The most interesting job I ever had was delivering oxygen tanks to, primarily, emphysema patients send home from the hospital. It was their fate to adjust to the last chapter of their lives tethered to large ugly green cylinders which weekly I would unstrap from the back of by delivery truck and haul into their home. The practical nature of the job—replacing tanks as I maneuvered them across wooden floors and beautiful carpets paled in comparison to the responsibility I had to each customer on my route to take my time—to sit and talk, to share a conversation, to smile, make eye contact, and to do my part ensuring everyone’s humanity in the room while we were all still alive.
I did this for nine years. I made over 500 new friends and acquaintances. I have always felt that I held a special honor as the final friend many of them ever made. It is only now since I have grown older that I comprehend the importance of being that final friend. I suspect that many of us go through life without ever being one. I have been blessed many times over.
When you are a final friend, you possess the metaphoric magic of keeping the dead alive. You hold onto stories that others would have forgotten—stories that no one else may have even heard. For instance, whenever I run into someone from Owosso, Michigan, I ask if they knew Gene Prendergast? Their eyes often light up. There is a presumption that I took piano lessons from Mr. P. No. I can’t even play chop sticks. During such conversations I skate around the details of my experiences with Gene. It is enough to say that I delivered oxygen to him at his Owosso home in his last years. I always hold back certain truths—like the anger I had witnessed from a man whose life was defined by performing—something he was robbed of as his health declined. Eugene Prendergast was a trombone player in the big band era, one who had traveled the world. He brought back memories of those wonderful years home to a small mid-west town where he could teach the love of music to children and tell questionable stories to new final friends. Once the oxygen tanks and I were done dancing about his home, I would watch and listen as Gene’s huge bright 80 year-old eyes took me across Europe right after World War II. Big bands helped to usher in an urgency to return to normal—a musical score for reconstruction. Gene would take me to the back rooms of music houses where the men would be boys—peeking through peep holes into female bathrooms and dressing rooms. I blushed and smiled as Mrs. Prendergast ignored our childishness, something that I realized she was used too. Unfortunately, she was also used to his anger. When emphysema steals your breath, it also steals your patience with those who take care of you. For some reason I was never the object of that anger. Though there were days I had wished to accept it, to take it with me out the door with my green, ugly tanks so that Gene could take a deep breath and share more than old memories with Mrs. P.
Now there are times that the medical professionals try to reach beyond their own experiences and presume knowledge they do not possess about us—their patients. I got a call one day from one of the most caring people I knew at the local hospital. I was needed to set-up oxygen for a man described to me as a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. I was cautioned that my new client, Holger Rasmussen, did not speak English. How, then, I asked did they know about his experience as a German POW. As medical professionals will do, they relied upon the medical evidence in this gentleman’s chart that told a horrific narrative of past pain and suffering. They had never seen a live person with so many broken bones, forced to heal on their own without proper medical attention.
I took what they told me as gospel and made my way to the Rasmussen household to meet my new client. As my oxygen truck pulled into the driveway of a modest home I was greeted by an old woman with wild, long gray hair and a wonderful smile. Neighbors peeked around curtains to watch as I hopped out of my truck and introduced myself to the woman, not knowing yet if she understood English. Behind her, the Rasmussen dogs barked not so much at me, but in the direction of the shadows next door protecting themselves with drapery. Mrs. Rasmussen spoke to the animals and relative silence returned to the neighborhood. As far as the people around us were concerned—those unfamiliar with such things as x-rays, the most interesting thing they could have known about Holger Rasmussen was that both his doberman and his collie were bilingual. They obeyed commands in whatever that Danish dialect was as well as English. Not to be overlooked, the family calico cat investigated my oxygen truck, ignoring commands in both languages with equal skill.
So I did what I always do. I went into the house to meet my client and review everything that I had planned to do. Most importantly, I needed to case the place to figure out the best location for the oxygen tanks. Placement was important. It was my job to utilize the least amount of tubing. The longer the tubing—the greater likelihood of condensation in the lines. With the presence of condensation came an increased risk of infection. I may have been the modern version of the milkman, but there was a science to what I did.
After sizing up the space I had to work with, I found this small gentle man sitting up in bed. His smile lit up the room. Holger never said a word to me. His wife did all the talking. I wondered if sometimes the medical profession should pay at least as much attention to our loved ones as they do our x-rays. Mrs. Rasmussen watched as my eyes inspected the plagues on the walls surrounding her husband’s bed—watched as I explored the past on public display within each framed photograph crowding the shelves. Here was the true evidence trumping radiologic images, trumpeting a different narrative, a story of a young handsome circus performer—The Great Rasini and his world-famous Rocket Car!
