I went to see Uncle Buck at the hospice the other day. It wasn't a sterile ward in a busy hospital, but a cozy little house in a quiet neighborhood on the 'good side' of town.
"It's a lovely place," Mom said, over and over again, trying to make herself feel better about being there. She was wringing her hands and kept putting them in her purse, her fingers pressed on the crackling skin of a pack of Doral's hidden inside, her touchstone.
A long table stretched across the wall in the foyer. It was covered with little angel statuettes, vases of flowers, and in the center, dominating the space was an open reception book. A woman stood next to the table. She spoke softly, "Good morning. My name is Betty. Please sign here." She handed Mom the pen first. Mom's hand shook as she scribbled her name.
"Which guest are you here to see?" Betty asked.
"Guest? You call these poor dying people guests?" I said under my breath.
"Buckshot," Mom answered. "Well, Phil. His real name is Phil."
Betty stepped out of the room for a moment, then returned. "You can go in and see him in a minute or two," she said. "They're turning him so he doesn't get sore."
When Betty walked away, Mom asked, "Did she say they turned him so he wouldn't get bored?"
"No, Mom," I answered. "Sore. So he wouldn't get sore."
"Oh," she whispered.
We sat in the living room, Mom squeezing away on the cigarette pack, me staring at one religious icon to the next. It was a zealot's home, all crosses and Jesuses and Marys and lambs. A chubby Buddha sat grinning from a window sill. Betty returned and told us he was ready. She was smiling. What, I thought, is she so damned happy about?
"This way," she waved, drawing us down the hallway. "He's unconscious, but he'll know you're there. Say whatever you need to say. He'll hear you," she finished knowingly. The hall was short, one quick turn and there lay Uncle Buck, his head to one side, his mouth open, a bid, dark, toothless "O" under his bony nose. I don't know what I was expecting. Except for the open mouth, Uncle Buck looked just like, well, Uncle Buck. He was still bald, still freckled, still skinny. None of the 'signs' of impending death were upon him.
Mom took the chair next to his head. I chose the one by his feet at the other side, near the wall. I couldn't look at him anymore. The sadness of his dying clogged my throat, and instead, I concentrated on the box of generic tissue that sat on the foot of his bed. From the corner of my eye, I saw Mom's hand, steadier now, brushing the few wispy white hairs from his forehead.
"Oh, Buck," she whispered.
I dug around in my bag, searching for the picture I had brought him. "Here," I said, holding the brittle photo across the bed.
Mom just looked at me, "You give it to him."
My voice caught and I shook my head. "No, you do it," I whispered hoarsely.
She took the picture and held it before his half-closed eyes. "Look, Buck," she smiled. "It's your Army picture."
Uncle Buck's hand moved across his chest, his mouth opened and closed like a fish's, croaking words that didn't form.
Mom laughed softly, "I'm giving it to Jeri for you, okay?"
His hand, gnarled and thin, brushed against her arm.
"Yes, Buck," she said. "I love you, too."
The man who shared Uncle Buck's room laughed out loud at something on the television, then he looked at me with a small, sad smile. I marveled at how he could laugh in a place like this. then I began to weep. Not heaving sobs of sorrow, but those imperceptible tears, the kind you don't know are there until you need to wipe your runny nose. Sneaky tears. I stood up quickly, knocking the hospital tray across the room. The man in the other bed stopped smiling.
"I have to get out of here," I said, wiping my nose with a tissue stolen from the generic box at the foot of Buck's bed. "I'll wait for you out there, Mom. Just take your time." Then, without thinking, I said, "See you later, Uncle Buck."
I stepped out of the door and leaned against the wall in the hallway. Now my hands were shaking. Uncle Buck and I were not close. As a matter of fact, I hadn't seen him in almost two years, so I knew those tricky little tears weren't just for him. They were for me. In front of me was an open door, which led into another 'guest' room. The curtains on the windows were thrown open. Green light filtered through the leaves of the tree outside, giving the room an almost mystical glow. A tiny woman lay in the only bed in the room. Her eyes were closed, and she murmured softly while her empty hands knitted the air. I stepped closer toward the door, watching her in her dying, her wrinkled brow furrowing and relaxing, her dry lips smiling, pouting, pressing together. She was involved in a conversation with her dreams.
Betty hustled down the hall and poked her head in the door past me. "Sweet thing," she said. "She's been here a week. Nicest lady you might ever know." Betty was still smiling. "Too bad about the pain. She's really very engaging when she's not too far gone." Then she looked at me, the smile fading a bit. "Look at you," she said, pulling a tissue from her apron pocket. "You face is dripping."
Sneaky tears, for me and my children and everyone I love who will someday lie dying, hopefully with someone there to brush their hair away from their closed eyes, thin lips open in the shape of constant surprise, mumbling or dreaming or thinking nothing at all, slipping quietly into the tunnel of light.
My Uncle Buck died, having never fully regained consciousness, two days later. There was no smell of sulfur, no cries from the damned, no harps plinking or angels singing There was just a quiet, ordinary end.
From my journal/writings, circa 1998