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I haven’t written about R in months. Last summer he was at the rehab nursing home, getting stronger and putting on much-needed weight.
He hated it there.
I visited as I could. It was hard because R’s friend, S, was always there. Always. S is homeless and stays with a friend at night but spent his days with R. S can be a pleasant man but also exhibits signs of mental illness (paranoia and delusions), and several visits in the cramped space of the nursing home were very scary for me. And R. I’d pretend to leave and then sneak back into the director’s office to let staff know that S was agitating R, and to please keep a close eye on the situation. There was no way I could speak directly to R about S because I knew if R had to make a “choice,” he’d choose S over me in his life.
Then against all medical advice, R left the nursing home. I’d been calling him for several days without getting an answer, and figured it was because he was doing physical therapy or in the dining room or out in the hallway. I told myself R was safe and getting stronger.
The following Monday I was busing tables at the spaghetti dinner, and in walked R.
I was upset. Not just because he’d left the nursing home before regaining his strength and weight, but because he hadn’t seen fit to let me know.
I was hurt; I thought we were friends. But I reminded myself R probably didn’t tell me because he was afraid I’d try talking him out of leaving. And I probably would have done that.
R looked horrible. He was weak. He was ill.
The next week or so I saw him again at the spaghetti dinner. He said he needed groceries. I told him Zippy and I could shop after the meal clean-up and then drop them by his house or I could bring them the next morning. He said the next day would be better. I told him I’d call before leaving for the store and that he needed to answer the phone to let me know he was there. I repeated that instruction several times and he agreed.
The next day I called but R never answered the phone. I continued calling off and on for the next two days. Then on September 11, R’s birthday, I went by his house with a card and a coffee table book on Italy. R had told me he wished he could go to Rome and since I knew that wasn’t possible, I wanted him to have a taste of Italy. He didn’t answer my knock so I wrapped the book in a plastic bag and left it on a chair on his porch.
I didn’t hear from him. Two days later Zippy drove to R’s house and saw the present still on the porch. Then R’s neighbor saw Zippy and told him that R and S had taken the train to Toledo to visit R’s cousin.
He and his cousin had been estranged for twenty-five years. Some family feud surrounding R’s mother’s death. But R kept talking about his cousin and finally last summer he got over his anxiety and let me track her down. I talked to her on the phone. I facilitated that first conversation they had after all those years. R was very happy to be reconnected with his only surviving family.
R didn’t see fit to let me know he was taking that trip to Toledo.
Again, I was very hurt. But this time I knew it was R’s decision whether we’d ever be in touch again. So I let go of the anger and hurt, and focused on the release that came with knowing R didn’t need me in his life. If he didn’t know me well enough to get that I would never, ever have stopped him from taking that trip to see his cousin, then there really wasn’t anything between us.
In the following months whenever I’d picture his frail body in his filthy home, I’d remind myself that was what he’d chosen. I’d remind myself I’d offered help and that R was living his own life on his own terms.
I saw R across the dining room one Monday in late October. He and S were just leaving but I didn’t say hello because I was helping voters figure out their polling places and ID requirements. I had the election on my mind.
Last night I was busing tables when I saw S. If you’re still reading, you’ve probably already figured out what comes next.
R died at home on December 20. He was alone. He weighed 76 pounds, down from the 102 he weighed when he left the nursing home. S told me when he found R it looked as if R had gone peacefully. I’m not inclined to believe much of anything S says, but I’m holding onto that statement.
Right now I’m struggling with so many emotions. Sadness and anger. Hurt. Outrage. S had my number. S chose not to call and let me know. Not only that, S said some hurtful things to me last night. Zippy keeps reminding me S is mentally ill. And a dick. Zippy is right. Just as he’s correct in pointing out that S was most likely messing with R’s head in those last months.
R was a deeply unhappy person. He also suffered some mental illness. But I’m trying to remember him as he was when we first became friends years ago. He’d talk to me about what Denver was like before all the changes. He had an incredible memory and described the architecture of old buildings and rattled off names of clubs and restaurants. He told me he was a jazz singer. It makes me happy thinking of him singing, especially since I only knew him with the raspy whisper that came after his throat cancer. Losing his voice seems the cruelest blow, and I believe it was the source of much of his anger.
The last time I visited him in the nursing home we had one of the best conversations in years. He told me about being a little kid in Toledo watching the old guys playing chess at the tables on the sidewalk and how his grandfather would buy him a penny candy. He had some good memories and I’m glad he shared them with me.
So what is this huge mass of words I just spewed? I guess this is my way of sorting through my feelings. I know I did good things for R and I know he wasn’t a very pleasant person, so I’m not looking for pats on the back or anything like that. I’m just trying to make sense of my relationship with Robert. Trying to figure out whether we really were friends or whether I carried all the weight in that department.
I’m guessing it was a little of both.