Last Days Are a Time To Reflect
By Andrew D. Blechman

Hospice offers death with dignity: "If I die, I want the Lord to see that I look good. Wouldn't you want to meet him looking your best?"

Second of two parts

Marvel Roberts died at night.

Hospice staffers said Marvel knew it was her time and she called several friends to say goodbye.

"Sometimes they just know," says nurses' assistant Connie McCreery. "Sometimes they're wrong and wake up angry because they're still here."

Joe Davis is in Marvel's room now. Although still a spry 82-year-old with soft, white hair and steely blue eyes, Joe is dying of a combination of esophageal and liver cancer. But he's not in pain. He keeps a golf putter beside his bed.

"I suppose the pain will come later on," Joe says, smiling from his bed, splashing himself with a palm full of cologne. He smells so good that the nurses love to visit him. "That's what they say, that a cancer patient has a lot of pain. But I don't feel any."

Joe's good spirits belie his worsening condition. Because he can't keep food down, he hasn't eaten in a month. He even has a hard time drinking water. He drinks it hesitantly, in little sips through a straw, unsure whether it will cause him pleasure or pain.

Water was always such a simple pleasure for a man who grew up beside the Des Moines River. "I was born out in the hills of Fraser," Joe says. "It's a little town northwest of Boone. I spent my life on the river. We'd swim in the summer and fish all year around."

Like Joe, Fraser is dying too. Once a coal-mining town with a population of 1,800, Fraser now has just 120 residents. Several stores still line the main street, but they're empty, abandoned years ago. It's a town where the pavement ends.

The irony isn't lost on Joe, who spends his final days trying to keep his memories of Fraser alive. "I just sit here and think about dying - what it's going to be like, how it's going to happen. I got nothing but death to look forward to and I'm not familiar with it at all. I can't remember a damn thing anymore - except the hills of Fraser. It was my whole life. I was born there. Ask anybody where the Davis house is and they'll show you.

"I can't give you any history," says Joe, who does anyway. "But I was there before there were automobiles. My dad worked in the coalmines. He came over from Lithuania. I grew up speaking Lithuanian.

"You ought to take a drive out there and take a look at the town, although you might not find it on the map. There's good fishing at the dam. Quite a bit of walleye, 3- or 4-pounds big. There's always someone fishing out by the dam. Probably someone fishing there right now. When you drive out, bring a fishing pole and a couple of jigs."

Next door, Martha Layman is looking drawn. Dark lines circle her once feisty eyes. "I'm a little weaker," she admits. "This is a terrible disease to get. I don't want to die. But I'm going to. . . ."

She begins to cry. "Just put down that I died happy," she sobs.

Two rooms down, Paulette West is waiting for death to ease her husband's suffering. Cloyce West has Lou Gehrig's disease. The 49-year-old former custodian and warehouse manager was diagnosed 2 1/2 years ago. That year, he insisted on renewing his wedding vows with his high school sweetheart Paulette. He repeated his wedding vows slowly and carefully. A year later he lost his ability to speak.

In the wedding photos, his ruddy cheeks are bunched up in a big smile. He weighed about 225 pounds then. Now he weighs less than 100 pounds. "We met on a friend's dairy farm," Paulette says. "I was 16 and he was 17. He had a convertible. I thought that was pretty snazzy . . . It's been 28 years now and our love has only grown deeper as the years go by. Times change, but our love doesn't."

The disease has progressed to the point where Cloyce can no longer move, let alone eat or communicate. "After 28 years, I know what his needs are and what he means to say," Paulette says, wiping the hair out of his eyes and kissing his moist forehead. His eyes say a lot. But I miss his voice." On the sofa is a book Paulette is reading: The Widow's Handbook, A Guide for Living.

Cloyce is a favorite at Kavanagh House. He spent six months here earlier in the year, but was released when his health plateaued. At the time, he kept active by building a star-spangled wooden birdhouse. It rests on the windowsill. Cloyce returned to Kavanagh House a day after his 28th wedding anniversary, which fell on Thanksgiving. "This was his Christmas present . . . to spend his last days here," Paulette says. "They all know him and bend over backwards to make sure he's comfortable."

Madeline Myers has turned her room into a noisy climate-controlled comfort zone. A humidifier blasts mist into the air where it is buffeted by a large fan onto Madeline who rests in her easy chair. An electronic box pumps oxygen into her nose through nostril tubes. Madeline smiles.

