From the archives …
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I met Del (not his real name) when he was admitted to our Avalon Hospice program. His admitting diagnosis was prostate cancer and liver failure – two phrases that have been used in describing me. I was told that he was a homeless man – a drunk, the only family a mother in another state, and, it was assumed, he was going to die alone. When I visited I found a man younger than I lying in the bed in a room of a facility meant for the people like him – broke both in person-hood and finances. He was confused. He appeared scared, and my talking to him seemed to increase his anxiety. My presence, my voice, nor my prayer seemed to find him.
In a case when the family is not at the facility, I call them to introduce myself and to report my observations. I normally do that outside of the room, This time I didn’t – I was going to call this man’s mom – there was a chair in the room and no one else there – so I called from his bedside. Gladys (not her real name) was happy to hear from me. She seemed even happier that I was near her son, and asked if I would put the phone to his ear. I did, but couldn’t hear what she was saying – Del didn’t respond. After a couple of minutes, I got back on the call. Gladys asked, “He didn’t say anything. Did he hear me? I told him how much I loved him and how proud I am of him. Did he smile or anything?” What are you going to say? I replied, “You’re his mom – of course he heard you. You can’t ignore your mom, can you?”
She quickly told me his story. Not one that I expected. He was a brilliant man. A scientist with degrees who just couldn’t find his niche in the academic world. He was married once. He had a son, James. But his drinking finally became too much, and his wife and son soon were out of his life – even to the point that his wife re-married, to a very successful lawyer no less, and her new husband adopted James. Del never showed to any court hearings – no one could find him. And after some years, we found him here.
“I really do love him, you know – his daddy and I tried to raise him right. He went to church, we were always together. But then he went to college and discovered beer. But he did so well. He was so smart. People loved him – he had every chance. It was the beer you know – that’s what’s done him in.” That was Gladys’ summation of her son’s life.
I asked if he’d been in contact with his son, and I was surprised to hear that they had an on and off again realtionship. Now James was in the Air Force now stationed in South Korea, Del would be so proud. I asked if we should try to have James contact his dad. Gladys said that she’d have to ask James’ mother, but she’d call me back. Ann (not her real name) did call within a couple of hours. She asked about Del’s condition, then said she’d call her son. The next morning she called me back and said, “James said that he’s said all he needs to say to his father – he’d rather just be here for the funeral”. OK, they were right, Del was going to die alone. That was a week and a half ago.
Yesterday I got a call from Ann – James had decided that he really wanted to see his dad before Del died. I told her that his condition was now actively dying – I didn’t know if there was time. She asked me to try – James wants to tell his day he forgives him. I contacted the Red Cross and with their help, some quick work by our Patient Care Coordinator and I, it was done. James should be on the way home.
Last night I got a call from a man named Al (not his real name). Ann had called his and told him of Del’s condition. Al told me that he was Del’s best friends – that they were roomates in college and grad school. He knew Del’s life went opposite from his. He’d been thinking for a few years about trying to track him down, but, you know, he had his own family and career. “Is Del really dying? Is there anyway I can talk to him? Can you set up a Skype? I’ve got to tell him what a good man he is…or was.” I told Al was dying – soon. But I would call him back in the morning and see what we could do.
They were right – Del died alone – at about the same time Al and I were talking. I called Ann, and Gladys had already called her. “James is going to be devasted – he thought and thought about it and decided he wanted to tell his dad that he loved him.” I called Al. There was silence, then, “I’m t0o late…what do I do with the regrets?”
Those of us who have faced or now face the waiting on an organ transplant list have a lot of experience in getting to know Father Time. We know there are limits. We know what it’s like to stare ahead and not see a very long road ahead. I know the experience has changed me. I think we have done more in the ten months that we’ve lived in Tennessee, then the first nine years of our married lives. I’ve quit thinking “I’ll wait for a better time” or, “there’s always tomorrow”. That last statement is an out and out lie. There is no guarantee for tomorrow – for anyone – organ transplant related or not. If there is something that needs to be said, say it. If there is something that needs to be done, do it. If there is something that you want to try, try it.
One of the categores in our computer based documentation at our hospice speaks to “unresolved issues”, or unfinished business. Del, his son, and his best friend had unresovled and unfinished things in the business of life. There was always tomorrow…or not. Del died alone not hearing of his son’s love or the depth of feelings of a friend. Devastated? Regrets? We do have some control over those things – we just need to take it. One of my favorite bands is Rascal Flatts and they have a kind of whimsical song call “Why Wait?” It’s a good question. If something is important enough to do, why wait? And from the perspective of seeing the reality that life’s highway has a final exit comes the admonition: Don’t wait!