Closing Joe’s Eyes
In those last days, nothing reached him completely. His catheter went red from blood, his left eye began to droop, his breathing grew more and more irregular. Dad and I smoked on the porch in free moments, knowing the time would come soon, but remembering that we had believed that for almost three weeks. We discussed his condition frankly, shaking our heads and exhaling. We compared observations with a clinical pride that allowed us to talk about him without hurting ourselves, like finding a way to speak with glass in your mouth.
On December 7, 1992, Joe and his doctor had admitted defeat. While the cornucopia of drugs he ingested every morning were slowing the disease, his condition still deteriorated month by month, and all the toxic chemicals made his days shimmer with dizziness and his nights full of restless moonlight. He stalked the house in a white tee-shirt almost every night for the last year of his life. He decided to have done with all the drugs, blood tests, nausea, sleepwalking, the pain and the waiting. He accepted the disease, and came home to die.
When I returned home for the Christmas holidays I entered a house of silences broken by squeaking chairs and coughing. Joe’s sickroom was merely a futon in the plant room at the southwest corner of the house. The idea was to let him lie among his bonsais, our enormous ficus, his jade plants and the philodendron starts we had made the summer before, that he might draw some comfort from the relics of his life as a gardener and a nurturer of growing things. The gesture was revealed as largely symbolic when I discovered the plants’ condition. They crawled with aphids. Brown licked at their dry leaves. In the spectacle of a life crumbling, the small things suffered the worst neglect. Forgotten, many died with their keeper. He ordered them removed from his room as one of his last attempts to control his own space.
On that first afternoon of my return Joe directed me in pruning the ficus. The tree had grown unattended to fill the entire room with spindly, long branches. Joe pointed a shaking finger and ordered me to cut. Even in his reduced state, unable to rise without assistance, he still possessed his acid wit and clear sense of how a plant should be directed and shaped. I moved slowly, making sure that I was pruning the right branches. My Dad shrieked from the kitchen periodically to try and slow us down. Joe would shake his head and murmur angrily, “That man. That man.”
That night, and most nights we ate in the dining room, without Joe. I never could shake the terrible strangeness of eating with the door of Joe’s room visible, his bed still while he tried to rest. His chair never seemed quite empty; our conversation seemed quite forced.
Evenings were the worst. Joe spiked a fever every afternoon that robbed him of his senses and patience by nightfall. It was in the evenings, in the dark of the sickroom that Joe might cry out for it all to end.
“I wish…” he would begin and then gulp down a sob. “I wish we could get this over with.” I held his hand and whispered back to him.
“You take your time, Joe. We’ll wait for you.” Twice, in the last nights of his life, Joe asked me to hit him over the head with a hammer. Both times I laughed at him, but he wasn’t really joking. The roof of his mouth had flaked off. Bedsores were developing. He could no longer swallow without pain. He cried out at night for water and company. He refused all painkillers, even aspirin, believing them to be prolonging his struggle. His patience wore understandably thin.
We did what we could, and what he would let us. One day we carried his sloppy weight up the narrow stairs to the bathroom so that he could take a hot bath. All through the adventure he attempted to help, offering to put his feet down and take a few steps, pushing off walls with well-meant shoves that twisted my back painfully. He swore under his breath, and grimaced as if angry until we lowered him into the tub. Then he smiled and closed his eyes. He soaked for about an hour, relaxing and letting my father wash him. Down in the kitchen, drinking coffee, I could hear them giggling and splashing, and I smiled at their lack of embarrassment. When it was time to bring Joe back down, he had no strength at all. We carried him like a stone, and he cried all the way down the stairs.
Our Christmas, as my father wrote in the announcement we sent out in January, was outrageous and bittersweet. I decorated the ficus. We paraded the Christmas roast through the sickroom, and Joe even managed a few bites. We ate with him until he grew too tired and then adjourned to the dining room. Earlier in the day, we had opened presents at the foot of Joe’s bed, as he requested. There were many cards for Joe, but few gifts. What do you give a man who has days to live, and is too tired to eat or listen to music? There was a donation to a hospice project, a food donation to Somalia in his name, and a CD by the New York Gay Men’s Chorus titled “Love Lives On.” It featured impassioned voices, and the most painfully sentimental songs. Fragile as we were, when we played it none of us looked at each other, aware of the embarrassment of tears. “I’ll Be Seeing You,” continues to be a song that unmans me in three bars.
There was an accident involving Joe’s catheter one night. He pulled it loose in his sleep and soaked the sheets so thoroughly that urine seeped down past the absorbent pads and into the egg-crate mattress we had bought to reduce the risk of bedsores. Changing the sheets and pads was routine, we did it almost every day. The egg-crate was another matter entirely. To wash it we carried it up to the bathtub, and though both of us had nagging doubts, as if we were forgetting something important, Dad and I lowered the foam mattress into the hot water. We saw our error immediately. The egg-crate was designed to be hydrophilic, and it sucked up the water like a two-hundred-pound sponge.
