LETTING GO, MY EXHALE
Sometime in the months to come I anticipated writing up a glowing report of victory to be posted here for the reading and celebrating. One in which my friend Cliff received his kidney transplant and settled into a lengthened lease on life filled with renewed energy. A much deserved reward for too much time spent feeling physically weary and haggard in his past year and a half of living. Last night I found a message waiting on my cell from Cliff’s mom, Susan. Her voice wavered at the end of her request for me to call her back as soon as possible. Suddenly, the various knick knacks I was perusing in the kitchen portion of a local store held no meaning. I inhaled and don’t remember exhaling as I made my way out to the car where I anxiously waited for an answer on the other end of my returned call. Jim, the stepdad, answered and recognizing my voice told me he had some really bad news. Cliff had passed away at home some time during the day. A determination as of to specifically why was under way. I lost it. The phone was then handed off to Susan where I tried to pull myself together in order to offer some sort of comfort and understanding to her.
I write now, not to make anyone uncomfortable, as such disclosures often do. I write to share the inner strength I witnessed in him despite his physical hardships. Encouragement in his memory, as part of his legacy.
It was my very first day back to school in what was to be my college sequel. During one of the classes, the program advisor, Gary, walked by and recognizing me from our meeting together just weeks prior, stopped to say “hi.” Cliff happened to be sitting next to me. Gary turned to him and with a wink and a nod, said, “Young man, stick with this one, she’s sure to take care of you.” With that, began our friendship, one of ease and common interests built on a love of VW Beetles, classic cars in general, Macs – his knowledge and my awe and wonder, and music, the more, the better.
Cliff often worked two and three jobs off and on so that he could afford the latest and greatest in gadgets and clothing, by no means caught up and ruled by them, though, as some are. One of the best dressed guys I knew, his want of comely aesthetics extended to his home. I remember the first visit over to the condo he’d recently purchased before all the physical trauma occurred. Walking in, he had a large sander sitting in the corner waiting for a time to smooth the textured surfaces of the ceilings. There were painted charcoal grey walls, a few large sculptures he’d created adhered in various places, and the kitchen cabinets partially stripped soon to have their own turn with the charcoal paint. Touches of his favorite deep cerulean blue were here and there. A work in progress. From birth, Cliff lived with diabetes, it affecting his growth so that he appeared to be in his early to mid-teens, though, recently turning 25. Still, he was quite the ladies’ man, but never in the piggish sense. Girls found him adorable and seemed to flock to let him know that at times. He was amiable, thoughtful. Between his natural tendency to open up to others and his multiple jobs, he had many the connection. If one had a problem, he always had a potential solution to offer up with a phone number to accompany it. He totally got that life is what you make it and he embraced that. I remember his telling of his solo trip down to California because he simply had to experience Disneyland in their 50th year anniversary celebration, companion or no. How on one night of his trip, after another day spent at the happiest place on earth, he somehow found himself in a very sticky situation at a Hispanic tattoo parlor. Always creating adventure!
This past summer, he was checked into the ICU for several weeks. Walking into that room, it felt cold and clinical. There was a man in the room who could be no other than Cliff’s biological father. He had that face, Cliff’s face, and the way he stood. I remembered a few years back, Cliff telling me the relationship with his dad was nonexistent. Since his physical ailment befell him, that completely changed. His dad calls him every day and makes regular trips over from Spokane where he resides. His mom, also there, introduced us and his dad teared up, asking, “You’re Deborah?” and hugged me intensely, as if the hug would convey feelings words could not. He proceeded to thank me profusely for being there for his son almost as though it were a duty. I reminded him it was a privilege, and again found I had to let go of the disgust I felt for all those who’d dwindled away. Cliff deserved more. He deserved the many who called themselves friends and acquaintances to be there for him when he needed them. He felt abandoned this past year as the calls lessened, the visits ceased. I more than understand the uncomfort in seeing one cared about as a mere shell of what they were. One doesn’t know what to say. Often activities are too much for the person to engage in and that puts all the more focus on the lack of something to say. It reminds us we’re mortal. And, it just plain hurts. Push past the uncomfort, though, push through it. Risk the uncomfort and pain. Just on the other side, is the friend you knew.
Cliff would try to draw still, as it was a huge part of his life pre-troubles, only to find the coma he came out of that began all these atrocities over a year ago caused his brain to function differently lessening the creativity that once flowed freely.
A side effect of his combined diabetes and kidney failure was that he lost his sight almost completely.
He could no longer drive, the activity he always turned to for peace of mind.
His car, driveway bound, was broken into and his DVD player, CD player and speakers were all ripped off.
In an attempt to extract his huge downloaded collection of music from his laptop with what little sight he did have, he accidentally deleted the entire collection.
His voice thickened and became gravely.
His already thin body grew frail and his face puffed up unnaturally.
He found he could no longer sleep at night, though, tired the whole day through, the lack of regular activity didn’t quite tire him out enough to give him the relief and rest that sleep brings.
This last month, congestive heart failure set in where he said he felt like he was drowning internally as fluid threatened to fill his lungs permanently.
He sat for four hours at a time three days a week for over a year on dialysis.
I list his troubles only to contrast his positive outlook.
He never, ever stopped in moving forward with the most amazing attitude amidst his struggles.
He’d say that he was just glad to be alive to breathe another moment, to share what was left in life: Family, my friendship, a simple car ride, a good song, even just waiting for a booth out amongst people at a busy restaurant.
He didn’t want to waste even a moment on thinking about what he could no longer do, only what he could.
He set lofty new goals for himself to replace the ones he had to let go.
I’d tell him it was okay if he was down and needed to talk, I’d understand, it’s just part of being human.
He said he certainly felt down at times, but it vanished each time he got to get out and about again.
He saw death and it made life precious to him and I could sense that when around him.
The weaker he became physically, the stronger he seemed to get in spirit.
We won’t be going to dinner and a movie with Bean and her friends tonight. How I wish I’d called him one last time instead of waiting until today, it’s too late. I will tell myself that all that strength he had finally just outgrew his body. Maybe it’s true …
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