If you're looking for a feel-good, happily-ever-after story, this isn't it. If you're looking for something with emotional impact, please read on...
The old man woke slowly, wondering whether he really wanted to bother. His ears were assaulted with the sound of rain falling outside his window, its harsh insistent pounding implying the beginning of another miserable day. He was aware that the heat had diminished in his tiny basement apartment suite to a point that was somewhat less than comfortable. The warmth of his bed felt good on his tired frame, and he was in no hurry to leave it for the chill that awaited him, should he decide to get up. He'd lived here for more decades than he cared to admit. At seventy years old almost, he was tired, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually, as well.
Roger Stone had lived an interesting life, or so he had been told. Like every life, his had been a patchwork-like conglomeration of high points and low ones. At one time, the high points had dominated his memories, but as the years had passed, there were fewer and fewer of those events. Now, it was a struggle just to remember what had happened yesterday, and many mornings, he had trouble discerning where one day ended and the next one began. Lying in the warmth of his bed, he was visited by some of the memories of his life.
Roger had been married, once. The relationship had started out like a fairy tale, with all the warmth, love, and intimacy that his dreams had been made from. They were young, in love, and had their whole lives ahead of them. He had his ambitions that he thought they'd pursue together, building a life one success on another. He'd started a small business, in hopes of working his way towards an acceptable level of financial independence. That would allow him to give his new wife the kind of life he believed she deserved, and one that he'd dreamed of through most of his youth. Most days were spent building that dream, followed by evenings of passionate lovemaking with his new bride.
But she had her own ideas and agenda. For her, marriage was all about having babies that would grow up to be her support in her old age. She truly believed that this was her destiny, and that Roger was merely a means to that end. Within the first year of their married life, she was pregnant, and their intimacy diminished, much to his chagrin, becoming something that only occurred whenever she wanted it, which wasn't more than once or twice a month. Roger found himself becoming more involved in his first-born son's growth and development than in the role of a husband. Once the baby celebrated his second birthday, it wasn't uncommon for him to spend his day looking after the needs of a toddler, and his nights working to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. His wife had taken to pursuing her own interests outside the home. With the feelings of a sense of duty, Roger would do whatever was needed to make her little world comfortable for her, even at the expense of his own personal dreams and aspirations.
It was in the third year of their marriage that he found out his wife had cheated on him. She had confessed, her attitude one of disinterest for the effects of her transgressions, rather than remorse or a plea for forgiveness. It had seemed almost surreal to Roger that such a thing could happen. But he had forgiven her, and took her back. Years later, he would wonder why he'd bothered. At the time, though, it seemed like the right thing to do.
To compensate for her claim that it was loneliness that had driven her to seek sexual adventure outside the marriage, Roger began to spend more time at home, both looking after his son, and making himself available to relieve his wife's sexual needs and desires. Many nights, she'd stimulate him until his body was sufficiently aroused for her purposes, then avail herself of his cock until she had an acceptable orgasm. Once she'd cum, though, she was finished. If he climaxed, that became a bonus for him, but most nights, she wouldn't give a damn if he did or not. As a result, he'd leave their bed after she was finished with him, and go to another room to relieve his sexual tensions. It became part of a regular routine, and his interest in sex slowly deteriorated to simply satisfying the animal-like demands of his body.
The next few years found Roger spending more and more time with his son, or by himself. He'd lost interest in his business, and as a result, it failed. In his mind, that failure was just another notch in the tally. First his marriage, then his business, then ... probably his whole life. When his wife informed him that she was pregnant again, he questioned whether or not he was the actual father. The probabilities were about fifty-fifty, and he accepted that he'd raise this next child, too.
Over the next four years there were two more children added to the brood. He knew he was the father of the third child, his second daughter, and both her and her older sister became the lights of his life. There was still a strong bond between him and his son, giving him some hope that maybe he was the only family failure. He was also very aware that it was impossible that he was the father of the fourth, another son. The resentments began to grow right from the day the child was born, and Roger refused to acknowledge that his wife's additional burden on his strained resources was connected to the child's legitimate birthright. Over the ensuing years, neither father nor son would have much to do with each other, and the boy grew up wild and undisciplined. Roger found himself admitting that he really didn't give a damn, quite content to let the last offspring struggle alone.
