They’re saying it won’t be long now. His body is just too weak to fight the latest infection that has set in. I simply nod. I already knew this before they even came to me and whispered softly in my ear. They know to tread lightly around me. They know, without hearing the words but seeing my actions, what this man means to me. More than the simple breaths I take. More than the simple beat of my own heart. I lived for this man. And he is struggling. Struggling so badly to breathe and keep his own heart beating.
The room is dimly lit, the soft lighting muted, casting a warm, intimate setting. I’ve done everything from bathe him, to feed him, to hold him, keeping him close. Doing everything myself to let him know I am still near, still loving him with every ounce of my being on this planet.
He used to be able to simply look at me weakly, his eyes searching mine as if asking a hundred questions. And my answer was always the same. “Yes.” Yes, I love you. Yes, I cherish you. Yes, you’ve made my life since meeting you worth living every single second over and over again. The laughs, the jokes, the teasing, wrestling, secrets whispered in fear, wishes shared in hope and love. It’s all there, waiting to be relived whenever I search my heart. I cherish every single word you’ve ever uttered to me in frustration, anger, sadness, hope, and love. Times when you were so confused you lashed out and I gladly stepped up to be your sounding board, sometimes accepting as your anguish, anger and sadness became too much and you had to physically strike out. It was all done in love.
You were the gift in my life I knew I’d cherish forever. The one single person who taught me what love and trust was all about. Unconditional love. Whether I was being an ass or simply hard to be around in my sulkiness and mood swings, you never left my side.
And I learned those lessons well. I’ve stayed by your side marveling at your strength to live, will to love, give and take without thinking about it, just naturally reaching out and touching me, grounding me. And I now do the same for him.
His body seems to have shrunk in that hospital bed. He looks like a little boy sometimes. The machines are off, nothing is monitoring his breathing, heartbeat, oxygen levels. It is his own body’s decision when to cease heartbeat and breathing. To cease, to be no more. To be free of pain and struggles, to begin my heart break and lonely existence without him by my side.
Crawling up onto the bed, I effortlessly pull him into my lap, his body lax, muscle tone gone, his head falling back against my arm. He is warm, pliant, as if made of putty molding against me. I grab the sheet and blanket and wrap him in a cocoon of warmth.
His breathing comes erratically now. I swallow, just waiting. Just waiting for him to take his last breath and my heart to break completely in two. It is just hanging on by a sliver of a thread now.
A soft moan escapes his lips, slightest movement in my arms. Holding him gently, I bend down to kiss his warm forehead. It is dry, his now short curly hair damp from sweat.
“Hey, partner,” I whisper. “Right here. I’ve got you. You are safe.” I feel his sigh, his head turns into my chest. Smiling, I give him a squeeze and I feel his hand slowly find mine, his fingers curl around mine. “That’s nice, partner.” He shivers, and his head moves a little.
“H’ch..” his voice is raspy, his throat dry.
“Shh,” I admonish, reaching for the plastic cup and straw. “Here…sip a little water…” He opens his mouth barely to fit the straw in, and I gently take my thumb to make room for the straw to pass between his lips. He struggles to sip, but finally gets a little bit of water and then begins to choke as he tries to swallow. I lean him forward as if he was an infant and gently pat his back. “Little sips, Gordo.” I tease with a smile. “Don’t choke yourself.” Leaning back against my arm, I see the tiny smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. His eyes are mere slits, I can barely make out the blue hues hidden behind the thick eyelashes.
“I love you.” The words were whispered so softly, so quietly. My heart clenched, I let my tears fall freely. Gently holding him against my chest, I knew he felt the increased thumping of my heart. His hand rested against my chest, but he didn’t have the strength to hold it there, it slipped weakly down to my stomach. Grabbing his hand, I placed it back on my chest, holding it there. “Strong.” Starsky licked his lips. “Strong.”
“For you,” I sniffed. “Always beating strong for you.”
Starsky nodded once, nestling his head against my chest as if to snuggle down for a nap. Thankful that there were three pillows behind me, I settled in as well simply holding him and gently rubbing his arm, back, stomach.
I must have dozed off, because movement by my side awoke me with a start. I yawned, looking over at an elderly nurse who smiled and gently patted my arm.
“He’s gone, Ken.” She whispered softly. In shock and disbelief, I glanced down and saw Starsky’s head tucked against me, looking every bit like a little boy curled up and warm. His eyes were slightly open, as if he were staring at my hand holding his.
Gasping, I gently leaned him back, searching his face. He looked so much at peace, relaxed, his lips looking like he had been smiling when he left me.
“Oh.” I said, blinking. I pulled him closer, not wanting to let go, ever.
The nurse stood there, her hand still on my arm, her thumb rubbing up and down softly.
“You took great care of him, Ken.” She said softly. “The love and care you gave him unselfishly showed him how much you cared.”
“He’s all I’ve got in this world,” I whispered.
“He knew that,” the nurse nodded. She reached in her pocket and pulled out a piece of paper and stuffed it in my hand, curling my fingers around it. “He wanted me to give this to you when the time came.” She reached down and gently pushed back a wayward curl on Starsky’s head and smiled. “I’ve gotten rather attached to the both of you in the short time you’ve been here. If I were to have had grandchildren, I’d have love to pick you both as my grandsons.”
