07 December 2008

Heaven Bends Close

6:30 Sunday evening – We had just come in from walking the dogs. It was 29 degrees in the park and I was cold. I poured a cup of coffee and the phone rang.

“Syd Weedon.”

“Syd, this is Becky.” My mind raced through the catalog of Beckies I’ve known.

“Brian is in the hospital.” My mind narrowed it down to one, my friend Brian with whom I had worked at the printing company downtown. His wife’s name was Becky. Why was she calling me?

“Hi, how are you?”

The printing company was a significant player in the industry in those days. They counted among their clients Cummins Engine, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Electronic Arts and Fidelity. Some serious jobs flowed through our keyboards and monitors. The printing company had hired me because I was a PC wonk. I could do high-end four-color prepress on a PC. I could make Pagemaker dance a jig. I not only understood CorelDraw, but I loved it. But most of our jobs, and especially most of the big ones were not PC; they were Macintosh in Quark, Photoshop, Illustrator and Freehand. I had never laid a glove on a Macintosh, and that’s where Brian comes in. He was the lead guy on second shift pre-press when I hired on. He patiently taught me the Mac and the vagaries of the Linotronic image setter. He taught me how to trap color in Quark and Illustrator. I showed him my tricks on the PC and we’d go out to restaurants together on “lunch break.” We had fun.

“Brian is really sick,” Becky said.

“What’s the matter?”

“He has pancreatic cancer. He’s not doing well at all.”

The last time I talked to Brian was about six months ago. He had called. He was between jobs. The printing company had laid us both off after the technology caught up to what we used to do manually. They no longer needed $20/hr operators to do jobs that could be done now by an $8/hr college student. I had moved on to an art director job with another company, but Brian had a rougher time of it. He told me then that he was thinking about selling his house because he was having trouble with the payments. I told him that I wanted to have him and Becky over for dinner, but we never set a date. Now, Becky was on the phone and Brian was dying.

We hadn’t really pal-ed around after we left the printing company. Different worlds, I guess. Brian was a hard luck case in many ways. He had a disfiguring skin condition that caused large moles on his skin. When I first hired on at the printing company, the HR guy had taken me aside to brief me on Brian’s condition, to not be afraid of it, that “it isn’t contagious.” Three years into our time at the printing company, Brian was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Then, about a year after we left the printing company, he had a bout of stomach cancer. I visited him in the hospital then. They thought they got it all and life was good. Now, Becky was on the phone, and things weren’t good at all.

They were calling me now, not because I was an old friend from bygone days, but because I am a Presbyterian minister. I’m the guy who has looked death in the face a thousand times and not flinched. No, I don’t like death. It doesn’t turn me on, but it doesn’t paralyze me either. I have the capacity to look through the horror, the tubes, wires and machines, the pain and loss, and still see an old friend who needs me right this minute. I have faith. I believe there is something wonderful beyond this vale of tears, but I don’t know what. I can say that I have felt it, that I trust there is something other than annihilation waiting for us. To trust – all is not lost. I believe that, and I’m willing to say it into these extreme moments. That’s why they called me.

I ask Becky how she is doing. She is struggling. She has built her life around Brian. Their eighteen-year-old son is not dealing with it well, not supporting her the way she needs him to. I tell her that’s pretty normal. At that age, they’re not emotionally mature and they withdraw to protect themselves from the reality. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t love her; he just can’t cope with it. My dad lasted until I was forty two. I can’t imagine what I would have done had he died when I was eighteen. I asked Becky what room he was in and what time of day he was most alert. She said about 3 PM. I promised her I would be down there tomorrow at that time.

In my mind I steel myself. I visualize what he will look like so that I will be prepared. I want to walk into the room and look into the eyes of an old friend. I can’t let the fear and horror get in the way. I will not react to that. That is my gift. You might call it courage, but it isn’t really. It’s just technique. I know that to be a help to my friend, I have to focus on him, not my own fear or revulsion at the condition. I need to look him in the eyes and give him hope.

And, I’m not alone. Heaven bends close.

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