Editor’s note: The original version of this article included the name of the artist, his wife and his friend. At the request of the family, their names have been removed.
It was an awkward goodbye.
The dying artist wanted to stay
in the restaurant and talk some more, finish his second glass of sweet
tea, but his wife knew better. Since he was sick, she knew he would
get tired soon. Better to leave earlier, while he was still talking and
energized, than later. She thanked me for coming and helped her husband
out of his seat – my cue to leave.
Instead I stood there with my
reporter’s notebook in hand, waiting for the scene that would tell me
my story, that would give me the answer to all the questions I had
about the artist and what he was going through as a dying man.
watched, silent, while his good friend opened the wheelchair. His wife
steadied him as he hobbled out of his seat. I trailed behind as they
maneuvered him past a row of cramped tables and chairs, down the wooden
steps and finally through the front door and into a bright midday sun.
As I had the entire meal, I wondered why I was there.
His wife turned around and noticed me again.
it was very nice to meet you, Shoshana, OK?” She gave me a hug, as if
to pat me on the head, and turned to retrieve her car from the parking
That left the artist and his friend, by his side. I shook
the friend’s hand and turned to the artist, who held out his arms
expectantly. He was so friendly. He had told me so many stories. He was
dying. I knelt down for an embrace – “See you soon!” he exclaimed – and
then he pecked me on the neck.
He had probably meant to aim his
kiss for my cheek, and in our awkward wheelchair fumbling, he had
missed. Maybe he had meant to do it – to add a touch of intimacy to an
otherwise removed reporter-subject relationship. I had no way of
knowing. I did not know the dying artist. We were not and would never
But at that moment, I felt sad.
he had said “see you soon,” I knew I would never see him again. He was
dying and I had no business being there. I needed to leave.
smiled at him, said goodbye once more, and scurried towards the parking
lot. On the way out, I saw his wife lift the wheelchair into the back
seat of their car.
It felt wrong to watch. It felt wrong to
intrude, yet again, on one of their last private moments, even though
they didn’t see me watching them. It felt wrong.
I looked away.
I did not know how difficult it would be to write about the artist.
I first set off to write the story, I knew that he was dying. I made
sure to approach the subject with a delicate tongue. Death is full of
uncertainty, terror and revelations of mortality. I was sure I knew how
In fact, I only knew how I felt.
experience with death was at 13 years old. First my grandmother died of
emphysema and then my grandfather, six months later, of lung cancer and
The loss hit me hard. I was already a typical 13-year-old
girl – wearing skirts that were much too short, sneaking out of the
house and giving boys lap-dances at parties when the parents weren’t
home. I was trying to understand the world, figure out my place in it.
That was all hard enough.
So I was shocked when my grandmother
died. I learned she died the same night I learned she had been admitted
to a hospital near her winter home in Florida. My father and I had been
in the process of buying plane tickets from our New Jersey home when we
got the call. I sat next to him on a white foldout chair, too old to
sit on his lap, too scared to not watch his face as he grasped the
My relationship with my grandmother wasn’t something a
teenage girl could appreciate. I hated the knit scarves and hats, the
matching neon puff paint T-shirts she made for my sister and me. But
she had always been there.
Her death was the first time I ever knew death was possible.
I spoke at her funeral, it was not so much a eulogy as it was a
revelation of all the things I did wrong: I didn’t realize soon enough
that the emphysema she’d had all my life was so deadly. I didn’t spend
enough time with her when she was alive. I didn’t get to say goodbye.
for that reason, I paid extra careful attention to my grandfather. I
watched him die. His lung cancer relapsed, the chemotherapy began and
By the end, he didn’t care much to eat. There were
no bagels and lox and cream cheese – or all the foods I associated with
a trip to Grandma’s house, my father’s Long Island Jewish home. He was
nourished by Ensure milkshakes and inhaled oxygen through a tube. He
had never been a talker, but my 13-year-old-self knew the silence
surrounding him was more than a mere absence of words.
to make up for all the things I thought I’d done wrong with my
grandmother. I spent as much time with Papa as possible. I watched him
deteriorate, reminded myself that he was dying. I prepared myself.
But at his funeral, unlike my grandmother’s, I didn’t speak. All I could do was cry.
The dying artist is very different from my grandfather. He still has his wife. He’s a talker. He loves to eat food.
his kiss on my neck reminded me of Papa, who always left kisses ringing
in my ears. The touch was so familiar that I parted from Jack feeling
like I had lost something.
I had lost something. Amid all the memories and my difficulties dealing with death, I could not find my story.
day had unfolded with promise. After a couple of phone interviews, I
met the artist in person for the first time, interviewed him in his
studio, watched him paint and spoke with his wife and a close friend.
When they decided to go to lunch, I jumped at the chance to go with
them. I thought it would give me a scene for my story. I thought it
might reveal a vulnerability, might show how the dying artist was
dealing with his reality, over grilled grouper sandwiches and sweet tea.
But once we were there, I knew I wasn’t welcome.
did not order food but sat there as the three friends ate. I wanted to
become a fly on the wall, but I was so silent his wife wondered why I
wasn’t doing my job. “Do you have any more questions?” she asked,
numerous times. She didn’t trust my hand, slithering quickly across the
pages of my reporter’s notebook.
I could not think of more
questions. My sadness over the dying artist and his wife’s distrust
muddled my thoughts, and I sat there, waiting for the answers to arrive.
After I left, I tried to make sense of what I had witnessed.
thought I understood what it was like to die. I had seen it happen to
my grandparents. I knew how it felt to lose someone. I wanted the
artist’s wife to know – I understood.
But I knew I was there
for a reason. I had a story to write. The story I hoped to write was an
important story, about a dying man and what he would leave behind.
In the end the scenes in my story were not as vivid as I would have
liked. It didn’t convey the significance I originally envisioned. My
memories of death prevented me from asking the tough questions.
But in the end, I did something I wasn’t able to do for my grandfather – I spoke. I told the story. Read more