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The Worst Advice I Always Give

All good things end up dead

His home smelled faintly of feces, a finger-smear on the bathroom wallpaper from when the time when the toilet paper roll was empty. A drift of crumbs, hair, and shed skin followed the baseboards to corners in which accumulated what looked like tiny birds’ nests. Dried drips of condiments speckled the kitchen floor, counter tops, and cupboards knobs, opening onto faded plastic cups stained by former contents. I don’t say anything to my wife or him, this was the new normal — dirty and disheveled and desolate.

“It’s just me here,” he once said.

“But the bacteria. You could get sick.”

“I’ve made it this long, out from worse, and mind your own business.”

Those weren’t his exact words, but you get the gist. Any future conversations regarding his cleanliness wouldn’t bring back the capacity that had already slipped. And such conversations would force me to confront the notion that one day he and us would end. All good things must, they said. What bullshit. Or hindsight is a gift. But by the time we are ripped open by such awareness, who cares for what happens next?

“But sympathy we cannot have.”

The worst advice is any that comes while I’m in the thick of sickness — his or mine or even a stranger’s, I guess. Up close all I see is the mistakes, the negligence, or anything, real or made up, that might lengthen my already long list of character defects. Even if I were perfect, reassurance is like breaking a leg, then demanding the cast be covered in pink wrap. A pretty sliver only draws attention to the jagged fracture, heavy limp, and immodest need for sympathy gifts. Just the same: kind words don’t lessen the pitch of his Parkinsonian decline into the abyss. And I’m just a guilty as the most well-meaning prick. Time is the only fix. Also drugs, but that privilege was revoked when I was but a kid.

There wasn’t a specific moment to which I can point and say, That’s when he lost whatever it was that made him. It would be nice if I could, but with neurodegenerative disease there is no such light switch. It’s more like a screw that tightens every time a little piece of him slackens. Our phone calls have never been particularly pleasant, but now even glancing conversations add a few more rotations, forcing the screw, the fact of his decline, further into my head. The screw’s tip lances the fold of my brain in which self-pity lives. In fact, each pointless argument, rejected query, or un-clapped essay provides an opportunity for me to try again. But him and his destroyed mind will likely never again know the dopamine rush of redemption, not to what I imagine a meaningful extent. And the reductionist consolation that all good things must come to an end doesn’t bring me closer to enlightenment, but the realization that everything I love will one day be dead. Maybe therein is the rose that grows from a thorny stem. It’s not that good things end, but all things, so why handicap life by fixating upon the tiny slices in my digits? The truth is skin deep; stop fidgeting with the slits.

“We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others.”

Mixed-metaphors are like pigs in a dress — pretty and delicious.

“My TV died,” he said. “Can you help me find a new one? You’re better at the internet.”

“Of course. What’s your budget?”

“Three hundred.”

I choked on a gob of spit. “I’m not sure — ”

“Three fifty then.”

“Let me see what I can find.”

“Thank you, son.”

“You’re welcome.”

He never responded to my email, may not have it gotten it. Or he might have been at the casino with his friends. He likes to play the tables, and karaoke Garth Brooks after having had a few alcoholic beverages. Either way, I did my best, and his life is best lived by him. To insert my judgment would only make a mess. If he’s happy, who cares for what happens next?

“Here we go alone, and like it better so.”

I love you, old man.

On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf