The Last Man is dying by inches. He stares at the ceiling between naps, the bustle of a busy hospital around him occasionally causing him to jump and jerk out of uneasy slumber. His eyes, still bright blue after 96 and a half years of remarkable life, grow large as he wakes and confronts the confusion of being in a place where he hadn’t been a moment before. His dreams are quick, intense and deep. Torn from sleep, he gazes into whatever distance exists between his high tech hospital bed and the countless memories he’s shuffling and shakes his head slowly from side to side while reflexively biting his lower lip. “I never thought this would happen,” he says. “Never thought it would be like this.”
But it is. And it’s been like this for a couple of years and more. Aches and pains. Pains and aches. Diminishing physical abilities, and increasing frustration. A decade ago, he would jokingly respond to questions from his two sons about his doctor’s advice by saying, “He told me…just go home and wait.” These days, after tough nights of pain and insecurity, he often says, “Well, I thought the UFO was outside the window last night, ready to take me away.” He’s viewed hundreds of medical charts and insurance documents with Verdon Ardell Chandler typed neatly in the upper left hand corner. Now, he knows the wait is over.
He has a unique problem. Most people his age have significant mental impairment; if not Alzheimer’s disease, at least something like it, perhaps Alzheimer’s Jr. But, not the Last Man. Not at all. His memory is beyond prodigious, it’s uncanny. Ninety six years and trillions/quadrillions (or how man other “illions” exist) of informational bytes can be called up on demand, and with the pure clarity most people reserve for their first sweetheart or the births of their children. They come in no particular order or time frame, they just burst from his mind into the present. He remembers being seven years old and seeing his father laying on a cot in the family parlor in Carter, Nebraska, mortally injured; he remembers sitting in the living room of his mother’s home in Longmont, Colorado anxiously waiting for the news on a local radio broadcast, news that would say his youngest brother won a Golden Gloves boxing match in Denver earlier that evening, moments before the brother himself came bounding through the front door; he remembers Manila, and New Guinea, and the forever ship’s passage across the Pacific; he remembers playing baseball for his Civilian Conservation Corps travelling team, and how much he liked the Coors kid who played for a Golden ball team and who was later kidnapped and murdered (“Good ball player,” he says); he remembers his youngest grandson as a toddler, jogging through K-Mart; he remembers his middle grandson as a fisherman at ten years of age, hauling in a big one while the old men at the lake jawed and moaned at the kid’s luck; he remembers his oldest grandson with tenderness and pride, dealing with his parents’ split in a manner far beyond his years; he remembers countless friends and acquaintances; he remembers his wife and his first son traveling to Georgia from Denver by train to spend a few days with him when he was on leave before being shipped out to the Pacific Theatre of War in 1943, and the ten, 50 or 100 adorable things his son did as a toddler during those precious few days; he members Alice, his favorite teacher at the Christian Children’s Home orphanage when he was a boy, and he remembers Connie who helped care for him as an old man; he remembers asking his future father-in-law for permission to marry the girl who would become his wife of 74 years; he remembers the first time he saw her as she roller skated on the sidewalk down Main Street in Longmont in 1937. He remembers so much, so clearly. The chronology of his life mean nothing; his memory travels time with speed and precision, with an acquaintance in 1935 seeming as real and in focus as the nurse who cares for him today.
Such mental sharpness is problematic in this case. His body has failed, but his mind has not. Until now.
The past nine months have been rough. The Veteran’s Administration geriatric group has begun visiting his home instead of having him go to their hospital offices. The weekly and bi-weekly visits are set up and, as usual, he charms everyone. The administrative nurses who come to his home to take his vital signs and offer him earnest advice fall in love with him, perhaps realizing what a fine father he would have been…what a fine father he is. He jokes. They laugh. The same thing happens with the professional technicians who come to bathe him and help him up and down stairs, at least until the stair lift is installed. They are protective. They know his mind, and make sure his wife and sons know they know. They make sure everyone understands that the Last Man’s fate is in his own hands. No one is going to make momentous decisions for someone who’s done it so well for over nine decades. But, he’s failing. The good days are fewer, the bad days are almost constant. Yet, he never stops trying. Not once in 96 years. Despite an early life that would have sent many people jumping off bridges, he fights and fights and fights to live; to continue; to see what happens.
