Gail sits in her beige recliner with her feet propped up. She sighs deeply before talking.
Green plastic tubing snakes across the living room floor. One end is tethered to a machine; the other forks and loops over her ears before disappearing up her nose.
“I am afraid to lay down at night,” she says, glancing at the floor. “I don’t think I’ll be able to breathe on my back.”
Gail is bone-thin. The chair she sits in looks as if it might swallow her in its folds.
I gently hug her. Inwardly I cringe, self-conscious and awkward, kicking myself.
My nephew watches. We both wear swim trunks and t-shirts. He’s holding a sack of Wendy’s hamburgers. A pool bag sits on the ground.
“Come give me a hug,” Gail says to Xander.
“I don’t want to get sick,” Xander says.
The corners of Gail’s mouth turns up slightly in a sad smile.
“I don’t blame you,” she says without missing a beat. “I don’t like being sick either.”
He’s six and confused. Xander has seen Gail when she was healthier.
He does not understand that some illnesses cannot be passed on like a cold.
“Xander, Gail isn’t that type of sick. Give her a hug,” my mother says.
Her voice carries from a back room, breaking the awkward silence.
My nephew looks at me, then steps forward. He give Gail a hug. She smiles.
Inside of Gail’s body a battle is nearing its endgame.
On one side, incurable cancer. On the other, toxic chemicals keeping the biological rebellion at bay. The conflict between medicine and biology has been killing Gail for years.
Doctors declared the victor early in the war. Their best offer — the cancer in her lungs could be held at bay for a little while.
A modern medical miracle.
At 70-years-old, Gail goes through the weekly chemo and the additional illness it brings, hoping to see her twin grandchildren, both 17, graduate from high school.
She’s recently suffered a minor heart attack. No one can say for sure if it is related to her years of treatment or not.
My mom and Gail have been friends for a very long time. She is here to clean Gail’s already clean house.
My nephew and I are there to swim in Gail’s backyard pool.
She invited us my mom told her I planned to take Xander to the swim club on one of the last summer weekdays before he begins second grade.
I have not been out to Gail’s house in a very long time.
Gail has known me me for 39 years ago. My parents moved in next door to her and her late husband Ray when I was a newborn.
Over the years our families dined on Thanksgiving leftovers a day or two after the holiday together. We made time to exchange Christmas presents.
I remember we kept a wriggly pug puppy named Sweet Pea in our house for their son Barry one year.
There was the year my sister’s belief in Santa Claus began to wane. Ray climbed on our roof that Christmas morning and jingled sleigh bells over her bedroom window.
I remember a small part of me wanting to believe again on that day. Brandy got one more year of holiday magic.
Gail and Ray were the first neighbors to own a home video player. We watched Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” on Beta Max.
When I turned into a neurotic, insecure teenager, Ray would tell me to put my shoulders back and chin up whenever he saw me staring at the ground.
He was proud of me. I should be proud of myself, damn it. I miss Ray.
Then there were the trips with Gail by myself to visit her parents’ farm in Somerset, Kentucky. I would ride four-wheelers and remember eating farm-to-table fresh eggs and sausage for the first time there.
Gail’s whole family was as welcoming and warm as she was. I loved those trips.
Our families joked that Gail and Ray were a second mom and dad.
Back in the now, Xander and I eat our lunches from Wendy’s at Gail’s dining room table before heading out the back door to the pool. It’s littered with prescription bottles.
Gail and Ray did moved to their single story ranch-style house with acreage after I left for college.
Barry, Gail and Ray’s son, is about eight year’s older than me. He built his house with his wife behind my parents parents property a year or two before his moved here.
He operates his lawn care business from his parents’ new property, but still lives within a stone’s throw from my parents’ backdoor.
That second set of parents thing was a two-way street for him as well growing up.
Barry’s black hair has grayed. He walks with a slight hitch in his step after years of working outdoors doing physical labor.
He keeps Gail’s backyard beautiful with its rolling hills and lush grass that ends at a small pond and fence beyond.
