When Raymond decided he was going to die, the feelings he perceived were not as he expected. He recalled that as his mother approached her own death, at the age of 99, he witnessed her speaking to relatives long passed. They could have been sitting in the living room next to her she was carrying on so matter-of-factly. While she conversed in the living room Raymond sat with his wife and middle son discussing how they knew her time was coming. Everyone knew speaking to dead relatives was a sign the brain was giving out. A minor malfunction where neurons recall stored memories of times gone by and mistake them for current events. This was not so for Raymond.
He laid in his hospice bed wondering about his experience. The hands and feet attached to his extremities no longer responded in the manner which he intended. Receptors in his nose recalled the shit he’d taken that morning, like day old coffee left out in a rusty bucket. His body had all but seceded from his brain and there was no army he could send out to reclaim it. After years of struggle, forging through life unsure of the terminal destination, above all else, he was disappointed.
Although, he was not sure what he would accept in place of this penultimate moment. The welcome voices of his relatives would be calming. Sadly, the only relatives he could think of that would visit him with their ghostly presence were his parents. Raymond could barely remember his father’s face because the last time he saw him Raymond was barely twelve years old. Seventy-four years between then and now. His siblings were all still living and despite being physically present in the world, incapable of traveling to see him. They would not be coming to visit in the next few minutes. Nor would his father, he suspected. The only hope he had of being escorted into what came next would have to come from his mother, but, maybe she thought his memories of her were recent enough. Or, maybe she’d found her husband and was occupied making up for lost time.
Perhaps the nurse would be in the room when he finally moved on. Her beautiful physique would make a fine last memory. Fifty years ago, hell maybe even forty, he’d have bent her over and given her a good horse-fucking. But his dick had given up so long ago. Nothing worked any more. Nothing. What a waste of a body, he thought. He remembered the doctor’s voice scolding him for the self-inflicted damage. The tongue in his mouth shifted around his bottom lip, looking for a remnant of chewing tobacco.
He sighed, making an awkward moaning sound. The voice he used to carry now a casualty of the body/brain divide. Laying there was the most exhausting thing he’d ever done. Nothing to do but contemplate it all, a prisoner in his own mind. Raymond wished he’d come to terms with himself sooner. That way he could have arrived at this juncture and not wasted time debating. He could’ve just gotten on with it. He realized now that part of life was just running from things. The hippies called it acceptance. Really it was just running away from the stuff that makes us uncomfortable and hoping for the best.
With no one coming to usher him along, it seemed Raymond would be responsible for his own passing. In some way it was fitting, taking ownership of the next step. His whole life, since his father died, he’d been responsible for everything. Lying about his age to get into the Navy after the Japs took out Pearl Harbor turned out to be just as much an escape as it was a sense of duty. The Navy didn’t care, they needed bodies to fight in the Pacific. That, in retrospect, may have been irresponsible, leaving his three sisters and mother behind. How could he stay and not fight? Wasn’t he protecting everyone in the country, including his family?
Through it all he felt like he at least had something to show for his basic existence. Three boys, a girl, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Raymond couldn’t imagine that he’d taught any of them anything. He didn’t know how to be a father. His upbringing was in the belly of a steel ship, birthed by blowing Zeros out of the sky. It was all he could do to drown the nightmares for years later. The alcohol was his best friend because goddammit men don’t talk about their feelings. They go out and fight wars, defend their country and work hard because life isn’t going to hand it to you. He fought in that war, and he worked his whole life. Raymond never had anyone to help him carry any of that weight. Closest he ever got to brothers was at the VFW and there it was more about commiserating with each other; pretending like they were alright and all that hell they’d marched through was worth it.
Maybe that was the lesson he was leaving behind: you have to do what needs to be done. If that was the case it was a piss-poor contribution. Hadn’t the house he’d provided been enough? Enough to give his family more of a chance than he ever had. He knew he was a failure. That house was the best he could do but by God he did it. If that was a lesson his kids took away then…then maybe it was adequate. Maybe in time his children would forgive him for his transgressions. For all the bruises and broken bones. For steel-toed shoes in their asses because they didn’t finish their chores. A tear slipped out of his right eye as he silently pleaded for absolution. What else could be expected of a poor boy from rural Indiana? It wasn’t his fault, he didn’t know any better.
Raymond remembered how he knew, when his son presented him with his first grandchild, that things would have to change. Tiny fingers reached out from under the warm blanket to wrap around his, and he knew this was an ultimatum. Give up the drinking, or never see that pee-wee nose again. He didn’t have to say it, but David, his son, told him anyway. So he did. For all his failings as a father, he could try to be a grandfather.
A boy and two girls sat in a circle, legs tucked inside an old truck tire. Their hands gripped chain that met in a pyramid above them then climbed fifteen feet up to a branch in a walnut tree. Higher grandpa! Small voices shouting so loudly one would think they were in pain if not for the tooth-baring grins spread across their faces. The tire reached its peak and then at the bottom of its inverted arc snap! The chain broke and the tire fell flat to the ground.
One girl bounced off the thick rubber of the tire onto the ground while the other two children, extraordinarily, remained upright. Wide eyes and mouths agape, the kids on the tire began to laugh. The girl on the ground rolled over and Raymond thought she would cry. He walked over to pick her up. Her lower lip stuck out for an instant but retracted when she took his hand and saw her cousins were giggling. Fear replaced by thrill. I’ll see if I can find another chain, he told them.
Back in his bed he cried. Oh God, he thought, if you’re there, won’t you understand? Won’t you see that I tried? I gave up the booze. I kept going. I did what had to be done. Can’t you see? God, don’t let me go alone. I’ve been alone my whole life.
Reconciling this would be his finale, he gasped in surprise of his decision. His eyelids squeezed shut the same way they used to when the 40 mm guns bolted to his aircraft carrier went off. He knew what he had to do. An alarm sounded, a kamikaze was headed for midship. No, not a collision alarm, the pitch was too high. Still he felt the jolt of the ship as metal struck metal, nearly deafened by the whole of the sound. Raymond lost his balance and fell into the railing. Air rushed from his lungs with the impact and everything went black.
As suddenly as the explosion flooded all his senses it cleared. Before he opened his eyes a gentle breeze kissed the side of Raymond’s face. Smells of fresh-cut grass swirled inside his nose. Soothing warmth from what had to be the sun covered his body causing him to smile. Opening his eyes just a crack, reflections of green met his corneas. Just a little more and the green sharpened into a yard. New reflections of grayish white from the barn behind his house made his heart jump. Unsure of himself, he looked down to find tattered jeans and a worn out t-shirt that said “Monon Bell Game 1989”. In his hand, a pipe smoldered. Not just any pipe, his favorite. The tobacco was sweet in the air. And behind him, off the side of the barn, came the echo of children laughing.