On my last visit with Roy, I called ahead to see if he needed anything. He told me to bring cigarettes: a carton of Rothmans Blue, King Size.
My heart sank. Why, dear God, did I have to bring cigarettes to a man dying of lung cancer? How could he even be smoking? How much would a carton of cigarettes cost, anyway?
My mind ricocheted off the walls, bringing emotions along for the ride: outrage, fear, bewilderment, guilt, shame. How could one man churn up so much in me?
I hadn’t seen Roy in years, like a lot of his other “friends.” We’d abandoned him, one by one, after his video production company went belly up and he slipped into the abyss of alcoholism, mental illness and, finally, homelessness and utter destitution.
Always gregarious and clever, Roy had been blessed with many talents. He was a gifted writer, photographer, orator and visionary. He was an intrepid entrepreneur armed with a razor-sharp mind and an impressive physical presence. Tall and good-looking, he also had oodles of charm. Roy was gallant, his manners impeccable, like a throwback to another era.
But in his new life, stripped of the trappings of success, Roy’s personality took a turn for the worse. His need for attention, always subtly in evidence, became constant. This alone left even the most stalwart of chums squirming to get away. Once Roy had you in his sights, his “pitch”-for work, for some kind of commitment or, failing that, just one more moment of your time-never ended. His “on” button was stuck and Roy was seeking ballast to keep from flying off the face of the earth.
An email from Kathy, a dear friend to both Roy and myself, alerted me to his increasingly dire situation. With one mouse click, fate delivered a second chance. I could visit Roy for Kathy, marooned by circumstances beyond her control in faraway Victoria. And I could visit Roy to assuage some of my own guilt. He was a good person dealt a bad hand, and even though I was filled with trepidation, I also felt grateful.
When I got to the hospital, I found Roy outside in his wheelchair, bundled up against the bitter February cold. He smoked furiously, puffing cigarette after cigarette down to the filter. He stared straight ahead; the only thing he needed from me now was a light.
On the way back to his room, we passed by Tim Hortons in the lobby. Did he want a coffee? No, he said, a hot chocolate. After that, he seemed to perk up. Maybe it was the sugar.
I parked him in front of a chair and sat down directly opposite, looking at him squarely. Although gaunt and bald, he was still handsome. Incredible. (My grandmother would have said it was a sign of good breeding.)
It seemed only fitting to give him whatever encouraging news I could, so I told him, “You still look good, Roy.” He brightened immediately and without warning, I suddenly found myself enveloped in a big hug as Roy planted a kiss on my cheek.
Some things never changed with Roy, no matter how bad things got. Oddly, I felt encouraged by that. Despite everything, including narcotics to dull the agony of cancer metastasized to bone and brain, Roy never lost his ability to tell the difference between what was good and true, and what was utter dreck. Perhaps that contributed to his downfall. Roy never could settle for second best.
“This is completely ridiculous!” he kept declaring as I wheeled him down the hall and into the elevator. “This is completely ridiculous!” he snorted, this time a bit louder. As the elevator doors closed, fellow passengers looked at me sympathetically. I smiled and looked down at the top of Roy’s head. Of course, he was right. The situation was beyond the pale, and none of us had the power to do anything about it.
At the eleventh hour, Roy agreed to see his brother, Jim, whom he hadn’t spoken to in seven years. Now that Roy could no longer speak (the metastases had impaired his brain’s speech centre), Jim had to hear at the last minute that his younger brother was near death. Jim didn’t even know Roy was sick. When Jim arrived from Florida, Roy squeezed his hand, once. He couldn’t open his eyes.
At Roy’s interment, I watched along with 13 others as Jim and Brian, one of the few friends who was with Roy to the end, lowered his ashes into the ground. Roy was rejoining his family at last: his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Roy’s nephew and grand- nieces were there; so were his social worker and nurse. Everyone looked devastated.
In the middle of the family plot-alongside lesser offerings, including my own pot of tulips-sat a glorious flower arrangement. I knew it was from Kathy. I realized that, for a freelance writer and editor, it must have set her back quite a bit. I settled my gaze upon those flowers, taking in as much detail as I could. Kathy was sick with worry about who would or wouldn’t show up for Roy. I could stand in for her and be her eyes and ears and heart. That thought helped me a lot.
After Jim spoke of his brother, never able to refer to the lost years between them, there was a silence. It seemed fitting to pause, as we all knew the tragic back story. Then Kathy’s words of remembrance were read aloud. She had been one of Roy’s closest friends for almost four decades. Her words captured his essence so eloquently, her grief as palpable as if she were standing there with us. I said a silent prayer for her, too.
Funerals give us a chance to celebrate, honour and reflect on a person’s life, to connect with God and to enjoy some fellowship. Since Roy had no funeral, I will remember this remarkable man in my own way, thankful that I was able to see him one last time, receive his forgiveness and say goodbye.
Now, I am left with the memories of Roy in his heyday, when he was filled with energy and enthusiasm, ideas and goodwill. It was a time when the work was coming in and the invoices going out. I will remember how his face lit up whenever we met at Kathy’s house for dinner. I will remember his blue, blue eyes looking at me intently as he inquired about my family and my work. And I will remember the sound of his lovely deep voice as he leaned in conspiratorially to ask, “And so, my dear, how are you?” Ω
Kristin Jenkins is editor of the Anglican Journal.