Because of Barry, the pool water is blue and warm. I place my nephew in his life jacket in the shallow end.
Xander and I splash and play before Xander gets bored. My nephew is growing up.
I know he loves me. Our relationship is changing.
I don’t hold his attention the way I once did. He’s growing independent.
My heart squeezes and sinks with heaviness in the water.
He agrees to stay in the pool a little longer after some convincing. He tells me all about Minecraft, with its zombies and ghasts and creepers.
My mom comes outside for a moment. She sighs and sits down on one of the matching lawn chairs.
“Barry’s trying to get her to go to rehab,” she says.
Gail turned down therapy after the heart attack when she was still in the hospital. She was adamant about going home.
“She’s afraid if she goes into rehab, she’ll never come back,” my mom says.
I understand Gail’s concern. I can’t name an elderly family member who went into rehab and returned home.
I respect Gail’s fear of surrender and the strength she has to stay home as long as she can.
Ray died of a heart attack nearly 14 years ago, shortly after they moved here.
Gail’s managed most of the acreage and house by herself before and after her diagnosis.
She built the pool for her grandchildren who now rarely come to visit because, well, they’re teenagers.
The last few days alone though have worn on Gail. The cancer is clearly robbing Gail of her independence. She knows this.
“I think she’ll go though,” my mom continues. “Probably tomorrow. I’m going to pack some of her clothes.”
The rehab center promises Gail will only stay a couple of weeks. Just enough time to regain some strength, they say.
My mom goes back inside. She’s tired and clearly upset as well.
Xander pretended to not listen.
He’s weighing our conversation. He’s still trying to piece together the first loss he’s experienced.
Jimmy, my mom’s older cousin, died a year ago. Jimmy was a life-long bachelor. He was a lonely man during his later years. Seeing Xander always made him happy.
Xander frequently brings up something that reminds him of Jimmy. Xander reminds me how abstract a concept like death can be.
Where do people go when we die? How do we grieve, remember, and forget?
“Toss me, bubba,” Xander finally says.
Already an expert at changing the subject, I think as I lift my nephew up.
We laugh and play.
I put on the best show I can for him, trying to savor the moments while grieving all the others that have already passed.
I glance back at the pond. Barry found Ray there. Ray collapsed, alone, doing yard work. There was nothing to be done to save him.
I lived out-of-state when Ray died. I didn’t come home for the funeral. I find myself choking back a sob.
I sent Gail a note when Ray died. In it, I included the lyrics to the Tom Waits’ song, “Take It With Me.” I told her when I heard the lyrics, they reminded me of the relationship they had.
In a land there’s a town and in that town there’s A house and in that house there’s a woman and in that woman there’s a heart I love I’m gonna take it with me when I go I’m gonna take it
with me when I go.
We’ve never discussed the letter or the song. I regretted including the lyrics in the letter as soon as I sent it. It felt a little too personal and presumptive for the situation.
It still does.
And like Xander with Jimmy, I wonder where Ray possibly could go with his love after he died.
My cynical adult-self often wonders if we go anywhere at all?
Despite this, I still occasionally listen to the song and find its melancholy beautiful.
Xander and I get out of the pool.
I go up to the house to tell Gail goodbye. Xander follows. I hug her again, thank her for letting us swim and promise to come back soon.
“I’ll keep you to that,” she says.
Xander doesn’t hesitate with his hug this time. I don’t remember what else is said.
I do hope Gail and I both get to see each other in her house again.
The older I get, the more I realize not having enough time is a growing problem.
I’m at that age where the fear of losing all those seemingly once-permanent people in my life is smacking me in the face. I’m also being punched in the gut with the knowledge that my time on this earth isn’t as long as it once seemed.
Time, in very real terms, is becoming a finite resource.
As a result, I’m realizing memories and love are the only things I really own . . . and matter.
It is both heavy and wonderful.
There’s not a lot of room for wasted time.
Originally published at briandmains.com on August 10, 2015.