You don’t mess around with chest pain and shortness of breath, so my father-in-law was rushed by ambulance to the Emergency Room. A week later, still in the hospital, he wasn’t responding to his meds. His lungs continued to deteriorate. His heart grew weaker and his kidneys began to quit. Eating led to nausea. He couldn’t walk, then he couldn’t stand. His body was shutting down. He was 85 years old.
I met Arnold when I was a college sophomore. My boyfriend, years later my husband, introduced me to his parents. I was nervous, sitting silent and wide-eyed on their living room couch. Arnold spoke gently, setting me at ease. He asked the names of my family’s two yappy toy poodles. Blushing, I explained that the smaller (and decidedly more bad tempered) dog was also “Arnold,” named after my brother’s best friend. He said he was flattered to share a name with my family’s noble steed. Several years later when we had become close, I admitted that my brother’s friend was “Jonathan,” that together they had chosen “Arnold” as Jonathan’s nickname because they picked “the funniest name” they knew. We joked about yappy-Arnold for 40 years.
Now, I loved his name and I loved him and he was dying.
My husband and I lived in the same city as Arnold, so we had been visiting the hospital every day. I arrived on the morning after Thanksgiving, 2017, Day 7 of Arnold’s hospitalization. As always, we relaxed in our comfortable friendship. Then I noticed his IV was out. I assumed the line was clogged and would be replaced. When he refused his morning pills, I asked what was going on. Avoiding my eyes, he told his nurse that he wanted the oxygen mask off. He had decided to stop treatment. I asked if he understood that without his oral meds and his IV and his oxygen he would die. He spoke gently, knowing his words would cause me pain: “Amy, I’m already dying.” My eyes filled with tears and I nodded. He was right.
A team of physicians, social workers and nurses — professional and compassionate in equal parts — talked to him several times, to make sure his decision was lucid and entirely his own. He was clear and calm. He asked the doctors for a time frame. They believed that when the oxygen mask came off, he’d die in as little as two hours, as much as two days.
Then my husband’s cell phone rang — Bruce Ramer, Arnold’s closest friend of fifty years. Bruce is a wonderful blend of contradictions: brilliant and scrappy, kind and tough, hilariously irreverent, unfailingly respectful. He announced he was booking a plane ticket to visit and say goodbye. Since Bruce, like Arnold, was in his 80s, my husband assured him that a 2,500-mile dash across the country wasn’t mandatory. Bruce answered that “a stick of dynamite up my ass” wouldn’t stop him.
I had become aware of the intensity of the bond between Arnold and Bruce several years before when Bruce’s brother died. Bruce was devastated, and he exchanged several emails with Arnold. Arnold had suffered a mild stroke and asked me to type his messages. Arnold’s last name was “Burk,” but he told me to sign the messages “Arnold Ramer” (Bruce’s last name). I was concerned that he was confused, but Arnold spoke quietly. “Amy, it’s okay, just send it.” I did, and soon a reply came back signed “Bruce Burk.”
“We’re brothers,” Arnold stated simply.
As the first day of hospice care unfolded, Arnold’s cognition turned fuzzy. He drifted into a hazy zone, hovering between life and death. He felt safe, and knew he was surrounded by people he loved. Entering the second day, he was fading. We hoped Bruce would get to him in time to say goodbye.
While Arnold’s body prepared to turn still, Bruce arrived — blazer, scarf, silver hair, handsome. Bruce is a force of nature, and his presence filled the room. His eyes are extraordinary — not quite hazel, not quite brown, laser sharp. In an intense instant, he scanned each of us, as though gauging our character, our emotional state, our capacity to cope, our love for his dearest friend. His eyes circled the space and rested on Arnold who lay in bed, frail and unfocussed. Bruce’s eyes filled. He brought himself into Arnold’s line of vision and said hello. He reached for his friend’s hand. Arnold opened his eyes. He looked through Bruce, then at him. Several moments passed. Recognition took hold, Arnold smiled, and we watched his mind reignite.
The two men exchanged insults about their gray hair, about how they weren’t glad to see each other, about how much they didn’t love each other. Arnold gently slapped Bruce’s chest. Bruce caught his friend’s hand and brought it to his own heart. They clasped each other and Arnold returned to us.
He lived two more weeks.
Looking back, I don’t understand what I witnessed. Bruce’s friendship brought Arnold back to life. Call it magic, a miracle, the ties that bind — I don’t know. Maybe I’m not meant to know.
Rest in peace Arnold, and live on Bruce. Your love for your “brother” was…I have no idea what it was. I only know it was wondrous.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with students who speak over forty languages. The story deals with racial and economic diversity, the power of friendship, adolescent sexuality. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written to support same-sex parents, to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.
Amy’s novels are available on Amazon.