A little less than six months after our wedding, I awoke to the sound of vomiting. Part of me actually hoped it was Kat. But no, she was asleep in her own bed, in the room across the hall.
I got out of bed, wearing only sweatpants, and threw open the blinds to let in natural light. In my room, my bed, my patient was violently ill. Val had vomited in bed and was now choking. Luckily since he was no longer allowed solid food, the mess was minimal.
With a nearby shirt, I quickly wiped Val’s mouth to clear his airway. “You’re ok. It’s going to be ok.” The words were more for me than him. Nothing about his current condition was ‘ok.’
Val blinked his eyes, confirming he was struggling, but at least he was conscious. And if he was conscious he knew the game plan: I was going to fight with every ounce of strength until the day he told me to stop.
I started chest compressions while shouting for my wife. “Kat, baby are you awake?”
Kat came in, already holding the landline phone to her ear. “Hello, yes, I need an ambulance.” She cupped her hand over the receiver. “Jack, did you seriously call me ‘Baby’?”
I was trying to stay calm. I knew Kat and I were not on loving terms, but my need for a friend/partner override my logic-brain. “Val, you have to go to the hospital.”
Val shook his head, still unable to take a full breath.
I performed the chest compressions harder, counting in my head. One, Two, three, four; I knew I was hurting him. “Take a fucking breath, damn it!”
Val coughed and then gasped. “No hospitals.”
“Val, you have to,” I said, forcing myself to be the responsible grownup.
“Please, be cool, Jack.” Val coughed again, spitting up blood. He had been having more frequent seizures, due to the increase in medication.
“I can get you some morphine while we’re waiting.” I went to a blue bottle on the nightstand, removing a single pill. “Open.”
Val cuddled his head against my arm, before opening his mouth like a kitten. The hair on his head was shaved into a crewcut while his facial hair framed his mouth and chin. “Come on, Man. You owe me that much, for breaking my fucking ribs.”
“If you have broken ribs you definitely have to go to the hospital,” I said jokingly. In my heart, I was hoping to see him smile.
But Val only blinked his eyes again, his head tilting like a broken doll. “Jack?” his voice was barely a whisper.
Val swallowed hard as he started to shiver. “Hi, Jack.” Val laughed a weak, pain-stricken laugh.
“What?” The corny joke had been out of my head for so long I had all but forgotten.
“What’s the one thing you can’t say on an airplane?” Val’s laughter began to shift to tears. “I’m going to miss the airplanes. I wish I flew to Europe; Scottland, Croatia, Ukraine. There are so many places I always wanted to see.”
“Yeah.” I was silent if only to keep from bawling my eyes out. There was so much to experience in this life. Only an immortal could ever hope to die truly happy.
“Jack, are you even here?” Val’s tears ceased, replaced by a look of dizziness.
I knew the paralyzed muscles were causing him pain, making breathing difficult. His mind had been drifting in and out of reality, as a coping mechanism of sorts. “I’m here,” I said loud enough for him to hear. “We’re all here for you.”
Kat hung up the phone. “I’ll wait outside in case the police come.” With trembling hands, she stroked her father’s rough, unshaven face. “You don’t have to go to the hospital. Okay?” Her breathing was heavy as she leaned in close to kiss his forehead. “But just know, I love so you so much, Dad.” Kat’s voice was breaking. We all knew those words meant certain death. But she quickly left before any tears could be shed.
Val waited until she was gone before speaking, “I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
“We can stop chemo.” I should have stopped weeks ago but I couldn’t let him go. His body was holding on by a thread. And Val was still so willing to fight. He treasured every moment he had with his family even when he could no longer leave the house.
Julia visited him every other day, bringing holistic medicine, leading meditation and prayer. Even Kat joined in. We were a big happy family.
“Thank you.” Val reached for my hand. “But I am so sorry.”
“For what?” I had to ask. His words were making my head hurt. He has nothing to be sorry for.
