His senses were failing. His eyes – all his life the signals to his family of whether they could approach him or whether they should leave him alone to stew over the frustrations of his work day in silence – could no longer see. They remained half open as if he was struggling with all his remaining strength to see his world, the scope of which was now reduced to the simple hospital bed the hospice nurses had set up in the master bedroom of his home. Taste had long since departed, ever since the day of his stroke, when the doctors had determined that he could no longer swallow and that any nourishment he was given would end up not in his stomach but in his lungs, slowly drowning him in his own bed. He could hear clearly. He could hear his family discussing his life and his death. He could feel the touch of his daughter’s hand on his. He could feel the body heat from his grandson, who was standing at the foot of the bed unsure of himself and his newly inherited role as head of the family. He could feel bedsheets, his ever-present companions for the last two weeks. He could feel the morphine work through his body, numbing him to all unpleasantness.
But most of all, he could smell.
The gentle May breeze worked its way into the house, drawing with it the scent of the spring honeysuckle outside. “It is so beautiful today,” they had said. “Let’s open the windows and turn off the air conditioning.” Now the breezes entered the room in a gentle, comforting mimicry of his final respirations. Or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe his breaths – taken steadily and without much thought for the last 85 years – were a similitude, or even a constituent fragment, of the vast, ancient cycle of earthly winds. He was now giving that breath back to the earth that had given birth to him. (In a rare moment of mental clarity, he was able to think that perhaps that’s all dying is: returning one’s breath to the winds and one’s body to the dust. Giving back something that was borrowed.) The breezes came in, bringing sweet, reassuring, healing honeysuckle – a sweet scent that covers and annihilates any bitter odors, itself a kind of olfactory morphine. His final, weak exhales drifted out the window, gave up their particular connection to this person and this time, and became, once again, universal and primeval.
The strong, pleasant smell of the honeysuckle was for him the encapsulation of life, his recherche du temps perdu. His cookie was a vine of wild weeds enveloping the hedge he had struggled for sixty years to keep neatly trimmed and tidy. Memory, released by the constant morphine drip, carried him back to his childhood. He is young now, on his father’s farm. The honeysuckle is growing in and around the blackberry bushes that have grown wild on this farm since time immemorial – God’s gracious gift to those who are tough enough to brave the thorns and copperheads to pick them, his mother would say. As they pick blackberries, his father plucks a single honeysuckle flower. “The trick,” he says, “is to get the entire stalk, all the way down to the bottom. Run it through your mouth, and you get a sweet taste.”
His father was never a gentle man. He was an old civil servant, having served as the county tax collector for most of his working life. “It isn’t really a numbers job,” he used to say. “It’s a people job. These people trust me to handle their money and to be honest and respectful. It’s a high responsibility.” And, according to the percentages of the vote that returned him to office again and again, the public was pleased with how he fulfilled his responsibilities. Almost no one had a bad word about him, and when he died the line for the visitation spilled out the door of the funeral home and snaked for half a mile down Vine Street. He was a public person, an influential person, and a respected person. But at home he was different. At home he meted out on his family the frustrations of his daily, unending interactions with the public. It wasn’t that he was abusive, or even neglectful or unloving. He was just tired. And he knew it wasn’t his family’s fault. They were simply the ones who were there. He would come home from a day of greeting and handling with a smile the problems of hundreds of tax-paying citizens, and he had no energy to maintain the façade of the happy, cheerful, selfless servant. With his family he could be curt, withdrawn, and quick to anger. But with his family, as with his professional responsibilities, he was constantly and intensely loving and loyal. The family learned to accept that the grumpiness he brought home with him was not their fault, and was not the real him. It was simply the result of the constant pressures of his office. On the weekends, during the holidays, and in summer vacations the real man shined. This was the man who would have fought gods and titans if they so much as uttered a negative word about a child or grandchild of his. This was the man who loved nothing more than to gather his family around and to tell them a story.
The sweetness of the honeysuckle brought to him the sweetness of his father. In that moment all the curtness, the stress, the habit of pouring on the family the frustrations of his work, all these withered and evaporated under the powerful goodness of the yellow stalks just outside the bedroom window. His father was no longer the sometimes ill-tempered man he sometimes had mixed feelings about; instead he was the one person in the entire world who had ever cared enough to introduce him to the smell and taste of honeysuckle. It was a loving gesture, an act of grace.
