Joe is our neighbor. A 96-year-old former WWII fighter pilot, he lives by himself. His heath is failing, though his mind is sharp. Friday he was taken to the hospital because of extreme weakness – he was unable to get to the toilet from his couch, where he spends most of the day sleeping. After several falls during the past month or so, Joe has started wearing a First Alert wrist band, and this last week he has used it almost daily, mostly because of falls. Anyone who has seen Joe, and there are several of us, does not expect him to last the week. He has recently agreed to forego further medical interventions for his heart and other problems, and instead to enter hospice for palliative care.
Joe does not want to continue to live. He has made this clear. When I gave him some of his prescription pills for the extreme swelling in his feet, he told me that he wished they were strychnine. He has asked how many aspirin he would need to take to kill himself, and he somehow came up with the figure 100. Connie Lu, his niece, has removed his guns from his home.
Joe, as I said, lives alone, though it’s more complicated than that. During the summer months his son and daughter live next door to him, but they have no contact with him. I’ve been told that his daughter has not spoken with him for seven years, a consequence of something Joe supposedly did that I do not want to know about. He is also estranged from his son, who recently confiscated Joe’s money to “protect” him from “parasites” who might take advantage of him. This has to sharpen his aloneness. He is visited regularly by his niece, Connie Lu, who lives nearby, and by Marshall, his longtime friend. Both bring him food, which he nibbles, and more recently Gatorade after they found him severely dehydrated and unable to make it to his refrigerator. But most of the time he is alone, sleeping in his recliner or watching CNN. His son has discouraged other visitors and has threatened me.
We first met Joe when we were building our house. He invited us to come into his home, whether he was there or not, to sit on his porch or use his bathroom. Kim was recovering from her back surgery at the time and not moving well, so we especially appreciated his open-heartedness, especially as our other new neighbors were less than welcoming. As Joe’s health has declined, he continues to treat us with warmth and generosity. He’s offered us books from the extensive library littering his house (we accepted a few), his large billiard table (no, thanks – no room), and his large collection of dried seaweed snacks (no, thanks). He also advised me on a cannabis company stock purchase, so I bought some at $.45 a share – now trading at $.10. Before the pandemic we welcomed him into our home, most memorably to celebrate our birthdays, Joe’s being one day after mine. Despite whatever he may have done in the past, I am happy and proud to count him as a friend.
How must Joe be feeling now? Alone, obviously. His friends include Marshall and Connie Lu, and his ex-wife #3, Judy, who says he was a rotten husband but much better friend. And Kim and I, though Kim, because of the pandemic, is reluctant to venture into his home, though sends me down with scones instead. Joe also has a young wife in California, a woman who he never sees but whose work with rescued pets he admires enough support her financially. Are we a good substitute for the family who is supposed to be at his bedside? I guess we will have to do, though we all have lives of our own. And from everything we have heard, hospice people are wonderful, though that can’t be the same as family.
I visited Joe in his home on Friday, before he was taken to the hospital, he soiled his Depends several times. I offered to help him walk to the toilet or shower to get cleaned up, though I was not sure exactly what I was getting myself into. Joe declined, probably embarrassed and ashamed. We talked for a while, and then I left, knowing that Connie and a nurse would be arriving in an hour or two. So there was Joe, sitting alone in his own piss and shit, unable to do anything about it. I felt helpless, but this was nothing compared to Joe’s helplessness.
I struggle not to have that lonely helplessness be my lasting impression of Joe. He has published two books about fighting MiG jets over Korea, and in the first, Not Quite a Hero, we see him at his best – not just the flying, but also his insistence on having his fellow Air Force officers do what is right. I choose to live with an edited version of his life, omitting what caused his divorces and alienated his children. I imagine what it would have been like to be with Joe years ago, discussing politics, philosophy, religion, education (for a guy who graduated at the bottom of his high school class, he is exceptionally bright, with an engineering degree from Purdue). And Richard, a local guy in his 80s who I just met, described Joe flying a P-51 Mustang low over the surface of Torch Lake. That’s a Joe I prefer to remember, even though I never saw it.
Joe died, peacefully, Monday night.