The Lake was Beautiful and Full of Fish
By: Joseph Friesen
I got an email during my lunch break.
Hi. Am at Hospital Now. Sadly had many Complications. Cleaner Can clean my Apartment,,, I will Not be returning. Arthur.
I had known Arthur since I began my job a year back. I was working in a government housing building for seniors, helping to coordinate social programs. Most of the residents were coming off the streets or from a shelter, so there were a lot of behavioral issues I needed to watch out for during events. But not with Arthur. He was kind, gentle, and soft-spoken. He didn’t always come out to the events I’d organized, but when he did he mostly sat alone and shared little, but nodded along and smiled as others recounted tall tales from days long past.
He became sick two weeks before the email. The cancer had returned – this time in the form of a tumor in his bladder. He had dates for treatment and surgery, and his biggest worry was that he’d have to stop painting houses. Despite being nearly 75, he worked more days than not. Of course he needed the money, but I think that he valued getting out, seeing people, and having accomplished something above the cash he made.
His email – from the account I’d set up for him – surprised me, and naturally it hurt me to read it. But this wasn’t the first time this had happened at my job. People die. The adage is that years on the streets count for double, so making it to an age where one can live in a senior’s building was an accomplishment in and of itself. Yet one thing I had come to learn is that seniors don’t cling to life like young people do. They are often ready to go.
It was never my job to visit clients in the hospital. I worried about them being lonely though, and so if I had some free time in my schedule, I liked to check in. My role, in these cases, was often to connect clients with family, help make a plan for their belongings, and be a listening ear. It wasn’t a depressing role. In fact, I’d come to enjoy it. Getting to be part of someone's final moments was a privilege, and I enjoyed hearing heartfelt reflections of their lives. Stories carry more significance when you know it’s the last time they will be told.
I went to see Arthur that same afternoon. He was sleeping, but was stirred awake when I knocked on his door. He was pale and thin, and the day was dark and rainy.
“Hey Arthur. How we doing?” I dropped my bags and sat on the couch in his room.
“I’m glad you came,” he said. His voice was slurred. It was probably the pain medication. “My rent for August. Do I still need to pay it?”
Straight to business, I thought. “No, it’s okay. Don’t worry about the rent.”
“I’ve got my painting clothes in the drawers. Those can just be thrown out. But there are some nicer things in the closet that I’d like donated.”
“You got it.”
“There are four tires in my apartment. Nearly brand new. I was thinking I’d give them to my mechanic. He’s a nice guy. He can sell them if he wants. Could you put them in your office for him to pick up?”
“Sure. I’ll make sure he gets them.”
“The microwave under the sink… Do you want it? You can have that if you like. Shame if it got tossed out.”
“No worries. I’ll make sure it gets put to good use. Maybe another resident would want it.”
“Okay. That should be most of it.” He paused. “So, I had an accident before I called an ambulance. It’s all over the entranceway of my apartment. If someone could get that cleaned up… I don’t want any of my friends seeing that when they go get my things.”
“I’ll arrange something,” I said.
He looked out the window of his room. Gloomy clouds cloaked the city beyond. “So they took me here when I called. They did some scans. It turns out the cancer has spread to everything. So the surgery they planned for in two weeks… they said it’s very complicated now.”
“And… you know. If they did it, they’d have to remove my bladder, my colon, and some parts of some other things, and I’d just have bags for the rest of my life. I wouldn’t last long, and I’d spend all my time here.”
“Right. I’m really sorry.”
His face changed. It was scrunched up as if in pain, like he had been stabbed in the guts. “So… they gave me a choice…” he said, and his voice cracked. “Palliative care, or assisted dying. Those…” His voice cracked again and tears began to well up. “Those were my choices.”
I froze up. This isn’t how these go, I thought. This was supposed to be a deep, meaningful reflection and a peaceful passing. “I can’t imagine what making that choice must feel like” was the proper social-worky response, and so I said it.
“I don’t know what to choose,” he squeaked out. “I don’t want…” Now he began sobbing. He was trying to speak, but no words came out.
I sat on the couch stupidly and nodded.
“I said maybe the assisted dying,” he managed. “I can’t go on like this. I’m okay now because they drugged me up. But the pain… the pain is so unbearable. The doctor is going to come by yet and tell me more. But I don’t–” he lost his voice– “I still have something to offer. My painting and…” he sobbed, and wiped his face with his frail arms. “Just when things were starting to get good for me.”
I stared blankly. Odd as it was, I had never actually met a client during my time in this job who didn’t want to die. I took a chair from the wall and moved it to sit at his bedside. “I’m sorry, Arthur. Has anyone… when is your family coming to see you?” I felt a sense of awkwardness. I was the program coordinator in his building. I had been in his life for only a fraction of it. Who he needed was a lifelong friend.
“I haven’t told them I’m here,” he replied. “I haven’t told anyone but you. I don’t want them to… If…” He couldn’t finish. If they see you here, it will start to feel real.
