• The Death of Cliff Huxtable / Chapter 8: Russell

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    The house is quiet.

    The rhythmic hum of the respirator helping Russell breathe interrupts the stillness. The afternoon sun peeks through the bedroom curtains in separate shafts of light, illuminating the dancing dust hanging in the air. There is very little movement in the house since Anna's passing. No one thinks to dust the arrangement of family photos on the mantle or the large white family Bible on the coffee table. Anna took care of those things. She took care of the house. She...took care of Russell.

    The afternoon nurse props Russell's body up against a freshly fluffed pillow. He has guest. He looks forward to having company. The days are long...alone.

    He hates how quiet the house is.
         "Russell, you have a guest," the nurse quietly announces.
         "Who is it, Donna?" inquires Russell.
         "Ain't nobody but the tax man," jokes Cliff.
         "Take it. I won't need it soon enough."
         "Oh come on now, Dad. You're doing fine."

    Cliff sits in the brown, soft leather club chair next to the bed. Donna pulls the curtains in the room, increasing the light on the dancing dust performance. 
         "Pop, you should have someone come and wipe down the house from time to time. This dust can't be good for you."
         "I'm fine, son. I'm not going to bother anyone with a little bit of dust. Maybe if my grand kids came to see me, dust wouldn't have time to settle."
    Cliff reflects on the truth that no one comes to visit Russell anymore.
         "Yeah...well...we hardly see the kids anymore ourselves. They're off raising their own families and Skyping when they can."
         "And you?"
    asks Russell.
         "And me? What about me, Pop?"
         "Where are you?"
         "I'm...I'm right here. I'm right here, Dad."

    Cliff looks up at Donna, worried his father is confused about where he is. Donna reassures Cliff,
         "He's fine. He's talking today. That's a good thing."
         "Yeah...I'm fine, son. And I do believe I asked you a question."
         "Pop...maybe you should rest."
         "All I do is rest. I ask you where you are and you tell me to rest. You don't tell me to rest. I tell you to rest. How you gonna tell me when to rest. I'll rest when I feel like resting."

    Russell is getting worked up and begins coughing while ranting. He tries to sit up in the bed but Donna and Cliff are quick to comfort and calm Russell. Russell's rant subsides.
         "Dad...I didn't come here to fight with you. I don't want you to get all worked up and upset. "
         "I'm not worked up or upset, Cliff. You have to be careful. You just have to be careful is all I'm saying."
    Confusion washes over Cliff's face as Russell diverts topics mid conversation. Russell continues, "So don't tell me to rest. I can't. I can't...because your brother needs me to...to..."
         "...your brother needs me to..."
         "...he's not going to..."
         "CLIFF! Stop it! Stop...trying to handle me. I know what I am doing! Theo is going to be fine. Anna doesn't believe me...and I need you to stop...trying to handle...me. Theo is going to be fine."

    Cliff is no longer confused. He is clear as to where his father's mind is right now. Donna, on the other hand, has picked up Cliff's confusion and is wearing it herself. She asks D. Huxtable about his son,
         "Is something wrong with Theo, Dr. Huxtable?"
         "Hmmm? Ummm...no, Donna...no. My son Theo was named after my brother James. James Theodore Huxtable. He...ummm...died...when he was seven."
         "And you didn't do anything to save him, Cliff!!"
    accuses Russell. He is in a clear state of dementia.

    Cliff tries to remain level headed and treat the moment as Dr. Huxtable, physician who recognizes his father is suffering from a Alzheimer's and not actually accusing Cliff of James' death. Russell continues, 
         "You're the big doctor!! YOU SHOULD HAVE SAVED HIM!!"
         "Dad. Stop it. Now."

    The room falls quiet. Cliff sits quietly, waiting...hoping...this fit will pass. The doctor in Cliff wants to explain the fit as a product of the illness. The son of Russell Huxtable, however, is shouldering guilt and sadness behind the death of his brother. Cliff is biting back tears,
         "Dad...you...ummm...you need your rest."
         "And there you go...because you know best."
         "I don't know what to say right now. You're not yourself. I want to stay and sit with you....but..."
         "...but you have to go? You just got here. How are you son? How are my grand babies?"

    And with the flip of a neurological switch, Russell is having a lovely visit with his son. Cliff's heart breaks as he attempts to have whatever conversation Russell is having from moment to moment. Cliff obliges,
         "The kids are fine, Pop. Everyone's...fine."
         "Good. That's good. You talk to your brother lately?"
    Cliff's faces reflects slight frustration as he can't seem to figure out what is Russell's fixation on James is today. "Well...have you?"
         "I don’t know how to answer that Pop. James is…is gone."
         "No he isn’t. He’s not. I just talk to him this morning. He said you two are going fishing today. You promised him. He said you were going to take him fishing and swimming. He’s very excited, you know."