Looking up in the wrinkled face of the nurse, I grinned, nodding my head, and then I laughed. “I would have been the serious one, this guy here…” I gently jostled Starsky in my arms affectionately, “would have tried and succeeded in breaking every rule, every dare, and win every argument in his path.”
Then the tears began, and I let them fall unchecked. They dripped down on Starsky’s face, then slid down his cheek to his hospital gown. Leaning in for one more hug, one more kiss, I carefully adjusted him so I could get out of bed without jarring him too much. I gently laid him against the mattress, gently guiding his head to the pillow. I pulled the sheet up to his chest, placing his arms at his side. Arms that would no longer reach for me. No longer hold me. Comfort me. Hold a gun.
“I love you, partner,” I said softly. I could hear the sniffle of the nurse near the window and I leaned in to ruffle his curly hair. “Thanks for everything. Thanks for loving me and picking me for a friend.”
I walked over to the nurse and we hugged, I was too numb to cry anymore, but she cried softly, burying her face in my shirt. Then, she stood up, wiped her eyes and smiled sadly.
“Go on home now, Ken.” She said. “Take care of yourself.”
I nodded, bending down to hug her one more time, then I walked over to the bed. I reached out and gently ran my thumb up and down his cheek, the face now slack and still forever.
Out in the hall, I wandered towards the elevators, and I heard heavy footsteps behind me.
“Ken.” A deep voice spoke softly, hesitantly.
Turing, I saw Captain Dobey and his wife Edith and their children Cal and Rosie. The look on my face must have said everything, because Dobey ducked his head, his white hankerchief in his hand mopping his face. Edith gasped, then embraced me quickly, crying. Cal turned away, his arms protecting his little sister.
“Oh, Ken.” Edith whispered, holding me tighter. I wrap myself in her warmth, her comfort. Looking up at Captain Dobey, he simply reached out to grab my hand and hold it while his wife hugged me.
“He’s gone,” I whispered finally. “He’s gone.”
“We’ll take care of everything,” Dobey offered. “Call his folks…”
“I’ll do it, Cap.” I sighed, standing up. Rosie ran to me, her eyes bright.
“Uncle Dave with Jesus now?” she asked innocently.
“Yes,” I smiled. “He is with Jesus now.”
“He’s an angel,” she confirmed. I had to laugh, because the first picture that flashed in my mind was Starsky in red horns and a tail. But I could picture him with a halo and wings. I honestly could.
That night, sitting in his apartment after making the phone calls to his brother Nicky and his Aunt Rose and Uncle Al, I sighed. Looking around his apartment that was so much my home as his, and desperately tried to summon his presence to let me know he was still with me. I felt a rustle in my hip pocket and pulled out the paper that the nurse had given me. It was a letter Starsky had dictated to her for me for when his time came.
So much love in a single name. Love. Protection. Strength. Who knew? I did.
From the moment we met, I knew you were someone special. That Someone sent you to me when I needed you most. You were more to me than any of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and brother. You were right up there with my father and mother. My love for you immeasurable, without definition. The many times we tried to define it, lost us completely. It was just there.
Nurse Angela is writing this for me, cos I can’t hold a pen anymore. Too weak. She’s a keeper, Hutch. What you and I call “us people.” With as many times as we’ve been in this hospital for near death experiences, broken bones, scrapes, observations it is a wonder we haven’t met her before now.
I just want to tell you how much you mean to me. How much I’ve enjoyed this crazy loving ride through life we traveled together. You’re my best friend, Hutch. I love you like crazy. You mean the world to me. I just can’t find the words. Every encouraging touch, gentle hug, heart to heart talk, every single second we spent together meant more to me than anything I could ever wish for or hope for or conjure up in my wildest imagination. I love you, pure and simple. Love. A word that holds so much but is thrown out there on a whim. I hope I showed you as much as I danced around coming right out and telling you. But then again, towards the end…we did verbalize it when needed.
I love you. Always. Don’t ever question it. I will be waiting for you at the pearly gates…my halo might be a little crooked and my wings a little mussed up but then you’d know it is me waiting for you. Just look for my blue Adidas. I will be the one placing that halo over your head and fluffing them big, feathery white wings out for you.
Live your life. Find love. Break in another partner and go easy on him. Know he isn’t me. Remember when you and I first paired together and we had to learn…together. If and when he does something that reminds you of me, that’ll be me trying to help him out to not get you so worked up.
I love you, partner. Thanks for such a wonderful life.
I laughed, imagining him dictating that to Angela and her snickering. They had gotten close in such a short time. Their humor needed no words, just a simple glance and the two of them would be laughing or grinning broadly. Usually at my expense.
I smoothed out the paper as neatly as I could, and then folding it tri-fold, placing it on the coffee table under a heavy glass ashtray.
I leaned back on the couch, smiling. I felt him nearby in the drip-drip of the kitchen sink that drove him insane that we both never got around to fixing. In the easy comfort of simply sitting on his couch in the quiet, enjoying the silence.
He’d never be far away from me. I held him tightly in my heart and I had more memories to outlast my lifetime on earth that any time I needed him, I just needed to be still and listen and remember.
I was the luckiest man on the planet.