Two months earlier, the Last Man’s wife suffered a heart attack, leaving her physically and mentally unable to care for him as she had over the past couple of years. The stress she undergoes both mentally and physically is enormous, and occasionally it shows. At 92, she’s a formidable fighter herself, but her growing instability results in the Last Man going to the Veteran’s Administration Nursing Home in Denver for a few weeks before living back at home for a short time. He then heads off to another nursing facility, and ultimately to the North Suburban Medical Center, where it’s found that whatever can go wrong…has.
His sons meet outside Room 208 with a doctor whose bedside manner has, over the years, evolved. For two decades, family members have commented on the doctor’s less than compassionate demeanor while watching the Last Man smile and raise his eyebrows at their assessment of the physician. But over the years, the doc has saved the Last Man’s life twice, and over those same years, he’s become more loose and approachable when the family’s around. This afternoon while talking to the sons outside the Last Man’s room, the famously hard case doctor is empathic, and even emotional. “I’ve known him for 20 years,” the cardiologist says. “Every time I’ve ever seen him, he’s been full of piss and vinegar. But today, I think he’s thrown in the towel."
“He says he’s ready,” one of the sons states in the form of a semi-question.
“Yes, he is,” says the doc.
Renal failure is the best way to die, the family is told by one of the kidney doctors. His second son relays the information to the Last Man, who says, “I wonder if he’s ever tried it?” An hour or so earlier, after a discussion with his wife, sons and doctor in which he’s told that his time is short, he says, “I had hoped to make it to December 21 to see if those Mayans were right, if the world will end.” Macabre humor has long been one of his specialties.
He says, “If this is the end, I don’t want anybody at my funeral saying what a great guy I am. I don’t want that junk. I’ve been to a lot of funerals where I know what kind of guy they were talking about, and it sure doesn’t resemble the guy in that casket.”
His second son talks with the Last Man’s nurse currently on duty, telling her the prognosis and the family’s wishes. Through tears, she tells him how much she thinks of his father, a man she’s known for less than a week. It’s an amazingly poignant moment.
He undergoes two rounds of kidney dialysis, spending hours with a young nurse from Manila, telling her heartbreaking and informative stories of her ancestral home in the mid-1940’s, giving her a mental picture of the simultaneously devastated and gorgeous Philippines during the Second World War. It’s a history lesson that means much to her.
The decision is made. Hospice. The family agrees, the physicians agree, and he agrees. It’s time for comfort, for quality of life instead of time. He’s fuzzy and weak, sleeps most of the time, and has three litres of fluid removed from his chest the day before leaving the facility. That evening his second son sits with him for a short visit that stretches into a three hour conversation. The Last Man has regained his lucidity, and he has things to say. He talks about his first great responsibility – caring for Crump the Holstein at the Christian Children’s Home. (How he was the only one who could calm the ill-tempered milk cow, named for one of her crumpled horns.) He notes that Nate Schreiber was the finest man he ever met, lauding his old boss and talking about the business acumen possessed by Nate and his son-in-law, Max Friedman. He chuckles about fishing the Boulder River near Big Timber, Montana, where dozens of fish were caught without he and his partners realizing the river had just been stocked. He remarks on the huge brown trout hooked by his second son, then a teenager, on the same trip, and how it gave a mighty lunge as it was being beached, breaking the line and disappearing back into the pristine water. He recalls the time immediately following his father’s death, noting that he doesn’t remember much about his dad, but he does remember the funeral and the tumult in the family. He also remembers the death and funeral of his beloved grandfather, (“I remember he was in the bed in the corner of that little room and we kids came in to say goodbye”) shortly after which he and his five siblings were shuffled off to the Children’s Home for a “temporary” stay of five years. He praises The Home, and how the creaky old orphanage made him feel safe and secure. He shares a few secret opinions concerning some of his family and in-laws…some good, some wry, but none scathing. He praises the newest of the clan, his little one year-old great-grandson, and predicts great things for him, among them the possibility that he may be a southpaw, like the Last Man’s brother. “Your mother may be stubborn,” he says to his son, “but she’s the best.” He talks until he’s talked out.
