I move up one seat ahead of me as quietly as possible. I gently tap the shoulder of the young man now sitting in the desk in front of me.
“Professor,” I whisper, as he turns his head slightly in my direction. His brown eyes flash to mine, and then he refocuses on the girl walking to the front of the room. She’s silently preparing herself for the five-minute long speech she has to give to the entire class.
Keeping his eyes on her, a beautiful twenty-something vixen in a tight black dress, heels, and flowing auburn hair, he answers.
“What’s up, bud?” he whispers back. I take a deep breath, and try to fight back the tears slowly forming in my eyes.
“My grandfather died on Saturday,” I say, and at the mention of this, his eyes close, and he heaves a deep sigh. He glances sideways at me, as he’s sitting not quite half-cocked in the seat.
“I’ve had absolutely no time to prepare a speech in the last few days, I mean, I have a general idea of what I’m going to say, but if I get up there today, I’m going to make a complete ass out of myself.”
He puts his hand on my knee as I start fumbling with my words, coughing on them like a cigarette.
“I’m sorry, bud,” he says, now patting my knee, “Don’t worry about the presentation. We won’t get through all of them today, anyway. You can go with the rest of the class next week.”
I nod my head in silent appreciation, and quietly head back to my seat in the far corner of the room.
The vixen is now in the middle of her speech, spewing off about the treatment of Jews in Europe during World War II.
“’You have no right to live among us as Jews’ went to ‘You have no right to live among us’, to finally, ‘ You have no right to live’….”.
She finished her speech, and the room breaks out in sporadic applause. Walking back to her desk, she breathes quickly and laboriously. Her breathing slows as she reaches her seat. She realizes that the worst is over. The world is a better place, now.
My professor pipes up.
‘We’ll do one more presentation, and then we’ll take a short break,”. He shuffles through a few papers, looks around the room, and finally says, “Jennifer, would you like to go?”
A middle-aged, heavyset Jamaican woman sitting directly in the center of the room nods her head, and begins to make her way to the front of the room. My professor looks sideways at me, flashes a quick smile, and whispers just loud enough for me alone to hear it.
“This should cheer you up, bud,”
Jennifer settles in front of the podium placed rather haphazardly on the long, brown table that usually serves as the professor’s desk.
She begins to speak, and I have to struggle to keep a straight face, as does my professor.
“I chosed da’ phalosaffah called ah Bet’rahd Russehl. He’s a known as da’ faddah ‘a analytical philosophy…”
She continues on in this unintelligible blather for a good five minutes, and no one in the room can understand a single word she’s saying. We shouldn’t be, but every few seconds, my professor and I, as well as several of the kids sitting near us are locking eyes and snickering quietly.
“….And dat’s alleyegotta’ say ‘bout ‘dot,” she says, finally finishing up.
My professor composes himself as she’s walking back to her desk.
“Thank you. Does anyone have any questions for Forrest Gu- I mean Jennifer?”, he says quickly, and follows it up just as hastily with, “No? Good, Moving on.”, leaving no time for anyone to respond. He check his watch, stand up, and says, “All right, let’s take a ten minute break. And I would greatly appreciate if you all returned to class.”
I laugh at this request as I stand up, donning my ashen-gray pea coat, and placing a cigarette between my lips I grab the enormous cup of coffee sitting on my desk, and walk out of the classroom.
Down the staircase, and out the door, I light up my cigarette in the alcove directly in front of the building. If a security guard walks by, I’m screwed, but after the week I’ve had, I really couldn’t care less.
The wind subsides abruptly, and I take advantage of this unexpected event by blowing several smoke rings into the air. As they drift away, several girls walk past, glance quickly at the vortexes of smoke hanging around me, and then quickly rush into the building. It’s too cold for them out here. The wind picks up again, so I flip the wide collar of my coat up around my face. My beard ruffles up against the heavy wool. I take one last drag before flicking my cigarette out into the open courtyard.
