My friend Eugene and I contemplated a sign he sees every day, and the mystery of those words together, in this setting, bore into me. Elope, such a merry word in this unmerry place. The sign is posted on a set of double swinging doors—with a lock, evidently.
“Can’t very well have us running off, now, can we? This is a brain injury ward,” my friend jokes from his seat in the wheelchair. “Does wheeling me remind you of your stroller pushing days?”
“Yes, the double-wide jogging stroller felt much like this, and was just as hard to turn.” Another image incongruent with this moment—the handles of my jogging stroller, powering the seats bubbling over with life and giggles, the outside air, little feet bobbing up and down.
But I am pushing Eugene in a wheelchair, in a brain injury ward, because his legs don’t work, currently. And I love this dear man, and some part of me wants to elope right out that door, where the staff are notified to secure the exit behind them. I look down the elopement hall, and it looks no greener nor more promising than this one.
I’d like to run off with my friend to a time in the past. I’m not prone to nostalgia, but health is altogether another kind of nostalgia. I would go back to a time without fear of physical calamity, without the brain tumor. Yes, I’d run away there in a heartbeat. But I speak the opposite.
“I’m not eloping today. I came a long way to be right here, to see you. No escape for me.”
“Me, too. I’m right here.”
And I wish, I wish it were true. He is here, but not fully here. Something of the part I love is missing. The Eugene I know would be depressed out of his mind, wrenched with grief, quick to tears. The Eugene I push in the wheelchair recognizes the change, on an intellectual level, but the tumor is located in the emotional center of his brain—he doesn’t weep, doesn’t keen, speaks in a positive and even tone about the frustrations of hospital life and being removed from his family. The irony of him being “right here” pulls angry tears from me, and I’m glad I am standing behind the wheelchair, where he can’t see. You’re not right here, damn it! If only you, you were right here, we would have a good cry. Eugene, and not Eugene. Do I hope for cure? Do I despair the loss? Is he recovering or dying? No one can say.
My friend Ellen phoned in early July to say, he’s leaving us. I demanded to know how that could be: Eugene! The most “alive” man alive. Brain tumor. The irony, for this brilliant man, that the brain could be the seat of the sickness. I phoned him to ask, “would you like me to come?” and he said yes, he’d like that very much.
After two days by bus, I arrived in white linen to beat the August heat, topped with a bright sarong overlay—he smiled at the brightness and said, “I always think of color when I think of you.” There is not a stitch of nostalgia in him. He barely notices that eighteen years have passed since we shared leadership of a house of twenty college students. He reminds me, as he does each visit, that I saved his life by talking him through a terrible depression the year we worked together. I remind him I was also dealing with a lot that year, and I could say the same of him. How I wish I had any power to save, this visit. I can only be company, diversion from the deadness of this place. Color. And I can push a wheelchair.
When I entered the room, he looked so much like himself—too skinny, but dressed in his running shoes, alert, and ready to get up from his hospital bed, any minute. The whiteboard behind him read “Goals: raise head to midline 80% of the day.” I remembered Ellen saying his head rested on his shoulder in a disconcerting way when she visited, but there was no sign of drooping for my Saturday. He smiled and welcomed me. I scruffed his beard and told him the truth, that he looked good. Relief washed over me—my friend recovers! He is right here. I sat in his wheelchair and pulled it close to the bed, my feet dangling uselessly off the ground. Eugene asked about my travel adventures and I tried to condense a whirlwind into a few sentences. He struggled to follow my conversation, and I thought of the incredible level of medication, and I reined my story in a bit.
“I miss you, Eugene. I’ve been planning to visit when the kids are big enough to see the history in this town—they are not ready to make the most of it. But now I’m sorry I’ve been putting it off. What a gift to visit you all by myself, though. Tell me if I make you tired. I have just one day: I’m staying the whole day, if that’s okay with you.”
I see his gladness. I hear him checking with his wife by phone—she is having a wheelchair ramp built, so he can return home, and it will take all day. She is relieved by my visit. “She knows I do better when I have visitors,” he said. “I wake up each day and ask her who God will bring me next.”
Eugene shows me the gallery of photos in the frames on his windowsill. We begin comparing timelines in our minds, when we shared a house, who we’ve seen last, how we summarize that pivotal year in our own minds. He plays with the button to raise and lower his hospital bed, not to the right height, but compulsively raising and lowering, right in the middle of a somewhat intimate conversation. Eugene would never do that. The new reality knocks me cold: he’s right there in front of me. And he’s altered, all the friend, minus the intuition and attentiveness I expect. It takes every ounce of Eugene’s energy to focus on our conversation, and he seems engaged one moment and mentally shut down the next, fidgeting wildly with his clothes, his nose, his bandages. That’s right, I think. He fights fidgeting on a good day, without medication. Usually he fights it off well. Remember he’s really, really sick.