Sitting in a wheelchair in his room at St. Anthony’s Hospice after the transfer from the hospital, he chats with the hospice chaplain. He explains that his only concern is for his wife; for her comfort, her safety and her security. The chaplain nods her head and says she understands. She asks if he’s afraid, or angry. He lets her know that the years have ameliorated any fear about dying. As for anger….he launches into a lengthy story about working in the construction industry during the 1960’s at a Colorado ski area. He’s always been a pretty good storyteller, and this time he sets it up perfectly, giving a remarkable sense of time and place, letting her know what vehicle he was driving; who his companions were; what the project was all about. He includes dozens of tiny details. She’s hooked, sitting ramrod straight as he recreates the tragic accident that befell his co-workers who stayed in a doomed ski lodge while he returned to his truck for some tools. She can fairly hear the explosion that occurred nearly fifty years ago, and shares the Last Man’s realization that three of his companions had died, men he had talked with moments before. The irony is so thick it swirls before the chaplain’s eyes as he says, “Since that day, I’ve never really been mad at anything. I don’t have any anger.”
The future is short. The time is near. Everyone of his generation who held any importance in his life is gone, save his wife. He is the Last Man, and he knows it. He sometimes cherishes the designation, but not in any proud or boastful way. He doesn’t think he did anything special to occupy this position as the final runner to cross the line. He lived. That’s all. That he lived well is his legacy.
His family members reiterate that they want him to be comfortable, to drift away. That’s probably (and prayerfully) how it will happen. He won’t rail at the sky in indignation, just as he won’t accept his death as an obligatory end to life. After all, there’s no need to give up, just as there’s no need to prolong the inevitable. He doesn’t realize he’s remarkable, that he’s everything we’re supposed to be. He would never accept that mantle. He would argue that what’s considered extraordinary should actually be the norm. The Last man is the ultimate Good Man.
Carl Sandburg dubbed Chicago the City of Big Shoulders. Perhaps back then, when the growing cities of the Great Lakes and East Coast bustled with what can only be termed a uniquely American sense of promise, but I think not now. It’s a mega-city of whatever northern and northeastern urban America has become; its soul (with minor distinctions) long-since melded with Philadelphia, Detroit and even the Big Apple. No, such a heroic designation today should and likely would be bestowed by the great poet on what songwriter Michael McGuinness calls the middle of the middle west…Kansas. The Land of Big Shoulders, surely. Broad, flat, muscular, strong, vast, it’s a place where the concept of the land is omnipresent. Even its urban areas are mere minutes from the fields, swales, gentle hills, creeks and rivers that combine to create much of the world’s finest farmland.
Kansans think big. Make that wide. A 70-mile jaunt to dinner and a movie is unexceptional. Farms seem limitless and ranches extend forever. No mountains, no oceans, no 300 day-a-year moderate climate, it is instead a place where the horizons force you to look outward, a place where you don’t climb the ladder, you walk the line. It’s a marvelous state to both ponder and realize life’s possibilities.
Its history is fascinating. Home to the Osage, Pawnee, Comanche, and Kansa, pivotal to the formation of today’s United States as a battleground between Union and Confederate philosophies, invaluable to the formation of the country’s livestock and rail industries, and, from my perspective, home to what have become romantic notions of the American Frontier. Dodge City, Coffeyville, Wichita, Abilene, Fort Hayes, ad infinitum. The Earps, the Mastersons, Doc Holliday, Wild Bill, the Daltons, Wes Hardin, ad infinitum. Kansas sends shivers down the Wild West aficionado’s spine.
Politically, it leans right, but with the strong streak of populism found wherever people grow things. It gave us both Bob Dole and Kathleen Sebelius, which tells us either everything or nothing. Several of my Kansas friends and acquaintances (particularly the educators and entertainers) are hidebound liberals, and some (particularly the landsmen and merchants) are equally conservative. They’re all Kansans…proud to be Jayhawks and Wildcats, and proud of the unique place they and their cousins, the Nebraskans, hold in America’s soul.
