Why was it so hard to convince his family that he was going to die?
Joel wasn’t trying to be heartless; he just wanted to talk honestly with someone about the fact that he was dying. At home, his family
thought they were being reassuring when they said things like, ‘You’re looking better today—that’s a good sign’. Or they demanded he
stop being so morbid—especially when he tried to discuss his funeral with them or his will. Not that he had much to leave to anyone but
a will seemed like a proper to step to take in his situation.
The thing was, he wasn’t going to get better even if he did look a little healthier on occasion. And he had specific ideas about what he
wanted for his funeral—if only he could get someone to listen. No matter what he said, his family wouldn’t listen to him and living at
home had become torture. Moving into the hospice had been his only option.
“Here’s your breakfast, Joel.”
Joel looked up at the new angel of mercy in his life and realized that, for once, the term angel was aptly applied. Her wavy caramel-
colored hair lay gently on her shoulders. Soft brown eyes watched him with concern and a surprising maturity from her gently tanned
face. Her jeans looked comfortable rather than skin-tight and her brown turtleneck came close to matching her amazing eyes.
Joel shuddered, realizing the view those incredible eyes were taking in right now. His arms and legs were emaciated, giving him a
skeletal look. Even his head was skull-like, although it was covered with lesion-dotted skin. His comfortable navy blue robe was made
of fleece and, like him, had seen better days.
“You’re Joel Watson, aren’t you?” she asked when he didn’t speak.
“I’m Emma Jackson…the new volunteer.” She smiled and walked to the table beside his chair to set the breakfast tray down.
Up close, Joel could see that he’d misjudged her age. She was much younger than she’d appeared at first glance. Oh God, he
thought, he didn’t have the energy for that kind of youthful enthusiasm. Not today, at least.
Emma continued to ignore his silence. “I’m a university student. I have some free time this year and decided to volunteer mornings at
the hospice,” she said, straightening the odds and ends on the table. “So, you’ll have to get used to me bringing your breakfast every
day—at least on weekdays.”
Joel finally got his scattered thoughts under control. “It’s nice to meet you,” he said, lapsing into silence again.
“Is there anything else I can get you right now?”
“No, nothing. Thank you.” Joel didn’t begin eating immediately. The truth was that, most days, he had very little appetite.
The food at the hospice was remarkably decent. Joel had expected that it would be similar to hospital food but instead it showed some
imagination—to tempt appetites, he suspected.
After Emma left, Joel sipped some apple juice to wash down the toast, totally ignoring the bacon and eggs on his tray. As soon as he
finished, he shuffled to the adjoining bathroom and took care of his morning routine. He dressed in gray sweatpants and a matching
sweatshirt, putting a forest green wool sweater on over top because it was so hard to stay warm these days.
Emma wasn’t back for the tray, so he sat down to thumb through a magazine, thinking about the hospice. He hadn’t been sure what to
expect when he’d moved in—he’d just known that he couldn’t stay at home. It was probably too soon for him to move into the hospice,
he supposed, because many of his fellow patients were much sicker than he was. He was thankful that he’d been able to move in
He hadn’t seen his parents since the day they’d deposited him in the hospice. In his heart, he thought that they were probably relieved
to have him out of their sight where they didn’t have to face his illness every day. Although he hadn’t seen his parents, his sister had
come to visit twice but both visits had been awkward.
One of the most frustrating things about this whole situation was that he couldn’t convince his family that he wasn’t gay. They’d known
as well as he did that he’d had a blood transfusion after a car accident but, for some reason, as soon as they’d heard the word AIDS
they’d assumed he was gay. And he couldn’t shake their assumptions.
Since thinking about his family only depressed him, he turned his thoughts back to the hospice. Joel spent some of his time visiting
with other patients. He called them that even though the staff preferred to call them guests. The hospice was really a large older home
that had been refurbished to house ten ‘guests’, as well as one or two permanent live-in caregivers.
On his good days, Joel socialized with the other patients but often he didn’t even have enough energy to walk. When that happened, he
simply parked his wheelchair in front of the T.V.
Still, it was better sitting here than at home. It was their pretending that got to him. Pretending that he didn’t have AIDS. Pretending that
he wasn’t dying. Well, the truth was—he was going to die—and soon.
His thoughts were interrupted when the new volunteer came back into his room.
“Hello, again,” she said. Her smile wasn’t over-bright like some of the caregivers at the hospice. Sometimes their excessive
sweetness or their bubbly cheerfulness drove him around the bend. Emma tidied his room and asked if he needed anything.
“No, thanks. I’m fine.”
“Do you want me to wheel you down to the recreation room so that you can watch T.V.?”
