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The Gift of Sweat
I went to Rick's every Tuesday and Thursday morning. I usually called before I went to see if he wanted me to pick up anything for him on the way. He never used to ask me for anything until once when I hadn't had breakfast and I stopped at this place a couple blocks from him, the Hostess with the Mostest, to get a cinnamon roll and I got two, one for him. I didn't really think he'd eat it because he was so organic. He had this incredible garden on the side of the apartment with tomatoes and zucchinis and carrots and he used to do all his own baking. I also got two large coffees with milk. I could have eaten it all if he didn't want his. But when I got to his place and asked him if he'd had breakfast and showed him what I'd brought, he squealed. He said those cinnamon rolls were his absolute favorite things in the world and he used to go to the Hostess on Sunday mornings. He said he'd try to be there when they were fresh out of the oven and get the best ones, the ones from the center of the pan, which are the stickiest and softest. It was something he used to do for himself on Sunday, which was not his favorite day.
So after that when I called him before I went over and asked if he wanted anything, he'd still say no thanks, and then I would say, "How about the usual," meaning the rolls and coffee, and he'd say he'd love it.
So one morning when I called and asked him if he wanted "the usual" and he said he didn't, I was surprised.
He said, "Not today!" He sounded really chirpy. "Just get your sweet self over here. I got a surprise for you."
I said OK and that I'd see him in a few. I made a quick cup of coffee anddowned the end of last night's pizza and went over. I was at his place in half an hour.
I always knocked on the door. When he was there he'd always shout, "Hello! Just a minute!" and come let me in. It took him a while to get to the door but he liked being able to answer it himself, he liked still living in his own place. If he wasn't at home I let myself in and read the note he would have left me--that he had an appointment or something, or if there was some special thing he wanted me to do. Then I would clean or do chores. I used to like being there alone sometimes. I could do surprises for him, like leave him notes under his pillow or rearrange his wind-up toys so they were kissing or other silly things. Rick loved surprises.
But this one morning when I knocked on the door it took him a long time to answer. Then I heard him trying to shout, but he sounded small. "Can you let yourself in?"
I unlocked the door and went in. He was in the living room on the futon. It was usually up like a couch to sit on, but it was flat like a bed and he was lying on it.
I went over and sat on the floor by the futon. He was lying on his side, facing away from me, curled up. His knees were near his chest.
"Rick?" I said. I put my hand on his back.
He didn't move, but said, "Hi," very quietly.
"What's going on?" I said.
He made a noise like a little animal.
"You want me to call your doc?"
He swallowed a couple of times. Then he said, "I called UCS. Margaret is coming over to take me to the hospital."
"Good," I said, "she'll be here soon."
"Yeah," he said. Then he made that animal noise again. He was holding his stomach. "I meant to call you back," he said, "to tell you you didn't need to come over today."
"That's OK, Rick. I'm glad I'm here. I'm glad I'm with you right now."
"I didn't feel bad when you called." He sounded apologetic. "It was so sudden."
He tried to nod. "Uh-huh. But everywhere some."
He was holding the corner of his quilt, squeezing it.
"I was about to get in the shower. I wanted to be all clean before you came over. It was so sudden."
"Oh, Rick," I said, "I'm sorry you hurt so much."
"Is there anything I can do before Margaret gets here?"
"No." He swallowed again. I could smell his breath. "No thank you."
Then his mouth got tight and he squeezed the quilt corner, then he was pulsing it, then more like stabs. He started to shake. "I'm cold," he said.
I pulled the quilt over most of him. It had a pattern of moon and stars. "I'm gonna go get another blanket," I said.
"Don't go," he said really fast. "Please don't go."
"OK," I said, "I'll stay here."
"I'm so cold," he said again.
I touched his back. It was sweaty and hot.
