I was an hour late to my grandfather’s death and fifteen minutes early to Milton’s, and the juxtaposition still pisses me off.
Milton, an elderly man, lived down the hall from me and my roommate in an apartment complex that used to be condominiums. He was clearly one of the former owners, because he was old. Before the I-90 trench was cut across Mercer Island, there used to be three buildings and a pool. Now it’s two and no pool.
When Horace and I lived there, it was a mix of aging holdouts, college students, and laborers on the gigantic public works project that consumed the third structure. The on-site property manager hated dealing with us because we were always unfailingly polite, paid our rent on time, and generated a constant stream of complaints due to loud music and our jalopies that leaked oil, had profanity spray-painted on them, and were constantly taking up two spaces as we had them in various states of dis- and assembly with parts spread everywhere.
Milton’s wife had become friendly with one of the work gang whose apartment was next to ours. Horace and I never saw or met him. We slept in too late to ever see hear or see him go to work and we were far too busy drinking and getting high in the evenings to meet any of our neighbors.
We did have friends that lived in the other building, Stan and Oliver. The few times Horace and I ventured out for social calls, it was usually to drink, get high, and play poker and video games at Stan and Oliver’s. Stan owned a Nintendo 64, and we would take turns playing cooperative Contra, drinking at the defeat of each boss level.
When Milton’s wife knocked on our door, we were busy putting the bong together for a poker game later at Stan and Oliver’s. I expected Stan, but was surprised when I peeped through the peephole and saw her. I opened the door. She was clearly agitated and looked uncomfortable, wringing her hands and shuffling her feet on the dark brown, berber carpet.
“Walter isn’t here. Can you come help Milton?” she asked.
“Uh…” I looked away, “Horace, we need to go help Milton.”
A closet divided the entranceway from the kitchen. I heard him put the bong down in the sink.
“Who? Is that Stan?” he asked jokingly.
“Milton. This lady needs our help.”
He rounded the corner, drying his hands.
“Oh. Uh, sure.” He looked confused. “We don’t have to be anywhere right now.”
We followed her out into the hallway and our door shut with a click behind us. The widely-spaced and dim lights encased in textured, light amber glass fixtures cast a yellowish pallor on the hallway, and the popcorn ceiling had flecks of glitter that twinkled as we shuffled to her ajar door.
“Milton fell down, and we can’t get him up.”
“We?” I thought to myself and arched an eyebrow at Horace as he looked at me sidelong.
The apartment was a mirror image of ours, which caused me to immediately feel out of place but comfortable at the same time. A middle-aged woman stood in the tidy living room. She looked distraught and on the verge of tears.
“Over there, over there. He’s over there,” she motioned and pointed to the hallway towards the bedrooms and bathroom.
We stepped forward to look and Milton was revealed to be laying face-up in the middle of the hallway in front of the bathroom door. His ample rounding was wrapped in a brownish bathrobe, leather slippers were on his feet, and his eyes were behind circular glasses. His grey and black hair was neatly combed back from his forehead and his arms were crossed on his chest.
Except for his wheezing, slight tremble, and profuse sweating, he looked like he had just cleaned himself up and decided to take a quick lay-down and stare at the ceiling.
“What the…” I heard Horace say.
“Fuck,” I completed in my mind.
“Dad fell down and we’re not strong enough to move him,” the middle-aged woman said.
“Er, where would you like us to move him?” Horace asked.
“The bedroom, please. The bed.”
His wife had sat down on the embroidered couch and was starting off into space.
“Um, okay,” Horace replied.
We moved and stood over him for a brief moment, then kneeled down on either side of him. His eyes were hazy and had a far-off look to them. Closer, his wheezing was more pronounced and it sounded like he had wet hair in his throat he was forcing air through.
“Milton?” Horace asked.
“Milton! We’re going to pick you up and put you on the bed! Okay?” Horace shouted into his face.
His head moved almost imperceptibly and his breathing changed cadence.
Horace looked up at the daughter, “You should call a doctor or the medics.”
