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Home > Topics > Community Awareness
November 21, 2012
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Behind the Patient: Street Portraits
by Michael Morse

A dignified death and the day I wish I smoked

The tranquil, respectful environment was instantly transformed during this particular call...

By Michael Morse

He was dead. His eyes were open. He looked peaceful. Two friends paced the room, smoking cigarettes, and sneaking glances at their fallen comrade.

He died sitting in his favorite chair, or at least his most recent favorite. One of the smoking guys had let him stay with him these last few months; he had nowhere else to go.

The doctors at the VA had given him six months to live a year ago, he was just holding on, living on borrowed time, wasting away in a chair that wasn't his own.

One of the guys cooked a meal for him last night, a steak and macaroni and cheese. There was nothing left on the plate that sat empty in front of him, it was wiped clean.

"Who found him?" I asked.

"He was there when I woke up," said one of the guys, lighting another smoke. "I knew he was dead the second I saw him."

We chatted for a while, the two guys, me and Brian. The dead guy may have been listening, may have transcended into another being, might be in Heaven or Hell or may simply just be dead and gone.

Some day we'll find out for ourselves.

He was a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and so were his friends. Hepatitis C is what eventually did him in. He was a good guy I was told, just down on his luck, and out of options.

He didn't want to spend his last days cooped up in a hospital room, and spent some time on the streets before he connected with the guys who let him die in their apartment.

It was against the rules, the building had strict rules concerning overnight guests, but they took the chance and got lucky. For some people, letting a friend die with dignity, and a last meal in a favorite chair is considered luck.

Life is funny, people with everything want more, and people with next to nothing consider themselves lucky.

The police handle these things once we declare a person dead. I radioed for a Police Sergeant and waited for him to show up. I asked if the rosary that was wrapped around the dead guy's hands was of his doing.

One of the guys said that he put it there when he found him. It seemed the right thing to do. We stood by in comfortable silence until the police came. After a few minutes, an officer showed up. He wasn't the Sergeant; he was a new guy, one I didn't know.

"I can't breathe in here," was the first thing he said. "Put out those cigarettes."

The vets looked at each other, looked at me, looked at the authority figure 40 years their junior and then simultaneously looked at their dead friend.

The tranquil, respectful environment was instantly transformed. Before the officer arrived, five guys waited in a smoky room, contemplative, and respectful, me and Brian respecting our combat veterans, the two other guys respecting the memory of their friend.

Just like that, the atmosphere was transformed, and we stood in a section eight apartment with three nearly homeless vets, one dead. The last supper was now just a dirty dish, sitting on a TV table in a run down, crummy place where some of our veterans who didn't thrive after the war spend their last days.

I wish I smoked, I would have sparked one up right then and there, and flicked the ashes of the cop's shiny shoes. I was in their house. If they wish to smoke, smoke away, especially at a time like this.

"I'm sorry for your loss," I said and told the cop the official time of death. The two living combat vets stepped outside to finish their butts. I couldn't help but think of this line as we drove away.

"The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." William Shakespeare

Their friend was dead, and the government officials were assholes. It matters not what me and Brian did, or how we acted, what mattered to them, and the memory that will linger long after the body is removed is that the new guys in uniform treated them like trash.

About the author

Michael Morse is a rescue captain with the Providence Fire Department and the author of Rescuing Providence and Responding. He has worked on engine, ladder and rescue companies during his 21-year career. His current assignment is Rescue Company 5. Michael blogs at RescuingProvidence.com.
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