The doctors tell us Ken is dying, and it seems impossible. Isn't he our man of the hills along Sterling Creek? Doesn't he know everyone in every house hidden on ridges and in hollows? Isn't he the one we turn to when electricity fails, or pipes freeze and break, or smoke curls from a wild fire?
Ken is dying, lying in his bed in CCU, looking out of place there among the sterile contraptions of stainless steel and electrical cables. Though machines have been his life's work. Life-saving machines, fire-fighting machines, wood cutting machines, home-running machines. How often did he fix my riding mower? My Kawasaki Mule? My car?
The nurse comes in to get blood from his finger. Work has hardened his fingertips impenetrable as mountain laurel wood. The little one is soft, he tells her. She doesn't want to poke that one, already poked so many time. I don't mind, he says. He laughs. He can barely breathe, but he still can laugh, a throaty laugh, staccato, infectious.
Ken was my deceased husband's best friend. They understood each other. When John died Ken taught me all I hadn't learned yet about running a house on nine acres of hill and woods. Some things he had to teach me over and over. That first year of widowhood my brain simply could not retain the intricacies of, for example, starting the air compressor and filling a tire! What a patient teacher Ken is. When the linoleum popped off the guest bathroom floor, he stood in the doorway and instructed me in the craft of softening it, gluing it with the proper brand of glue, securing it, and finally installing a new threshold. He joked about now taking care of two wives. I tried to reciprocate with home baked bread, dinners now and then, little things like that.
His "other wife," the wife of his heart is Sammie. She's in tears, and then she's organizing details because this dying came as a surprise and that's what we do. She's at the hospital every day. She's my dear dear friend, the one who held me when I sobbed over the death of John. We trade places now. That's what we do here on this earth with the beautiful people we are given in our lives. Someday may we know how really precious all of us are.
I hope Ken will soon come home to the beautiful log house he built on the hill across from mine. I hope that he and Sammie will be able to complete the circle of their life together there. I know she is organizing things to make that happen for them.
In the meantime he works now to simply breathe. But we all, those of us who know him, recognize the work he's given himself to all his life...he loved his neighbors and loved to help us in whatever ways he could--which were multitudinous.