I have a message from Carl’s wife, Sandy, on my answering machine: “Carl has congestive heart failure. He wants you to come see him.”
Carl is my golfing buddy. He’s 84 and has been dealing with several serious health concerns for 10 years, so this message is not a big surprise.
We haven’t been playing much golf lately since Carl just doesn’t have the stamina for it anymore, but he still fixes my clubs and gives me advice on my short game. Mostly I just go over to his house, and we talk about sports and politics. We also tell each other bad jokes. These activities stimulate his vascular system in a generally positive way.
Carl is a native Texan and has had a full life. He’s been a fighter pilot in World War II. He’s been a rancher, an oilman and a mayor and ran a dress shop and a tire store. He’s also been a Little League coach and remains an Aggie. (It’s a lifetime job. Carl hangs an Aggie pennant above his front door.) He raised one family, and after his first wife died, he married Sandy and raised several more children.
All the aforementioned children are gathering at Carl’s house in Georgetown to say goodbye to the old gent. They bring spouses and grandkids, and the place is pretty full when I stop by.
Carl is hooked up to an oxygen tank. His attitude is: “I’ve had my shot … I’m right with Jesus … It’s time to go.”
He cracks jokes and complains about the foods he is either forced–or not allowed–to eat. He misses salt badly and begs for Doritos even though his daughter says he will go into shock if he eats any. When he has to get up and go to the bathroom, somebody has to follow him to make sure his oxygen tube doesn’t catch on the furniture. This is an excuse for Carl to make bathroom jokes and pretend to be asphyxiating.
Carl asks me to be one of his pallbearers if I’m not too busy, and if I am too busy he’s sending someone over to take back all the golf clubs he’s made me. Guess that settles that.
There is very little wailing and gnashing of teeth. His whole family is taking the cue and celebrating Carl’s life instead of bemoaning its end.
When I return the next day, things have taken a turn for the worse. His family is gathered around watching Carl gasp for his final few breaths on this earth. Sandy tells me that he’s pretty much stopped talking now. A few hours ago he roused himself to ask when his granddaughter was going to make it in from Lubbock, and when he was informed that she was still a few hundred miles away, he lapsed back. Sandy seems to think he’s just waiting for her to come so he can say goodbye before he shoots the rapids.
I feel a little embarrassed to be in the room during such an intimate family time. Sandy keeps reassuring me how much Carl likes me and has valued our friendship. They are all very accepting and generous.
Carl’s son is talking about Carl’s Aggie pride and whistles part of the “Aggie War Hymn.” Carl, lying there with his eyes closed, hooked up to his tubes and struggling to breathe, solemnly raises his hand to his brow in an Aggie salute.
The room cheers.
At the funeral, the church is overflowing. I hug Sandy and the daughters. I shake hands with the sons and pat the grandkids on the back. The funeral home director issues pallbearing instructions to me.
It takes two preachers working in tandem to eulogize Carl. The first one says simply that Carl’s life was one to be admired. The second is another golf buddy who tells funny stories about how Carl learned to cope with the frustrations of the game while cussing non-blasphemously.
The service ends with a film that Carl stipulated be the last thing on the program. When Carl turned 80, he talked his kids into letting him go up in a World War II vintage fighter plane. A co-pilot had control on takeoff and landing but let Carl steer a little bit in the air. Since Carl had been a pilot in the war, this was a pretty big deal to him and probably the most fun he had in the last years of his life. A camera mounted on the fuselage recorded his reactions while the plane did loopty loops.
They play the film while a men’s quartet from the church sings an a cappella version of “I’ll Fly Away.”
Some bright morning,
When this life is over,
I’ll fly away
To a home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away
I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away (in the morning)
When I die, hallelujah by and by,
I’ll fly away
And there’s Carl up there on the screen in close-up, a big goofy smile on his face as he traces the wild blue yonder of his youth.
There’s not a dry eye in the house.
Marco Perella is an Austin-based actor and essayist.