Jack's Last Day

The morning before Jack died I drew the death card and knew without question its symbolic as well as literal meaning. On the way to the trailer where Jack lies dying I meet the doctor.

"It’s a beautiful day," I say.

"It’s a good day to die," she says.

Inside the trailer is the normal chaos of Cathy and Jack’s home, added to by the presence of their 17-month-old child Rio. Rio is my job—keeping him busy and out of the way without denying him access to mom and dad, especially during these final moments of an over-two-year ordeal. I begin by making coffee. I bathe and dress Rio. The doctor is tending Jack. He is coughing frightful, laborious coughs, and through it all Cathy is enduring her own private hell.

Rio begins each day with me by crying, and who can blame him, these are crying times. The doctor spends some time with Cathy. It’s suggested that I phone family and friends to let them know how things are going. On some level I wish I were somewhere else, anywhere but here.

I first met Jack about ten years previously, after a phone call from Cathy.

"Hi, we just got married."

"We who?" I ask.

"Jack and me," she says.

"Is he a cowboy?" I ask.

"No," she said.

"Is he gay?" I ask.

"I don’t know; you can ask him when we arrive. We’re coming to visit so you can meet him."

"Can I wear a dress?" I ask.

"I don’t know; can you?" she replies.

I was wearing a black wool midcalf skirt when Cathy and Jack arrived. I curtsied and asked how he liked the dress. "You look very lovely," he said, smiling broadly. I liked him instantly. I think to myself that Cathy has chosen well.

I walk Rio downtown. Two less people in the house is two less people in the house. Downtown, Rio becomes the vortex of the coffee shop universe. He is, in spite of everything, a very bright and happy child loved by many, and I am glad for his company. While he entertains I speak with others about things on the home front. Everyone is grim.

Back at the trailer, Jack has chosen for comfort the floor next to the bed he and Cathy share. He is reclining; his eyes are closed. Sometimes he frowns; sometimes he smiles. His nieces Jennifer and Jessica sit near the east window, singing. They have between them a beautiful harmony. Cathy calls them her songsters. Sometimes others in the room sing or hum along, but we can’t match the twins for pure grace and simplicity of style.

Sara has arrived and is being very Alice [B. Toklas] to Cathy, who is being very Gertrude [Stein]. Doctor Weed sits by the south window. She is watching how we do this. She’s quiet and very observant of all that is happening. We are all just being with Jack. I massage his feet.

Only three months earlier in Mexico (where Jack, Cathy, and Rio went to make use of alternative therapies not available in the States), Jack gives me a ten-dollar bill. "I want you to go to the bakery and buy whatever you like most," he says.

"What for?" I ask.

"I want you to describe what it’s like to eat it," he says. I laugh.

Later I sit in a chair across from him, slowly eating forbidden foods, describing in ways only a poet can just how much I am enjoying a custard pie. "Man oh man," he says, "keep on talking; this is wonderful!" He really is enjoying the experience. Cathy is doing needlework. She deftly sews the form of a woman floating in her own tears. Cathy has already begun to grieve; still she jokes with us that the game Jack and I are playing seems very Roman and penitential. But it makes him glad, so I do it.

Once when Rio was crying the eternal cry of a grieving child, Jack came to my room to hold the baby. He looks just like Mary holding baby Jesus.

It’s late and we are all exhausted. The death watch continues. I put Rio to bed singing Gregorian chants, and I wonder if it’s genuinely restful for him—or does he fall asleep from boredom. Jack sleeps on the floor. Cathy and Sara are on the bed. Jack’s niece is by the bedroom door like a guard. Everything is quiet. I fall asleep in Jack’s ultra-large lazy boy recliner.

Sometime in the night I awaken, restless; I need to walk outside and stretch. While I admire the glorious night sky, a shooting star graces my view. It’s brilliant. "Goodbye, Jack," I whisper.

The porch door opens quietly. I turn to face Jack’s niece. "He’s gone," she says.

I go inside to see what remains.

Pansy Bradshaw

A former member of Miami (Fla.) Meeting, Pansy Bradshaw is an author, nanny, queer activist, hospice chaplain, and preacher and director of ecumenical religious education at St. James Episcopal Church in Dillon, Montana.