By Kristopher Drummond
When I met Bob, we were in his assisted living apartment, a dark room little bigger than a hotel suite, with stale notes of the previous occupants’ cigarette smoke still hanging in the air. He was resigned to his mechanical recliner, a gaunt figure dwarfed by overstuffed padding billowing out around him. I was a kid looking to get closer to death, to taste its notes against the palette of my insulated life, and Bob was a man reluctantly acknowledging he didn’t want to travel his terminal COPD diagnosis alone.
On the very first day of our contracted hospice relationship, Bob told me the story of how he asked his wife to marry him. I was shocked at his immediate openness. Bob needed to be convinced for months to even allow a volunteer into his room. Like most of his generation, Bob was nobody’s charity case and in his opinion, his feelings were his to deal with. I was warned before my first day that “it might start out pretty rough.” So when he opened up with a critique of the corporate establishment and continued into his most precious story, I was amazed.
“I’d known her for two weeks,” he said, looking out the window. “We worked at the state mental hospital. I think we were about 22, the both of us. I didn’t know much about her, but I knew I liked her. So, I invited her for a drive one day, out along a dirt road. I wanted to marry her from the moment I met her and I figured ‘what’s the point in waiting?’ After we pulled over to take in the view, I got down on my knee, no ring or nothin, and said ‘what are you doing for the rest of your life?”
His eyes watered. His wife was also in hospice at a dementia unit 90 minutes away. I learned later that she didn’t remember him anymore.
“She said ‘well, I don’t really know,’ with her hand over her mouth, all surprised. So I said ‘why don’t you think about spending it with me?’”
He smiled for the first time.
“Well, she said yes. And that was that.”
Over the course of six months, I saw Bob maybe 20 times. I was there the day after his wife died and I sat and cried with him. Some days we watched football together (though neither of us really watched) and talked about the state of the world as the cheering crowds of spectacle soothed us with enough normalcy to make the conversation bearable. He told me about his kids, about his favorite hunting spots in the Pintler Mountains, his grandchildren’s athletics, and wanting to be near his dog.
Each visit, I noticed Bob’s health worsening. He was losing the little weight he had to lose and growing increasingly despondent. The last time I saw him, the day before he died, something in me knew we’d never talk again. At the time, I was falling in love with someone and visiting less frequently. That last day, sitting with Bob who was now gasping for most of his breaths, I told him about my new partner, gushing about her intelligence and creativity, telling him how she might be “the one.” He smiled wide.
“I’ve got…” he paused, pulling in a breath. “A pair of my wife’s earrings. I’d like to give them to her. I’d like to meet her.”
Nodding, I looked into his fading blue eyes and realized it wouldn’t happen. In that moment, I also realized that there was love between Bob and I from our first conversation. Somehow, being squeezed between an ending and a beginning gave me access to the truth that love has nothing to do with time.
I saw in that moment that love is a blossoming that happens when we surrender to reality. It arrives amid facts. To love, to really love, is to accept defeat. Whether we’re yielding to big D death or the initiatory death of intimate relationship, relinquishing the known is required. Bob and I started in love because he and I were already, albeit in different ways, defeated.
Lately, I have been remembering Bob almost daily. As I write, we’re three days past the Capitol being breached by a mob during the warmest winter on record. In Emigrant, Montana, where I live, the Yellowstone River is running without a trace of ice halfway through January. These days, I’m reckoning with what’s becoming impossible to deny. We live in an ending.
For most of my adult life I’ve been a climate activist, organizing marches, writing letters, fighting for what I believed was fixable. I don’t believe that anymore. At least not in the way I used to. During my time with Bob, our conversations wandered often to the world and a version of the future that even then I sensed slipping away. I remember his shriveled body, the love-as-anger still pouring through it, and the silent understanding we shared that he would never live to see the outcomes we speculated about.
More than anything else, beyond any of the conversations or stories or frustrations, I remember the connection Bob and I shared. Some part of me was, as it still is, apprenticing to endings and learning to surrender to the love and meaning inside them. Even then, I recognized that the only way to a better world travels through the fierce doors of finality.
As we’re thrust into 2021, we don’t know whether we’re in hospice mode for our species or potentially even the earth itself. Scientifically, it’s quite possible. Likely even.
Here, up against the edges of an ending none of us really grasp, we’re faced with the choice of every terminal patient: will we cling, stalling for just a little bit more time with our capitalistic narrative of “progress?” Or will we turn around and face the fact that we’ve reached the end of this story and step into what comes next?
Buddhist teacher and death worker Stephen Levine wrote of the many healing miracles he witnessed when people finally accepted their diagnoses at the deepest level. However, the key to those healings was found in absolute surrender, not in any desired outcome surrender might enable. It seems now that only through collectively giving way and stepping into the reality of things as they are will we find the love that may paradoxically offer hope for a human future.
Contemplating Bob, I feel admiration for the way he faced death with such sovereignty and courage. I visit his grave sometimes and remember how he would shift between screaming about a fake charge from his living facility to crying about how he just wanted to go hunting one more time. Watching emotions cascade through a dying man who even six months prior would have denied their existence gives me hope that we can do the same. And maybe through accepting the humbling in our unraveling, we can humanely meet the uncertain future.