Shoulder-to-Shoulder

Shoulder-to-Shoulder

Last week I was riding the bus when the following happened.

I heard a hoarse cry from the man seated directly across the aisle from me. Up to this point I’d been reading a book and hadn’t paid him much attention, but I looked over as he scrambled to pull his phone from his jacket pocket. He was in his early 50’s, a thick black barrel of a man, the sides of his bald head feathered with rich tight curls, soft and fluffy as a fledgling’s wings, waiting to grow out so they could tug him heavenward when his name was called. He fumbled with his phone before he finally managed to raise it to his head. Then he yelled.

I’m sorry, man, I’m sorry—who’s this?

A fuzzy noise squawked through the tip of his phone.

Who now?

The same noise squawked again, louder this time.

Big John? Big John? I must’ve pocket dialed you, Big John—my phone’s all screwed up.

A common enough mistake, and I was about to turn back to my book when he dropped this doozy.

Anybody told you about Terrry? He got brain cancer…

I was listening now, as I imagined Big John was.

Yeah, he’s about out of here. It ain’t no good. It’s like he’s shrunk to four foot tall.

Granted I didn’t know enough about Terry’s original height to determine if this shrinkage should be of concern, but still—brain cancer? This was some serious shit, but the man beside me seemed unperturbed by the pocket dial as well as the news he’d just dropped on Big John and the rest of us riding the bus.

I couldn’t speak for Big John, but I needed to know more info about Terry—what stage was his cancer? Was types of treatments was he receiving? What was the prognosis? But as quickly as he’d begun the man changed course.

So how you doing Big John?

There was a long pause while he listened to the noises coming through his phone. By the amount of listening he was doing it was clear that Big John was neither as shocked or as interested in the news about Terry as would’ve seemed appropriate. I leaned my ear toward the man, not because I worried how Big John was doing—likely he was much better off than poor Terry—but because I didn’t want to miss any continuation of the story.

The man listened to his phone, scratched the top of his head, and said.

Man, it seems like every month one of my friends falls.

What the hell was that supposed to mean? Was this a metaphor about death or do his friends have balance issues?? This sort of one-sided, incomplete information was quickly proving terribly frustrating, and I sighed loudly through my nose and glared at him to signal my displeasure.

Well, she was talking about hospice but I don’t know what that is.

Who was this “she” he’d so casually introduced? Terry’s wife? His mother? A sister or distant cousin visiting from Atlanta? A state-appointed nurse? Regardless who “she” was, I knew that hospice was serious, the last stop on the long line, and I lowered my head out of respect for Terry.

I cleared my throat and prepared to explain the concept of hospice care but the man continued before I could interject.

I went over there last week. You know, I go over there about every week. They got him in a hospital bed now. He heard my voice when I came in the room and—he snapped his fingers together loudly—it was like he knew I was there with him. Right there beside him. He looked up my direction and everything.

At this point the bus stopped and a line of sixteen young children boarded. I know there were sixteen because I counted every single one of them. It was like watching a clown car load up before a show. None of the children could’ve been taller than four feet and most of them wore colorful backpacks. In a long single file they strolled past us to the back of the bus.

You know Terry, the man beside me said to Big John. He never did nothing bad. Ain’t never had a bad word to say about nobody, and if it was bad it wasn’t that bad. And you know I’m telling you the truth now.

I thought that this would be a nice benediction to have said about me once my time came. I wondered who could I convince to tell such a story on my behalf.

You think the Seahawks gonna crawl out of this hole? 

Now what the hell was this? Here we were talking about Terry and his terrible cancer diagnosis and this mystery female caregiver, the ethics of hospice care and some great things someone maybe could say as part of my eulogy…, and suddenly, without conclusion to any of these concerns, we’re asked to casually shift to discussing football? Had this man no regard for a satisfying narrative?!?

I leaned sideways, intending to punch him lightly on the shoulder and return his attentions to the story, but before I could swing he sputtered a couple cheap phrases then punched the buttons on his phone that ended his conversation with Big John.

I was not happy with him. No sir, not one bit. I thought about pulling the stop-cord and bringing the bus to a halt. I imagined rising dramatically and planting my feet firmly in the aisle, then beginning a litany of complaints to the driver and the sixteen children and everyone else onboard that this man seated beside me—here I would point in dramatic accusation at my neighbor—was the reason people were moving away from public transportation: just when it gets interesting someone with fragmentary storytelling skills goes and cuts you short.

I reached to pull the cord, but before I could grab it the man seated in front of my neighbor turned around and said that he was sorry to hear about Terry.

He just fell out one day, the man beside me nodded. Went to the hospital because he thought he had the flu—turns out it was brain cancer.

Now that just seemed suspect to me—I mean really?? But he continued before I could press him on the details.

That cancer is everywhere, man. It’s something.

Soberly, the man in front of him looked at his lap.

It’s a helluva thing, man, I’ve never been shoulder-to-shoulder with it before. It really is a helluva thing, living shoulder-to-shoulder with it.

I looked around the bus. There we were, me and him and those sixteen children and God knows how many else, each of us shoulder-to-shoulder with all of it. As I stepped from the bus I smiled weakly his direction.

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