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“Well, I’ll say a word.”

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The Western philosopher Augustus McCrea set the standard for talking about death. In regards to my father-in-law, Gus probably would have doffed his hat and given a quick but kindly smile.

ERIC MORTENSON JUNE 26  ||  SUBSTACK

So I will say a word. My wife’s dad, Barry Brence, died of cancer June 11, as many of you know from reading her wonderful Facebook post about him. The whole dying process is physically and emotionally exhausting for the living, too. I haven’t had much time or impetus to write about it myself until now.

Just a word. Barry was a man of deep flaws, big talents, and affections that jumped from fierce to weepy at the drop of a MINI Cooper cap. He died in his sleep, pain free. The hospice nurse who did an assessment of him that evening said he appeared comfortable. She thought it might be hours or even couple days. You never know for sure. It was that night, as it turned out.

I spent a lot of time with him in his final months, taking him to appointments, helping with meds and feeding tube pouches, and getting him moved out of his crappy apartment downtown and into a clean and sunny, family-run adult care home for his final days. I have his Kaiser Permanente number, address and date of birth memorized.

You can’t help but examine death pretty closely when you’re walking toward it with someone. That’s especially true when you’re of a certain age and your own death walk is out there on the horizon somewhere.

I was sitting with my dying father-in-law when I started this piece. They had wheeled him out on the deck for a cigarette and a final cup of coffee in his yellow University of Oregon “I Love My Ducks” cup. He asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee. I wouldn’t have minded one, but the care home owners would have had to fetch it, and they had three other residents to look after. I said no, thank you.

I took a picture of him in his wheelchair with his coffee and his cig. He was wearing his New York Yankees baseball cap, a clean, long-sleeve checked shirt, blue jeans, and his slippers. I showed him the photo on my phone before I sent it. He nodded. “Pretty good,” he allowed.

I won’t post it here. It belongs to his daughters, to one of his sons and to his grandchildren. But it was a good photo of him. He was looking grave but it appeared he was finally facing it head-on, like he knew it was his last day.

Barry wanted his camera, the little one with the 50mm lens, so I went inside and dug it out of his camera bag.

“I have a lot of obligations,” he said. To thank people, he added.

I thought he might want to take some photos, but he didn’t. Maybe he wanted to look at some photos that were already on the camera. But the camera stayed in his lap. He dozed.

He woke, finished his Marlboro and wanted to go back inside, because it was too warm out on the deck. I wheeled him back to his room and he wanted to sit at the little table with his laptop and his phone. I understood that he intended to transfer some photos from his phone and his camera onto the computer, but he kept nodding off. I asked him if he wanted to move onto his hospital bed or his recliner. His eyes opened and he jabbed a forefinger. “Stay right here,” he said.

“I’ve got a lot to do,” he said. But he dozed off again.

The hospice team nurse who came to assess him that night told us that people nearing the end often express urgency to do things.

The nurse left and we went home, too. I dozed in my chair in the living room. The care home owner called about an hour after we got home, maybe 90 minutes, and said Barry had died.

Dying isn’t simple, I’m reminded every day. We’re still making calls and appointments to sort through the medical and insurance systems and various bills and accounts. It’s not simple and it can be frustrating, figuring out who does what and how institutions and businesses operate. So far, I’ve found it helps to talk to a real person, on the phone, and to be completely upfront. I talked to the billing people at two ambulance companies yesterday, giving them a heads up that Barry died, we’re sorting out his affairs, we see the bills you sent him, and they will be paid. I’ve found people to be reasonable and polite if you are calm, reasonable, polite and honest with them.

But all of that — looking things up, deciding things, seeing to all the details — sets death to the side for your mind to work on later. In my case, the reaction to Barry’s death seemed to slip out sideways in the form of dreams, and it expressed itself in conversations with the living. Hell, it even showed up on the golf course with my friends.

