Mike plopped onto the sofa in the living room. He did not have the energy for anything more. Ten days. Even after he and Becca Hall-Okadigbo had talked and decided, it took Mister Clyde ten days to die. Long, agonizing days and nights.
Once the decision was made, though, Maude and the staff had been wonderfully supportive. Visiting hours no longer mattered. He came and went as he pleased, mostly stayed, day and night. In those ten days, Mike had slept in the chair next to Mister Clyde’s bed all except that first night, when he simply had not known that they would allow him. Maybe they thought it odd that he should hold such a vigil for a man, who was not even technically related to him, but no one said anything.
At first, he had tried eating the food they gave the patients, but that was impossible. MREs tasted better and had more substance. By the third morning, he had given up and taken a shower. He needed ‘real’ food, and since Mister Clyde was sleeping more anyway, he could sneak out for a bit and get something quick to eat. Perhaps even bring it back and eat it at his bedside. He had meant only to grab some greasy fast food. After all, food was food. But when he sat astride Esther at the edge of the parking lot, he found himself turning towards Honour.
By the time he got to the restaurant, it was almost empty. The early morning breakfast crowd had dispersed to jobs and farms. Around here, the day got started early. The moment he had walked in, he had been practically ambushed. Brenda Hall had thrown herself at him like a grenade, enveloping him in a hug and peppering him with a mag of machine-gun fire questions.
The best he could make out, she was worried about him and Mister Clyde because she had been coming by the farm, morning and night with food, but no one was around. She had been afraid that he had even left without saying good-bye. It felt strange to notice tears in the woman’s eyes as Josh physically pulled his wife off him.
Mike apologized as he took a seat in his favorite booth, and the woman poured him a cup of strong, black coffee that smelled like what he imagined heaven would, not that he would ever find out – if there were such a place at all. She had sat with him, keeping his cup full of the stuff.
There was no need to place an order even. Within five minutes, Josh himself had brought a plate piled high with scrambled eggs and more meat than some families had in a whole week. Another smaller plate held pancakes. The other man had simply nodded as he placed the offering before him and slipped back into the kitchen.
Mike had known that he was hungry, needed to eat more than institutional mush that only masqueraded as food, but until his first bite of those eggs, he had not known just how hungry he was. Brenda had waited patiently as he answered her questions to the best of his ability between bites of breakfast and sips of heaven. She had frowned and nodded as he explained the latest developments. He heard how genuine she was when she told him that they were real sorry about Mister Clyde.
After that, Mike had not even needed to leave Prairie View for his meals. Just as the woman had delivered his meals to the farm on those evenings when he had lost track of time and missed the dinner rush, so too had she begun to bring food to the nursing home. Not just for him either, there was always extra for the staff as well. The woman used the excuse that they were just helping them by getting rid of leftovers. The nurses and Mike certainly were not going to argue.
A couple of times in the late mornings between the breakfast and lunch crowds, the woman had even stayed for a bit, sitting by the bedside, holding Mister Clyde’s hand and talking about Billy. Mike had slipped discretely from the room, feeling like an intruder, like he was eavesdropping on their private conversation.
But he would not forget the way the woman’s voice cracked as she spoke about her first love, the man who had once been his best friend. The stories she told of their adventures – hers, Billy’s, and even Josh’s, made Mike smile as he listened by the doorway. He learned things about his friend that he had never known. It was almost as if the woman brought some piece of the man back to him.
Of course, one good thing about sleeping in that hard chair by Mister Clyde’s bed was that his sleep never really got deep enough for the dreams. More like naps, an hour here, two there, throughout the night. But then again, Mike had long since learned to live without a great deal of sleep. Since Boot Camp, it had become more of a luxury than a necessity.
The last three days of his life, Mister Clyde had slipped quietly into a coma. And death when it finally did come for the man in the early pre-dawn hours of that morning had been starkly different from the ones that Mike had witnessed before. Two deep breaths, more like sighs, then nothing. At first, Mike had waited, thinking that the man would inhale at any moment, but he had not. His chest never rose again.
It was prophetic almost, a final exhalation after the job was done. The kind that you might give as you surveyed your labors at the end of a challenging task. That was it, and the man was gone. No blood, no grey brain matter, no gaping holes. Just two little breaths as if to say – job well done.