Pat and I drove through Kansas in late February in the midst of a 300 mile-long storm of frozen rain and snow to attend a memorial service for my friend Dick Wellman. (In fact, it’s 75 degrees outside on a late June morning as I write this, yet I’m cold as a St. Vrain trout just thinking about that winter sojourn across Kansas.) Even while concentrating on the road in horrible conditions, I could still feel the lure of the place. Pat thinks it’s our age. As a teenager, she couldn’t wait to get off the farm and out of small town Nebraska. As an adult, there have been a thousand times she’d have given anything to go back. Circumstance always prevented it, but I’ve always been lured by the rural Midwest, as well.
Driving west to east across I-70 in a storm is pretty intimidating. You try to take your place in line behind a semi…far enough back to be able to see, and hope the trucker can see, as well. Idiots abound, and take to the left lane as if it’s a spring day in Guadalajara. Infrequently, they’re seen stuck in the median, standing outside their overturned vehicles staring into the distance, or even at the next town’s diner, their steering wheel-molded hands clasping a hot cup’a joe. Through the mist and the clouds, the churches of Kansas stand tall against the weather, and the height of the omnipresent grain elevators is rivaled only by the magnificent church steeples. Catholic, Methodist, Mennonite, Baptist. Kansans take their faith seriously, and being a Kansas preacher is, by all accounts, a pretty good job. And no, 99.999 percent of Kansans don’t have any love for the Westboro Baptist Church, either. (Of course, it’s not really a Baptist church, having no affiliation other than appropriating the name.) It’s a festering boil that’s only tolerated because Midwesterners actually understand the concept of free speech.
We stayed in Hutchinson, Kansas the night before Dick’s funeral. (Kansans call the place Hutch.) Our trip had taken about double its estimated time, and my pals from the Hole in the Wall Gang were in even worse shape, having left later, thus encountering the storm’s full wrath. The Brunetti clan – Tony, Denise, John and Anthony – caravanned with Greg, Dale, Pineapple and Monty on the twelve hour crawl from Denver. What’s more, they had to return the next day after the service. (It’s the way western folks do things. “If I don’t sleep and drive a few extra hours, I’ll get home in time to tan that buffalo hide or teach that new mustang how to count to ten.”) We all hooked up the next morning in nearby Sterling, Kansas at a brunch/lunch put on by the American Legion in honor of Dick, and met a lot of people we knew, and a lot of people we’d heard about. We also picked up a great recipe for baked pork chops.
Dick’s children were charming, as we knew they’d be. Of course, Brad’s already one of us, since he’s in the Hole in the Wall Gang, and it was a great pleasure – make that an honor – to meet Greg, Alan, and Emily. I already felt as if I’d known them for ages, just from talking with their father. Since Dick’s death a few weeks earlier, I’d corresponded with Alan and Emily at length, as well as with Tricia Bridgess, a marvelous e-conversationalist. Alan’s wife Lora Lee is lovely, and seemed to take Dick’s death especially hard. She, like her husband, is a fantastic musician, and it must have been tough for her to take up the piano duties at the funeral. Some time after Emily, Greg, Alan and Brad’s mother Myrtle passed away, Dick remarried JoAnne, and it was a substantial pleasure to meet her children, as well. Pat and I got to know JoAnne fairly well before she unfortunately succumbed to cancer, and it was moving to see how much they loved and respected Dick.
Dick’s service was both humbling and moving. It was held on what would have been his 90th birthday. Despite the weather, just about everyone came. The Methodist church in Sterling was packed to overflowing, and the pastor gave a fine treatise on the meaning of Dick’s life. All too quickly…it was over. In no time, it seemed we were at the frigid cemetery, where Dick’s remains were interred next to those of Myrtle. An old friend of his whose name I’ve misplaced read a resolution in memory of Dick adopted by the Kansas State Legislature. It noted his life as an exemplary Kansan, a warrior, farmer, rancher, father, husband, and adventurer. It was, and is, a true family treasure.
