My friend James Shotwell published an essay today about the last time he and I saw our friend Justin Proper. I don't tend to dwell on moments like these that often, so this made for a heavy, emotional read.
Here's an excerpt from the piece describing the most memorable part of our last evening together with JP:
Before my visit, I asked Justin if anything from the outside world he missed. Doctors were pretty strict about outside foods, but they made exceptions for special visitors and occasions. I promised to purchase any food he wanted, but I knew there had to be something else. Food was not this man's only vice. He loved to live life as big and loud as his body would allow. After working a night shift, I once saw him chug a pint of bottom-shelf whiskey at 7 AM. His reasoning? "I never told you I wanted to live forever. That sounds boring as shit."
He sent me the following message two days before my trip:
"I want to get high. I talk to my doctors, and while they cannot encourage me to smoke, they say it won't kill me any faster than the other shit. They can't know about it, but they won't tell anyone either."
To keep from incriminating myself, I will go so far as to say that Justin was able to fulfill his wish. A friendly nurse working the graveyard shift was kind enough to help Justin, myself, and our close friend Jacob gain access to the rooftop of the Cleveland Clinic hospital long after such spaces were closed to the public. We sat at the edge overlooking the downtown Cleveland area, including the baseball stadium where the Indians were finishing a late-season game. Justin didn't care much about the view or the game. The only observation he made was that there seemed to be several dozen blocks of low-income housing with little to no streetlights that served as a weird dark gap between the roof where we sat and the bustling downtown area. Aside from that, I think he was just happy to be outside.
A short while later, I produced his request. As Justin reveled in holding a pipe he hadn't seen or used in months, he used his fingers to break down what likely amounted to less than a gram of marijuana. You could see the sense of normalcy wash over his face as he laughed about the stickiness of the bud and poked fun at Jacob, who was generally sober, about how that night would be their last chance to smoke together. It was gallows humor as only someone standing on the platform could deliver, and we laughed because showing any other emotion would have ruined the moment.
By generally sober, James means that I really didn't partake in any sort of substances at the time—including alcohol. I didn't subscribe to any sober or straightedge philosophy (although it was quite popular to do so at the time). I just didn't feel much like myself when I did, so I didn't. Justin certainly didn't hold back his taunts. He was brutal in his humor. I miss that a lot.
Justin took the first hit and coughed. He turned pink and chugged a small cup of water before taking a second, followed almost immediately by a third.
"That's about all I got in me," he said, sitting back in his seat. "That's the feeling I've been chasing for I don't even remember how long."
Jacob and I could see the relief wash over his body. In a moment, he was more relaxed and at peace than he'd been in months. The Justin we'd grown up with and remembered from times before every he inhabited came equipped with machines that incessantly bleep and bloop at all hours of the day was back. For a brief moment, life almost felt normal again.
I cannot tell you what we talked about that night or whether Jacob decided he too would smoke since it was literally his last chance to partake with Justin.
I still don't smoke. Looking back, there are only two times in my life I've regretted not lighting up. The first was with Killer Mike at a college bar in Athens circa 2012. The second was with JP and James on that rooftop watching fireworks over Progressive Field (née The Jake).
With time, I've let that regret go. I was present in the moment and didn't let the circumstance of my friend's illness guilt me into something I didn't want to do. For all his jabs, JP respected my beliefs and I wouldn't change that memory for anything.
When the smoking and conversation left him hoarse, Justin asked Jacob and me to take him back downstairs. I can still remember pushing his wheelchair and how the wheels had a slight squeak every time you made a turn too quickly. Justin was giggling about getting away with something that virtually everyone working at that time was well aware we were doing, and for the first time that entire trip, he wasn't complaining about the pain. In less than 12 hours, he would be on another table having another round of dialysis performed, but right then, he was hanging out with two of his oldest friends doing something that made him feel like everyone else. I think that's all he ever really wanted.
Even as an Ohio local, I visited JP just a few times in the hospital. I remember driving up after work, parking in the garage, and taking the elevator to his floor. If memory serves, he was in the same room every time I came to see him.
That particular night, I remember James talking about his first experience at the Big Fun Toy Store, a haven of geekery once tucked away in Cleveland Heights. Justin showed off some of his iPad artwork before we took to the halls for a walk. What struck me then was that everyone that worked there knew him intimately. He had tailor-made jokes for every one of them as we passed. On the odd occasion that I end up driving through the Cleveland Clinic's campus, I think about that and I well up. JP made strong bonds fast.
I encourage you to read the full piece on The Wampus. If you like personal essays interlaced with music appreciation, James' newsletter is worth a subscription.