By Nathan Perrin
Andrew watched the chemo mixture go slowly into his veins. He closed his eyes and let out a deep sigh. Stage four brain cancer, get his affairs in order the doctor told him. The end is most likely near.
He had dreamed of retiring to rural Wisconsin for as long as he could remember, but here he was, thirty-eight years old and about to die in the Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago with nothing but wealth to his name.
“Did you hear how Philip Roth died?” asked an elderly man in the same room.
Andrew opened his eyes slowly and saw his friend Ben sitting across from him.
“Before he died, he asked everyone to leave the room, and then he said, ‘Now it’s time to get on to the business of dying.’ Hell of a thing, isn’t it?”
Andrew forced a chuckle.
Ben leaned back, “I remember C.S. Lewis writing about his wife dying. He was angry at God himself. In certain parts of the book, I think it was… A Grief Observed or Watched something. But he had troubles remembering his wife’s face.”
Andrew brushed his hair back neatly, “Do you have troubles remembering your wife’s face?”
“No, not really… but I think grief hits us all different.”
Ben took a sip of water and Andrew stared out the window.
“What are you thinkin’ about?” Ben sighed.
“I’m thinking about what I’ll leave behind.” Andrew turned back towards him. “I don’t think I did much in this life. I played it safe.”
“I don’t think about what I’ll leave behind, but all the things I said no to – the opportunities, the women, the times I could’ve had some fun. For one reason or another, I couldn’t pull the trigger, and for the life of me I can’t remember why.”
“I’m not sure what I’ve said no to,” Andrew tapped his fingers. “Many things, I’m sure.”
“People in Chicago are afraid to get too close, like they’re always seeing each other for the first time.”
“What do you mean?”
“You ever watch two people in a restaurant? Two kids? They’re not talking to each other. When I was growing up, we looked at each other when we talked – we enjoyed the conversation.”
“I guess I never thought of that.”
“Being in a genuine friendship with someone is so rare these days. Looking at them in the eye and saying, ‘I love you. Thank you for being in my life.’ You never had that?”
“Ben, I’ve been living here only a year. What do you think?”
Ben laughed, “I’m sorry, kid. Just trying to make conversation is all.”
Andrew stood in the Metra train and watched people stay glued to their phones.
He looked out the window and saw the sunset. He’d seen it a million times before, but this time he truly saw it. He turned his head back and it throbbed with the silence inside the cart. This was the first time silence felt painful. He used to retreat into it, hide. Now, it was like a mirror staring back at him: This is what death will be like.
Just then, he saw a sign that said Jesus Saves with homeless people lining up to get food. People with jobs, lives walked on by without paying much attention.
When the train came to a stop, Andrew gathered up his things and walked out.
“Do you know what waits after death? God knows. He wants to heal you, friend.”
Andrew turned off the television, and it was back to the weighted silence.
He walked out onto his balcony and sat on the patio chair.
He closed his eyes as he let out a deep sigh.
“Death is so scary to me,” said a woman across the room.
Andrew looked up. She was a brunette, mid-twenties.
“Explain more,” said the group therapist.
“What is life if you haven’t accomplished anything? My dad tells me that it’s a shallow way of thinking, that I’ve lived a good life.”
“You’re so young. Most people haven’t accomplished anything at your age.”
“I know… chemo has just been so disorienting.”
Andrew leaned back in his chair.
“I’ve accomplished every damn thing imaginable,” said Andrew. “I’m not leaving behind much. No family, really. I’ve got a dad somewhere in Wisconsin, but he hasn’t been around for some time. He sends me money instead. I think it’s to keep me out of his life. You’ve done okay, kid. You’re going to be alright.”
The brunette wiped away her tears, “I’m sorry to hear that about your family.”
“Don’t be. Focus on your own self.”
“My faith tells me that I’ll see glory on the other side.”
Andrew sighed and leaned back, “I can’t say much about that. I grew up in a house that thought religion was a sign of weakness. Faith was for the people who couldn’t get their shit straight.”
The brunette laughed softly, “You mean faith is for people like us?”
“You know what I mean,” Andrew smiled. “If it works for you, I guess, hold onto it. But it’s never worked for me.”
Andrew looked through the shoebox of memories in his bedroom. He first got the box when he moved into his dorm room. He had grown up on cheesy 80’s movies where teenaged loves looked through their boxes of memories, and he longed for that simplicity in his life.
There was a photo of Sam – his old college girlfriend.
When Andrew graduated, he got the sense that Sam was a part of his shoeboxed past. Beyond that, he wasn’t sure why he broke up with her. Some of his happiest memories involved her.
He put her photo down and took a sip of the whiskey next to his bed. It was the only thing that took the taste of chemo vomit out of his mouth.
He dug through more old letters.
He picked up an old letter from Uncle Ryan.
I’m proud of you, kid.
I know you’ve worked hard to get here. You’ve done us well. Nothing but bright things in your future.
– Uncle Ryan
Andrew remembered Uncle Ryan’s hugs. They were tight, warm.