Walking up the stairs, I see one of my fellow classmates stretched out on a couch in the makeshift lounge in the hallway of the building.
I sit down on the couch opposite him, stretching my feet up onto the low coffee table in front of me. I tilt my head back, close my eyes, and heave a small sigh.
He says something, but I’m so lost in my own thoughts that I miss it.
I look at him.
“I’m sorry?” I say.
“I said I heard what you said about your grandfather, I’m sorry to hear about it,” he says, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, fingers interlaced. He’s older than me, a stout, stocky man with close-cropped brown hair, and a goatee. He looks as though he’s in his late thirties.
“It never gets any easier, does it?” he continues.
“That’s what they make cigarettes for, man,” I say. He laughs, and continues once again.
:”How old was he?” he asks.
“Just shy of eighty-seven,” I say.
“And how old are you?”
I wonder vaguely where he’s going with these questions, but I answer anyway.
“Have any brothers or sisters?”
“An older brother and two older sisters,” I say. I’m too tired to put up a fight or be quizzical.
“Well, look at it this way. He had a full life, and I’m sure he was a good man. He got to see his grand kids grow up, start school, start lives of their own. He witnessed twenty-two years of your life, and even more of your brother’s and sisters’ lives. I’m sure you got to drink with him, spend time with him. You and your siblings were probably the world to him. Any of your sisters or your brother have kids?”
“Yeah,” I say shakily, “both my sisters.”
“Well that’s great, then! He lived to see his great grandchildren come into this world. He seems to have lived a pretty fruitful life, at least that’s how I see it. You said he was in his late eighties? Did he fight in World War II?”
“Yeah, he did,” I say, “Survived the invasion of Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge,”
“Then the man was living on borrowed time for the majority of his life, considering how many soldiers we lost. You should remember that, all the good times you had with him, and what a good man he was.”
I sigh and take a sip from my giant cup of coffee.
“You’re right,” I say, “You’re very damn right. Thanks, man.”
I walk silently back to the classroom, intermittently sipping on my coffee. I arrive back in my seat just in time to hear my professor say, “It’s freaking cold in here,”
He goes up and places a phone call to what I can only guess is one of the campus handymen. He sits back down, this time filling the seat next to me, away from the window and the heater.
“Eric, would you like to present?” he says, breaking the silence.
The kid sitting diagonally to my left says, “Yeah, I’ll bust it out, give me a second.”
He settles up in front of the class, and is barely thirty seconds into his speech, when there’s a knock on the door.
A gruff man of about forty is poking his head in the door, looking straight at Eric.
“Sorry to interrupt, Teach, but you called about some cold air?” says the man.
My professor says nothing, sitting in the back of the room, blending in perfectly. It seems he’s going to let this roll.
“Yeah, dude, the heater’s blowing out cold air,” Eric says.
“All right, give me a second, I’ll take a look,” he says.
He strides across the room, over to the heater directly beside me.
“No problem,” Eric says, stacking a pile of papers on the podium, “I’ll be up here doing…professor…type…things.”
Everyone in the class snickers, but the repair man takes no notice.
“Yeah, I’m gonna’ have to open this sucker up. It’s gonna’ be pretty loud. I’ll come back when your class lets out. How much time?”
A huge smile spreads across Eric’s face, as he glances at his watch,
“Make it five minutes,”
My professor looks Eric dead in the face, and shakes his head back and forth in a stern manner.
“Better yet,” Eric says, “Make it half an hour, the smile gone from his face.
“All right, Teach, I’ll be back at ten-thirty, then,” he says, as he walks out of the classroom.
The professor finally speaks.
“You handled that pretty well, ‘Teach’,” he says laughing, “Why don’t you finish your speech,”
Eric finished up. I couldn’t tell you whether or not he did well, for I sat in my seat and doodled in my notebook. I just needed space in my head. I needed time to be blank.
