“Angel” by Sean Boyd
I was angry at death. I wasn’t angry that we all come to that same end, but I was mad that good people don’t get more time than bad people. Not more time for themselves but more time for the rest of us. The philanthropic, the altruistic, and the artists who inspire us should have more time then the greedy, self-centered, and mean.
I was having these thoughts as I walked across town to visit my friend Diane, who was in a hospice ward for the last days of her life. She had been sick for years and had exhibited grace and strength knowing at any time her condition could worsen, but now it was clear to all that her prognosis was terminal. Well medicated for her pain she was spending her last days in a heavily opiated state. She had shown such courage in life and it was frustrating to see her clarity slipping from the pain-killing drugs that were clouding her mind.
She was the mother of one of my best friends from junior high school and from our first meeting we knew we liked each other. As her daughter and I danced between friendship and romance I spent a lot of time growing close to Diane while hanging out at their loft in downtown Manhattan. Cassandra and Diane lived alone in a two thousand square foot loft space with an open floor plan to accommodate Diane’s large art pieces. She was a painter and had a distinctive approach. She would build up a thick layer of oil paint and use the paint as an adhesive to affix marbles and broken glass to the canvas. Her pieces were abstract and the three dimensional quality from the glass was stunning. As is the case with many talented artists she hadn’t sold much, but her work was highly regarded by all those who viewed it.
I loved talking with Diane. Though we expressed our art through different mediums we had deep respect for each other and carefully opened our conversation about artistic inspiration to be inclusive of all forms. Music, visual art, dance, and writing all held a place in our discourse. We decided that all artists dip into the same well of creativity, and through our wordplay developed a common language to discuss creativity across the panorama of human expression. We also had a common interest in literature and constantly swapped books. She would give me a Salvador Dali autobiography and I would give Aldous Huxley; she would share I’m Okay, You’re Okay and I The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. When we stumbled on Hermann Hesse we were both hooked and endeavored to read all his works we could find. There were many nights we sat around drinking wine and discussing literature. She was a painter and I was a musician but we spent most of our time talking about books. Even when her daughter went away to college we continued our friendship and would spend evenings conversing about the muses.
She had a piano in her loft that had been given to her and had laid dormant, collecting dust for years. One day I arrived and saw the piano open with a Beatles song book resting on it and she admitted to having decided to learn to play. She was struggling to read the score and asked me to give her a few pointers. I helped her as we had a glass of wine and as I got a little tipsy I forgot I was teaching and started improvising. I explained that music was all around us and if we open up it will speak through us. I further conveyed that the chords set up the basic structure and if you expound on the notes in the chords you have the elements for improvisation. In short she learned how to jam. Granted she didn’t become a virtuoso, but she got comfortable experimenting and delighted herself with her performance.
A few years later she decided she wanted to learn how to sculpt. She wanted to work with stone and found a studio where she could take classes. Unlike her foray into music her attempts at sculpting were met with immediate success. Being such a profound visual artist, even the first few pieces she created while learning were quite pleasing to the eye. Though she was getting weaker due to her illness she brandished chisels and heavy hammers with the vigor of youth. Even the weighty hunks of granite were no deterrence once she set her mind to learning to sculpt.
She hadn’t lived an easy life but her drive and zeal for living and learning never let up until she breathed her last breath. All the trauma of youth, a divorce that left her alone with three children, her pioneering the fight to make residences in industrial lofts, and fighting the disease that was attacking her brain never dimmed her desire to experience new things and live life to the fullest extent she was able. Even lack of recognition for her artistic prowess, which crippled so many of her peers, hadn’t slowed down her need to paint and acquire new skills. She had been such a vibrant inspiration for me I was challenged to confront the situation of her being on her deathbed.
Diane was to live out her days on a hospice floor at a hospital in the east twenties. It was a pleasant ward that had been well thought out. There was a lot of room for family and friends, and was well insulated from the hectic pace of the rest of the hospital. The staff was mostly nurses who showed a high degree of compassion and were trained to deal with terminal cases and their families as the need for doctors was largely past. Interfacing with the families, the staff exhibited angelic qualities while counseling and helping plan post-mortem details. They shared their strength, intimacy, and cheer and there was no detachment—when the tears flowed they shared the pain. With patients who had few or no visitors their grace and compassion showed most. They would hold hands and talk or listen and gave the impression they would happily accompany their charges through the process right to the pearly gates or whatever might come.
The ward took up an entire floor. There was a lot of sunlight and plants thrived in juxtaposition to the reality around them. Comfortable furniture filled the patient rooms and common areas where families consoled each other as their loved ones gained and lost consciousness in their slow slide towards death. Though there were only thirty or so patients, the rooms and halls were often filled to overflowing with members from different families, previously unknown to each other, who spent hours consoling each other and helping make plans for funerals, burials, cremations and the like.
As I walked to the hospital on that bright and sunny day I felt my soul darkening and was sure this would be my last visit. Diane had been interned for over a month and though medical indications hadn’t changed I could sense her giving up the fight. I knew she would rather have had a more dramatic end and she had gone as far as to try and get me to conspire with her in some active and thrilling final chapter in her life. This fantasy blended with her memories as the drugs she was receiving to numb her pain also numbed her brain and whittled away at the drive she had displayed throughout life. As I neared the hospital I felt like I was floating, or as if my entire consciousness was curled up somewhere far behind my eyes and my body was on automatic. There was no beauty in the world, my eyes could not perceive color and smells failed to catapult memories into my thoughts and my body went numb. I had visited the hospital numerous times and though ongoing renovations changed the course daily I mindlessly navigated my way to the elevator that would carry me to the eighth floor. I made an attempt to gather some sense of composure as I entered the ward, with what success I will never know. I sat alone with Diane during which time she only aroused from her morphine state enough to communicate with her eyes. When Cassandra arrived we each held a hand and those eyes passed back and forth between us. When more of the family arrived I excused myself and with one last look bid farewell to my friend.