“For everything. For hurting you.” He swallowed hard, taking a slow breath.
“Are you trying to ask for my forgiveness, on behalf of the disease that is killing your brain?” That rather humorous question was actually starting to make me angry. Val’s cancer was being held at bay by the chemo, but his immune system was horribly weak. I’d drawn blood and sent it to a lab, to find out just how bad the situation was. I nearly vomited. This was not a human body that should still be alive.
“I’m sorry I-” Val swallowed hard, choking back emotion.
“It’s fine, everything is fine,” I said nervously. I mean, what was I supposed to say to that? “I, um, I forgive you? ” The awkwardness was palatable.
I looked around for anything to change the help alleviate the mood. On the nightstand were crosses, crystals, and other spiritual items. Most of the stuff was from his world travels. These items brought Val comfort but I needed some comfort of my own. “Please, God, I need help. Give me a sign.”
I swept my hand along the floor, looking for pills, booze, anything. I felt something, thick and hard. I picked up a notebook off the floor. “Interesting.”
“What’s interesting?” Val asked.
“This this your journal?” I started to flip through pages of writing, and drawings. It was a book on agnostic spirituality; basically, a bunch of thoughts on death and heaven. From what I could understand, anyway.
“Just a book of thoughts.”
“Your thoughts are on another level.” Some parts were in Russian, others were in Japanese. And some seemed to be written in ancient Latin. Val’s mind was so vast, the beauty was undeniable. I would have to find a way to publish his work.
“All life is on another level.”
As I turned the page, his words made sense. Val had used a copy of Kat’s latest ultrasound as a bookmark. He was even attempting to draw the figure on a later page. “What does the writing on this page say?” Val had written a single sentence in Russian.
He turned his head and smiled. “It means…” he mumbled the words in Russian.
I wanted to ask him to translate but the smile on his face was so peaceful. I didn’t want to press the issue. “Do you think you could you stick around until the baby is born?”
“I’ll try,” Val said, closing his eyes for a long blink.
That was all I could ask for. Walking my fingers down his chest, I could see bruises from the last few times he had to be resuscitated. His heart was so weak, he didn’t deserve to live with fractured ribs. He didn’t deserve to be in so much pain. But at least now, at that moment, he seemed at peace. “Hey, Val,” I whispered as I stroked his hand.
“Yeah?” Val turned his head, eyes still closed.
“What do you see?” I asked since he was clearly looking at something beyond the reaches of his mortal mind.
Val blinked. “I-I don’t know.” His eyes were glazed over, as he struggled to speak.
I felt him squeeze my hand, so I returned the gesture. “Do you see a bright light? If you do, it’s ok. You don’t need to fight anymore. I’ll take care of your family. Your daughter will be ok, even Julia will be ok. Eventually, I’ll be ok.”
I’d talked to my dad, even invited him to stay at the house. he was actually pretty helpful when Val became too sick to get out of bed. I could say for certain that I tolerated my father more then Kat tolerated her mother. “We’ll all be ok.”
Val turned to me and smiled. His lips parted just enough to let out a soft breath, “Thank you.” He paused for breath. “Can we go outside, just for a while.”
“Let me get your wheelchair.”
“No,” Val’s voice quivered as he gripped my hand. “Please don’t leave me.”
“I won’t. I promise.” My distraught mind somehow convinced my arms, that I might be able to carry him. I first attempted to lift his arm over my shoulder. “Put your arm around me.”
“I don’t think I can.”
“You can. Because I believe in you.” I lifted his lower body with my opposite arm. Val had lost so much weight, once I found a comfortable position, lifting him came easily. I carried him to the patio door, then lowered his legs to be and to stand while I opened the sliding glass with one hand.
I guided Val to a lawn chair. But he gestured to a path of grass instead. It was only then I realized he was naked. “I’m going to get you a blanket.”
He shook his head. “Stay with me.”
