On the balcony, in darkness, I sense more than see the flights of flying
foxes. I check my e-mail. The day I left the hospital, Byron, an old friend,
sent a message to Mike and me, his college classmates. Aretha Franklin
was dead. I instantly aged, regressed—Aretha, the soul of our generation, the voice of our first loves. I e-mailed Byron, Mike, and Mike’s wife,
Anita, about my misadventure here—skipped the pathos, played up the
gospel-singing nurse, my jolly surgeon. It embarrasses me to tell Mike
my troubles. He’s been my closest friend for half a century, rescued us in
Kenya, recited a poem I’d written for my stepson Tommy when I was too
shaken to read it myself at Tommy’s memorial service. For over twenty
years he’s struggled with multiple myeloma. Now he’s living in “
medication purgatory,” his cancer out of control, treatments no longer working,
brutal back pain, breath short, infections that keep sending him back to
the hospital. He strains for lightness, urges me to “turn adversity into
art,” but I can feel him retreating, disheartened. Mike’s more private
than I am; it embarrasses him to put his diminished self on display. I
e-mail Byron in Oregon: If you’re planning to visit us, come soon.
In December 1894, at age forty-four, Stevenson died of a cerebral
hemorrhage after spending the day dictating a chapter of The Weir of
I’m up before dawn, trying one last time to get bat photos for Mary.
She’s a nurse, and she’ll take care of me, but I’m not a man of genius, and
even if I were, it’s not her destiny to nurse me. Malama comes down the
balcony, clasps my hands, and hugs me. She’s got to leave early for work.
“Soon you’ll be back with your Mary.”
“Are you all right, John?” Tia asks when he comes to fetch me. Over
coffee, Andreas and I promise to stay in touch.
After breakfast Dave joins me on the balcony. “Tia and Cia appreciate
“Oh, that was nothing. They’ve been good to me.”
“It meant something to them.” He guides me across the lobby to a
row of war clubs carved with geometric designs. “Take one,” he says.
“Whichever you like.” I choose the most impressive one, the “old skull
cracker,” twine around the end of a long black handle, the thick black ax-
head finely detailed and arcing into fierce points. Dave shakes my hand
and calls Cia over to wrap up the club for me.
“We use these in our ceremonial dances,” Cia tells me. She grips the
club’s handle, smiles slyly, and shows me a few steps, a hula sway, a hint
of highland reel. Then she gives me a quick, awkward hug and runs off.