Old Professor Nick Dies
“The Lord giveth,” the priest said. “And the Lord taketh away.” His hand gripped the podium and his head swiveled from left to right, as if making sure that all had absorbed the dramatic effect of his words.
“No doubt, Nicholas was a man loved by all of us, who gave us joy. It gives great pain to know that God, like an infinitely wise farmer who knows when the fruit is ready for the picking, has determined this to be the perfect time to take with Him the soul of Nicholas.
“But God works like this: from every pain he is able to draw out the good. For now, let us thank God for the gift of the days we have spent with Nicholas in his warm company, and for the calming knowledge that Nicholas is now face to face with his Creator, enjoying infinite happiness in the presence of God, the end which awaits all of us who strive to faithful. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
“Amen,” they all responded. I kept silent seated on the pew. The priest approached his chair and sat with his hands on his kneecaps, head inclined signaling a moment of silence and reflection.
I looked around and observed the people. An old lady, presumably old Nick’s sister, had her face crumpled in agony. Her eyes were dry, though she wiped them with her handkerchief. Beside her, an old man, unmistakably old Nick’s brother, with the same deep, scrutinizing eyes of a scholar and the sharp parrot-bleak nose, albeit with the cheekbones more filled-in and hair full white instead of Nick’s salt-and-pepper, had his arm wrapped around the lady as if to comfort her, though it was his eyes that were moist and cloudy.
The funeral room was filled with the old professor’s students. A good number of them were crying — girls mostly, though a few boys too. One of them caught my attention especially. His shoulders were shaking up and down and his face was red and he was wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. I found it comic, but this was no appropriate time to laugh.
I felt out of place. I turned my head down lest I arouse suspicion for my lack of emotion. I attempted to arouse some pious thoughts for the deceased, but in vain.
I remember my first day as caretaker of the professor, roughly two months before his death. I had arrived in his apartment that morning and was asked by the landlady to please fix his bed in his room while she went to get him as he was still finishing his breakfast.
I had just finished when I started to hear the rolling of his wheelchair and the sound of his machine, a sound that would later on become all too familiar to me. I had already known that the professor was sick with a disease in the lungs, for which reason the family hired me to be his caretaker, and later I learned that he used that machine to supply him oxygen. It made a sound like an air pump and had a tube that connected to his nostrils. It was small enough — the size of a book — for the professor to lug around but large enough to contain his life.
The professor came in, the landlady pushing him on a wheelchair. “This is the professor,” she said to me. “Say hello.”
“Good morning,” I said, in my most enthusiastic voice. “My name is Clay.” I stuck out my hand to him. He didn’t shake it, but instead looked past me.
“What did you do to my blanket?” he asked.
“Excuse me?” I asked. He murmured his words, as one who wouldn’t make the effort to enunciate all the syllables, and he stopped every few words to catch his breath.
“What. Did you do. To my blanket?” he said louder, as close to yelling as he was able, though it came out as a sort of exaggerated wheeze. “What did you do to my blanket?” His finger, the nail turned a light grayish blue — the color of a corpse — by the lack of oxygen no doubt, pointed to the cushioned chair beside his bed. There on top I had just placed his folded blanket. Folded neatly, I might add. I did not know what to say at that moment and the confusion must have been evident on my face.
The congregation at the funeral stood up around me. It took me a moment to realize it and I stood up embarrassed, though no one seemed to notice. The priest continued with the ceremony. I failed to concentrate and continued to wander off in my memories of the professor.
Old Nick asked me to read books to him. He sometimes found himself too tired to be able to hold a book up by himself. He always corrected — rudely — my pronunciation of words. “Writhed”, it turns out, is pronounced not like “wreath” but rather with the i like in “ice”. It was difficult for me to stay and continue, really, instead of drop the book and walk out on him.
He used to ask me to read out loud to him, exactly five minutes a day, the Gospels. Sometimes, in the middle of the reading, he would make a comment of the passage read. Once I read about how Jesus “did all things well.”
“You hear that?” said the professor. “You ought to follow his example.”
I also do recall Jesus saying that we should love one another, and that we ought not to judge our fellowmen. Also, he was strongly against hypocrites and scolded them. But I resisted the urge to tell the old professor that.
This urge to get back at him came often, and I was not always successful in controlling it. I remember one specific incident. He always commented on my bottle of water, which I liked to carried around. I know it might look funny to people who do not understand. But I am a man who cares much about his own health and hydration, thank you very much. Old Nick told me he thought it was pansy and strange. Finally, unable to support it any longer, I burst out.
“Dear professor,” I said. “If there is anyone I should be listening to for advice on health, I should think that you are the person least qualified to do it, thank you very much.” We spent the whole day not talking to each other after that. I did not even bother to make an apology, it is true. But neither did he make one to me.
