Intimations of Mortality

Published by New Feathers online in December 2020 and in print in January 2021

Charlie, you ever think about how you’d like to go?

You mean, like die, Mr. Sweeney?


I used to think Nelson Rockefeller had it right, sir. In bed with a woman half his age, wasn’t he? Not sure I’m up to that anymore, though.

I wasn’t asking for barbershop humor.”

Sorry. You want just a trim, right?

Right. I’m serious, you know.

Uh-oh. You been talking to your doc, Mr. Sweeney?


And he found some stuff you hadn’t expected?


Hey, Willie. You got nobody in the chair. You know Mr. Sweeney.

I’m sorry to hear, Mr. S. Want to tell us about it?

Look, Charlie, Willie. Anybody wants to go quick, right?

Quick and on a high note, Mr. Sweeney. Like say a heart attack coming down from conquering Mount Everest.

Let’s not get carried away, Charlie. Maybe Mount Washington. Or for me, after a long swim.

I remember, Mr. Sweeney. You used to swim the Connecticut River, right?

From Hartford to Middletown. Did it a couple of times.

Makes me tired just thinking about it, sir.

It’s a tidal river, you know, even way up here. First time, nobody told me that, and I swam against the tide the whole way.

How far is that?

Twenty miles, give or take. The river meanders a lot, you know.

Sounds like you’re a pretty tough old bird.  Can you take your glasses off, please, while I trim around the ears? Thank you. So okay, we’d all like to go quick and feeling good.

Exactly. But that would be pure luck. Anybody lives in a retirement community like I do knows people who aren’t lucky.

But some are, Mr. S. You remember Mr. Barnes over there, sir? I used to cut his hair.

Steve Barnes? Lived just down the hall from me, Willie. Had a massive heart attack.

That’s what I heard. He pushed the call button you all carry, but was gone before the ambulance got there. That’s your ideal?

In a way. Kind of tough on Myrtle, though. His wife. I’ll bet she hadn’t given an hour’s thought to investments and stuff like that.

Mr. Sweeney, have you talked with your wife since you saw the doc?

Not really, Charlie.

She didn’t ask?

I told her the doc wants me to eat more fiber and less red meat. That was enough to put her to sleep.

You’re pretty slick, Mr. Sweeney. Could have been a politician.

Or a car salesman, which I was. So what do you think?

You want me to trim the eyebrows while your glasses are off?

Yes, thanks. Just the long hairs, though. I like bushy eyebrows. Makes me feel like Albert Schweitzer. So what do you think?

We’re back to that, Mr. Sweeney? Best way to go? You can put the glasses back on now. Problem, seems to me, is you can’t be sure. Even a heart attack like Willie’s Mr. Barnes can leave you crippled instead of dead.

Exactly. Dependent. Right, Willie?

Mr. S., there’s no way to guarantee independence until the very end. That’s why they have hospices.

You mean take the burden off our wives and kids.

Well, yes, sir. But more important, not stretch it out.

Willie, I’m ignorant. Hospice helps you go quicker?

Not exactly. I don’t think so. I’m no expert. You know Mr. Ferrucci? He lives at your place, too.

Tony? Sure. What about him?

He said he had a pal in hospice. “You accept that it’s about over, Willie,” he told me once. Not waste more time trying for cures. They’ll keep you comfortable, but not try to cure you.

Okay. That makes sense, if it comes to that.

Mr. Sweeney, I’ve been cutting your hair for decades. I don’t want to be too personal, but what exactly did your doc tell you?

I’ve got clogged arteries, Charlie.

That’s not such a big deal. Willie had clogged arteries, didn’t you, Willie?

I did. Mr. S., were you seeing your general guy, or do you have a cardiologist?

Family doc sent me to a cardiologist.

And he wants to do that thing to scrape the gunk out? Angioplasty?

At first, he said.

Listen, I had that. Two years ago. Think of it as a Roto-Rooter for arteries, the doc said. Was no big deal.

I wouldn’t worry so much if it were that, Willie. But he says if they get in there, they may decide I need a bypass.

Just one, Mr. S.?

No, he says probably a triple.

Ouch, sir. Charlie, didn’t your Mr. McNulty have a bypass?

He did, Willie. Said he joined the Zipper Club.

The what?

They open up the rib cage, and then close it up. Like, zip it while the bones grow back together.

Charlie, are you about through? You’re making me nervous as hell.

Sorry, Mr. Sweeney. Almost finished.

So Charlie, what do they do while they have the rib cage open?

Willie, they cut out the clogged arteries and stitch in better ones, is what Mr. McNulty said. Said there’s a big vein in your leg that they borrow. No big deal, he said, except for ribs that hurt like hell for a few weeks until they grow back together.

So it was successful, Charlie?

Oh, yes, Mr. Sweeney. Huge. Made him a new man. He could hardly hoist himself out of this barber’s chair, and now he goes for long walks.

But there’s a risk, right? More than with just the angioplasty.

Now I get it. That’s where you’ve been headed. You don’t want to die on an operating table.

Or be turned into a vegetable, Charlie. That can happen, too. Worst possible scenario.

No, sir. That’s not the worst.

It’s not?

Mr. Sweeney, worst is do nothing, get weaker and weaker until you can’t do anything but sit in a wheelchair and watch television all day. There, that’s done. Stand up and I’ll brush your shoulders.

And you’re saying go for it?

Right, sir.

Willie, you too?

Mr. S., if I were you, I’d do it in a flash. Any man who could swim the river against the tide has what it takes to recover from a little heart surgery. Determination is what counts.

Thank you, men. If you have a problem, I’ve known most of my life, take it to the barber shop for advice.

That, Mr. Sweeney, goes without saying. Go tell your wife. See you in a month.




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