The dispatch wasn’t unusual. Poignant, but not unusual. Sent to a private residence out in the county to bring a male in to a hospice center.
Summer sunlight flickered thru the green leaves, hanging limp in the weighty humid air. Summertime in Wisconsin is an uncommon joy, like a quiet classmate who one day stands up in class to read a paper, and knocks your socks off. So much of the year our social lives are within pods of warm light, refuged inside airtight dwellings. The icy wind literally hurts your face, and except for the hardy few, most dash betwixt homes and cars, cars and businesses with a definite sense of purpose. Ah, but summer! Summer we emerge, blinking, soaking up the warm air and embracing life outdoors. Humidity presses close as a needy lover, and we accept her because that’s the way it is. The coldest nights and the muggiest days, our state knows no prejudice.
So fields lie on either side of this country road we’re following to our pickup. Hay is being cut and baled on one side. We pass a small general store and a fat cat is lying outside, slowly licking, lazy in his midday bath. The road undulates in front of our bulky shadow; up and down, no center striping – or white lines on the shoulders either, for that matter. We’re too far out in the country for those things.
As always on these hospice pickups, I’m remembering the words one of my FTOs told me early on. He said people call us when they don’t know who else to call. I’ve come to repeat that to myself on many a call. These hospice transfers are the days these families will remember for a very long time. It’s the day Grandpa or Mom or Aunt Helen left home for the last time. All those years and all those memories predicating this event, grind to a screeching halt when the ambulance pulls into the driveway. Up until now, family members have cared for the patient, in living room or bedroom, generally in a rented hospital bed. The decision to call us is never an easy one. It’s admitting that outside help is needed, that a new plateau has been reached. Strangers we are, walking into hallowed ground. The energy is heavy, dark, and there are almost always tears of grief streaking down faces of those gathered to meet us. It isn’t something we exactly look forward to, I’ll tell you that. In a profession of aiding those in need, this kind of a trip seems to me like an intrusion on private grief. I generally try to work into my introduction of myself and my partner, what an honor this is, to take this loved one for this trip. I feel the need to let those who are hurting know that we honor their grief and their love.
The house comes into view, designated fire number evidencing that we are at the right home. It’s a farm; genteel white frame farmhouse surrounded protectively by a very well maintained number of outbuildings. Peeling off the main drive is a second driveway leading to a newer style home, with a fire number one digit off. The front porch door opens and a slight woman emerges, and then stands motionless, waiting. Parking in front, we get out. I make my way to her, casually glancing over her shoulder for the rest of the family. It’s just her. I hold out my hand, take her soft and smooth hand in mine. I tell her my name, and introduce my partner. Her eyes are wells of pain, and she speaks and moves carefully. Her grief is almost palpable and after offering her name, she says “he’s in here.”
The patient is sitting in a recliner which is in perfect condition, just as it must’ve been when it left the showroom sometime in the 70’s. The living room is immaculate and it seems time has stood still within this room. A small dog is frantically attempting to get my attention somewhere down around my right knee, and a smile lights up the patient’s face. We meet and greet, and my partner engages with the patient further. I turn to the wife, inquiring if she will be riding with us today, or if she prefers to drive.
Her face falls. Looking at her sensible lace up shoes, she tells me how she told the hospice nurse on the phone that she would be following us in, but now she cannot. Her tire is low and she needs to wait until her son returns from work and can “air it up some”. I look at my partner, the pink and animated face of the patient, and my partner nods. I ask her if there is an air compressor on the farm, and she nods. I tell her I can gladly put air in her tire, and her eyes fly up to mine. “Really?” I assure her that us ladies can handle this, and she leads the way out of the house.
Walking companionably up to the old garage, I ask her how she’s doing.She stops, turns, looks at me with those eyes and says,
“I’m hollow. Just...hollow. I don’t even know....” her voice trails off, and she resumes walking. I keep my trap shut and we arrive. She opens the door, and my sudden, sharp intake of breath brings an enormous grin to her face.
“You like?” she laughs. I do like. Sitting in the shadows next to the air compressor is the car of my dreams. Nose in, high rear end is the first thing I spy of a beautiful Generation One Camaro. Without being aware I’d done it, I walk to the left rear bumper and look up at the front quarter panel on the driver’s side. Sharp crease tells me what I can’t believe I’m seeing. It’s a 1969 Camaro, in what looks to be mint condition. Time stands still in this garage, as well. I’m aware of the slowly dancing dust motes in the sunlight coming thru the window over the air compressor. They seem smug in the knowledge of the beautiful creature parked there.
“It’s mine”, the wife states proudly. “I put all 92 miles on her”. My jaw drops, she modifies “well you know - 92,000.”
I ask if I can look, and by God if I don’t feel reverent. I tell her I’m a gear head, and I’ve owned multiple Camaros but never a Generation One. She laughs in delight and says go ahead and look. I walk around the sides and rear of this car and she begins to talk. Slowly at first, then faster. She tells of the brother who gave it to her. Of the sentimental value and love this car embodies to her. At some point I come to, and remembering why we’re out here, unwind the air hose. She pulls up her SUV and I end up topping off three of her tires. We check the air pressure with a gauge she finds, and while I’m working on this, she tells me of the statue of Mary the Virgin Mother she kept on the dash. She is animated now, and as I finish the third tire, I look up to answer and see a woman, transformed. She’s dropped 20 years in age and worry from her face. She’s chattering a mile a minute now.
Winding up the hose, I stop and look at the car, one last time. Standing next to me, she nudges me in the ribs with an elbow.
“You know Camaros? What engine does she have?”
“That’s easy, she’s a RS so she’s gotta have a 327!” I replied instantly.
She throws back her head – throws it back! – and roars with laughter. She looks at me with twinkling eyes and she says “we’d have been friends, you and I.” She asks if I have “one of them fancy phones” and I nod. She asks if I want to take a picture and I assure her that I really, really do. She tells me to go ahead and I snap a quick photo. She opens the drivers side door to spotless perfection frozen in time and urges, “well get one of the interior, too!” I gape at the pristine condition and take a second photo.
We return inside and as we enter, the patient meets my face and grinning says to my partner, “told you. She was showing her the Camaro!”
We loaded our patient, we led the small two vehicle procession to the hospice center and eventually we took our leave of the couple. Driving away, my partner is talking and I’m a million miles away. I’m thinking how a frail lady was hollow walking toward that garage, and a few minutes later, I met the young lady who drove one of the finest muscle cars ever made.
Oh, the ways that time stands still – and if we’re lucky, and the moment’s right, we might catch a glimpse of back when we were kings.