“We have,” she replied through tears.
“Grab his armpit,” Horace told me. I did.
Our first attempt was a failure. The fucker was heavier than we expected and we nearly dropped him.
“Let’s try that again,” I said. Horace nodded.
“Okay, Milton! One more time!” The wheezing changed again.
Grunting in effort, we heaved his sweaty, bloated mass up, and with heels dragging, took him to the side of the made bed and unceremoniously plopped his upper body down on top of it perpendicularly with legs dangling. Our second effort was to rotate him into place, and this was accomplished with another shouted alert and mini-struggle.
Milton was finally situated, and our wheezes joined his as we caught our breath. Horace and I had a chance to regard him a little more closely from both sides of the bed.
“He really doesn’t look so good,” I observed. “He’s pretty pale.”
We both leaned over to study his face.
“Hey! Milton! Are you okay?!” Horace shouted.
Milton’s lips trembled like he was trying to say something, but no sound came out except for a deeper wheeze.
Puzzled, we didn’t know what to think. We peered at him questioningly.
“Hey, Milton, are you okay?!” I shouted at him.
His lips moved a little bit again.
“Now what?” I asked.
“Thank you. You can go now.”
Startled, we both snapped up. Neither one of us had noticed his wife quietly enter the room.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yeah, he really doesn’t look so good…” Horace offered.
“It’s okay. Thank you. You’ve been very helpful.” Her face was a calm mask.
“Uh, alright.” Horace said. He leaned over Milton, “Bye, Milton! Take care!”
I gave a friendly wave in front of his face.
“Um…good luck?” I offered to the wife on our way out. She nodded.
The daughter was on the phone in the living room, talking quietly on the phone with tears streaming down her face. She waved to us and mouthed, “Thank you,” as we let ourselves out and shut the door behind us.
We walked to our place in silence.
Back in our apartment, I asked, “What the fuck was that?”
“Why the fuck did you open the door?” Horace asked me pointedly. “That was a clusterfuck.”
“I dunno!” I said defensively. “I thought maybe she needed some furniture moved or something.”
“He was dying, dude! That poor bastard’s last few minutes on Earth were us manhandling him up onto his bed and hovering over him like dumbshits asking him if he was okay.”
Milton’s dying lights slowly dawned on me.
“Oh, shit. You’re right.” My eyes went wide.
“Of course I’m right, dickwad. Let’s go. Stan and Oliver are waiting for us.”
We gathered the bong, bud, and beer into a bag and headed over to the other building. The sun had just set on one of those brilliant Spring days in Seattle. The air was clear and clean.
In the circular driveway in front of the buildings was a Medic One unit and a small fire truck. The men were standing around, talking quietly. They were in no hurry.
“Excuse me,” Horace asked one of the paramedics, interrupting their conversation, “How’s Milton?”
“He didn’t make it.”
There were a silent few beats for the deceased, and then the paramedic pricked up. “Hey, how did you know it was him?”
Horace, a master at oiling squeaky authorities, replied without missing a beat, “He was the oldest and sickest in the building.”
He squinted at us and looked about to ask another question, but was deflected by a question from one of the firemen. We retreated without taking our leave into the secure building.
“What the fuck took you two assholes so long?” Oliver asked us as he let us in.
“We were in no hurry, and we had to stop to help a dying man,” Horace retorted.
This was very different from when my grandfather died. He was already dead before I left, but I wanted to beat the undertakers. I was in a hurry to see him, and things that normally were of no concern became a matter of death.
I was at my desk at Starbucks eating lunch when the call came. It was my mother. I was not expecting to receive the news from her, but from the nursing home.
I had left instructions with every nurse and nursing supervisor I met there to call me when he looked terminal. I told my mother the same thing in case the nursing home fucked up and missed me. I wanted to be there for him.
In the end, they both fucked up as far as I was concerned. The nursing home never called me because I wasn’t immediate next-of-kin and my mother only called me after she managed to pull herself out of her depression-induced inaction after the nursing home called her the second time to tell her he had just died.
