Mr. Cantankerous Goes Home

You'll Accompany MeFinally, the husband and father came home.

With his family.

He had a “good death.”

His wife, who the patient said that he loved more than life itself, sat beside him until a breath became the final one.

Not yet fifty, he should have been fussing with his vintage Chevy, playing with his first grandkid, or renovating another house with his business partner. Instead, he was stuck in bed. Because he enjoyed rock-and-roll, a lot of music was played during his last days at home. In those precious moments, in those fading breaths, there was one particular song that . . .

But I’m getting ahead of his story. It’s a story with a sad ending because a man too young dies. It’s also a story with a good enough ending, because of those four opening sentences. How I wish everyone’s death (old or young, rich or poor) had some version of those simple, blessed opening sentences. That won’t happen. Some deaths are hard. Some deaths strip a person or family from any opportunity to prepare or plan. Sometimes we deny impending death and then find ourselves grieving not just the person, but our own blindness or stubbornness.

Telling this story means telling the beginnings—at least the parts we at hospice knew when first meeting a middle-aged guy that loved loud, boisterous music. Crank the volume higher!

From what the nurse mentioned (and always, parts are made-up or half-baked half-truths to protect the privacy of our patients), he’d gone from a doctor’s office . . . to a hospital . . . to surgery that was less than successful . . . to a SNF.

Ah, a SNF, an acronym pronounced sniff. Depending on the place, SNFs can be a polite term in medicalese or an insult. We sniff when we’re sick, after all. Sniff is also street slang for cocaine (so I’ve read somewhere).

SNF stands for Skilled Nursing Facility, a convalescent hospital, a place too often with too many beds and not enough helpers. Mostly, we think it’s where folks—old folks—go to die. Even the best SNFs, with well-scrubbed floors, reasonable food, and an attentive staff (and those kinds of places do exist) can be darn miserable for the patient. Our forty-something didn’t like it. Though a disease was knocking him for a loop, he was big enough for his feet to hang over the bed and could probably still bench press most of the SNF’s nurses. Though he was never over-medicated, he resisted taking meds. Every pill was an argument. He was a cantankerous patient. Frankly, and rightly, the SNF aides admitted to being “a little frightened” of him.

His family fought for him to be released as he neared death. They wanted to care for him at home.

It would be too much for a family, some of the professionals said.

From his bed, Mr. Cantankerous pleaded to go home.

He’s not in his right mind and can’t make good decisions, some of the professionals said.

Our hospice team added their voice, and supported the family’s desire to take him home.

It won’t be enough, some of the professionals said.

But the family was loud and proud, persistent and unwavering in their desire to bring their son and father and husband home. Fools those folks were. Getting in over their heads, they were. But often the best “drug” is home. Often the best “drug” is family. Often the best “drug” is taking a risk that even death won’t overwhelm you.

One tough guy, Mr. Cantankerous went home. (Here, the story mostly ends were I began. Maybe you’ll want to go back and re-read the opening parts.)

Now I’ll complete the fifth paragraph’s final sentence. In those precious moments, in those fading breaths, there was one particular song that . . . played as he lay on his bed. He loved that song because it reminded him of his wife. It had become their theme song throughout the years. And so, Bob Seger’s “You’ll Accompany Me” rocked and rolled in the background—a guitar riff of hope, a drumbeat of passion, lyrics of love—as he died with his hand wrapped in his wife’s hand.

Someday lady you’ll accomp’ny me
Out where the rivers meet the sounding sea
You’re high above me now, you’re wild and free ah but
Someday lady you’ll accomp’ny me
Someday lady you’ll accomp’ny me

It’s a true enough story with a good enough ending. Not every story has one.

But to get there, hard work had to be done. Mostly by the family, a little by the hospice staff. There was persistence. There was a tough group of blood relatives and blunt friends. There was a big guy who longed for home.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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