“No, thanks. I’m fine where I am for now.” Joel didn’t care that his answer sounded surly. He didn’t have the strength to do better.
“If you don’t mind my asking, why are you here?”
Joel was amazed at her forthrightness. “I have AIDS,” he said without further explanation.
What? No platitudes, thought Joel? No comments about hope or possible treatments in the future?
“I’m a pretty good listener if you want to talk about it sometime,” was all she said.
Joel stammered his thanks as Emma picked up the tray and left the room.
That was the last he saw of her for the day, but he thought about her. That surprised him. He was twenty-seven years old and had never
been married, although he’d been in a few relationships. He’d just never found the one woman that he knew he was truly meant to be
with. He didn’t feel that way about Emma but, still, she stayed on his mind. He went to bed that night wondering if he would dream of
The next morning Joel woke, achy as usual, and downed his morning medications before getting into his robe and shuffling over to his
chair. He realized suddenly that he was anticipating Emma’s arrival. He no sooner had the thought and she entered the room.
Her smile was as warm as it had been yesterday. “Good morning.”
“I noticed that you didn’t eat very much yesterday,” she said. “Today you have oatmeal—I hope you like that better.”
Joel chuckled. “To tell you the truth, it doesn’t matter much what’s on the tray.”
“Are you having trouble swallowing?” Emma asked, her concern evident. “If you are, I can ask the kitchen to make you up something
different. Maybe some soft scrambled eggs?”
“No, no, that’s not necessary,” he answered. “I just don’t have much of an appetite these days.”
“Would some conversation help?”
“I’m not sure if it’ll help but you’re welcome to sit with me.” He motioned to the chair that was sitting up against the wall.
Emma pulled the chair closer. “I don’t know much about your condition. You said you have AIDS, but…” She stopped, blushing a little.
“I’m not gay if that’s what you’re getting at,” Joel answered before she could stammer through the rest of her question. “I contracted
AIDS from a blood transfusion after a car accident.”
“I see,” she said.
“Well, if you do, you’re one of the few who does,” Joel said wryly. “Most people believe I’m making that up because I don’t want anyone
to know that I’m gay.”
“Most people like who?”
“Like my family, for instance.”
“You’re kidding!” her eyes widened. “Do you have a big family?”
“Just one sister. Sadie. She’s younger than me and I think she’s finding this pretty hard.”
“What about your parents,” Emma asked. “Don’t they understand?”
Joel snorted. “You’ve got to be kidding! They’re convinced I’m gay.”
“Are you close? You and your parents, I mean?”
“I thought we were but I guess appearances can be deceiving,” he answered.
Emma stood up. “I should go. Obviously, this isn’t helping your appetite since you haven’t touched your food but it’s been nice talking
It was only after she was gone that Joel realized that she hadn’t once expressed any kind of condolences or sappy words to reassure
him. It had been most refreshing. Suddenly, the hunger that had been absent earlier gnawed at him. He began to eat the oatmeal even
though it wasn’t his favorite food.
When Emma returned for the tray, she didn’t comment on how much he’d eaten, surprising him again. Instead, she offered to wheel
him outside to enjoy the warmth of the early spring morning. Joel could see through his window that the trees were budding. Across
the road he could see tiny colorful tulip heads bursting from the earth around the trees.
He agreed to let her wheel him outside and she left him in a sunny area near a side entrance where a park of sorts had been arranged.
There were benches and a couple picnic tables and Joel knew that the staff sometimes slipped out there for their breaks, especially the
ones who smoked. He knew that Emma wouldn’t be at the hospice when it was time for him to go back in so he thanked her, knowing
that she had no idea that he was thanking her for the straightforward conversation.
Throughout the week, Joel noticed that each time Emma brought his breakfast, she stayed longer and longer and he found himself
enjoying her company. He didn’t have any romantic feelings for her and was relieved because it would have been incredibly
uncomfortable. Theirs was a strange friendship—a healthy young female university student and a somewhat older sickly man.
This morning she’d made him laugh at her silly knock-knock jokes. He smiled now just thinking about how out of character it was for
him to enjoy that kind of humor.
He’d already finished his breakfast and was waiting eagerly for her to return for his tray when a light tap sounded on his door. He
smiled, anticipating Emma’s brightness.
Instead, the door opened slowly to reveal his younger sister, Sadie. Her pale blonde hair gleamed in the shadows of the doorway and,
with her face tilted down, he couldn’t see her expression.
“Hi, Sadie. Come on in.” Joel’s smile faltered in surprise.
“Hi.” She advanced slowly into the room, looking everywhere except at her brother. “How are you?”