That last child wasn't even a year old when Roger had come back to the house one morning after his twelve-hour shift to find it empty and gutted of everything except his remaining wardrobe. No occupants, no furniture, nothing. Not even a note of explanation. The only indications that the building had ever been lived in were the marks on the wall where pictures had once hung, and the various signs of damage that constituted daily wear and tear. With a final realization of his defeat and failure, he carefully packed the remaining items left to him, gave the walls and floors a haphazard washing, then loaded his meagre possessions into his car. Taking a last look around, Roger locked the doors, then slipped the key through the mail slot, signifying the closing of a chapter in his life.
For the next ten months, Roger lived out of his car. His wife had cleaned out their bank account, leaving him with no financial resources to start all over again. At the ripe old age of thirty-eight, he had absolutely nothing except the clothes on his back. He tried to conduct himself as though nothing were wrong, even convincing himself that the departure of his wife was a blessing. But he did miss his oldest son and both daughters. Especially the girls, and he cried himself to sleep every night. By the end of twelfth month, his performance at work had suffered sufficiently that he was terminated. The only saving grace was that he'd accumulated just enough money to survive for another few months, and maybe a little longer, if he was careful. After that, he didn't know, and really didn't care. Death by starvation wasn't an appealing end to his existence, but living with the memories of his failures revolted him even more.
Some hidden spark inside Roger induced him to at least attempt to survive. He found himself a job that kept him away from the memories, and provided him with just enough to feed himself and keep him warm during the cold winter months. Again, his life became a blur of disconnected events, one day seeming very much like the previous. The days of the week no longer mattered. Every one was the same, and he poured his energies into his job, working until he was exhausted, then sleeping only long enough to regain sufficient strength to initiate another round. The appeal of food had completely disappeared from his survival drives. He ate irregularly, often not eating for several days at a time. Within six months, he'd lost over thirty-five pounds, and a good percentage of his muscle tone and body mass. At five-foot six, his ideal weight had been calculated at one hundred and sixty pounds. At one hundred and twenty-five, his body ran out of stored reserves to maintain his health. Plagued by illness after illness, he retreated from the world into a small basement apartment, convinced that this hovel would be his final resting place. His only regret was that someone else would have to clean up after him. But he'd be dead, so it really wouldn't matter.
Somewhere in the time of living in his new residence, a public health official had come to check on him. They'd pounded on his door, yelling his name and demanding he open it. He'd tried to ignore them in the hopes they'd go away and leave him to die in peace and quiet, but they'd broken the door down anyway. Despite his loud protests, he'd been removed from his bed and taken to some antiseptic facility, supposedly for his own good. He'd blacked out long before the gurney had been wheeled out the doorway, only to wake in an unfamiliar room painted a cold colour of light green, attached to various machines and monitors, tubes running from intravenous bags to somewhere on his body. They sedated him through one of those liquid solutions coursing through his system, for he fell back into a dreamless sleep almost immediately.
Once again, time lost all meaning. Roger drifted in and out of consciousness, usually at the behest of some person asking him questions for which he had no answers. At first, he'd tried to communicate, but his lips wouldn't form the words he wanted, and his answers never satisfied the inquisitor anyway. It wasn't long before he stopped trying, stopped speaking, and began to resent the intrusions. All he was interested in was the comforting isolation of unconsciousness, the peace and silence of that existence becoming like a haven for his tortured soul, and a way to ignore the growing list of perceived failures. How long he'd be kept under these conditions, he couldn't tell. It didn't matter to him anyway, for to him, he was comatose enough to almost be dead, and any recognition of this clinical world they'd stuck him in didn't really register. There were now only two states of his being; conscious long enough to understand that he wasn't dead yet, and unconscious, where he was spared from his thoughts.
He'd been in the ward for almost a decade when he was finally released. The Health authority assigned someone to check on him twice a week, although he really didn't feel that he was worth the effort or expense. But twice a week, once on Wednesday and again on Saturday, there was a woman that knocked on his door, demanding that she be granted entrance, then testing him and measuring all his vital signs. At first, he resented the intrusion, but over the months, he slowly began to accept, then look forward to the human contact she represented. She prescribed a diet that he followed, if only to keep her from nagging him about his weight and general condition. As time went on, he actually gained some weight, eventually tipping the scales at one hundred and thirty five pounds, although his muscle tone still left something to be desired.
