger as Paul was now describing. I could only shake my head. Paul agreed when I suggested to him that “indifferent” might be the best adjective to describe the level of care at this supposedly world class teaching hospital.
Our conversation shifted to related questions: If confronted by a life-threatening medical condition, how far would you be willing to go to stay alive? What if this effort meant sacrificing your quality of life without any assurances that you would ever recover or survive? I offered that until you’re there, it’s pure speculation, however, several people I knew who had experienced this precise dilemma had without exception opted to pursue more life. I told Paul that it’s easy to say at our age that quality trumps quantity, but it’s another thing to put this simple notion into practice.
Finally, regarding the mystery that is death, Paul told me about a discussion he had had with his father, then gravely ill. The old man had been hanging onto life for longer than had seemed reasonable given his irreversible and physically debilitating medical problems. Paul told me it was hard to watch his dad’s decline. One day, he told his father, a dedicated fisherman throughout his life, that it was okay for him to “let go the line.” Paul said he briefly left to grab a bite to eat, but when he returned his father had passed from this life. He related a similar story about his mom’s death. It appears she had been harboring feelings of guilt about an issue involving her long dead sister. Near death, his mom had been claiming that she was experiencing visions of the sister. A family friend happened to come along, who told Paul’s mother that her sister was trying to tell her that she forgave her. Paul’s mother then exited quickly and peacefully.
In turn, I told Paul how my dad’s nurse had shooed us to our homes in the middle of one night with assurances that dad wasn’t ready to go. However, when Lee and I arrived home no more than a half hour after departing the hospital, the call came that my dad was gone. I am convinced dad knew what the score was and that he had put off death temporarily to spare our feelings.
It was only later, after Paul had dropped me off at home, that I realized his suggestion to share a meal had been as much about helping him to process his own complex feelings as it had been to give me succor. All in all, I thought, a fair trade-off plus a satisfying meal to boot.