Of course, Mike’s was not. Nor was Maude’s. After years of reports and debriefings, that before computers had needed to be filed in triplicate even, Mike should not have been surprised at the paperwork that the government required, even for the act of dying. Though they had been expecting the man’s death for days, the coroner still had to be called. Had to pronounce the man dead. Then it was a matter of contacting the funeral home and awaiting the mortician.
There was little Mike had to do or arrange for that at least. All of those arrangements had been made and paid for on that fateful leave. The one time that Mike had met the grown-up version of the strawberry blonde pixie that had always followed her big brother about the farm anytime they were back on leave. Before taking a still somewhat cognizant Mister Clyde to the nursing home, they had seen an attorney to make a will and gone to the local funeral home to make final arrangements.
Still, all of that had fallen on Mike’s broad shoulders alone to oversee. It was almost late afternoon before he had been able to leave Prairie View. Unlike Mary Majors, Mike had taken all of Mister Clyde’s things with him when he left that evening. What was the point in delaying it? He knew that there was a waiting list for beds, people and families that needed the intense level of care that could only be found in places like this one. Why keep them waiting?
It had taken Mike only an hour or so to pack it all up. Some of the stuff like toothbrushes, soaps, and stuff could just be tossed in the trash. Others, like Mister Clyde’s pajamas, could be donated to others. Mike had been shocked by the total lack of care that he had witnessed over those almost eight weeks.
Of course, the facility made sure that all its patients had three meals a day – if you could call them that. They also provided most of the basics like soap, deodorant, toothpaste, and way too many adult diapers. Mike cringed at the thought and, for the moment, was relieved that his future would never contain such things. But other things like pajamas, slippers, and the like were up to the family to keep in stock. And whether it was finances or neglect, Mike had seen way too many threadbare and torn ones to suit him.
One thing he could hand Becca Hall-Okadigbo was that she made certain Mister Clyde did not lack for such items, putting money regularly into his personal account through which Maude and the others could make certain he had anything he needed. It was one thing at least that Mike could not fault the woman for. Even if she still had not come, even when Maude informed her that her father’s death was imminent. According to the woman, Becca had asked if he would know she was there and when told ‘no’ had simply said there was no point then.
Mike ran his fingers through his hair that had grown longer than it had been in close to twenty-five years. He could not understand the woman. How could she simply put Mister Clyde in the nursing home and just forget him? How could any of the families? He supposed that was one blessing of dying young – you never faced such an ignominious end.
For a single heartbeat, Mike thought of the only relation he had ever had – his maternal grandmother. Of course, the woman would have never faced such a fate. No one on Beacon Hill would. Still, he wondered if it had been a lonely one. Had her ‘blue book’ friends abandoned her as she grew sicker and frailer? Had her long time staff at that posh brownstone been as dedicated to her care as the ones at Prairie View?
Maybe he was no better than Becca Hall-Okadigbo? After all, he had ignored the old woman’s one attempt to reach out to him – since the day she had turned her back on that frightened little boy and the social worker. Sometimes the woman’s cold words mingled with others in his dreams. “That boy is his child, bad seed. I will not have it in my home.” ‘It.’ A seven-year-old boy, who had just lost his mother and unborn sister, watched his father…
Mike stopped. He knew he was way too fucking tired when his mind went down those ancient streets. It was not like the man did not have enough ghosts. He certainly did not need to dredge up the boy’s.
He sighed, not as heavily or with the finality that Mister Clyde had, but then again, his labors were not ending. Merely transforming. One life had ended, and another with missions and duties of its own was beginning. Be that for weeks, months, or maybe even a couple of years, he did not know.
But he did know that tomorrow was another day. Likely another big one as the Southern tradition of ‘receiving friends’ as the mortician called it would be tomorrow night. Mike knew that he would know next to no one that would come, but that did not matter.
It was an opportunity for others, old friends and distant relations to ‘pay their respects,’ or so the morticians informed him. Why those people could not have ‘paid their respects’ while the man was alive was beyond Mike. Seemed to him, it would have meant a lot more to Mister Clyde to have the occasional visitor while he could still remember some things than a huge shindig when he was cold and stiff in an expensive box.
