They are all around me, my children and their children, all looking properly sad…and I knew none of them cared that I was dying.
I’d lived a long life, long enough and harsh enough that I knew when someone was putting on an act. The only way my family could have been more obvious in their desire that I just die and get out of their way would have been if they’d all been wearing neon signs flashing their feelings.
Being within a few months of my ninetieth birthday, I wasn’t against the idea of dying. When my wife had passed two decades ago, I’d almost prayed for death. But death had remained elusive until just a month ago. That morning, waking up in the predawn darkness with a pain in my chest like a giant’s fist squeezing my heart, I had known I was in trouble. Part of me wanted to just lie there and wait for the end to come…but for all my desire for death, my fear got the better of me. My cell was next to my bed, and I had managed to call 911 before the pain overwhelmed me.
Waking in the ER was all I needed to tell me that I was not dead. The doctors had delivered the bad news: my heart muscles were failing and that there was nothing they could do. The news hadn’t really been a surprise. Nor was I surprised by the next step in my life: hospice. My children could easily have taken me in, most of them had already seen their own children leave home, so space was not a problem.
No, the only problem was their unwillingness to take in, and take care of, their ‘old man’. Oh, they came to visit me in the hospital, and later in hospice, quite often. Sharon, my youngest daughter, spent much of her day with me. She would chatter and to keep my mind occupied, but I knew the only reason why she was there so constantly. She had the time to be with me because her divorce had been finalized and she’d cleaned her ex-husband out.
The rest came, mostly in the evenings and on the weekends, but rarely more often, and never very many. Even if the doctors hadn’t already told me, the fact that so many of them were here now told me I didn’t have long to live. It was getting harder and harder to stay awake, and it wasn’t just because my visitors were boring (which they were). No, I often found my mind wandering, and it was not uncommon for me to remember speaking to one of my grandchildren, then to find them no longer present.
And the time I was not conscious of my family was becoming more and more troubling.
Sometimes, I would remember my wife and our life together…both the good times and, sadly, the bad. Other times, I would remember the people I had worked with, most of them long dead but now seemingly alive again to remind me of all my failings. The double-dealing that had helped me rise through the corporate ranks. The way I had oppressed and stifled those who might rise to take my hard-won place.
Worst of all were the times I remembered my children’s lives. How I had struggled to understand what being a father really was. How they had seemed to never quite be what I had hoped they would be. The many, many times I and one or more of them had disagreed, often vehemently.
But today, today had brought an new twist. Just before I had become aware the room was filled with my family, I had been in a grey void, a place unlike anything I had ever seen or imagined. And there had been the voice.
It had been so calm, almost matter-of-fact, as it listed the many defects of my life. I hadn’t wanted to listen, but even though it had seemed barely louder than a normal speaking voice, I could have no more block it out than I could have blocked to roar of a jet engine running next to my ear. It had seemed to come from everywhere, and nowhere, like an echo inside my head. And it had droned on and on, unrelentingly reminding me what a complete and total bastard I’d been.
Then, silence…and a different voice had addressed me.
“Mr. Sanchez, your manifold failings have been duly noted. Have you anything to say? Any justification to offer?”
The strangeness, the complete and total bizarreness of the moment, stunned me into silence. After a pause, the voice continued.
“Very well. No defense having been offered, you are hereby found guilty of having wasted your life, and worst, of having made the lives of those around you miserable. We therefore condemn you to wander through your lives…all your lives, in all the many different universes you exist in. It is hoped you will take example of how the other versions of you have lived their lives for the better. You will, of course, be allowed a final chance to make amends with your relations with your family, and if we find your efforts sufficient, your sentence may be amended. You are free to go, and may the multi-verse have mercy on you.”
The room comes back into focus, my family around me still, all keeping their distance, staring at me while they wait for me to die. Not one of them approaches me, asks how I am doing, if I need anything. I think of what the voice had said, that this was my chance to “make amends” with them. Fuck them. They don’t love me, and they wouldn’t care whatever I said. The thought goes through my head, and I find it hard to breath. The room, everything and everyone in it, all of them begin to dim and fade..and in my head, I hear the voice that had pronounced my sentence speaking again.
“Very well, Mr. Sanchez. If you refuse to take advantage of the mercy offered by this court, your sentence will be carried out immediately.”
With those words, the world goes black and I feel myself falling, a fall that seemed to continue forever. Then the voice speaks again, one final address to me.
“You, who have spurned human contact and the very concept of helping others, shall learn of the value of volunteering to help…and the price it extracts. The soldier first you will be….”