Lessons on Dying
Some stories are more of a sigh, a tightness in the chest and throat, an aching combination of everything good in the world and desperate desire for more of it than an actual beginning middle and end. This story is like that.
Although I carry the main character with me through all my days, I never learned his last name or anything about his life before I met him.
He arrived at the farm on a hot summer day. His caregivers unloaded his wheel chair first, then lifted John from the backseat of the car, placed his hands in his lap and announced loudly “We’re at the farm John, would you like to meet a goat?”
The minute I saw him, the world started to move more slowly, he looked just like my grandfather, a man I admired more than any other human for his sense of humor, grace, and ability to coax elegant vegetables in polite rows from Maine soil. He had a man's calloused hands, but often cried at family dinners, excusing himself to the potting shed to get his emotions under control.
I was busy, in the middle of doing farm chores, making cheese, a million reasons to keep moving and yet this stranger's face, a picture of serenity, halted my busy mind. He seemed like a gift, a chance to feel close to my grandfather once more.
Janet put the wheelchair in the barn, where in the shade, first our barn cat Moo, then two goat kids came nearer to have a look. His hands were bent like tree branches and he pointed his crooked index finger at Rocky (the smallest goat ever to be born on our farm) beckoning him closer.
I picked up Rocky, held him out to John, let him run his hand over the animal’s soft back. John smiled as if arriving more fully in the moment. His eyes directed me to put the goat on his lap. I was nervous it might kick him, but did as I was asked and lowered the baby to the old man’s legs. Amazingly, the goat settled in and fell asleep. The smile on John’s face was like summer soil -- warm, earthy, honest. It made me realize what a rare gift a real smile, free of pretense, can be.
I don’t remember how long he stayed, I do remember I didn’t say much, it was plenty to be close, watch this simple moment unfold.
Janet thanked me when they left, explaining that when John was a teenager away at school a stray goat had wandered onto campus, which John had adopted and taken to leading to and from his classes on a leash. It was one of his happiest memories and so they had thought to bring him the farm to meet the new kids.
Weeks later, I got a call. John was dying, maybe only had a couple of days left and Margaret wondered if we might, she knew it was a strange request, but was there anyway we might bring Rocky by for a visit.
Our goats never leave the farm, they are sweet and playful, but in no way trained or predictable. All night I tried to envision Rocky at a dying man’s bedside. I lay awake, memories of my own grandfather’s final hours flooding the darkness. He died so far from the garden he loved, trapped by sanitized walls and fluorescent light. It is my greatest regret that his death was so unlike his life.
The next morning my husband, daughter and I packed Rocky and a friend to keep him company on the ride, into a dog crate in the truck and drove him 20 minutes into town to the lovely old house where John lived. I was more scared than a woman my age has a right to be. When I asked my 19 year old daughter if she preferred to wait I the car, she smiled at me reassuringly. “It’s a nice thing to do mom,” she said as she hopped down from the truck and gathered Rocky into her arms.
When we entered, we were greeted by John’s caretakers, who told us it was a rough day, he was in and out of consciousness, but we would just see how it went. The had spent the last few days bringing experiences to his bedside they imagined he would love, bagpipes, someone to read him his favorite poetry, and now a goat.
I will not lie, the sight of him was at first terrifying. He looked very much like a skeleton or a marble statue and showed no sign of recognizing movement when we entered. The bed, an ornamental carved wooden frame had been his bed as a child Janet told me, they had fitted it with a hospital mattress to make movement easier, but I was warmed by the thought of a boy 93 years ago, fighting off sleep in this same bed.
Janet asked Lila to move Rocky towards the bed, put John’s hand on the goat’s back and spoke to him. “Look who came to see you John?” she coaxed gently. All the time she shook her head, indicating that it was unlikely he would be able to respond.
And then something amazing happened. John’s face flushed, and a small smile tipped up his lips, his fingers curled on the goat and Rocky as if sensing the importance of the moment, reached his legs towards the sheets, settled beside John, and I kid you not was still for half an hour. A goat kid still for 30 minutes is a miracle. A kid of any kind still for 30 minutes is a miracle, but a goat kid, all I could do was stand in awe. John nodded his head yes, smiled at the barn smell filling his elegant bedroom, and with tears streaming down my face I realized a death like this is a gift. What more could any of us want than a final connection with the best parts of who we were as a child. A homecoming before being sent off into the unknown of whatever lies ahead.