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Monday, September 7, 2015

The Last Bus Stop

A chance meeting, a strange conversation, and a metaphor.


The Last Bus Stop

“I look okay, don’t I?” said the middle-aged guy sitting across from me on the bus.
I looked up from my newspaper.  We were the only two people on the bus, the 1 AM run from the university district over to Redmond.  There had been other people on, but in ones and pairs they’d gotten off at other stops, leaving only me and the bald, paunchy guy with wire-rimmed glasses in the seat next to mine.
“Yeah,” I said, tentatively, wondering if he was some kind of nut, figuring it’d be better to agree.  “You look fine.”
“Well, just goes to show,” he said.  “I’m dying.”
I stared at him for a moment.  “I’m sorry,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“It’s a bitch, ain’t it?  Just found out three days ago.  Cancer.  Pancreatic.  The bad kind.”
“That’s terrible.”  I shifted in my seat a little.  I’ve always hated awkward conversations, and this one was certainly starting that way.  Some people are okay about striking up conversations with strangers on buses; me, I was just wanting to read the newspaper in peace, and get home to my apartment and my girlfriend.  No such luck.  The guy didn’t seem at all put off by my terse answers.
“Yeah.  Terrible,” he said.  “Doctor sat me down, said, ‘well, Max, I have some bad news.  The prognosis isn’t good.’  I said to him, ‘How not good is it?’  He says, ‘I got to be honest with you, it’s stage four pancreatic, and the survival rate isn’t too high.’”
I set my newspaper down in my lap.  It looked like I was being drawn into the conversation, whether I wanted to or not.  “Are they doing chemo, or surgery, or whatever?”
He nodded his head.  “Yeah, they want to.  Me, I’m undecided.”
“Why wouldn’t you try?”
He shrugged.  “What difference?  I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die.  What does it matter if it’s six months or two years?”
“That’s kind of a defeatist attitude.”
“Yeah, go down fighting, my doctor said.”  He gave me a crooked smile.  “That’s always supposed to be what you do, right?  Go down fighting.  So I been thinking, and I’m damned if I can figure out a good reason to do that.”
“Well, aren’t there things you’d like to get done before you…” I hesitated, not wanting to say “die” even though he had.  I thought it might be insensitive.
“Look, kid,” he said, “you can say ‘die’ to me.  Don’t pussyfoot around with that ‘pass away’ crap.”
“All right, then,” I said.  “Before you die, then.  Aren’t there things you’d like to do?  So if you had more time, you could do more of them?”
He shrugged again.  “I dunno.  Maybe.  Not really.  I mean, that’s what dying people are supposed to do, right?  Start thinking about taking that trip to China you’ve always wanted to take.”
“Yeah,” I said.  “Something like that.”
“Well, fuck that.  I hate Chinese food.”
I laughed a little, even though his face looked serious.  “Well, to Hawaii, then, or something,” I said.
“I dunno.  I haven’t led an exciting life, but it’s not like I’ve been sitting around saying, ‘boy, I can’t wait till I have the time and money to go climb Mount Everest,’ or anything.  After the doctor told me, mostly what I thought was, ‘this is weird.  Next year this time, I won’t be here.’  That sort of thing.”
“They’re sure of the diagnosis?  Maybe you should get a second opinion.”
He gave a little dismissive wave of the hand.  “They’re sure.  I had to twist his arm to get him to tell me how long, though.  ‘How long do I have?’ I asked him.  ‘Well, survival rates vary, and there’s always a chance that with chemo, you could go into remission,’ he said.  ‘Just tell me how long I have,’ I said.  And still, he’s dancing around it.  ‘I don’t want to give you the idea we know for sure,’ he said.  ‘Look,’ I said, ‘it’s not like I’m gonna come complaining to you either way, if you’re wrong.’  So he says, ‘Best estimate, six to nine months.  With chemo you might be able to extend it to a year and a half, unless a miracle occurs.’  So I tell him that I don’t believe in miracles, and he says, ‘Neither do I.’”
“Pretty grim,” I said.
“Yeah, well, it is what it is.  It’s not like I’m the only guy in the history of the world who’s ever died.  I guess we’re all terminal, right?  I just happen to know the expiration date.”
I looked out of the dark window, at the streetlights zooming past, the headlights and taillights of cars.
“Hey, kid,” he said, reaching over and touching my sleeve.  “Sorry if I’m upsetting you.”
I looked back at him.  “I’m not upset,” I said.  “It’s just something I never thought about much before, I guess.”
“Me neither.  Now that I have to, I’m not sure what to think.”  He shook his head.  “You know what bothers me most?  Wondering who’ll take care of my dog.  All of the rest of the stuff – who’ll take care of my stuff, clean out and sell my house, and so on – meh, it’ll happen one way or the other.  But my dog – you know?”
I nodded.  “You don’t have family who can take him?”
“I can ask.  But you know, it’s your dog.  It’s not like some microwave oven or something, they can keep it or sell it or trash it, no difference.”  He leaned back, looked away.  “I got this dog, I never thought he’d outlive me.  You never think of that kind of thing.”
“I guess not,” I said.
