all of the selves we Have ever been
I was his emergency contact.
I just didn’t know it.
I learned of my assignment one sweltering summer morning when the local dialysis
center called to say that Julius had not shown for his treatment that day. Julius had missed
an appointment earlier in the week as well.
Still holding the phone, my mind went into overdrive. It was not like Julius to skip dialysis even once in a week much less twice. Painful as it was, dialysis was his life and his lifeline. This was not good news. I grabbed my purse and headed to the car. During the short drive to his home, I tried to prepare myself for what I might find.
The back door was unlocked. I called his name as I opened the door. No response. An offensive odor and a swarm of flies greeted me instead. The house was burning hot, like a glowing kettle that had simmered for days over an open fire. I stepped carefully over the plastic shopping bags dropped in a trail around the door, the contents scattered here and there. I walked past the bathroom where I could see the toilet was backed up and the flies were buzzing. I called his name again, “Julius?” No response.
As I proceeded toward the living room, I could see Julius in profile. He was seated on the couch. The television was on. Julius did not react to my approach.
As I stepped around the couch and came face-to-face with my friend, I could see that Julius had died, probably several days earlier. Though I had anticipated what I might find, the preparation did not prevent my heart from breaking. I called 9-1-1. The dispatcher told me, “Get out of the house.” I sat on the front porch steps with my head in my lap and waited. The police arrived, and we entered the house together. With Julius’s medical history and no signs of other trouble, the police called the coroner, and then we waited for the funeral home staff to arrive.
This was not a typical call for the young men from the funeral home. They came dressed respectfully in dark suits, crisp white shirts, and ties. Once they entered the burning hot house, sweat poured from their faces and necks. The condition of the body was unusual for them, and they were concerned about moving Julius’s fragile corpse. They asked me to leave the room and turn down the heat, if it was on.
I waited on the back porch and said a prayer. As Julius passed, I lay my hand on the black body bag—farewell from an emergency contact and friend.
The situation was both surreal and painfully real. There was much to be done, and while I was honored to be the emergency contact, I was not next of kin. I had no legal authority to make decisions. Julius had a nineteen year old son in flight school somewhere down south. I would need to reach Christopher and tell him that his father was dead, the most difficult of assignments. I loved Christopher. Had Julius anticipated this moment when he chose me for his emergency contact?
The situation was overwhelming given the shock, heat and work to be done, but I wanted to clean up the house to honor Julius and for the sake of his young son who would soon arrive filled with grief. Thankfully, a friend came to the rescue. He unclogged the toilet and helped me to roll up the carpet that had been underneath the place where Julius died. I contacted a restoration company and got a machine to eliminate the terrible odors that filled the house. Then I rolled up my sleeves and got to work trying to put the house in order, scrubbing away my sorrow. The smells from the home, the smell of death filled my nose and saturated my clothing. I could not get away from it, but the scent kept Julius on my mind and close to my heart.
As I worked, I reminisced. There was a final gift from Julius. We were with him on his last good day. We just didn’t know it. Had we known it would be the last good day, the knowledge might have destroyed the exquisite beauty of our final time together.
It began as a simple day, ordinary on the surface, and yet it was filled with an extraordinary sense of peace and contentment. My children and I packed up some lunches, picked up Julius, and took him to a medical appointment in Cleveland, about an hour from our homes. Julius needed to meet with his transplant team, and he was becoming too easily fatigued to make the trip alone.
Surrounded by this sweet man, and my sweet children, we talked and laughed. The children and I waited in the assigned area for Julius to finish with his medical appointments and tests and then we went to our van where we broke out a picnic lunch. Julius insisted we stop at a local country shop that sold delicious ice cream. His treat. Julius sat in a rocking chair on the covered porch while the children played on the edge of the pond and fed the ducks. Like hummingbirds, we poked among the blossoms, drinking the nectar of that beautiful day. Julius asked for a second ice cream cone, and we lingered there, happy and content.
I had known Julius for a long time. His life had never been easy, and yet he was always kind, considerate, concerned, and cheerful. His own problems were never at the forefront. He always wanted to know about me and the children.
This year, as we enter the season of harvest and thanksgiving hounded by a relentless virus, I am reminded of my friend Julius and all those who live with the specter of death. Julius made his peace with that terrible roommate. He did not let that specter rob him of joy. Julius did not let that threatening presence steal his spirit while he was still busy living. After Julius died, as I was helping to write his obituary, I was reminded of the words of G. K. Chesterton: “Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances we know to be desperate.” That was so Julius.
None of us know what the day will bring or when it will be the last good day. While we live in a time of chronic threat, I want to be more like Julius—to make peace with that ugly, microscopic roommate and hold onto my spirit. Julius had a beautiful voice, and he loved to sing. There was always a song in his heart. Though he did not write the lyrics, I am sure he would agree with these words from the divinely inspired hymnbook: “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad.”