It’s Just Life, Then it’s Gone.
A beer, fireplace, one more time.
The early evening chill cut through my light jacket.
As always, the Guatemalan night sky had an undeniable purple hue. The subtle breeze met us in the face as we walked the block to our best friend’s house.
The large pines sang a wind song. A large cone fell loudly nearby, getting both our attentions.
Helen answered the doorbell and opened the large wood gate, hugs and warm greetings between good friends. Max and Princes almost knocked us over. The dogs greeted us like we were long-lost family, almost beside themselves with the exuberant welcome they gave us.
We’d known the two dogs since they were puppies. I never imagined I would ever love a Pitbull. But then along came puppy Maxine, or ’Max’. Her coat, velvet soft, is a light brown and has a red nose, there’s a name for these Pitbull's but I don’t remember what it is.
For me, it’s a distinct pleasure to put my face against her soft and sweet smelling snout. A risk? Maybe, but I figure we live once and for a while and so many things weren’t able to kill me. Why now? The thick head and rounded thick mouth grabbed mostly gently at my fingers. Careful, it seemed so as not to bite too hard. She let me cuddle her. Like cuddling a honey hearted hooligan.
Getting through the entry door was an ordeal with those two, saying hello to four individuals at once. Using knees to block the door to keep the pooches from escaping out to the street. If and when they do bust loose sets off a whole added activity of pursuing and securing and herding them back inside.
I’d wanted to go over a little earlier for several reasons. Among those reasons was the selfish one of hoping to get back home so that I could climb into my bed before too late an hour. The other reason was that Becky’s promise of a quick visit would vanish as soon as the two ladies opened the wine. Sounds bad of me, I know. I was considering Barry’s exhausted post chemo state.
They’d just returned from the US two days before after a full year of treatment in Minnesota and had to be worn out.
I imagined the level of exhaustion he certainly was still feeling must be overwhelming. Let the man rest. Let the man mend, so our visit should be short.
But most importantly, we were visiting our close friends Helen and Barry. Becky’s way of seeing it. They’d just returned from an almost triumphant trip to the US. Almost triumphant because during Barry’s’ yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer, chemo, and it’s devastating impact Helen’s twin sister took center stage. Lung cancer was confirmed as being far worse than was expected. It had moved throughout her body.
She was on the last, long, agonizing stretch and it was one endless day after the next. Unimaginable. Miraculously, still no pain, but they said it would come. Helen was going right back to the US tomorrow. So instead of tending fully to Barry while going through chemo, Helen was also understandably doing double shifts next to her sisters’ bed for most of the time. Devastating, to put it mildly.
Barry was outside, picking at the bone dry wood pile next to his house. His face looked darker, cheeks set in just a bit more, throwing shadows.
“There he is! How you doing, man? Doing some chores around the house? Let me give you a hand.” Barry called out greetings. We shook hands then hugged. Of course, we’d seen them when they arrived home two nights before.
“Hey man, good to see you guys, hi Becky, glad you guys could come over.” A fading shade of the vibrant, strong man who’d stood there a year ago. He smiled and shakily picked up another piece of fire wood. I loaded myself with an arm load and we headed into the house.
The girls had gone ahead of us into the house. I could hear their laughter from the kitchen. We set the wood next to the chimney. “Let me get this Barry, sit down, you should be resting didn’t anybody tell you that?” He resisted at first, always used to doing the fire building, then gratefully settled gently into the large sofa facing the fire.
“Thanks Alan, think I will. Hey, how about a beer? I think there’s two Modelos left in the fridge?” For an instant, the look on his face held the comical appearance of a little boy about to break the rules.
“You know Barry, It’s been about a year since I’ve had a drop. Just have no use for it.” Just for a second, I’d felt as though I betrayed something.
“Yeah, I get it. Probably better that way. You trying to take care of your stomach?” Barry watched me as I worked the fire.
“Well yeah, that and it’s just that beer just doesn’t fit in too much anymore. Not sure if you know what I mean.”
“Hey Alan, I get it. So how have you been? You’re all good, right?” Barry said, gesturing at my neck where I’d had a melanoma removed over two years ago. Max the pit and Princess the yellow lab bounded into the living room and jumped on the sofa on either side of Barry, licking his face and tails wagging. Well, in Maxs’ case, a stubby nob of a tail.
