After Life, What Comes Next?

Fiction, by Don Cue

Photo by Marilyn Peddle

The pain wasn’t too bad at all. It certainly shouldn’t have been, based on the amount of pain-killers pumping through his bloodstream. At one point a doctor even meekly suggested that large doses of highly addictive narcotics, “Perhaps weren’t such a good idea.”

Anne delivered a vicious rebuke that set him back. “You will prescribe and administer whatever is necessary to keep my husband out of pain. This man is in the final days of his life, and the least you can do as a doctor is to be a decent human being and keep him comfortable.” Chastised, the young doctor agreed.

Early on, Martin had made it clear that a hospice ward in the hospital was not where he intended to spend his final days. “I don’t want my last hours to be in a soulless room with no love, no art and without you and Max. I can’t bear dying like that.”

There were many such plans, as Martin insisted that he and Anne, “Needed to think about these things now, because I may not be able to later.” It had been five years since his initial diagnosis. The local doctors deferred to specialists, specialists sought out experts from the national cancer centers and universities. The second and third opinions all sang from the same hymnal. The doctors’ answers were daggers in the hearts of the little family. Words like, “inoperable brain tumors”, and “unprecedented” were sprinkled throughout their responses. As a result, Martin had been five years in planning for his death.

It was a brutal five years. Treatment after treatment was launched at the cancer. Radiation burned his skin and scarred his brain. Chemotherapy took it’s toll as his once-vigorous strength dwindled, his keen mind faltered and what remained was a shell of the man Anne had married not so many years before. Somehow, the poison and gamma rays that had unconscionably failed to do their primary purpose, were supremely effective in delivering the side-effects that were only supposed to be the cost of the cure.

But two things remained, Martin’s will, and his sense of humor. The former ensured that he would do everything he could to stay alive as long as he could, and the latter helped he and Anne laugh when all they wanted to do was cry. Sometimes, when they teetered near that familiar emotional cliff Martin would smile and reach out with his index finger and gently touch her nose. “I love you more than anyone has ever loved anybody,” he’d say, “that’s all that matters.”

There would be no hospital, no heroic treatments. There would be home, and Anne, and comfort. Photos of their adventures across mountains and oceans lined the walls, large enough so his damaged eyes could see them. And Max was there, nearly every minute. Somehow he knew. Behind those clouded eyes and long gray muzzle there was a wisdom of ages. There was an instinct that knew when Martin was in pain. Max would lean in and rest his head on whatever hurt, and the warmth helped. When Martin felt well enough to get up for a while, he and Max would sit on the wooden porch in the old red rocker, and listen to the neighborhood children play. They’d watch them ride their bikes up and down the street, deftly hopping over curbs and dodging potholes. Anne would bring tea and silently sit next to him, just holding hands. Sometimes she’d tell him about her day at the office, the projects she was working on, and the office politics. He liked to hear her voice. Beyond what was necessary, they seldom talked about the cancer anymore. There was nothing left to say. They didn’t want to waste precious time and breath discussing his killer. They would not allow it to take that time from them.

It was an old neighborhood, with turn of the century homes in brick and wood. Some of them were grand once, and some that still were. Their home was well-maintained, the hedges trimmed, the paint and roof were sound. Martin made sure of it. After his diagnosis, he spent his stronger days ensuring that when he was gone, Anne would have a comfortable home to be proud of. Of course those days were gone now. Anne mowed the lawn, and simply getting the mail took all the effort Martin could muster. A couple of times a day, Anne would coax Max away from Martin and be sure he got a walk, and something to eat and drink. Max loved Anne too, of course, but he know his place was by Martin and the German Shepherd was strong and loyal even though he’d been with them well more than a decade.

He was there, as was Anne, and Martin’s mother Grace on the late September evening when Martin smiled weakly at Anne. He said, “Remember always that I love you. I’ll see you later.” Martin closed his eyes and with a soft, shallow breath, left their little wooden house, his wife and his best friend.

Martin felt peaceful and warm. The dullness of the medication was gone. The pain that had slowly built up over years was suddenly lifted. He could taste joy, and heard music that could only be described as what love would sound like.

The details of all that followed are unimportant. The usual people said the usual things. Papers were signed, tears dried and days passed. Anne and Max sat on the porch in the red rocker. Against the autumn chill, Anne wrapped herself in Martin’s favorite blanket. It still smelled like him.

Max seldom left her side, except every night, he slept on the round plush cushion in Martin’s room where he’d spent most of the last year. Each morning, as she made coffee, Max would wander out to the kitchen and nuzzle her leg, and get a pat on the head. The October wind turned chill, and one Tuesday morning Max didn’t come to the kitchen. When she went to check on him, Max was curled up with one of Martin’s old socks, still and cold.

Martin wasn’t yet oriented to this new existence. He felt an intimate warmth, and saw light, but no shapes. It didn’t matter, he knew. Something might happen or it might not. He was warm. He had a sense of completion, but not precisely of what it was that was over. Time passed.

