Red Sky at Night
by Bryan Stanley, MSIV
I stand at the seashore
A ship before me
spreads white sails to morning breeze
and casts off into the blue ocean.
An object of beauty and strength
I watch until at last it hangs
like a speck of white cloud
where sea and sky mingle
Someone at my side says
Climbing up the narrow, winding staircase.
"Hey, Chuck!" I yell and before I can reach the kitchen I hear back, "Is that you, Brine?"
I always loved the way you said my name. It painted a picture of the salty shores and exhausted ships you worked on for much of your life. Even in our thickly-accented Boston neighborhood, yours was a distinctive siren, a beacon that called me into harbor on many a stormy night.
Bursting through your kitchen door, I am met by a familiar fog hanging heavily in the air and find you sitting at the table, cigarette propped firmly between your lips like an ornament on a ship's bow, ash sprinkling to the newspaper below like sea-spray settling on deck.
Smoking was your comfort since you left high school at 16 to join the Navy; it grounded you while at sea. But now it's different; now you have cancer. You shrugged it off. Those words were not uncommon to you. You overcame this familiar foe five times previously so why would this time be any different?
As I took my place at the table, you turned to me and said, "Do you know why they built a fence around the cemetery?"
It didn't matter that I knew where this was going; you were always able to get a smile and a laugh from me.
"People are dying to get in."
Humor was your pride and you found it in any situation.
You decided it was time for dinner and before long, the table was arranged with a spread of macaroni, salad, antipasto, and garlic bread. The macaroni was exceptionally spicy. You once again managed to "spill" pepper into the gravy.
I lingered longer than usual that night. I wasn't sure when or under what circumstances I would have another chance to come home. You poured yourself another glass of wine; beer has become too bitter since your last bout of chemo.
Your weary body made its way beside me to the door, closing and locking it behind me with the send-off you have always used: "Watch out."
I don't think you ever thought of yourself as sick. You were the same person on that day as you had been the day before, so why would some new label change that? Even if your habits fed the tumor inside you, it was your priority to have control and make your own decisions about your care.
The call I got that Thursday morning was one I expected but likewise never actually believed would come. You died with your boots on, clutching one final cigarette like a Viking ensuring his journey to Valhalla. When I picture your last breath, I see the smoke rise from between your lips and hover beneath the unfinished ceiling, and as the ash falls onto the boots you had worn thin, you are granted passage.
Someone at my side says
Gone from my sight is all
The ship is just as large in mast and hull and spar
As it was when it left my side
Its diminished size is in me, not in itself.
And just at the moment
When someone at my side says,
There are other eyes
Watching that ship approaching
Ready to take up the joyful shout
"Here she comes!"
Supplemental Note from the author: "I am from the Boston area and this piece was a culmination of dealing with the death of a loved one and finding a therapeutic way to deal with those emotions while still being expected to put them aside every day to help families and individuals deal with similar experiences in the hospital. At the time I was part of the narrative medicine workshop and that venue provided a safe space to share these thoughts."