I was thinking about my first experience as a hospice volunteer. My person was dying of lung cancer and his sway-roofed cabin was falling down around him. I opened a cabinet one rainy day to find water pouring down so I did what he said (when he saw the look on my face) and just closed the cupboard door. When I asked his home health aide about the water issue she shook her head and said it seemed to keep the mice from that side of the house. Mostly he watched Fox News and Nascar races and ate baloney sandwiches when he got tired of the offerings from Meals on Wheels. He shared his 'books' with me, Popular Science and National Geographic, I went home every week with magazines to read. The other day I passed the stump by the road that he used to call 'my tree', the one he hit that almost fell on his car (after he ricocheted off the boulder yonder) one slippery December night on his way home from the bar. Broke his hip and slowed his roll. Volunteer hospice visitors are strongly discouraged from helping with personal care but if you are the only person there and a guy needs help with his pants, then you help. There are strange intimacies in death care, stories you are told and keep to honor the people you have served. His only time away from the valleys he was born to was during the second world war when he learned to operate heavy equipment building island airstrips in the South Pacific. He'd been married for a while in the 1950's to a waitress he'd met over many breakfasts while he was running excavators and graders to build an interstate up north (lots of blasting through granite), but she died young from kidney troubles and I don't remember him ever saying her name. We watched tv and he'd tell me about the race car drivers, and laugh when I challenged the Fox party line. During commercial breaks I got him to tell me more stories. About the roses his father grew, and his mother's laundry hanging on the line in the rain. He told me about the Uncle he was named after who took him to boxing matches and the men with cigars and spittoons and the sawdust on the floor. He told me about the main street shops in the bustling mill town he grew up in which is now a gone-by mill town with boarded up shop fronts and no work. He told me about his grandmother, a tough as nails (Jewish!) tugboat captain on the Hudson River, and how his father found Depression era work building a dam that would flood the rural town the family called home. As our months of conversation extended we began to talk more about things he'd been reading about in his 'books', the wonders of other continents and journeys beyond what we know. He never wanted to talk about his health or about dying, almost as if it wasn't on the docket. Eventually he outlived the safety of his home and moved to a Veterans hospital. I continued to visit him in the months before he died. The hospital didn't have Nascar so we couldn't watch the races. I brought him new copies of National Geographic and read to him so we had things to talk about. Once I experimented with getting him outdoors in a wheel chair but he wasn't too keen on fresh air. The last time we visited he told me his father had come and sat in the corner of the room for hours. I asked if they had talked. He told me I'm a good boy.
Then he confided that he was waiting to go home to the cabin with the leaking roof and the stone fireplace and the race cars on tv.
I don't think thats in the cards, I told him, but when you're ready you can just let go.
My dad said that too.
Three days later I got a call from the hospital chaplain that he had died in his sleep. All of this flashing by in technicolor in my minds eye in those few bends along a familiar winding hill town road. Driving home in the glimmer of a winter dusk. Death walker, story listener, a friend to stumps by the side of the road. All in a day's work.
photo: Merritt Thomas @ Unsplash