The nurse moved quietly around us, unhooking the IVs and unplugging monitors. With the bed pushed into the middle of the room in front of the window, I laid beside him and watched the rain drops roll down the glass, waiting for the morning to dawn.
I was curled into his side, my arm draped over the chest of my old friend as I traced circles on the back of his hand. My head rested in the crook of his neck and I listened to the ragged and uneven breaths pushing his chest up and down.
I sang his favorite song – my out-of-tune voice carrying the familiar melody barely above a whisper – as I laid by his side. I could only repeat the song over and over. All other words had escaped me.
Mr. Kelly was dying.
I tucked my body closer to him as he slept – he had been unconscious for nearly four days – and because I couldn’t think of what to say, my thoughts wandered to our afternoons together instead.
I picked up a yellow leaf that blew across the top of my shoe and held it in my hand extending in front of me. The last of the delicate maidenhair leaves were falling softly from the branches with each whisp of breeze. The leaves coated the ground like yellow snow that swirled around our feet with each step as we walked along the sidewalk.
The sun was setting, casting a warm, gold light across our faces.
“This is my favorite season,” Mr. Kelly said with a confident nod. “In my heaven, it will always be autumn.”
“Mr. Kelly, have you ever wished you could live forever?” He didn’t laugh at my sudden question, as I expected he would. He simply stared ahead of us, watching the leaves drop to the ground.
“No.” he answered simply and offered no explanation. I pressed him, I wanted to know why. Why would a man who led such a joyful life, who had so much wisdom and so much to give back to the world, not want to keep living.
“Only the scared want that. Only the scared need that. The brave may not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all. I, my dear, have lived. I don’t need forever.”
“I’ll leave you now,” the nurse interrupted my thoughts. “You can take all the time you need to say your goodbyes.”
I could only nod in the nurse’s direction as she shut the door behind her with an audible ‘click’ that echoed around the now-silent room.
“I like lilies,” he had told me, “no daises or roses or heaven forbid you bring those God awful carnations. Lilies, chrysanthemums, daffodils, tulips. Those are all beautiful.”
I bit my lip to stop the quivering. “I’m scared of endings,” I told him. “I’m scared of goodbyes, of last looks, of final moments.” And before I could choke out the last words I was sobbing into his pillow.
“Today isn’t goodbye,” he said and laughed softly into the afternoon air, “There will be an ending one day, but it will not be today.” I knew this, but something about seeing him in bed reminded me that what I’d grown to depend on would one day depend on me to let go.
“Can you promise me it will be a happy goodbye?” I asked him.
“There are no happy endings,” Mr. Kelly said and wiped the tears that dripped off my chin. “There are no real endings ever, happy or otherwise. We all have our own stories which are just a part of the one story that binds us both in this world and in the next.”
“No carnations,” a rough voice tore through my thoughts and my body shook with the strangled sob that escaped my throat. “No tears my dear girl. No tears and no carnations.”
They were the first words Mr. Kelly had spoken since his heart attack four days earlier.
“I can’t say goodbye,” I whispered and tears rolled down my cheeks, soaking the shoulder of Mr. Kelly’s hospital gown.
“Then don’t say it,” Mr. Kelly rasped out. He sighed then and slowly brought his hand up and placed it on my chest over my heart. “I will always be here my beautiful girl. You think of me when you get lost and I will help you find yourself again.”
“Now, Blair, who do you want to be?”
It was my turn to stare down our path into the crisp morning. I watched as people hurried past, on their way to their daily responsibilities and I tried to picture my life without any responsibilities. I tried to picture a time when I didn’t have to do anything, but I wanted to do it all.
I turned back to Mr. Kelly who was smiling at me. “I want to be a wanderer,” I told him and laughed at my own answer. “I want to be important to someone, to be remembered. I want to be brave and I want to be smart and I want to be loved. And I want to be passionate and spontaneous.” He was laughing with me by the end of my list.
“I believe you will be all of those things,” he said, “maybe you are already those things.”
I’m scared, I told him. Scared that he is wrong that I am none of these things. That I am only cautious and that people will only think I’m aimless in my wandering.