“I’m okay. Here, grab a chair.” Joel leaned out to tug on the chair that Emma had occupied earlier. The mild exertion left him coughing
and it took a moment for him to gain control. When he looked up, Sadie was staring at him like he was a creature from the Black
Lagoon. “It’s okay, Sadie. It’s just a bit of a cold.” He found that he was unable to stop himself from reassuring her.
“Okay,” Sadie said, nudging the chair away from the bed and sitting as far back in it as she could. “I’m sorry Mom and Dad couldn’t
come today. They were…they had to…”
Joel could fill in the blanks for her if he wanted to. ‘They were doing anything they could think of that made them too busy to come’ or
‘they had be anywhere but here’. Taking pity on her, he said, “Don’t worry about it. I understand.”
She blushed and tilted her head a little lower. “Do you know when you’re coming home?”
“Sadie,” Joel’s exasperation was evident. “I won’t be coming home.”
“Ever?” She looked much younger than her sixteen years when she peered up at him through her lashes.
Joel tried again to think of a gentle way to remind his sister that he was dying. However, gentle hadn’t worked before—maybe blunt
would. “Sadie. I won’t be coming home because I’m going to die here.”
“How can you say that?” Her eyes filled with tears. “How can you be so mean?”
“Listen, kiddo. I’m not trying to be mean. It’s just…I don’t know how to make you understand. I have AIDS. It’s in the late stages and I’m
not going to get better—I’m going to die.” He glanced up and realized that Emma had returned while he had been speaking.
Her smile wobbled briefly before she seemed to catch herself. “Hi. You must be Joel’s sister. I’m Emma—one of the volunteers here.”
She walked over and held out her hand to the younger girl.
Sadie glanced up at the newcomer, shock drying her tears. It was obvious that she’d found few occasions when, as a sixteen-year-old,
she was offered the courtesy of a handshake.
“Hi.” Sadie put out her hand, shaking Emma’s briefly before turning back to Joel. “If you’d just stop saying things like that you could
come back home to live, you know.”
“This is the best place for me. I just wish Mom and Dad would…”
“I know,” Sadie said softly.
For the first time, he could swear that he saw a glint of understanding dawn in his sister’s eyes.
“I’ll take your tray so the two of you can visit,” Emma said, moving over to the small table. She lifted the tray and turned back to
Sadie. “It was nice to meet you. See you later.”
“I should go, too.” Sadie got up from the chair, picking at a loose thread on the arm of her pink sweater. “I’m sorry I can’t stay longer. I
cut my first class this morning but I have an exam second period so I have to go.”
Joel knew that it was his job as older brother to disapprove of his little sister cutting classes but he was just so damn happy to see her.
“I’m glad you came, Sadie.” He watched Emma open the door for his sister and the two of them left together.
Joel couldn’t believe how quickly his health deteriorated in just a few short weeks. The doctor who made regular rounds at the hospice
hadn’t been very encouraging when he’d visited only this morning. He hadn’t had to say a word—Joel had known the truth.
Since his disease had progressed and he needed more care, he’d become more and more dependent on the nurses who worked at
the hospice. Emma still brought his meals in the morning but, lately, he saw more of the nurses than his friend.
Pushing at the covers, Joel attempted to get out of his bed even though he knew the effort was wasted. He couldn’t even get up to go to
the bathroom anymore. Talk about indignities. And shaving was a waste of time theses days. He didn’t really have the strength to do it
and the little bit of fuzz on his cheeks wasn’t worth the trouble anyway. Still, washing his face would at least make him feel human.
Glancing around, Joel noticed for the first time how much his room now resembled a hospital ward, complete with the requisite bed that
levered up and down. He pulled the wheeled bedside table closer and flipped the built-in mirror up.
He reached for the warm washcloth that sat in the kidney-shaped bowl on the table and he dropped the sopping cloth in his lap as he
turned to look in the mirror. Staring back at him was the reflection of Death. This up close and personal view of the shocked Joel, even
thought he’d known that the specter was stalking him.
He was still staring at his ghoulish reflection when he heard the door of his room open. Dragging his gaze from the mirror, Joel saw
Emma enter the room with his breakfast tray.
She advanced into the room and set the tray on a nearby table in silence.
Joel slumped back on his bed and closed his eyes, the forgotten washcloth seeping moisture through his pajamas and onto the skin of
“Not good today, huh,” Emma spoke quietly.
Joel would have snorted at the understatement if he’d had the strength. Instead, he pried his feverish eyelids open and glanced at her.
“Do you need some help?” She moved closer and plucked the cloth off his stomach, dipping it in the warm water and wringing it out.
At his slight nod, she moved closer and began to wipe his face with gentle, soothing strokes. “Don’t be a hero, okay? Ask for help if you
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By Donna MacNaughton