“Ok.” I laid by his side. The grass was cold and wet from the early morning dew. I knew Val likely had a fever and refreshing coolness was soothing.
He moved his hand to my shoulder, stroking his fingers down my arm to my chest, pausing over my heart. “I met my granddaughter.”
“Really?” I was more than a little surprised. It was only recently Kat allowed the gender of our baby to be revealed. (And I suspected it was because at a certain point I was just growing impatient.) But even then I had no idea she had told Val.
“She promised to show me the way to heaven, on the way down to meet her mommy and daddy. She asked me about you, about the kind of man you are. I told her you were good; brave, strong. And you’re wise. and you’ll teach her how to hide from her Mama’s bi-polar disorder.
Kat’s bi-polar? “What did my daughter look like?”
“Like Kat, but with your blue eyes and your smile. I made her promise to watch over you, to always believe in you.” Val’s body quivered. the muscles of his chest were in spasm. After a few seconds, Val’s breathing abruptly stopped.
I quickly sat up and began CPR. “One, Two, three, four, breathe. One, Two, three, four, breathe.” I pounded on his chest harder and harder. Until I heard him cough.
Val didn’t stop coughing until he spits up blood. That was when I realized, I was only causing him more pain.
“I’m so sorry.” My body fell limp, I could feel my own heartbreaking.
Val reached his arms around me, directing my face to look into his eyes. “Just hold me, please.”
“Because if I have to die, I want to die doing what I love.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “You’re so fucking nasty.”
Val leaned in close kissing me once, then twice. He moved his mouth to my neck, sucking on my skin with an unbelievable amount of strength.
I leaned back, savoring his intensity.
Val kissed my ear, licking my face. “Jack?”
“Yes. Val?” I could feel my heart racing, knowing my wild older lover had something special in store for me.
“Will you eat my ass once last time?” He was laughing but I knew his request was serous.
“Sure.” Since Val was actively dying, his ass was relatively clean. “I’d like that.”
With Val on his back, I bent his knees. His stomach was so slender and tight. I kissed his navel, down his abs. I needed to lick, taste, savor. His blonde pubic hair was thin, soft. With every touch, I could feel his body tense. “I fucking love you, Jack.” His body was craving my touch, the sex was somehow healing the pain.
I took his cock in my mouth, licking the tip like a blow-pop. He was so hard, I could taste the savory sweetness of his pre-cum mixing with my drool. I gripped his shaft, milking his length. I wanted to bring him to the edge.
Right, when I knew he was about to climax I stopped, taking a moment to gaze upon his sexy masculine o-face. “Do you want more?”
“You’re so cruel.”
I licked him down his shaft, peppering his foreskin with tender kisses. When I reached his big thick balls I took them in my mouth each inturn.
Val was moaning, crying. “Please, Man! Just eat my damn ass!”
I lifted my face to take a breath. “As you wish, my love.” I spread his cheeks, taking a moment to lick his perfectly hairless hole. I wanted to tease him, giving him just a few strokes at a time before sinking my tongue. His balls were hitting me in the face, as I tongue fucked him. I gripped Val’s legs, fully committing to french kissing his asshole.
“Oh fuck, man.” Val gripped the back of my neck, squeezing hard. “You’re so good at what you do.”
I could feel him thrusting his hips. The taste of his sweaty ass was sweet, like bourbon and honey. I could feel my cock pressing hard against my stomach. I needed a release.
“You’re so good to me, Jack. I’m going to miss your hot fuckboy mouth when I’m getting rammed up the corn-hole by Satan.”
I had no idea those would be Val’s last words.
I just wanted to make him climax, over and over. My salvia was oozing out of his hole, but he hadn’t fully ejaculated. I always loved milking his prostate. But something told me that this was the time to make love to him. I stripped off my clothes, jerking my shaft a few times until I was well lubed with pre-cum. “I’m so close. Are you close?” I penetrated Val’s tight hole, climaxing with every thrust. I kissed his lips, tender and slow as we fucked in the missionary position. “I love you, Val.”