“Funny that’s what I thought of first.  You’d think it’d be, ‘oh my god, I’m gonna die!’ and all of a sudden wondering if you’re headed to heaven or hell.  You know, does god exist?  Where do you go when you die?  All that sorta stuff.  I thought about that, a little, I guess – but it didn’t really sink in like you’d think.  Tuesday night, after I found out, I’m lying in bed, thinking, ‘who’ll take care of Rocky?’ and I’m, like, crying about it, just lying there bawling my head off.  I think about myself, and I don’t cry.  I’m not even so much worried about the pain, and I’m a pansy about pain.  I even hate shots, you know?  But I think about my dog, and the waterworks start.”
“I can understand that,” I said.  “I’d probably feel the same way.”
“The whole thing don’t make much sense,” he said.  “Living, dying, why some people live to 102 and others die at 53.  That’s how old I am, you know that?  53.  I figured I’d have another 25 years, maybe 30 with luck.  And here I am, six to nine months.”
“Not very fair,” I said.
“Nope,” he said, but he said it flatly, as if it were some random fact, not the summation of his experience of being terminal.  “But I guess nothing really is, right?  That’s how I see it.  I don’t know why people even invented the word ‘fair.’  It’s meaningless.  We give, we get, we get stolen from, we fall in love, we get betrayed, we live, finally we die.  No fair anywhere.  Some good stuff, some bad stuff, and it’s all doled out randomly, far as I can tell.”
“There’s a guy wrote a book called Why Bad Things Happen To Good People,” I said.
“Must be the world’s shortest book,” he said.  “Page one: ‘Beats the shit outta me.’ The End.’”
I laughed.  “I’ve never read it, but I think I like your version better.”
He laughed, too.  “That’s another thing.  You know, you hear this sort of thing, you figure you’ll never laugh again.  I’m leaving the doctor’s office, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m scared and miserable and dying and who the hell’s gonna take care of my dog when I’m dead,’ and I’m thinking, ‘the last six to nine months are gonna be terrible, constant misery, never thinking about anything but the fact that you’re gonna die.’  But I don’t think our brains are built that way.  You get some bad news, you think the world’s gonna end, then your brain kinda shrugs and goes, ‘oh, well, okay, whatever,’ and you keep going.  You remember that old movie, Airplane?  It was on HBO last night.  I watched it, and I laughed like a sonofabitch.”
I smiled a little.  “‘We’ve got to get these people to a hospital,’” I quoted.  “‘What is it, doctor?’”
“‘It’s a big building, with patients in it,’” he responded, doing a passable impression of Leslie Nielsen as the doctor. “‘But that’s not important.’”
We both laughed together, and for a little while after, there was no sound on the bus but the constant roar of the engine, and the swoosh of traffic coming from the opposite direction, appearing from the darkness, headlights glaring, and then disappearing again into darkness as they passed us.
“I still don’t know what I’m gonna do till I get too sick,” he said.  “I gotta decide whether I want to keep working.  I feel okay right now, a bellyache every once in a while, and I gotta watch what I eat or I get sick to my stomach.  But no reason I can’t keep working.”
“But is there a reason to?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said.  “I told my boss yesterday, he said I could go on medical leave and keep my insurance, so I could stop working tomorrow if I wanted.”
“Maybe you should, then.  Relax and take care of yourself.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone’s telling me.  But why?  It won’t make a bit of difference to the outcome.  It’d be different if I hated my job.  I don’t.  I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it.  It’s just kind of what I do.  Why should I change what I do because I happen to have a pretty good idea when I’m gonna die, and it’s not that far in the future?”
I didn’t have a good answer to that, and I remained silent.
“Yeah,” he said.  “I couldn’t answer that one, either.  May as well keep on as long as I can.  That’s what we’re all doing, really.  Keeping on as best we can, and trying not to fuck up the time we have left.”
“Kind of a dismal view of life,” I said.
“Not really,” he said, and his eyebrows rose on his broad forehead, his voice becoming animated.  “Maybe we should give up trying to make it all have some kind of purpose, trying to make it make sense.  We live till we die, some is good, some is bad, and there you are.  You take care of the people who love you, and that’s that.”
“And the dogs,” I said.
He didn’t answer for a moment, and when he did, his voice was low and thick.  “Yeah,” he said, and looked away.  “And the dogs.”
The bus turned, and I saw in the distance the bus stop near my apartment complex.  I reached up and tugged on the cable above the window.  There was an electric ding, and the squeak as the bus driver began to brake and pull over.
“Look,” I said.  “I’m sorry, I got to go.  This is my stop.”
He looked up at me, and smiled a little.  “Don’t be sorry.  It’s your stop, you get off.”  His smile widened into a grin.  “Like life, right?  It’s one of them, what the hell do the English teachers call ‘em?”
“A metaphor,” I said.
“Yeah.  A metaphor.  Pretty deep and symbolic.”
I stood up as the bus came to a stop.
“Good luck,” I said.  It sounded stupid, but I couldn’t figure out what else to say to him.
“Yeah,” he said.  “I’ll be okay.  Good luck to you, too.”  He leaned back in his seat.  “Maybe we’ll see each other on the bus again, you think?”
“Could be.  You never know.”
“Yeah,” he said.  “You never know.”
I smiled at him, and he smiled back.  Then I tucked my newspaper under my arm, made my way down the bus aisle, down the steps, and walked out into the night.