I got onto the futon. I slid on very carefully so I wouldn't jolt him. I lay on my side behind him. I could feel him shaking. I put my left arm around his middle. I slipped my right hand under his head and touched his forehead. It was wet and hot. I held my hand on his forehead a couple of seconds to cool it. Then I petted his forehead and up through his hair. His hair was wet too. I combed my fingers through his wet hair to his ponytail. I said, "Poor Rick. Poor Ricky."
He was still shaking. I pulled my body close to him so his butt was in my lap and my breasts and stomach were against his back. I pressed against him to warm him. He pulled my hand onto his stomach. I opened my hand so my palm was flat across him, my fingers spread. He held his hand on top of mine, squeezing it like the quilt. I could feel the sweat of his hand on the back of mine, and of his stomach, through his shirt, against my palm. I could feel his pulse all through him; it was fast.
I tightened my arms around him as if I could press the sickness out.
After a while he started to shake less. He was still sweating and I could feel more wet on the side of his face from crying.
When Margaret came we wrapped his coat around him and helped him, one on either side of him, to the car. Rick hunched and kept making noises. I helped him get in and closed the door behind him while Margaret got in the driver's side. While she was fumbling for her keys I ran around to her and asked her, "You want me to come with you?"
She said, "You don't need to. We'll be OK."
Rick didn't say anything.
I leaned in and said, "Your place will be all clean when you come back home, Rick."
He tried to smile.
"I'll call you later," said Margaret. She put her hand up and touched the side of my face. "You're wet," she told me.
I touched my face. It was wet. "I'll talk to you later," I said to her.
"I'll see you later, Rick," I said.
He nodded but didn't say anything. His face was splotched. Margaret found her keys and started the car.
I went back into his apartment. When I closed the door behind me I could smell it. It was a slight smell, sour, but also partly sweet. It was the smell of Rick's sweat.
I started cleaning. I usually started in the kitchen, but as soon as I set foot in there and saw the kitchen table I couldn't. I turned around and stood in the hall a second and held my breath. After a while I let it out.
I did everything else first. I stripped the bed and put a load of laundry in. I vacuumed and dusted. I dusted all his fairy gear, his stones and incense burners and little statues and altars. I straightened clothes in his closet he hadn't worn in ages. I untangled ties and necklaces. I put cassettes back in their cases and reshelved them. I took out the trash. I did it all fast because I wanted to get everything done, but I also wished I could stretch it out and still be doing it and be here when he came home as if he would come home soon.
I cleaned the bathroom. I shook cleanser in the shower and sink and cleaned them. I sprayed Windex on the mirror. When I was wiping it off I saw myself. My face was splotched. My t-shirt had a dark spot. I put my hands to it and sniffed them. They smelled like me, but also him. It was Rick's sweat. I put my hands up to my face and I could smell him in my hands. I put my face in my hands and closed my eyes. I stood there like that a while then I went to the kitchen.
What was on the kitchen table was this: his two favorite coffee mugs, his and what used to be Barry's. There was a Melitta over one full of ground coffee, all ready to go. There were two dessert plates with a pair of cinnamon rolls from the Hostess, the soft sticky ones from the center of the pan.
I thought of Rick going down there, how long it took him to get down the street, how early he had to go to get the best ones. I thought of him planning a nice surprise, of him trying to do what he couldn't. Gifts of the Body. Copyright © by Rebecca Brown. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Brown's prose is invisible, nofrills language, noticeable only because of the marks it leaves, the breath it pulls out of us. She does not tell the stories of these living, dying, difficult, decent, funny people; we find ourselves inside their rooms and lives, and however tired we are, however frightened, her people stay with us and make us glad of it.
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This is one of the best non-fiction books that I have read in a long time. The author narrates a story which keeps one wanting to read on and share her experiences of caring for others. Although it ultimately deals with death, as well as the struggles of life, it really centers on becoming more human by practicing compassion for those dealing with such struggles. It also deals with the real challenges of self-doubt and the weariness that comes with caring. I came away from this exhilarating book with joy and hope. The book is simply not what I expected when I first picked it up!