I said, “What? Oh yeah. All good man, no problems. I do need to go in and get checked, you know, just in case.”
“Yeah, I get it. They told me at the clinic in Minnesota I have to do checks like every four to six months. I’ll be going to the states in January for the first checkup, just to make sure it’s all gone, you know.” Barry said without enthusiasm. Then asked unenthusiastically, “You don’t think that’s too much do you? I mean, getting checked so soon?”
“No way, it’s important right now to follow what the docs say, real important man.” His face expressed an imperceptible seriousness to his question. “Why do you ask Barry?”
The flickering flames seemed to have drawn his attention. It felt like he’d completely forgotten I was present. It passed and asked me how our boys were doing.
I said, “All good, I mean, trying to get the grades, it’s a little struggle but slowly but surely they’re getting it. How about Freddy and Rich?” Both their boys, early twenties, as were ours, still lived at home. We’d all agreed during conversations before that having these kids, no longer children, still at home was a blessing. Generally. Of course, there were frequent gaps in the domestic bliss as was to be expected.
“Well, you know Freddy is training in Miami, so far undefeated. He sparred against a guy who’d been world champ and damned if he didn’t beat him. But he loves it, like a passion. He goes to the Dominican Republic for a fight in a month or so. And Rich is really involved with the music, doing gigs in town and struggling with that.”
Clearly off. Something.
“That’s terrific man. You can’t say enough when these guys seem to be on a good track. So the boxing just might take off, huh?”
“Well yeah, maybe we’ll see. Helen and I have decided that we won’t put any pressure on Freddy with the boxing. Gotta be all him, you know?”
We purposefully ignored that the four paths our four boys were on hardly promised a solid livelihood, but then it wasn’t that sort of conversation. Not now.
“Oh yeah, I hear you. That’s how we see it, too. These guys are old enough to make their own decisions now.” I watched Barry as his gaze turned distractedly to the two dogs sleeping peacefully next to him. He reached over stroking both.
Becky came into the living room and asked us if we wanted a tea. Barry and I both smiled at the obvious variation from our decade long menu; beers. Sure tea, we said.
Becky came back with two smoking cups of tea. “Turmeric.” She said. Set them down on the well-used coffee table in front of the sofa. Max woke up and put her big mug right over my tea and sniffed, considered a lick, but seemed to think better of it. She lost interest curling up again against Barry’s leg.
I noticed Becky paused.
“Hey Alan, you want to join me outside to look for the BBQ fork near the BBQ pit?” She asked as off handedly as she could. I noticed, of course.
“What’s up with Alan? It’s written all over his face? And yours. Anything going on? What’s up with Barry?” She asked in that way that assured me only a true answer would do. The fact was, I had nothing to say.
“As far as I know, nothing. Maybe Helen’s sister? That has to be weighing on both of them something serious, can’t imagine. Could be he’s thinking he should be making this trip with Helen tomorrow. But I know what you’re saying. I see it too, but can’t say for sure.
Two hours later, the ladies had polished off almost two bottles while Barry and I drank way too much turmeric. On our way, making slow progress up the cobblestone incline to our place a block away. A cold drizzle was just starting.
Far off the sound of fire works. Someone celebrating a saint or a birthday.
“He’s sick Becky.” I choked. Couldn’t say anymore.
“What?” She turned to me, stopping. “What? What are you saying?”
Gathering myself as well as I could. “The reason he’s going back in a couple months is to plan what comes next in treatment. Really, there’s no treatment, more like a maintenance for when it gets bad.”
“What? Oh Jesus Alan. What. What did he say? Did he have tests?”
“Yeah, on one of those days when Helen was with her sister, he spent the day in the clinic and they gave him the bad news. They thought they’d gotten it all, but now its spread like to several organs. They give him six months.”
She wanted to go back, but I swore to Barry that wouldn’t happen because Helen still didn’t know. He didn’t know how to tell her yet.
We both cried. A strange, quiet cry. I wondered, I said to myself, asking just what is it that takes us from joy to the worst form of hell in a heartbeat.
I told Becky to go ahead that I wanted to go back for something. She said no way.
A surprised Helen let us in. “We just realized that you’re leaving again to the States tomorrow to be with your sister, let’s finish that last bottle.”
“Hey Barry, sit in front of the fire man, I’ll go get those beers, bro.”