Sunday, November 9, 2008

Of Death and Shoes

His shoes line the floor of the closet, never having moved since the day when he took his last breath in the rented hospital bed that was set up in the study on the second floor.

In a small wooden box in the back corner of the closet, various tins of shoe polish sit in a jumble, together with several brushes, cloths, and other classically masculine tools of footwear ablution. And even though the word ablution generally refers to the ceremonial washing of one’s body---or parts thereof---it can also be inferred to represent the act of cleaning sacred containers, and for his fastidious and proud self, the thoughtful care of shoes was indeed a sacred act.

Those shoes, so illustrative of his lifelong desire for both order and elegant conveyance, are a manifestation of how he approached the physical world and the objects that he esteemed. Like everything else in his life, these utilitarian vessels were well cared for, clean, and thoughtfully placed in an order which must have made perfect sense to the author of their arrangement.

There are the dress shoes, brown and black, so common to older gentlemen of his generation. There is one pair of white patent leather loafers that one might see on a septuagenarian Floridian on the way to the country club for a game of bridge. Further back towards the wall, one will also find leather Totes, those relatively inexpensive faux leather boots lined with artificial black fur that can be easily slipped on during winter nights when there is wet snow on the ground and a trash can to be rolled to the curb after nightfall.

Even though he would rarely wear them in public, several pairs of sneakers also live among their footwear brethren. Grass-stained and obviously used for household chores, these two pairs of tennis shoes still convey a sense of his neatness, his clinging to order, and his utter sense of propriety in that they were never worn beyond the confines of the house or yard, except of course for a few rushed trips to Home Depot or the local hardware store on a Saturday afternoon.

Last but not least, his beloved slippers sit on the right side of the closet in a most convenient place for easy access and use. Embossed with the image of his feet—like his own personal Shroud of Turin---these two pairs of footwear speak of cozy winter afternoons in front of the TV, hot chocolate in hand, his beloved wife at his side. The newer pair, less worn yet obviously loved and cared for, were the last things he wore on his gouty feet. Three days before his death, he made his final trip to the bathroom wearing this particular pair, assisted by the home health aide sent by the hospice agency providing his end-of-life care.

These brown slippers, purchased at JC Penney’s just two months prior to his diagnosis, were so warm and comfortable, and it brought tears to his eyes as he shuffled to the bathroom, realizing that he would most likely never wear them again. In fact, it was clear to him on that day as he was painfully but gently guided to the toilet, that he would return to that cursed hospital bed and assuredly never leave it.

Bedbound and wasting, eschewing all solid foods and taking only sips of water or ginger ale, the simple comforts of slippers, scarves, gloves and cozy jackets were like wispy details of a once active life now inexorably slipping through his weakening fingers.

(c) 2008 NurseKeith