“Don’t pay any attention to your dad,” he would say to Andrew. “He loves you. He doesn’t know how to show it.”
Uncle Ryan died a few years later.
It was a sudden heart attack. His personality was so full of love and living in the moment that it was hard to grieve as an audience. It was strange to Andrew. His own family taught him to distrust the world, to keep people out.
Don’t ever pay attention to what’s going on internally, you’ll only find a void.
Uncle Ryan, though. Uncle Ryan had an impact. Underneath the letters was a Bible with dust on it. It belonged to Uncle Ryan. Andrew wiped off the dust, stared at it, and put it back.
Andrew sipped coffee as he flipped through the newspaper.
“Andy?” asked a familiar voice.
Andrew put down the newspaper to see Sam.
“You called?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Andrew stood up.
Sam gave him a hesitant side hug.
“It’s been a while,” said Andrew.
“Yeah,” Sam cleared her throat. “It’s been a while.”
Sam sat down across from him and put her purse down.
She was just as beautiful as he remembered her.
“What do you want, Andy?” she asked.
“I guess… I’m trying to remember what happened between us.”
A lump was growing in Andrew’s throat.
“What do you mean?”
“I said ‘I love you,’ and you never reciprocated. You said something like… you’re not ready for marriage or kids. Then we grew apart. You took a job at the law firm, became a big shot, I became a teacher.”
“I’m sorry I did that,” Andrew brushed his hair back. “I was stupid.”
“Did you call me here to ask me to come back to you? I’m married now.”
“No, I’m not here to ask you out. I needed to know.”
“Needed to know what?”
“I guess why my life turned out like it did.”
“Well, you withdrew more and more. You never let me in.”
“That I didn’t say I loved you. I felt it.”
“Why didn’t you say it?”
“I don’t know.”
Sam let out a chuckle and brushed her hair back, “You were good, Andy. You know that, right? Things would’ve been different if you said those three words.”
Andrew took a sip of his coffee, “Are you happy?”
“Yeah,” said Sam. “I’m happy. Andy, is there something else you’re not telling me?”
Andrew looked her in the eyes, “No. There’s nothing else.”
“You’re lying again.”
Ben smiled as Andrew sat across from him.
“Are you going to tell me more about famous people who died?” Andrew cleared his throat.
“Not this time, kid,” Ben laughed.
“That’s good. I’ve been reading old letters.”
“That’s a dangerous road.”
“What have you been thinking about?”
Andrew let out a soft chuckle, “I was remembering my Uncle Ryan. I felt more warmth from him than my own dad. For some reason, I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time.”
“Ah, yes,” Ben smiled. “The times we didn’t see. I know those times too.”
“What do you do with those times?”Andrew flinched as the nurse put the needle into his arm.
Ben looked out the window and then back at Andrew, “You open your eyes.”
“Have you been having memory problems lately?” asked the doctor.
“I don’t know,” said Andrew.
“Keep an eye on it. Again, keep fighting – but keep your affairs in order. You never know.”
“How bad does it get?”
“I’ve seen patients no longer recognize their families. They just sit there immobile. Get your stuff together now.”
Andrew sat down in group therapy again. The cushion on the seat felt cold, stiff.
He looked across the room for the brunette.
No one sat in her chair, and it remained empty for the rest of the night.
The counselor spoke softly about the brunette, telling everyone she found peace before she died – that she believed she lived a good life.
“I think when we die we go on,” said the counselor. “I think she had a point when she said she’ll see glory on the other side.”
“Go on?” asked another group member.
“Yes – a soul, some energy… we go on.”
Andrew stared at the floor and then at the counselor, “What good did love and faith do her then?”
“What do you mean?” the counselor asked.
“She died. What was the point?”
“She found courage. That’s the point. And I don’t think that’s ever wasted.”
Andrew stood in the Metra again, looking at everyone glued to their phones.
He saw a child playing a game with her mother.
The child looked at him and smiled.
He smiled back, feeling a tinge of guilt from remembering the brunette. She never had her own children.
Then again, what did Andrew do with his life?
Andrew checked his cell messages as he entered his apartment..
“Andrew? It’s Ben. I wanted to share with you something I read about recently. You know Leo Tolstoy? That Russian guy? His last words were, ‘But the peasants… how do the peasants die?’ He was pretty pro-peasant, so I like to think he was hoping to go away in honor. Bunch of rich bastards back in those days and Leo wanted none of that. Maybe he saw beauty. He was romantic as hell. Anyway, give me a call back whenever. Just read that and thought of you.”
Bunch of rich bastards.
He walked out onto the balcony and looked at the Gold Coast again.
He realized he lived most of his life in a numb state. He kept people at a distance. He couldn’t bring the courage to send a letter to his dad to tell him about the cancer. Affluence had been his shield against the harsh realities of intimacy, love.
His father did what he set out to do: protect Andrew from everything, even intimacy.
He then remembered what his doctor said about his memories.
