So early one Saturday afternoon in August 2010 I got a Facebook message from my friend Colette letting me know that they had moved our friend Ben into hospice. "His liver is failing so he's confused and jaundiced." I knew I had to get home to Wilkes-Barre immediately to see him. As soon as I realized this, I began to procrastinate. People sometimes live in hospice for months so I probably had plenty of time to see Ben before he died, perhaps even get to see him a couple of times.
Ben had liver cancer for some time, this after a heart attack and a previous bout with cancer. The tumors in his liver had been too big to safely remove surgically, so he had been undergoing chemo and radiation but so far they were unsuccessful at shrinking his tumors to removable size. Every treatment had come with a plan B. "We're going to try thing and if that doesn't work, then we'll try that." But in late July, not only had the tumors not shrunk but they had actually increased in size. A new chemo regime was recommended but this time with a difference, in that there wasn't a plan B. The doctor said that if it didn't work they didn't really have much else to offer.
Colette told me Ben was moved in hospice on August 14. An email from his wife Cindi dated July 26 mentioned that Ben was still working because they didn't have the money for him to quit and go on disability yet. On August 5th, I got an email from Cindi that's a comedy of horrors as Ben's chemo makes him loopy but she can't get anyone to take him to the hospital as her mother's car isn't working and her brother is having an allergic reaction to being stung by a bee.
If Ben died before I got to see him, I would regret it the rest of my life, so I was on the bus to Wilkes-Barre. It was raining when I arrived, a nice piece of pathetic fallacy, as I walked from the bus stop to what used to be General Hospital. My aunt worked at General Hospital for many years, and the few occasions I had been there, for bloodwork or to visit a friend, it had always seemed like a busy bustling place. Not this time. I don't think I can express how eerie, how "off" it feels to walk around a deserted hospital. The security guards and tough nurses you expect to see, directing and restricting you, are missing as you walk along empty uncomfortable hallways by yourself, left to find your destination. In high school I had a friend who worked at the hospital and he used to swipe bottles of wine from the store room. The wine was intended for new parents but who would miss a bottle or two? But in this empty hospital, not even someone at the information desk, what mischief could you do? What would it matter?
On a rainy Sunday afternoon I found my way to Ben's room. He slept much of the time I was there but when he was awake he did recognize me and tried his best to keep up polite, enjoyable conversation. Cindi and I chatted for a bit, but she needed a break from being in the room. So Ben and i fell into a pattern where he would sleep for a bit, wake up and talk about nothing of any significance, certainly nothing related to what was happening or would happen soon, and then he would sleep some more. I watched tv. I remember watching an infomercial for a dvd collection of the old Dean Martin celebrity roasts. I couldn't help but notice that almost everyone at the roast was now dead. That world of celebrity, already dying when I used to watch the roasts as a child, was gone now.
Then it was time for me to go. Cindi and her daughters Emma and Veronica returned. I said my goodbye to Ben, thanking him, telling him it was good to see him, meaning it but without belaboring it. After I said goodbye, Ben responded "I'll be in touch." It was something he said almost every time we parted company; this time it made me say "uh...okay" as I looked quizzically at Cindi. Did he not know he was in a hospice? Did he think he was going to go home? Cindi later told me that no, when this was discussed, Ben fully understood. His comment was probably a matter of an automatic response and not thinking completely clearly due to the painkillers.
My optimistic denial of "people live for months in hospice" proved wrong. That night, Ben was awake less and less and was less coherent even when conscious. The next day he was barely conscious at all; he died around 1:30am on Tuesday, August 18th. Cindi told me she spent Monday night with him alone. The lights were dim, candles burned, music that she and Ben both loved accompanied his sometimes labored breathing. "One of the nurses walked in while Robyn Hitchcock's It Sounds Great When You're Dead was playing. I can't imagine what she thought but I don't care. To me, that's comfort music." I know exactly what she means.
One of the most peaceful moments of my life I owe to Ben. It was the December after I had graduated college. I had reestablished my friendship with Ben and Cindi some months before and we spent much of that time sharing enthusiasms and discoveries. "Have you seen this movie? Oh, you're going to love it! Have you ever heard this record?" I worked at a bookstore during the week and then on either Friday or Saturday night, sometimes both, I went to Ben and Cindi's house after work and we hung out and had dinner and drank beer and watched tv and talked. Even at the time I knew that those were some of the happiest times of my life. That December I was driving to upstate New York to go with my friend Jane to her company Christmas party. Hearing I was going to be traveling, Ben loaned me some cassettes, including one that consisted of two albums by Robyn Hitchcock: I Often Dream of Trains and Element of Light. Mr. Hitchcock was one of Ben and Cindi's faves and I had heard a number of his songs over the preceding months and liked what I heard. Sixties-style pop with surreal smart-ass biology based lyrics: how could I not love it? On the trip home, after making my way through the Escher-like elevated highways to finally drive on some roads through the mountains, I put one of Ben's cassettes on. It was I Often Dream of Trains and, in addition to thinking "this is great" I thought "this is me - this is what it's like inside my head, the good and the bad." Driving through mountains as the December sky slowly shifted to beautiful dark hues as the light faded far away and listening to that music was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I've never taken that car ride for granted.
Shortly after Ben died I watched a videocassette he had made for me over twenty years before. For a time Ben had worked at a video transfer and duplication company, so he was able to make mix videotapes the way others might make a mix audiotape. The cassette I watched was a record of what we watched during that halcyon time we hung out: music videos by bands we liked, Bugs Bunny cartoons, Monty Python skits, parts of Ben and Cindi's wedding video showing us dancing happily but badly.
There's a neat effect you can do with video. It's fairly easy: you plug a camera into a television monitor and then point the camera at the monitor. It produces feedback, the visual equivalent of the squeal you get when you put a microphone too close to a speaker, but the images produced from video feedback are swirling psychedelic patterns of color and shape, similar to the sequence towards the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The tape Ben made for me ended with such a sequence. Brightly colored lights spun around the black screen, seeming to emanate from some point in infinity. In the lower left corner was Ben's final message.
It said "Bye."