If a man dies in Reno, did he ever really live?
Lou was a Serb from Cincinnati. I knew him because his mail-order bride was a friend of my Russian mother-in-law. Her name was Yulia. She’d been a schoolteacher in Ukraine.
Neither of them had any kids. Except for her mother back home, neither of them had any relatives, period. They lived in a one-bedroom apartment a few blocks down from us. I’d see him maybe twice a year at my in-laws’ place, and when we had them over for Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving—that was my big act of charity for this guy, and a week later, every year, we’d get a package with treats and toys for the kids, and a thank-you card with a hand-written note that couldn’t have been more heartfelt. Just thinking about those packages, I feel awful. This guy languished and died three blocks down from me, for six years, almost totally alone—no kids, no friends, no extended family—and I knew, and I saw him less often than I see the garbageman.
At one time, years ago, Lou had a good-paying, white-collar job with some big company, but he’d been in a car wreck and lost a good deal of his mind. He was soft-spoken. He liked to talk politics, or high-brow movies, but he’d get confused real easy and lose his train of thought in mid-sentence. Once in awhile he’d make a wicked, salty joke, and you’d catch a glimpse of the man that used to inhabit him—witty, irreverent, self-assured. But mostly he just seemed vulnerable, because he knew he was crippled in the head, and when he realized that you knew, he’d get real embarrassed and clam up. I made it a policy to make conversation and treat him like he was perfectly normal. This was easy to do, because my in-laws and a lot of the friends they’d have around for parties were all educated and very self-righteously liberal, but Lou was conservative, which meant that even with his 6.5% rate of brain usage (or whatever it was) he was still smarter than most of them.
He and Yulia lived on his social security, and a pension from his old employer, but it wasn’t much, so they had to work. They were well into their seventies when we met. He worked “security” (I’d make the scare quotes bigger if I could) at a golf course. The place paid nine bucks an hour. She used to fold clothes seasonally, at department stores, which scarcely paid more. A couple of better-off Russian families in the neighborhood would hire her to give their kids language lessons, but they never stuck with it.
Yulia was already in her sixties when Lou brought her to the United States. She got her green card after they married, but she never became a citizen, because she spent six months out of the year with her elderly mother in Ukraine. She had a meager pension over there that she lived off of and used for airfare. This couldn’t have been entirely for her mother’s benefit, because she never went back during the winter. While she was gone, Lou would subsist on the McDonald’s Dollar Menu, and cheap TV dinners. He had a tremor in his hands. I doubt he could’ve opened a can of tuna.
Eventually, the golf course let him go, so he started driving for Uber. It made him feel pretty slick, like he was on the cutting edge. He even bought a pair of sunglasses and a faux-leather jacket, but he drove so far below the speed limit and racked up so many complaints about it that Uber fired him, too. Then he started driving for Lyft. This was right around the time the iPhone 7 came out, and some floozy passenger left one in his car. A couple hours later, as he was driving around, the thing started ringing like crazy from beneath the seat, so he pulled over and retrieved it, but he was embarrassed to answer because he was too confused to know where it came from or how to give it back, and too embarrassed to admit that he was too confused to figure it all out. So he went to McDonald’s to get a coffee and think things through, but all he came up with was to toss the phone in the bathroom trashcan and delete his Lyft app for good, forfeiting three or four hundred dollars of his own in the process.
The cancer took him quick—it couldn’t have been more than six weeks ago that I heard he’d gotten the diagnosis. It had probably been a decade or more since he’d even had a routine physical. I never went to see him in the hospital. My wife works sixty hours a week, I’m in medical school, our kids are growing—who has time? Yulia reached out to his nearest relative, a grand-niece somewhere in Illinois. Apparently, she isn’t interested. Yulia’s not going to host a funeral for him either. She’s trying to save money. She didn’t even bother to have his body dressed up, so he wore a hospital gown to his cremation. She plans to send his ashes to this niece by regular mail, probably in a store-brand freezer bag, and go back to Ukraine with his life insurance payout.
Thanksgiving—that was my big act of charity that I did for Lou. Everything we do for others in America is fetishized, performative, peremptory, and remote. Toys for Tots, breast cancer, all this kind of de-personalized annual bullshit. If we listened to our hearts, we might have to take Jesus’s advice. And then what would become of Uber, and McDonald’s, and the iPhone 7?
A man—a Serb—died this month, in Reno, on All Souls Day, alone, in an indifferent hospital ward named for the mother of God, off an interstate freeway that never stops. I hope there’s something better for him beyond.