As I exited her room I lost whatever composure I had mustered and, zombie-like, was barely able to find my way back to the elevator. Waiting for the car I felt despair consuming me and my breast was crushed as my lungs required attentive prompting to fill with air on each breath. When the doors opened I stepped inside
and stood next to a doctor with a clipboard and stethoscope who bore a facial expression of confidence in his power to cheat death. The car stopped on the seventh floor and the doctor charged forth into a bustling unit filled with complicated electronics and busy medical staff working diligently to postpone the inevitable for their patients. As the elevator continued down I felt myself falling into a darkness that seemed to go on forever. The chime that announced each floor sounded like a navigation beacon that was guiding my ship straight towards rocky shores that I knew I should avoid, yet I was powerless to alter my course. Somewhere in my descent the chime sounded and there was a pause in my freefall as the car stopped at some intermediary floor. The doors opened and a woman doctor or nurse stepped in. My guess was she was in her mid-fifties though her caring face revealed such humanity that her ethnic background and age were universal. I tried to gather myself together to be cordial yet I am sure my nod and weak attempt at a smile revealed more to the trained eye then words could ever do. She shared a sad smile and said hello in a way that echoed through my dimness and, as a child might respond to a neighbor when lost after dark, invited me to share my fears so they might be allayed. Unlike a child who can’t find his way home, I had no address to give and simply stated that I had come from the eighth floor. She responded, “We deal with that a lot here.” It was strange how those few words conveyed so much truth to my thinking mind, while also soothing my soul the way an entire song might. Saying, “We deal with that all the time here,” wasn’t just doctors and the hospital but: “We” was all of humanity; “That” was all of life, birth and death; “Here” was the entire planet. The words opened me up and set the circle of life spinning in my heart and deflected my freefall focus on death, and lightness crept back into my soul. The elevator stopped again and showed a view of a maternity ward with all its hopes and the richness of life as two others stepped into the car.
The next stop was the ground floor and I hesitated before stepping out into the confusing labyrinth of temporary walls and detour signs. The woman sensed my confusion and took my arm and said “I’ll show you.” It felt like I was learning to walk, my balance was sketchy and navigational faculties were debilitated as she led me arm and arm towards the exit. When she said, “I’ll show you,” it was as if she offered to show me life and share with me the reasons for, and the thrill of, living. As she directed me I noticed old and young, happy and forlorn, sickness and health. As the route she took led through the emergency room I saw blood and gore and the zest for preserving life in both patients and staff. I felt as if some ghost was transporting me Scrooge-like on an existential journey designed to show me the circle of life in an attempt to seduce me away from the edge of the abyss.
When we reached the street I was still disoriented, for we had exited the back of the building. Not having my bearings I clutched the arm of the woman who had offered to lead me back to the land of the living. Still seeing only black and white I was oblivious to color and artistic form. We passed a flower shop and I saw only lifelessness and was unmoved. My guide led on while speaking gently of seemingly trivial matters. I paid no attention to what she was saying or where we were headed but felt a kernel of contentment begin to germinate deep in my soul. We turned the corner onto the avenue and walked with a gait that was totally disconnected from the rush of the city going on around us. We came to a restaurant and she told me this was as far as she could take me. I looked in and tried to decide what form of nourishment I needed and decided it wasn’t lunch. My guide realized I needed a stronger push and spoke in low tones of the circle of life and how we must indulge in the luxurious nowness that is life. Her voice had a gentle melodic rhythm and she rested regularly to let her words sink into the dark places of my spirit. It was as though she was chanting or singing. Though my intellect wasn’t grasping the meaning, the tone worked strongly on my subconscious. As we stood there I caught the scent of her floral perfume and began to notice color on the menu and my eyes danced over the decorative curlicues as though they were the work of the finest hand. She sensed my spirits lifting and with a smile she loosed my arm and bade me “Good Day.” I looked in her eyes and with a fire kindling in my heart. I told her I thought I would have a good day. As I found myself alone again I felt the strength growing inside and began to notice the beauty of life all around me. It was odd but I was exulted by quite ordinary sights. The common floral print of a passing woman’s dress, the colorings of a pigeon, the ads on the side of the buses and decorative displays in store windows all moved me. I had walked a few blocks before I realized I had been walking in the wrong direction and began to laugh at myself. The laughter was like a snowball rolling down a hill and gained momentum until my sides hurt and tears rolled down my cheeks. Passersby were at first alarmed until they saw the joy in my smile and even cynical New Yorkers seemed to catch the contagion and rejoiced with me. As I retraced my steps the world appeared to me in Technicolor. I was so filled with the resonance of life that I saw beauty in everything. Even the modern sculpture in the park that I had always found vacuous moved me. I realized it was a beautiful day and I was very much alive. As I walked by the restaurant I looked in the window and saw the woman who had led me back. She saw my expression and nodded and winked in a way Diane would have.