We had made multiple trips to the hospital to see him. He was our co-worker, and more than that, he had become a good friend in the year and a half we had known him. Somehow, Don was able to touch people in a way that made them immediately comfortable and able to open up and share their deepest joys and sorrows.
We called him our "Elderly British friend," when in reality he was only in his late 50s. He always looked much older, and with his variety of heath problems and his extensive life history, it was as if he had lived several lifetimes. His death was foretold and had been anticipated for some time. I was the last to see him on the job, his last night. The two of us worked together on the night shift and our supervisor had been on him about sleeping on the job. He was narcoleptic, amongst other things, and frequently nodded off but always finished the work given to him. That last night he told me, "If she wants to screw with me, she should know that I can milk my illnesses for a very long time."
The next day he was diagnosed with leukemia during a routine medical examination and nothing could be done except to keep him alive and comfortable for a few months. He was taken to the hospital, where we visited him, and where one of the bizarre miracles of my life occurred.
I had come to Orlando to find someone, a woman who turned out to be a waitress named Tina. At the end of her time as a waitress, when she completed nursing school and went on to become a nurse, she thanked me for coming into her life. Although she had always kept herself apart from me, that last night she worked she told me something that stayed with me. She had been afraid of death and I had somehow convinced her not to be afraid any longer. Not only had she become a nurse, but she was devoting herself to working with terminally ill patients, a decision she attributed to her conversations with me and with my appearance in her life. Two years later she was the nurse working on the floor where my friend Don was receiving treatments and, basically, waiting to die.
"The nurses here are really lovely birds, but it kind of kills my old British charm when they stand there watching me have a piss and then empty my bedpan."
There is a reason I call the women I love angels. It is their destiny.
My last night working with Don, he insisted I listen to a CD he had. He loaned it to me that night and never asked for it back. They don't have CD players on the other side, so I don't expect he really needed it back. I was skeptical and not all that interested. It was a compilation CD of songs recorded by Sarah Brightman and the first track was Captain Nemo, which was destined to become the song my best friend Mark and myself would remember him by.
Under the surface so crystal clear
Everyone was really tense
Waiting down there
He had his own world just like I had mine
We'll go seperate ways 'til the next time
There are no words to say as
My friend swims away
Don's wife Suzette called us the day Don was destined to die. She knew it was coming and there was nothing more to be done. I went to their house, along with my friends Mark and Anna, to say our last farewells. We had been like his children at work on the night shift. I was the eldest, Mark was the middle child and Anna was Don's "little pet lamb." He spoke to each of us in succession. I went first, followed by Mark and then Anna. Afterwards, we went outside to Anna's Jeep, which we had all come in, and sat silently ouside of it, knowing it was now okay to cry.
"Look after Mark, he needs you and you're the only one strong enough to help him now."
"What about Anna?"
"Oh, she can take care of herself. Don't worry about her. You and Mark will one day make something happen, but you have to look after him. You're much stronger than he is."
That had been my final conversation with Don, and at the time I expected this meant I needed to remain in Orlando. Don had spent a lot of time convincing Mark and me that our talents combined could make magic. I was the writer. Mark was the performer. Together we could make the entire office laugh, cry or sing.
Anna went home and Mark came back to me to my apartment that night. We had told Suzette to call us when Don passed on, telling her it was important that we know. She promised to do so, secure in her own grief and in her own faith to know that the time had come to let go. After reaching my apartment, Mark and I began drinking and remembering what Don had meant to us. And then I pulled out the CD, the one Don had given to me, and started playing it.
Captain Nemo said, "okay"
(five, four, three, two, one)
Then I raised my hand and waved
Captain Nemo went away
(Love me when I'm gone)
Left 'em all alone, Nemo's going home
It was as if the song were a message. Even in the time before, as we talked about Don and cued up songs we thought would remind us of Don, including delving into Don's curious preoccupation with the Pet Shop Boys, it wasn't until this song that we both fell silent and later admitted we felt his presence with us while the song played. It was perhaps the most emotional moment connected to listening to a song I've ever had and the same was true of Mark. It was transcendent.
And as I watched him, police boats approached
An alien force haunting us like ghosts
"Wish I could stay here and play for a while
But I must be on my way..."
The warmest of smiles
Then he dived into the waves among the other whales
As the song ended, the telephone rang. It was Suzette calling to tell us that Don had passed on. She was stronger than we were at that moment, but she hadn't heard the song about the whale.
Lyrics copyright Sarah Brightman
Used within fair use guidelines