When it comes to talking to strangers at public pools I’m probably not the best person to give advice. Several years ago a man with a billy goat beard rolled by me in a wheelchair as I was leaving the community center in Santa Fe. I must’ve stared at him a second too long because he stopped and started chatting me up. He didn’t have the ability to talk; instead he had a device that made robot-voice noises like Stephen Hawking. I listened. His name was Zsolt. Only Zsolt. No last name. The next thing I knew he’s asking me to be his roommate.
Zsolt was living with a terminal neurological disorder. His mind was fine, but he was crippled and had lost his ability to speak. Most people would have given up at that point, but Zsolt had a fantastic will to live.
I was in college and needed a place to live. My last roommates were anarchists and messy. Zsolt struck a deal with me: I could stay at his house for free if I helped to take care of him. For three months I was on 24-hour call in his home. Girls, parties, and anything that resembled a social life vanished. My duties included feeding, washing, massaging, and dressing him. When he had energy I would take him to the pool and help him with his physical therapy exercises. Physically it was demanding to lift a grown man in and out of the bathtub. Emotionally it was exhausting. Death always seemed to be on the doorstep.
That’s not to say we didn’t have fun. On his birthday we celebrated with tequila, a shotgun, and a DVD ominously entitled “Heavy Weight Humpers 4”. As I lived with Zsolt I began to hear legends about him around Santa Fe. Everyone knew of his exploits from the years when he could walk and talk. There were tall tales of how as a boy he grew up in a normal family but one day ran away. He toured Europe with the Royal Ballet as a teen, but never graduated high school. When he arrived back in Santa Fe he made his living bicycling door to door giving piano lessons to the local children. Even though he was self-taught, Zsolt was a prodigy on the keyboard. There were photos on his wall of his youth. One featured his face. On the left side he had a full beard. On the right all facial hair was shaved off. In another he was aggressively proselytizing with a sprig of broccoli. That picture sat next to another of Zsolt, crossed dressed to the T, waving at an adoring crowd while playing with a massive string of pearls around his neck. It was hard to understand how someone who embodied such joie de vivre could so quickly collapse into the confines of a wheelchair and assisted living.
As his illness progressed, Zsolt became more cerebral. Any magazine with an empty acrostic puzzle lying around the house was devoured. The authors in his living room library were a concise who’s who in the fields of Philosophy and World Religion. Zsolt found refuge in writing. At the beginning it was to keep friends and family updated, but soon the scraps of paper he scribbled on became ecstatic poetry. As the outside world began to crumble, Zsolt became enlightened in his exploration of inner space.
Although it was had a huge responsibility to take care of him, I wasn’t alone. Zsolt’s perseverance and charm drew in many other volunteers who would fill in for me when I was at class or needed a night off. Zsolt called them his Z-Team. They came from all over the neighborhood and from all walks of life. Through Zsolt’s condition, the community went from being an anonymous block in the suburbs to a tightly knit group. He had the courage to bring attention to the issue of his disease and that energy created a camaraderie that rippled out across the town.
When we went down the street Zsolt would greet everyone who passed by his wheelchair. Almost everyone would enjoy his friendliness, but once in a while someone would ignore his glance or avoid him if he waved hello. I think those people saw him as a sickly weakling and this made them insecure. However, when I remember Zsolt, I don’t think of him as disabled at all. If I were to meet him in my dreams at night he would be walking around on his own two feet. When I was awake Zsolt seemed supernatural. His withered body was crumpled in the corner of his bed, but his presence filled the entire house. He became a kind of spiritual entity that would swirl around the room amongst the streams of incense and the decibels of opera, cranked to full volume.
I graduated that semester and moved to New York. A new aid from the neighborhood came to take my place. At Christmas I came back home to New Mexico and got the news that Zsolt didn’t have much time left. He had stopped eating several weeks before and recently refused to drink water. He drifted in and out of consciousness.
I drove up to Santa Fe with a pal from high school. I didn’t know what to expect inside Zsolt’s house so I told my friend to wait in the car. Inside I found two hospice workers keeping vigil. They were relieved that I came because they couldn’t control Zsolt. He had been hiccupping for hours and they couldn’t stop it. I listened to the noises Zsolt was making. I think he was crying, bawling actually, but he was so dehydrated that tears wouldn’t come out. By the time I sat next to his bed he looked dead. I wasn’t sure what to do. Just when I decided to get up and go Zsolt bolted up and looked directly at me. In his eyes I saw life. Not just a sign of life, but a full-blown gusto that I had never seen before or since. In Zsolt’s gaze was a Tibetan Mandala complete with gods and ethereal creatures dancing into spiraling wheels of eternity. Zsolt was laughing, enraptured.
