When watching nature shows, it always intrigued me how the King of the Jungle managed to always look menacing even while he was basking in the sun or sleeping. At any moment, he could decide that he was having a bad day and eat your face off. He’s so majestically frightening, that not even cubs he’s sired, nor the lionesses he’s coupled with, mess with him. Actually, the lionesses ‘do’ most of ‘the doing’ in the pride, traversing difficult terrain to feed her cubs, teaching them to hunt and kill. All the male lions generally do is lounge about and roar when they’re tired of hearing about her long day at work. As he lazes about protecting and defending his space, the world goes on around him. It is understood that the world goes on, but he is always the center: the Commander-In-Chief.
It is hard to see a lion dying. When he is hurt or disabled, his very nature questioned, can be painful to watch. What is a lion without his ferocity? The threat that he may at once pounce, injure, or kill is what makes him so terrifying. Take that away, and one is apt to plead for a mercy killing.
A Lion Tamed:
My lion had stopped being mine the moment he had lost his leg. In order for him to feel whole he required all of his parts to be complete; present. I saw him drifting into a combination of anger, bitterness, sadness, self-pity that I could not help lift him from. Those were the darkest times when I could see him struggling to comprehend what it was to be a man. Even as I tried to encourage him, he fell deeper into depression telling me that he had grown tired of his extended hospital stays, his aches and pains, his tired bones. I knew that eventually I would have to leave but I didn’t want to desert him or violate that agreement we had from so long ago.
At 4:30am, on mornings when he was particularly difficult, I would be called upon to search for missing objects: keys, cell phone, socks…the trust was that I was going to participate in the hard times as well as the good times. All of that was fine so long as my lion was engaged in the aspects of living; being alive. If I asked him to get his own glass from the cabinet above the sink, for example, he would try and succeed in helping himself. There came a time though, that this task became too much for him. It wasn’t just a simple lift from the wheelchair anymore. It became an hour-long discussion on how uncaring I was being or how his bones hurt too much to stretch or how his fingers were swollen and sore. Some of these things could have been true–but there was a part of my lion that used to fight with all that he had, days where he was fiercely independent–that showed he was going to come out on top.
Watching him psyche himself up by singing out loud or arguing with himself over some silly little thing made me know that my lion was roaring. It was comforting to hear him rolling through the house complaining about everything. It was soothing to have him make promises to me that needs would get met, errands would get run, food would get prepared: all with little input from me. He would make it easy on me in exchange for those early, freezing mornings sitting on the cold hallway steps waiting for his Medical Transport to arrive, or the hours in various hospital waiting rooms just to have him refuse care and sign himself out. He always reassured me when I felt I couldn’t physically handle the demands of moving a heavy wheelchair up and down the stairs or when I had to manually haul a heap-load of groceries up and down a lengthy hill. He was like a self-sustaining battery full of the energy I needed in order to pry my eyes open every day.
There came a time when the lion did more napping than roaring. I would walk in on him nodding off in his wheelchair in front of the big-screen television I’d purchased for him. I wanted to keep him entertained enough so that he wouldn’t focus so much on the hectic parts of his day or what he was missing. He always had a sense of when I was around, but that heightened awareness dwindled away and I found myself puttering about the apartment, careful not to disturb my sleeping lion.
The Waiting Is The Hardest Part:
“There’s no comfort in the waiting room…Love is watching someone die.” ~ Death Cab for Cutie, What Sarah Said
When Carlos was well, we could enjoy long walks together. When Carlos was well, there was always the possibility that we could go somewhere, do something. When Carlos was well, we shared household chores and responsibilities. When Carlos was well, we danced. Then, it stopped.
Nothing happened all at once; it was a slow burn. Arguments about the cigarette burns in the bed-sheets became arguments about whether or not I was going to ride in the ambulance. Issues about space and Carlos’s inability to part with worldly possessions became constant. The joke that he would be spending every birthday in the hospital became a horrible reality. The stays got longer, the complications dire.
But there was love. Even when I was tired of it and thought I couldn’t take it anymore, he’d say something that would make me laugh. Carlos would always surprise you with his charm and ingenuity and good nature. I mostly stayed because it was intriguing to watch and to participate in his saga. He collected bananas and made make-shift coolers from the complimentary plastic hospital bins, filling them with ice to the brim so he cold keep his juices cold. We said “goodbye” a thousand times and “welcome back” when he returned. He would apologize for hurting me or my feelings. We’d make amends for failing to do or not do something. The challenges of sharing aspects of our personal lives with each other were bearable so long as we had each other.
The Final Visit:
I’d received a phone message at work from Carlos’s brother explaining that Carlos was in a coma. This. Was. It. No one is ever prepared for death when it comes knocking. Everyone wants to believe that they are ready (we’d had such a long time to prepare for it). I didn’t really react right away. I made certain it was not a ploy or hoax by asking for the one person who I knew would be there if this were all true: his ex-wife. When I had heard the news from her lips, I knew it was time. The last time.
