This was where Cy was going to die, in his living room by the window of their crumbling, split level home. It was on my mind that warm April day as I entered their living room asking myself one last time, why am I here? I’m a volunteer for the library.
“Cy is dying,” Carol, Cy’s wife told me matter of fact on the phone, the day before. “Could you come by and bring us a few books? You know what we like.”
Carol’s call shocked me. In all my other visits over the course of a year, Cy had often been in a robe and pajamas, but I hadn’t drawn any conclusions from that. That wasn’t my job. Instead, I searched the racks of the public library for titles they might find interesting. Cy, no matter how he was dressed, would usually be seated in a well-worn recliner by their living room window. He always had a smile for me when I walked in the room and never had he appeared gravely ill. Instead he seemed more like a man of leisure. I enjoyed that about him. He, Carol and I would chat about Cy’s favorite historical fiction and he would always get so animated. Carol enjoyed talking about her Book Club and painting. Most often our conversation drifted to Cy and Carol’s life experiences. Sadly, I couldn’t even tell you what those were. I listened and appeared interested and I felt like that was enough. Occasionally they would ask me a personal question and it felt nice. Most of the people I delivered books to were most interested in telling me about themselves. I don’t suppose I would be any different in their shoes.
“We’ve chosen to accept Hospice care,” Carol explained on the phone. “He’s been miserable for such a long time in and out of the hospital emergency room. There is nothing more they can do and he just doesn’t want to suffer like this anymore,” she had said.
My anxiety began to take hold, “Are you sure, he’s up to reading, Carol?” I asked praying she would reconsider and cancel. I hadn’t volunteered for this. I dropped off books, I chatted pleasantly and all this was accomplished in about an hour. Then I would walk out Carol and Cy’s front door to my car, take a breath of fresh air and feel good about myself for having done some small thing for someone other than myself.
“Oh no, Cy is so looking forward to your visit,” Carol said, her voice confident and laser clear.
“Oh, okay” I said. I agreed to stop by the next day.
“What does a library volunteer say to a dying man?” I asked my wife before I left for Cy and Carol’s that day. “I’m serious, what could I possibly say or do that would bring them comfort?” I was dreading my promise to stop by. “What if he dies while I’m there?” I say as my wife sits knitting a cap for our grandson.
“I don’t know, maybe tell them that you’re sorry he’s ill.” My wife said as her metal knitting needles click and clack.
“Maybe you could go with me this time?” I look out our kitchen window at a mountain of huge white clouds floating in brilliant blue.
“It’s your responsibility Honey. Why make such a big deal about it. They don’t expect anything more than to have you visit. They probably just want to know someone cares about them. They’re lonely.”
My volunteer supervisor warned me. “It’s hard not to get attached to some of your clients. Oh, and don’t forget to track your volunteer hours online.” It was as if the two things, paperwork and emotions were of equal importance. She sent me a link for the hours and a canvas bag to carry the books.
I wasn’t a grief counselor. I wasn’t even a close friend. I had visited Cy and Carol about a dozen times. What Carol was asking for was something suited more to family and friends, a priest or minister, a grief counselor or rabbi, people whose job it is to tend to the needs of the dying or to say their last goodbyes.
Yet here I was following Carol down a short hallway and into their living room where Cy’s recliner had been moved out and a hospital bed wedged between a tired sofa and a bookcase. Toyboy their Pekinese mix was yapping manically at my ankle as I took a seat on a hardback chair at the foot of Cy’s bed. A softball-sized knot was working its way down my throat toward my stomach.
“He’s in here. We’re enjoying the beautiful day, aren’t we Cy?” Carol said. Sun fanning across their living room forming an ethereal haze, dust hanging like glitter in the still air, peaceful and lonely. Cy was partially covered by a soft, white sheet. His head nestled deep into his pillow.
“Oh yes,” Cy whispered. His skin was only a half shade darker than the sheets, his eyes milky blue. It was as if his color had literally been drained from him. It was in stark contrast to the vibrant green and blue that was exploding outside. Spring was in full bloom, but not for Cy, for Cy, it was the dead of winter. Bandages covered Cy’s midsection. The only detectable movement came from the painfully halting rise and fall of Cy’s chest beneath the sheet.
I had no idea what Cy suffered from and no part of me wanted to ask. I am not drawn to death by fascination or the need to better understand it. I fear it.
“Cy, Honey, he brought us some new books.” Carol sang out again as cheerful as a blackbird on a cattail.
“Oh that’s nice,” he said fighting to produce a weak smile. He could barely manage the strength to be present.
It struck me that it wasn’t Cy who wanted me there, it was Carol.
She stood and pulled open a sliding door off the kitchen. It seemed cruelly ironic as life began to pour in. The sweet scent of cut grass, chirping birds, the distant call of an angry drivers horn, this cacophony of senses. A lawn mower sputtered to a start at the neighbor’s as a gentle breeze pushed gently against the tail of Cy’s sheet. I was mesmerized, assessing in my own way, what was the significance of this moment.