Evidently, the concerned hospital social worker and the empathetic respiratory therapy and radiology departments had created a fiction almost as unlikely as the truth. My new client had joined the circus as a young man in Denmark. There he found his future bride as she was selling fortunes to the many who had come to the circus to take their mind off the growing tide of change sweeping across Europe in the 30’s. Holger had started his performing career as a magician, as many young husbands long to be. And one day an idea came to him, much to the chagrin of his fortune-telling bride—a rocket car that flies through the air, with him at the wheel, thrilling the crowd. Holger’s dream soon became reality. The Rocket Car flew into their lives in 1938 while the circus toured Sweden. He quickly became the star attraction. Holger brought crowds to their feet in grand finale flights of fearless foolishness. Foolishness was Mrs. Rasmussen’s word for it. Yet she said to me with pride and admiration, “What could I do, he was , after all, the star.” But Holger’s wife undoubtedly foresaw how dangerous the finale would be, so much so she rarely watched. Who could blame her? It was enough for her to nurse the broken arms, legs, smashed fingers, lacerations and concussions.
But real danger stalked the European landscape as German troops and Nazi ideology goose-stepped its way from border to border. At first the crowds flocked into the circus for a front-row seat to spectacle and risk without becoming part of it. Holger obliged and allowed a world at war some brief respite. But the circus and its diverse group of performers found themselves in harm’s way in what military strategists coined the European theater. So the circus escaped the spectre of war and came to America. It was 1940. Here the Great Rasini continued to thrill the crowds. Before Evil Knevil could crawl, Rasini’s Rocket Car somersaulted in mid-air, at 50 miles an hour, landing (usually) right-side-up on a cushioning tarpaulin. But not always. More than once the Great Rasini’s seatbelt came undone and the Rocket Car fell on top of him. And once, on a dark, wet night in New Jersey, the Rocket Car bounced off the tarpaulin and landed upside-down in a muddy Jersey pond. The Great Rasini barely escaped death that night.
Holger Rasmussen had never set foot in a concentration camp. He enjoyed his circus career, although there were bad nights when he had to be carried away from the heart-pounding finale on a stretcher. Mrs. Rasmussen summed it up by echoing what I suspect are the Great Rasini’s own thoughts—that’s life. He may not have walked away from every finale, but he survived them all. That’s pretty much what the x-rays were really trying to say. So that’s how I got to be the final friend of an aerialist from Copenhagen. I confess that each time I had my Danish friend sign the oxygen invoice; I’d smile like the youngsters who had just gotten an autograph from the star of the show.
Now, not all final friends are elders. It doesn’t always involve the teaching of stories you don’t find in history books. But a final friend will always leave you with a lesson learned, a lesson you carry with you long after they are gone. The metaphoric rule of three encourages me to paint one more Still Life portrait in narrative form. Brian Mosher is my artist’s model to fill this role. Brian was the first oxygen client I encountered who was my peer in many ways. We shared the same birth year, married eerily similar but caring brunettes, and we were followed around at home by two young sons approximately the same age. The sounds in the Mosher house reminded me of my own home. I regularly pulled my truck into Brian’s driveway for three years. Now technology had changed when it came to the transportation and delivery of medical home oxygen. Brian and his two sons often sat with me on the front porch as I filled his liquid oxygen container. We shared jokes about how much the cryogenic storage unit resembled a keg of beer that not long before we were both tapping at our respective universities.
His oldest was four years old when his father arrived on my delivery route. The younger brother was a baby in Brian’s arms when we first met. I was blessed to watch the dynamics of father and sons with a front row seat. As they carefully watched me perform my duties, I paid equal attention to the Moshers, exploring the same curiosities as my own boys and I as we had often tested each other’s love and patience. Between the laughter and the discipline, the boys would embrace the responsibility of holding the door open while I carried their daddy’s liquid oxygen tank in and out of their home. Along with the familiar sounds of sibling rivalry and the voice of a strong, stern father, I recall most vividly the laughter and giggling which dominated this wonderful home. Even when they were being disciplined the boys would often look up at me and give away a sly smile.
Then one day the sad news came of the father’s death. The family requested that the equipment be picked up as soon as possible before the grieving Mrs. Mosher returned home from the hospital where a hopeful lung transplant had turned tragic. I immediately stopped my other deliveries and quickly drove to their home. It had not hit me yet that this equipment pick-up would be far different than most. That became apparent when the eldest son met me at the door. He had grown to be a proud boy, all of seven years old. Behind him stood his little brother—barely four years old. But this time the boys refused to open the screen door for me. “Daddy’s not home right now,” the oldest announced.
I thought to myself—Oh, God…the kids don’t know. How could I possibly explain to fatherless boys why I was taking Daddy’s tanks away?
But as he held the storm door tightly closed, the seven year-old’s eyes teared up. His sly smile turned sad. Little brother gently moved him aside, stepped up closer, and broke the silence. “There is no more Daddy,” he said. The he repeated this sentence that I will never forget. He repeated it slow, so that I would understand—There is no more Daddy. At that moment my eyes drowned in tears and somewhere deep in my gut, I cried out loud.
Just in time, Grandma came around the corner. As she opened the door, I quietly went to work taking inventory, removing the equipment, and scratching out a nervous receipt. I had thought I’d learned a great deal about death as I made my rounds as final friends ultimately do. But until that day, I knew precious little about the courage of a young child. One day I hope to be as brave.
Each opportunity to become a final friend is unique. If I thought for a moment otherwise, I would be disrespectful to the humanity of those whose doors I’ve been allowed to walk in and out of. There will come a day that I will make a final friend. I suspect that I’ll know it before they will. I can only hope that they will cherish the honor as much as I have.