Following the service, Pat and I headed back to Hutchinson to spend time with Race and Marnie Proffitt. Race’s mother Marse had been Dick’s friend and companion for a few years, and we’d gotten to know all three of them at Gang functions in Denver. Race and Marnie had recently moved from Denver to Hutchinson, landing in a spectacular home that boasts stunning architecture and a pet chicken in the backyard. Their dog and the chicken get along famously, and they don’t have to buy many eggs these days. Race’s brother and sister-in-law joined us for cocktails before taking back off for Coffeyville. Later that evening, we had a fine time as the Proffitt’s guests at the Prairie Dunes Country Club, and they had us about halfway convinced to go home, pack a trailer and move to Hutch.
The trip home was uneventful, but pretty somber. Pat and I talked for hours about Dick and his world. About the people that surrounded him, and how lucky we were to have become part of that circle. My admiration of the Midwest was renewed, and I had the feeling that as long as there’s a Kansas, we Americans are in pretty good shape.
My wife Pat’s birthday is May 5, (We call it Cinco de Patty) and we’re going to do something nice. Not sure what, yet, but nice nonetheless. We’ll probably meet friends and family at a Northglenn bar and grill called The Glenn, and celebrate the fact that she’s still here. Literally. I was searching on the computer last night for a few lines I’d written a couple of years ago pertaining to a book I’m finishing, and ran across a missive I wrote in 2005 on the first anniversary of Pat’s catastrophic ruptured brain aneurysm. Sometime in 2006 or 2007, I was asked by Dr. Kooken, a neurological psychologist who chaired the meetings of the Colorado chapter of the Brain Aneurysm Foundation if I’d ever written about Pat’s near-death experience from my perspective, and I said I had. I sent it to him, and he published the following on a wiki-site for survivors and care takers. But other than that I’ve never shared it. Seems like a good time to do so on this birthday, since the whole story turned out so well….
December 1, 2005
At five minutes past eight o’clock in the morning one year ago today, Pat walked into our bedroom from her office, said something seemed wrong, and began forgetting the next three weeks. She had just suffered a hemorrhage in a blood vessel situated directly above the roof of her mouth and behind the bridge of her nose, and approximately 10cc’s of blood was fast spreading out, beginning to bathe the lower reaches of her brain. A caustic irritant outside the vessels, the blood caused excruciating pain and placed her in a category that included death and permanent disability as statistical probabilities. As the blood filled what I would learn was the subarachnoid space between her brain and its first outer membrane, the brain itself went into survival mode and neglected to make memories.
I made enough for both of us. I see her lying on the bathroom floor, unresponsive. I see the paramedics carrying her down our stairs in a makeshift sling to the waiting ambulance. I see her in the emergency room at St. Anthony’s North hospital in Westminster, Colorado, sluggish and pain wracked, as she’s carted in for a CT scan. I see the Flight for Life medics readying her for a helicopter ride she would not remember. I see her in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at St. Anthony’s Central Hospital in Denver, wires and tubing everywhere. I see the radiologist explaining the concept of a “subarachnoid bleed” to me in a small room off to the side of the angiogram area. I see the resident doctor explaining a course of treatment to me and our sons Ben and Tyler, using the term “exquisite blood pressure management” time and time again, and I see the obnoxious woman standing a few feet away chatting on her cell phone and morbidly trying to eavesdrop on our conversation. I see the neurosurgeon explaining to us that Pat is critically ill, that fifty percent of those who’ve endured what Pat has will not make it, and the majority of the rest will have long term disabilities.
I see that first day, December 1, 2004, as the most awful day of our lives.
I’m thankful for her amnesia. Her suffering was beyond the pale. For three weeks I watched her eyebrows screw up in constant, unbearable pain, and helped nurses rub her down with alcohol to help lower her rampant fever. I watched her slowly answer the doctors’ cognitive questions, and watched her nod off in the middle of sentences from the powerful sedatives she was given. I watched as doctors and nurses micromanaged her blood pressure to minimize the possibility of spasms, and thus stroke, in the nest of tiny vessels where the rupture had taken place, and I watched her muscle tone disappear. I held her hand and rubbed her shoulders because there was nothing more for me to do. I tried to mentally picture the escaped blood succumbing to gravity and migrating down her spinal cord as her body tried to absorb it, and I tried to comfort her each time new pain appeared in her back or legs. I met with hoards of health care professionals and shook my head in both amazement and irritation at the Hispanic fiestas that appeared each evening in the ICU waiting room. I watched her heart rate and blood pressure readings for hours upon hours, and I sat in the hospital’s darkened chapel in the evenings after visitors had left. I was astonished and touched at the professionalism and dedication of the nursing staff. I received and placed over $1,000 worth of calls on my cell phone, and forgot to pay bills. I watched her try to comprehend what was happening, and I tried to comprehend it myself.
