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When I run out of gas.

February 22, 2016

Ten years ago, or so, I started visiting an old man.  Old!  He was 92, with poor heart function so that he was too weak to get up from his easy chair.  Soon we were pretty good friends.  He was on hospice.

A WW II veteran, he told me some of his experiences, but he was never in combat.  The closest he came to shooting was Northern Africa when he helped pack up a field hospital and move out to avoid an enemy onslaught.

Gordon was great company.  I visited him for two hours, twice a week, for almost exactly a year until he died.  We both enjoyed the visits immensely.  We told each other stories.  I exhausted my supply, though, after about a hundred visits, give or take ten or twenty.

I told Gordon my fishing stories.  He was an avid fisherman and birder.  He never owned a car or had a drivers license.  He got rides with friends or took the bus.  He was on first name basis with the bus drivers who took him when he went fishing.  He had fewer fishing stories than I did, for some reason, although I did get a story every time I asked.  I think fishing had lost its novelty, for all that he loved it.

He had donated his fishing gear a few years back when he still could get around his house near Eastern Montana College, where he lived with his wife.  He said he hauled his  waders, net, tackle, flies, many rods and reels, creels–all of it–to his driveway.  He called the Boys and Girls Club.  They took it, a big pickup load.  I could sense his grief, but also great courage.  I remember thinking that the folks with the truck wouldn’t likely have known the value of that stuff.  But what the hey!

We conversed.  All subjects were up for grabs.  He was refreshingly honest.  What did he have to lose?  Nothing!  He had given all of his possessions away.  He was on hospice and he said he would have died months ago if we hadn’t become friends.  He loved to tell dirty jokes and he loved mine.  One subject he didn’t like:  anything that had to do with guns or explosives.

We talked about many things:  politics, birds, local artists, clothing, sewing machines, music, trees, money, his childhood in North Dakota, his family, calves liver, hunting rabbits, swimming, socks, bicycles, raising his daughter.  He was not big on religion, but he and his wife had been church members for most of their lives.

He was a retired banker.  He said he hated his job.

He liked Hilary Clinton.  He watched sports on television, especially football and tennis.

His wife and he hadn’t talked much in years.  She had severe dementia and they slept in separate rooms.  They always informed each other when leaving their apartment, he said.  He blamed her involvement with the local Audubon Society for their lack of communication.  She had spent many hours each month working on the Audubon newsletter.

The second year of my twice weekly visits he and I found it harder and harder to find new things to talk about.  We started watching television.  I felt like the wellspring of conversation was dwindling.  Finally, he told me that he wanted to die.  I advised him to stop drinking fluids.  He protested that the nurse told him to drink lots of water!  I told him to “suit yourself, then.”  In six days he died.

What do you do when you run out of things to talk about?  Did boredom kill Gordon?

I hoped for a new friend.  A few months later Photo on 2-9-15 at 8.56 AMI was assigned another hospice patient, a guy named William.  When I visited him I found out that he was also a WW II veteran.  He spent a career selling a popular soft drink product.

After perhaps an hour of getting to know each other William told me as I was leaving his apartment that we had little in common.  “Don’t bother coming back,” he said.


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