Williams column: Winding down of life
By Mack Williams
For the Salisbury Post
There was a man who lived not very far from the very first place in which I lived in Yanceyville many years ago. I would sometimes run into him when I would be doing my exercise walk back then, as he would be out for a walk also. Being red-headed and fairly complected, he always remained pale, while I, with increasing exposure to the sun, became more tan.
A year or so, after I moved to Danville, becoming closer to my work at the Danville Science Center, I noticed this same man frequenting the outside of the old train station building of the Science Center to watch freight trains pass by. He only watched freights, because the north-bound and south-bound Amtrak only comes by at odd hours of the day, best described as late at night, and in the morning hours before dawn, neither qualifying as “daytime.”
I told him that it was good to see him again, and talked with him about the times when we both lived in Yanceyville. He said that he had re-located from Yanceyville to a warehouse that had been converted into apartments, not far from the Science Center.
Those first occasions in which I saw him out back of the train station as he observed the passing freights, he seemed to be as I had seen him years before in Yanceyville. Later, I saw him equipped with a portable oxygen back-pack; he told me that he had a degenerative lung disease, and that his health was failing.
Most recently when I saw him, he was in one of those “scooter-chairs” so often advertised on television. On their television adds, the scooter-chair people always say that their product can be had, if the situation warrants.
That most recent, last day when I saw him, his portable “back-pack” oxygen tank had been replaced with that item which always comes to mind when, as if in one of those “word-to-picture” association tests of psychology, the phrase “oxygen tank” is used : a two-to three-foot cylindrical metal tank, somewhat reminiscent of that used by a diver.
On that afternoon, he was sitting in his motorized chair out back of the train station, in the direct rays of the sunshine, prior to the sun’s descent beneath the summit of the train station’s roof. He told me, that in the warmth provided by the sun’s light, the pain within his body is relieved, adding that when he becomes cold, he aches all the way into his bones.
His reddish hair is now grayed, as is his complection, with his eyes having the look of a cataract-like film over them. He suddenly realized, while talking with me, that his oxygen tank was not fully turned on, laughing and seeming to make some fun of his own forgetfulness.
He went on to tell me that he and his elderly mother were in the same hospital, recently and concurrently. Their rooms were, by chance, just across the hall from each other. According to him, one day his mother was being wheeled down the hospital corridor past his door, and she issued to him a sort of challenge, saying: “Lets see which one of us is the first to go home!” The man told me that his mother passed away in that hospital just a few days before he was released, adding, that to him, she had won that challenge. When he told me this, I thought of the people in my life who have “gone home” before I will, but I am glad for my continued tardiness in such matters.
The gentleman went on to relate to me the latest prognosis of his physician, saying that in his case: “It is only a matter of time” and that “Nothing else can be done.”
He told me that he is so very tired of being sick and not feeling well, stating that his daughter had visited him recently, and that she had become visibly upset at his on-going decline. His words to her were: “Don’t worry about me, because I will be in a better place!”
He then looked up at me from his scooter-chair and said “We are all dying, you know!”
I have heard those same statements about the recently deceased all of my life, but they were always made by the clergy and well-wishers at the time of a funeral, all of whom seemed to be in the best of health.
I suddenly felt that what I had just heard was the “first edition” of such statements, and those whom I had previously heard use them in my past, had somehow journeyed into the future to borrow them from this man, who due to this most unfortunate circumstance of his health, was the “expert,” the one , truly “in the know,” to be quoted.
That last day when I saw him, I was taking our butterfly box out to release some butterflies which had emerged from their chrysalises and were ready to be set loose into what the Danville Science Center refers to as “Butterfly Station,” a netted botanical garden in which both tropical and native butterfly species are contained.
After we talked, I left him, on my way to the Butterfly Station, saying “See you later,” which he likewise, said to me. After I released the butterflies into the enclosure, I walked back, past where he and I had been conversing, but didn’t see him. He had evidently left in his scooter-chair, to return to the old restored warehouse-apartments not far away.
As I re-entered the train station, I reflected on all that had transpired that afternoon. The man had said poignant things to me about the winding down of his mortal life. After this, I had released butterflies from a box into the Butterfly Station; and most likely, in a matter of only some future days, this gentleman with whom I had talked will be released into forever.