Of course, at the beginning I had no idea what a “brain aneurysm” was, or that the ill-used term generally refers to the rupture of such an aneurysm. I’d heard about people having them, and thought it was probably a stroke. Blood in the brain. Stroke. It must be the same thing. It wasn’t.
I’d seen her like this before, when she suffered a minor stroke a few years before; unsure, confused, retreating into herself to manage the pain and fear. (That’s one thing I’ve learned from the two times Pat’s brain has rebelled. You either can’t or don’t reach out for help. You flow -for lack of a better term – inward and lock yourself in some place that’s all smooth steel or stone – impenetrable. It’s a very liquidprocess, it seems, like trickles of water flowing downward through porous earth to a protective cistern. There is a fundamental aspect of humanity, and perhaps life itself, that has never been adequately explained or understood; how personality differs from mundane consciousness, how mere living meat houses awareness. It’s often called spirituality, and perhaps that’s so. Philosophers, theologians, film makers, writers, seers and prophets have all sought to explain it, disagreeing on what “it” is. But I have realized something I feel is profound: Fighting to live goes beyond definitions. It’s what we do. It is our essence.)
I look back in frustration at the decision by the neurological team to forego surgery based on what they felt was unsure data from Pat’s CTA scans and MRIs. The lead neurosurgeon was impressive and competent, yet talking with other physicians who are friends gave me pause to question the treatment.
Pat was released without surgery on December 23, and frankly was in terrible shape. Christmas was a chore, with our family’s traditional Christmas Eve gathering at our house being held at my brother’s home instead. She couldn’t exercise for fear of raising her blood pressure and causing a re-rupture. It was a godsend when Dr. Lloyd Mobley attended one of my holiday performances. His father-in-law, Bill Patterson introduced us, and he offered to have the doctors in his practice look at Pat’s films. I waited for nearly two weeks, and couldn’t take Pat’s pain, lethargy, dejection, depression and general malaise any longer. I asked for Pat’s films from the group of neurosurgeons that was treating her and delivered them to Dr. Mobley. He took the films to a staff meeting where they were reviewed by Dr. Paul Elliot. His office called immediately with a request to see us at Swedish Hospital. When we arrived, he explained that her ruptured aneurysm was quite visible and should be addressed immediately. She was admitted on the spot. Two days later, January 12, Dr. Elliot performed a craniotomy on Pat and “clipped” the aneurysm, actually repairing the affected artery with a titanium clip. Following her five hour surgery, I walked into the recovery area. She opened her eyes and smiled, and despite her assurances that we were at her family farmhouse in Nebraska that had been demolished 30 years prior, I immediately knew she was better. I was exhilarated.
Pat’s never-ending recovery has been remarkable. She told me recently she never once thought she would die, which I feel is the only thing that really kept her alive…pure will. She returned to real estate – too soon, I believe – and is trying desperately to be “normal.” Despite the aches and pains associated with major surgery, she has only intermittent bouts of short-term memory loss, and we’re both learning to deal with the condition. She’s back to her exercise program, and is looking forward to Christmas Eve at our house. Her blood pressure fluctuates wildly, often tanking until she feels faint and must hydrate herself to bring it up.
