There is an old man I have become friendly with who talks about death all the time. He speaks of it like the weather, but more certain and assured. He neither dreads it nor worries about it. He is eighty-six and dying of lung cancer. A fact he shares often.
I speak to him at the gym. He is there every morning, walking around the track and doing breathing exercises which he says helps. In his beige dress pants and flannel shirt he moves slowly around the ellipse of the track that outlines the basketball courts below. As he walks, he raises his hands over his head, and then thrusts them backwards. When he is finished, he sits on a couch outside of the weight room. It is here he holds court.
Gaining an audience is difficult. Everyone stops to say hello. If someone is speaking to him when I am walking toward the locker room, I always hope he is alone as I am leaving.
He doesn’t always speak about death. Sometimes he tells me about his grandson in Houston. Yesterday he told me about the time he told the Army to shove their pension after they wanted to cut the benefits of an amputee. “I told them to stick it,” he said. He said all of his Army records were burned in a fire in Saint Louis in 1973.
He also tells me that life goes fast and that most things we spend our time worrying about don’t matter all that much.
“This thing here,” he says as he points at his ribs under his right arm, the cancer, “it’s not bothering me too much today. So, it’s a good day.” He is eighty-six and dying, and he is having a good day. “Besides," he continues, then breaks away to say hello to another passer-by, “I’m going to a better place.”
What I want to tell him as I fish my car keys from my jacket is that I worry about the day he is not there, sitting on the couch as the morning sun casts its diagonal light on the tile floor around him. I will worry if he is alright or in the hospital. I will wonder if he is dead - if he went to his better place.
What I want to tell him is that the girls at the desk who check us in love him. I want to tell him that my wife’s boss talks about him too. So do the guys in the locker room. I want to tell him that secretly, we all know he is stronger than the lot of us. I want to tell him that the one day when I was complaining about my upcoming commute and work and he told me not to worry? Well, that day I didn’t.