by Wayne Christensen

There was a time in my life when I worked as an orderly in a nursing home. That time is lost in the past and I am older, perhaps wiser, but memories of certain experiences remain indelibly etched upon my conciousness like the spider web tracery of frost on a winter windowpane.

At one time or another each and every one of us must reach a time when we are forced to contemplate the final mystery. It may come as a result of the loss of a loved one, or, as in my case, it may merely come about through abstract ruminations coalescing into a train of thought that leads ones mind into uncharted territory. For me the exploration of that unknown land resulted in a sudden and unwelcome confrontation with the infinite.

On the average we tend to fear Eternity. We have tagged it with a name that increases our fear of it by it's very mention. Death. The stark label that indicates the end of Earthly existence.

My nursing duties consisted mostly of assisting the elderly and infirm in the daily activities of their lives as they waited for the descent of that final curtain which would remove them from all of the concerns of the living.

Washed up on this sterile and undignified shore they came from all walks of life for mainly one purpose. To await the fall of that dark drapery.

The grinning skull beneath it's black hood stalked these hallways as familiarly as you walk about your front yard. It waited behind every corner, in every closet, in every room. It reaped it's grim harvest most often in the still quiet of the night.

For the most part I was able to push the nearness of that unpleasant and unwanted specter from my mind as I worked to provide thoughtful and sympathetic service for those under my care. Occasionaly however, as if it wished to remind me of my own mortality, the sardonically smiling black phantom would not be ignored.

Mr H came to us one dark and rainy night. Unable to walk or speak, he refused meals and steadily wasted away. My co-workers and I knew that he would not be with us long. Those who simply gave up always went fast.

Something about this sad faced old man pulled at me and I spent extra time with him whenever I could, making sure his bed was dry and warm and he was clean. The ancient blue eyes would occasionaly flicker at me briefly and then he would again retreat into that inner world where he had chosen to spend his final days on Earth.

The inner world was a place I had come to know long before. Burdened by a wife who neither cared about nor wanted to listen to my deepest feelings and thoughts, I found myself increasingly alone and lonely. Trying to ward off the despair of a failing marriage, I would spend long hours awake in the night after she had retired. During these times I would be utterly alone with myself, pondering the unknowns of life and death.

On one particular night I found myself rummaging quietly through stacked boxes in a musty attic. Having no idea what I was looking for or what I would find, I looked over the peices of our lives together that were stored here. At length I came across a cracked and faded photo that I examined minutely in the yellow glow of the cobwebby lamp. It was a picture of a remarkably handsome man in an army dress uniform. My father. Who were you then? I thought. Who are you now? Who am I other than the sum of the parts? Atoms! Wayne, the son of Robert. A collection of complex organic molecules bound up to form a combination of nucleic acids organized into a living being. A being born to live and die without ever really knowing why.

Running my fingertips over the photo I observed the vast differences in the appearance of my father, a young man during world war II, as opposed to now. A sudden panic ran through me and the close walls of the chalk boarded attic seemed to suffocate me. It was the realization that someday he would be gone. Something irreplaceable would be gone from my life with no hope of it ever being returned. I retreated from the attic, hoping to leave behind that awful vision of the future. Getting into bed I embraced my sleeping spouse while I fought back the tears that threatened to run down my cheeks.

Having exhumed that particular memory from the boneyard where it should have stayed, I was never again able to look at Mr H without seeing the form of my father laying in his place. The intricate ways that we humans can find to torture ourselves never fail to amaze me.

All too soon, or perhaps, not soon enough, the end came. One of my fellow Nurses Aides, a pert and pretty girl named Kathy, came to tell me that Mr H would not last the night.

My duties did not permit me to visit Mr H until the shift was nearly over, but as soon as I could I went to be by his side. I was saddened to see that no one had come to be with him. No loving wife, sister, grandchild, or other was there to hold that weatherbeaten old hand as he slipped away into forever. Time and time again I had been witness to the fact that so many of us die alone. It is disgraceful that in this day and age in such a supposedly enlightened civilization, that a person can still be abandoned on a twin bed to expire in loneliness within a darkened room. There can scarcely be a sadder social commentary.

Gasping now in the interrupted respiration called "cheyne stokes" (I hope I spelled that correctly) that precedes death, Mr H lay in his bed, pale, fragile looking, and sweating profusely. Aside from me he was alone. Undoubtably frightened. Squeezing his hand I told him that I was there for him, although I would not be able to stay long. Maybe he would realize that he was not alone, that someone cared. He gave no indication of recognizing my presence though I thought for a moment that his fingers had tightened upon mine for the barest instant. Those blue ice chip eyes seemed to be focused with grim determination upon something before him that I could not see. A chill ran through me as I suddenly recalled an incident at home a couple of weeks earlier.

It was late at night when my live-in fiance's three year old son began to cry. She sleepily stumbled to his room and turned on the lamp to see what was wrong. With fear shining out of his big brown eyes the little boy solemnly informed her that there was a monster in his closet, a Monkey monster. Like the good mother she was she kissed away the tears and the fears, assuring him that no such fantastic creature existed, least of all not in his closet. Soon he fell back into the secure arms of sleep and she returned to our bed. When she told me the tale at breakfast time I did not give it a great deal of thought except some slight amusement that the child had such an imagination.

Looking now at Mr H I realized that I disagreed with my fiance's reassurances to her son. The Monkey monster does indeed exist. He may be a conjured figment of our deepest subconcious imaginations but that makes him no less real. He is there, the companion of the grinning skull beneath the black hood, or perhaps they are one and the same. he accompanies us about our daily lives, continually mocking us from some dark corner like the mossy inscriptions on the hoary granite of ancient tombstones. Even in the bright summer sunshine that tiny sliver of dark dread can be found lurking in the hidden corners of our psyches. It waits with a patience as eternal as the universe itself. Yet, with the audacity that defines our humanity we have fought a continual battle to hold this timeless monster at bay.

With the end of the dark ages our race embarked upon a slow and stumbling journey towards the light of reason, removing one by one the technological obstacles that stand between us and the final mastery of our universe and our fate. Despite our best efforts though, the Monkey monster still mocks and laughs from the security of his dark closet. For the time being we are still mortal and all too painfully aware of that mortality. We play chess with an opponent who will inevitably win. The price of our loss to this remorseless adversary is our very existence.

I looked at Mr H and then at the spot upon which his eyes were focused. What was he seeing? Was he gazing perhaps, into the red rimmed eyes of the Monkey monster? Locked in mortal combat with it on some gray battlefield beyond this life with his soul as the prize? I will never know until that distant or maybe not so distant day comes when I find myself struggling for my own last breaths.

That night I quietly entered my home. Locking the door securely behind me. Softly kissing the cheek of my sleeping lover I went into our boy's room and laid down beside him. Rolling over in his sleep he threw a tiny arm up over me and snuggled his tousled little head up against my shoulder. I made a silent vow that the Monkey monster would keep his distance on this night. I gently drifted off to sleep hearing and feeling the warm breath of love next to me, that sweet signature of precious and all too ephemeral life.

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