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.