"When you come to this place, they say you're going to die. But I want to break the rules. I want to live to be at least 86 or maybe 90," she says. "I feel good." She pumps her arms up and down and side to side. "I can kick my legs too," she says.

"I want to be well again. Oh, how I would love to be able to leave here and have someone stay with me at home and say, `Hey, I'll take care of you, don't you worry.' I'm tired of being in bed. You might think it's nice resting in bed all the time, but it's not. I want to go to dine with my friends again. I want to go to church again. I want to go shopping. There are so many things I still want to do. . . ."

In the kitchen, hospice cook Kay Sorenson is putting the finishing touches on the day's lunch. "Baked chicken, potato salad, strawberry shortcake with vanilla ice cream - who wouldn't like that?" Sorenson says.

Minutes later, she is delivering tiny portions of the lunch to her dying customers. Some are finished; other plates come back untouched. Martha enjoys Sorenson's cooking. "She's the best cook around. I love the food here."

"If you want to see a dying town, Fraser's it," Joe says, adjusting his hearing aid. "There's not much to see, but you'd enjoy it." Joe is in a good mood, as usual. He's especially happy because a staff member just gave him a whirlpool bath, or "tornado bath" as Joe calls it. "Ever had a tornado bath? It sure is nice. It was the first one I ever had."

Joe looks out the window at the overcast day. Conversation drifts back to Fraser. "Be a good day down at the dam for walleye fishing," he says. "I bet there's a lot of guys out there today. A light drizzle is good for catching fish. My brother once went to the Fraser dam and caught a 32-pound catfish. When word got out, I ran down and put out my line and got one that was 33 pounds. That's unusual. I'm not saying you'll catch a fish when you go. But you might."

Joe takes a sip of ice water. It goes down badly. "I sure could go for some liver and onions," he says. "I haven't eaten for a month. Hell, I'd eat anything. But I can't. This is not living."

He watches a staff member walk by his door, stopping for a moment to peek in and say hello. "One of these days, they'll walk in here and I'll be dead. They find a lot of people that way, you know."

He reaches for his glass of water and then thinks better of it. "Have you ever gone nutting? We used to go nutting when I was a boy. We'd look for walnuts, butternuts, hickory nuts, all sorts of nuts. Once a bunch of us went nutting at night - four boys and four girls. We came back with big gunnysacks filled with nuts. On the way back, a farmer shot our dog. I guess we were on his land, but he shouldn't have shot at us. We dropped our sacks and ran home. We used to go clamming in the river too. There was a story going around that if you found a clam with a pearl it was worth $600. I never found one."

It's 8 p.m. and the hospice is silent. Nearly everyone is asleep.

Martha has fallen asleep with the television on. Joe still has the energy to toss around in his sleep, but he is getting thinner by the day. A glass of cold water sits nearby.

Cloyce is asleep with his eyes open. His emaciated arms are folded over his abdomen. The figure in the navy blue pajamas lies stiffly as if the body is unaware of its awkward pose. His breathing relaxes when his hand is held.

Dee Dee Kennedy, a hospice nurse who befriended Cloyce during his first stay, sits in the corner and listens to his shallow breathing. "Tonight this is the best that can be for Cloyce," she says. "He's getting very close now. He's going to leave us soon."

For Kennedy, a former neonatal intensive care nurse, working at the hospice is a life-giving experience. "I feel at peace here," she says. "This is not an unhappy place."

"There's one thing about Fraser you should know," Joe says. "As you go down the hill into town you cross the railroad tracks. If you turn right at the tracks, there's an old artesian well. It's the most delicious water you'll ever drink. We used to go down there just to get water for our coffee. It runs full of water all the time, you know."

Joe's feeling a bit blue today. Four residents have died in the past 24 hours - including Cloyce. But Joe still finds strength in the hills of Fraser.

"In the spring, it'll be nice and sunny and all the hills will be green," Joe says of the Fraser thaw he will never see. There's good mushrooming in those hills. And you'll find plenty of berries too - elderberries, gooseberries and wild grapes. The grapes are sour as hell, but they're good for making wine.

"I'd like to see the spring. I just like to drive up the road and look around. Maybe I'd drop by the dam and see who was fishing . . . Maybe you could take a drive up there and see the old town. If you do, think of me, would you?"

Joe died on a Saturday.