I just stopped for a red light and I’m feeling weird.
It’s trepidation. Do I really want to see Rob? Very much yes and very much no. And I’m wondering what he’ll think when he sees me, if he’s thinking anything at all.
Rob is the oldest friend I still have. We’ve know each other since the ninth grade when he lit a fart for all us boys in the basement of my parent’s house. Up to that time we thought a butt flame was an urban legend. Rob was brave enough to prove it was real. I never forgot that, and somewhere…maybe in some shoe box buried in the back of a closet, rests the Polaroid I snapped of that earth-moving event.
I want that picture now.
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it in a long time. Then again, that applies to Rob as well even though we both live in LA and have each other’s numbers.
I wish I were a closer friend to Rob. I wish the chemistry and connection was deeper. And yet, when we do get together, Rob tells me everything. Every doubt, fear, regret and revelation – Rob reveals it all to me each time we meet. And I listen, promising to hold his secrets, because I feel honored that he tells me this much intimacy.
Rob grew up in a working class home of South Carolina mill workers, in a place that was still segregated when we first met in 1962. He could have been like the other boys of that town I left many years ago – steeped in racial hate, a defiance of government and anything different.
But Rob is not about fear.
Rob is about Peace and Well Being, and a private prayer for all of us before he starts to eat. Rob’s about keeping people employed in his small business even though they’re not needed. Rob is about sloppy, wrinkled clothes, a shower twice a day and an inability to show up anywhere on time. But Rob is also about genuine kindness, generosity and sincere loyalty to everyone. Most of all, Rob is about keeping his faith and steering clear of blaming or resenting others.
And now, as I pull into the hospital parking lot, Rob is about trying to get a fork into his mouth and putting together five intelligible words.
Last June Rob came as close to dying as anyone can and still return to the living. Yes, Rob returned, after a heart attack and severe oxygen starvation resulting in profound brain damage and a two-week coma. Rob returned, still Rob, but barely, or so it appears.
I had not seen my friend in a year and a half. I kept meaning to call him, to keep in touch, to set up one of our annual lunches where he silently thanks God before each meal. But I didn’t call. Rob didn’t either, until last June when he apologized over the phone for letting our friendship drift. He asked about getting together for the 4th of July. He wanted my wife and me to meet his new girlfriend. The 4th had been booked on our side so I said like everyone says, “Let’s touch base in a couple of weeks.”
We didn’t. Then the summer slipped by.
Last Sunday I decided to reconnect with friends and family I hadn’t spoken to in weeks and months. No one was home and I left six voice messages. Then I dialed Rob and Garry answered the phone. Gary is Rob’s house boarder and part-time employee.
Gary told me how he found Rob sitting stiff in his bed, unconscious, eyes glazed, his face blue from lack of air. That was June 26th, the day after Rob and I last spoke, the day I casually assumed there would always be another chance to phone Rob.
Now there isn’t.
And now I’m about to enter his hospital room wearing a paper gown and latex gloves. They told me Rob has infections I can catch or spread through the hospital. I probably do too, but I get to leave this place with its gowns and gloves and pretend there will always be a tomorrow, germs and all.
I slowly push open the wide door to view the backs of people standing around an elevated bed. I do not see Rob. He must be behind those people, two women and a man. A nurse quietly sits on a chair in front of the window. She nods to me. I can approach Rob, which I do.
Heads turn. I introduce myself. They do the same. I’m meeting Paul’s girl friend, Jane, his book keeper turned guardian, Sally, and his roommate Garry, the man I talked to over the phone. They all look like nice people and they separate, allowing me to come closer to Rob.
Oh God… My friend is trashed. He’s wearing a hospital shift, a paper diaper, and has oxygen tubes inserted into his nose. He’s thin, pale and appears confused as his eyes wander for no destination.
Rob sees me. Joan asks him if he knows who I am. Rob tells us he doesn’t. My gaze drops to the floor. I’ve lost my friend.
I’ve been with Rob two hours now, and yes, he does recognize me, and with minimal communication we talked about…nothing. But we talked. Or rather I did and Rob answered with words from some other planet.
Strapped into a wheel chair, he ate bits of a cold dinner. I was sad that he missed his moment of silent ‘Grace.’ Thankfulness and expressing it was, and is, the defining spirit of my old friend. I always wondered what he was saying when he closed his eyes in Denny’s or Bob’s Big Boy or Tony’s Pizzeria. Did he thank Jesus with a template prayer, or did he get specific? Guess I’ll never know.
Anyway, Joan did her best to maintain the remnants of Rob’s dignity. She gave him choices; like, do you want carrots or mashed potatoes? Make pee-pee now or later?
It didn’t get more complicated than that. Rob’s language is best when it’s less than four words. Anything more comes out as whispered gibberish, which is so unfair because somehow I know that inside Rob’s head, all his thoughts make sense.
Rob’s now back in his bed staring at me, eyes locked onto mine and squirming as he drags the sheet up to his chest. “Feeling weird…” he tells me.
I move closer. “What are you feeling weird about?”
“Feeling weird,” he mumbles again.
I lean even closer, inches from his face. “Does your body feel weird or does your mind feel weird?”
“Feeling really weird.”
Is this one of Rob’s secrets meant solely for me? Sally and Joan are out the room, Gary left thirty minutes ago and the nurse is still in her chair by the window, texting into her smartphone. In essence, Rob and I are alone in our private bubble.
Or maybe not.
His right hand raises toward the ceiling attempting to grab something only he sees. Now his left hand follows.
“What do you see, Rob?”
He doesn’t answer. He just keeps grabbing space as his eyes go wide.
“What’s there, Rob?”
His fingers dance in the air. I grab his right hand and clench it. He squeezes back, muttering more unintelligible sounds as his eyes shift to me.
“What’s there, Rob?” I ask again.
“I can’t believe they’re all waiting for me,” he mutters, his gaze returning to that place above his head.
I look to the nurse. She’s still focused onto her three inch screen. I look back to Rob as he continues to grasp my hand. “Is it scary?” I ask him.
“Not scary. Not scary.”
He gently compresses my palm once more, looking me straight in the eyes with a message I clearly hear in my mind.
“Thank you,” he’s telling me, “for being here. I love you, Irv.”
And now his lips curl into a hint of a smile as if to say, “It’s all okay.’
Wow… I want to cry. I don’t. I don’t want to break down in Rob’s hospital room. I don’t want to be vulnerable. I should be the one saying, ‘It’s all okay.’ But I don’t know if it is.
Rob smiles again. He knows what I’m thinking. ‘I’ll come back,’ he silently tells me. ‘I may not be the same, but I’ll still be your friend, waiting for you where ever I am.’
All I can do is nod.
‘You don’t have to feel bad about this,’ he answers, and he strokes my hand.
Oh God… It’s a prayer of love and I’m inside it. How could I ever want to be closer to a friend than I am right now. What more can I demand of friendship? He asks nothing of me, except that I forgive myself.
I will be visiting Rob again. Soon.