Then Zsolt passed out again. I got up and left. I felt bad that I had left my friend sitting in the car for an hour by himself, but when I returned he told me I had only been gone for ten minutes. Visiting Zsolt that last time was like stepping into a vortex where the traditional space-time continuum didn’t apply.
Zsolt passed away a few days later on Christmas Eve. I was told that they played a CD of Handel’s Messiah for him and he took his last breath on the final note of the performance. That’s Zsolt for you, always being theatrical. I don’t know what happened to all of the books he read or, more importantly, the poetry he wrote and scotch taped to his walls during those last years. Some of his early writings were collected and published before his death, but his later stuff, the really ingenious articles, have scattered to the four corners of the earth. I remember a few of them in my head, but not enough to duplicate them. Zsolt started to combine mathematics into his poetry at the end. A poem was an encrypted riddle. Its stanzas usually followed a geometric rule. I remember one that he wrote where the alphabet formed a sine wave through the paragraphs on the page. Alas, they’re probably gone forever… but then Zsolt was under the impression that everything in this world was temporal and finite. He was brave enough to except that. However, it makes me wonder. For every work of genius that makes its way to the public, how many even more brilliant works are lost in the fabric of time?
Today, September 24th, would’ve have been Zsolt’s 51st Birthday. Happy birthday buddy.
In celebration, here’s a poem that Zsolt wrote during the period I was his roommate in 2003.
The Unfolding Journey
I’ll be gone.
— Thich Nhat Hanh
My bags are nearly packed,
Tomorrow I’ll be gone; I’ll be journeying
into the eastern whisper, the western echo.
This day of now unfurls from its ancient genesis—
its morning light, its afternoon thunder blossoming
into the eastern whisper—
the western echo
slipping toward tomorrow.
I’ll be gone by then—
silken nights of further centuries shall not know me,
this insolently enraptured I-of-Time having vanished.
Accept my humbles apologies—I will not be witness
to the distant opening of the butterfly’s elegant chrysalis,
this insolently enraptured I-of-Time having vanished.
For now, however, the slight yet refreshing rain falls
onto the gray asphalt, dampening our umbrella, here
on this day in the past when tomorrow I’ll be gone;
I’ll be boarding a nameless yesterday train
whose accelerating wheels shall carry no knowledge of
your dying, your own inimitable death.
Standing in the delicate rain, one wonders, my friend,
who will ever comprehend, let alone contemplate,
your dying, your own inimitable death—
and will the memory of the butterfly’s fleeting life
be thrust aside during your lonely last breaths?
What then of the hauntingly slow Bulgarian dance
whose living fate I’ll never know? What then?
Because tomorrow I’ll be gone—
I’ll be dancing a day in a somewhere of a when,
in a why of a where I’ve never been,
my bags fully packed,
In a subtle yet breataking moment, the world shifts—
all that one is and has and might have been, is stilled.
The sky of thought opens toward the vastness—
the abyss gathers in the blood.
Carrying my bags neatly packed with nothing—
I loiter in the middle of the street, the melody of life.
Once upon a time I would have begged you,
Remember me, remember me because
tomorrow I’ll be gone.
But that vain future of eternal eulogy
is no longer of any consequence to me. Rather,
I want only this tender moment alone with you,
to ponder the arrival of a certain man,
the touch of his hand, the lilt of his smile.
In these days the shadowy yet uncompromising
Angel of Death is no longer a stranger to me.
The touch of his hand, the lilt of his smile
arrive with random ease to taunt, tease or intimidate;
startling me with terrifyingly beautiful visions—
that to say I do not know the sensation of his zephyr,
the uncompromising touch, the crushing weight of
his intense whisper,
would be a monumental lie.
This fragrance of warm summer air captivates me,
ethralls the torrid afternoon with nuances of
oblivion’s generously awesome emptiness—
its ever transfigured survival
felt in the final whisper of the butterfly’s wings;
in the wafting pungencies of a meal being prepared, cooked;
the calm odor of a musty book opened in the dying twilight;
the stilled photograph of a girl gazing across the ocean;
the cadence of a musical phrase dissolving into faint echoes
of a dance more subtle than anyone could ever dream.
In the midst of the keening, a waterfall plummets
into the heart’s depth. At the base of the falling water
is a resonant pool, ever deeper, ever stiller, into which
tomorrow I’ll be gone forever from this here
and that there, the empty chair, the unslept bed.
This ambiguous poem of life,
now nattily accoutered for the journey,
shall then blossom into your ears, you who hear these lines;
perhaps the same you who once stood in the street with me,
damp with life and love; the both of us laughing and learning
into the eastern whisper, the western echo.