Martin reveled in this new intoxicating experience. Somehow, he knew that things had changed. Time became meaningless, and he felt an abiding and universal joy. He sensed others there as well, fraternal beings, connected to him, but somehow separate. They reminded him of Max in how they emanated an emotional force that comforted him, and he felt their closeness. He could smell the love. Somehow could smell many things that he could not see, and did not have associations for. Amazing Technicolor smells that filled his mind with possibilities.

He heard a voice he couldn’t identify, it was deep and resonant, but warm and almost playful. “Hello Martin, how are you feeling?. It’s good to see you again. You’ve had a difficult time with your last course, but I think you learned a lot from this one. Not all of the lessons we learn are as pleasant as the others, but we must learn from all of our experiences. ”

Confused, Martin asked, “Where am I? Who are you?”

“I’m a friend,” the voice replied, “and you’re resting at the moment.” “You’re still a little confused from dying, rest assured over time, your memories will return like they always do.”

Martin was astounded, “I’m confused from dying? Wait, what? I’ve done this before?”

“Certainly, many times. We all have. It’s how we learn. You chose that life for the lessons it would teach you. You attracted the things and people in that life that would help you to learn and grow. You’ve done very well, Martin.”

“I don’t remember.”

“You will soon. You’ll remember it all. In the meantime, you have a wonderful opportunity I need to tell you about.”

“You have been chosen to be a Companion. That’s the highest honor any being can receive. As a Companion, you are a teacher. You will be responsible for another person, and that is not a burden that we award lightly. You can refuse of course, but I can’t see why you would.”

As he listened to the voice, Martin began to remember parts of his life, and some of the ones before that. Adventures that had helped him to grow, to learn and to live with joy, purpose and compassion. He accepted this new responsibility, this gift of experience.

Anne fell into a lonely rhythm. Alone in the house, she cooked for one. She bought a coffeemaker that made just one cup at a time, so as not to waste it. She worked late and watched too much TV, often absently. Her first glass of wine in the evening usually wasn’t her last. She’d socialize with friends on the weekend, when she felt she could bear to hear them complain about their husbands or rave about their children’s potty training accomplishments. The irony was that her friends tried not to talk about their husbands anymore after the afternoon wine tasting when Anne had angrily remarked that they, “Should shut the hell up and be happy to have someone to complain about.”

Grace had kept in touch, and would often coax Anne out for dinner, or bring something over. They felt a kinship in the shared loss that helped them both cope. One Saturday, she announced that she was bringing a surprise for lunch. Later that morning, she arrived with two large picnic baskets.

“I don’t know when or if you may be able to love another person,” Grace said, “But I know you can love another dog, so I brought you this.” Grace opened the wicker basket and out peeked a black muzzle tinged with gold, with a tiny black nose, and a pink tongue. Above the muzzle were a pair of sparkling deep topaz eyes and matching floppy ears. “He’s from the same kennel as Max,” she smiled, “I think he’s Max’s great-great-nephew or something like that.”

Grace gently lifted the puppy from the basket and placed her in Anne’s outstretched arms. “Oh Grace, he’s adorable. When did you get him?”

“Just this morning, he’s eight and a half weeks old. That a good age to leave the litter and, and he’s ready to be in his forever home, if you’ll have him”

“Oh I don’t know, Grace. Puppies are such a handful. Maybe I should wait until I’m ready.” While Anne’s voice was reluctant, her hands caressed soft fur of the warm puppy, and curled around his rump supporting him as he climbed the front of her sweater and nuzzled her neck. As he climbed toward her chin, he licked her cheek and gently placed his right paw on her nose. Grace smiled, knowing that she would not be returning a puppy today.

Martin would have scowled, if he remembered how. “That seems like an important detail you left out,” he complained.

“I would have thought you had heard of the Companion program by now, with all of your adventures. Besides, the course isn’t terribly long, and it’s an incredibly rewarding experience, I assure you.”

“But I’m to be a dog. How will I survive?”, Martin asked?

“You are not a mere dog, you are a Companion. Not one dog in ten thousand is a Companion. Most dogs aren’t even self-aware. You will teach, and care for another being with a selfless nature that transcends even your recent human life, which I’ll grant was an exceptional one. As you care for your partner, so will she care for you. Through mutual respect and service, you will together become more than you could be separately. And you’ll have exceptional instincts to guide you.”

“How will I find my human?” Martin asked.

“That’s already been arranged. I promise that you’ll love her,” the new friend assured Martin.

And, as he peeked his nose out of the wicker basket, Martin knew his friend was right. As he touched his paw to her nose, he heard the voice softly say, “Take good care of her.”

“Like you did for me?” Martin inquired.

“Exactly like I did for you, old friend. I’ll see you in a few years.”

Dearest Reader- Thanks for reading my first fiction piece on Medium. If you liked this story, why not show some love and click on the Recommend heart at the bottom. That will help my stories get more visibility and help motivate me to write more. Many thanks.