I’ve always believed my D.N.A. to be comprised of one primary component—if someone probed the bowels of my anatomical structure they would soon discover a single strand connecting all others; a wide and sweeping streak of stubbornness. Blaming genetic predisposition seemed as good a reason as any for insisting upon a second opinion before digesting the first, but I assure you that even the most steadfast refusal to accept the truth will not make it less true.
“There’s nothing we can do, Mr. Langdon. I’m sorry.”
Under the right circumstance certain words have exponentially more power than was ever intended the stringing together of a few syllables. They will steal a man’s breath, freeze everything around him, and cast him into a world of isolation where what transpires between splintered seconds is an alter-reality known only to him. During that frozen slice of limbo a lightning bolt charged down through the ceiling. In a fiery show of wrath it struck the floor, ripping open a chasm that separated me from all other living creatures. Suddenly I was sitting alone in a forgotten corner, silently choking on the poisonous shades of reality.
It is unclear how long I lingered in this private desert of suffering before a sound or perhaps something more subtle drew my attention to the clock. The second-hand fluttered in a state of ambiguity, seemingly paralyzed by an equal dread of glancing back or the prospect of forging forward. For some the mention of coincidence explains a great many mysteries, but I could not convince myself the battle being waged by the keeper of time was not eerily my own. As entwined as I understood us to be, a wave of relief washed over me when the ticker began to sweep predictably again. As it marched onward the numbness of my mind subsided and once again I began to hear and process spoken words.
“Due to the aggressive nature the cancer has gained an irreversible foothold on all vital organs. None of the treatments currently available will be effective. I truly am sorry, Mr. Langdon.”
The offering of a month seemed hardly enough time to complete the remodeling of a small room. Yet in the midst of awkward silence I came to realize that sometimes, suddenly and inexplicably, the road runs out. My lease on life was seven-hundred twenty hours and counting.
It was my grandfather’s belief that if a man is to be any man at all he must discover purpose for himself, especially during times when the world tries to convince him he has nothing to contribute. By all accounts it was late in the game, but I supposed recording my days in a journal might bare some semblance to purpose. And if boys were made of slugs, and snails, and puppy-dog tails I could relay an uplifting tale of how a man being assigned a number results in a spectacular transformation; how he dedicates himself to a great cause for humanity or even that he simply lives out his remaining days checking off items on a bucket list. The ugly truth of the matter is it was exceedingly easy to squander the first of my last hours floundering in a sea of self-pity.
Upon arriving home from the hospital I voluntarily quarantined myself to the study as I was unfit company. After pouring a generous glass of cognac and lighting a fire I burrowed deeper into the recliner than I could ever recall. Surrounding myself with physical comforts seemed a subtle means of defense against the icy claws of reality scratching to get in.
Ironic such news be delivered in the dead of winter; the brutality of which was both symbolic and tangible as a Canadian cold front stalled over our region. As I poured a second glass of spirits I indentified the sound of icy claws to be the bare limbs of an overgrown Elm brushing against the bay window. One of a bushel-basket full of things I had yet found time for, but now I supposed the weight of such burdens would fall to someone else. I wondered aloud what he might look like—this mysterious trimmer of trees. How long before he drove my car, dined regularly at the dinner table, and eventually lay on my side of the bed loving my wife better and more completely. A respectable man should want that for his wife—for his children, but the images were too bitter.
Drink after drink one hour rolled into another as I wrestled with answerless questions and faceless demons, pursuing each doubt vigorously and without remorse. A young hound cut loose on a fresh trail for the first time, naiveté would carry him deep into the woods before discovering the illusive and intangible are always faster and more cunning than you imagine, multiplying and melting into the creases of shadows until such time as you pass too closely. Then in an irreversible moment hunter becomes hunted and like a band of thirsty demons they descend upon you, ripping flesh from bone, smiling as they dissect, never retreating fully, providing only enough separation that you might relive the terror of their approach over and over. Fangs designed for grizzly deeds, blackened hearts fueled by the notion that work is unfinished until they have dismantled everything that defines you. Finally, the distinct smell of death settles heavy in the nostrils of the alpha male and on his lead they pour back into the shadows each of them carrying a sliver of your soul in their steely-jowls.
Deep in my bones I felt the steady plodding of pursuit, as if I had escaped from the gallows and the hooves of steeds ridden by heartless henchman were bearing down upon me. I anticipate the lead man’s fingers gripping my collar, sweeping me off my feet, and the defining moment when he holds my face to the dim flicker of a lantern. I expend my final breath on the last laugh as the case of mistaken identity is revealed to all. Henchmen, reduced to fools, having wasted such resources on the pursuit of a hollow man.
The whirling in my head slowed to a waltz as I dove headlong into a deep and penetrating stare. Just beyond the frosty panes of glass a north-eastern gale sweeps up the fallen snow into a blinding fury, blocking out what remains of the sun. Subtle shades of evening gobble up the last remnants of day and for the first time in my life I experienced a reverent fear of what lays on the other side of a sunset.
Dealing with my own thoughts had become too cumbersome. With vision grown cloudy and head bobbing I welcomed the steely approach of a blissful state of unconsciousness. Just as I moved toward the threshold I heard a voice that rattled me.
“Congratulations, you’ve spent decades in the relentless pursuit of nothingness. How does it feel to be like me?”
I recognized the gravelly voice as that of my estranged brother—always the renegade, even now in the afterlife. A portion of me questioned whether I possessed the coordination to turn and face him and the remainder was too defiant to grant him the courtesy. Headstrong, my words dribbled into the empty corner in front of the chair.
“For the love of God, can’t an ailing man simply die in peace?”
“Is that what you think you’ll find—peace? You always fancied yourself so different than me—better somehow. Tell me dear brother, am I the only one that finds amusement that in a single drunken sitting you’ve reached the end of you?”
After a concerted effort I managed to turn and face him. He needed to see the fire in my eyes.
“You selfish little bastard! Running around trying to find yourself; tattooed from head to foot, hopping on your motorcycle coming and going as you pleased. The only thing you left behind was your share of the chores and a young boy searching for the words to comfort our mother! Died at nineteen, bottle of whiskey in one hand, throttle rolled back with the other. Don’t you lecture me about reaching the end of myself when you never bore an ounce of responsibility for anything. You took the coward’s way out—too scared to even scratch the surface of what you might have become!”