Over time, Roger actually began to look forward to the therapy sessions, and his contact with the woman that tried to help him. Her visits kindled a flame inside him, gave him a reason to carry on, to maybe even look forward to another day. In short, she was the spark that ignited his will to live again. Their therapy sessions stretched from the prescribed three months to almost five years. Many times, the therapist visited him on her own time, enjoying his company almost as much as he enjoyed hers. At first, they were merely acquaintances, but with time, they became friends. There were many days when they spent time together just for the magic of sharing.
Roger began to believe that he might be falling in love again. The days seemed brighter, the sun warmer, the nights a little less lonely. She would cook for him, and he loved every bite she fed him. She would do his laundry, and he began to take more pride in his appearance. She'd ask him to do little things for her, and he felt like there was a purpose to his life again. She even hugged him a few times, and he never wanted to let her go.
But like all good things, it came to an end. He had suffered spinal damage that threatened to leave him paralysed. He struggled to learn the use of crutches at first, then graduated to a single walking cane. There were days when he could even walk unaided, as long as he remained on a level surface. He truly believed that she was the woman he'd always dreamed of when he was younger.
Then one day, she didn't show up at her usual time. Roger waited and waited all that day, telling himself that she'd merely been delayed, and that she would come eventually. But that day became another one, then turned into a week, and finally stretched to a full month. There was no explanations, no contact, nothing that he could grasp in his desperate bid for understanding. With her departure, so too departed all that he had gained. He reverted back to not eating, not exercising, and not caring whether he lived or died. Slowly but surely, he became a mere shell of a man again. And once again, the public health people invaded his lowly refuge. They returned him to that hated institution, ran medical test after medical test on him, and subjected him to interview after interview. Roger fought to escape the mindless searching that they inflicted upon him, determined to once again find that state of catatonic indifference that gave him relief from the memories, from the frustrations, from the realization of the truth of his failures, and from life.
And so, on this cold, miserable, and rainy day, Roger jumped when there was an unexpected knock on his door. He feared that the public health people might have returned, bound and determined to torture him some more. He felt the tears begin to well up inside him, and for the first time in more years than he cared to remember, he desperately wanted to cry, to let the pain out, to find some inner peace for his tormented soul. He wanted to, but found he couldn't. All those years of denying his feelings, of stifling his pain inside him were now keeping him from the one activity that might give him relief.
His screams were just about to launch themselves from his throat when he remembered the public health people. Any noise from him would let them know that he was inside the small suite, that he was conscious, and even that he was alive still. The confusion of his dilemma eroded a little more of his slowly deteriorating logic centres. A part of him wanted to answer the door out of curiosity, while another part wanted nothing more than to yell at the intruder to go away, irrespective of how futile such an exercise might be. A third possibility entered his mind, to ignore the demands in silence, his hopes being that whoever it was would give up and leave. But the continuous pounding only became more and more insistent, ceasing only when a key was inserted into the lock and turned. A middle-aged woman invaded his sanctuary, addressing him by name.
"Mr. Stone? My name's Lynn Askew. I'm here to make sure you're alright, and to see if I can help you in any way."
"I don't need any help!" Roger snapped back. "Go away, and leave me alone!" He rolled over so that his back was to her, every joint in his body protesting the movements, even as he resumed a fetal position under the blankets of his bed.
"I can't do that, Mr. Stone," she told him, her tone indicating that her decree was not open for discussion or debate, "but we do have to talk. Can you sit up for a minute and look at me, please? What I have to say is very important."
Roger struggled to roll over again, his joints protesting every movement and his atrophying muscles begrudging his brain's commands. She saw him wince at the effort, understanding his situation better than he did himself. In that one moment, her clinical attitudes and training disappeared as she connected to this lonely old man as a fellow human being. Her heart went out to him silently, as she found herself genuinely wishing that she could make his pain go away, knowing that it was impossible. He stared at her wordlessly, waiting for the next round of lectures and inquiries that would surely follow.
"Mr. Stone, there's no easy way to put this, so can I be blunt and straightforward?" the woman wanted to know.
"Whatever" he grunted, his indifference saturating his reply.
"Sir, I've been contacted by the public health authority. They've analyzed your latest test results, and I'm here to discuss those results with you. You'll have to make some choices eventually. I'd like to be able to talk about them, and their consequences. We can start now, or I can come back tomorrow. But I'll be back every day, until you understand the seriousness of the situation. Which is it, today, tomorrow, or for as long as it takes me to get the message across to you?" There was still a demanding tone to her voice, but laced with something that Roger hadn't experienced for more years than he cared to remember. Compassion seemed to be as good a label as anything else. He became aware that this new intrusion wouldn't cease unless he heard her out, but for once, he also didn't feel threatened. The decision to listen to her slipped into his mind softly, quietly, and without the usual fight for civility.
