Friday, April 2, 2010

Farewell, Kind Sir

I said goodbye to Mr. W. last week. His breathing was labored and he snorted loudly as he inhaled, but he looked relatively peaceful as he lay in a coma. His fight against leukemia was winding down.

He died the next day.

But I am glad I got to see him before his death. I developed a fondness for him in the brief time I’d known him. He was one of the residents at the retirement facility where I work, one of six who died here in a seven-day period.

Everyone—staff, residents, families—was affected by the deaths, coming in such rapid succession, staccato bursts of intense pain straight to the heart.

Death is never a real surprise when you work at a place where the average age is 87. Everyone dies, and older people are just naturally at a greater risk for, well, a secession of life. But the deaths were and are still a shock to our systems.

So in the ten weeks I knew Mr. W., he touched my heart. Maybe it was because he was always so friendly and chivalrous. Maybe it was because he served our country in the Navy during WWII. Or maybe it was because two of his four dining tablemates were often cranky and downright pains in the ass, but he endured with a cherubic smile and a quiet sense of humor. Or maybe it was because he handled his impending demise with such grace and so little fanfare.

Maybe another reason why Mr. W.’s death also pricked me more deeply was because my wife has incurable cancer and I am very sensitive to matters of life and death.

Mr. W. had a strong pointed nose and large ears and wore sweaters that reminded you of Mr. Rogers. He always smiled in the folksy manner of Jimmy Stewart and his awe-shucks demeanor never wavered.

I didn’t meet him until early January, but at some point last year he announced to our executive director that he had cancer and he was going to die.

“I just wanted to let you know,” he said to the executive director, “that I have leukemia. I’m not going to do anything to fight it.”

“I’m so sorry, Mr. W.,” the executive director responded.

“No, no, no,” he said, waving his arms. “I’m really OK with it. I’ve led a good life.”

The executive director checked in with Mr. W. regularly and in late December Mr. W. reported that he’d found solace in the wisdom of Norman Cousins.

“I heard somewhere about Norman Cousins,” Mr. W. explained. “He locked himself in a hotel room and watch funny movies, and laughter helped cure his life-threatening disease.

“I know this won’t cure me,” he added, “but I thought it was a great idea. So my kids set me up on Netflix, and now I have a queue. Let me know if you have any recommendations.”

The executive director suggested The Office, Blazing Saddles, and a few other knee-slapping, tear-inducing comedies.

Alas, the laughter did not cure Mr. W.—as he knew it wouldn’t—but brought him a measure of comfort during his final months of life.

I also checked in with Mr. W. at least 2-3 times a week after one of his daughters told me about a month ago that the end was near. I walked over to him when his family pushing him in a wheelchair a few weeks ago.

“Mr. W., just let me know what I can do for you,” I said. He clearly didn’t want to be a bother or have anyone fuss over him.

“No, no, no, that’s OK. Everything’s OK,” he said.

“What about meals? Can we send you up some trays?” We generally do not charge people for trays of food or guest meals during times of crisis.

“Actually we’re taking him out to shop for food,” said his daughter. “Peanut butter and sweet pickle sandwiches. One of his favorites.”

A few days after Mr. W. died, a group of residents asked if we could shuttle them to his funeral. I volunteered to attend the ceremony as well. It was held at St. Raphael’s, the parish church he and his late wife had attended for many years.

During the mass, I found out that Mr. W. and his wife were devout Catholics, active in the church, and members of the Catholic Daughters. His faith, the priest said, was an active kind, exemplified by his dedication to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, an organization that helps the needy with food, clothing, shelter, and other material assistance.

When Mr. W. moved into our retirement facility, which is located in another parish, he met with St. Raphael’s leading priest, Father Rossi.

“Father,” Mr. W. said, “I’m moving to Drake Terrace, which is out of the parish. But will it still be OK for me to attend St. Raphael’s?”

Mr. W. attended his home church for a few years, volunteered in the community, and greeted parishioners in the lobby. Then his retirement facility started shuttling residents to a church in the neighborhood. Mr. W. was back in the office of Father Rossi.

“Father, would it be OK if started going to St. Isabella’s?” Mr. W. asked.

“Yes, it would,” the Father said simply. “It doesn’t matter where you worship. You’ll always have a home at St. Raphael’s.”

Father Rossi concluded his remarks and said Mr. W. embodied the values and spirit of Christ and touched everyone with his compassion, humility, and sense of service to others.

One of Mr. W.’s four children, Steven, spoke haltingly, tears welling in his eyes, and thanked everyone for helping to celebrate the life of such a great and devout man. Tears flowed freely throughout the sanctuary.

I didn’t actually say goodbye to Mr. W. His caregiver invited me to his room as she left for the day. She had tears in her eyes for she knew Mr. W. was almost gone. She said, “Go on up and say goodbye.”

One of Mr. W.’s daughters was there. We hugged and I asked her how else we could help or if she needed any food. Just like her dad, she said she fine and everything was OK. Her eyes were red but she seemed serene.

But I didn’t say goodbye because Mr. W. was in a coma. I poked my head into his room and watched him breath and listened to the music his daughter had playing.

“He so loved his Gregorian chants,” she said with an impish grin.

Goodbye Mr. W. Rest in peace.

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