Note: The content of this story might not be appropriate for younger readers.
I watched as you said twenty years of a goodbye. I watched as your twenty years went went by in a blink. To you, in a blink; as if you took a breath and it was gone and so was your friend. Your twenty years of a friend. I watched as you took your first breath without them, as they took their last with you. It seems cruel; life allows for some of us to be completely fulfilled, while others, those left behind, carry on with a great emptiness inside them. It all comes down to which one takes their last breath first. In this case, it was your friend. Your twenty years of a friend.
As composed as you could be in that room of disinfectant and panicked creatures, you cleaned your glasses with some kitchen paper.
You had a jacket on.
Beside you, was your friend, all tucked up in a blanket that should have been yours. I imagined your life with them; I didn’t even know your name, but I started to think of who you were and what they meant to you. I started to imagine you with my eyes and my heart and my soul. So with a mixture of both you and me, both of us lost in that room, broken, I could see your life.
Your life together.
I imagined that your friend, your twenty years of a friend, sat with you in the mornings as you drank your steaming coffee and waited for the “sunrise news” on the telly. Your friend would talk to you too, and you would talk back, although you never could understand each other. For twenty years your friend would often sit in silence as you cried into your hands so nobody could hear. Your friend though, knew different. Your friend saw you in a way that others could not.
You were a lorry driver in your twenties, for a haulage company in your small town. Everyone knew who you were, with your torn jeans and wicked smile. You talked up a lot of women. They were interested in you, they were always interested, but the only girls you truly loved were your mum and sister; they were your family and you’d do anything for them. You were the first born and the big brother, and those titles meant more to you than any fancy certificate that you could get by leaving town. But they left, one day. Travelling down the road in your sister’s banged-up Puma, some youngin’ took the bend too quickly. That was it. He took the bend too quickly. Ten kilometres less and they wouldn’t have left you, but some boy-racer took the bend too quickly. Then you spent the next thirty years alone, hateful, and no longer wanting to love anyone again. You were told that painful endings meant new beginnings. You hated whoever told you that. You hated them, and everyone else who came along with other useless, patronising words. They had no idea how much pain you were in, and they would never understand you either. You really hated the comment about new beginnings, though. You never wanted to begin again.
And then your friend came along. That was a beginning.
You found your soon-to-be friend abandoned at the side of the road, twenty years ago, just as you completed your morning walk. They were the size of your hand, with sticky eyes that had a strange liquid oozing out of them. They smelt of rot and every five seconds, your friend seemed to gasp for air.
A local farmer, with a face full of tobacco, found you. ‘It’s barely here,’ he said, ‘you can give it to me; I can sort it for you.’
You figured you should respond to the farmer: ‘I found it, so I’ll do it.’
The farmer nodded; he was hardly going to jump at the chance of ending a life. So instead, he took it upon himself to invade your personal space and pat your shoulder, before he made his way down the road to see his sheep. You looked at your soon-to-be friend again, with no idea of what to do or how to help. You wanted to though, and that was all that mattered in the end.
You took your friend to get help, and the specialists fixed them in a way they couldn’t fix your mum or sister. You watched as tiny needles pierced its skin, filling its body with good, healthy liquid. They wiped your soon-to-be friend’s eyes and skin, with a plan to leave them over night with no real promise of survival. You left with no intention of ever calling back, but the next morning you found yourself walking down the road towards where your soon-to-be friend was staying. It didn’t matter anyway, you thought. All you were doing was getting confirmation of another resident leaving town. That’s all it was. However, when you arrived the nurse greeted you; she was cheery, far too cheery for bad news. That’s because it wasn’t bad news at all: your soon-to-be friend was sitting up and making an awful lot of noise. You were told that a full recovery was expected. Now all the specialists could talk about was when you were able to take your new friend home.
You didn’t even want a friend, and then all of a sudden, you had a new one. It wasn’t easy for your new friend to settle in, or for you to settle in with them for that matter. Your new friend was still far less than pint-sized, but moved around the place like a dragon. They took down curtains and smashed cups. They scratched your legs and arms, clung on to your wallpaper and soiled your carpets. You would look at your torn-up sofa and wonder if you could remember it ever being new. There were many times you thought you’d find your new friend a home, but then at night, when they snuggled in as you watched the telly, you figured you would give it another day, and another day, and another.
After many days and weeks and months and years, your new friend wasn’t new anymore.
