4. A Tap on the Shoulder

A buddy of mine whom I’ve known since I was very small was hospitalized a few day ago. He just died of the virus that’s ravaging the Earth. Another friend is on a respirator, in the fight of her life against cancer.

In the last 10 years or so I’ve lost many friends and cousins to illness. My wife says we’re at an age when “we start dropping like flies.” Maybe, but some of those folks were twenty years younger than me when they collapsed in showers and driveways of heart attacks and ruptured aneurysms.

I can’t make any sense of this (and don’t even get me started about the virus). We know so much more about eating right and getting exercise, and yet it’s not enough to hold off death, the determined stalker.

It’s like in the movies, when a group sets off in a forest or up a mountain trail or through a strange house, and an evil force starts picking them off, one by one. A friend of mine likes to say, “When the Big D taps you on the shoulder, you know it’s your turn.” A bony hand thumping on my shoulder – now that’s an image that leaves me cold.

I admit I’m afraid of dying. I can’t put my finger on what exactly frightens me about it. Mostly I think it’s just not knowing what’s behind that door at the end of the long dark corridor.

I hope there is a Hell for all those who make the lives of others painful and miserable. I sure don’t want to find myself there.

It’s reassuring to imagine that there is a place such as Heaven, where we can reunite with those we loved and we never have to suffer deprivation, despair, or fools.

But Heaven and Hell are man-made inventions. Man also invented the money system, and we see how that’s worked out.

My wife and I often joke about death and dying. Morbid, I know, but it’s intended as a way to thumb our noses at the Big D, although it’s more like whistling in the dark.

And yet, is death really a one-way journey?

When I finally rebelled against being warehoused in a “special school” in Rome, my dad had another brilliant idea about what to do with me. On a doctor’s advice, he admitted me into a certain hospital for a month for tests and treatments.

I was 13 and restless. I have never been able to stay put for very long; now that I think about it, I suppose it’s because of the periods of confinement imposed on me in my younger days.

Hospitals can be very dull places when you’re a teen, alert, and mobile. When I wasn’t being prodded or poked, I’d wander the floor, sometimes hang out at the nurses’ station, ingratiating myself by telling jokes.

I returned to my room one day to find a very old man asleep in the other bed. The nurses said he was a 92-year-old zingaro (Romany). In the days that followed, his brood of 100 children and grandchildren would crowd into the room along with his wife and assorted other relatives. They were a lively, colorful bunch who really lifted the old guy’s spirits. Since they spilled over to my side of the small room, they even treated me to some of the delicacies that they brought for him.

One evening, the nurses could not revive the old man, and he was cold to the touch. A doctor declared him dead. I stared in silence as orderlies placed the corpse on a gurney, covered it with a white sheet, and wheeled it away to the mortuary. After that bit of creepy excitement, I fell asleep.

Hours later, something, maybe a noise, made me open my eyes. The room was dark and my vision was still blurry from sleep. In the doorway, backlit by the hallway light, a figure with outstretched arms, bare legs, and in a white outfit lumbered into view. It came toward me. I screamed at the top of my lungs; the figure kept coming. Nurses rushed in and flicked on the light.

It was the zingaro! Somehow, he had made it from the mortuary to the room in search of his bed.

My teeth chattered. I trembled uncontrollably. The old man’s rebound from death had nearly put me in my grave.

lava tube, Big Island of Hawaiʽi
courtesy of “Mrs. Anton”

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