On the day he died, David wished more than anything that would have been the type of man who made homemade ketchup.
Surely, there were other regrets. He’d never fathered any children; he’d never even been married. He was close once – with a woman he met at his nephew’s christening. But she chewed with her mouth open and was fixated on attending political rallies. He traveled internationally three times in the 1990’s, but only to countries whose primary language was English and never with the intention of eating anything remotely exotic. On a whim in his mid-thirties, David signed up for piano lessons and proved to be a promising student. But he gave up the classes, using the money to pay for a better cable package. Nocture in C Sharp Minor made him wish he’d stuck with it.
But above all these failures, the one loose thread that pulled at David most – as machines filled his lungs and a Puerto Rican nurse violated his dignity with a sponge – was the missed opportunity to grow tomatoes from damp soil, mash them with vinegar, sugar, and spices, and fill mason jars to the brim with his own blood-red ketchup. He could have taken a fresh batch to his brother’s Fourth of July barbeque each year, where their relatives and friends would stab hungrily at it with spoons, declaring loudly, “Yes sir, nothing sets off a burger like a dab of ol’ Davey’s ketchup!” Never mind that he had never once been called “Davey” in his entire life.
He tried explaining all this to the nurse while she spooned pureed vegetables into his mouth at breakfast, but between the coughing and carrot mush, she didn’t seem to understand. Instead, she brought him a handful of Heinz packets from the cafeteria. He appreciated the sentiment.
Around noon, his sister-in-law, Janet, dropped in for a visit. Her appearances were more and more frequent now that the inevitable was near, and she always arrived with more paperwork than the time before. Of all the surprises death offered, David was most shocked with the volume of paperwork it took before a person could shuffle off this mortal coil. Over the past two months, he had sold his house and most of his possessions. He’d purchased a burial plot in a yellow patch of grass out past the city limits. He’d even dictated his own obituary to Janet, who edited and enhanced it as she saw fit. Nowhere in her swirling blue handwriting did she mention his failure to produce even the simplest condiment.
Janet left as soon as the ink was dry on his Power of Attorney form, and was replaced by a small contingent from David’s office who had come to weep and laugh and fiddle with the edges of their clothes for an appropriate amount of time. A few of the women had brought plants to brighten the room – two bunches of sunflowers, some lilies, and a small potted cactus. Briefly he wondered if he could send them out again to fetch a tomato vine. But the charts and machines around the room told him there wouldn’t be time now. When he was gone, the plant would brown and wilt on its trellis and the hospital staff would throw it out in the dumpster behind the hospital cafeteria, where it would slowly be buried by bags of leftover mashed potatoes and empty Jell-o cups. So, David kept quiet and smiled politely while they wept.
As his end approached, the nurses pumped his veins full of powerful pain killers to numb his mind and ease his exit from this life. Janet returned with David’s brother and his nephew in tow. They circled the bed and held hands as the hospital’s resident holy man read scripture and forgave David his modest sins. His brother told him to say hello to their parents, and Jaws – the Labrador mix that got hit by a postal truck when they were boys. His nephew’s cell phone rang and he stepped into the hall to answer it; David would never learn who had called. His eyes blinked slower with each shallow breath, until finally they stayed closed. He heard Janet ask if it was over, and felt the doctor’s fingers squeeze his wrist.
Finally, death came quietly and took David away, leaving nothing behind – not even a decent recipe for ketchup.