There were days where you felt so broken as a man, that you wondered why you were given this life in the first place. Sometimes at night you would see your mum and sister standing in the hallway, and even though you knew they weren’t there, you would still make sure to be in the house when the sun went down, just so not to miss them. And the emptiness, the emptiness inside you almost would swallow you up; you couldn’t talk to the shop assistant to ask for some bread, or call the doctor to tell them that something was wrong. Instead, the emptiness had strangled your vocal cords and you were paralysed, so paralysed that all you could do was sit in your chair and weep. Your friend, now much bigger than pint-sized, would sit by your legs and then on your lap and then lie so heavy on your chest as if to share their breath with you. Soon after you would breathe again, and the tears would dry up and it would be just be you two, sharing breath and heartbeats. And one night, as your erratic breathing subsided, your friend lent you their voice and you called the doctor. Your mum and sister left you shortly after, and that was for the best.
For the twenty years after that very day, you would fight, reconcile, and fight again. Your lives would revolve around each other. You’d have sleepless nights, wondering when your adventurous friend would come home. You would chase your friend with a broom when they tried to kill the neighbour’s rabbit, and then would pet them in the quietness of your home once you were sure your disgruntled neighbour wouldn’t see. For twenty years you would turn on the stove just so your friend could sit by it, especially during the colder months.
Over time, your friend would slow down. Their love for adventuring would stop and instead they would sleep on your lap, as you drank coffee and read the paper. Their once black fur would become speckled in grey, and the manic eyes you used to see before your friend randomly blitzed down the stairs would disappear. You would sit on that torn up sofa with your friend beside you, listening to their breathing becoming more laboured as the months travelled towards years.
Time. Time had caused your new friend to become your old one. So, you visited the same place that kept your tiny, less than pint-sized friend on this planet, just to make sure they could prevent your fully grown friend from leaving it. They tried, but some things just couldn’t be fixed. Over the twenty years your old friend’s bones had become brittle, and little spots appeared in their lungs and heart. Lots of little spots. Spots that couldn’t be retrieved, spots that couldn’t be destroyed, just little spots that were taking your old friend away from you. Lots of little spots, that’s all that mattered in the end.
That’s how we ended up here, me watching you, and you looking at nothing but your friend. I wish I could help, but I know that you don’t want another new beginning; you had been through far too many in your life, and each time a soul you loved so much left, you lost another bit of yourself. I knew how that felt, and I knew that nothing I could say could ever repair you. You were permanently broken. You just had to learn how carry on with these cracks in your heart.
Your name is called, and you stand up. I watch as you carry your friend into a cold room with a steal table and low beam lights. You close the door behind you, but I can imagine what is being said. You are asked by that same kind face of twenty years ago if you can put your friend on the table. This takes time: your friend does not want to leave the refuge of their blanket. The kind face says some words, using a stethoscope to listen to your friend’s heart. The kind face that once told you that your friend was better, now said they were not. Then they asked what they should do, because, for some reason this life was your choice. It wasn’t your choice when your mum and sister left, just like it wasn’t my choice when all those I loved walked away from me. Right now though, this life, your friend’s life, was all down to you. So really, you could take your old friend home, and tonight they could lie on your chest and you could share your breath and heart with them. Even just for one more night. That was your choice.
And in that moment, you choose to love them.
So instead, today you ask for the unhealthy liquids to sink into your old friend. Today, you rest your hand on their boney body and as the kind face listens to your old friend’s heart, you keep your hand on them, just so they know that you are there, long after their eyes close. Then the kind face tells you it’s the end of a twenty year adventure, and you nod. You don’t cry; you shake their hand and thank them for their twenty years of service, turn and walk out the door. I am waiting for you on the other side.
I watch as you falter; you hang by the door, looking into the small square glass window. You look at your friend lying on that steel table, and that is your goodbye. Your twenty years of a goodbye. A blink of life lived and gone and you are still here. Just like me; we both look back at pictures of who we used to be, but we’re trapped behind some cold, metal door. Life has a way of damaging you, so over time you lost your laughter and your wicked smile, while I lost the part of me that used to feel happiness and hope.
You’re brilliant, though, and let me tell you why.
In that moment, us together, I know. I know as I look at you, that even though your heart is broken and you are left with that empty hellish void again, that you would walk down that road and pick up that small rotting creature and take it home and live your life with it. You’re a wonderful example of what it is like to live, to really live, because you know your heart was made to be broken. You know the sadness in your heart, once shared, is worth it, because your friend had once shared it with you.