I look at Carol. She looks ready to go shopping at the mall wearing a stylish blue pantsuit, her hair done up in a tight bun, red lipstick. She wants to live.
I reach into my canvas bag. “I have some historical fiction titles I think Cy might like and two books on Impressionist painters for you Carol.”
“Oh wonderful,” Carol’s voice remains enthusiastic.
Behind her, a forest of pill bottles litter the kitchen counter amongst a pile of circulars and dirty cups and dishes. Further back I can see a faded blue wall badly in need of paint. Cy and Carol’s home is in poor repair. Fear wafts past me in the scent of hand sanitizer. We are trying so hard to push back against reality of what is really going on here in this room. The stab of loneliness so acute, it strikes me with the chill of a fever.
I want to clear the counters of clutter, to wipe everything down with disinfectant. I want to scrub the smell of death and dying, of loss from Cy and Carol’s house. It’s too close and I want out, to be the guy cutting his lawn, or the angry driver slamming down on his horn, or the wind passing through, anyone but the library guy with the canvas bag of books and no idea what to say.
“Our son Robert suggested Cy begin hospice.” She reaches up and brushes an errant hair from her forehead. “He’s an Episcopal priest down in Florida.”
“Yes,” I say. “We met a few months ago when he was up for a visit.” I remember asking him what it was like being down there with all those Baptists.” I smile. It was all I could think of saying. And I did remember Robert, a slender, soft speaking, peaceful man. “Yes, he would know best,” I say.
The phone rings and Carol answers. “It’s the insurance people,” she says holding one finger up for my patience. “Could you give me five?” She motions toward Cy as if she would like me to tend to him as she handles the call.
I stand up from my chair and look at Cy and smile. His eyes are closed and it would not surprise me if he had just passed. My worst nightmare is coming true. I consider interrupting Carol’s call, panicked, but I see his chest raise the sheet ever so slightly.
“Can you please speak up? I can’t hear a word you are saying,” Carol shouts into the phone.
She turns and says to me in a hushed voice. “A teenager rear-ended my car yesterday. We are trying to get things sorted out,”
I nod. None of this makes any sense. I feel as though I am on a high-speed elevator stopping between real and surreal with at each floor. Auto Insurance claims and hospice seem ridiculously inappropriate companions. I see first hand how life can be so paradoxical and merciless. Where do insurance claims come in the cycle of life?
Toyboy sits quietly at my side. I reach down and stroke his silky fur. “Hey Pup,” I say, “Aren’t you a good dog.” As annoying as the dog is, I want to put him up next to Cy for comfort.
“I can’t hear a word you are saying, can you please call me back?” Carol shouts into the phone's speaker. She slowly recites her phone number then gently places the receiver back in the cradle. Carol is sweet, bright and inquisitive. It is impossible to tell that her husband is dying. I can’t comprehend what she must be feeling. I can feel her need for distraction though. That to continue on she needed to get dressed, do her hair up and put on lipstick. That she needs to get on with it for herself and for Cy. That it is best to stick as close to normal as possible even if that involves roping a guy from the library in with a canvas bag of books, that she does have some small speck of control over that, but not the rest.
“I’m sorry for your illness Cy,” I say not feeling as though I can stay any longer. “I’ll say a prayer for you both.” I begin to empty the bag of books stacking them on the floor next to me. “I’ll just leave these for you to go through.”
“Let’s say that prayer now,” Carol says. “Let’s hold hands and say the prayer together.” She reaches for my hand and waits for me to begin.
I panic. I am not sure I can even remember the words. “Our Father….” I pray that the Lord’s Prayer will kick in through divine intervention. And in the midst of it all I realize why I am there. It has nothing to do with my anxiety or my volunteer job or what is right or wrong. I am here because Cy and Carol need to feel that gravity is still in play. That the world is still spinning on its axis, that once Cy is gone the birds will still sing and the sky will remain blue. That this sense of bringing some normal to their lives, even if they were ending, is every bit as necessary as the medications and the hospice care and water to drink and food to eat or air to breathe. I don’t need any training for this. I need to simply be human and show up.
I get through the Our Father. I rise to my feet and say, “Thank you for allowing me to bring you books. I am sorry you are ill, Cy. I wish you the best.” I pick up my canvas bag and give the dog one last pet and look over one last time at Cy and then Carol. I walk out their front door pulling it shut behind me. Outside, I relax and take in a slow, deep, breath of life.
About the author:
Kirk Boys is a writer living outside Seattle. He helps wrangle four grandkids under the age of five along with an extraordinarily tiny dog he claims was inherited. His work has appeared in Storie-all write #57/58 and Storie.it. He was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s new writers competition 2014 and can be found in Per Contra and Bio-stories in 2015. He has a certificate in Advanced Literary Fiction from the University of Washington and is a volunteer and member of Hugo House in Seattle.