The news of her father’s death must have dislodged something, because then she finally called me.
And I sat there after hanging up the phone, hot tears dripping down into my cold bean and cheese burrito with sour cream, thinking about how fucked up it was that people who I thought I could count on blew me off through indifference, silly rules, and sheer incompetence and had cheated me out being there for someone who had often been there for me.
I hung up. She might have still been talking, explaining why she didn’t call earlier.
My grief ignited into passionate anger at the chickenshittyness of it all and I resolved to see him one last time before he was taken from my sight forever.
I gathered my things and prepared myself for the journey northward on I-5 to Lynnwood, mumbling to my boss that I had to leave. I didn’t wait for her acknowledgement.
Racing to the elevator, I hated the people meandering about with their coffee cups leisurely strolling about the office. They were obstacles to weave around.
The elevator pissed me off with its lackadaisical of appearance and then I wanted to break the fingers of and then strangle every person who pushed a button for a stop on the way down.
I cursed the hike to my car in the hinterlands of the industrial district because I couldn’t afford parking closer in and I railed at the fuckedupedness of traffic jams at 2 PM on a Tuesday.
There was an inexhaustible supply of fuel at the human injustice of being chained to a job that only barely paid enough to keep me off the street and that only paid bereavement but not death watch.
What type of system is it that forces us to decide between our jobs and staying separate or ministering to our loved ones during their ultimate, soulful need? We’re supposed to think that being released to attend to their vacant meat is compassion?
My burrito must have been filled with shit for how that tasted.
And then, and then, rushing in to the now-familiar sour, antiseptic piss smell of the nursing home, nearly knocking elderly aside, imaging the tennis balls on their walkers being knocked off and bouncing down the overly polished linoleum hall, to be too late.
A quiet, empty room. An empty bed, sheets removed. My heritage, gone.
The anger, now sublimated into yawning, despaired failure, propelled me towards a grasping attempt to subvert and deny reality, and filled me with false hope that he was just somewhere else where I might visit with him and fulfill the final duty I had given myself.
“Where is Donald?” I ask at the nurse’s station.
“Donald. Room 136. I’m his grandson. I heard he died. I want to see him.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. Hang on a sec.” She picks up the phone.
“Apples! Apples!” Cries a crone sitting in a plastic-covered chair behind me who I didn’t nitoce before. She smells of piss and looks like Yoda. She smiles a toothless grin at me.
My grandfather’s words come back to me, “There aren’t many men here, so I’m pretty popular with the ladies, you know. Some of the nurses are pretty naughty also.”
“Burton’s has already collected him.”
I’m blissfully shaken out of reviewing geriatric sex lives, “I’m sorry, what?”
“Burton’s has already collected him, but they haven’t left the premises. They’re down at the end of this hall and out the doors into the parking lot. You can probably catch them before they leave.”
“Thank you,” I replied numbly. I start down the hallway.
I stop at his door and look in. I look down the hallway. I didn’t want my last vision of him to be in a bag in the back of a truck and decide to sit down in his room instead. It smells faintly like shit.
A mop bucket attached to a janitor appears and stops when the janitor sees me. “Oh, sorry man,” he says as the bucket leads him away.
A nurse enters next.
“I’m Janna, I was here when he died. I’m very sorry for your loss,” she says. I’ve never seen or met her before.
“Was it just you?”
“Oh no. There’s always several of us when family can’t be here. There’s almost aways time to gather others. There was another nurse and some of the housekeeping staff. It was very peaceful.”
“…when family can’t be here…almost always time…” roil through my head like thunder and I think about all the other times my family dropped me when I thought I’d be caught.
Right then and there, after thirty five years, I finally learned the lesson that I couldn’t count on them for shit, and that that was my legacy.
“There’s no rush to pack up the room. We understand. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“No. Thank you.”
She nodded, and was gone.
To this day, I don’t know if she was feeding me bullshit to make me feel better.
I’ll never know.