“Close your eyes,” I say.
I’m lying on a chaise lounge on his patio, and he’s sitting in his favorite chair at his glass-topped patio table, smoking a Marlboro Special Blend, his brand of choice.
“Maria just posted this on Facebook. She says it’s her favorite vocal performance that she’s recorded.”
The singer Maria Mckee, one of my dearest friends, is one of the several artists I’ve introduced Thom to over the years. He’s grown to love her beautiful voice as much as I do.
Thom adjusts his favorite white terry cloth bathrobe in the slightly chilled Palm Spring evening air and closes his eyes. I hit play on my phone, and the song begins to spill out of the Bose portable speaker on the table in front of him, courtesy of Bluetooth.
The song begins with an organ dirge, and soon Maria’s silky vocals attack the lyrics to the John Cale song “If You Were Still Around.”
If you were still around
I’d hold you
I’d hold you
I’d shake you by the knees
Blow hard in both ears
If you were still around
There is silence when the song ends until Thom simply says:
The silence continues, and I lie on the chaise gathering my whirlwind thoughts. It’s been little more than a month since Thom’s cancer returned, and though we both know what’s coming, I’ve yet to confront him directly about the dreadful truth that is so frighteningly imminent.
The silence continues until it’s almost painful, the emotion generated by the song still lingering in the air. It’s a song about death, and here we are, the spectre of death hanging silently between us, a dreadful elephant in the room. Or on the patio, to be precise.
Thom continues to smoke his cigarette, occasionally sipping at the iced coffee I made for him earlier. He’s come to love these drinks, which I make for him using the leftover morning coffee, some half-and-half and more sugar than any responsible dietician would recommend.
I stare up at the darkening Palm Springs sky, and the desert breeze ripples the palm fronds above me, circulating down onto the patio, and caressing the wind chimes that hang just outside his bedroom window. Those chimes, coupled with the sound of the fountain in his garden and the waving palm fronds, creates a dissonant natural orchestra that is almost indescribable in its beauty.
I get up and move to the patio table and sit down opposite him.
“Close your eyes,” I say again. I do not have to explain this request to him, he immediately intuits why I’m asking.
I watch him as he closes his beautiful blue-gray eyes, and tilts his head up slightly, beginning to register the gorgeous cacophony. A soft smile plays around his lips.
Thom and I have always been on the same wavelength, ever since we first met. He is kind, he is funny, and he understands me in a way few others ever have. Words are often extraneous in our relationship, which is a good thing since Thom has a tendency to mumble…particularly when he is stoned, which he is quite often… and I have some hearing loss.
I get up and move to the chair next to him, and place my hands on his knees. His eyes open slowly, and we stare at each other for a long moment.
“How do you feel about dying?” I ask suddenly, and it sounds ridiculous the minute it leaves my mouth. I’m attempting to be matter-of-fact about all of this, to show him that I’m not scared of death and that our relationship still has the same “talk about anything and everything” kind of rapport to it.
Before he can answer, however, a great heaving sob escapes me, and within seconds my head is in his lap, and I’m crying so hard I can barely catch my breath. I feel his hand stroking my hair, and he does this until I’m able to regain some semblance of control.
I sit up, drying tears that won’t stop leaking out of me, and look into his face. There’s a mixture of sadness and something else I can’t identify. Resignation? I can’t be sure.
“I’m so sorry,” I say through hiccups. “I didn’t want to do that.”
“I’m glad you did,” he says. “It’s important we talk about this.”
“I’m going to miss you so much,” I say, and the sobbing begins anew.
When I’ve caught my breath again, I blurt out “I want your wind chimes. When you’re gone, I want your wind chimes. I want them because every time I hear them, I’ll be hearing what you heard. I’ll be hearing what we both heard all these nights we’ve talked on this patio. I want to think of you every time the wind blows.” I suddenly feel ridiculous, like some sort of ghoulish scavenger.
“Thank you,” he says.
“For what?” I’m confused.
“For being able to ask. Of course, you can have them. You have no idea how happy it makes me.”
He’s smiling now, taking another drag on his ever-present Marlboro.