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Dancing with Mr. D (Bert Keizer)


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  It's hard to measure disgust, but lately I'm under the impression that I start my days with more revulsion than usual. Every morning I have to clamber over a bigger wall of loathing before I can get into my day. Cycling to my work in the dark cold morning, I think of the earth as one big death camp. We try to fool each other with empty childish prattle about this being Westerbork, but in fact we know that this is Dachau. "Oh, to be in Finland, now that Russia is here."

I enter St. Ossius with Chamfort's stimulating words ringing in my head: "It is best to start the day by eating a live toad, following which nothing more disgusting can happen to you that day."

No wonder that during the first half-automatic conversation of the day, with our new AIDS patient Arie Vermeulen, I am mostly staring at the wall behind him. He is, in many respects, a very thin young man: His voice, his nose, his body--all is lean, diffident, and bashful, as if he is trying to shrink away into his clothes, which have become far too big for him since his illness.

More or less in passing, I ask him how he feels, and, to give a detailed answer to the question, he changes his position to get more comfortable and then launches on a long exposition, the way a tiresome neighbor can do when you've casually mentioned the weather.

"Well, I must say, I cannot say that I feel, well I'm not exactly as fit as a fiddle as they say, not one hundred percent, far from it, in fact I feel a little out of sorts, you know, if that's what you're asking...."

In my filthy mood, I feel like shouting at him, "Of course you feel bloody awful, you've got AIDS, you idiot!"

First thing to hit me when I walk into the ward is a peek into Mrs. Bernard's room. When I ask her if she has managed to come up with any resolutions for the new year, she answers, "Yes, die." She is dangling in the "steel nurse," a machine for lifting patients. In her heyday, she was a nicely buxom woman; but her buttocks now hang like shapeless empty balloons from her backside. In many places, the skin is ulcerated and the creases of the sheets have been deeply imprinted, giving her skin the look of blood-soaked sackcloth. "She was bonny once," Beckett would say.

Jaarsma tells me that Beckett too died in something like a nursing home. I try to picture him, the toughest of respiratory types, panting away in his quiet Paris apartment. A grumpy existence, revolving around forbidden cigarettes and half-allowed drinks. Although I have no idea what his last days were like, I cannot help putting his end next to Murphy's and Malone's. It's naive, unseemly, and silly, really.

Mr. Berendsen is eighty-six. About four weeks ago, he stopped eating. He is a fragile little man. He has no children, and his wife died years ago. The worst thing that ever happened to him occurred during the war, when, one evening, he found himself still out on the streets after curfew. Every time he thinks back on that episode he is seized again with fear and starts to tremble, and the first few weeks he was with us he thanked me hundreds of times for letting him in just in time. He thinks St. Ossius is the best hideout he can imagine. And he often whispers to me that he used to be employed by Jewish people, which he doesn't want generally known, for you cannot be too careful these days. When I ask him what happened to these people, he starts to cry. Yes, that was a stupid question. But now he cannot cope with it any longer. All this fasting has made him even smaller, and he no longer resembles the portrait on his bedside cabinet, where he sits, about fifty years old, with a cute little dog on his lap.

Since yesterday, he's been asking to see his only brother and his nephew. He keeps saying, "I want to walk with them. I want to walk with them." Brother and nephew are visiting him today. When they say hello to him, he offers them a limp hand and keeps on moaning, "I want to walk with them. I want to walk with them." He hasn't recognized them at all.

The brother is very old, with bad eyesight and deaf as a post. He sits down, all acquiescence in spite of the odd reception. He looks at me and shouts very loudly: "DO YOU REALIZE HOW OLD I AM?" He turns out to be ninety-seven. As far as he is concerned, the dying can begin now. But Mr. Berendsen wants "to walk with them." The brother hasn't understood this, so he hollers at his son, "IS THIS THE DEATH STRUGGLE?" Now we all start shushing him, and his son admonishes him, "Father, for God's sake," because dying is like farting on the sly: Bystanders will act as if they don't know what's going on. But the brother wants clarity. Surely, they didn't drag him all this way only to listen to this nonsense about going for a walk. So, he shouts angrily: "DO YOU MEAN IT HAS NOT STARTED YET?"

"Father, please, just hold his hand for a while."

"I want to walk with them," says Berendsen again, and his brother shouts in response, "WHAT'S HE SAYING ALL THE TIME?"

"He says he would like to go for a walk with us. Forget about that now, and just, please, hold his hand for a while."

"WHY DOES HE WANT TO GO FOR A WALK? I THOUGHT HE WAS DYING."

Again we try to hush him, for it's unbearable for the one leaving and for the others staying behind to hear it shouted around so loudly. We're all greatly relieved when the brother and his son leave after a quarter of an hour. Berendsen hadn't shown the least sign of recognition. An hour later, he died.
 
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Excerpted from Dancing with Mr. D by Bert Keizer. Copyright © 1997 by Bert Keizer. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.