She looked closer at her uncle’s hospital room and wondered if all people had to endure dying in this way. There were cheerful bright butterfly and flower stickers stuck up haphazardly on the pinkish-white walls and inspirational posters commanding patients to “Cheer up!” She wondered if the man on the hospital bed could have ever guessed that this would be last thing he saw: a hospital room that seemed to have been decorated by preschool teachers.
She longed to be able to join the others in telling her uncle all the things they hoped would make him feel better: you’re going to recover, you look great, maybe the doctors are wrong. But his liver had stopped working and there was bile backing up in all of his body’s filtration systems. It had turned his skin into a sickly yellow mask. Seeing that and the burgundy liquid that slowly dripped into his catheter bag made it impossible for her tell him such lies.
Her uncle looked at her with eyes that seemed heavy with apology. Not an apology to her, she sensed, but a general sorriness for the however many things he had not done and now wouldn’t. She knew that he had had some adventures, though. And searching for some some way to reach out and pull him back from his regrets, she asked him about when he had been in the Navy as a young man. What was your favorite port? And he paused for a few minutes to visit that person he had been more than thirty years before, and when he came back to them in that hospital room he told them, Australia.
There were seven women to every man, he said, and he smiled.
She smiled back at him. She would not miss her uncle, it had been so many years since she had even seen him. His passing and his not being there would have little effect on her, but she was sad to see him dying. She was sad to see the grief in the eyes of those closer to him, her mother and her aunt fluttered around their younger brother, and spooned food into his mouth when his hands proved too unsteady for the task. During these times, her aunt’s new husband would get a stricken look and mention having to see the nurses about the hotel vouchers, or wanting to get something from the cafeteria before it closed. Evidently this stranger uncle and the dying uncle had become close in recent years.
She tried to recall the last time she and her dying uncle had spoken in person, but she couldn’t. Maybe when she had driven through on her way to California? She wasn’t sure. Some of her earliest memories included him, though. He had never married and he didn’t have any children. (That he knew of, he always joked.) She recalled flashes of him on the many camping trips they’d all taken when she was very young. When they canoed out on East Canyon Lake. The times they’d fished from the shore at Porcupine Lake. The big tattered green army tent he sometimes used. In her mental picture of him he had goldish-brown shoulder length hair and a mustache, the kind that came down on the sides. He’d been tall then, her uncle, taller than her dad. It occurred to her that he probably still was taller than her dad, but it was hard to tell with him lying in the hospital bed.
Something of him was still there, that tall golden man she remembered from those many times ago. And what could she say to him?
The others filled the periodic silence with odd quips about him looking much better now than earlier that morning and asked wouldn’t he like some more juice and since he finished that maybe he would like to try some jello. She smiled and joined in with forced laughter at bad jokes about getting old, and about lazy livers just wanting a day off. But she also watched him and wondered if any of it was making him feel better about the end of everything. She doubted it.
Everyone is so polite, she thought, and she had a sudden urge to yell at them and tell them to stop. But she was polite, too. And these were her people. She looked at her uncle and watched his siblings and their dancing with and around each other and when she could no longer bear that she looked at the news program on the television and she thought about what she would say to him if she was brave enough.
If she was brave enough she would take her uncle by the hand and look at the sad dying man and say to him, you have mattered to me.
It was true. And it’s what she would have wanted to know.
She couldn’t help but imagine all of the ways he must have mattered to the other people in the room, the ones who had known him since before he became the tall golden man she’d known and who knew him during the time he had changed into this dying man lying before them all.
She looked at all of them. The two sisters were standing in front of the computer trying to track down a notary and witnesses who could come and observe the will and prime directive signing. Her aunt’s new husband was watching the television, nodding at something the anchor person had just said. Then she noticed her dying uncle was looking at her again and she smiled in a way that she hoped he wouldn’t read as pitying.
She reached for his hand and shuddered in surprise at finding it still so warm. Then she told him, You really do look much better now than you did this morning.
Story originally published on Fiction365.com