We went to lunch on Saturday, the day Buddy Cooper died. My Dad’s sunburned head was dusted with a soft silver peach fuzz. I listened as he chanted the litany of leukocyte counts and chemotherapies, the cancer patient’s catechism, while my cousin Maria's hands fluttered.
Maria was translating for my Aunt May, who was born deaf. How do you explain leukemia to a 58-year old woman who doesn't even know what a cell is?
All Aunt May knows is the Miss Deaf America pageant. She was Miss Deaf America once, before she married Rex who cheated on her and broke her heart and left her with nothing but two hearing daughters. But that is an epicycle.
Epicycles are what the ancient astronomer Ptolemy used to account for the observable erratic motion of the stars supposedly fixed in their crystal spheres. Though the explanation worked in a convoluted fashion, the whole system was based on the false premise that the universe revolves around the earth. Astronomy has no more need of epicycles, but they are still marvelously descriptive of human nature.
At 11:30 on Saturday morning, my grandmother, alone in her mauve-carpeted living room, felt suddenly ill. She went to the front windows and pulled back the lace curtains, looking up at the mountains. She knew then what we would all learn later: that Buddy Cooper was dying.
“It’s not so bad, really,” my Dad, an ex-Marine, quipped as Maria signed. “You know what I’ve always said—I may be slow, but I’m weak.”
I smiled at the well-worn joke, but May looked confused.
“I went to church once in Provo,” May signed to my father. “I met a man who looked exactly like you, and his father was from Kentucky, like your father. He might be a bone marrow donor for you.”
I don't know if that's what May really said because I don't speak her language. I read once that American Sign Language, contrary to what most people believe, is much more than just a sign/word equivalent for English. It's actually a highly complex language with a grammar that resembles Navajo more closely than our own.
My Dad smiled sadly as Maria translated. “It has to be a close relative,” his hands said haltingly. “Like a brother or a sister.”
“Then I can donate?” May asked, her dark eyes filling with tears. No, she couldn't. Her father, who died before she was born, was not my father's father, who died when my Dad was seven of a massive heart attack, just like Buddy Cooper. You see how there are epicycles, and they explain everything.
I concentrated on the ice cubes in my water glass, wondering as I tried to freeze the tears coalescing in the corners of my eyes what kind of heat was released as something melted. Was it heat of condensation? Vaporization? No, it was heat of fusion.
Mom leaned over and whispered, “I wish that he could just say it.”
Say what? She can't say it either. Death is always unexpected, even when you've spent your whole life preparing for it.
Buddy Cooper, age 56, in perfect health, had just killed his buck. “Get help,” he told his young grandson, unable to drag the majestic animal himself. The boy ran in the direction of the others. When they returned, they found him on his back beneath a tree, as dead as the deer he had killed only minutes before. When his wife heard the news, she said quietly, “He was doing what he loved.”
There are worse ways to die.