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Last Conversations

I remember my last conversation with my dad. I was in the hospital room waiting for him to die. It was the third or fourth day after he removed himself from dialysis, ultimately killing himself, though, we hesitate to call this a suicide, but it was. When one makes a decision to stop living it is suicide. Yet, I see people every day that walk around, standing upright, taking full breaths, and not living. My dad was one of these people years prior to his actual death, so maybe his soul had died much earlier.

I sat there alone with him, listening to him talk about Brett Favre and the Packers, which amazed me that in his time of dying, only a few days left, and less than that with being aware and awake, he was talking about a football team. He also told me old Army stories which I heard a thousand times. I think lying there with his frail body, it helped him to think of younger days when he was able and resilient. Then, silence came over him and he just sat there staring at the ceiling as he laid his head back on his pillow.

I broke the silence with a question that I wish I was brave enough to ask years earlier but I was only twenty-five and still young, discovering life, dreaming of what was coming and being tormented by the past, “Dad, why didn’t you love me? Why did you hurt me?” I waited for a reply but it never came. My words hung out in the stale air of the white room and lingered.

Suddenly, my dad did something that I only saw once before, he cried. He wept actually, and I believe in that moment all of his regrets and faults fell from his eyes and mouth, but he did not answer my questions. Instead he said, “I always loved your momma. I never meant to hurt her.”

He died a few days later, on December 10, 1995.

My last conversation with David was on the phone. I was getting ready to go to Vermont and wanted to check in with him to make sure he was doing okay and in a good place mentally while I was away. Six weeks before, I had picked my friend up in the hospital psychiatric unit for suicidal ideation. When I dropped him off that day he said to me, “I am going to need you more than ever.” Those words brought six years of guilt with them.

Before I left on my trip, David was talking to me about a woman he was interested in, said he was biking a lot and doing better, and that he would be okay while I was gone. I planned a day to bike with him when I returned from Vermont. I wanted to give him something to count on in case his depression started to weigh him down while I was gone. That was it. Nothing particularly special or alarming about our conversation. However, in hindsight, this conversation made me realize that every conversation we have with someone is special because you do not know when it will be the last.

David killed himself in August, 2004, while I was on my vacation. “I am going to need you more than ever.” His words, his request, followed me for years like a storm cloud that never stopped thundering. The thunder still happens every so often, but these days it has reduced to a cold rain.

I saw her on her birthday and she somehow changed back to her old self. It was as if the drugs for her schizophrenia and every other condition she had, were eliminated from her body before she came to my brother’s house for her birthday. She was smiling, hugging and kissing on us, and making her sassy, realistic, and practical comments. The comments were welcomed because it was what Charlotte had done all her life, trying to get us to see the simplicity of life when we all worked so hard to complicate it.

Her eyes were bright that day and she told me she loved me several times. I think she knew something was coming her way. The way she went around to all of us and seemed to be having the time of her life, I think she knew. It was her goodbye.

Two days after the party I was driving in Madison and called her to see if she needed anything. The tone and tiredness in her voice told me that the medication was back to clouding her mind and mood, and that I had once again lost my sister that had always been so full of life. Were the voices back? The depression?

“Charlotte, how are you?”

“I’m okay,” she said, her speech a little slurred.

“Can I bring you anything? Do you need any groceries?”

“No, I have enough?” Then, as she always had every time I ever talked to her for my entire life, Charlotte said, “How are you?”

Now, this might seem trivial to some, but I never had a conversation with my sister that she didn’t want to know how I was. She would always wait for my reply and sincerely want to know. I believe that is a rare trait in this world. There are so many that are waiting for their turn to talk and when they do ask, “How are you?” they often do not even wait for your reply. Charlotte’s sincerity, honesty, and charisma were a gift. Her love was a gift. My last conversation with her was a gift to me because it made me once again realize the power of asking “How are you?” and pausing to listen. Charlotte was one of my greatest teachers.

