I am afraid to die, my oldman client tells me. He says this while sipping a hot beer we snuck into the Oakmont hospice house. We are in his room and we stare out of his window, together. He points outside, at the traffic of river-wet loons as they shuffle up from shore. My oldman is afraid to die, and I have heard this sentence before, but never for real, only in cable dramas and HBO war films. My oldman reminds me his fear is a secret. He says I mustn’t repeat this secret to his daughters or the other caregivers. Especially not the freckled girl who talks to him in baby voices, who pretends he’s a teenager with untested bones.
My oldman says don’trepeatwhatIsaid again, and I nod, without cutting my eyes at his yellowed face. I don’t know what to do with his secret but keep it, anyway. I don’t understand what it is like to have full possession of your body but know you are weeks away from death. I don’t know because I am young and nauseatingly alive. I don’t understand what it is like to fear something so horrifying and universal and certain. I don’t know how to swat his fears away. I am in my early twenties, and have been a caregiver for a year at this senior care center. My oldman and I bonded over John Wayne movies, Steelers games, the ritual of me wiping away half-stuck feces from his deflated ass cheeks while he shut his eyes in shame. He called me a “colored gal angel” or sometimes a “bitch who wouldn’t give him more beer,” and I would stay up all night waiting for him to fall asleep; I’d watch as he sputtered and wept and cried for his dead wife. I have told him few things about me and I have seen the worst parts of his lingering life.
Now, I’ve been told by doctors, his daughters, the giver with the freckled cheeks and my boss: your oldman is definitely going to die.
My oldman and I stare at the ducks hobbling away from foam-frilled banks. He says he has been feigning rosiness for his family. His lips hurt bad but he bends his mouth up. He wants to sleep but stays awake. He doesn’t care about the Steelers anymore but he complains about them anyway. His daughters like to see him as he was: grumpy about ballgames, obsessive about sports-numbers and football stars. My oldman tells me he can’t stand his daughters’ face when he’s quiet. Their chins are always quivering, their eyes night-dark. He has worked to death so they won’t look that sad. He says he’d love to be who his daughters want him to be: a wrinkly sage who looks forward to his body-pain spiriting away. Who can’t wait to see his beloved wife, who wants to hug Jesus Christ and snuggle with saints on a heavenly cloud.
My oldman tells me he’d like to be this wrinkly sage but he is so afraid of dying he can’t sleep. This is why he is so tired during the day, because he can’t sleep at night and this is why he wants to rest during the day instead of talking about Steelers scores. Because if he falls asleep and dies in the light, he’ll be around busy folks, orange glares, me, his daughters. That way somebody might see what happened, might accurately tell the story of his end.
My oldman finishes his beer. He asks me what to do, as if I might know. Me, then: a twenty-two year old virgin who is saving my caregiving money so I can move to Miami for graduate school. Me, then: a baby-minded thing who only knows how to repeat what is told.
I say, shakily: You’ll be okay and this is the worst answer because it is dumb and it is a lie. My oldman nods tiredly and looks out the window.
He bites the beer can and we say nothing.
Two weeks later my oldman dies in his sleep, during the day. His youngest daughter was picking up her kids at nursery school and I was picking up a new shift when it happened. My boss calls to tell me the news while I am driving to the Harmarville Target. She says: I called you because… I’m sorry to say this… but I already know why she’s calling. We discuss the details of my oldman’s death and the new, half-alive client I must care for tomorrow, who will die shortly, who is also probably afraid. My boss keeps talking and I say uhhuh and some other things before I slam my Focus into the car in front of me that is stopping for a red light.
I pull over and wait for the driver to get out. She climbs out of her Jeep carefully. I walk up to her, give her my information. I watch this woman scribble the superficial facts of my life on the back of a Burger King receipt. She is writing what I tell her: my car’s make and model, my Daddy-given name, my address and phone number. All evidence of my short and stupid life. Underneath the red of Target storeface, I watch this woman record everything I tell her about me. She finishes quickly; I don’t have much to say. She looks up, wondering if my body is shaken. It is not. I was young then, nauseatingly alive.
Jennifer Maritza McCauley is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Missouri. She is also Contest Editor at The Missouri Review, associate editor at Origins Literary Journal, reviews editor at Fjords Review and will be a 2017 CantoMundo Fellow. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Vassar Review, Passages North, Los Angeles Review, Jabberwock Review and Puerto del Sol, amongst other outlets. Her poetry collection SCAR ON/SCAR OFF will be released in fall 2017.