"If you have something to say," he growled, "then say it. The sooner you finish, the sooner I can go back to doing what I was doing before you came barging in here." The woman just sat beside him on a chair she'd pulled up, waiting for either his undivided attention or for the courage to do what she came here to do. He didn't know which it was, and didn't care. All Roger knew was that the sooner she was finished, the better.
"Mr. Stone," she began, "there's no easy way to put this. The hospital tests indicate that you have cancer. They also indicate that you've left it too long to be treated. Do you understand what I just said?"
Roger knew that he should be concerned, or scared, or worried, at the very least. But he wasn't. In truth, he didn't give a shit. That one piece of information helped him fill in a couple of the blanks in his mind. He now knew who would die, had a good idea of where, what the cause would be, and how his life would end. All that was left was to find out was when, not that it mattered much. Tomorrow would be as good a day as any other, he told himself.
"What you're saying is that I'm going to die, right?" he threw out at this woman that was, for him, the bearer of good news. "We all die sometime, somewhere, and because of something. I've known that most of my life. Big fucking deal! Now you burst in here to tell me something we both already know? Fuck off, and let me die in peace!" he cursed.
"As I said, I can't do that. The powers that be insist that you be aware of what's happening to you, and what you'll have to go through. It's a painful death, unfortunately, and it's my job to try and reduce the pain as much as I can. Would you consider going to the hospital, so we can administer pain killers?"
"No!" He was adamant about that. His life had become a series of medical interruptions over the last thirty-something years, and he hated them for that. This ... creature ... was just another member of a legion of self-serving medical interventionists, in his opinion. But if she wanted to sit by his bed and watch him finally expire, it was no sweat off his balls.
"Look, lady," he began to expound for her benefit, "I came into this world alone. Even my own mother abandoned me, so I spent most of my early life either in a foster home or an orphanage. I'll die alone, too. It's kind of ironic that for the sixty-something years I've been alive, no one gave a fuck, and now that the end is here, I'm being bombarded by people that say they care? What a load of horse-shit! You don't give a rat's ass, one way or the other. You know it, and I know it. So why are you here?"
"Actually, Mr. Stone, I do give a shit, as you put it. I was taken away from my own father when I was just a little girl, and ever since, I've always wondered what happened to him, how he's doing, whether he's happy, or even if he's still alive. That was a part of what made me take this job in the first place, and I've been doing it for almost thirty years. In that time, I've met some very special people, and they've helped me learn something about myself. I can't take away their hurt, their pain, or their suffering. I can't right all the wrongs they've gone through. But there's something that I can give them, and maybe it's the only thing I can give them, but it means a whole lot more to me than most people understand. I seem to have an affinity for making their last days a little more comfortable, a little less lonely, and every once in a while, a little less scary. For reasons that I'm not about to go into, I'd like to be able to do that for you, too. You can say no, and that's your right. But wouldn't it feel better, when the end finally arrives, to know that you mattered to at least one human being? To finally discover that your life wasn't a total waste after all? To find that there'll be at least one person left behind whose life you touched, and you made a difference because of it?"
Roger thought about what she'd just told him, and that tiny flicker of hope made itself known to his existence again. He hadn't felt that sensation for so very long, and now that it had reappeared, it was about to be taken away from him? Something inside him screamed at the irony of it all, even as he resigned himself to his fate.
"How long?" was his only question, not that the answer was particularly important any more.
"Maybe a day or two" she quietly whispered to him. "But not a full week, I'm afraid."
"And you'll be around until ... until I go?" he queried.
"Every minute, if you'll let me" she offered. He accepted her pledge, not expecting it to happen, but strangely grateful if it were. "What's the one thing that you'd like me to do for you, to make these last few days the happiest I can make them?" He thought about it for a minute, then whispered in a voice that was barely audible.
"Let me feel real love. It's been so long since I was truly loved" he replied. She could see the tears welling up in his old and tired eyes, and her heart went out to him. She would grant his request, and feel privileged for the chance. Leaning forward, the woman softly kissed the old man's forehead, pressing her soft and warm lips to his wrinkled skin for what seemed like an eternity.
"I'd be honoured" she whispered, knowing that he probably hadn't heard those words from her lips. In the long run, they probably didn't matter to him anyway.