He clutched the side of the bed and cried loudly.
I wanted to take his hand. I didn’t. Perhaps it was my social work background that told me to keep a professional distance, or perhaps it was growing up male in a society that discouraged tenderness from men. Or perhaps I was simply a coward. Coward or not, I couldn’t help my eyes from becoming misty as he spoke. There was an unspoken rule in this business: you can cry, but not more than the client. Arthur was in shambles, so I had a lot of runway to work with.
Over the next forty minutes, he told me about his life. These weren’t the feel-good reflections I had come to expect. He had come from a wealthy, successful family. He called himself the black sheep. He was estranged from his loved ones when he left the Christian faith for Scientology, and his family thought he had joined a cult.
“But it was my fault,” he said. “That's all I talked to them about. I couldn’t get off it. They wanted to hear about my life, about the different things going on. But I pushed them away. They are the nicest people alive.”
He spoke about having a great career that he left on a whim. He spoke about failed relationships and never marrying or having children. He spoke only of regrets. Every now and again, the conversation would turn back to the fact that he was not going to be alive for long, and he’d weep. I couldn’t help but weep alongside him.
The thing about crying, though, is that one cannot cry forever. Crying is exhausting work. Arthur’s eyes began to clear, his voice became stronger.
“I don’t think I want my family here,” he said soberly. “I don’t want them to see me like this.”
“That’s totally fine,” I said. “But spend some time thinking about it, eh? You may not have a lot more opportunities.” Was this the right thing to say? I was no expert.
“Okay, I’ll think about it,” he replied. “But my phone is dead and I don’t have a charger.”
A doctor walked in the room. “Good afternoon, Arthur. Is everything okay?”
“Everything is good,” he said. “I feel no pain. This is Joe, my friend.”
I waved to him.
“Well, I don’t want to interrupt,” the doctor said. “But you wanted to get some more information on your options?”
“Yes, I want to learn more about assisted dying.”
“Alright,” he said. “Well–”
“Hey Arthur,” I quickly interrupted. This felt like a conversation for the two of them. “If it’s okay with you, I’m going to step out while you speak with your doctor. I’ll go down and get some coffee and get you a charger. I’ll be back, okay?”
I wiped my tear-stained cheeks as I waited in line to buy a charger. I had no idea what I was doing. I was out of my depth. I did not know loss - not really. How was I supposed to console a dying man who wanted to live?
Thoughts of Arthur lying alone swirled in my mind. After visiting hours passed, who would keep him company? His only defense against the tears was talking to me about tires and rent. How would he fare when alone, left only with his thoughts? This would be a long, dark night. I put it out of my mind before dread consumed me.
“We’re going to do the paperwork on Monday,” Arthur said when I returned. He was calm and serene. The storm had passed for now and the tears had run dry. “It only takes ten minutes. The procedure, that is. All my muscles stop working slowly and then my heart stops beating.”
“So I guess the first thing to do will be to pick a day.”
No words were said after that while the preceding ones were considered. Pick a day? Pick your last day? I tried to fathom it, waking up one morning knowing it would be my last. The sun peeked out through the clouds and sent warm beams down on us through the windows. Birds were hopping around on the telephone line just outside.
“I think I’ll pick the soonest day possible,” he finally said. “If I’m gonna do it, then I should just do it. Why wait around?” A wry smile came across his face. Not knowing any better, I returned one.
“Well, keep me updated,” I said. I checked my watch. “I think I’ll stay the next hour and then let you sleep. What do you want to do till then?”
“Oh, well, I don’t know.”
“Well - and this is up to you - but if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to hear some stories if you’ve got any. You know, from your life or whatever. I think it’s good to remember them.”
“Oh, I’ve got some good stories,” he said, grinning. “Anything in particular you want to hear about?”
Now we’re talking. “How about a memory of when you were really happy?”
“Well–” he paused, and his eyes rolled up as he scanned through the decades. “There was this one time a friend invited me to go fishing with him down on Lake St. Clair. He had this really nice house, and this great fishing boat. His wife was there too. And we spent all day on the water. It was really something.” He turned and watched the birds flutter outside his window. He stopped speaking as if the story was finished.
I wondered where the deeper meaning was. In his seventy-five years, why was this the first story he thought of when it came to happy memories? “Was there anything else that happened that day?”
He turned to me like he’d forgotten I was there. “Oh, no, not really. It was just a really nice day. I think I’ll move there.”
“I don’t really know what happens when you die. But for some reason I feel like we can move where we want, you know?” He smiled and sank back into his pillow, and closed his eyes. “It was nice. The lake was beautiful and full of fish.”
I told Arthur I’d keep my phone on that night if he felt he needed to chat. I received an email while I got ready for bed.
Thought about what you Said About family. Invited them Tonight.. It was a most Wonderful time. Arthur.