On the afternoon after St. Patrick’s Day I found myself downtown and decided to get on a Tank bus and head over to Newport. I wanted to stop in at Bart’s on York Street and have a few drinks and visit with my friend and bartender Laura.
Already there was Donald — or that’s what I’m going to call him here. He’s an older guy and a Vietnam War vet.
To his way of thinking, we should have just blown that country up and started it over. He’s also a big fan of Dick Cheney. When he’s in the bar, I usually just drink and try to keep my mouth shut.
Laura was on her cell phone talking to our mutual friend Doug. He’s been more or less taking care of another mutual friend, a gentleman who’s now close to death. Doug was telling Laura our friend’s kidneys have shut down. He’s not expected to live long.
When Laura told me this, Donald, who was already a bit drunk, put in his two cents.
“Death’s a part of life,” he said. “You just die — no fun, but you just do it.”
I wanted to talk to Laura about our friend, but Donald still had the floor.
“When my mom died, they wanted to put tubes in her and I told them fuck that shit,” Donald said. “She didn’t want any of that. You die. That’s it.”
Laura and I looked at each other.
“Your mother’s alive, right?” she asked me.
“No, she’s gone,” I said, “died 10 years ago.”
“Were you with her?” “I wanted to be,” I said as other customers entered the bar.
Laura got busy, Donald went home and my mood turned somber. I started to reflect on departed family members and how I wasn’t there when they died.
That wasn’t the case with my grandfather, who died on my 13th birthday back in 1967. While my twin brother and I were blowing out the candles on our cake, he had a heart attack. Watching my mother and grandmother try to bring him back to life by rubbing his face and arms with cold water is something still vivid in my memory.
But since his death, I haven’t been there.
I’ve always been someplace else when family members have died.
When my grandmother died in 1974, I got the news through a phone call from my aunt, my grandmother’s sister.
It was the first time I’d ever heard my aunt cry, and I cried along with her. When she died several years later, I wasn’t there for her either.
In the fall of 1994, I knew my twin brother was fading fast. He lived in Seattle and this was back in the days before cell phones.
I was at the airport and getting ready to get on the plane to head to Seattle, when I got paged from the courtesy desk. I had a phone call telling me my brother was dead.
I finished my first drink at Bart’s. Remembering I could smoke in bars in Kentucky, I lit up a cigarette. As Laura brought me my second drink, my mind returned to death and the past.
I got word of my father’s death with a phone call from my mother. He died in 1998, but the reality is he died sooner than that. For the last three years of his life, my father lived in a nursing home in Vevay, Ind., suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Oddly enough, my mother was in the same nursing home when she became deathly ill two years later. She was there recovering from knee replacement surgery. She developed blood clots in her lungs.
When I got that call from the nursing home telling me they were rushing her to King Daughter’s Hospital in Madison, Ind., my younger brother, my son and I got in a car and raced like hell to get there.
Again, I was too late. She died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Returning to real time at Bart’s, I put out my cigarette in the ashtray in front of me and finished my drink. I asked Laura how much I owed her.
When I settled up and said goodbye, I remembered that Laura’s father passed away almost two years ago, very close to Father’s Day. I know she was there with him when he died.
When I got to the bus stop, the Tank bus was already there to take me back across the river to Cincinnati. As I got on the bus, I told myself to shake off all my gloom and get my mind off death.
The reality is when a loved one dies it’s pretty much out of a living person’s control. You can’t usually pinpoint death down to an exact date and time. You can’t put it in your planner to be there. All a person can do is the best they can.
At least my twin brother and mother knew I was making every attempt to be there for them, and I take some comfort in that. besides, I would rather someone remember me as a living and breathing person. When I die, I don’t want anyone scrambling to get to my deathbed.
And when it comes to dying, my buddy at Bart’s, Donald, is probably correct when he says death is just a part of life.
“You just do it — no fun, but you just do it.” Man, I hate it when Donald is right.
CONTACT LARRY GROSS: [email protected]