We watched a lot of movies. There was one movie, Fiddler on the Roof, that the professor had us watch over and over again. It got on my nerves but this time I was overcame the urge to make another witty remark. After the first time we watched it, the professor told me, “A good movie for cultured people, is it not?” I knew better than to disagree. “Indeed,” I replied. To be honest, the movie was a total bore. But the professor really seemed to like it, considering we watched it at least once a week.
I got back to my senses and realized the Mass had ended. Men from the funeral company came and lifted up the wooden tomb. It looked heavy, which I found funny considering the professor had become so small and frail towards the last few weeks. They brought the tomb to the hearse. We all followed to the graveyard less than half a kilometer away walking.
The last time the professor and I talked was a day before he lost consciousness. We had a disagreement because I had prepared his coffee all wrong, according to him.
It was in the morning. I had come in with the breakfast tray of the usual piece of fruit, a half-slice of toast, and coffee. The professor in his final weeks was not able to eat much. I prepared the coffee as he always liked it: two-thirds coffee with one third milk and a spoon of sugar. In his final days he was especially cranky and when he tasted his coffee he emitted his usual, inhuman sound of displeasure. You would have thought I’d be used to it by then.
“You haven’t placed any sugar,” he said.
“Yes, I did.” I held back the urge to say anything more, no easy achievement considering the increased frequency of his episodes of crankiness.
“No, you didn’t,” he said.
“Yes, I did,” I said. “One tablespoon of sugar, like you’ve always taken it.”
“Stop being stupid,” he told me. “Get the sugar.”
That was when I cracked. I got the sugar bowl and turned it all over into his cup. Coffee spilled all over the tray, displaced by the mound of white sugar on his cup. The professor didn’t say anything. I breathed heavily, chest caving in and out.
“Get out,” he whispered. I did.
That day when I brought him his lunch we ignored each other. That night when I brought his dinner I found him unconscious. I called the hospital and the ambulance took us and he was placed in intensive care. He never regained consciousness again. Two days later he died.
As the tomb was laid into the ground many of his students cried. “He is in a better place now,” I heard one girl comforting another. “He is in Heaven now. Don’t cry.”
I stood at the back. I didn’t want anybody to notice the dryness of my eyes. I tried to say a small prayer, a Hail Mary, for the old professor’s soul, but I kept messing up the words and forgetting the order before I could finish it entire.
When the burial was finished some words were said. “He was a good brother,” said the old lady. “He always knew how to put warmth in our family and he knew how to put his wit and humor to good use for all of us. I am sure he is up there now making God laugh.” At this, the congregation laughed. I wondered half-jokingly to myself if I had walked to the burial of the wrong person.
Several of his students also went up to say a few words. “He was a different kind of professor,” one said. “You could tell he really liked what he was teaching but had an even greater love for us, his students.” “He was a professor that reminded me,” said another, “that good Christians do exist in this world.”
I noticed that some of the congregation threw glances backwards toward me as if expecting me to share a few words as well. I kept my head down as if in some deep prayer and sadness.
After the funeral, the sister of the professor approached me.
“Mr. Silvers?” she asked.
“That is I.”
“I am the sister of Nick.”
“Please to meet you.” I shook her hand. “I offer my deepest condolences.”
“Thank you,” she replied. “I never got to see Nick again in person since a year ago. But I have been able to call him up quite regularly. I would like to thank you on behalf of our family for the service you have carried out. You don’t know how much Nick appreciated what you’ve done for him. He always told me about it.”
“Did he?” I suppressed a smile of sarcasm I felt rushing up to my face.
“Yes. He was very fond of you, he told me.”
“Is that so.”
She sighed. “He could be a bit stubborn at times, couldn’t he? I’m sure you’d know, getting to know him on intimate terms.”
“Yes. It manifested to some extent at times.”
“It’s not so easy to be amiable when you can’t breathe properly, you see.”
“I’m sure you have some fond memories of him.”
“Can you share me any particular anecdote?” she asked.
I hesitated and I searched my memory for something clever. “I, well, he enjoyed this movie a lot. Fiddler on the Roof. I don’t know if you know that. We saw it quite often. Once a week.”
She frowned as if confused. “Fiddler on the Rood? Oh no, no.”
“He loathed that movie. He couldn’t stand to watch it when we were younger. On the contrary, now that you mention it, I remember him telling recently that you liked the movie.”
“I liked it?”
“He said so.”
“He did, did he?”
“Yes. It is a good movie, there is no need to be ashamed. I like it myself. It’s just that Nick never really cared for musicals.”
“Is that so?”
When she left, I sat on a bench nearby and waited for all the people to finish paying their respects. I went and stood in front of the tombstone. “Please remember to drop a good word for me over there, old Nick,” I said. I could not control myself and at last I wept.
This story was originally handwritten and I edited it while typing. Here I wanted to capture the emotion of someone you disliked passing away but everyone saying good things in his funeral. As if they are speaking of another person. The ending didn’t come out so great. I meant it to have an emotional impact but I guess the buildup wasn’t so good. It’s a good try. I might rewrite it in the future.