A nurse arrives to lift Eugene into the wheelchair I’ve been sitting on, and take him to physical therapy. “I was running, six weeks ago,” he reminds me. “I’m stronger every day, and I have more energy every day. All traces of depression are miraculously gone.” I’ve always trusted every word Eugene has said. What do I do with this information? He wheels off to his appointment, and I pull the curtain, lie down in the hospital bed and nap.
Eugene returns to find me asleep in his bed, deeply enough that I wake startled, and I think without thinking, “I am sleeping in a dead man’s bed.” I have no idea if it’s true or not, and I put the thought aside. I rise and sit knee-to-knee with my friend. I read him a story about memories from our year in Erie, Pennsylvania. We talk about more memories, and he asks me to read another. He likes the fact that he can dip in and out of the story, focusing on some images and letting his mind wander in the wash of words when he wishes. I like it, too. He remembers everything, remembers many details I’ve forgotten, cracks a deadpan joke that he still has his memory intact, even though he lives on a brain injury ward.
And so the day winds on, moments I’m simply together with my friend, the same as ever, and moments where the wind is knocked out of me and I gasp, he’s gone, while choosing my words carefully, not disturbing his seeming peace. Reminder, he is not here for my benefit—I am here for his. I owe this friend so much. I decided, the year I worked with Eugene, ate my breakfasts and midnight snacks with him, that I might want to marry someday, encouraged that I could live with someone for a year and not grow weary with his company.
His wife arrives, exhausted, and we walk to get a bite to eat. It’s my first conversation with her since her wedding. It seems unfair that our first friendly conversation is about losing her husband, about whether he will recover and what parts of him may not recover. I’m a distant friend, from a part of her husband’s life she doesn’t know. She is preparing for a future as the single mother of two children not yet in grade school. She is already alone, and she knows it. He’s right there, and he’s not there.
Eugene is tired when we come back, setting up a DVD player to watch The Office as we leave. I stand close but he is lying down, so a goodbye hug is out of reach. On impulse I kiss him on the forehead. “Be well, my friend. Sleep well. And give me a better excuse to visit next time.”
“Thank you for making the long trip to see me. You’ve been a great encouragement. Safe journey, Denise. I can’t thank you enough, for everything.”
I think, the next time I see him he will be sicker, and I want to be ready. But I want to remember how it feels to be in his company, today.
And Eugene’s wife and I are out the door, talking once we are out of earshot. She drives me to my hotel. I travel home. She prepares for Eugene to arrive at home the following week.
A month passes, and my friend Eugene has died, at home, after a dinner with his family. None of us expected his life to end so quickly—by all accounts, he seemed poised for a slow decline as the brain tumor progressed. He’d been working very hard to walk again, and photos show his spirit, still working hard in his final few weeks. Every one of us is miserable not to see him one last time. I wonder if every one of us holds a secret corner of relief that his children will not see him deteriorate inch by inch over the course of long months or years.
I drove, Sunday, hustling my little Jetta down the East Coast for a thousand miles of grief. Mutual friends made a home with me for a few nights, and at some moments our borrowed house provided corners for four women to write pieces for a memorial service.
Eugene has given me everything available in his heart, again and again, and I’m glad to give the same. I wrote a story of one year in our mid-twenties, to tell Christine, his wife, and I read it directly to her during the service. I could not have spoken if I’d not taken time to write it out—that piece of paper anchored me. I’m thankful I packed flat buttery-soled shoes, to feel my feet gripping the floor beneath the podium at the church. Heart stumbling so desperately, it’s a comfort to still be upright, walking steadily to the aisle, the pew, the reception, the car. I drove away thinking I’d spoken too personally—I think that very thought every time I read to someone I know. The stories that interest me are the stories close to my heart, the closer, the truer, the more wrenching to speak, the more necessary. I told a story of Eugene’s generosity and joy, his committed friendship.
Perhaps I will tell that story here, sometime. I arrived home Tuesday afternoon, after four hours sleep and nine hours of driving, the kind of blazing headache one should expect after such a quantity of heavy crying. The whole experience is too raw just now.
And it was too raw to admit to any but my friend Ellen: I woke up the morning after she told me of his death, and my first thought was, he’s eloped. I imagined once again some green rolling hills and the hints of autumn around the edges, hidden on the other side of those ominous swinging doors in the hospital. He’s eloped and he’s free from that damned tumor, and he weeps for awhile to begin with, for the sorrow of his family and friends. And then he runs, because he can. I don’t know the next scene, because he is far in the distance from me, for now.
I’m right here, for now, remembering my friend’s voice and praying for those who love him. I think about the word “parousia,” the Greek word for that time-beyond-time at the end of all things. “We don’t know much about it,” I say to my Sunday school class, “but we know it will be good.” I think also of the longing of the psalmist who says, “If I forget thee, Jerusalem…” If I forget thee, my friend—well, I won’t forget.