Once more, Mike was simply too fucking tired to drag his ass up those steps to bed. He was just about to lay down where he sat when he heard a noise at the door. He knew it could not be Brenda. She had shown up with his breakfast, as usual, that morning. The poor woman seemed visibly shaken to learn of what they all knew was inevitable.
She had only nodded through tears when Mike told her not to worry about dinner this night that he was not sure when he would be back to the farm, and honestly, he was not all that hungry. Nonetheless, he had found a bag of Styrofoam containers on the front porch when he got there an hour or so ago. Of course, he was too exhausted to eat, so he simply stuck them in the fridge and pulled out a beer while he was there.
When the door opened, he was shocked to see the too-serious woman he had met only once before. Becca or he supposed Rebecca Hall-Okadigbo held a scant resemblance to the little girl he had once known. Her hair that she had once worn in ponytails was cut fashionably short. She was petite, he thought was the right term, just like Missus Lula had been. She wore a slightly wrinkled business suit in navy blue and matching shoes. The woman looked almost as tired as he felt.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Mike. If I had known you were staying here, I would have checked into a hotel in Prairie View.”
He shook his head and stood up like a gentleman should in the presence of a lady. Some lessons he could never forget. It seemed a betrayal of the woman, who had taught them to that small boy. The woman, who had paid the ulti… He stopped those thoughts cold once more as he forced a smile that he did not feel for this woman’s sake. “No, Becca, this is your home. If anyone goes to a hotel, it’ll be me.”
The woman shook her head as she sat the small suitcase on the floor. “No, that’s not necessary. We’ll work something out. It’s only for a couple of days after all.”
She shifted from foot to foot nervously, “James and the girls will be arriving sometime tomorrow, though. He promised he would drive them down tonight after his last class of the day. They won’t bother you, will they? Not like another little pain, who had a huge crush on her brother’s best friend.”
Mike was shocked not just at this woman’s revelation, but at how for a moment the genuine smile on her face so reminded him of that little ‘pain’ as she said, who had always seemed to be underfoot. He, too, smiled at the memories of those long-forgotten days. “No, of course not,” he lied. He had little experience with children.
“Are you staying in your old room then? Or Billy’s?”
“Mine.” He sought something more to say to this woman that he neither knew nor understood. “Are you hungry? There’s some food in the fridge. I could make you something. I don’t have much to drink, though, just a couple of beers.”
She nodded her head slowly, “Actually, that sounds nice. I was so rushed after Miss Landon called, trying to find people to cover my classes, throw a few things into a suitcase, and get a flight. All I could find was one of the budget ones that had nothing but peanuts and day-old sandwiches for sale. Not very appealing. I should have stopped in Tulsa, I guess, but I just wasn’t hungry then. Just let me put this in my old room, and I’ll be right down.”
Mike stood and crossed the room, taking the small case from her. “Let me carry it up for you.”
She nodded and thanked him as she followed him up the stairs to the room that had remained closed. She opened it and stepped just inside, flipping the switch that bathed the room in a gentle glow of another wall sconce. He sat the bag down just inside the door. “You get settled, and I’ll fix you that food.”
“Thank you, Mike. I know that you have done a lot for Daddy. Things I probably should have been here to do myself. I know that you probably can’t understand. I’m not even sure I do, and I’m a psychologist. But I just want you to know, I do appreciate it. All you did for him.”
Mike was not sure what to say to the woman’s very earnest admission. He nodded as he closed the door, “I’ll have that food ready when you get settled.”
He stood outside the door as he listened to what he thought was the sound of crying. He considered knocking, seeing if she needed anything, but this woman was not the little girl he had known or even the sullen and withdrawn teen that he had once met on one of his increasingly rare visits after Billy’s death. This woman was a stranger. One that he suspected might not welcome his intrusion into whatever grief and guilt she might be experiencing.
He had no idea what to make of her admissions this night. But one thing he had learned in his too-long lifetime was – not to judge that which you do not understand. All those places, people, and different cultures he had witnessed over the years taught him. Life was never as straightforward or as black and white as you wanted it to be. People were complicated; sometimes, situations were unfathomable.
He was reminded of one of his favorite sayings about walking a mile in someone’s boots. He chuckled, not that he wanted to walk in those damned tight looking heels of this woman. But maybe that was the point. Perhaps like she said, he could not understand. Not that there was much in this fucked up world that he did or ever had. Or probably ever would…