He Just Listened

After a few days of dull pain in his arm, we decided to move my dad to a larger and more-equipped hospital. There, we learned that an infection at the injection point of one of his cancer treatments was slowly eating his guitar-strumming arm from the inside out. Until then, I thought flesh-eating bacteria was just a boogieman character out of Hollywood. My dad had just recorded his second album, and the idea that he may never play again was the worst ending I could imagine. Sepsis wasn’t even in the script.

I began a twice-daily ritual of driving back and forth to the hospital in Fairfax, Virginia from Washington, DC. Each time I would call my best friend Chris. Chris is a talker. Typically, he monopolizes the conversation for half an hour, and then finally remembers to ask how you’re doing. But not this week. This week he just listened.

On each call I would give him the updates: Dad was alert today; we were able to talk by writing on a piece of paper; the doctor flushed out his arm again to try to stop the infection; his numbers got better today; his numbers got worse today.

Those fucking numbers.

Chris is a biologist and conservationist. He stencils anatomical likenesses of animals for fun. He could practically see into my dad’s dying organs through my hopeful and pitiful narrations, but he never mentioned sepsis. For a solid week he just listened.

“I think he might be dying,” I finally uttered one day through the car speaker. I didn’t dare say these words to my mother or brother. I wasn’t ready to grieve with them, or really feel anything with them yet. But for 40 minutes each way twice a day, Chris allowed me to be crazy, inquisitive, rational, and full of shit, all in the same breath. While the tears, breathlessness and out-of-body-ness increased with each passing day, the freedom of Chris’ silence allowed me to truly hear my own words and move through denial into truth. There are so many urges we have during death. To comfort, to control, to rationalize, to empathize, to pretend. Chris didn’t do any of that. He just listened.

By Chase Maggiano