Val lifted his hand to my face, wiping away my tears with his tattooed hand. I kissed his fingers sucking the tip of his ring finger then pointer.
With one last show of strength, Val cupped my cheek. He looked into my eyes, before letting his limp hand fall down my chin.
The world went dark, as the clouds covered the sun. “Val?” I checked his vitals. His heart had simply stopped. I seriously fucked you to death. His eyes seemed to look up at nothing. But as the last breath of air left his lungs Val Kepler’s lips formed his last ever smile.
“I love you too, Val.” With two fingers I closed his eyes.
Nothing felt real. Val had been sick with fever, so in death, his body felt warm, soft alive. I sobbed hard, holding him close. “I love you. I love you with all that I am. and all that I will ever be. I won’t let you down.”
I felt his hand touch my back. Maybe that’s just what I wanted to feel.
“Daddy?” It was Kat’s voice, her hand.
What was when the pain sank in. “He’s gone.” I was too emotionally sick to even put my sweatpants back on.
Kat nodded. “At least he’s not in pain anymore.” She sat next to me, leaning on my shoulder. She held her father’s hand, giving it a tender squeeze. “He died strong, that’s all that matters.”
Upon hearing those words, I cried so hard, I couldn’t breathe.
Kat rocked me in her arms, comforting me like a mother. “It’s ok. You know Daddy wouldn’t want you to cry.”
I thought about that for a moment. What would Val want? “Should we call the police?”
Kat sighed. “They actually just left, ironic, right?”
“Yeah, I guess.” I actually saw it as a sign; Val wanted to give us a few more minutes to say goodbye.
Kat chuckled before returning to holding me.
Together, we both wept. “So what do you want to do?”
With Kat’s permission, we waited to call 911 again. There was no point. The local authorities would just send an ambulance to take Val’s body away.
We talked to Val for a while, offering thoughts, memories, and prayers; words we hoped he could still hear on his way to the great beyond. When the wounds in our hearts were scabbed over enough for us to stand up we brought Val inside and placed him in bed.
“Dad looks peaceful.” Kat sat on the floor with her arms crossed over her pregnant stomach. “I guess we can call 911 now. He looks presentable enough.”
I nodded in agreement. “I can make the call this time.” I dialed 911 and told the operator that my father-in-law was dead in his bed, having passed in his sleep.”
Paramedics arrived and (not surprisingly) so did the police, local news and eventually TMZ. There would be a formal investigation if only to rule out foul play. Following an autopsy and the cause of death would be reported as heart failure, as brought on by end-stage leukemia.
I accompanied the body to the morgue while Kat stayed at the house, talking to the press. I assumed she was also awaiting the arrival of her mother. The rest of the night was a blur. I know I watched his body being put away in the morgue, pending funeral arrangements.
But that wasn’t the last I saw of Val.
That night I slept in Kat’s bed. We held each other close.
In my dreams, I was in an empty hallway. The lights flickered, the walls shook. This wasn’t a hallway, it was a walkway leading to a plane. The entrance hatch to the plane was closed, but behind the thick barrier, I could hear music. Placing my hand upon the metal surface, I couldn’t help but smile. There was a light, a power, a sense of peace like I’d never felt before.
I reached for the wheel lock, easily turning it to open the door. “Wow.” I’d never been to Russia or Ukraine but I knew that this was the stereotypical version of the pre-USSR countryside. I stepped into a land of farmers and Cossacks, with the doorway vanishing behind me. For a moment I was nervous that I was about to get trapped in the past. But then I looked down at my own clothing. I was dressed in typical cotton garb, like a lost medieval sheepherder. I carefully made my way to a dirt road, in search of any signage or clues.