After work, I headed into one of the hospitals I knew well. It was the place I’d taken a photograph on one of the last waiting-room excursions I’d accompanied Carlos on. As soon as I’d walked in, I saw his ex-wife sitting on one of those antiseptic lounge chairs that are always a sickly 60′s metallic-green color. She gave me a worried look, not unlike her usual demeanor. I think I hugged her and asked how she was. She answered in her usual not-easy-to-read dreamy tone. I asked if she wanted to eat something and she said no. We got on the elevator: she hit the button to Floor 4. So that’s the floor where people go to die. Not much was said in the elevator. I may have asked how his daughter, Sara was taking it…how many visitors he’d had…whether or not they already read him his last rites. Sara had been there. He’d had many visitors…everyone that could make it, did. His son was on his way up from Texas. And yes, they had read him his last rites. This. Was. It.
The doors opened and we meandered the long way around. I couldn’t tell if this was the only way to get to him or not. I passed various rooms and various beds. I passed the nurse’s station. Carlos had always preferred being in his own room, he never liked to share it with anyone. When he was stuck in a shared room, he always complained that his neighbor was an idiot or coughed too much or smelled. This time, he had nothing to worry about. His ex-wife braced me for what was beyond the door. I already knew this was going to be hard. As the door swung open, I made a bee-line to his side, I didn’t see anything else around me. I knew his ex-wife was there but it was like she faded away and the room became so small. It was me and him. We were the only two people on the planet. The respirator tubes taped to his mouth and nose kept making that suction noise they make; his eyes were closed. I touched his arm which was severely bloated as was his bottom torso. The color of his skin was that jaundiced yellow I’d seen before. His face was gaunt; he still had a full head of hair. I touched the only part of his body that was open and empty: the left side of his neck; I kissed him there. I said, “I’m here. You remember that promise that I made you, Carl? The one from a long time ago? Well, I’m here. I kept my promise.” I bawled it out, sobbing over the man I saw nearly a year ago, a man whom I’d visited last on his own turf…
Taken For A Ride:
Carlos had coaxed me into visiting him. He said that he had some money to give me for a cell phone bill I was still painfully paying for. He said we’d have some dinner at our former local diner. I reluctantly agreed because I did miss him. I set the ground rules: he couldn’t be rude to me and he couldn’t talk negatively about anything, or I’d leave. He agreed.
He met me at the station and hugged me. It was different (of course it was) because I had held onto my physical distance and refused to be soft. He always understood the change but would lay on the charm as sort of a peace-offering, his way of saying that he was going to be a good boy. We chatted about his cell-phone and he asked me about some application that refused to work properly. I was always annoyed by his demanding nature, but I accommodated him as best as I could. When I couldn’t figure it out, I referred him to the service provider and he always understood. I had my limitations with what I could handle and what I could not. He was gracious and kind because he wanted this to last. He was skinny. He was sickly pale. He excused himself–mid-conversation–to vomit in the bushes. We both knew he was very, very sick, but he and I never let on. He hid his embarrassment by chatting nonchalantly about something else. His topics were a lovely distraction. I commented on his new wheels. He loved the speed. “You wanna take a ride with me?” he asked. I laughed and said “Sure.” I held on tight and he started to go…then faster and faster…picking up speed…I screamed out loud hollering that I was scared of falling…I knew he’d never let me fall… I held tightly to his throat…we raced all the way down the block and made record time…I laughed and laughed…he loved it as much as I did…then I got off so we could travel across the street to the eatery. It was the best time.
Without meaning to, I had stayed longer than I expected. He trapped me in the apartment he had changed and re-decorated after I’d left so as not to be reminded of me. I realized how much he had let me put into the place, how much he let me have my way. I ended up sleeping over (as there was no easy transportation back home) and he let me sleep. I know he watched me sleeping. I know he reminisced while I lay there. We both knew that leaving him was the best thing. He didn’t want me to see him really sick. He whispered in the dark and admitted to every mistake he had ever made.
My message to him was the same throughout the evening: Make your amends. You want your soul ready for that final journey, Carl…he said he would try. I believe he really did.
In the morning he walked me to the bus-stop. We hugged and I gave him a friendly kiss on the cheek. I told him to take care of himself. He held onto his strength as long as he could until I got on the bus and turned around. I saw his face. I saw him hurting. It hurt me, but I couldn’t do anything else for him.
His body jerked in the hospital bed. His eyelids parted just a little before his eyes rolled to the back of his head. They said his brain and his heart were fully functional…so I knew that he could hear me. I kept telling him, “When you’re ready to go, you go…you hear me? You just let go, Carl. It’s ok…” I cried and cried and his ex-wife left us alone. “I know you’re a strong mother—-er, Carl. So when you’re ready to go, you just go. I will always love you.” I stroked his arm and then I left. He tried to communicate with me, but couldn’t. It didn’t matter because we had both already said all there was to say. And as stubborn as he had been in life, he continued being that way in death. They removed him from the respirator on a Friday and he died on Saturday, April 13th, 2013 at 11:26am.
This time, the lion went to sleep and received eternal rest.
R.I.P. Carlos De Leon (09/22/62 – 04/13/13)