THE RIVER, Part Nine
I was sure I was in a Bardo dream. The couple by the river talking about death was just the sort of thing you might dream in that in-between state, unable to believe you were dead … clinging to the illusion of life while your unconscious tried to communicate the truth: that you are dead, no longer a person on planet Earth, and are about to come face to face with Eternity.
It’s not the mushrooms, I thought. This is real. I’m dead. But I'm not ready to be dead. Please God, don't take me now. I’ll do better. I haven’t been myself since the divorce. I've been partying too hard, but I’ll do better and I’ll take better care of myself. I can’t die now. It would hurt too many people and my child needs me. I can do better. I've been stupid. Stupid to do drugs and stupid to go on this canoe trip and get injured and do drugs at the same time. And I can make better use of the talent you gave me, God. I have squandered my talent and my time on trivialities. I can do better. I can make a difference. Please let me live."
“Hear that?” said Jim.
“Cars,” he said pointing ahead. I heard them too. My heart leapt. We rounded the bend and there it was, the Highway 67 bridge and cars passing back and forth in the highway lights.
“We’re alive,” said Jim, laughing.
Seventeen years have passed since that canoe trip. I can still touch my thigh and feel the dead tissue. The injury left a scar but that is all it left, a scar. I am alive.
Jim is no longer alive. We enjoyed another decade of friendship, then he was taken away by cancer. When he died, we had been friends 45 years.
He lived with us during the months he went through chemo. There was not a lot of time for fun. He was awful sick and mostly kept to his room, and I was under a deadline trying to finish a comic book called Texas Tales.
But in the evenings when I had finished the day’s work, I would go back to his room and see how he was doing, and if he was up for it, we would smoke a joint and talk and laugh about old times, including our brush with death on the Brazos and our unexpected baptism by the Arms of God.
We did not talk about the current situation. I did not want to bring it up. It was my function, I thought, to keep it positive and encourage Jim to believe he could do it, he could beat the Big C, and later this would be another story we could laugh about later.
But one day he walked into my studio. He was so frail, no longer the strong athletic man he had been on our canoe adventure—so frail and cold, he shivered all the time and wore gloves (with fingers exposed) he was so cold. He sat down on the other side of my desk and rolled a joint, and we smoked, and he said, “I know this is hard for you watching your best friend die.”
I couldn’t say anything. I just took the joint he held out to me and we smoked silently, looking out the window at the traffic on the highway and listening to the music in the afternoon light.