Last Thursday was probably the busiest day of the month for me, with wall-to-wall have-to's from 9am to 9pm. I knew that though since last week as I carefully circled the date on my calendar and ran out of space listing all the things that day. For someone who's spent the last eight months in a constant race to the invisible finishline, that's saying a lot.
Won't list the whole boring schedule, just two or three that stand out, starting with having to pick up Taylor, my 9-year old granddaughter from school. I told her on the phone the day before that we had a lot of running around to do, and to prepare to race. To be more specific, my self-made rat race day. No matter how it panned out, Taylor was my priority.
Something came up about an hour before time to pick her up from school though. It was a phone message from the wife of a very good friend of mine. Right away, not good sign, because I knew Jim had recently told me he had prostate cancer. Even more alarming, she never calls. I called back, dreading what she might tell me. "Jim wants to see you," she said, almost too nicely. Then she says to wait, and hands the phone to him so he could talk to me himself. "Hey Charlie, so good to hear from you," he said. His voice was slower, more labored.
I'd planned to go to his house to visit him soon, and in fact had a big, hand-printed sign scotch-taped to my front door to remind me. Unfortunately, I forget more than I remember these days. I'm so wrapped up in this book project lately, that all available time is wiped out. As dumb as it sounds, I wanted this project completed and in-hand so I could take him a copy as a gift. Jim is one of those good friends who showers me with praise like holy water, regardless of how good it is. Unworthy praise, but could not convince him otherwise.
For over twenty years Jim was the security guard at the building where I worked on L street for most of my working career. I had this routine while there, where I'd stay after hours every day to write my personal pages, even on weekends. During many of these days, he'd stop in while doing his rounds, and talk to me about life, but mostly he wanted to know everything possible about my writing. The man was just fascinated by the whole process. Normally I'm very private about that side of my life, but for some reason I sensed his interest was sincere, so opened up.
Through the years we talked for many long hours, and he became the unwavering support behind most of my pages, inevitably it became a close friendship. I noted in my journal often, about the latest spirited conversation I'd just had with Jim. When I stopped working at that building, I'd come back after hours, seeking him out, so we could catch up. Not often enough though, but I was no longer on his security rounds, so that cut back a lot.
His wife Katie got on the phone after my brief talk with Jim, and whispered to me, "You should come to see him soon Charlie." In the back of my mind, I'm thinking impossible, because Thursday was the busiest day ever, but could tell by the sound of her voice, coming soon, meant now. "The hospice nurse is coming today for the first time." Once she said that, I sat up and took notice. "I'll be there after I pick up my granddaughter," I said quickly.
My mind was racing now, on how to make this work. I could pick her up and take her to my relatives house, so they could watch her, but that would shorten my time with her, and when it comes to her and I, we're close and enjoy every moment together. Most of that closeness comes from my son not being available, so most of her life, I've been the fill-in for every occasion, every whim. Tough for me to do at first, but she's turned out to be, the best part of my life.
Since she was very small, it seemed we had this bond, something that each year got stronger. She was like my own daughter. Its crazy, I even got jealous a couple of times when my son managed, on those rare occasions, to be with her. I wanted to tell him, "Hey, she's mine, not yours." Crazy.
I had about ten minutes before leaving to get Taylor, when I got an idea to put as many of the images of the book into a flashdrive, so I could share them with Jim. Wasn't sure if he could view them, depending on his condition. Something told me I wouldn't be able to bring him the finished copy, and I know how much he enjoys the writing part of my life. Its like embracing him with my words. A warm blanket.
I picked up Taylor in the truck and turned off the radio so I could tell her about our change of plans to visit a sick friend. I knew she might not like it, because like most kids, she likes mostly fun stuff. She wasn't sure what to think, but trusted me when I told her this was important.
The thing about her is, we we've become so close, that she's very comfortable asking questions. She knows I'll give it to her straight. Since she was barely able to understand, I've gently stressed honesty, but also explaining the importance of kindness and giving, over all else. Little things at first, that she could grasp, help build and shape her character. It amazes me now, how much she mirrors my thinking, especially at her age.
So when she asked me who Jim was, and why we were going there, instead of to this promised event at the park, I told her everything. She scrunched up her face with serious thinking, then looked at me. "Is your friend very sick and going to die?" she asked. "Yes," I said. She paused to absorb that fully, then said, "If seeing him makes you feel better, then that makes me feel better. Let's go Papa, your friend needs you."
Taylor and I waited outside his room patiently, while the hospice nurse finished up. She came out about ten minutes later saying it was ok to go in. I asked to use Katie's laptop so I could plug in the flashdrive. She gave it to me, then her and Taylor went to the kitchen to get ice cream and chat, while Jim and I had our time together.
He was so pale, but still managed to make a few jokes while laying there. Could tell he was having a difficult time. I held his hand a long time, making small talk, stopping every once and awhile to make sure I wasn't tiring him. He coughed, then smiled, then said he was ok. I told him about the flashdrive I brought, and if he wanted, we could go over a few of the things while I talked through them. His eyes were weak, but they lit up and he smiled.
So there we were, side by side on the bed, as I narrated through various vintage images I'd gathered from extensive research the last few months. It bothered me that all I could do was give him this condensed version, but he seemed thoroughly pleased. I kept checking to see if he was alright, but he was having a grand time, insisting I go on.
This book is about my father, so there's a very deep, emotional attachment that's hard to conceal. When I got to the end of it, I looked over at Jim. He reached his arms out to me, and held my shoulder. "Charlie, I've always looked at you like a son. I wish...I could be your father," he said tearfully. "I'd like that too Jim," I answered, then hugged him.
I knew he was tired now, so told him I'd better let him rest, and called out to Taylor to come in and say hello. She came in, said hello, and smiled sweetly. That was icing on the cake for Jim, as he beamed a big smile, and thanked her for coming. As we drove away, Taylor looks at me and smiles, "That was a good visit Papa, we did good."
Katie wrote Taylor and I a note this morning:
"After you left, Jim was so happy and he said, just seeing Taylor standing there, so honest and forthcoming, she truly was heaven sent. He wanted me to thank you, tell you he knew you were his friend, from hello. Jim passed away this morning. Charlie, it was like he was holding on, waiting for you. My precious Jim, now has his angel wings."
© Charles Mariano