I told these guys — I call them my hapless foes — that playing golf with them is one of my joys in life, even when they trounce me or when I beat myself, as I did on the last hole the first time we played after Barry’s death. It was a legendary collapse, even by our standards. Now I’m wondering if those last bad swings and foolish decisions were another way the mind and body expressed and jettisoned sorrow and regret.

I was having a hard time figuring out what I wanted to say about Barry’s death. It didn’t really come to me until I was out in the yard the other morning inspecting the grass and flowers with my coffee cup in one hand and my dog poop collection bag in the other.

That’s when the Gus McCrea reference came to mind, swear to God. It’s from Larry McMurtry’s fine novel “Lonesome Dove,” of course, about two old retired Texas Rangers deciding to go on one last cattle drive, from Texas to Montana. In the death scene — one of many in the book — Gus steps forward to say a word about a young cowboy who died in a terrible accident.

Gus might be a fictional character, but I think he would say the best way to deal with death is to do the job in front of you and then move off from it. And to be careful the same thing doesn’t happen to you. “Dust to dust,” Gus said in the novel.

And he was right. But I also think Gus would agree it’s important for the living to seek out the the things that bring them joy, and take time to appreciate them. That’s the main thing I’ve learned from hanging out with the dying.

The other lesson is that those joys are out there, probably right in front of you. Like roses, banana muffins or a clear view of Mount Hood. Like hearing the neighbor kids cutting up or encountering a happy dog. Like savoring a passage in a favored old book. Like joshing with friends, family and neighbors.

I’ll tell you about one of those dreams now.

In the dream, five doctors examined me and said my cancer had advanced, but that wasn’t the word they used. It wasn’t “progressed,” either. I can’t bring it to mind. But whatever the word was, it meant the cancer had gotten worse.

I was lying on a bed, probably a hospital bed, and I could see the outline of the five doctors. They were backlit and I couldn’t see their faces. They were frank and serious in the way they told me the news.

In the dream, I suddenly realized I had 36 coins strung across my eyes. Why 36 coins, what the hell?

I have five living siblings, although they aren’t doctors. I don’t have cancer, as far as I know. And my five living siblings probably don’t have 36 coins between them anyway.

That was the waking up point in the dream, when I realized I had the coins lined across my eyes. I’ve since read that ancient people put coins on the eyes of the dead to keep them from fluttering open when they entered the underworld. There are other explanations out there, too.

I’m not above a bit of melodrama, so I’ve wondered if the 36 coins meant I had 36 months to live, three years. I’m expecting it will be several more than that. You can do a little Jungian or Freudian dream analysis for me in the comments.

I think dreams are fascinating, myself, although I know some people think it’s foolish to put much stock in them. Maybe dreams are the way the brain acknowledges its own bafflement and lets it go into the murky void. Maybe the brain essentially says, “Damn, I don’t know what to do with these images, but I know we have to get up and get to work on selling Barry’s ridiculous car.”

Damn cancer gets everybody, it seems. Our mom died of cancer. Our oldest brother died of cancer when he was only 67, leaving me with those five living siblings. The next oldest brother fought it off in a slugfest. Hopefully that was the end of it; seems like you never know, with cancer.

One of my dearest friends from childhood learned a couple months ago that his cancer has spread. “It’s a death sentence,” he told me in that laconic voice of his. More than two dozen of my classmates are already dead, many from some form of cancer, and we’re only 71 or 72. The hospice nurse who assessed Barry that last night said her husband, father and brother had all died from cancer.

A guy who works for a medical supply company came to my father-in-law’s crappy apartment to pick up the hospital bed Barry had used in his last couple weeks there. We talked a bit as the guy folded up the bed. I told him Barry didn’t die in that bed, or anything, in case he wondered. He said a couple of his aunts had died of cancer.

“You want to do something? With all your technology and all that shit? Find a cure for cancer, man,” he said about society, and I agreed with him.

