Death Diaries: Part Two – The Redemption Arc

When Jason visited his father, Randy, in December, they talked quite a bit; Randy earnestly apologized for the damaging role he’d played in Jason and his mother’s life; Jason shared our life stories with him. Randy shared his–real talk, after what I heard from that December trip, I’m pretty sure a significant portion of Knoxville’s homeless population can be tied directly to Randy’s actions in life, but I digress.

That trip was largely for his father, not Jason.

On Friday, we drove sixteen hours to return home from Arkansas to Florida.

This second trip was largely for Jason. 

Aunt Sara Lou had called us again last week, this time to tell us that Randy was in a hospice center, not dissimilar from my mother’s, and that he’d taken a turn.

This time, he was actively dying.

I swear, only Jason can visit a dying man and instill in him a powerful will to live.

The joy in Randy’s voice when Jason told him we’d come see him again, that he was bringing me this time and our dogs, was unmistakable. I’ll never forget Jason’s smile, nor the extra glittering sheen in his beautiful eyes.

At the end of Randy’s life, after all he had done, after all he had taken… he had nothing left to gain from us, but he wanted to see Jason.

No strings, no manipulation. 

Just a man, who wanted to see his son.

This trip was… stranger than fiction.

When we arrived last week on that rainy Tuesday morning, dogs in the car and Jason’s hand in mine, his father was damned near on death’s doorstep. 

He’d slept almost all his remaining days away, though his vitals were still strong. As we drove out there, we started receiving confusing reports from his aunt. Eventually, we just called the hospice.

Randy’s vitals were strong enough for the hospice facility to discharge him–it is a tiny hospice, no more than eight beds, and someone else had a more pressing need. The hospice definitely wanted him in a nursing home with round-the-clock care, however.

Jason’s distant family wasn’t so sure, so they planned to take him back to his small, one-bedroom apartment, as they told us over the phone while we drove through Birmingham, Alabama.

Jason and I quietly disagreed.

“He just doesn’t want to leave his home,” his aunt, Sara Lou, told us tearfully. “It’d break my heart to make him.”

When we arrived at the hospice center, Randy was dressed and attempting to stand on unsteady feet. He nearly fell as he made his way to the hallway from the bathroom. He couldn’t stand upright without assistance; his attention was scattered, and he was unable to hold a conversation for more than thirty seconds without losing the trail of his thoughts. 

Jason introduced me to his father. Randy wrapped me in a giant hug.

“You take care of my son,” he whispered to me, then squeezed me tighter.

“I promise–I always will,” I whispered back and squeezed his hand.

Then, we all piled in the car and headed to Randy’s apartment.

Old dogs, same tricks.

Jason’s uncle Cliff helped Randy to shave and shower; we tried to talk with Randy, but it was impossible to hold a conversation without Randy drifting in and out of lucidity. I chatted quietly with Aunt Sara Lou and Uncle Cliff about how things had been going, and let them know that they should probably lock up Randy’s fentanyl patches that the hospice had provided, like they’d done with his oxycodone when his pills went missing a few weeks before.

After awhile, Cliff and Sara Lou left for a breather (care-taking is hard work, especially when you’re eighty), and Jason and I sat quietly with our dogs in Randy’s living room while he slept.

Just after Cliff and Sara Lou drove away, there was a knock at the door. A non-descript man let himself in uninvited, and there were dark shadows under his eyes. His eyes widened in shock at seeing Jason and I, and our dogs damn near lost their minds barking.

“Hi, uh, is Randy here?” he asked, one foot in the room, the other outside on the wet cement.

Suddenly, the “mystery” of Randy’s missing oxy clicked into place. Jason’s dad had admitted to recreationally smoking weed earlier that day, and it was pretty clear how he’d gotten his hands on it.

“Randy is asleep; he’s been in hospice,” Jason told the stranger. “I’m his son, Jason, and this is my wife, Sarah.”

“Is this a bad time?” the man asked uncertainly, looking like he wanted to bolt.

“We can tell him you stopped by–it’s so lovely Randy has friends to check on him,” I said sweetly as I corralled our suspicious dogs. “Now, how do you know Randy?”

“He… uh, he gave me a place to crash when I didn’t have a place to stay awhile back.”

“Well, that was kind of him,” I said, then added, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

“I’m… Scott,” he said after a pause.

“Well, Scott, if you leave your number, we can send you updates on how he’s doing,” I offered.

“No, uh, I’m going to Nashville today, I just wanted to see him before I left–”

“We’ll tell him you stopped by,” I offered. Scott thanked us, then damn near ran out of the room.

Later, Randy claimed that he didn’t know a ‘Scott’.

Next Chapter

Randy slept hard through all of this. So hard that when it was time to head to Sara Lou’s house, we couldn’t wake him (and I’d been told not to wake the dying–but, that choice wasn’t up to us). 

Cliff could rouse him, however, so when he returned to collect him, off we went to Jason’s aunt and uncle’s house.