She died July 21, 2010. When her last breath was taken, her face suddenly became years younger, and instead of her face remaining pale and life leaving her, it was beautiful, serene, and the color of a light pink rose. Everyone who stood around her saw it, and silence overtook the room, and at that moment I believe the heavens opened for her. Atheists would have become believers that day.

Richard and I had a thousand conversations, mostly walking the streets of San Francisco or driving through Napa Valley. Our talks ranged from The Beatles to Wing Chun Kung Fu and the chaos that seemed to be unwinding steadily throughout the world.

My last face to face conversation was at the Cafe Trieste in North Beach. We sipped cappuccino and he began to tell me why he and my sister-in-law were getting a divorce, putting all the blame in her corner, and not admitting to any of the bad things he did to cause the decision. It was a tough conversation to hear and I have never been one with the capability to not speak out when I see an injustice. It’s just not in me to passively sit and let the person in front of me push their toxic blame on someone else when they are in the wrong. That trait is sometimes to my detriment when it comes to keeping relationships or jobs.

I stopped the conversation, my last sip of cappuccino waiting at the bottom of a small white cup. “Where is your responsibility?” I asked softly but firmly.

He was taken back, “I didn’t cause this? It’s been in the making for a long time.”

“I don’t agree with you and I can’t sit here and listen to you talk bad about my wife’s sister,” I said and got up and left.

I walked to City Lights Bookstore and browsed the same shelves where the beat poets once did and where Jack Kerouac spent time on his road to fame that ultimately killed him.

I turned and Richard was there, asking me to spend more time with him, not wanting me to be upset with him about his actions, and finally asking for forgiveness. I remember looking him in the eye and saying, “I am not the one you need to ask forgiveness from. Now, you need to back off and leave me alone.”

I lost touch with Richard for a couple of years and then suddenly, and I am not sure how it even started, we began to email one another and then communicate on this new thing called Facebook. Like men often do, we acknowledged what happened, moved through the realities of our differences, and then picked up where we left off talking about music, books, and martial arts. I miss our intellectual conversations that had such an enormous range of subjects. That is often hard to find.

Our last conversation was on messenger and we were planning some time for me to come and visit him in his new home in Napa, where we were going to take a motorcycle through the hills like we once had.

Six weeks passed since the last message and then I heard the news that Richard had been killed by the police. That was November, 2010.

I do not remember my last conversation with Dave, my father-in-law, and I am not certain why. Perhaps I just want to remember his wide grin and his welcoming nature. Dave was a man I admired and I haven’t admired many men in my life. He was safe for me ever since I was a kid. I thank him for that.

Last conversations do not just come before someone’s death, they are also the result of lost friendships that drift with the wind. I have had many that have come and gone for various reasons, and I do remember most of those last conversations. I miss many of my old friends but I do not miss my old self.

The last conversations that have stuck with me the most are those I had looking directly in the eyes of the dogs that we had to say goodbye to. It is the moment when they know they are leaving you and they fill you with their love one last time, holding your tears on their fur. Those conversations are true, real, and bring all of us to our knees because we know that the love of a dog can never be replicated. Once they are gone, there will be a void that cannot be filled. Humans cannot offer what dogs are capable of. We only have a fragment of their empathy and compassion. Dogs are the greatest of all animals because they only want one thing from you, and that is love. What a world it would be if we could all be like that, simply wanting love and not all of the other crud that blocks are senses.

There are times when I look at the people I love and care about, even the acquaintances that I often see, and wonder what my last conversation with them will be? Have I already had it? When it does happen, I hope it is positive, a conversation that is memorable, but so many conversations are superficial, where people talk about their meals, television series, sports, and colonoscopies. However, superficial conversations often make up the majority of our relationships with people and even those words need to be salvaged. We need to lock them in our memory and save them. That is why being in the moment, absorbing what life brings to you, is so important. Life is made up of experiences, good and bad, and as humans many of those experiences are through the dialogue that we create with one another. Cherish them all, I say.

When will my next last conversation come?

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