Yesterday I received a text that said, “This is Whit’s sister. He is in hospice in deep sleep with end stage liver disease. Prognosis is days to a week or so. Call me if you like.”
Normally, I get texts just from my fifteen-year-old daughter, such as “Pick me up at 3 plz.” I get few other texts, and I’d never received a text like this one. It threw me in many ways. I hadn't heard from Whit in eight years. He'd been a roommate of mine in college. While I made it to his Texas wedding twenty-four years ago, the marriage became rocky, and he and his wife were headed for divorce when she died of asthma complications. I knew many of their best times had revolved around drinking, but I never knew he drank so steadily until I called his sister today.
“Whit was a drinking man,” she said, “and he was diagnosed with cirrhosis two years ago. He never told any of his friends. He stopped drinking for a year, and then took it up again. It did him in.”
I was at a loss. Maybe he’d been feeling like Nicholas Cage’s character in Leaving Las Vegas. I have to reach for a movie because I’ve never understood drinking. After all, I get sleepy after half a beer. The few times I’ve had too much, it’s just made me stupid and stumble around. That’s fun? Still, a lot of people like it. Some become prisoners like Whit.
A type of imprinting must go on in college because Whit was the guy to hear my problems when I broke up with my first real girlfriend. He performed audio skits with me and other friends on my reel-to-reel tape recorder, such classics as “Captain Bongaroo.” He went skiing with me, picking it up quickly, never having learned in Houston, Texas. I truly liked Whit.
Yet life is a racecar on the salt flats, and people fall away. For the last two decades, Whit had been single, living many states away, didn’t have a lot of interests, and no career goals. Whenever we talked, I was reminded how our lives had taken very different paths. He’d worked in a hotel for a while that catered to the parents of children in a hospice. He’d worked for Continental Airlines as a clerk and was able to fly all over America for little cost. When his father died, he inherited enough so he didn’t need to work anymore. Still, he’d never really found a purpose.
His sister today sent me a photo of Whit as he now looks asleep in bed. He could be taking a nap after 18 holes of golf. Then I realized that isn’t a tan he has but jaundice. His liver isn’t functioning much at this point. It’s similar to the kidneys going out as I’d learned when I researched my play Who Lives? The play revolves around the first long-term test patients on the first kidney dialysis machine back in the early sixties in Seattle.
As my doctor character explains, “As impurities build in someone with kidney disease, life becomes miserable: incessant nausea, retching, vomiting and fatigue. Coma sets in. Then irregular heartbeat. Victims of kidney failure are suddenly dead in a flash of cardiac instability.” (To which another character says, “Where’d we find Mr. Happy?”)
In the photo of Whit sleeping, he’s got a great haircut and neatly trimmed beard. He’s a handsome guy. Why did he drink? Why didn’t he tell his friends about his problem? Had he become mostly a loner?
Oddly, I’ve found myself thinking about any day’s little moments that usually mean nothing or are even irksome. The dog peed on our carpet this morning, so I pulled out our steam cleaner, filled it up with hot water and Frebreze carpet shampoo for pet odors, used the upholstery tool whose clear tube shows the shampoo-and-urine mixture inhaled into the machine, and I see how magical it is while Scruffle the dog wags his tail thinking isn’t this a fun thing to do? It is fun, today it is, and so is watching my 85-year-old neighbor, Greta, who has no teeth, sweeping-not-raking her leaves on her hill, and she says to me as I walk by with Scruffle, “I wish I was rich so I didn’t have to do this but someone has to do this.” Someone does. And I have to clean out my fountain to get the grass trimmings out but the water is cold – not like the cold of Denver where I knew Whit but rather it’s the cold of a great wintery Southern California day where the sun is low and golden and I’m never shoveling snow. I love the sound my espresso-maker makes as it spits russet liquid into a Pyrex measuring cup and the air fills with Kenya the way the air may have filled in Kenya when Karen Blixen made herself a cup of coffee on her coffee farm and then wrote Out of Africa.
Whit won’t have days like this. It makes me sad.
(Update: Whit died December 17th.)
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