He said his father died of a stroke. His father loved to fish so they spread his ashes in the ocean. I should have asked him where. From his drawl, I would guess the Deep South, Alabama maybe, along the Gulf of Mexico.

When I worked for newspapers we often wrote about death, because deaths were often news. Murders and suicides, car wrecks, drownings, fires, overdoses, industrial accidents. I covered a bunch of them and saw a few bodies, but for the most part writing about death didn’t bother me because I didn’t know the people, and I had a job to do. Report the news.

In journalism, we used to say celebrities died in threes, and it was uncanny how commonly that played out. And it would often be three people in the same line of work: Three actors or three politicians, for example. Just recently, three famous athletes died one after another: Basketball stars Bill Walton and Jerry West, and beloved baseball star Willie Mays, who is on everybody’s short list of the best ballplayers of all time.

Retired basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, among the greatest NBA players of all time, wrote on Substack about his admiration of and friendship with Willie Mays. Kareem, a fine and thoughtful writer, is 77 and knows his own passage is out there somewhere.

I’m at a point in my life where I want to spend less time mourning the deaths of my friends and heroes and more time celebrating their lives,” Kareem wrote. “Even in passing, Willie has left me with so many wonderful and joyous memories that I can’t help but smile and be grateful.”

That’s finding the joy in life. Here’s some more:

This was the damndest thing. I was out in the yard with my coffee and my poop bag, pulling clover out of the lawn, when I spotted a large dragonfly perched on one of our day lilies. Surprisingly, it didn’t helicopter away when I moved in close for photos with my iPhone. I went back to pulling weeds but noticed, after an hour or so, that it still hadn’t moved. It wasn’t sucking on the plant or laying an egg mass, wasn’t stuck in a web. I concluded it must be dead, like Barry and everything else.

But when I stood close again, I saw its wings quiver. Then it moved a leg, Then it swept its second-foremost left leg across its head, like it was polishing its chrome dome. Later, when we got back from the grocery store, I saw it was gone. From what I gather, it may have just emerged from its nymph stage, and needed its wings and legs to dry.

How’s that for the joy, the simple marvels, that life continues to brings forth and place in front of you?

Bless the Kaiser hospice team, who took over Barry’s care in the last couple weeks. Every single one of them — nurses, chaplain, personal hygiene person, social worker — was a superlative human being.

Barry was afflicted with painful constipation due to the mix of medications. One of the hospice nurses helped him through a particularly stressful episode. As he lay gasping, the burly, fully tatted nurse gathered one of his hands in both of hers.

“Barry,” she said forcefully. “Barry, look at me.”

He glanced toward her, his face drawn and pale.

“We will take care of you,” she said.

Also bless the adult care home owners, Gina and Ben, and their bright, sunny children who flit so naturally, and so kindly, among the dying. Private care homes are expensive, that’s for sure, but well worth it, in our experience. We covered it by selling Barry’s car.

One of the care home employees, Lady Beatrice, is from Kenya, where she was an RN. Her qualifications may not have followed her to America, but her experience, perspective and caring soul translated perfectly.

Lady Beatrice nodded in appreciation as a bunch of us filed into Barry’s room one morning. “Everyone is coming to see Borry,” she said in her heavily accented English. “Everyone is coming to see Borry because he is a goot man.”

In the middle of all this we thought we might lose Hazel, too. She’s our youngest pet, intelligent, playful and easily the best-natured. A sweetheart to all.

As we were dealing with Barry’s decline, Hazel’s eyes suddenly turned cloudy and her energy dimmed. The vet’s office treated her eyes and prescribed antibiotics, but a blood test showed a faint sign of feline leukemia. All of us crumpled at the thought of losing her, too.

Hazel’s eyes cleared and she regained energy. And the vet called Monday, practically jumping through the phone with happiness. A more extensive blood test, sent off to a lab, came back negative for leukemia.

So there is joy.

Which is more than just a word.

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