I drive slowly, unsure if I'm going in the right direction.
The gravel road gradually becomes dirt: two tire ruts divided by a hump of grass. A sparse row of pine trees lines both sides of the narrow road. Past the trees the road turns into a wide field, the grass tall and tan like summer wheat.
There is something else happening besides my life.
Many years ago I visited a woman who wanted to end her own life and, in fact, had already made several unsuccessful attempts. She lived in the last slip of rural country in Wake County. She had an incurable illness and wanted to die before things got much worse.
Although I have never been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, 40 years ago I witnessed my father slowly whittle away from colon cancer. Years before hospice became a household name; he died in a hospital, a mere wisp of a man: 6 feet, 3 inches tall, weighing only 80 pounds.
Even after a few minutes with this woman in Wake County, I could tell that she believed her time had come: her unwavering stare, the defiant attitude, the swaggering self-respect - all conveyed an opinion that her life was her own and she had a right to do with it what she pleased.
Those were the memories, too, that came to mind when I thought of my father before he slipped into incoherence. His tall, emaciated frame standing near my grandmother, thin wisps of black hair swooped over his shrunken skull.
"Mother," he said. "I just wish I could see my children grow up."
"I know, son," my grandmother said. "I know."
Late August 1971, I went with my grandparents to visit my father.
This was when he was receiving treatment in the hospital. He lay motionless in the bed. His cheeks had the shape of the deflated sides of a ball. An IV solution dripped into his right arm, the clear tube taped over with surgical gauze.
Black whiskers blanketed my father's face.
"Bob, we're here. Bobby's here, too," my grandmother said.
"I've brought the razor," my grandfather said.
My father moaned. It was the sound of inevitability
A nurse came in with another intravenous solution. The clear liquid made a bubble when she hung it onto the pole. She thumped the bag twice with her forefinger.
"This will keep him comfortable," she said.
I looked at the liquid and I had this feeling that if I was tall enough I could see my own reflection in the bag. There was something intoxicating about it, magical, like it possessed the power of renewal or want. It seemed clearer than water but thicker, as if you could float on its surface and never sink. I didn't know if the IV kept him alive or prolonged my father's misery - those little drops that created a sense of stasis; a sense of nothingness. Suddenly I felt like ripping the bag off the pole and tearing into its contents, dumping the entire liquid over him, where it would either bring him back or send him on his way.
Years after my father died, my grandmother told me she was there when his last breath was drawn.
"I saw his chest rise and fall back," she said. "And that was it. I knew he was dead, hoped, in fact, he was. I wanted his suffering to end." She reached up and pulled my face close to hers. "It's a painful thing to watch one of your children take their last breath in this world. I hope you never have to see that, Bobby."
I was 15.
At that point in my life I couldn't imagine having children of my own.
"I held your father's hand," she continued. A hand so thin and pale and so bruised up. I waited until I didn't see his chest rise again, until I knew it would never rise. Then I went to call the doctor."
The woman from Wake County has been dead 20 years now. I don't dwell on her death, but it's hard not to think about it. Death remains a constant reminder. Uncles, aunts, distant cousins die; coworkers, their families, celebrities are mentioned by newspersons on the television. I can be sitting in a café, sipping a cup of coffee and overhear a scrap of conversation. "Did you hear so and so died?" And suddenly I'm transported back to the yellow-brick house.
Inescapably, we live by death. And so, I tell their story, and mine. Through all of them, I find meaning in my life.