Dying is easy. Anything with a pulse can die. But when the End finally arrives and the Reaper comes for us, how many of us can say we’ve truly lived?
Buckle up, folks, this one gets a little rough. I’ve tinkered with the structure a bit, just to spread my literary wings, as they say.
Many moons ago, when this mud ball we call home still had that new planet smell, a simple nameless cave dweller awoke to find a family of nomads attempting to seek shelter from a storm in his spacious abode.
He promptly beat them to death with his club.
However, the next time a family of nomads attempted to share his space he was feeling generous: he chose to restrict the fatal beating to the father, letting the children flee in terror and keeping the female for himself. And so our simple cave dweller began to evolve. Sort of. In time, however, he realized he could reason with any perspective visitors to his home and soon they were offering him gifts in exchange for temporary lodging.
And thus was born the hospitality industry.
Over the ages the concept of hospitality has also evolved; travelers are no longer content with four walls decorated by overpaid, under-qualified designers, a bed in which to disappoint their partner or satellite TV with 500 channels. No, the modern traveler wants to be blown away (admit it, you’re giggling, aren’t you?), by amazing service befitting a god. They want to shove food down their gullets that will redefine their understanding of food, forcing them to vomit and cleanse their system of the remnants of all the swill they’ve spent a lifetime consuming. You see, my friends, the modern traveler desires to travel to another plane of existence all-together. The modern traveler yearns for an experience.
That having been said, there are some folks who care nothing for material trappings; they don’t give a shit about linen so crisp it makes bacon hang its head in shame. Olympic-level ass kissing doesn’t even penetrate their heart. These individuals are consumed by their personal demons and as a result are desperate to shake their sense of self.
Meet Arthur, a man out of time, in every way that matters.
Arthur was a gentleman back when that actually meant something. He was a husband who remained ever-faithful, regardless of the temptations placed before him. (No strip clubs or weekend getaways with nurses and molls for this guy.) He was a father who worked fourteen hour days as an electrician for a big name car manufacturer but still found time to coach hockey, little league, and any other sport his kids signed up for. (Many of the dads I see these days wouldn’t even notice if their family was on fire beside them, that’s how consumed they are by their phones or tablets. Daft buggers.) He was a fine, upstanding member of his community; the type of man who would stand outside on a frigid November day to build an ice rink for the neighborhood kids to crack their heads open on.
In other words, Arthur was the real deal.
When I met Arthur he was, as they say, a shadow of his former self.
“I used to be a young buck like yourself, young fella…” he declared as we loaded his bags into his old school Cadillac, “…but at 87, those days are long gone, I’m afraid.”
For those of you who crave mental images, Arthur reminded me of Don Knotts – the Three’s Company Don Knotts, not The Andy Griffith Show model – but with Coke bottle glasses. And if you need to Google those names and shows, go ahead. Just don’t expect the rest of us to wait for you; we have a schedule to keep, kids.
His trunk was half-loaded (much like Lindsay Lohan on a Monday afternoon, I imagine) when Arthur launched into a coughing fit that ended when he braced himself against the concrete walls of the garage, caked with years of exhaust fumes, and covered his trembling mouth with an old school handkerchief that was soon stained with blood.
His embarrassment paralyzed Arthur for a moment, but once I reassured him that I’d seen “much worse from much stupider”, he calmed right down. Unfortunately, he began to laugh which nearly provoked another coughing fit. After he composed himself fully, though, my new friend explained his situation.
“I have lung cancer.” he grimly pronounced, once again proving my hypothesis that strangers can usually relate to one another on a level unparalleled by many families or long-time friends. “I’ve always been a tough old bird, but at this point I’m just waiting to wind up in hospital and never come out.”
“I didn’t detect an accent, but I can only assume you’ve spent some time across the pond, sir?” I didn’t wish to seem disrespectful, but Arthur’s language intrigued me; the English will say ‘in hospital’ where the rest of us will say ‘in the hospital’.
