Everyone / Eventually: Seven Circles of Hell in the East Bay (Circles Four and Five)
The following is the latest installment in a seven-part essay about two disastrous years of the author’s life. We will be posting a new chapter every Monday. In this segment, the author copes with his cousin’s mortality.
Each previous installment is linked here.
A growth in Dante is obstructing his digestion. We wait until the end of the weekend for some doctors to come back from a bigwig doctors’ convention and announce that surgery will be impossible. There’s just nothing they can do for him anymore.
There are days when Dante’s hospital room is packed with people and I can only peer in. Our constant fretting attention is another thing he has to weather. Dante’s father, my uncle Gary, is there most days, too. Gary is extremely quiet and organized. He is a handsome older man who works in an art museum. He left Sarah several years ago, just before the diagnosis, and lives in the Berkeley hills, where he cooks great Brussels sprouts and underlines many passages in his copy of Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone. Things are tense between Sarah and Gary.
Dante is moved to in-home hospice care, and a bed is set up with all the necessary equipment upstairs near his room. Nurses come in and out, but there are spans of hours when they’re not around, and Sarah is left to deal with weird complicated tubes and bags.
On Easter Sunday, a nurse is two hours late. Sarah goes off on some people on the phone, then on the nurse when she shows up. I go to Walgreens and buy us a bag of Skittles jellybeans, a couple of chocolate bunnies, and a bag of Reese’s peanut butter eggs, and leave them on the kitchen island. We eat most of it that day.
Dante has to be moved from home back to UCSF for more intense care—supposedly he only has a few days left now. He needs to be physically helped down the stairs. Again, my whole family is there to see him off, to watch as he struggles and technicians lift him down—this is someone who used to play basketball every day.
I finally say it. I say, “All right, man, I love you, dude,” as he’s being lifted into an ambulance. I have to turn around, put my hand over my mouth, and run into the house to sob on top of my bed.
Sarah finds a hospice-care facility for Dante. The place is on top of a hill with a vertiginous drive, and you can see deer and wild turkeys near the premises. It’s a place for kids, and inside there’s a playroom and kids’ art and wailing infants. Dante’s room is called the “OK Corral,” and it’s painted with wall-to-wall cowboy scenery. I offer to bring his Biggie poster, but he turns it down. A man in a fedora comes around and plays his ukulele for all the patients. Dante exceeds the earlier prognosis by several months. He grows a beard. He turns twenty-two, wants everyone to come see him on his birthday and eat in his room, even though he can’t eat. Sarah and his friends take him, in a wheelchair, to the mall and to a Giants game.
He’s on a lot of morphine. He loses his old sharpness, seems to forget he’s dying. Asks to see his college-application stuff. Sends Theo and me away whenever one of his friends visits. Sends Sarah away. He starts saying things like, “Why’s that guy in the room? I don’t want him in here,” when there’s no one else there. He says, “Where’d the girls go, Mom? Are the girls still here?”
The happiest memory I have of Dante from my time living with him: we’re upstairs watching the Giants lose. He’s prepping for a colonoscopy by drinking this godawful fluid they make you drink. When he was first diagnosed, I got a colonoscopy, just to be safe—this kind of thing can be hereditary. So at least in this moment, I do know what he’s going through, physically, on some level. Before the procedure, you only drink liquid all day, and at the end of the day you drink this stuff with the most fucking terrible texture ever. You drink it, according to the directions, “until the stool is clear.” It feels like it’s sleeting inside of you.
As Dante puts it: “It tastes like fucking cum.”
“Yeah!” I laugh. “It’s like those pornos where they make the women drink cum out of wine glasses.” He laughs, too.
The happiest memory I have of Dante ever: My family owns a house by a lake in Indiana. Look, it’s a lake house. We inherited it from my grandmother, whose second marriage was to a rich guy. What? Shut up.
He and I are maybe six and ten. After a day spent swimming, pretending to be pirates, telling stories, arguing, daring each other to do things, going on walks to the nature center or being taken on a long, sunny drive to a stand to buy corn and cantaloupe to have with dinner, someone asks us to take the soda cans out to the recycling. This is the best part of the day, because we use the garage door to crush the cans. We line up each can—I feel like there was a lot of Diet Sprite—and watch as the big metal door comes down and reduces all the cans simultaneously to flat things. When all the cans are flat, we press the button to re-open the garage door, then press it again, and run under it as it’s closing, like Indiana Jones.
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