“Not all who wander are aimless,” Mr. Kelly says, “and if I am sure of anything, I’m sure you are brave.”
“I love you,” I choked out and hugged myself into Mr. Kelly’s body.
“Love is the only thing worth it,” he whispered and brought the hand resting on my chest up to stroke my hair.
I don’t know how long I laid next to Mr. Kelly after his chest had ceased its rise and fall. I stroked my fingers over the back of his hand as I told him of my hopes and my dreams, of all of the things I wished for myself in this life. I recounted times we’d spent together – places we’d seen and stories he’d told me.
Only when the nurse came to take him from the room, did I peel myself from the bed and away from him.
“I noticed here on the chart that you aren’t family?” the nurse said, tearing my focus from the now cold hand I still clutched in my own. “How did you know him?”
I smiled at her over my shoulder and looked back to the old man lying in the hospital bed.
I knocked on the front door and stood back on the porch waiting. A few moments later a small, wrinkled man moved slowly to the door and cracked it open.
“Hi,” I said in greeting. “My sister sent me over with this stuff for you,” I said, gesturing to my sister’s house next door, “she said you’ve been sick?”
He looked at me skeptically, not moving to open the door any further. I tried again.
“I’ve got soup and cookies,” I taunted, shooting him my most charming smile.
He opened the door a little further then.
“Is that so? Well come on in then, I can’t hardly turn away soup and cookies.”
I stepped in the doorway with a grin and let the man lead me down the hallway to the kitchen.
“So your sister said I’ve been sick, huh?” he asked me and I simply nodded at him while setting his care package on the counter. “She’s a sneaky little secret-keeper, that one.”
I must have given him a puzzled look because he continued quickly with a smirk on his face.
“I’ve not been sick. My wife left me.”
My face must have shifted from puzzled to shocked because he a laugh boomed out of him – deeper and richer than before.
“I know, I know, who leaves an 88 year old man just because I wouldn’t cut her toenails?” he said and shook his head at his own statement. “It wasn’t like I refused her because I didn’t love her – I just really do hate feet.”
I opened my mouth and then shut it again quickly, completely at a loss of what to say in response. “Her loss?” I said hesitantly and gave him a sheepish smile.
The man only waved off my comments and changed the subject.
“Never mind all that,” he said. “Would you like to stay and have lunch with me?”
“I, uh, shoot. Well, I’d like to,” I stammered out, suddenly reluctant to leave this man’s company, “but I’ve got to be home soon. Maybe another day?”
“Another day then,” he smiled and walked me back to the door. “I’ll look forward to it.”
“I’m Blair, by the way,” I said and stuck out my hand.
“Arthur Kelly,” he said accepting my gesture with a wink.
“Well it’s a pleasure to meet you Mr. Kelly,” I said and turned to leave.
I was down the porch steps and half way across the yard when he called out to me.
“I think you’ll do just fine,” he yelled across the yard, stopping me in my tracks.
“Huh?” I asked, looking over my shoulder at the man who had made his way out onto the porch.
“I said ‘you’ll do.’”
“I’ll do as what?” I asked, turning to face him. A bright smile spread across his face.
“As a friend.”
A polite cough brought me back to the hospital room and I looked back at the nurse who was staring at me expectantly, waiting for my answer.
“He, uh … ” I started, pausing to swallow the lump that was building in my throat at the memory. “He was my friend.”
Mr. Kelly died on a rainy Friday morning.
He had spent a week in the hospital after suffering two back-to-back heart attacks within two days of each other. He only regained consciousness for a minute or two during his entire stay at the hospital.
At 95, I think he’d agree with me that he lived a full life – one full of happiness, success and love. Mr. Kelly wasn’t afraid of death, or of leaving anything – even loved ones – behind. He knew it was inevitable, and he also knew it was his time.
I couldn’t possibly fit everything Mr. Kelly taught me into one blog post. I couldn’t fit it into one blog, or even the entire world wide web. There’s simply too much.
But most important of all, Mr. Kelly taught me to live for the next adventure – one would always be waiting, he was sure of that.
“Life is good,” he used to say. “And it just gets better everyday.”
I have no doubt he’s conquering his next adventure. And he’ll be with me as I look for mine.