It was late in the afternoon now and no sooner had we finished the bath than the hospice nurse stopped by to check on Billy and see how we were all getting along. Tommy took it as his cue to get out of there for a while and go home. He placed his lips on Billy’s forehead, kissed him good-bye, and then huddled close to him, speaking quietly and intimately before leaving.
The Medici Ring
The next morning Billy slept for a long time. The house was very quiet, with only Marion and myself there now, and I wondered if Billy would ever wake up. I told Marion what had happened the night before and she said she had seen it, too, at times when she was sitting with him.
“It’s like he’s lifted up by a string, and he raises his arms up, looking right into that spot on the ceiling, like you say. Then he starts talking to people, all kinds of people from the past.”
“You know them?” I said.
“Oh yes, lots of them. People from a long time ago. His mother, and a lot of people I had forgotten about.” She paused, remembering them. “He talks to Monty, who you know. Then he usually stops, puts his arms down, and sometimes he’ll say ‘Michael,’ as if he sees you. I think that’s when he realizes he’s still here.”
I liked the idea that I was somehow still with him somewhere, wherever he was now. Some place in between, I thought.
Just then we heard him stirring in the next room.
“Michael?” he said, sounding strangely normal. He had been barely coherent the last couple of days so I was surprised to see him sitting up in bed calmly waiting as I entered.
“Hey, buddy,” he said, sweetly, with little strength left in his voice.
He looked about the room, searching for something that he could not find then looked at me again and smiled. I sat next to him on the bed and held his hand. We sat together in silence, looking at one another. Then he said, “I’ve been observing you.” He breathed hard for a second, and then caught his breath before continuing. “I see what kind of man you’re going to become and it’s good.’
This was most certainly a conversation I did not expect to be having. ‘Yeah?”
“It’s very good.”
“Well, whoever I am, I figure it’s pretty much your fault. Everything I am I learned from you.”
“Not true.” He shook his head a little.
“Everything that matters anyway.”
He patted my hand.
“Later on, if you ever want to understand what our relationship was all about, you might read Death In Venice,” he said. “That’ll explain everything. Everything I felt the day you walked into my life. Just like when that boy walks into the Lido, Gustav’s life was never the same.”
“You could see the movie, too, if you like. Dirk Bogarde did such a wonderful job. It’s almost as good as the book.”
“I will, I promise.” I squeezed his hand. “You know, Billy, I’m not sure, but I think one thing
you taught me was …I think maybe one thing you taught me maybe was how to be a snob.”
His eyes widened and he looked at me.
He thought about this for a second or two, then said apologetically, “I’m afraid so.”
We looked directly into each other’s eyes, smiling at the notion that I had turned into a snob.
This strange moment of clarity amid the madness of morphine and cancer was a gift for us, and we both knew it.
“You’re going to be fine. Just fine.”
“God, I hope so,” I said looking up toward the ceiling.
“You will. I know it. You’re going to be enormously successful in life. Just wait and see.”
It was beginning to sound a lot like good-bye. I felt as if something valuable had just fallen overboard and there was no way of retrieving it from the sea. Lost amid eternal waves.
“I’m done here,” Billy said as he lay back down and closed his eyes.
“You’re not done yet. Not by a long shot.” I do not know if he could hear me anymore.
Marion was standing in the doorway. She came in and sat on a chair next to the bed.
“I’ll sit in here with Bill for awhile,” she said, and I left them there together.
From time to time throughout the rest of the morning, I checked in, to see what was
happening, but each time I peaked into the bedroom, Billy and Marion seemed to be in the same
exact positions as before.
I decided to get a nice fire going and went outside to bring in some wood from the woodpile.
It was drizzling outside and cold. The woodpile was high and I remembered how Billy had often said that there are few things in life as satisfying as having your wood stacked and ready for winter. What would happen to our wood? I wondered. What would happen to everything?
With the fire burning strong, I checked in on Billy and Marion again and this time found them having a quiet conversation. Billy was turned on his side, clutching the corner of his pillow with his fingertips, and lying close to Marion on the edge of the bed. His eyes were shut tight and his face was twisted and wrinkled as if he was in terrible pain. Marion’s face was very close to his and I could not make out what she was talking about. I stood silently in the doorway listening. Then Marion rubbed his hands and began to speak a little louder.
