Jones Cooper feared death. The dread of it woke him in the night, sat him bolt upright and drew all the breath from his lungs, narrowed his esophagus, had him rasping in the dark. It turned all the normal shadows of the bedroom that he shared with wife into a legion of ghouls and intruders waiting with silent and malicious intent. When? How? Heart attack. Cancer. Freak accident. Would it come for him quickly? Would it slowly waste and dehumanize him? What, if anything, would await him?
He was not a man of faith. Nor was he a man without stain on his conscience. He did not believe in a benevolent universe of light and love. He could not lean upon those crutches as so many did; everyone, it seemed, had some way to protect himself against the specter of his certain end. Everyone except him.
His wife, Maggie, had grown tired of the 2:00 a.m. terrors. At first she was beside him, comforting him: Just breathe, Jones. Relax. It’s okay. But even she, ever-patient shrink that she was, had started sleeping in the guest room or on the couch, even sometimes in their son’s room, empty since Ricky had left for Georgetown in September.
His wife believed it had something to do with Ricky’s leaving. “A child heading off for college is a milestone. It’s natural to reflect on the passing of your life,” she’d said. Maggie seemed to think that the acknowledgment of one’s mortality was a rite of passage, something everyone went through. “But there’s a point, Jones, where reflection becomes self-indulgent, even self-destructive. Surely you see that spending your life fearing death is a death in and of itself.”
But it seemed to him that people didn’t reflect on death at all. Everyone appeared to be walking around oblivious to the looming end—spending hours on Facebook, talking on cell phones while driving through Starbucks, reclining on the couch for hours watching some mindless crap on television. People were not paying attention—not to life, not to death, not to one another.
“Lighten up, honey. Really.” Those were the last words she’d said to him this morning before she headed off to see her first patient. He was trying to lighten up. He really was.
Jones was raking leaves; the great oaks in his yard had started their yearly shed. There were just a few leaves now. He’d made a small pile down by the curb. For all the years they’d been in this house, he’d hired someone to do this work. But since his retirement, almost a year ago now, he’d decided to manage the tasks of homeownership himself—mowing the lawn, maintaining the landscaping, skimming the pool, washing the windows, now raking the leaves, eventually shoveling the snow from the driveway. It was amazing, really, how these tasks could fill his days.
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