The little prince is walking towards the golden snake which he'd asked to fell him, trembling a little, and comforting his friend in the desert:
“You understand… It is too far… I cannot carry this body with me. It is too heavy.”
I said nothing.
“But it will be like an old abandoned shell. There is nothing sad about old shells…”
* * *
How can there be nothing sad about an old shell?
Or perhaps you hate and fear slugs -- you might disagree: an empty shell means another horrible snail has gone to feed a songbird. Old shells could make you pretty damn happy.
Shells totally make me sad.
* * *
"Art is the empty shells we leave behind," I wrote once in a fit of post-adolescent poetry. I was understanding for the first time in my life (How old?!?) how much more wonderful it is to love and listen to people rather than their creations.
Then I bound my life to Gavin’s, he was an artist, too. His works pale, scrubbed pencil, indelible and eternal despite ephemeral materials and their textures of shell, of egg and glass. Never of skin or soil, what I loved best: muskless but perfect, and kind, and thoughtful, with a calm clarity that warmed my every morning.
Art is always empty, and always “always.” Vita brevis, ars longa. Now I finally understand what Wallace Stevens meant: death truly IS the mother of beauty. The flower is only beautiful because it will fade and dry and return to the soil. I could stare at a dahlia forever, but it won’t let me. A wax one? A quick glance is all I need.
* * *
As I watched Gavin on his last day, on his way out, he was so clearly just a shell. It was quite a day. He wasn’t speaking any more. I’m not sure I saw his last really coherent words because as the only ride for all of his and my families, I was there late. They told us to get there as soon as we could.
“There are signs that he’s beginning the dying process, some changes in his body,” she said. The manager reminded me so much of our superthin, professional, pale fertility doctor. “… Color changes.” I could see what she meant: when we got there his hands were mottled with blue and black. He was half a corpse. The evening before I was feeding him lychee flavored ice cream for energy. I was holding the spoon. He got one or two little nips of it before quitting for the night.
NOW. What a word, now. It says so little a time like that, a time I would have had recede forward into the future forever and ever. This frail thing lying on the bed, blue hands, unresponsive, was all that was left of him. I flashed family pictures from my iPod in front of his now-sightless eyes. I played Appalachian Spring (I don’t know why I didn’t think of Patti). We applied wet Q-tips to his lips. (Q-tips were his secret drawing tool, the secret behind the light he gave to paper. Shhhh!!!)
Around noon one of his labored exhalations halted, returned and then turned into my name. “Ohh…. Supa…”
I knew right away what it meant, or what I thought it meant, even though he couldn’t say it. He was telling me, “I’m sorry. I don’t want to do this to you.” I knew he wished he could stay, but he could see at last there was no coming back to here. It was another seven hours before he stopped altogether, but there was nothing left. I didn’t want to stay, didn’t care if I was there for the “sacred job” of seeing him out. The vigil of waiting for the last breath… I’d heard of it. I had a kid in diapers. Once I knew there was no way out, or rather no way back, it’s not that I wanted to leave him, but I would have really loved to have an excuse.
And it wasn’t HIM any more. That body is not my husband. I’m not sure when he really left, or what it was that escaped, shaking, but that solid object there, porcelain and pure, is not him. I’d missed the ritual, invisible, secret, and private, of his passing. The last little bit wouldn’t be the hard part and wouldn’t matter, and definitely not to HIM.
As it was, my little girl was sent home with my sister babysitting. My mother, his mother, one of Nana Margaret’s five adult daughters, who happened to stop by, and a neighbor couple, old friends, who had brought their dog by for “therapy,” craning around the bed like characters in some Dutch painting as his fate wound itself out. The air was tense and white; we were mostly frozen, some holding hands. There was no way out for us either.
I touched one of his elbows above the blanket we'd placed to conceal the macabre color of his paper-sensitive hands. At 7:07 he was gone. His noontime lament had been, or I read it as, an apology and a goodbye, a last call out to a partner who might or might not prove "stronger than you think."
The departure should have been a relief after the breakneck pace of deterioration we’d lived through since autumn.
The knowledge that my husband would die had been dawning for days. Even at that pace – 2 years since we knew? One? A month? (So many things happened those 22 months.) He was in hospice four days, not quite – at that slow pace I was too overwhelmed to even feel sad on that last day.
All there was to do now was to rest.