“We have the Medici ring, Bill,” she said. “The blue pill, we have it.” She paused letting her words sink in. “You just let us know what you want.” He did not reply. He gazed straight ahead and out toward the bay, but did not seem to be looking at anything in particular. “You just let us know,” she said again.
His eyes closed and he was gone again. I stood waiting to see if Marion wanted to talk to me
but she did not speak or move. I pulled up a chair, and we sat in silence together, watching Billy.
The house was completely still, like a museum, a museum that showed how people lived in the late twentieth century, I remember thinking, or in this case died in the late twentieth century. The rain was falling steadily now and the day was miserable looking outside. I looked out to sea at the raindrops falling into the steel grey water of the bay. There is something comforting in watching the rain fall into the sea, and I wondered what it was that made it so. The fire was burning well and made everything feel cozy inside. We could hear the crackling of burning logs, smell the burnt wood, and feel the extra warmth it provided throughout the house. The soft music on the classical station from South Hampton was on in the background.
I had been sitting with Marion for some time, when suddenly Billy rose up in his bed, pulled by some invisible string from above. He took a few breaths then slowly turned toward us, looking directly at Marion. It was as though he had been far away somewhere and had journeyed a long distance to be back with us.
“Yes,” he nodded to Marion. “It’s time.”
“All right Bill,” she said.
We did not move.
“God’s greatest gift,” Billy said.
“What, Bill?” Marion asked. “What’s God’s greatest gift?”
He turned his head a little toward us. “Death,” he said, then lay back down on his back and closed his eyes.
Marion leaned over and peered close making sure he was asleep. I noticed that her eyes were filled with tears. “We’ll wait awhile for him to wake up again and then I think we should give him a good squirt of that morphine. Don’t you?”
“I think so,” I agreed, and just like that, the plan was underway.
I lifted the brown bottle to the light, checking to see how much morphine was still in it.
Plenty, I figured.
There was an electricity in the air now as we began to anticipate what was coming. We did not say anything for a while, only waited in silence. An agreement had already been made, a secret pact from a long time ago, and there was no need for further discussion. We sat side-by-side, waiting, looking at Billy, until I finally broke the silence.
“Why do you call it the Medici ring?”
Marion looked at me and smiled.
“It’s just like the blue pill with you and Bill, only when my husband died we called it the Medici ring. Like when the Medici’s kept poison in a ring so they could drop it into some one’s wine glass when they weren’t looking.” She held her hand up over an imaginary wine glass and pretended to flick the poison from her ring into the cup. It made me think of how she and Billy must have been when they were children playing together.
Then Billy woke up. Once again he rose to a sitting position, like someone from above pulled him with marionette strings.
I held onto the morphine bottle, sat on the bed, and faced him. I looked into his pale blue eyes for a moment and wondered if I had ever noticed their color before. Surely I had. He had such gentle, loving eyes. I looked down at the morphine bottle in my lap. I must have been sitting there like that for a while because the next thing I knew Marion was saying something to me, but her voice was coming from what seemed like a long way off. It felt as if I had been far away somewhere.
“Michael, Michael.” I felt a little dizzy, unsure of what was real or what was a dream. I looked at Marion, confused. Then she reached over and lovingly patted my hand.
“Why don’t you let me do that?” She lifted the morphine bottle from my hand. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion now. I looked at Billy and thought that his eyes seemed to confirm that this was for the best. I remember thinking that he nodded but I cannot be sure anymore.
“Of course,” I said, and slowly stood, giving Marion my position on the bed.
She unscrewed the top, taking the eyedropper out of the bottle, and filled it with morphine. The entire length of the clear tube was bright green now as she raised it up toward Billy’s mouth, holding it before him, suspended in the air, waiting. Then Billy opened his mouth wide like a brave child accepting his medicine.
“That’s good, Bill,” Marion said and pushed the end of the eyedropper just over his lips and inside the edge of his mouth. She squeezed the rubber tip firmly and the green liquid shot out of the eye dropper smacking against the back of Billy’s throat with enough force to make his head jerk back a bit. He coughed a little, cleared his throat, swallowed, then looked up at Marion and said, “That was a killer.”
