16 May 2018

A Pause In Conversation

I'm about to hang up after the 8th or 9th ring when I hear an unexpected voice.

"Hello, Kalae," says the voice on the end of the line. "How are you?"

His voice sounds fuller than I remember from our last conversation: stronger; clearer, somehow. Clearer still than the staggered emails we exchange, emails in which I am never sure exactly what tone to strike, what questions to ask, what words to say about the elephant in the room: the brain tumor that is killing my friend.

I know how to address him. I do not know, however, how to address his dying, either in an email or in the small alcove of my office next to the copy machine and the fire exit where I am standing, staring at the shadow of the elephant some 900 miles away.

"I'm fine," I say. "How about you, brother?"

"I'm dying," he says. "But I'm not trying to do it too quickly."

I have to smile. I do not intend for this to be our last conversation and if I do, I lose sight of it in the warmth – the life – of my friend's voice; the sober cadence, the tempered calm, the amusement behind the words. Death is many things, but to the dying it must also be, at least on some level, a novelty: the one thing that is either something or nothing at all.

For the rest of us; for the unconsciously dying, it's a shadow: a phone call that will come in the middle of the night, news that will be delivered from a friend of a friend, or a knock on the door that will turn our lives upside-down, no matter the steps we take, no matter the preparation we try to mount, memento mori be damned.

"Well. Good. No reason to do that before you have to."

The long silences, the pauses, are nothing new. It's part of the rhythm of the way we communicate. I know that. But now they take on a weight that they didn't have before: the weight of time.

I ask who's been visiting, what he's been doing, if he has books, if he has music. "I can't walk," he tells me, with only the slightest hint of something between irritation and resignation. "So I listen to audio books. And I smoke cigars."

That revelation – that he is still smoking cigars – fills the cracks I feel forming in my heart and I laugh as the light seeps in. "Good," I say. "I couldn't be happier to hear that. I'll have to send more contraband tobacco. Can I get you anything else? Anything you need?"

"Well," he says, "I'd love it if you could pay me a visit."

I'm not sure what to say. I'm pained. I'm confused. I'm not sure why he'd want me to visit. And yet of course I know why. What I'm actually facing is my own fear of death: his death, the death of those I've loved and lost, the deaths whose shadows I have turned my back to, the deaths that every last one of us must eventually face. I fear the conversation that I will walk away from knowing that it is the last. I fear the moment where I will have to muster the courage to embrace the knowing and the shadow and the finality of absence.

But that fear is stilled by grace, by the warmth of his voice, rich as smoke rising towards the sun.

Later, I'll check flights, rearrange my schedule, make the beginnings of my own preparation to travel.

"I'll see what I can do," I say. "Until then, try to stick around for a bit. I'd hate to miss you."

"Oh, I will. Figure I'll be here at least another month," he tells me, as though we were discussing a move to a different city or a new apartment.

Another pause. A short silence before I find my voice. "Well, ok, good. Take care, then. I love you."

"Ok. I love you too."

I end the call. I stare at the copy machine in the quiet of the office.

The longest silence – perhaps a pause, perhaps the beginning of eternity, or perhaps the sound of an unexpected voice that will find us in the darkest and brightest hours of our lives – has yet to come.

I know that too.