Straining our backs to lift it, we wrung the foam. We let it drip dry. We blew fans and heater vents on it. We even took every towel in the house and tried to blot the water out by stepping on it. Four days went by as the mattress dried, and we kicked ourselves for our stupidity. I felt terribly uneasy whenever I had to touch the thing. As its dampness folded around my arm or hand, wafting an odor of vinegar and bleach, I could not help but shudder. I held my breath, afraid of contagion, though I knew the risk was nonexistent. I was afraid, but ashamed to tell my father. I certainly wouldn’t tell Joe that each time I grasped his hand, or held his water glass I shook inside, terrified that he might be catching in some way. It seemed both irrational, and yet very rational to be afraid. I washed my hands every chance I got, often clear up to my shoulders, and that is what I remember most, wanting to hold Joe, wanting to help him any way I could, and being afraid to touch him.
On Boxing Day, I sat by his bedside reading the paper and drinking coffee while he slept. I’d been there a long time before I noticed a change in his breathing, and put down my paper to see him open his eyes, swallow thickly. “Cris…” he began, then stopped to grimace.
“I’m here, Joe. Joe, I’m here.” I leaned in close, but I could feel my heart speeding up, afraid that this was it.
“Cris, I don’t know what is wrong with me. I just can’t seem to get my dick hard anymore,” he muttered, with an air of bewilderment.
“Well thanks, Joe. Thanks for sharing.” I found my smile while he closed his eyes, face still puzzled, and went back to his dreams.
Go back, back to August. Summer of ‘92 broke all Portland’s records for heat and drought. All our lush grass turned brown and dust followed the passing of cars. Other than that there was no breeze. In the heat of the day, the city’s children watched TV and drank soda from sweating aluminum cans. But I had promised Joe and Dad that I would transform the backyard through landscaping as payment for my room and board, so when I could I dug and carried and drank beer in the sun. Joe, who had not worked in over six months, occasionally found himself blinking against the light and heat, watching me cover myself with dust. Dirt made my legs black and stuck to my chest and sides like dark bruises on the sunburn. I steadfastly refused his offers of sunscreen, hat, and work-shirt, preferring to burn and overheat all at once. If he came out for more than a few minutes, he would put on old Levi’s now many sizes too large, a long sleeve shirt and a straw hat. He had a chronic problem with skin cancer, made worse by the failure of his immune system and the carcinogens in his medication. The sun made him sick to his stomach, so he never stayed out for long.
Joe stayed close to the television around noon, eating yogurt and tortilla chips and watching Perry Mason, Matlock, and Hawaii Five-O without really paying much attention to the plot. He laughed at the shows non-stop, and shouted advice to the characters in a voice that declaimed his Texan origins. I often stopped in to see how the shows were going, have a glass of ice water or a sandwich. Joe always gave me good, but muddled advice on whatever project had me stumped. A gardener by trade, he had a lifetime of experience to share with me, but was unable to articulate most of what he knew, or unwilling to make the effort. Lying on the tired couch in the kitchen with all the shades down to keep out the heat, he watched the screen flicker and every week he seemed a little more bitter, a little more tired.
Evenings came and Dad returned from work, all bluster and viciousness. Joe and I tried to stay out of his way, just parking our butts in front of Star Trek with a bag of chips and some salsa. We often tried to make dinner for Dad, but as he was a self-proclaimed control queen, we could never produce a meal he could be happy with. Joe’s attempts occasionally resulted in catastrophic failures. He would burn the rice, or over spice the chili, or just not make enough food for three men. In this way, our dinners were ruled by the disease. Joe’s cooking had suffered, and both of their food tolerances had changed drastically. Garlic, once a staple in our household, was prohibited, as were jalapeños, chili powder and even strong onions.
We often ate in front of the TV, watching MacNeil/Lehrer and chewing without saying anything. A rising Bill Clinton dared us to hope for change in November, and we were often riveted by his talk of nationalized health care and economic prosperity and social justice, which he made seem like simple programs just waiting for someone to implement them.
When I did not go out with friends, I sometimes sat on the front porch and smoked with Dad, discussing our grand landscaping plans. Sometimes Joe joined us, and occasionally even had a cigarette. Nights usually ended for he and Dad between 9:00 and 10:00. Joe, a reformed alcoholic for ten years, had begun to take a glass of Seder wine before bed, on his doctor’s orders. He hated the stuff, but choked it down anyway. To sleep better, to sleep at all.
That summer we built the patio in the mess of the front yard, and talked a lot. Never did we speak of the fact that we were both watching Joe with love and concern, but also with fear. We watched to learn what the future held, what we could expect. Some nights I sat out on the porch for a long time after dark, alone. Some nights I went out there to find my old man already there and I sat down beside him without a word.
