I have a happy story about a friend who is dying.
After many years, two wives, several successful careers and a golf game that never broke 100, Charlie’s heart is giving out. He’s at home where he wants to be, resting comfortably next to his cat, named Elmo, and his dog…also named Elmo. Charlie’s hospice nurse, a woman named Barney, likes both Elmos and claims to go over to Charlie’s just to feed and pet them. Truth be told, I think Barney has fallen madly into admiration for Charlie and wants to make sure his last days are dignified and pain-free.
When I sit with Charlie, my big takeaway is how happy and satisfied he seems to be. Charlie tells me in measured, whispered phrases about his little adventures, his bumps and bruises, and his victories over debt, gambling and self-absorption. Charlie knows he’s been forgiven for his major screw-ups and he grins when he talks about the kindnesses of people who have played major roles in his life. Charlie thinks of death as just another chapter, the one that completes his book. He calls it his “quiet climax.”
I haven’t known Charlie for many years, but I do know several people who are lifelong pals of his. They tell me Charlie was always a relationships guy, that he was there for them, even when he was facing his own demons, his own pain and his own fears. They say he was a lousy spectator and always jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the action. They claim Charlie made everyone around him a little happier. I can’t argue with that.
So here I am, on a Monday afternoon in Charlie’s living room, now a makeshift bedroom, with Elmo the cat and Elmo the dog and Barney the nurse. I’m late for a meeting. I haven’t eaten since last night. I think I may have a toothache. And above all of this, I don’t want to leave—I can’t leave. Our storytelling session is over, and the room is almost quiet, save for the little lip-smacks of Elmo, the cat, nibbling at her food bowl.
I look at Charlie as he rests on his pillow, a smile on his face and hand on the head of Elmo, the dog. They both may be sleeping. Barney is sitting on the floor, close to Charlie’s bed. She is smiling and humming some tune that sounds familiar.
I feel totally at peace, and I think I’m smiling too, glad to be a tiny part of this final chapter of a happy story.