February, 2007. There was nothing more the hospital could do for Ron. We contacted hospice, as the medical people had been urging us to do. We learned that if he went into hospice, there could be no attempted rehabilitation, no effort to rebuild his strength.
Ron said no to hospice. “I want to get well enough to go back to Duke.”
Was that for himself, what he wanted? Or did he think it was what his daughters and I wanted?
My routine did not change, except for a different set of walls surrounding Ron and me. I got up, walked Greta, went to the nursing home to be with Ron, returned home, walked Greta, got dinner, went to bed. Repeat.
Ron struggled in physical therapy. The arms that could have lifted a beam over his head and held it steady a year earlier could barely raise themselves above his head. The legs that pumped out 40 miles on the bike trail would no longer hold up his body.
He complained about the food at the nursing home, not that it was bad, just that it was institutional. I brought Popeye’s spicy chicken with red beans and rice, and he ate with his former gusto. I brought casseroles and stews, but no one would heat them for his dinner. After I discovered them piling up in the nursing home refrigerator, I started heating the items I brought and giving them to him for lunch.
I fought the nursing home staff for giving him the high-sugar cans of nutrition supplement. He’s diabetic, I explained.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” said the staff worker. “We’ll just give him more insulin.”
No. Doesn’t it make more sense to avoid a problem than to create one and then use drugs to resolve it? But that was not a major issue. There were no more serious battles I could fight as his advocate, nothing I could do. I could only be there.
One day in late February, Ron was lifting his arm over his head in physical therapy. I was sitting beside him. The therapist was working with someone else.
“No, I think you’re supposed to raise it like this,” I said, raising my arm.
“How long is this going to go on?”
“This condescending attitude.”
“As long as I have to handle everything,” I shot back.
I never was able to hold back tears, not even long ago when my mother tried to stop me with, “Keep that up and I’ll give you something to cry about.”
I went back to his room to wait for him. When they brought him back, he apologized and we talked of other things.
“I was a good boy today,” he announced when I arrived the next day, a Friday.
“What does that mean?”
“I did my exercises and ate my breakfast and shaved.”
He seemed more energetic that day, more the Ron I had known for 40 years. If he could get strong enough to sit up, I thought, we could manage together at home. He would like that. We spun out plans. He would be all right at home while I walked Greta. Then I would make breakfast and he could prop up to eat. We would get a wheelchair so he could come into the living room.
I kissed him good-bye and stepped out into the slanted shafts of sun on the tile floor. That evening, I emailed the “How’s Ron Doing” group of his friends an upbeat report.
One of Ron’s close friends, Richard, was waiting in the nursing home lobby when I arrived on Saturday.
“I read your email and just thought I’d come out and see him,” Richard said.
“Did you go back?”
“Yes, but he was sound asleep.”
“Well, let’s go wake him up.”
I touched him, and his eyes opened. He said hello, but beyond that seemed unable to speak.
“Can you say my name?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Say my name,” I said.
“Yes,” he replied.
I looked at Richard. There was little he could say, so he stayed for just a few minutes. When Ron and I were alone in the long afternoon, I held his hand and talked to him. I reminisced about the Sierra Club trip to Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevadas we had taken with two of our grandchildren.
“And when Kyle and Trey are old enough, I will take them,” I promised. “We’ll go hiking in the mountains and swim in Donner Lake and ride the tram in Squaw Valley.”
A nurse came to ask if I wanted to stay the night. I shook my head. There was no one to take care of Greta and Patches.
I don’t know how or why, but I woke up at 5 a.m. knowing I had to get to the nursing home. By the time the staff called me at 5:30 a.m., I was already dressed and ready to take Greta to the back yard. There would be no time for her usual walk. I called my daughters, then sped to the nursing home.
The only sound in the room was the regular inhale/exhale of Ron’s breath. I took his hand and told him I was there for him, and would be there for him, for as long as he needed me.
“I love you. I have always loved you and I always will.”
The inhale/exhale stopped. Silence.