Lou, for a period of time, lived a few doors down from me and at this point in his life his face had acquired that certain gray pallor that comes when a person’s body is no longer slowly falling apart. But still he went about his daily routine of coffee in the morning and walking his dog around the block twice each day. These walks were never fast and he frequently had to stop to catch his breath. During these stops you couldn’t help but notice how his pup would sniff around, always staying within the length of the leash, as Lou replenished his body just enough to continue on with his life for a few more yards.
He and his second wife, his first having passed away, had moved out here from New York City so as to be closer to Lou’s only son. I got the sense that Lou and his son had a certain closeness that was able to span continent wide distances and equally long time gaps since the son, a well established roadie for the major rock band tours, was gone for large amounts time of each year. I was never quite able to reconcile my image of a Lou’s bald head and its few remaining wisps of grey hair, his belt cinched too high on his body, and his having a son, who lived wildly and dangerously all over the world.
During these long gaps I would stop by for coffee from time to time or come out while he walked and rested to talk of small things with him: the weather, how he was feeling, how smart his dog was, where his son was that month or what it was like to live on a fixed income. All in all, he struck you has the type of man who slipped through life quietly and who had never lived dangerously or had fought hard at anything.
One day, while having coffee with him, I found Lou in an expansive mood, and he started dragging out things from his life before moving out to Seattle. Photos of being at the beach, long passed away relatives sitting around a dinner table during Hanukkah, and from when he was a doorman at one of the big hotels in the City. New York City to be exact. These later ones he truly enjoyed showing off as they were all autographed glossy black and whites of the big stars during the late 1950’s and into the 1960’s.
As he laid them out, one by one, he recalled each star, what they were like, and how he got the each photo. Later on we hit a batch from when he was in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II. With these in hand he came up a bit short of breath and grew quiet. He seemed uncertain about whether to look at them or to put them back with the beautiful women and men that had been returned to the box. I could sense that we had entered a place where my assumptions about his never having lived dangerously were utterly and completely wrong.
During the brutally cold December of 1944 Hitler’s fist slammed down on Europe one final time and squarely onto Lou’s head. Bastogne. There in the snow, the future doorman spent that last part of December surrounded by German tanks, artillery, and troops. I tried to draw out of him what it was like to be there but all I got for my efforts were a few vague answers as he looked towards the floor. I quickly retreated from the subject; what was a history lesson for me was an all to vivid memory for him of unrelenting terror and of men’s blood misting through the frozen December air.
Several months later the gray pallor reached its crescendo and Lou, once again surrounded by death, heeded his doctor’s advice to have his heart re-plumbed. Back from the hospital, his wife doted on him while his body healed as best it could and slowly he returned to his daily routine of morning coffee and twice a day walks with the dog.
At first the walks were labored shuffles from his apartment to the curb and back; his dog never had more time to explore the limits of the leash. Then, as the weeks went relentlessly forward, Lou’s constant buddy had less and less time for sniffing around. Medical science had succeeded denying what Bastogne and time had tried to erase.
And then suddenly, like an artillery shell landing in a foxhole in December, medical science’s magic spell came all undone. The doctors consulted and diagnosed and finally shipped him off to a hospice where Lou would wait, high on morphine, for the time when the undertakers would arrive.
But a curious thing occurred: Lou refused to die.
Instead of couple of days of mitigated suffering, Lou went on and on for over a week. No one could account for this but the facts were plain: he was living wildly and dangerously against all odds.
During this time his wife and son would come and go, night and day, day and night, opposite of each other so Lou would never have to be alone. When I spoke with them during this time, often while Lou’s dog sniffed around, it was apparent that they were alone, alone with their exhaustion, alone with their grief, and the grinding inevitability of the whole damn thing.
A few weeks after Lou passed away his wife and I were discussing his last days over coffee. During those final days his wife and son would sit quietly beside him, sometimes stroking those last few tenacious hairs, sometimes holding his hand, and sometimes they remembered their lives together until all was accounted for. Eventually they just ran out of things to say.
After a pause to compose her emotions, she went on to describe Lou’s last night there in the subdued light of the hospice room. It all came down to the father laying there, seemingly unconscious, while the son sat quietly by himself off to one side.
Sometimes moments of decision come consciously, while at other times they come intuitively, and at other times they force themselves into our lives. Finally his son found the courage to speak of the one thing that they had carefully avoided. Summoning all the compassion and love he held for his father he whispered “it’s time Dad, it’s time for you to go.” And within a matter of minutes the last breath, Lou, the soldier and doorman, would ever take came quietly out of his body.
Copyright 2012 By Katherine Johnson – All Rights Reserved.