NEW YEAR’S DAY
“What are you in here for?” I asked the gaunt man with glasses sitting on the far edge of a bed in Building 215, the Convalescent Building, at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Westwood. It is a Spanish-style building obviously of ancient vintage, extremely well kept, and stunningly quiet. The swish of men moving by with walkers and the muted sound of television in the other rooms are the only noises. The freeway is only a few hundred yards away but cannot be heard at all. We are on the moon.
“Me?” the man said in a lethargic but somehow alert voice. “Me? I’m just basically waiting to die.” The man looked amazingly familiar. As if I had known him all of my life. His eyes were brown and soulful. His skin was almost green. His muscles in his neck were wildly knotted.
“Why?” I asked. “You don’t look that bad.” Actually, he did look bad, as if he were truly just waiting to die.
“Glandular carcinoma,” he answered. “The cancer is just eating my organs.”
He had a drawing of a liver on his bulletin board next to his bed. Otherwise, on his bedside table, there were no pictures, nothing personal, just medicines and bottles of water.
“I am terribly sorry,” I said. “Are you in horrible pain?”
“No,” he said. “I’m on methadone. I don’t feel bad. But where does the pain go? Sometimes at night if I wake up, I feel as if I’m just going to explode. The pain comes up from my liver and then it never reaches my brain so where does it go? I feel a lot of the time as if I’m going to pop.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I am sorry. I don’t think you’re going to pop, though. What were you in the Marines?”
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Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer in Beverly Hills and Malibu.
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