Little did I know when I woke up May 18, 2016, that I would be spending my day helping a crotchety old man die.

Frank lived with his mother, who passed away several years ago, in their house on 2 acres outside of town for 35 years. He pulled his car out of the garage every day (even in the dead of summer) and put it in his sunny spot to warm up before he made the 15 minute trip to town, a daily event for him. He would buy donuts

 and make the rounds to his favorite neighborhood bars where he had a posse of mostly young female bartenders who just adored him. He was crotchety, right wing, conservative, but intelligent, and well read with a sarcastic, dry wit. He spoke his mind and didn't hesitate to bark orders like the drill sergeant he once was. He was a grizzly bear with a heart. We had been living in our rig on his property for the past couple of years in exchange for helping him out around the property and being there in case he needed something. I never ended up getting to know him very well, though we did have our exchanges. I could tell we were a lot alike in many ways, loners and a bit grumpy with a low tolerance for stupidity. I found out we shared the same nickname, Oscar the grouch, which my family used to call me when I was a kid.

2 days before, Sam went outside around 8:00 AM. and heard a faint “help! Help!”. He ran over to the house to find Frank lying on the kitchen floor with his head halfway out the slider door. He must have fallen and then crawled over to the slider and wrangled it open. Sam did his best to gently pull him out of the doorway and called 911. Frank was way too weak to get off the floor, so Sam just sat with him until the medics arrived. I went over to see what was going on and what I saw broke my heart. He looked so frail and helpless. The ambulance took him to the hospital. A couple of days later, they would send Frank home to die.

Sam was working the day Frank was released. He had called me earlier to ask me to be there when Frank got home. Frank seemed in good spirits when the driver wheeled him out of the van and helped me get him into his favorite recliner strategically located in front of the TV. I really wasn't sure what to do at this point. Of course, the first thing Frank wanted was his pipe. He and his mom had been smoking tobacco in the house for 35 years and the nicotine stained walls, ceilings, fixtures and horrific odor were evidence. I knew, even though he was verbally feisty, that he was weak and unsteady and couldn't be left alone, so when he graciously gave me permission to leave (he knows I have issues with tobacco smoke), I felt compelled to stay. Good thing I did, as he insisted on getting up and going to the bathroom twice in about 15 minutes. He had a colostomy bag, so it wasn't like he needed to go potty. He had a walker and I placed it front of him, unsure how to get him standing. Suddenly, he pushed back in his rocking recliner and hurled himself up toward the walker. I was able to steady him as he grabbed onto the rails. Good thing he was about 90 lbs soaking wet. I walked behind him, holding onto his frail and bony waist as he shuffled forward. Had I not been there, I'm sure he would have attempted this maneuver on his own. As it was, it took all my might to keep him from tipping over backwards.

I would spend the next 1 ½ hours sitting in a dark living room, inhaling pipe and cigar smoke while watching fox news. As if that wasn't bad enough, they were having an hour long interview with Donald Trump. The thing that bonded us was our general dislike of Hillary Clinton and our mutual respect for Bernie Sanders. We talked a bit about books and he told me some stories from his days in the military. He was an avid reader with a large collection of hardback books. He had a book stand in his bathroom and one on his kitchen table with partially read novels opened and ready for him to pick up where he left off.

I had been eagerly awaiting Heather's arrival. She's a bartender friend of ours for many years and a close friend of Franks who came to clean his house once a week. She had been tying up the loose ends at the hospital, picking up meds and other errands. I was so happy to see her. Shortly after, the hospice nurse finally showed up. It was at least another ½ hour before the social worker appeared. As the social worker was talking with Frank in the living room, Heather and I were in the kitchen with the nurse while he gave us a crash course in end of life care. As far as we knew at that point, Frank could hang on for days, or he could expire within hours. The nurse didn't think he would make it through the night and warned us that his heart could explode. If that happened, he would gasp for air and blood would trickle from his mouth. Oh joy.... He also showed us what to do with his end-of-life drugs, such as morphine and anti-nausea meds. Morphine was to be given if his respiration was labored and more than 32 beats per minute. This whole scenario was getting more and more uncomfortable.

After the nurse and social worker left, I took a break and went to the rig for some dinner. I returned a little before 7pm. Heather announced that she had to go pick up her kids and told Frank she would bring them back with her. They are pre and early teens and Frank had seen them grow up. He barked out “I don't want the kids here”. Of course, I thought it was because he was in a hospital gown and robe, in a hospital bed, dying in his living room. I was surprised when he said “you can't have a conversation with them, they just sit with their noses in their phones”. Yep, that was Frank

When Heather left, I was on my own again for the 3 hours. For the first hour or so, Frank was Frank, spirited and barking orders. (Later, I would find out this is common when people are dying, but hopped up on morphine.) He slowly began to quiet down, sleeping more, waking less. At one point, he woke up just long enough to say “Socks” “Top drawer” “Dresser” “White”. I went in and found a white pair neatly rolled up in the top drawer. When I came back, Frank half opened one eye and held out his hands, “Let me see” “Ok”. I rolled down the sock so I could get it on his gnarled up foot, when he lifted his head, with all of his might, to watch what I was doing. He barked out “don't turn them right side out” (yes, they were inside out). I said I was just rolling them down so they would be easier to put on. He said “oh, ok”, and that was that. He didn't wake up again. I spent the next couple of hours sitting on the edge of a chair, in the dark, aware of his wall clock “tick” “tick” “ticking” in the most surreal way while carefully timing his breaths per minute and listening to his soft whimper through the rasp of his lungs.

Sam came home around 10:30, and a different bartender friend of Frank's, Heather, showed up to relieve me for the night. We visited for a few minutes and then Sam and I headed over to the rig to unwind. About 10 minutes later, Heather called to say she thought he passed. We went back over and I felt for a pulse. Nothing. It was bittersweet because he had been in ill health and pain for many years. He was so ready. We drank some beer, made some toasts and told “Frank” stories while standing over his lifeless body. He would have wanted it that way. We called hospice and they sent a nurse out to prep and clean the body. Needless to say, I didn't stick around for that. Heather was staying the night, so she was there when they came to take Frank away.

It was a very strange night for me and one that challenged me on every level of my being. Having lived with cancer for over 3 decades and currently dealing with it, this was a little too close to home. I also never thought I'd have to deal with the end of someone's life until my own mother reaches the end and that is something I try not to think about. I feel good that I was there for a lonely person in their ultimate time of need, but it took me months to shake it off and be able to finish this post.

 

 

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