Clarence

Clarence

Third of four parts

I had finally given up on hearing from Clarence Hardin’s family.

But a few days after Christmas, I saw an e-mail from his son, describing his unexpected visit to his father at West Park the previous day.

Clarence had refused to see him.

I found Clarence in the smoking room the next day, on New Year’s Eve. They had finally persuaded him to accept a patch with pain medication. Hospice was coming a little later that day to enroll him.

Clarence, a heavy smoker since he was 18, lit one cigarette after another to calm himself.

We chitchatted,  me waiting in vain to see whether he would bring up the visit.

“Clarence,” I finally began, “I heard from your son …”

“I don’t want anything to do with them!” He was agitated. “He and his mother, they just want  me to live with them so they can have my check.”

“But your check comes straight here, right? And you want to stay here, right?” I knew the answers to these questions, but I was trying to reason with his fears.

"Yes."

"Then you'll stay here. I don't think things are necessarily what you're thinking they are."

He looked at  me.

"You're all I've got," he said. "I don't want them bothering you."

"I won't let them bother  me," I said.

"Promise  me," he said. "Promise  me you won't have anything to do with them."

"I won't let them bother  me," I said carefully.

Early the next week,  Clarence's oldest child, Tammula Hardin, arrived from Minneapolis. Not having seen her father since he and her mother divorced when she was about 11, she had just learned what was happening.

She showed up to see him at West Park; he refused to see her.

Staff tried to reason with  Clarence, but he would have none of it, growing more and more angry every time they brought it up. Tammula wrote him a letter, but it sat unread in his room.

"I'm just as stubborn as he is," Tammula told  me. "I'll keep coming back."

She did. But  Clarence did not relent.

I broached the topic as delicately as I could, with an occasional "Is there anyone you want to see?" or "You're sure there's nobody else you want  me to call?"

One day, I saw Tammula's envelope lying on top of his mail on the dresser. I picked it up.

" Clarence, you have a letter here," I said. "Do you want  me to open it for you?"

"Nope, want nothing to do with that." He sounded resigned, and not fooled. "I've told them that about a hundred times."

'I'll remember you'

Meanwhile, with every visit,  Clarence grew weaker, eventually becoming bedridden.

His ribs were easily defined under his skin, his limbs merely tendons and bones. His TV was always off now. He would rouse for pizza or a double cheeseburger or another fast-food craving, afterward talking for a while before closing his eyes to rest.

 Clarence's lips would tremble slightly with the effort of breathing, although he insisted he wasn't feeling pain and rebuffed the staff's attempts to give him morphine.

On Feb. 8, a Tuesday, I noticed a different kind of noise, a rattle in his throat. He was struggling to breathe. He asked for more cigarettes, worried he would run out, even though there were still several packs in his top dresser drawer.

I stopped by to see Martha on my way out. "He's making a sort of rattling sound in his throat," I said.

"You know what that's called," she said.

"A death rattle?" She nodded.

I called ahead before I visited the next day, asking whether  Clarence needed anything.

"He says to bring more cigarettes," the nurse said.

"Seriously? I brought him two packs yesterday," I said. "He doesn't want food?"

"He just says more cigarettes," she said.

I walked in his room and, expecting  me, he roused.

"Good news!" he said. "You know how I was breathing bad yesterday?" And then he went on to explain something about breathing through his nose, and his mouth … I couldn't follow all of it.

His breaths were shorter, and I struggled to understand him. He was rushing to push out his words in shallower breaths. I pulled my chair up closer and moved my face nearer to his.

He looked at  me. "How are you doing?"

"I'm OK," I said. "I'm worried about you."

"I'm dying," he said. "Feel this." The bump on his chest had grown a little since the last time I felt it.

We had talked weeks earlier about his lack of belief in God, in religion. I searched for something else to comfort him.

"Are you ready to die?" I asked him. "Have you been thinking about that, about whether there's a heaven, about what happens afterward?"

He nodded, said "My theory is …" and launched into a hurried explanation of God, and his son Jesus, and heaven and hell. I couldn't make sense of his words. But clearly, he'd been thinking about it.

I fetched a personal pan pizza and had to help him sit up, and then to lie down again after he'd savored a slice. After every bite now, he coughed up a white, sticky substance he'd have to pull out of his mouth.

I pulled his legs up onto the bed for him and re-covered them with the blanket, his limbs stiff.

"I'll remember you,"  Clarence said to  me, then. "You've been watching out for  me for a long time. … Thank you."

I teared up. Unlike most other visits, he said he didn't want to go back to sleep. We made plans for  me to bring breakfast.

We didn't know that was goodbye. But then, in hindsight, maybe we did.

'He's not suffering anymore, Lord'

I didn't sleep easily that night. When my cell phone rang at 1:40 - early Thursday morning, now - I looked at the clock. I knew who it would be.

"I just wanted to let you know that Clarence is in the end stages now," the woman from West Park said. "His breathing is shallow, and his heartbeat is slow. I don't expect him to last until morning."

In the car, I called Tammula. She was going to call her brother.

When I arrived to the darkened building, the front doors were locked. Someone met me and silently let  me in.

I rounded past the nurses station and down the dark hallway. Another resident I'd gotten to know was padding softly toward  me down the hall, in her robe. She stopped  me, laid a hand on my arm.

"Clarence needs you," she said. "I can feel it. I know he needs you." I began to cry, and she hugged  me. I opened the door to Clarence's room.

"Clarence?" I said. He didn't respond. I threw my coat on the chair as I walked over to his bed.

"Clarence, I'm here," I said.

I noticed that the head of his bed had been lowered. The only sound was the register still blowing full blast.

I touched his hand under the blanket, touched his forehead. Then I understood: He was already gone.

After a time, sitting next to his bed, I steeled myself. I called Tammula. Her grief was palpable over the cell phone.

The Hospice woman came, signed the necessary paperwork. The funeral home his family had arranged was called.

After a while, two nurses walked in, each taking one of my hands as I sat, crying softly, in the chair next to his bed. "We just wanted to say a little prayer for Mr.  Clarence," one said.

"Oh Lord, we know  Clarence is in heaven with you, Lord … he's not suffering anymore, Lord …" A big man from the funeral home arrived, moved  Clarence's body from the bed into a bag onto a stretcher. I wanted to ask him to cover  Clarence with the blanket on his bed, but I didn't trust myself to be able to speak.

I watched as he wheeled  Clarence out through West Park's doors, the only way  Clarence was willing to leave.

One of the nurses asked what I wanted to do with his things. Was I going to take them with me? I told her I'd assumed Martha would sort through them and decide what the family might want.

"He wanted you to have everything," she said. "He made that perfectly clear."