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Deciding when to Die
“I’ll come just as soon as possible,” he said “please, please wait. I’ll be there soon. You have the number at the hotel, right? I’ll be in the lounge for a while. Call if there’s any news.” He hung up the pay phone and walked back to his seat at the bar.
The hotel bar was remarkably empty, under the circumstances. He sat on the stool nearest the door.
“I’ll have another beer,” he told the bartender. He pulled out his ticket and looked at the departure time. He should be landing now.
“You delayed, too, pal?” A large man in a blue suit sat next to him at the bar. The man’s collar was open and the knot of his tie loosened, and shoved to one side. He thought for a moment that it made the tie look like a noose.
“Yes,” he said politely, and turned towards the television screen. He hoped he would find some good news there. When he was young, his mother taught him to look for a source of good news in a bad situation. It probably would help cheer him up.
“I’m Ted Theobald,” the large man said, extending his hand.
He slowly shook the hand. “Roger Monk,” he said tentatively.
“Nice to meet you Roger, where you headed?”
“I’m going home,” he said, eager for the man to leave him alone. “My mother is dying. Our family is gathering for her.”
Ted released his hand and pulled on his already loose tie. “Wow,” he said, “I’m real sorry to hear that.”
He turned back around to the television screen, which the bar tender switched away from the local news, and tried to interest himself in an episode of The Jeffersons.
Ted waved down the bar tender and ordered a Manhattan. “Have you seen any recent forecasts?”
“No, I haven’t,” Roger replied.
The bartender brought over the drink and handed it to Ted.
“The last forecast I heard said another 36, 48 hours of this. The airport just closed down completely. Nothing coming in or going out. You two traveling?”
“Yeah,” Ted said. “I’m headed to Toledo for a conference. Looks like I won’t be makin’ it, though!” He guffawed until his already-ruddy face turned scarlet.
“Probably not,” the bar tender said. “What about you?” he asked Roger.
“My airline bought this room for me several hours ago – before the airport shut down. They’d already delayed us twice. Then they canceled all flights for the next 12 hours and sent everyone here. The closer hotels were already booked.”
“You could be here for a few days.”
“I have to get home,” Roger said. “Are the roads passable? I could rent a car, maybe.”
“I heard the police closed the interstates,” the bartender answered. “The plows can’t keep up with it at all.”
“Damn,” he swore in spite of himself.
“What’s the matter?” the bartender asked. You’re staying on the airline’s dime. Don’t worry about it. A couple day’s vacation, right?” He shrugged and smiled as he wiped the bar with a dirty rag.
“My mother is supposed to die today,” Roger said. “She’s in pain, and she’s waiting for me to get there.”
None of the men said anything for several moments.
“That’s a tough one, buddy,” the bartender said, draping his towel over his shoulder. “You’re stuck here for a few days.”
“I can’t be stuck here,” Roger said, looking at his half-empty glass.
“What’s wrong with your mother?” the bar tender asked.
Roger saw the face of the doctor who originally had broken the news. “It’s treatable,“ he had said, “but I don’t want to mislead you. It’s almost always fatal.”
He remembered the imprudent pang of expectation the entire family gained from those words.
“She’s dying of cancer, and has been for several years,” he told the bartender. “But in the last three weeks, she’s gotten much worse. The doctors say it would have come any time now, anyway. This whole thing is just to help make the end less painful. She’s in so much pain.”
Ted finished his drink and told the bartender that he’d like another.
“She discussed it with her doctor, and decided last week to do it. I asked her to wait until I could get there. It took me longer than the rest of the family.” Roger jumped up from his chair. “I asked her to wait for me.” He thumped his chest with his fist. “I put her in that pain for longer.”
“Whoa, whoa, pal, hold on a second.” The bar tender backed up a step. “It’s not your fault she’s sick.”
“No,” Roger said, as he looked up and down the bar, and slowly sat back down. “It’s not my fault she’s sick, but it’s my fault she’s still sick.”
Ted put his hand on Roger’s shoulder. “Look, I’m not too good at this stuff, but, uh, I’m sure it’ll be okay. I mean, she did it, right? She waited when you asked.”
“Yes,” Roger acknowledged. “She did.”
“Then it must have been important enough to her that her whole family was there when she, uh,” Ted trailed off.
“Yes but now,” Roger said, “I’m delaying her further. And causing her more pain, but now she is expecting me. I just wanted to see her one last time.”
“That’s really a tough one,” the bartender repeated. He walked back down the bar to help two new customers at the far end.
“Listen,” Ted said. “There’s really no correct choice here. The way I figure it, you can wait this storm out, and go home, see your mother one more time like you planned. It will just take longer for everyone involved. I assume the rest of your family is already there?”
“Yes,” Roger said.
“Or, the alternative . . .”
“Damn it!” Roger jumped to his feet. “I don’t want to hear about alternatives. I don’t want to hear about anything.”
He walked quickly out of the bar, down the short hotel hallway and out into the snow.
Unsure of exactly why he had come outside, he grabbed a handful of snow and threw it as far as he could. He watched it arc against the sky, catching light from street lamps and neon sighs as it flew. It was reassuring, somehow, to him to throw that snowball. He threw snowballs again and again and again. He hit cars and signs. He threw snowballs at the building, and tested himself several times to see if he could reach the adjacent restaurant, each time falling far short.
After fifteen minutes, his hands numb and his shoulder aching, he stopped throwing snowballs. He hadn’t thrown so hard since playing left field in high school baseball. He was amazed at how badly his shoulder ached. He turned slowly around and noticed Ted standing behind him.
Roger dropped his eyes. “How long have you been there.”
“Just got here,” Ted said.
They walked inside and back towards the bar. As they neared the bar’s entrance, Roger veered off course, and both men stopped.
“What are you going to do?” Ted asked.
“I’ll be right back,” Roger said. “I need to make a phone call.”
He walked down the hallway to the bank of pay phones near the hotel’s main desk – the ones he recently had used to speak with his sister.
The last time he talked to his sister, he heard his mother asking in the background who was on the phone. He easily identified the haze of pain medicine that surrounded her voice when she asked. Somehow she still found a kernel of curiosity inside her tormented mind. She only wanted to know who was on the phone. That’s all she really wanted.
With the phone in his hand, he knew immediately that his decision was the correct one.
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