We knew it was coming. The House Leroy had his first heart attack a year and a half ago. He had his second last December. The doctors mentioned a Pacemaker. The House Leroy thought it over, factored in his other health issues–COPD, diabetes, peripheral artery disease, and neuropathy–said, “If the Pacemaker could fix everything, I’d do it, but as it is, well…”
“What do you want to do?” I asked from my seat across the room in the Intensive Care ward.
“I think I’d just like to enjoy the days I have left,” he said, and waited.
“Okay,” I said at last, even though it really wasn’t.
We’d had the House Leroy for eight years. He was the closest thing The Boy had to a dad. He had just adopted a small marmelade cat who still spent a lot of time cursing at Lilo and Lila, who apparently picked up quite a bit of bad language in their kittenhood on the University of Hawaii–Manoa campus. The pergola still needed additional growing slats added. The house trim needed repainting. The gardens needed to be ready for spring. There were still a lot of fishing shows I wanted to watch, and watching them without Leroy just wouldn’t be right. I still hadn’t mastered the game of dice. The Boy had an upcoming solo festival–who would drive me through the snow so I could cheer him on? Who would say, “You need to take a break. Come sit on the porch,” and then sit and talk-story with me as the afternoon turned to evening, and the stars came out, one by one? I wasn’t ready to let Leroy go, but he was telling me that he was.
And because it was his decision, I had to find a way to make it all right. Way back in the early days, when The Boy and I still lived in Portland, I had designed a book called Compassion in Dying: Stories of Dignity and Choice. It was a collection of short stories written by and about a number of people who had grappled with the question of what makes life worthwhile. Each had chosen to live their last days on their own terms. Some chose to end their own lives–Oregon’s “Death with Dignity” act makes that legal. Others chose to simply let nature take its course. While the stories varied, the one thing that had been crystal clear in each story, though, was that family and loved ones play a critical role in making the end of life either beautiful or horrific.
I didn’t get to choose whether or not Leroy worked to prolong his life or not. But I did get to choose what sort of life he led in the time he had left. And that wasn’t really a question. Because he was part of our family and we loved him, we did what he asked–we helped him enjoy the days he had left. And we started learning to let go. I went through my pictures and collected all of the “Leroy” shots I could find. I wrote an essay. The Boy wrote a song. “I want to sing it to him when it’s time to say goodbye,” he said.
The day after he came home from the hospital we took him to the casino for his birthday. It was the first time he had let us celebrate it, and celebrate we did. We bought him presents. We had lunch (Leroy had ham and chocolate ice cream). We sang to him. And afterward he said, “Thank you,” and that it was the first birthday he had enjoyed for years.
At Christmas Leroy–a confirmed non-celebrator–asked me to help him choose a gift for The Boy–“Something for his music,” he said. I suggested a music stand, and then, for my own gifts, got The Boy a music portfolio and a stand lamp, for playing in those dark concert halls.
After Christmas Leroy started taking the bus down to the casino several times a week. He never gambled big, and never lost big, but he was there, at the casino, where the dealers knew him by name. At home he fed his little cat, Nina, and spent a lot of time napping with her in the big chair that The Boy and I gave him for Christmas, and sitting on the porch.
A few weeks ago, on a Friday, Leroy went to the casino. When I picked him up he said he didn’t feel well.
“Do you want me to take you to the hospital?” I asked.
“No. I’ll eat some dinner and take my pills and go to bed early,” he said.
I took him home. He went to his room. I took The Boy and his friend out to the drive-in movie–and yes, we still have one in our town. And when we got back, the House Leroy had gone. He lay peacefully in the sunroom, where he had been getting Nina a snack. Had he known this would be his last day, I doubt if he would have done anything different. Casino. Dinner. Cat. Put out the light.
It was midnight.
The police came, and then the paramedics, and then the coroner, who is also the town mortician. Everyone was very kind. The Boy and I huddled together, stunned by the enormity. And so began that curious period between the event of death and the realization–the time when the knowledge of loss comes in tsunami waves interspersed with periods of comparative okayness. The mortician let us know that Leroy was ready for us to say “goodbye.”
“This might be a good time to sing him your song,” I suggested to The Boy.
“I already did. That night,” he said.
I thought of my son, somewhere during that terrible time, while Leroy still lay in the sun room and death’s attendants still filled the house, finding the courage and love to sing Leroy on his way, and it broke my heart.
We said goodbye. We are still saying goodbye. The Boy is behind in classes and struggling to catch up. I’m behind on work and grading. Yesterday I got a ticket for speeding in a school zone–something I never, ever, do. And then I almost pulled out in front of another car. How do you say goodbye to someone who has been such a huge part of your life?
The Boy did it with a song. I did it with a book. In the days between loss and realization I used the energy grief generates to take my Leroy pictures and essay and turn them into a book for those who knew and loved him. Putting it together was hard, but necessary. For me, it drew the teeth of the worst of the immediate pain. For The Boy, it became a catalyst that allowed him to begin to express his loss. For his absent family, it became a way of remembering who he had been when he was with them–and who he was when he was with us. The book turned something overwhelming into something beautiful. It’s giving us a way to hold onto someone who was very dear to us.
I don’t know how all this will end. We’re still very much in the midst of things. Nina spends a lot of time alone in what has become her chair, though she has started sleeping with me at night. The Boy competed in the state solo festival and took fourth place in his division. He just sang in his first choir concert last night. I’ve rearranged the living room, and begun working again. I’m thinking about the books I still need to finish. Life goes on, even in this house, where Leroy’s work is visible in every room, but he is oh, so very gone.
We are still in the midst of things. But when we come out the other side, I wonder who we will be. Whoever we are, we will be who we are in part because of Leroy. Goodbye, dear friend.