I’m not as kind or understanding to Pat as I should be, and grow frustrated too easily when she calls my name from upstairs for the tenth time in an hour. I apologize often, but just as often fail to control my irritation. It makes me feel small and petty, yet I know I’m just trying to absorb and understand all that’s happened. It doesn’t help my confusion when I ruminate that I was nearly killed last December 6 when a punk in a stolen car rear-ended me at over 70 mph while I sat at a stoplight on Federal Boulevard. Pat’s brother Rob and I were on our way home from spending the day and evening with Pat, when it happened. Our new car was totaled, and I somehow walked away with a small bump on my head. Rob was unharmed, and became somewhat of a TV star on the local news for the next couple of days. The punk rolled the stolen car several times and somehow got out and ran. When the police caught him, handcuffed him and put him in the back seat of a cruiser, I walked over and looked at him. His eyes were no different than those of a caged Pit Bull. Our sons were almost orphaned twice in the same week.
Things have changed around here in the past year. Ben found that true love is an oxymoron for most. A girl broke his heart and I’m proud of him for not hiding what happened. He seems to have an understanding of what his mother has endured and accomplished, and makes an attempt to treat her with more respect. He’s still cavalier with his own life, and can be difficult. If he decides to sell yachts instead of widgets, he’ll be rich.
Tyler has withdrawn somewhat from us, at the same time trying to accomplish or extend some sort of adolescent rebellion. He smokes and refuses to finish a 3-hour class that would allow him to receive his degree from CSU. He spends most of his time with a sweet, pretty girl we like very much and seems to be trying to find a balance. He was terribly hurt by Pat’s attack, and questions why she doesn’t appear more thankful for her recovery. He is searching for his way.
I’m more fatalistic. I’m sad and angry, and sometimes elated. I haven’t had a night’s sleep in memory. I pray more than I have since I was a child, careful never to ask for anything, but rather to just open a line of communication. I’m different. Pat’s different. We’re all different. I hope we can become better. I think we will become better.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
In the five and a half years since I wrote the passage, Pat’s recovery has been miraculous. Her occasional bouts with short term memory loss are no worse than anyone else our age, and she works as hard and effectively as ever. She’s been a realtor for over ten years now. She’s really good at it, and her clients are lucky find her.
We’ve learned from the Brain Aneurysm Foundation Group that the term “recovery” is relative, and is pretty much a lifelong process. The things that continue to bother Pat – those tiny things that only she can feel – she tries to work on and master. At times, she tends to get frustrated, as well. Tyler had a point…sometimes she doesn’t seem as thankful as you would expect, but with the event being over six years ago now…well, time changes everything.
A little over four years ago, we moved to a new home and continue to host our family’s Christmas Eve celebrations.
Our sons have become men not only in age but in actions. Ben’s experience with lost love became the best thing that ever happened to him, as he’s found a marvelous girl he’s about to marry in a few weeks. Her name is Savannah.
Tyler quickly found his balance and got his degree shortly after I wrote my missive. Best of all, the sweet girl turned out to be more than just sweet. Last September, they were married in a beautiful ceremony in the foothills above Lyons, Colorado. Her name is Amanda, and she will, in September, become the mother of the most anticipated baby boy in history. Well, ours, at least.
I’m no longer as fatalistic, but I’m still pretty manic in my emotions. And although I’m not as good a person as I’d hoped to be by this time in my life, I keep trying. Pat’s always had what Lou Grant called “spunk” and that will never change. She tries to bring order to the universe, attempting to set straight even the uncontrollable, and worries too much. Our expanding family is a joy, and as always, I think we will become better.
Happy birthday, Pat. I love you.
The uneven sod that protrudes above the flat stones and around the upright stones provides an obstacle for the Last Man. Under the lush sod, the ground is bumpy and difficult for him to traverse, but with the aid of his cane and with his hand on his wife’s shoulder, he trudges on. He knows where the graves are, has their exact locations memorized. He’s walked among the bright white, evenly spaced stones at the Military Cemetery too many times in the past, burying family and friends and coming back to visit.
“Dell’s in the last row of flat stones, seventh from this end,” he had said from the passenger seat as the SUV slowly entered the cemetery from the west. His wife, sons and daughter-in -law chatted away with him about his brother whose life had been so devastatingly impacted by World War II.
“Malc and I met a guy when Dell was in the VA hospital and we got to know him pretty well,” he says with a smile. “I was walking around here with Malc years later and found his grave in the same row as Dell, 27 stones down.”