“Duncan, you’re up next.”. My professor’s words bring me back to the hear and now. The man that consoled me at the top of the stairs rises from his seat, and walks up to the podium.
“My name is Duncan, and my speech covers the topic of assisted suicide,” he says, looking out over the class. I feel a twinge of pain in my stomach.
“Euthanasia,” he continues, “is the act of assisting a terminally ill person in suicide. It is legal, but heavily monitored and regulated by the government, in only a few states.”
“I don’t know if any of you besides the professor are old enough to remember this, but in the eighties, Dr. Jack Kevorkian took part in over one hundred and thirty assisted suicides. He believed in the right to die by choice, and with dignity,”
“He would start an I.V. drip which would put the patient in a coma, followed by a massive dose of lethal drugs. It’s just like dying peacefully in your sleep,”
The twinge grows into a pang.
“He was brought up on murder charges, and lost his license to practice medicine. He was accused of playing God, and breaking the Hippocratic Oath, never to do any harm to a patient purposely,”
“He felt, though, that by practicing euthanasia, he was upholding the Hippocratic Oath. He could not let his terminally ill patients suffer in good conscience. He gave them a choice, which some of them took advantage of,”
“Is that wrong? Is this immoral? Was he indeed playing God? Or was he an angel of mercy? Was he a good man who offered a release from a dishonorable and drawn out death. A murderer….or a saint?”
He steps down from the podium.
‘Thank you, Duncan, that was very enlightening,” my professor finally says, “But I have a question.”
“Sure,” Duncan says, waiting patiently.
“You didn’t come right out and say it, and I always assume, but what is your view?” He asks, his chin resting on his palm.
“I work at a hospital. I take care of terminally ill patients. I’ve been doing it for fourteen years. The first few years were rough. I took a lot of what I saw home with me, in my head, you know? After a while, you stop holding onto it. You still work with compassion, and empathize with your patients, but you leave it there,”
“My aunt was diagnosed with cancer several years ago. She beat it. She went through radiation treatment, the whole nine yards, and she beat it. A few years later, it had come back. She was given six, seven months to live. She lived for another year and nine months,”
“The last nine months of her life were agonizing. She laid in bed, and as a caregiver, I took care of her. I fed her, and bathed her, and dressed her. I watched her suffer.”
That hurtful pang in my stomach is now a thumping war drum. My eyes begin to well up with tears.
“I will tell each and every one of you, without shame or inhibition, if I could have let her die peacefully and painlessly, I would have. I’d have done it a thousand times over, and a thousand times after that,”
The ultra-conservative woman in the class interjects.
“It’s immoral. You have no right to play God, and suicide is a mortal sin, punished by an eternal stay in hell,” She says, hints of anger and disgust in her voice.
Duncan simply looks at her, refusing to sink into a religious debate. Yet again, there’s silence throughout the classroom.
I decide to break it.
“My grandfather died on Saturday,” I say.
Nobody says a word. A few people are holding their breaths.
“His, uh, his blood was infected from a complication with his gallbladder. It spread to his heart. He died of heart failure four days ago. He sat in a hospital bed in utter, savage agony for eight days before he died.”
The tears start to flow from my eyes. I look directly at Jocelyn, the religious conservative, who’s sitting at her desk with a horrified look on her face.
“He was a husband, a father, my grandfather, and a great grandfather. He was a mechanic, and engineer. He was a veteran of World War II. He fought for his country without regard for himself,”
A smile spreads across my face, cutting through the tears. I speak.
“He loved trains, fascinated by them. He taught me all about them,”
Duncan begins to smile.
“He was a hero to me, and my family, and he deserved to die with dignity, and of his own accord. If I could have done that for him, I would have, a thousand times over, and a thousand times after that,”
Duncan pats me on the back as everyone offers their condolences. I wipe the tears from my face, and try to smile at everyone.
I realize that the worst is over.
The world is a better place now.