Losing Friends, Finding Nemo, and All the Life in Between
In memory of Don Hill V
By Tammy Perlmutter
Last week we said goodbye to a long-time friend. We’ve known he and his wife for 24 years. He had been experiencing intense, unrelenting shoulder pain for a few months and doctors couldn’t give him a definitive explanation until it got so bad he wound up in the hospital and came home with a diagnosis of Stage IV cancer. Life seemed to freeze in place and move in fast-forward simultaneously, and we all had whiplash and were in shock and had no words but were filled with disbelief.
Our family says goodbye to him on a Wednesday night. Our pastor is at Don’s bedside with his Bible open. We talk with a few friends as Jude, Don and Rebecca’s autistic son, shout out the upcoming scenes in Finding Nemo. He is getting irate about the people who are standing in his way, and he is going off like a motion detector siren every time Phoenix gets within half a foot of him.
Wash, the very wet Boxer, sidles over morosely and lays his drooling face on my leg.
The spot by Don is vacated. Mike and Phoenix head in that direction as Phoenix asks, “Why does he look so different?”
Mike steers her into the bathroom and explains to her that Don is very sick and has lost a lot of weight. They come out, and Mike sits on a stool by the bed as Phoenix settles into his lap. Mike tells her to hold Don’s hand to let him know they are there, so she takes his long, thin fingers in her tiny ones.
They are quiet as Don slips in and out of sleep. Phoenix stays there, watching Don and holding his hand. My heart lurches and tears sting the corners of my eyes. I am intensely proud and deeply sad, watching three people I love navigating this hallowed territory between life and death.
Mike tells her to say goodbye to Don and she does, then announces she wants to see the turtle and leaves the room. Mike and I are camped out next to Don’s bed, there are people milling about speaking quietly to each other, and the moment is shattered when we hear yelling from the hallway.
“THE TURTLE IS POOPING ON ME!”
I jump up and head for the hallway where I see Phoenix lounging in a wheelchair with a huge reptile in her lap and a trail of poop from her chest to her knees. I wish to God it was a turtle because then the cleanup may have been more manageable and subdued and we could have maintained a modicum of class during this solemn occasion.
Linda is not a turtle, she is a tortoise, which should be Greek for “evacuates mass amounts of waste at any moment. And may have originated in the underworld.” (It’s true. Look it up). This infernal, yet endearing, creature takes up the entirety of Phoenix’s lap. I run back in the room where people are somber and dignified and snatch up some napkins to subdue this ill-timed mayhem.
As I am removing surprisingly large tortoise droppings, the thing is still going for it, and I am trying to keep up but manage to drop the poop back onto Phoenix as I’m trying to scoop the newest ones off her lap. I am apologizing to Phoenix and we are laughing, and I pick up Linda who is still not done with her functions and now she’s peeing. On all three of us.
People are praying and holding a sick man’s hand, phones are being answered and dinner is being ordered, and Wash with his soulful eyes and his swinging slobber somehow keeps getting back into the room after he has already been removed several times. It is chaos and it is ridiculous and it is beautiful. It is community at its most vulnerable and most authentic.
Don died two nights later surrounded by his family during a week full of friends moving out of state, getting married, starting relationships. Endings and beginnings. Seasons changing, life transitions in full swing, deepening connections, shared laughter and tears, memories that hurt and heal at the same time.
In the wake of this whirlwind is a little girl who was kicked out of a preschool, suspended in kindergarten, failed circus school because she couldn’t stay still long enough to listen to instruction or wait her turn. A little girl who speaks nonstop at the wrong time, wrong place, wrong volume in cartoon voices, memes, and TV quotes.
This same little girl sat by a dying man’s bedside to say goodbye, held his hand with the perfect amount of pressure, sensed the sacredness of the moment and was quiet, fully present, gentle.
I was not expecting that. She still surprises me, usually at a time when I am despairing of her ever resembling a typical child in any way. She did it all right, and in that grieving heartbeat, she was exactly who she was supposed to be.
About the Author
Tammy Perlmutter writes about unabridged life, fragmented faith, and investing in the mess at her blog Raggle-Taggle. She founded a collaborative blog, The Mudroom, to make room in the mess and create a space for people to be heard. Tammy guest posts a bit, writes flash memoir, personal essay, and poetry, leads writing groups, and preaches on occasion.