A story from The Richest Man in Town

Marty and I were sitting at his kitchen table when he asked me for a favor. "I want you to give the eulogy at my funeral."

We had never talked about death. "Well ...," I said, fumbling for the right words.

Marty wasn't going to let me squirm. "Mick and I sat down with the funeral director today and did some pre-planning. We didn't think it was fair to leave that stuff up to the kids. So we decided to take care of things early just in case something happened. Will you do it?"

I stuttered a bit, but then the right words came to me. "Sure, Marty. I'd be proud to give your eulogy. It's probably going to be pretty long, though."

He winked at me and replied, "You take all the time you need."

It was Marty who didn't have enough time.

A little over two months later Marty found himself in the hospital. For more than a year he had been losing weight, and doctors couldn't figure out why. His white blood cell count was low and he was advised to quit work. White blood cells fight infection, and doctors feared he might fall victim to a disease passed along by a customer.

If he couldn't quit working, one doctor suggested, he might consider wearing a mask and stop shaking hands with customers. Marty wouldn't even consider it. "Now, that would kill me. I won't do it," he said.

Marty continued to shake hands-and he continued losing weight. Something was wrong.

A diagnosis finally came: an infected gall bladder. Now Marty faced the decision of surgery. "Well," he said, "I can't go on like this."

Mickey called me after her husband had left the operating room. The surgery had taken far longer than expected because the infection had spread beyond the gall bladder. "He's a mess inside," she said.

Marty was in for the fight of his life.

I decided not to visit Marty for a few days. He needed rest, and the drugs for the pain made him a little incoherent. He was dropping in and out of consciousness.

I had to summon a bit of courage to drive to the hospital, even more to find my way to the intensive care unit. A nurse told me I needed to wear a gown, mask, and plastic gloves. While putting on those protective garments I worried about what my friend would look like lying in the hospital bed. Was he in pain? How many hoses did he have connected to him? Would he even recognize me? All these thoughts had me on edge as I approached the room where they told me Marty lay.

Inside the room, I drew back a white curtain and saw a man lying on his back. He was sleeping. As I moved closer I could see a small hose leading from his nose and disappearing off the side of the bed. His mouth was wide open, sucking in as much air as his lungs could handle. I looked down at a face I didn't recognize.

I quickly retreated from this stranger's room. I went to the nurse's station and asked the young woman behind the desk if she could tell me where I could find Aaron Martinson. She pointed to the room I had just left.

At that moment I wanted to rip off the gown, throw aside the mask and gloves, and go home as fast as I could. But I knew that my friend needed me-and I needed him.

Slowly, I walked up to the side of Marty's bed. I stood there for a few minutes, staring at him and feeling sorry for him. On the other side of his bed, various pieces of hospital equipment were flashing lights and numbers. All of these things were connected to Marty, and I didn't know what they meant.

Then Marty's eyes opened. He looked at me and lifted his left hand off the bed. It was a sign he wanted me to grab his hand, which I did. He whispered, "Hi, buddy."

"How are you feeling?" I asked.

"It hurts," he said. Then, he drifted off to sleep.

Soon, a young woman walked into the room. A physical therapist, she woke Marty and told him she needed to move his legs and asked for his help. He groaned at the thought. Before she began, she asked Marty, "Is this your friend?" and nodded in my direction.

Marty said, "Yes, his name is V.J. Smith."

"Is he a good friend?"

Marty answered, "Don't get me started."

The pain eventually went away, but Marty never got better. He lingered in the hospital for five weeks. His body slowly began to shut down. His spirit, too.

I tried to think of ways to make Marty want to live. I didn't need to remind him that customers were waiting for him to return to Wal-Mart. More than four hundred get-well cards flooded his room. Some were from people Marty knew only by what they bought. One was signed "The Cat Food Man" and another simply "The Tomato Lady."

On one of my visits I suggested we read some of the cards. After I had read just two of them aloud, Marty said, "That's enough for now." It bothered me because Marty had always enjoyed receiving notes from people.

"I suppose if I die you will have to stop talking about me," Marty said.

I replied, "Marty, as long as I'm around people are going to hear all about you."

He smiled. He wanted to be remembered.

On a later visit, Marty shared something with me that, to this day, I can't quite comprehend. "I know when Mickey is in the hospital coming to visit me," he told me. "I feel her presence. Five minutes before she comes in my room, I know she's here. Isn't that strange?"

I didn't quite know what to say to him, so I just smiled.

Mickey was on his mind. "Promise me something," he said. "If I die, don't forget Mickey. I'd appreciate it if you would still visit her." I promised him I would do that.

A half-hour later, Marty looked at me and said, "Mick's here." Five minutes later the door to his room opened and Mickey walked in. I didn't want to think about how difficult Marty's illness was for Mickey. Once, when I was visiting, Mickey said she needed to go home. Still wearing the mask that protected Marty from germs, she bent down to kiss him good-bye. He said, "Take that damned thing off!"

Mickey said she couldn't. He held her close for a moment, then said, "You have beautiful eyes."

Marty seemed to be shrinking before our eyes. One day I stopped by the Martinson home and found Mickey crying. She said, "They've given up on him." I asked her what she meant. The doctors no longer required visitors to wear masks.

I knew I needed to make what might be my last visit. I stopped outside Marty's room when I heard someone talking to him. It was a doctor telling Marty his kidneys had shut down and he needed dialysis. Marty said nothing and the doctor left.

I walked in and sat down on a chair near his bed. He wasn't wearing his glasses, so I asked him if he could see okay. He whispered, "I see well enough to see my friend."

I turned away, not wanting Marty to see the tears running down my face. After a moment, I looked back at him and he raised his right hand. I grabbed it and held it tight.

Marty said, "I'm sorry I'm cutting our friendship short. I wished I'd met you a long time ago."

For the next twenty minutes I held Marty's hand. He would drift in and out of consciousness, saying a few words before falling back to sleep. His eyes looked cloudy, yet he seemed focused on some distant place. His face bore no expression. He seemed very much at peace.

It was time to say our final good-bye. I stood up, bent down close to his face, and said, "I love you, Marty." He locked onto my eyes and replied, "I love you, too."

These were the last words we spoke to each other.

Early the next morning, I received a call from Marty's daughter, Lori. She said her father had taken a turn for the worse during the night. Two days later, he died.

More than four hundred get-well cards flooded his room.

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