He recalls the man’s name (he always recalls their names…it’s uncanny. He conjures up each of the players on his CC Camp baseball team nearly 75 years later, and can name the rosters of his son’s pee wee football teams) and, when everyone’s out of the vehicle, one of his sons takes off, counting 27 stones to the east of his uncle’s grave. Sure enough, the old friend was right where he was supposed to be.
“Now, Paul and Carol are right to the south, over by that tree,” he says, pointing, waving a gnarled finger in the general direction. “And Steve is over in the middle…I’ll know the row when I see it.”
When he was born in 1916, his life expectancy was 47. He’s exactly doubled that estimate, and he wouldn’t bet against someone who’d venture to say this is the last trip to see his brothers, to see his friends. He’s tired, and it shows. Although his mind is sharp and clear, the sheer effort of paying attention sometimes makes him seem less than observant, but every single speck of humanity that’s made him who and what he is remains unblemished behind his ancient eyes. He’s in there all right, and the stories come unbidden and flow as easily as the slow steady water of the Republican River on the farm where he was born. Infrequently, one of the tales is new, and is jotted into his sons’ memory banks with amazement; someone dead and gone for 60 years is abruptly remembered, an old pet’s name pops up out of nowhere, or the patrons of a paper route in 1930 are recalled.
He’s the end of his generation. His peers and forebears have all gone. His siblings, his cousins, his parents and grandparents each occupy small patches of ground throughout Colorado, Nebraska and Missouri. One brother’s name is chiseled on a monument near a mass grave at the Anzio Beachhead in Italy. His two sisters are a short walk from each other in Longmont’s Mountain View Cemetery, and two brothers are at this national memorial to sacred honor and duty in Fort Logan, Colorado.
His family’s oldest son and one of the eldest of his cousins, he learned responsibility early, first at home, and later at the orphanage. He made it through a tough, tough. childhood. He made it through his 19th year when his appendix ruptured, he broke an arm at a dance hall in Niwot, and was in a horrific car wreck that left a still-visible patchwork of long scars on his head. He made it through his future father-in-law refusing to attend his wedding, and through the Great Depression. He made it through a million baseball games, and just as many fast-pitch softball games. He made it through his brothers’ enlistment into the National Guard and the Army, and the birth of his first son. He made it through World War II – through training camp in Illinois, tech school in Georgia, and deployment in the Philippines and New Guinea. Over the years, he made it through his second son’s birth, a career as a drywall finisher, a bout of pneumonia, his wife’s brain tumor, and innumerable graduations and family gatherings. He made it through heart failure and a pacemaker. He made it through his true life’s work – being a remarkable father. He made it this far. But what he remembers most is saying goodbye to so many, and wondering why.
“I outlived ‘em all,” he says with a shrug. “Didn’t mean to, but I’m the last one. "
He feels lucky to have sons and grandsons, and to have the children of his siblings and his wife’s family close at hand. But he can’t get over the fact that with the exception of his wife of 70-odd years, virtually everyone he knew well has gone on before. He jokes that the “UFO’s about ready to land and take me away,” and dreams of speaking in other languages. He knows he’ll have to go sometime, but he’s not ready yet.
He and his family pile back in the SUV and slowly make their way to the opposite side of the cemetery. At his direction, they stop. He gingerly unfolds himself from the vehicle’s front seat and takes off amid the graves in the cemetery’s southwest corner. Slowly, slowly, he shuffles to the one that means the most, the one that still hurts. He finds the gravestone of Malcolm Curtis Chandler and his wife, Carolyn.
“Look at that,” he says. It’s been three years already. Gosh, it doesn’t seem that long.”
He stands before the grave of his brother, his best friend, while his daughter-in-law decorates it with bright yellow daisies. For a moment he leans on his cane and sways imperceptibly, thinking of the nightly phone calls, the jokes, the camaraderie and the thousands of stories shared by two young boys who somehow turned into old men.
“It’s a good looking stone,” he says.
A few pictures are taken before he turns, plants his cane in the sod, grabs his wife’s shoulder and begins the slow walk back to the vehicle.
The Last Man’s full of his past as he walks on toward his future.