Back further, to the first great crisis of Joe’s health. When my phone rang on November 2, 1991, I was sitting on the floor of my dorm room with my girlfriend, drinking wine and watching a candle flicker. My father spoke to me in the low tones he had practiced in his years as a priest. He was calling from the hospital. While he related the details of Joe’s condition, explaining that Joe might die in a matter of days, that I should consider coming home for Thanksgiving because he might not make it to Christmas, while he talked my candle went out. Just a coincidence, but the dramatic effect made me shiver. Joe had developed a form of TB, just as the news of new TB strains in New York and San Francisco were making headlines. While he did finally recover enough to collect on my father’s promise to take him to Mexico if he lived until spring, that protracted illness signaled the beginning of the end.
His stay in the hospital ended soon after he improved enough to try and leave his ward by force. He woke in the middle of the night in need of pain medication. When he rang for a nurse, he received no response. Believing that he was the victim of homophobic discrimination, he ripped the IVs from his arm and crawled his way to a wheelchair. He made it halfway across the hospital, before someone got him back to bed. The incident became one of his favorite stories.
My father was less amused by Joe’s escapade, but told a different story just as often. On Halloween, the night Joe was hospitalized, five neighborhood children and their mother rang the doorbell, even though Dad had turned the porch light off. Frantic from helping Joe in and out of cold baths to keep his fever down, trying to wash towels and talk to the Doctor on the phone, he was understandably grumpy with the trick-or-treaters. But as he gave them each a bite size Milky Way candy bar, they said “God Bless You.”
“Well after the first one, I was offended,” Dad always says, “but after the third one I realized they meant it. When the fifth one smiled up at me, I started to weep. And I accepted their blessing.” When he told this story he invariably shed a tear. Then Joe would snort if he was around, Dad would laugh and stomp his feet and I’d denounce them as “crazy old faggots.” We had some good times.
In the end, he died away from us. His long lost cousin Shirley had come and said her goodbyes and gone back home to Texas. Dad had been called back to the office and had arranged for twenty-four hour hospice nursing. The 28th was my 22nd birthday and I had gone out for as long a time as my few friends in town would take. I returned late, but mostly sober, and feeling guilty for not being by Joe’s bedside. The night nurse had arrived in late evening, I guess, and we made our whispered acquaintance in the light of his portable reading lamp by Joe’s bed. He seemed like a nice guy, quiet. Joe was breathing easier, laying off the labored choking breathing that chased sleep away from the house with its long pauses between exhalation and rattling inbreath. I squeezed Joe’s hot dry hand before I headed to bed. I awoke to my father’s keening cry, which he sang out over and over again.
It was around nine in the morning, Dad having left for work and arrived there to receive a message from the nurse to return home. It was as if Joe had waited until none of us would be watching. I took a brief sobbing hug from Dad, his face wet and still smelling of his shaving soap. He got on the phone and commenced telling friends of Joe’s death, called the mortuary service, where everything had been arranged. I heard this from the old captain’s chair I’d pulled close to Joe’s bed. The hospice nurse slipped out almost immediately, his work done. Alive, Joe had the face of a laughing gnome, his cheeks shiny and red, wispy white hair poking out from under a cap. He mostly had a beard for the years I knew him, and tugged at it when he laughed. His eyes were bright, always bright, whether crinkled up with laughter, or stretched tight with anger, or shiny with tears. Now, his face slack, chin dropped, his eyes were wide and I could see for the first time the paleness of their cornflower blue. Someone came to the door, a family friend, poked his head in and put his hand on my shoulder before joining Dad in the kitchen. The coffee grinder whined.
Joe’s eyelids were stiffer, waxier than I imagined, and I felt clumsy and scared. In the movies, you just pass a hand over the face of the dead man and like a magic trick, he goes from staring to sleeping peacefully, but my chin was wobbling and my hands shaking as I reached out my right hand, first and second fingers extended in a v, and placed them on Joe’s eyelids. I tracked my hand down, pushed the top lids into contact with the lower, then watched them crawl halfway open again. It took me several tries to get it right. On the last try, I held my hand there, feeling the orbs of his eyes underneath the paper lids underneath my fingertips, and then I stepped back from the bed, afraid I’d done something wrong, overstepped my place. The house was growing loud with talk, louder than it had been in months. I set my jaw and walked away from the bed, having done what I could that mattered.
Cris Harris teaches high school English and history outside of Cleveland, OH. A long time ago, he studied fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop but came to find that all his best stories were true.
Paul A. Epstein is Professor Emeritus of Music Theory at Temple University, where he taught from 1969 to 2001. Born in Boston in 1938, he is a graduate of Brandeis University and the University of California at Berkeley. His composition teachers included Harold Shapero, Seymour Shifrin, and Luciano Berio, with whom he studied privately on a Fulbright grant to Italy in 1962-63. Epstein has been involved in closely collaborative work with artists in theater and dance. He was associated with the New York environmental theater group The Performance Group from 1969 to 1972, and from 1974 to 1987 he was composer and music director for ZeroMoving Dance Company of Philadelphia.
The pianist for this piece is Jeri-Mae Astolfi, and the recording is from the Capstone CD “Chroma: New Music for Piano.”