“Shit,” Andrew whispered as he walked back into his apartment and poured himself another whiskey.
He scrolled through his phone and dialed Sam.
It immediately jumped to voicemail. She mentioned something about keeping her phone off when she’s at home these days. They used to stay up all night talking to each other on the landline.
Andrew would give anything to go back to those days.
“Hey Sam,” he took a sip. “I didn’t tell you the full truth back at the coffee shop. Truth is, I’m dying. Brain cancer. Can you believe it? Of all the people to have this happen to, it’s me. The guy who played it safe is the one that gets this thing.”
“Anyway, I wanted to tell you that I loved you… and I was so glad you were in my life. You have no idea how much I wanted to tell you that, but I couldn’t. I grew up hiding myself from people and thought that was a good thing. But now I know better. Your husband is a lucky man, and I wish you nothing but the best.”
“If I don’t hear from you again… I guess this is goodbye. I hope you have no hard feelings towards me, because I certainly don’t have any towards you. Take care of yourself.”
He turned off the phone and sat in silence.
A single tear fell down his face.
“What are you writing?” asked Ben.
He and Andrew were both back in the chemo room.
“A letter to my dad, telling him I have cancer,” said Andrew.
“Andrew… your dad’s dead.”
“Your dad’s been dead for some time.”
Andrew sighed and crumpled up the letter. Tears welled up in his eyes.
“When?” Andrew asked.
“Last year,” Ben sighed. “I’m sorry, kid.”
“How did my dad die?”
“Any last words?”
“None. It was instant.”
Andrew sighed and stared out the window, “I guess the doctor was right. This is the end.”
“Or it’s the beginning of something else. You don’t know. All we know is the time we have now.”
“I guess I have no time to say no.”
Andrew walked up along the pier and saw Sam sitting on a bench.
“You didn’t have to ask to meet me again,” he said as he sat down.
“Yes,” Sam sighed. “I did.”
“What do you want?”
“I want you to know something. You were, and are, a good man, Andy. You just didn’t know how to be a good partner… but that doesn’t make you who you are.”
“Is that it?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Well, thank you. I appreciate that.”
“I loved you. In some ways, I still do. I’m glad I was in your life, even for a moment.”
Andrew stared at the river in silence.
“Do you think we will go on?” Andrew asked. “After death?”
“Yeah,” Sam lightly touched his hand. “I do.”
“My family thought God was for suckers. They avoided anything that made them look dependent and less sophisticated. I don’t know what I believe, but as I approach the finish line I’m starting to question everything.”
“What do you think the meaning of life is?”
“I’m not sure. The guy I still remember the most is Uncle Ryan. He had this joyous personality, but he was religious as hell. Obnoxious about it. Gave me a Bible that I’ve never read.”
“Why won’t you read it?”
“I can’t bring myself to believe in that.”
“But it helped Uncle Ryan as he was dying. Maybe it’ll help you.”
“I don’t know…”
Sam put her arm around Andrew’s shoulders, “Has avoiding love and faith made your life any better?”
“Not really, no. But people who embrace those things die too. I don’t see the point.”
“Everyone dies, Andy. Sooner or later. That’s not the point. The point is the connection. It’s knowing you belong. Life is empty without each other, without some kind of… hope.”
Silence, comforting this time.
“Whatever happens, I’m glad I met you,” Andrew sniffled.
“Yeah, me too,” Sam kissed his cheek.
Andrew leaned into Sam, and they watched the river slowly pass by.
“Andy?” Sam brushed his hair.
“Yeah?” he whispered.
“There’s one thing I don’t get. You seemed determined to not understand me. This is the first real conversation I’ve had with you. Why is that?”
“Understanding someone lets them in. It’s scary. You give up your power.”
“Are you scared now?”
Andrew got home and sat in silence.
He looked out the window again and saw the sunset.
He sighed, and walked back to his room – took out the box.
Andrew opened it and saw the Bible inside. He flipped open the cover.
May this help you in the ways it helped me. You may not believe in this stuff, but I believe in you. You are loved. You are a good kid. I’m always praying for you. Don’t be afraid to love. Ezekiel 18:32 – “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”
– Uncle Ryan
“Alright, Uncle Ryan,” Andrew whispered.
The times Andrew said no flooded his mind briefly – but then he realized he still had time.
“But how do the peasants die?”
Andrew got up and walked back to the balcony. He looked down and saw a few kids playing on the sidewalk.
He never wanted to take that sight for granted again.
He looked up and saw the sunset, smiled.
Andrew chose to live for the first time in his life.
“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”
– Raymond Carver, “Late Fragment”, written shortly before his death.
Nathan Perrin is an emerging writer and Anabaptist pastor in Chicagoland. He holds an MA in Quaker Studies, and is a doctoral student studying Christian Community Development at Northern Seminary. His work has been published in the Dillydoun Review, Bangalore Review, and Esoterica Magazine. He is also a screenwriter for an unannounced indie comedy series. For more information, visit nathanperrin.weebly.com