I have no idea what possessed me to stick my hand into the bowl, little white pebbles were sitting next to a candle, luminescent, perfect and drawing me in.
“Are those edible?” I asked, then stuck my hand in. Too late I realized it was a water candle. I’m glad the apartment was dimly lit as I felt the blood rush to my face.
The patient thought it was the funniest thing he had seen all day, so did his roommate and the three firefighters from Engine 15. So much for my grand entrance. What can I say, it had been a long day.
“Robert” had been having trouble breathing for about a week, suffered from COPD and was also HIV+. He was thin, and frail, and not at all well.
“Can I go to Miriam?” he asked.
Miriam Hospital was the furthest hospital of the city’s five, but was also the most appropriate facility, considering his history. Considering I had just stuck my ham sized hand into his water candle, it was the least we could do.
He lived with a roommate in one of the public hi-rises in the city. Their space was dignified, graceful and perfectly suited for them. It was comfortable, tastefully decorated and serene. We loaded him up and started the fifteen minute journey toward the ER. He told me that my hand in the water trick was the first thing to make him laugh in a long, long time. He had a dignified air about him. Born in South Carolina he had never lost his Southern charm, even though the job he had in his previous life took him all over the world. He lived in San Diego, Texas, Chicago, Jamaica and his favorite by far, Malta. A friend of his still owned an oceanfront villa there, and he planned on visiting soon.
The HIV medications that saved his life also cost him the things in life he thought most precious. His homes-he had two, one on each coast and a few timeshares scattered around the globe; he sold his Mercedes, his stocks and bonds, his “things.” His once vast accumulation of possessions now fit into a three room apartment in a run down facility filled mostly with people scraping by on social security checks. Yet he seemed happy.
“What good is a big house when you can only sit in one room at a time?” he asked. “Who needs a Mercedes when there are gardens, and woods, and city streets, and the stars with their infinite possibilities. What more can I ask from this life than what I have at this moment, which is a nice conversation with another person who is not afraid to stick his hand into a stranger’s water candle?”
We talked about life, and what it means, and how to handle loss, and failing health. I did something that I seldom, if ever do. I told him a little about myself, and my life, and the big home we used to live in, but could no longer keep because of my wife’s illness. I let him know about the heartache we felt when we lost the pool, the cabana, the gardens and friends, then the dogs, then the second house that turned out to be all wrong, and the rental, and how each move chipped a little bit of our soul, and tested the very fabric of our marriage.
As we backed into the ER bay, we agreed that through loss much is gained. That what is essential is invisible to the eye. What matters cannot be bought, we all need to live and find happiness with what we have, because through it all, we have a lot to be thankful for.
He asked me to put his coat over him before we wheeled him out of the back. It was cold outside, and an icy mix rained down from the starless sky. I picked up his coat, and grinned.
“Mink,” he said as we rolled him out of the truck. “I didn’t give up everything.” He looked to the starless sky, felt the cold, freezing rain fall on his face and smiled.
And so did I.