    Cliff looks to Donna,
         "Has he been talking about James…Theo…to you lately?"
    The nurse responds, equally confused, 
         "No…I’ve never heard him mention anyone named James. The only Theo I know anything about is your son."
    Russell is annoyed to be spoken over as if he isn’t in the room, 
         "I’m right here, you know. I hear you. I can talk. I can speak for myself."
    Cliff keeps a soft tone, as not to upset his father again. 
         "Ok…good. Good. What do you want to talk about?"
         "I want to talk about…about…"
    Russell quiets. He appears to be searching for the words, struggling to make sense of the confused thoughts racing through his mind. He looks into Cliff’s father, seeing him for the first time since Cliff walked into the room. "Hey son. When did you get here?"
    A slight smile creeps up over Cliff’s face. He gets to begin his visit again.
         "I just walked in Pop. It’s good to see you. You’re looking…you’re looking good."
         "I feel pretty good. I do. How’s Clair?"
         "Clair's fine. She’s doing just fine."
         "Well good. That’s good. Anna and I are gonna go over and see her. You finally had a boy. I know you must be happy."

    Going alone with Russell’s new route, 
         "Yes…happy. Very proud."
         "You take good care of him, son. This world will try to swallow a Black male child up whole. You teach him…bring him up strong so he doesn’t get swallowed up."
         "I will, Pop."
         "They don’t won’t him to grow up to be a man."
         "Who is they, Pop?"
         "You don’t know?"

    Russell looks at Donna. He stares at her for a moment, trying to recognize anything in the woman’s face. His eyes scan and scan until they light up with recognition. 
         "Donna. Yes…Donna. Would you mind giving me and my son a little privacy?"
         "Of course, Russell. I’ll be in the kitchen if you need anything."
         "Ok honey…ok. And you can call me Slide. All the ladies do."
         "No…I think Russell will have to do."

    Donna leaves the room and let the two men have time alone, together. Russell watches as Donna leaves, 
         "Don’t tell Anna."
         "Don’t worry, I won’t."
         "That woman is feistier than a wildcat."
         "I won’t know about that."
         "Yeah…she told me she loves me."
         "She loves you. She does."
         "Yeah…but she told me. Today…just this morning."
         "You saw her?"
         "Well, of course, son. Just this morning. You missed breakfast. She and James said you were still sleeping. Said you came home late and was still sleeping. James said you promised to take him out to the lake today. It’s hot, so be careful."
         "He said that, huh?"
    Cliff gives in and joins Russell’s conversation…wherever he may be.
         "Yeah…be careful out in that water. You know your brother can’t over do it. His heart can’t take a whole of messin’ about."
    Tears well up in Cliff’s eyes. He continues the conversation with his dad.
         "Ok pop. We’ll be careful."
         "And look out for your brother. Look out for him because that lake is deep and it’s dark and you know he can’t swim…"
         "…he can’t swim…"
         "…right and so you have to be careful and you have to look out for your brother. Now…he’s very excited to go with you today so I’m trusting you, Cliff. I’m trusting you."
    Cliff’s tears grow into a deep cry. "Oh…don’t cry, son. He’s alright. He’s ok. He’s with your mother. I saw them this morning and he said he’s ok."
    Cliff looks up into Russell’s eyes. He searches Russell’s face for fear or worry. All he saw was calm…peace.

    Cliff will lose his father today.
         "No son…don’t worry. I see the worry, but it’s ok. James doesn’t blame you. His big brother took him fishing…took him…swimming. He lost his step and slipped into the water and it swallowed him. It swallowed him up."

    Through his tears, Cliff relives the grief for his brother’s death,
         "I tried to get to him. I couldn’t…I couldn’t swim to him fast enough…he got pulled out of my reach…and I couldn’t…"
         "I know son. It’s ok. But you know what? James is alright. He’s ok."
         "Is he, Pop? Is he ok?"

    Russell slowly reaches for Cliff’s face. He wipes his son’s tears. He brings Cliff towards him and whispers, 
         "You needn’t worry. He is just fine."

    Cliff rest into his father’s chest and releases all his pain. He wraps his arms around his father, clinging to the man who taught him how to be a father. Russell rest his left arm over Cliff’s back while his right arm relaxes by his side. Cliff can feel the life leaving Russell as his arm is resting heavier and heavier across Cliff’s back. And with his final breath, Russell leaves his life,

    Cliff squeezes a little tighter and mourns the passing of the father who taught him.


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