By that evening, Randy was upright. Steady. Smiling, laughing, telling stories, the life of the impromptu “party” Sara Lou had thrown at her house with a handful of Jason’s cousins. He spoke passionately about Jason’s mother, that what he’d done to her (and Jason) was the worst mistake of his life.

Jason and I wouldn’t let him out of arm’s reach, unsteady as he’d been, but with each hour, he grew stronger, more aware. He ate dinner (lasagna, salad, and blueberry cake) with gusto and just about licked the plate clean.

Is this Randy’s form of terminal lucidity? I wondered. 

Randy wanted his keys, to go for a drive he said. Images of snatching my grandfather’s keys out of his hand at my grandmother’s funeral flashed before my eyes – Grandpa had thought we were at a wedding that day, and the last time he’d gone for a drive out of Kansas, he’d ended up all the way in Nebraska, helped home by the police when he couldn’t find his way back.

“Sure, Randy, we’ll get them when you get home–”  Sara Lou started.

“You’re not driving, Randy,” said Jason and I at the same moment. “We can take you anywhere you want to go.”

I expected anger, like my grandfather’s reaction. Instead, Randy grinned his near-toothless grin at Jason–and it was respect that I saw glittering in Randy’s suddenly clear eyes. 

“Okay–no driving,” he agreed.

Jason’s cousins, Gaye and Julie, stayed overnight on their parents’ couch to keep Randy safe from himself.

Wednesday

By the next day? Randy was miraculously fine–balancing, up, walking, and lucid enough to get his hair cut and have some real conversations about how he’d like to spend his remaining time.

Liver cancer is weird.

Cliff had driven him by the nursing home earlier that day on their way back from the barber–it looked okay, said Randy. Nicer than he remembered from the outside.

Sara Lou set up a time to visit, and we all went on a tour of the place. As we walked its lively halls, we asked him how he wanted to spend his time – he’d told Jason over the phone he’d been lonely. Would he rather watch the game by himself at his apartment, or cheering with new friends over a baseball game? Did he want to teeter unsteadily out to smoke his cigarettes, or would he like to go with the group at the assisted living facility, assisted on harder days by a nurse? Did he want to continue to forget the food Sara Lou kindly left for him in the fridge, or did he want some actual chef-prepared hot meals every day?

I noted the staff–everyone’s eyes crinkled on a smile behind their masks. The people working seemed genuinely happy, which bodes well for the residents. Residents were up, engaged, and playing board games, curiously watching our little group pass through. We took a look at the room he’d have all to himself, and we all concluded it wasn’t so different than the apartment he was currently living in.

By the end of it, everyone (including Randy) agreed: extrovert that he is, he wanted to be among friends; he didn’t want to burden Sara Lou and Clifton anymore than he already had; he wanted help to manage his medication and wobble outside to smoke his cigarettes; he laid to rest his concerns about the cost, and agreed he would trade the money he wasn’t spending for time with other people.

Homeward Bound

As we drove home on Thursday, around hour nine of the drive, Sara Lou called us. Jason put him on the car’s speaker phone.

“Randy, tell them the news!” she said, voice full of delight.

“I’m moving!” Randy crowed.

“Moving where?” we asked; relief was written all over Jason’s face.

“TO FLORIDA!” he giggled. 

I watched Jason’s face drain of color and his hands tighten on the steering wheel, just the slightest bit.

“Randy!” snapped Sara Lou. “Tell them the truth.”

“To the nursing home!” he stated, triumphant.

“What a great choice, Randy,” Jason replied. “I’m proud of you.”

…And for the first time in over two decades, I think he actually was.

Our Temporary Epilogue

Jason called Randy last night–he promised his father that he would, to check in on how he liked his new room.

“How’s it going?” he asked Randy. We’d gotten some updates from his cousin Gaye throughout the day and some pictures of his new digs. The place looked more or less like the apartment he’d just left.

His dad is comfortable, and excited to be there. He was sad about losing his car, though.

“Well Randy, you know you shouldn’t be driving anyway,” I heard Jason tell him.

“You’re right, I know that you’re right,” Randy replied. “You’re just the first person who told me the truth about that.”

Randy told Jason that his nurses were already helping him.

“I told them I hurt,” he said to Jason. “And they reminded me that I’d just taken a pain pill. And they were right–I’m okay now!”

I wonder how many times he’d simply forgotten he’d taken his oxy, and took another… and another. The lethargy of the weeks leading up to his temporary hospice stay clicked into place.

They chatted for awhile, and Jason reported that Randy was more himself than he’d been, even moreso than during his first trip out in December. 

But one thing stuck out to me:

“Other people here are worse off than I am,” Randy told Jason. “I think I’ll spend some time with them, do them some good too.”

I thought about that a lot last night–how so many people spend so much of their final weeks alone. I prayed about it last night, something I rarely do, agnostic as I am.

Over the years, especially when the subject of Jason’s father has come up, I’ve morbidly joked with Jason that some people’s purpose in life may be to simply serve as a warning to others… but if in some small way, in these last days of Randy’s life, he can bring some comfort to another person who would otherwise go without?

In that case… I am grateful.

But seriously? What a bizarre redemption arc.

You can’t make this stuff up.

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