It really seems goddam strange to be telling a dying man on pain meds that it is okay if he doesn’t feel up to mowing my lawn, but here we are.
Okay, so no one knows anything for sure, but when David went for more tests last week — the PET scans and whatever all else that probably ought to have been done months ago, and would have in a civilized nation that had proper health care for everyone — the answers were about what I expected, which is that the cancer he was treated for earlier this year just kept marching on. I knew that. The first symptom he described was what I recognize as an endgame development, and eight whacks of chemo beat it back, but I wasn’t sanguine. He’s got pain now, and he finally gave in to taking the drugs for it, and he and his wife still showed up this afternoon to work in the garden.
The doctors told him they wanted to start a very powerful, aggressive chemo. He recited a list of the side effects and explained he didn’t want any of those: pneumonia, for one. I think he was telling me that he would rather die of the cancer than the treatment. I hope that’s what he meant and not that he has some half-formed idea that prayer or vitamins or herbs might do it. I am all for vitamins and herbs but the right tool for the job is important. A long time ago when my late and ex was starting chemo, a radiation tech I knew from a past life gave me a little of his time and assured me that bashing the disease, even with crude weapons that break down a person’s body, could mean the difference between lots of pain and not much, even if that’s the best you get.
I told him I had a name from a client who loves her yardworker, and that if he didn’t feel up to mowing I’m covered. It’s been scorched and breathless here for weeks on end and the grass is twisting and browned in the sun, so it’s an academic question at the moment. He reminded me I still have a couple mowings left (I pay him for a dozen or so in advance) and I said that was all right, forfrigsake (which I didn’t say because he never swears), if he didn’t feel well that did. not. matter. to. me.
He thanked me. He went out back with Liliana to check the harvest. I don’t grab him by the lapels and say Fuck My Lawn because that would be like saying I know you’re done, you can go home and die. I think the life he has now comes from the smell of the hairy tomato vines, the saturating solar rays and the turned dirt.
He was always one of those people that you figured would live forever (like it or not) because he griped so much. (The more you complain, the longer God lets you live.) He’s always bitched about his health, peppers don’t like him, he got candida from all the years of drinking before the Lord took away the desire, he can’t eat this and that, for all these twenty years you would have thought he was ailing for everything to listen to him, and yet he would dig and rake and clear and sift and lever with crowbars, praying his year’s vegetables out of my dirt, brown and corded in the sun, always a little stunned-looking but untiring. He walked everywhere (most likely his driver’s license went up in the flames of a series of DUIs decades ago). He would stand out in the yard working his three rows, weeding, watering, spraying (always with something organic, about which he discoursed at numbing length) — sometimes from nine in the morning till dinnertime. I never asked where he peed.
Liliana picks up the shovel now. He still carries his backpack.
I that in heill was and gladnesse
Am trublit now with great sickness
And feblit with infirmitie:
Timor mortis conturbat me.
He spairis no lord for his piscence,
Nae clark for his intelligence,
His awful straik may no man flee: —
Timor mortis conturbat me.
The poem was meant as a eulogy for other poets — written in the sixteenth century in broad Scots, other than the Latin tag, which is from the Office For The Dead. David has the literary sensibilities of a Roto-Tiller but the world will be poorer without him to describe exactly how long it takes to raise a tomato from seed. Exactly. Exhaustively. My yard’s his poem, and I can’t do anything for him, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t expect to go into the Lake Of Fire that his evangelical and slightly cartoonish God has ready for Sinners and Unbelievers, because he seems vexed and unhappy in about the same octave as when he had two lawnmowers break down in a year. But not afraid.
Maybe he has something to teach the poets.