“My grandparents raised me and they were from Blackpool. I imagine I’ll be seeing them again soon. Assuming I’m lucky enough to go in that direction, that is!” Never discount the power of a sense of humor, folks. It can light your darkest hour.
“I wouldn’t worry too much about that, sir -.”
“You can call me Arthur, Robert.”
“Okay. In that case, you can call me The Hook. Everyone around here does.”
“The Hook? I like that!”
“Most people do. As for your chances of moving “upstairs”, Arthur, I wouldn’t worry too much. You can always improve your chances by being generous with the tip.”
“You really think that’ll help?”
“Couldn’t hurt, that’s for sure!” was another of my lines that nearly killed poor Arthur. As much as he enjoyed my humor, however, he couldn’t help but let the weight of his situation crack his exterior.
“You know what, Hook? I don’t want to die.”
I think the real reason we share our dark secrets with strangers is because they are strangers; we know our loved ones will suffer when they learn of our pain and so we want to protect them. The lack of an emotional connection can be liberating. Indeed, you could see Arthur stand slightly taller as some of the weight lifted from his body. Nevertheless, I still felt obliged to help him in any way I could.
“Why are you here, Arthur? I’ve met a lot of people who consider Niagara Falls worthy of a bucket list. Is that the case?”
“The wife always wanted to come, but we never made the time. The truth is, there are plenty of things left on my list.”
“So keep going. No matter what it takes, cross those items off. I realize a man has to know when to make peace with his fate, but the tough old bird still has some fight in his feathers, right? You say you’re afraid to die? Then don’t.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Arthur was on the verge of laughing again, as though my advice was meant as a jest, albeit one in poor taste.
“I’m no expert, but it’s been proven that out mind can overcome our body’s weaknesses if we’re willing to pour enough willpower into it. At the very least, you can stave off the Reaper for a little while and wring more joy from the days that remain.”
I explained that, in my mind at least, living in fear of the inevitable was a form of dying in that it was keeping him from truly living while he still had the chance. In retrospect it was one of those moments where I was able to tap into a reservoir of wisdom that allowed me to stay calm, cool and collected. I only wish I could summon such wisdom at will; I spend more time than I’d like as a blithering idiot.
From what I could tell, Arthur appreciated my candor and compassion. His mood appeared to improve, for the moment at least.
This encounter ended as they all do, with the guest following his own path and the bellman returning to his lair – truth be told, it’s a back room with exposed pipes, peeling paint and shelves filled with other people’s belongings, but “lair” sounds cooler – until he’s needed again.
To be clear, Arthur’s plight affected me more than I realized at the time. My father-in-law, John Fisher, the greatest man I’ve ever known, died before my eyes on March 11, 2015, after battling emphysema for five years. In that time he lived with my family and I had the great privilege of spending time with him, hearing his stories and learning how to be a better man and father from his example.
He passed peacefully in a hospital room that was silent save for the mechanical hiss of breathing apparatus. As I watched him surrender to his mortality I was flooded with memories of our time together. Arthur crossed my mind as well. I wondered if he was still alive. I wondered if he had crossed off all the items on his list. I wondered if he was with his loved ones again. I wondered.
Watching Dad slowly succumb to the ravages of time opened my eyes to the value of life. We all make the same vow after losing someone: “Life’s too short I’m going to live for today.” And we do. For a little while. Then we slip back into the same old routine.
But there are some bitter truths we need to accept in order to truly thrive in this life:
1) Growing old sucks. How bad does it suck, you ask? Like, getting wasted and waking up next to your first cousin, that’s how bad growing old sucks. Sure, if you have money you can enjoy your golden years in comfort and be in a position to afford top-notch medical care if your body begins to rebel, but otherwise you’re pretty much screwed.
2) Life really is too short to waste. I’m not suggesting you run off and starve to death on a beach in Cuba, but I am telling you to tweak your schedule a bit. Make time every day to enjoy your existence. Do what makes you truly happy not just what you have to do to survive.
None of us will live forever so we better make damn sure we make the most of our time above ground. Arthur taught me that. So did Dad. Now it’s your turn.
See you in the lobby, kids…