Ziggy called me before he left LA. He left a message on voicemail at the hotel/apartment/whatever you want to call it, which I picked up when I went by there after lunch. “Hey, I have been deposed. What I don’t get is… isn’t that what they call it when a king or queen gets knocked off the throne? English sucks. Barrett wanted me to fly to New York first and then join you down there but I told him to go suck himself. Hang on, dear one.”
I had been telling myself I was fine, actually, that other than needing my fingertip skin cells to hurry up and die, everything was peachy. I was, of course, good at lying to myself. So good in fact that when I heard Ziggy’s message, I scoffed for a second and then felt bad that I had misled him into thinking I was having an emotional crisis.
And then I broke down in tears and remembered what a good liar I am when it comes to stuff like that. Yeah.
I should tell you that Ruth had come to visit Claire briefly that morning—meaning long enough for a chat but not long enough for a game of hearts. She wore a mask over her face because she said she was worried about breathing in germs in the hospital because her immune system wasn’t the greatest. And Claire said, “Oh honestly, Ruth, as if you don’t live in a building full of sick people.”
To which Ruth said, “Claire, honey, dying’s not contagious.” But she took the mask off and kissed my mother on the hair when she said goodbye.
I was bad at keeping to our shift schedule. A lot of the time I was supposed to be taking my break, I stayed at the hospital anyway. Just because. Well and also because I’m terrible and keeping track of what time it is. Remo or Court usually had to shoo me out.
Of course I was probably putting off practicing, too. But that really just tells you how out of my mind I was. I know it’s not true of a lot of musicians but I fucking love practicing most of the time. There is nothing I’d rather be doing than playing the guitar, even if it’s just running through scales or whatever. So for me to be avoiding playing was really a “where is the real Daron and what have you done with him?” kind of moment.
And to think, I hadn’t played for months. That’s the proof of how much damage I did to myself in the latter half of 1991.
Ziggy didn’t leave any information about when his flight was getting in. When I stopped crying, I left messages for Carynne and Barrett asking if they knew, and made myself practice for about ten minutes. I hit upon the chord progression for Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” and went off on that for a while. That guy Marcus had been right, of course. While my musician-brain was sucked into total focus on what was going on in real-time with the notes and harmonies, I didn’t feel my fingers at all.
Then as soon as I came up for air, they hurt like a motherfucker. I decided I was being a wimp about it, though. What was pain, really? It wasn’t like the strings were actual knives cutting through my flesh. (Been there, done that.) Pain in this case was mostly a state of mind.
Hm, literally. Because at least half the anguish I felt was because I was beating myself up about the fact I was in pain. Like if I’d never slacked off, I wouldn’t be suffering, so it was my own fault and I deserved it? But no, I reminded myself, time off for healing was important and necessary and good.
I swiped my fingertips with an alcohol wipe they’d given me at the hospital and it had a cooling effect. When they felt dry again, I sat down and played for a couple more minutes but I didn’t lose myself in it. I was very aware of the time ticking by. Still. It probably helped.
I went back to the hospital in the mid-afternoon. Janine and Court had obviously had some kind of a blowup, but they had made up by the time I got there. They went off to the cafeteria together which left me and Remo with Claire, who minced her way through “tea time”—the nurses brought us all pudding and juice— where she really didn’t eat much, and then fell asleep.
He and I sat there, tense as bloodhounds on a hunt, neither of us daring to say anything for a while.
Eventually I couldn’t stand it anymore. “I know you’re the one who usually tells me this sort of thing, but here’s me telling you: it’s okay to cry, Reem.”
“Who said anything about crying?” His voice was thick with the strain of holding it in.
“Yeah, yeah, you never take your own advice either,” I said, and yawned and stretched. “I mean, seriously, I would think the one time it would be completely socially acceptable to cry would be when the woman you tragically loved is literally dying.”
That almost made him lose it. Almost. But he fought me, fought letting go, and I don’t know why but it made me really angry at him for doing it. He bunched his fists against his knees and literally held it all in.
I decided me leaving him alone to cry when no one was watching—or not—was better than me lashing out at him and calling him a hypocrite and a coward. Because I was pretty sure it was my own upset that was motivating me. So I went for a walk.
I had a specific track that I took to the outside world, my feet had pretty much memorized it, so I don’t remember walking through the hospital. I found myself outside by the bushes where someone had been tossing their cigarette butts. It was sunny and hot outside and that seemed surreal.
When I felt better and decided I should apologize to Remo for pushing him for no reason, I went back in, but when I got to Claire’s room she was alone. The door to the bathroom was closed; Remo was probably in there.
Claire stirred as I approached her bedside. She reached up for me and I took her hand in mine. “How is it?” She asked.
“How is what?”
“Your hand. Who’s been rubbing it with cream since I’ve been in here?” Before I could answer, she went on. “You know, the nurses here are so nice. I’m sure one of them wouldn’t mind doing it. You never know where that sort of thing will lead.”
Mom, I’m gay. I couldn’t bring myself to say that. It sounded like she had forgotten? I reminded myself that her reality was now on a morphine drip. I decided to remind her a different way. “I heard from Ziggy. He’s on his way from LA.”
“Oh good,” she said, patting our joined hands with her other one. “You’ll take care of him, won’t you? He needs someone strong like you.”
“I… of course.”
“Will he be here for the funeral? I gave all the details to Remo. But I don’t think I planned out what he should wear.” She smiled, like she had just thought of something funny. “But I’m sure Ziggy can figure something out for himself.”
I thought about the pillbox hat, veil, and fishnets he had worn on the red carpet. I doubted he’d pull that outfit off in Tennessee. “I’m sure he’ll come up with the perfect thing.”
She made a hum of agreement, and then drifted back to sleep. I could tell from the monitors she was asleep and not expired. I checked out of reflex.
Remo came out of the bathroom and his eyes were red-rimmed. He gave me a chagrined look, and then Court came in with Dr. Lenin.
We convened in the hallway. “She didn’t eat again at lunch, did she? Or her snack?” Court demanded.
“A few bites, not much else,” I said. “Not even the chocolate mousse.”
Dr. Lenin was nodding. “The loss of appetite is normal for someone on opiates. It isn’t necessarily like when a cat or dog starts refusing food at end of life. Also, digestion is a resource-heavy activity. Those resources are all going into fighting the cancer right now.”
“Fighting a losing battle,” Court said.
“You can’t exactly tell the cells to stop trying,” Dr. Lenin replied. “What I’m saying is her lack of appetite doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be on constant vigil just yet. I’m going to run a few blood tests and by morning I’ll know if we’re getting close to that time, though. All right?”
“All right.” Court seemed angry at him, as if he hadn’t taken her concerns seriously enough. But what did she expect him to do? He was doing everything he could to help Claire die with dignity and not in agony. It’s not like he was going to jump in and reverse her diagnosis or something.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” he said, and left us there.
I thought about asking her what her fight with Janine had been, and then decided that it didn’t matter. The small stuff really didn’t matter compared to this, and it was all small stuff compared to this.