Ever since I wandered into Harold’s hospital room nearly two years ago, I’ve spent more time with people in their last moments than I ever thought I would. I started volunteering at a nursing home about a year ago, and I have since witnessed the deaths of a handful of my friends there. Each time is a very different experience, but they’re always surrounded by their fellow residents and favorite staff members, and if they’re lucky, a family member or two. They often make jokes or reassure the younger people that they’ll be okay. Very rarely do they seem scared. Sometimes, a few regrets will bubble up, but every one of them has seemed bone-tired and ready to rest.
We had a death today, Larry. He was in his mid-90s and had lived in Kansas City his entire life. His wife, Linda, who he met at the home and married nine years ago, passed away a little over a year ago, and he was just biding his time until he could join her. I met with my usual group and we all went into Larry’s room. He was hugging a picture of Linda to his chest and he smiled when he saw us all. Each one of us squeezed his hand and found a seat to chat with him. The first thing Marv said was, “How can we be sure you’re not faking it this time?” which caused the entire room to erupt in laughter. Larry was the resident practical jokester and had faked being dead more than once. He nearly gave multiple people heart attacks when they saw him haphazardly sprawled out on a community couch with chicken-and-stars soup dribbling down his chin with his eyes rolled back in his head. It may sound cruel to an outsider, but to know Larry was to accept his brand of humor entirely. He once threw a big, hairy fake spider at me and laughed so hard he needed his oxygen tank after I screamed and nearly ran into a wall. One time he asked for my help with a prank; we printed out a bunch of pictures of Charlie Chaplin and put them inside as many framed pictures as we could find. Larry responded to Marv by saying he was hoping to hold out until tomorrow so that he could die on April Fool’s Day as the ultimate prank.
Larry had spent his life trying to make everyone’s lives a little lighter. In his early twenties, he fell in love with a woman who had two small kids. He raised those boys as his own, even as their mother slowly let addiction take over her life. He stayed in their lives for ten years and tried to help her as much as he could. He paid for multiple trips to rehab, but she eventually took her own life. Larry fought with everything he had to get custody of the boys who had grown to call him Dad, but their biological father showed up after the funeral and won parental rights. He moved them across the country and forbade Larry from ever contacting them again. Larry kept track of them for several years, and he secretly contacted them as they were reaching the end of high school. They were desperate to get out of the living situation they were in, so Larry offered to pay for their college. The older one graduated high school and the younger one dropped out and got his GED, and they both moved back to Kansas City to be with the person they chose to be their real father. He had been saving for their college education since he’d met them, and he now has the privilege of being a grandpa to four and a great-grandpa to three. His sons now live on opposite coasts but they all remain incredibly close.
Larry had been a high school English teacher for most of his life. He loved working with teenagers because he believed they were the most open-minded age group that still felt they could save the world. Some of them did, or at least their corner of it. Larry felt teenagers, despite their resistance to authority, were the most receptive to new ideas and constantly offered new ways of looking at old literature. He taught the same books for years in a row but always had different conversations about them. He said that he learned as much from his students as they (hopefully) did from him. He had a habit of taking in strays and some of the students that had parents that just didn’t give a damn or parents who didn’t accept their children for who they were ended up living with Larry for awhile. He housed several gay teenagers in a time when it was nearly impossible to be gay in the Midwest. Kids who lived in abusive homes often sought him out as refuge. He would never admit it because he is far too humble, but Larry saved countless lives just by being a caring adult for a bunch of kids who didn’t have any of those in their lives.
Overall, he lived a happy, simple life. He taught during the day and went for walks with his dogs in the evenings. He loved to cook and often hosted dinner parties with elaborate meals. He dated here and there, but nothing really stuck. He was content growing old on his own, despite criticism and insistence that he had to find someone else to be truly happy. Larry felt whole on his own and was plenty social, even as, in his words, an old geezer. He retired and traveled around a bit. He visited his kids and grandkids a few times a year and went to corny tourist spots. As he got on in age and started having trouble doing things on his own, he moved into the nursing home.
One year later, Linda moved into the nursing home. One of the first conversations they had, Larry mentioned how much he loved brownies. The next time he saw her, Linda handed him a glass pan covered in foil. Larry unwrapped it and found paper E’s cut out of brown construction paper. Brown E’s. They were married within six months and played pranks on each other and their fellow residents for eight years. He liked to joke that instead of finding someone to grow old with, he had just found someone to be old with. He preferred recent pictures of her to pictures of her from her youth, even though she had been a model. He insisted he thought this version of her was more beautiful, and I believed him.
I first met Larry a couple of months after Linda passed away. While he was certainly sad, he expressed relief that she had died first, because he didn’t think she would be able to handle being alone. She died in her sleep, in his arms, and he was thankful she didn’t have to face even a second of it without him by her side. He said that when his time came, he was okay with being alone, or at least with friends. He’d spent most of his life with just friends, and he hoped to see Linda after he died, even though he had no idea where he would go or what form his self would take after death, if any at all.
Larry’s sons finally arrived, and it was time for the rest of us to give them their space. As we were saying goodbye, Larry grabbed me and asked if I would be writing about him. I told him I could if he wanted me to, but only if he wanted me to. Tears suddenly sprang to his eyes and he said, “As long as you make it beautiful. Because it was. The whole thing. Even the hard parts.”
I kissed his cheek and said my final goodbye. I joined the others in the common area. Some of them were praying, some were laughing with each other about memories of Larry, others were going about business as usual. Death is so common in this building that nobody has a problem talking about it. It’s just the next step for them. They all acknowledge how lucky they are to have made it this far, because not everyone gets that chance. It’s no secret that many of them will die relatively soon, so the attitude around it is far different than anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s almost refreshing and certainly reassuring to a twenty-something that has a paralyzing fear of death.
Larry passed away several hours later, flanked by the two boys that had grown into excellent men thanks to his guidance and love. Larry will be missed by the residents of this building, by every student he ever taught, by the family he chose that chose him back, and by the generations he has impacted. There’s no way for me to emphasize just how beautiful he was, but there’s also nothing I could do to detract from that.