Wednesday, August 03, 2005

My Pot-Bellied Stallion

My mom's best friend's name is Roland.

He became her best friend when she started working at West Point five years ago. And, during that time, he became a very, very close friend of mine too.

He was in his sixties, and he was amazing. He was fun and loud and hilarious and boisterous. He was active and lively and full of laughter. He was just phenomenal.

He and I would talk on the phone and trade salacious emails where we'd pretend that we were having an illicit affair.

I called him my Pot-Bellied Stallion and he called me his Slut Puppy.

He adored my mother. He was deeply religious. But he had a foul mouth and a dirty mind. He told raunchy jokes. He smoked cigarettes.

I loved being around him.

Then, suddenly, he fell ill.

He had been complaining of stomach pains for a while, but he was a military vet, and the Army docs just kept telling him it was an ulcer. After his hundredth second opinion in early September of 2004, they finally determined that he had prostate cancer.

They transferred him to another VA hospital, and after about two weeks there, we found out he had prostate cancer,
liver cancer,
an enlarged heart,
lung cancer,
stomach cancer,
and failing kidneys.

He had been in one hospital or another for only four weeks when he was moved into intensive care. A day later, it was clear that it was time to say our goodbyes.

He was on life support, but it was agreed that they were only keeping him alive until his family could get there to say their own goodbyes.

My mom and I went to see him there, an early October afternoon, and he was like a caricature of who he used to be. In what I guess was a coma, he looked like a grotesque puppet, with all the tubes stretching from his body into the machines around him, and the line holding the breathing tube in his empty mouth. It was horrible.

But while we were in his room, talking to him, stroking his hand and telling his closed eyes that we loved him, he sprang awake. And he looked right at my mom, he clawed at her arm, and he tried in vain to speak. We were shocked, and clamored to be seen one last time by his eyes. We told him we loved him, yelled it in the quiet halls of the sterile ICU, and asked if he could hear us. He nodded "yes" furiously.

And then he passed back out.

He never woke up again. He was gone, but the imposing machines around him kept his heart beating, his lungs breathing.

It was, at once, the most horrible and beautiful moment of my life.

Because I will always think of that shell of a man when I think of Roland now; I have to struggle to see the face of the man I actually knew. But I will also always think that I got to see the moment his soul left this earth, and I wouldn't trade that for the world.

Sometimes I wish I hadn't seen that part of his passing, because, most times, it's all I can see when I think of him. But just because it's the most easily recalled, doesn't mean there isn't beauty to be found in it. Because for the horrifying time thereafter, when my mom and I struggled with the reality of his absence - his name and number in my cell phone that I would never use again, my mom confronted by his empty office, his coffee mug, his limp lab coat hanging in its usual place in the clinic - I can still think of that and feel warm.

That memory reminds me how much I love him. And it's easy to forget the little things - The lilt of his Boston accent, his skinny legs, his throaty laugh, the way he pronounced my name, the way he hugged my mother, the wrinkles around his eyes when he smiled - but that memory will never leave me.

And even if it's the only memory I ever keep of him, it's strong enough to last forever.

We passed out the yellow Livestrong bracelets when he was laid to rest, because he wore one. Not quite a year later, I'm still wearing mine. To think of him.

So when people point to my wrist and say "Why do you wear that?" my answer is simple:

For my Pot-Bellied Stallion.


Popeye said...

I've been around several people near death and the moment of death and, even though its someways horrible, there is something that makes very grateful and honored to be there, afterwards. The closest thing to compare it to is being present at a birth. They are both those moments where nothing is going to be the same again. Something changes.
The moment I die, I hope the last words I hear are from people I love who let me know that they love me, too. I couldn't imagine it being much better than that. What a wonderful gift.

Mad Munkey said...

A transition from physical ethereal. It sounds like Roland lived a full life and is still living in your memories. You can't ask for more than that.

kate said...

Beautiful post. Why does everything you write make me want to cry?

Charlie Mc said...

great post, very sad, but very beautiful at the same time....

God's gift to women (with really low standards) said...

Great post, Laurie. Roland was lucky to have people that loved him there for his last few minutes. I don't think there are better last words to hear than "I love you." Judging by what you said in your post, I'm sure that if he had been able, he would have definitely said it back to you and your mother. Again, another great post from a badasss. (you know what the extra "s" is for.)

Anonymous said...

From the moment I met him, I was smitten. With his charm, attitude and just plain BALLS to tell you anything straight out, without hesitating! I loved that about him. I loved his love for life and everyone around him. I will forever love and cherish moments I spent with him. People say things (just to make me feel better, I am sure) that he is better off, and that he is finally safe......but I, selfishly, want him back, and it doesn't comfort me in any way when they offer their well meaning words. NOTHING will ever help, I will forever be sad and wishing we had more time to be each other's best friends! I WILL ALWAYS LOVE HIM.

Julie said...

Thank you so much for sharing. What a beautiful man and a wonderful friendship.

Paul said...

Yellow Livestrong bracelets are seen everywhere: and isn't a wonderful thing! I have worn mine for over a year in memory of my father who died of cancer when I was 7 and my best friend who died of prostate cancer when he was 57. Most (if not all) of the men who read this blog are too young to worry about prostate cancer but when the time comes remember to get your yearly PSA. Thanks for a wonderful post, Laurie.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry! I almost forgot to thank you, Laurie, for writing this about Roland. You really understand how I feel about him, and I am so thankful for that. He was a very special person, wasn't he?

reddirtroad said...

Beautiful writing, Laurie.

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