In the distance, I heard rumbling. It was the sound of a fleet of horses rapidly approaching. I took a step back, fully expecting to see a massive army approaching. But there was only one. The large horse was a majestic bright white creature, that seemed to shimmer in the sunlight. It went up on two legs, letting out a ferocious neigh.
My vision was blinded for a moment, but my inner monologue told me that I should kneel before whoever was riding such an animal.
I quickly took a knee, but my act of respect was met with a roar of laughter. “Val?”
“Get your Renaissance Fair ass up, Jack.” Val wore a dark blue uniform, the traditional Ukrainian military dress, with a sword at his hip. But more noticeable then anything was Val’s half-shaved head. His dark blonde hair caressed his cheek, framing his face in a way that looked regal.
I stood up, wiping tears from my eyes. “You actually make that hair look good.”
“It’s historically accurate, to my culture.” Val’s voice sounded more Slavic than in life. “I also wore it like this when I first moved out to California.”
“Working as a stunt man? Yeah, that makes sense.” I imagined he could transition into various costumes and characters.
“I also modeled with a shaved head.” Val dismounted the horse and took a moment to run his fingers through his lock of hair. “The fashion industry can be very open-minded.”
I nodded and shook his hand. “Is this your horse?” I asked, assuming he knew the animal from his childhood.
“It is now,” he said happily as he patted the animal on the head. “I always wanted a horse. It was one of the few dreams I never pursued.”
“Why not?” I asked. It seemed like a strange dream to not partake in, especially since he lived in a massive Napa mansion with plenty of space.
“I just never had a chance,” Val explained, his gaze focused on his steed. “When I was a kid, I was too poor. As a teenager, I had no place to live. And then when I finally made it big, I had no time to really take care of any kind of pet.”
I could see how that was true. “Does it have a name?”
“No, she was just waiting for me in the fields.” Val stroked the horse’s mane, causing her to turn her head towards him until they were forehead to forehead. “I think I’ll name her Julia.”
“For real?” I asked, reaching my hand to the horse’s mane. “You’re going to name this beautiful creature after your ex?”
The horse snapped at me, narrowing missing my fingers. “Holy fuck!”
Val shrugged. “The name seems to fit.” He removed his glove and started to brush the horse’s long white mane using his fingers. “She’s my new partner in crime. We’re going to have a whole eternity of adventures.”
“True.” I couldn’t help but feel a little jealous. “Do you think I ride her?”
“Maybe later,” he said with a nod. “But right now you need to wake up.”
“But how?” I asked Val.
Julia gave me her answer. The horse neighed, revving up her legs, with the strength of an elephant and the agility of a motorcycle.
I’m not sure if Julia kicked me in the face, but I awoke with a noticeably sore eye. “Ow, what the fuck?” My face was close to the wooden bedpost, which would explain the real, physical pain.
I sat up in bed. Stretching my leg, I encountered a substantial amount of moisture. “Kat?” For whatever reason, my first thought was blood. In a panic, I reached for the light switch.
My wife was in bed, with her legs pulled to her chest (or as close as they could get.) “I think my water broke.”
How long as she been laying there in pain? “Um, I’ll call an ambulance.”
“Ok, sounds good,” she said softly, clearly in tears. Kat needed someone strong, brave; she needed her father.
I quickly grabbed the landline phone, dialing 911. It connected right away.
“911, what is your emergency?”
“My wife is in labor. I need an ambulance.” I forced myself to breathe, desperate to sound less nervous than I actually was.
“We have your location, sir, an ambulance is on its way. Is your wife in stable condition?”
I honestly didn’t know. “Um, I guess so.” Says the skaterboi med school failure. I made my way back to the bed to examine Kat. She might have been actually bleeding to death and I wouldn’t even know.
“Just keep an eye on her. I’m going to stay on the line with you until the paramedics arrive.”
“Thanks.” I cuddled in bed with my wife, holding the phone between us. “It’ll be alright, Katie.” I kissed my wife on the forehead. “We’ll all be alright.” I just needed to believe that.