“Oh, Bill,” she said, and her body crumpled, as she brought the morphine down onto her lap. Then she looked at me at me for a moment, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
They were the last words Billy ever said.
“Maybe we better give him a couple more. You think?” She scrunched her nose at me, as I nodded in agreement.
“What the hell,” she said.
She filled the eyedropper twice more and shot the morphine into Billy’s mouth. After the third shot, Billy lay back down on his back.
We stood over our friend, silently watching him for a long time, and then we went out into the other room and sat by the fire.
After what seemed to be hours, I ducked back into the bedroom where Billy lay. He was very still, and I thought he might be dead, but it was difficult to tell. I couldn’t see any sign of breathing and took his pulse but could not feel anything. How the hell can you tell if somebody is dead? I wondered. I went into the bathroom and brought out a small hand mirror and placed it under Billy’s nose like I had seen done in the movies. Nothing. Still not convinced I stood over him looking for any movement. I leaned in peering close to his face, when suddenly his mouth opened wide, gasping, sucking air into his lungs.
“Aaahhhh!” I screamed and jumped about a foot in the air. “Jesus fucking Christ.”
“You alright in there?” Marion called from the other room.
“It’s okay. I’m fine,” I called back. “I guess he’s still alive,” I muttered. My heart was pounding. What do we do now? I wondered. Did we botch it? Did we not use enough morphine? Does it take a long time to happen? I was feeling like a criminal who had not thought things through properly. Our entire caper was at risk of falling apart. I decided there was no other choice than to give him a few more shots of the morphine and called for Marion.
“That ought to do it,” Marion said after we gave him a few more squirts. It seemed like enough to kill an elephant. “I guess the only thing to do is wait a little while and see again.”
“Yeah, yeah, I guess so.” I was extremely nervous now and spent a lot of time pacing about the room. What if someone came by? We hadn’t thought of that. People were dropping by all the time. Billy’s cousin John and his wife Pat lived just across the Island and often stopped by to check in. What about fucking Edgar, who lived only four doors down? He was always showing up when you didn’t want him to. The nurse! Shit! She came by almost everyday. What the hell would we say if the nurse came?
“We gave him damn near half the bottle,” I said, acting much calmer than I actually was.
“How much could it possibly take?”
“I don’t know, it’s my first time, too,” Marion said, and then scrunched up her nose, as she smiled at me. She was clearly much less nervous than I.
“What if someone comes by? What do we say?”
“Good question,” she said and began thinking of an alibi. “Maybe something will come to us at the time,” she suggested.
“Great,” I said sarcastically, “I hope so.” And we left it at that.
A couple of hours went by, while I constantly ducked in to check on the patient’s status. It was still difficult to surmise. I examined Billy again around 3:30 or so in the afternoon, nearly four hours since the first squirt had been administered. This time I was pretty certain he was dead. I had been standing over him for almost an hour and had not seen the slightest sign of life. He was dead. I was sure of it.
“I think it’s over,” I said to Marion who was still sitting in front of the fire. She rose from the couch and came into the bedroom. I showed her a vain on the side of Billy’s neck that seemed large enough to be able to show signs of life. It lay still. “I can’t find a pulse or anything and he’s been like this for a long time now.”
“We better call the hospice,” she said. “Will you do that for me?”
I came back into the bedroom and told Marion that the nurse would be right over and that she had said not to touch anything or do anything until she got here. Then it struck me that the first thing she always did when she visited was check the level of the morphine bottle very carefully to see how much we had used.
I took the bottle into the bathroom and poured in a little water from the faucet, carefully
bringing the level of the green substance back up to where it had been before.
Marion was sitting on the bed now very close to Billy. She looked so sad and at the same time so lovely.
Then the hospice nurse was there. It seemed like I had just put the phone down in the receiver a second ago after speaking with her. I wondered how much time had gone by, three minutes, twenty, maybe a half an hour. I had no way of telling. Everything felt more a like a dream than real life.
The nurse had let herself through the side door and was in the bedroom before I could make
any last minute adjustments, although I had no idea what I would have adjusted. She stood by the bed and looked down on Billy and let out a mournful sigh.
“Ohhh. He looks so peaceful.” She sat beside him on the bed, touching his forehead. “All that pain is over now.” Tears began to well up in my eyes and I held my breath hard for a second so that I would not cry. The grief that I had held onto for so long was welling up inside me until it felt like I couldn’t take it any longer. I held my breath hard again.
