Last week, I visited a dying friend at the VA hospice in Hampton. I noticed a bright sign by the main entrance to the building: “Smoking Area Only.” I shook my head and pondered about this being a government facility. The porch held a couple of chairs and a small table with an ashtray full of butts.
When I went inside and approached the counter, I was told to take a seat in the small lobby. I spied a pack of Marlboros and a lighter perched on the edge of the counter. As I sat down, a hard-eyed, gnarly old gentleman in a ball cap pushed a walker past me toward the lobby. He grabbed the cigarettes and lighter and turned his walker toward the front porch. I jumped up and opened the door for him. I wanted to be helpful, yet I wasn’t eager to see him smoke himself to death.
I asked at the counter when I could see my friend, Ron. A woman snapped, “We’re cleaning him up right now.” I returned to my seat and observed the old man out the window smoking and looking at the river. I waited a little longer, then finally I was told I could see my friend.
Ron was lying there in a coma, very thin, his breath a death rattle. His girlfriend/ caregiver said he had been unconscious for the last twenty-four hours. She and I chatted briefly, sharing memories of him. I held his hand while she went to take a shower. I thanked Ron for helping me through some difficult times and helping me learn to be a better listener. We’d had so many conversations over the years; talking of things men talk about when talking to other men. I don’t know if he knew I was there or not.
When his girlfriend returned, we talked some more about the life Ron had lived and his many friends. When I left, the old man on the porch was gone. The river was still there.