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Thursday, January 2, 2014

I Sure Am Gonna Miss You, Cuz

Happy Birthday, Mary Ellen,  

You would be 66 today and as sad as I am that Cuz is dying.  He’s only known he has cancer since August, and now he is leaving us.  He really began his journey when his doctors started him on chemo for his stage 4 small cell lung cancer in mid-October.  He never felt like himself after that.  He came to see me on October 19th, after his first treatment, and he was already having trouble eating, just had no desire for food.  The radiation he got before chemo had a lot to do with that, too.

The weeks of treatment that he endured stripped him of his appetite, his energy, his spirit.  While I was busy settling in on Saint Simons, he was already starting to die, if not literally, then at least figuratively.  A man of great appetites, who loves good food and old Scotch whiskey, rock-and-roll and bluegrass and “The Andy Griffith Show” stopped loving the things he loved.  No one I know loves to write more than Cuz, and I have reams of emails from over the years to prove it.  

A wonderful storyteller ran out of tales not long after I visited him in late September and we stayed up all night drinking Macallan-12 and wishing we could afford Macallan-18.  He was already weak from radiation but was still eating enough, and we passed the night listening to The Rolling Stones and The Beatles and The Eagles and Gladys Knight and Roger Miller.  It was a night of remembrance, when we recalled how we met the night before your funeral, and how Clint and I fell in love with him and he with us.

When he walked into Mary Ellen’s house that night while I was manning the phones and accepting casseroles, I said,

“You must be Cousin Don.”  

He is her husband’s first cousin.  Somehow from that meeting, we became “Cuz” to one another, and it stuck for all these years. 
I reminded him of how I out-fished him and Clint one time when we went fishing for trout in the flats at Shell Island Fish Camp.  He reminded me of the afternoon he went to Lowe’s and bought some lumber and came home and built me picnic table.  I thanked him again for the wonderful portraits he painted of my dogs.  We talked of the night he and Clint and I sat in the spa on our deck, smoking some Cuban cigars I smuggled in from Canada and, well, drinking.

We talked a lot about Clint.  He is so important to both of us, even now that he is gone.  I didn’t want to believe Cuz would die, but the hard evidence was sitting next to me.  I have lost too many men in my life to not throw up some sort of shield at the thought of losing another one, though.  I pretended he would stay alive a long time, beat the odds.

He said he was ready for whatever life had in store for him, assured me that he had no fear of dying, that he had a genuine curiosity about what the next life is all about.  That reminded me of an email I got from him on August 20.

This cancer may kill me, but it is NOT going to consume the rest of my life. It will be a fact in my life, but it will not BE my life. I refuse to give it that power over me and I am not praying to be cured, but rather to have the strength to live my life with dignity and grace. I can't stand to be around complainers and I refuse to be one.” 

(He signs his emails, The Artist Formerly Known as “Prints.”  That’s how cool he is.)

And today, here I am with him at the hospice house in Valdosta, on your birthday, working with the nurses to get a morphine drip started.  The oral pain medication isn’t doing the job, even though it’s been administered almost every hour since he was admitted on New Year’s Eve.  The dose was increased last night but only after I sweetly badgered the nurse in charge.  Though he is less restless now, he still wears a painful grimace and every few minutes, he moans.  It’s almost 11 in the morning and there has been no real change since I arrived.  We were both awake almost all night, each in his own personal hell, but we were in hell together.  That’s all that matters to me now.  I can sleep when he does.

The nurse just accessed his chemo port, so the drip is in the works.

I was not surprised when Cuz didn’t feel like coming to my house for Thanksgiving.  I offered to come over here and drive him to the island and bring him back the next day, but he said he felt too bad for the ride.  His emails had prepared me for that.

When I called him on December 14, to see if he felt well enough for me to come for a visit, he was on his way to the hospital for symptom management and didn’t want me to come.  He was there for five nights, and my last email from him arrived on December 20, almost two weeks ago.  He wrote a short message and promised to write more when he felt like it.  

He never felt like it again.  Hospice started on Christmas Eve, but I didn’t know it at the time.  I began calling on Christmas and called every day for a week.  There was never an answer, so I assumed he didn’t feel like talking.

Yesterday, a bell went off in my head when I once again tried to reach my dear and precious friend, this gentle man of the arts, this genius with watercolors.  I knew in my core that he was worse, that he might be dying.  I tried to find a phone number for Jay, his son, but was unsuccessful.  I worried.  I wondered if I should pack a bag and put Honey in the car with me and drive over here.  I worried some more.  I decided to make a pound cake and prune my pansies to get my mind off things.  

At noon, I got my answer.  Mili Hunt, my friend and Cuz’ former girlfriend, emailed me from the airport in Atlanta.  She was on the way back from Dubai and had just received an email from Heather, Cuz’ daughter-in-law, saying that he had been taken to an inpatient hospice.  She told Mili that he seemed to be fading fast.

I still didn’t know where to find him.  I Googled hospice in Valdosta and found sites for several organizations, and I started punching numbers into my phone.  During the first call, I learned that this is the only inpatient facility in Valdosta, so I called the number listed.  It was answered by a machine that promised someone would call me “on the next business day,”.  That would be today.  I did not make that up.

I pruned the pansies some more and got out the butter for the cake and washed a load of clothes, even thought about giving Honey a bath.  I worried and wondered.

Mili, darling Mili, had the presence of mind to email Heather my phone number, and she called me a little after two.  Her voice was weak and broken.  Tears sprang to my eyes as I heard her tell me that Cuz stopped eating and drinking on Sunday, and that his pain is out of control and he is too weak to walk or sit or even turn in bed.  She told me where to find my friend.

I put away the cake ingredients and finished the pansies and watered all of the plants.  I fed the fish.  I got my house in good enough order to leave for a few days and took a shower.  I packed for both of us and Honey and I were on the road at 4:45.  A detour for a quick visit with Parrish delayed my actual departure from Brunswick until nearly 6:00.  

It was raining.  I drove in rain the entire 138 miles from Brunswick and got here last night about 8:15 in spite of it. 

When Clint was dying at our house in Macon, Cuz came to see us for the weekend before Clint passed away on Monday afternoon.  On Sunday afternoon when he was getting ready to drive back to Valdosta, Cuz came into our bedroom to tell Clint good-bye and Clint looked at him with a loving smile and said,

“I'm sure am gonna to miss you, Cuz.”

When I arrived last night and he was still aware enough to know me, I planted a big kiss on his cheek, leaving a red lipstick tattoo.  He smiled weakly and said,

“I'm sure am gonna to miss you, Cuz.”

We had our moment for letting go.  I said I was going to miss him, too, and that I loved him.

The port is in place, and there will be more to tell, so I will write more later.


© 2014 cj Schlottman

See some of Cuz' work here.



sbp said...

I will miss Cuz too. love you. take good care of him while you can.

Janice Applegate said...

Thankful you can be with him today.