by Mike Dillon
His eyes moved from the old, white wooden ceiling to the young hospice nurse with her back to him.
“How long does it take to die?”
She stopped what she was doing, hesitated a moment, and turned around. “You have days, not hours.” She said it softly but plainly, from one adult to another. Her speech carried only a trace of accent.
“Are you afraid?”
He looked at the nurse with the detachment of someone studying a stranger who was unaware she’d inherited a million dollars. A little past thirty, maybe. Long, black hair knotted in a pony tail. Almond eyes, forest-green. A round face from an Italian Renaissance painting he couldn’t name.
She was raised in this country after her family fled Guatemala. Her quiet words were always freighted with an honesty that had been in short supply lately, especially among his family.
“I don’t have to lift a finger, do I? I just have to be here.” He let go a quick, sardonic smile.
She smiled back. “Is there still no pain?”
That was yesterday, the day his son and two daughters arrived for the duration. Everything had been arranged so he could die in his charming old home above a salt water bay. Ten days before, his two grandchildren, in their late twenties, had come to say goodbye without saying it.
Since he’d taken to the hospital bed a week ago, he’d surrendered the last scraps of resistance. The days of rising to step around the house with his cane for the sake or rising were over. Now it was a matter of the hospice nurse’s deft, tender ministrations, bedpans, ice chips to suck, and the feeling of sinking deeper down into dark water.
“I was good at the dead man’s float. Dead men don’t float, though,” he thought, and smiled to himself. The nurse’s back was turned to him again as she fiddled with his medicine on the table beside the door.
“I love May,” he announced. “It’s also my birth month.” He heard the dry whisper beginning to infiltrate his voice. The nurse looked out the window. Somewhere a robin caroled high in a tree.
“It is also Mother Mary’s month,” she said quietly, her profile to him; an indirect gaze that left him room take or leave what she said.
Days before he’d stopped reading the short stories of Chekhov. He’d lost the strength to even half-concentrate. Now, left to his own devices, his attention kept drifting to the bedroom window where his eyes rested on the old, western redcedar twenty yards away.
The lower two-thirds of the tree were visible to him. Its branches, fringed as an Irish setter, were evolving into a deep, rich green from winter’s green-yellow and bronze. Some sixty years before, when he approached the first and last house he and his wife bought, the cedar caught his eye: the dignified, pyramidal proportions, the upward-sweep of its J-shaped, candelabra-like branches, the vertical strips of bark.
The Indians in the region called the redcedar “The Tree of Life” — wood for canoes, bark for baskets, shade for spawning salmon, where a man could stand with his back against the trunk and draw strength from its power. He respected the Indian world too much to try.
The old cedar, he now realized, was a sundial to the house, as much a part of its life as a beloved lap cat. In the days around winter solstice, the low southern sun reached through the branches, crossed the living room and touched the back of the stone fireplace. On spring afternoons, when soft rain fell, the cedar greened the rain light. And in August, after the risen sun silenced the foghorns, a gauzy, red-inflected light tinted the dining room, where a white bowl of blue hydrangeas was usually centered on the oak table.
Now an immaculate wash of May sunlight flooded the foot of his bed. No doubt the sun had always slipped into the bedroom like this each mid-May afternoon, but he’d never really noticed. Here he was with plenty of time, and so little time, to notice.
“Your family is coming,” the nurse said quietly, standing over his bed.
From the living room, familiar voices moved his way. The door cracked open. His eyes flicked back to the cedar. The nurse waited until they were all in before she slipped out.
His wife spoke: “Jim, the kids and I are here.”
He wasn’t quite ready to turn to look at them, to return to his death. Not yet. His wife and children took up stations around the bed. His wife held his right hand and began to stroke it, delicately, rhythmically, the way the small, inquisitive waves washed into the bay below.
His eyes still rested in the green depths of the cedar. He felt he could sleep for a hundred years.
About the Author:
Mike Dillon lives in Indianola, Washington, a small town on Puget Sound northwest of Seattle. He is the author of four books of poetry and three books of haiku. Several of his haiku were included in “Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years,” from W.W. Norton (2013). His most recent book, “Departures: Poetry and Prose on the Removal of Bainbridge Island’s Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor” was published by Unsolicited Press in April 2019.