I surprise Rannie. Usually I call before coming over but this time I just showed up. She opens the door and her eyes light up. “Hello my love!” We hug one another, she invites me in then offers me a scotch but I settle for water.
“Well honestly I think I’m out of scotch anyway, besides I’m losing my sense of taste and it’s getting harder to enjoy my Scotch.”
“So what are you doing about it?”
“Buying cheaper scotch!”
Rannie breaks into laughter then shakes her head. “Getting old sucks, John.”
We visit for a few minutes then she asks me to walk with her to visit Phil. She’s a bit unsteady today so she grabs a cane and we head down the hallway, arm in arm. As we pass through the lobby we run into a handful of staff and residents, most familiar to me. The concierge smiles and waves and asks Rannie who her date is and I just wink. When we get about ten feet away I ask Rannie if she knows the name of the concierge and she struggles to remember. “Shit John, my memory just isn’t what it used to be. Getting old sucks, you know.”
“Yeah, so I’ve heard.” Rannie swats me then scolds me for teasing “an old lady.” We head towards the elevator. Opposite the elevator is the card room and it’s full, there’s a Bridge tournament going on and I recognize two thirds of the ladies. Their eyes light up and we have to detour for hugs, news and well wishes. After a few minutes Rannie and I head back to the elevator and she mentions that she doesn’t care for Bridge, it’s not exciting enough.
“You prefer Poker?”
“Now we’re talking!” And she bursts into laughter. “Seriously John, we need Texas Hold ‘em, 21 and maybe I could tolerate a game of Gin Rummy.”
“Well why don’t you organize it Rannie?”
“Hell, I’m too damn lazy for all that.”
She opens the door to Phil’s apartment and his son and daughter greet us then we make our way into the bedroom. Phil has lost more weight, his liver is failing and he’s been in and out of consciousness all day. The chaplain has made a visit and everyone knows that he’s down to his final days. Phil’s eyes have grown grey and cloudy, he’s as thin as any human being I’ve ever seen and he doesn’t recognize me. He’s in a lot of pain and trying to get out of bed but he’s probably hallucinating so I excuse myself and retire to another room while his daughter spends some time with him. I mentioned to Phil’s son how much respect I had for his father and relay a story that stands out. The dining committee that Phil was on was strictly advisory, company policies forbid me from discussing the nuts and bolts of operations. Yet at any given meeting I was always reminding someone that I simply couldn’t answer their question. One day someone asked about my food budget, they wanted to know by what process was my budget determined and how much money did I have to spend on their food. Was it per person, a percentage of gross income or based on some other figure? Phil asked a few simple questions and pulled some numbers from his regime fees then in a minute or two guessed to within a few thousand dollars how much money I had to work with. I tried not to look surprised and just shrugged my shoulders and said “well that’s just a guess Phil.” After the meeting I sent a text to my boss, “Phil just figured out my food budget.”
“WHAT!!! HOW?” She shot back. His son laughed and shook his head, “Yep, that’s my Dad.” When I walk back into his bedroom he recognizes me, breaks into a wide grin and grips my hand. His eyes are searching and he can barely move enough air to whisper.
“Sit and talk John.”
“Sure Phil, what shall we talk about?”
Rannie puts on a CD and he watches her as she walks to his bed. He can barely lift his hands to her. She leans over and kisses him on the lips and I hear him say “I love you.” A single tear races down her cheek as their noses touch.
“My sweet prince, I love you too.”
“Shoe-bert, Shoe-bert.” Phil recognizes the music as Schubert. His eyes are bright and alive and he’s grinning at Rannie then turns to me and smiles, tells me to sit down again but if I do the bed rail would make it difficult for us to hold hands. I ask him if he’s been dreaming and he smiles but shakes his head no then squeezes my hand. “I’m going home soon John.” I have to lean in to understand him and when my head is inches away from his I ask him to repeat himself.
“I’m going home soon, I’m going home, the Lord is taking me home.”
“I know Phil.”
Rannie is suddenly light-headed, excuses herself and walks into the other room. Phil squeezes my hand again but his strength is fading as his head settles into the pillow. The morphine is taking hold and he quietly slips into an eyes wide-open state of near-sleep.
A few days after that visit my phone rang and I knew immediately that Phil was gone; it was a friend calling, with her own separate ring tone, one that I hadn’t heard in almost a year. Why else would she be calling me? Her calm, familiar voice softened the news. It was an achingly beautiful early fall day; fluttering shades of green were cast against a Mediterranean blue sky dotted with a few puffy clouds and pencil thin contrails. A day that one wishes they were picking apples on a mountain top orchard or watching a high school football game instead of looking for a box of tissues in a dirty car.
In January, Phil decided not to fight his cancer. The prognosis his physicians gave him was poor, even with a brutal regimen of cancer-fighting therapy and unforgiving side-effects. So Phil thought about it, prayed about it and opted out of treatment and instead chose to live his life to the end, staying close by his friends and the second love of his life, Rannie. Phil had been prepared to die, had lived a full life and had accepted his final months with an incredible amount of courage and dignity. When I first started visiting these two about two months ago, he was still walking, eating and joking around. My last few visits have been tough; his body deteriorated as the cancer has had its way. Rannie could only stand by and watch as even the simplest of actions, such as breathing, became incredibly painful. The morphine may have softened his pain but it also stole his time. She’s heartbroken and lonely. I’ve sat and held hands with her as she reminisced, but I’ve only listened; there are no words to help her deal with such tremendous loss, only memories and good friends.