A small boy on his birthday can’t help but attempt to steal a peek in the cracks between the fingers of his mama’s hand--carefully cupped over his eyes, as her other hand gently leads him in disorienting circles around the house for what feels like ages. Her voice is jubilant and laughter fills his ears from every direction, but his only thought is to discover the surprise waiting for him. Beyond her hand he can hear her voice directing him this way, now that, and farther off his papa and brother are yelling out small clues as to what is waiting for him, trying to tempt and tease him to call out for the end of the charade and to have the celebration revealed at last.
Finally he’s still; her hand is steadying rather than pushing him. She’s whispering instructions to Jake: something about hats. He is near to bursting with anticipation, but for a peculiarly static moment, he takes pause to wonder at the orange glow of this tiny world behind her temporary mask. The light above is streaming down through her hand, making the edges of her fingers seem transparent; his eyelashes tickle as he blinks. Finally her hand is lifted and for a precious bit of a second, as his squinting eyes adjust to the sudden flood of light, everything is white and his family clamorously yells out, “Happy birthday!” The noisemakers sound, the paper hats are brought out and donned, and the long-awaited reveal displays a chocolate cake so rich it actually shines, the drippy wax of the six candles each harboring their own miniature blaze, three perfectly wrapped packages, and the grins of each family member watching closely his every reaction.
The old man started awake. This memory was just one of many that surprised and intruded on his daily bouts in and out of fitful sleep as he lie in his sickbed. He warmed at the thought of the youthful glow in his mama's voice and hands that day, and could not help but to glance at his own withered reach, and the shape of his bony, claw-like grip on his blanket as he winced in pain.
"You need something Pop?" His grandson's voice. He shook his head and turned back to his thoughts; the young man went in search of a nurse anyway.
He recalled a bit of a poem he had heard somewhere once.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
How terrifying. Was his light dying? After a quick moment of serious self-examination, he realized that it was. The physicians and the family members all held up small hopes: surgical options, newer clinical trials, rarer, foreign treatments. But no, for the first time he allowed, he knew his hours were numbered. “Well, where’s my Marley?” he wondered aloud, surprised at the hollow sound of his own voice. “Where’s my Clarence? Who’s here to come and escort me to the other side?” He waited a moment for something, anything to happen. All he met was more silence.
What then? Did he rage against his end? Not hardly. The symptoms had hit all at once. Were those cancer symptoms or treatment symptoms? He couldn't even tell now. Treatment proved to be insufficient, so the "end-of-life care facility" was decided upon. At first it seemed a reprieve; no more needles, no more hospital smell. They had promised more rest, but unrest was all he knew now. All his senses could recall or be sure of were days and days of feverish, dreary, half-sleep - passing in strange measures of time that didn't seem to obey the normal rules, sometimes living through a minute of agonizing length, sometimes waking from a nap that had actually been days, usually spent traveling through memories. "Rage?” he asked of himself. “Not at all. I've just laid here," he criticized. "Maybe I ought to cause a little trouble."
He struggled at length for the strength to sit upright enough for his legs to swing over the edge of his bed. He looked around once more to see if some angel or reaper had come, but saw only the linoleum tiles stretching out before him. His feet found the cold floor.
He feels disoriented but a steady hand on his back, leading, calms him. He strains to peek through the fingers. Jubilant laughter fills his ears from every direction, and as the hand is lifted from his face, everything seems brightly white while he waits for his eyes to adjust.