As the breeze faded the scent of honeysuckle was overwhelmed by the sick, chemical smell of the morphine. Morphine, the smell of infirmity and death. They had kept him full of it for the last two weeks. The hospice nurse had said, “We can’t do any harm now, might as well keep him out of pain. If he has any pain at all, it means that we aren’t giving him enough.” The drug that numbed his senses also made him alert to the full truths of his life and relationships, no longer clouded by the haze of faded memory, but brilliant and alive, as if he was reliving every episode of his life in this singular moment.
He is in college now, with the woman who would become his first love. They were both secondary education majors, so they shared several classes. At first he was afraid to approach her; he thought that he would rather be just friends than risk the possibility of rejection inherent in asking her for a date. They became close friends, spending most of their free time together. Then one day, as they were driving somewhere together, he got up the guts to blurt out, “So I have had a crush on you for a while. Did you know that?” She indicated that she was not completely unaware of or repulsed by this idea. It was a late spring day, and the car's open windows allowed the spring breezes to float around them, bringing with it the scents of the neighborhood: lilacs, roses, and honeysuckle.
They married eventually, but it did not last. There was too much of his father in him. His first professional job was teaching history and government in the high school from which he had graduated just a few years earlier. She was not able to find a job that first year they moved back to his hometown, so she worked sporadically as a substitute teacher and a babysitter. Their child came almost a year after they moved back to town. He called her his beautiful girl and his treasure. She would be the dearest thing to him for the rest of his life. But it was a costly treasure. With only one steady income, financial pressures weighed on him. His worries kept him from sleeping. He would lie awake most of the night, then arrive at school at 6:30 the next morning, exhausted and irritated. He knew that he could not take this irritation out on his students, so he fought to keep himself under control throughout the work day. The frustrations of each day of teaching added to the financial worries, and when he came home at the end of a work day he would lock himself in the bedroom and refuse to speak to his wife or his daughter. When he did come out he was short and quick to anger. Not once did he ever raise his voice to, strike, or in any way threaten his beautiful girl. His wife was not so fortunate. In his mind, she was the root of everything that was wrong in his life. He yelled. He threw things. He blamed her for everything. His rational mind knew that she had even less control over his life at school or over their finances than he did, but his viscera indicted and convicted her of a treasonous plot to make him miserable and to ruin his life. Finally, on an unseasonably chilly day in April, she told him that she had had enough. She said that he had until the end of the school year to pack up his things and get out. And so, as the academic year and the month of May came to a close, and as the honeysuckle bloomed in the backyard of the tiny, 900 square foot house they were renting, they parted ways. The things he took with him were slim enough to fit in the back of his father’s pickup truck: just his books, a desk, and the couch from their living room. He did not want anything else. He wanted a fresh start.
The morphine filters through his system and its effects begin to fade. He can hear the voices more clearly now. His daughter, his beautiful girl, is telling stories about her father, laughing every once in a while as she remembers his idiosyncrasies. Her son has now moved from the foot of the bed to his mother’s side, speaking up to retell bits of stories he thinks she has not told well enough. For a brief second, he forgets who they are, and he forgets who he is. All he can think is that these people must deeply love whatever person it is they are talking about. Then he remembers. He tries to speak, but the stroke has paralyzed most of his facial muscles. All he can do is open his eyes and exhale loudly. The talking in the room stops. He can feel the eyes and the breath of everyone in the room. His daughter says, “Is he in pain? Is it time for more morphine?”
He collects every bit of strength he has left, and with his entire mind, body, soul, and essence he shouts: “No! No more morphine! I have to get out of here. Help me, help me! Get me out! Dad! I see you, and I remember. I plucked the stalk from the bottom; I did it! I can taste the honeysuckle in my mouth. My beautiful girl, let me listen to you, let me feel you without the numbness that comes with that damn drug! Stop talking, just enjoy the spring, the scents, the gentle air. Grandson, there is so much I need to teach you! I’ve never taken you to the farm. Let me show you how to enjoy; let me teach you about honeysuckle. Help me up; help me get out of here!”
These shouts resonate through his brain and his body, but they never escape his mouth. The paralysis and the residue of the morphine have made sure of that. He hears with silent frustration his daughter, his beautiful girl, say, “I think it’s time. Pass me the morphine bottle.” The mockingly sweet, chemical smell fills the room. As she inserts the syringe into his skin, the curtains puff out as the earth sends its breath into the room. The true sweetness of the honeysuckle pushes away the false, artificial sweetness of the morphine. The drug passes through his body, and his senses begin to fade again. Now he sees nothing and hears nothing.
As he drifts into unconsciousness, he inhales the sweet air and the floral scent for the last time.