Personal story on life & death
Eastside Guy, featured in Brainstorm Magazine
The worst thing about living is the dying. Not our own, which we face with resigned inevitability and the hope that it will be quick and peaceful, but rather the procession of loved ones to whom we must say goodbye. As we age, and the years begin to flash past like fence posts beside the highway, we chronicle their departures like mileposts along the way.
“We lost great grandma in 1983,” we might say, or “Uncle Phil passed away in “˜94″.
And time, which despite what they say does not heal, but does eventually dull our memories, leaves us at some point wondering. “Has mom really been gone twenty five years?”, or “What year did cousin Billy die?”
Modern medicine is a marvelous thing. Each year we see advances which allow for treatments and cures which would have been undreamed of just a few years ago. It allows us to live longer and longer. It allows us to keep those loved ones with us on the journey until the last possible moment. And sometimes, I think, it allows us to keep our loved ones with us longer than they would like and without the quality of life we would really wish for them.
I met Jim on father’s day, thirteen years ago, when he was seventy four. It was a nervous moment for me. I’d fallen in love with Jim’s daughter, a single mom who was still finishing up raising her kids, and I had not been necessarily welcomed with open arms by kids who were used to having their mom all to themselves. I approached meeting her parents with apprehension.
It was an unusually hot day for Portland in June. The celebratory meal was laid out on a picnic table in the back yard under the shade of a still blooming tulip tree.
“Happy father’s day to you,” I told Jim, upon our introduction.
“And also to you sir,” was his reply.
Something in his voice, and his handshake, let me know that this guy was all right. Jim must have thought the same of me because at a holiday dinner not long after when Jim was describing an old friend he said to me:
“He had a red moustache, like yours, and was a helluva good guy, just like you.”
At that time, Jim was ten years retired from a pressure cooker career as the general manager of Portland’s largest ship repair facility. He’d spent his career fighting the unions, fighting the Navy, fighting politicians and fighting environmentalists. He was a man of slight stature, but he was a scrapper.
Jim dove into retirement with vigor. He wasn’t one of those guys that was going to have a problem filling his time. He was a golfer. He was an avid reader. He was an artist. He was interested in absolutely everything. When I first started taking flying lessons, Jim came out and examined the airplanes and talked with the flight instructors. After my first solo flight, a card of congratulation from Jim showed up in my mail box. He flew with me several times, including a trip over the gorge to try to photograph his friend’s home from the air. When we thought we were in the right area, we began to circle low over the woods trying to spot the house.
“Shouldn’t one of us be watching where we’re going?” Jim asked, when he realized we were both looking at the ground.
Past the age of eighty, Jim built his own row boat, moored it at a friend’s houseboat near Scappoose so he could go rowing as often as possible. He also completed the crowning achievement of his efforts in sculpting, a cast brass rendition of Mary holding Jesus in her arms after he had been taken down from the cross. He called it “A Mother’s Sorrow”.
Jim and I played golf every Sunday morning at Summerfield, in Tigard, where he lived. He couldn’t hit it far, probably not more than 120 yards, but his accuracy was deadly. If he was within fifty yards of the green you could count on him getting down in two. The errant shots resulting from my relatively youthful muscles were no match for Jim. He beat me three out of four times, or more, and he really got a kick out of it. He was also an expert at psychological warfare on the course.
“Tooooo bad,” he’d remark, after I made a particularly poor shot, or “Are you having fun?” after I’d made a series of bad shots. If he had me adequately agitated he knew I’d put my tee shot in the water hazard on the last hole, clinching his victory.
About three years ago I noticed Jim starting to slow down. Instead of carrying his clubs, as he always had, he began to ride his cart. He sold the rowboat. He started taking more naps. He would complain on the golf course that he couldn’t catch his breath.
Pressure from his wife and kids finally forced Jim to consult a physician. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
Jim didn’t stop golfing, but he did start scaring the heck out of his friends and family. Several times, his buddies had to bring him home after he nearly passed out on the course, and every time he went out his wife would wonder if he would return.
The fact was we all began to think that expiring on the golf course would be the best possible ending for Jim.
But the doctors had a different idea.
With the exception of his heart, and a few rounds of basal cell skin cancer removals, Jim was in good shape. He’d watched his diet and exercised regularly. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on him. He’d smoked in his youth but had quit long ago. The doctors identified a bad heart valve and the need for a bypass or two. They told Jim that they might be able to give him as many as ten more years by doing surgery.
I played my last game of golf with Jim last October. Walking up to the green on the fourth hole to putt Jim stopped, used his putter and wedge like canes to hold him up, and began taking long, deep breaths. I thought it might be the golf course ending we had been discussing.
“Do you want to sit down?” I asked. “Do you want to go back?”
“I’ll be okay,” he said. “I just need to catch my wind.”
We finished the round and returned to Jim’s house. Over a scotch, at the age of eighty seven, he told me that he had decided to have the surgery.
Jim went in for surgery between Thanksgiving and Christmas. During the surgery they replaced two heart valves and did four bypasses. After a fairly short stay in cardiac recovery the hospital sent Jim home.
His family had been briefed on what to expect and what they should expect during his recovery. At first it looked like Jim was going to recover. He had no appetite, but they were managing to get him to drink liquid meals. He wasn’t in a whole lot of pain and he still had a sense of humor. But as time stretched on, he began to refuse the nourishment and, at some point, his kidneys began to fail.
The next couple months for Jim were a scenario we’ve all seen too many times. Back to the hospital. From there to a nursing facility. Back to the hospital for the next crisis.
Jim was always a take charge guy. At some point during the night he took matters into his own hands. Jim pulled his own feeding tube and let everyone know it was time to go.
Jim spent his last days at Hopewell House hospice center. I went to see him there and was impressed with the compassionate care they were providing for not only the dying but their families and friends. When I went into his room, Jim was sleeping. I noticed an unopened, airplane bottle of Cutty Sark on his bedside table. I went back into the living room area of Hopewell, which sits in the middle of the patients rooms, and asked Jim’s wife about it.
“His friend who doesn’t drink brought it to him,” she said. “He’s waiting for someone to drink it with.”
About that time we noticed Jim rustling in his bed. The nurses went in to attend to him and, after a few minutes, brought him out in a padded wheel chair. I told him I would help him drink his scotch and he nodded in the affirmative. A nurse provided paper cups and ice and I had my last drink with Jim. He passed away the next day. I put the bottle away with my keepsakes.
My father, sister and I talked my mother into cancer surgery back in 1981. It bought her a couple years, but she was miserable the whole time. I watched my uncle sit on his sofa with swollen ankles, lamenting the wasteland of daytime TV, waiting for his end. I’ve watched a procession of aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers receiving the blessings of modern medicine only to linger on and on.
I wish Jim could have passed away right there on the green on the fourth at Summerfield. And I hope, when the doctors give me my choices, I’ll remember what I’ve learned from all these others and have the sense to say no.
But what the heck do I know? I’m just an Eastside Guy.