Conversation at the Twilight of Life
AN ACT OF FAITH
By Kent Nearburn
I met Ralph in midlife. It was my wife’s second marriage, and he was not sure what he thought of getting to know a new son-in-law. The first had been good enough for him, and he looked with suspicion on anything that was a product of divorce — a practice for which he did not have a great deal of respect.
But slowly I had won his friendship, sealing it on the night we sat at his favorite bar drinking beer while watching a hockey playoff game.
But now he could watch nothing. The years of hard work and hard living had gradually sapped his physical strength, slowly reducing him from a gruff, robust man to a fragile, bedridden invalid who spent his days lying in an almost comatose state in my brother-in-law’s spare bedroom.
It had been a difficult decision. As Ralph’s physical capabilities had waned, we had all done what we could to keep him in his home, and when that was no longer possible, we had moved him first to a group home, then a nursing home, where he had sat all day staring vacantly into space with nothing to wait for but his meals and the occasional visit from his family.
My brother-in-law, a good and caring man, had been unable to endure the sight of his father ending his days in lifeless rooms bathed in sickly, pale half-light, and had chosen to move Ralph in with his family. Now Ralph spent all day in bed, unable to talk, unable to sit up, unresponsive, almost unconscious. The children and my sister-in-law treated him as one of the family. They would come in, say hello, ask him how he was doing, and try to bring some brightness into his life, not knowing if anyone remained inside the shell of the man who had once been the rock at the center of the family.
Louise and I live two hundred miles away, so we would see Ralph only on our infrequent visits. We, too, would go in, say hello, and make small talk. But we, too, were confused and uncomfortable, wondering if we were playing at some kind of dark charade by having one-sided conversations with a man who might not even be present to the words we were saying.
Yet one day, spurred by an offhand comment by my brother-in-law about how he left the radio on because he knew how much Ralph had liked to listen to ball games, I made an unlikely decision. Instead of just passing small talk in the emptiness of that silent bedroom, I pulled up a chair and sat down by Ralph’s side.
I began slowly.
“I don’t know if you can hear me, Ralph. I don’t even know if this makes any sense. And if you can hear me, I surely don’t know what it is that you are going through.”
I looked at Ralph’s impassive face to see if there was any response. His skin was ashen, and his skull, pressing through the flesh, made him seem like he was made of stone.
“I figured, though, that you never hear anything of what’s going on, and I just wanted to tell you a little about how your family is doing.”
I told him how his wife, Mary, now had her own apartment and how we were all helping her in every way we could. I told him about each of the grandkids, what they were involved in and how they were doing in school. I talked to him as a man talks to another man, trying to assure him that the lives he had tried to give to each of his children were bearing good fruit, and that the family he was leaving behind was filled with promise and hope.
It was a strange conversation, both hollow and intimate, for I was speaking as a man speaks in the quiet of his own heart when he recounts his own life to himself in a fumbling effort to make sense of the things he has done. All I could hope is that the calm tones of my voice and the earnest offerings of my heart were somehow reaching past the emptiness in Ralph’s eyes to touch him, like half-heard music, in some distant place where his spirit still ranged free. In the kitchen, I could hear the clinking of glasses and the shuffling of plates. It was time to finish up; the table was being set for dinner.
I reached over to put my hand on his, as I always tried to do whenever I entered or left. There had been no movement, no sign, no awareness that I had been there at all. His hand felt cold and hard, as though it had already been claimed by death.
“You know, Ralph,” I said. “It’s okay to go. You did well. The family is fine. We’re all carrying on.”
I stood up to leave. But as I stood up, I caught the momentary glimmer of some moisture in his eye. Then I stood there, mortified, gratified, as a tear coursed gently down his lifeless cheek.
Finally, my wife’s voice, calling me to the table, brought me back to the land of the living. I took my hand off his and stepped toward the door.
“I’ll see you, Ralph,” I said into the silence.
Then I walked out to join the Sunday family dinner with its laughter and commotion and good-hearted conversation.
But my heart was not at that table. It was in the silent room, only a few steps away.
And as I joined with the family, brought together around a common meal, I prayed, in my own clumsy fashion, that Ralph could hear the clinking of the glasses and the rise and fall of laughter, and that in them he could find some comfort, as one finds comfort in the rolling of a distant sea.
Excerpted from The Hidden Beauty of Everyday Life by Kent Nerburn. Copyright © 2006 by Kent Nerburn. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of New World Library. $16. Available in local bookstores or call 800-972-6657, Ext. 52 or click here.