“When did it happen?” she asked.
“This afternoon,” I said, and slowly let some air out of my lungs. “We think,” I added quickly.
“It’s hard to say. He was sleeping so much the last couple of days.” I thought that I sounded exactly like a guilty person.
Then, she rose up from the bed and walked over to where the morphine bottle sat on the dresser. It seemed oddly out of place there, and I thought I should have put it on his food tray or closer to the bed, somewhere less conspicuous. She picked it up, but did not hold it to the light or read the level as she had each time before. Instead, she took it directly into the bathroom, unscrewed the top, dumped the remainder of the morphine into the toilet, and threw the bottle in the wastebasket. Although she did this all without looking at us, as if it were simply procedure, I somehow got the feeling that she knew very well what we had done that day.
“It’ll take awhile for the funeral home to arrive,” she said, after she had called them for us.
“You’ll have a couple of hours here to sit with Mr. LeMassena, if you like. We think it’s a good time to have some last words with the deceased while they still seem to be present.” She hugged us good-bye, said she would call or come by later or the next day, and left us alone.
I fixed myself a strong vodka and tonic, walked over to the sliding doors, and stood looking out to the sea. It was beginning to get dark and the lights from the houses on Shelter Island across the bay began to sparkle in the distance. Marion touched my shoulder. I turned around and gave her a long embrace. We stood like that for a few moments until she dried her eyes and pointed out toward the bay.
“You just stand here and look at that water for a few minutes.” Her voice was gentle and soothing. “Think about how the tides go in and then out again. It’s been doing that for thousands of years, long before we got here, and it’ll keep on doing that long after we’re gone.”
Marion left me, standing alone, gazing out at the bay, and into the twilight. There is no remedy like the sea, I thought. Then an old poem came to me.
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
It’s always ourselves we find in the sea.
I tried to remember who wrote it but couldn’t at first. Was it Lear…? I thought, No, no, not Lear. It was Cummings… I think…. yes, yes it was Cummings. I was sure. I thought about the words and wondered if the poet had been standing somewhere like I was right now when he wrote it. No, he was not with death, I thought. He was someplace different, but perhaps equally broken hearted.
As small as the world and as large as alone.
I stood there staring out to sea for a very, very long time.
I was still standing there when they came to take Billy’s body away. I must have moved because I had a full drink in my hand, but I could not remember going into the kitchen to make myself another. They wheeled the stretcher past me and into the bedroom, and then Billy was gone, and the house became painfully empty. It felt as if a giant hand was pressing down on my chest. I could hardly breath. I fixed myself another vodka tonic as the real pain began.
There is no way to prepare oneself for the loss of a loved one. Although in each loss there are many similarities, it is a singular experience, different every time, and different for each person. I was unprepared for how lost and alone Billy’s death left me. The pain was dizzying, and I could not make even the simplest of decisions. Nothing, nothing was the same anymore. I was terribly frightened. Marion had not said a word for a long time and when she finally broke the silence, her voice seemed strange to me like she was speaking from behind or above me, somewhere far away in the distance.
“Would you mind staying here tonight?” Marion asked. “Just for tonight, then you can go back to your place after that. I just don’t want to be alone tonight.”
She began to cry.
“Of course I will. You don’t have to even think about it.” I went to her on the couch where she was sitting in front of the fire and held her.
She felt soft in my arms as I sat there awkwardly holding her. Then she let out a small sob and was quiet again. I thought of how long she had known Billy. Seventy years. Seventy years of friendship had come to this. We sat together like that, alone in a lifeboat, far out to sea.
Michael Patterson has been a working actor in New York for the past twenty-five years and have a long list of credits to my name. He is currently playing a lead character in the independent film Isis due out this summer. When he was very young and first in New York he had the pleasure of knowing William LeMassena, who had been a Broadway veteran of over fifty productions, including several with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. His book is a memoir, about his relationship with Mr. LeMassena, which tells how he learned who he was, how to live, and how to love through a mentor forty years his senior who happened to be gay. It is also the story of a promise to help him die with dignity at the end of his life. This is the story of how he fulfilled that promise.