The unlikely bond between a hospice volunteer and a dying Vietnam veteran.
Illustration by Jason Arias.
I had to do a few things before I could meet with someone in hospice: fill out paperwork, get fingerprinted and punctured to test for tuberculosis, go through eight hours of HIPAA training. I was among the first Albuquerque, New Mexico participants in a program called Write Your Life, a project for hospice patients who wanted to leave something behind after their medically certified imminent death. I was told that whatever aspect of their lives the incurably ill wanted recorded, they would receive in the form of a slim book.
I was in my first year of graduate school for creative writing, and was expected to do some work in the community. I had begun to study poetry, the power of line breaks and lungfuls of white space. I read contemporary poets and Jung. I craved the beers that came at the end of most days. After initially teaching some surly high school kids about the beauty of caesura, I was relieved when the hospice center came through.
It would still be a while before I could meet with an actual patient, and as I drove around Albuquerque to get tested and background-checked, I received emails from Greg, the volunteer trainer, written in all caps, composed in the staccato style of a telegram:
“ALL BY HIMSELF…..DIAGNOSIS LUNG CANCER…..NOW WHAT MAK,ES HIM INTERESTING IS THAT HE IS AN ARTIST IN OILS….HAS A GALLERY IN SANTA FE. AND HIS WORK IS DISPLAYED THROUGHOUT THE USA…. …HIS WORK IS UNBELIVABLE BEAUTIFULL.ACTUALLY WORLD FAMOUS…[WISH I COULD AFFORD HIS WORK]..SO IF INTERESTED IN VISITING EVEN TWICE A MONTH PLEAS CONTACT ME…..NEEDLESS TO SAY WE WOULD BE GRATEFULL..ALL INFO GIVEN UPON REQUEST….OF ACCEPTED ASSIGNMENT…THANKS GREG….”
I didn’t end up meeting with the artist; he took a turn for the worse and wasn’t expected to live much longer. I felt disappointment upon reading that this man would die soon, and guilt when I realized how frustrated that news made me. An artist on his deathbed thrilled the burgeoning writer in me; I was sure I could dream up some great poems after our meetings. I lived in an unkempt basement room and wanted to walk the pasts of others for my own purposes.
I got more emails about patients, and the process began to feel like picking a dog from a shelter. I could be placed with someone who had mobility or someone who was bedbound, a patient in the hospital or someone still living in her home. I learned about an older man with failing kidneys and his protective wife, then a middle-aged woman with scleroderma and prescription drug–induced hallucinations.
At this hospice, there were walls of drawers full of patient files: cancer, AIDS, heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, chronic lung illness, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s—a kaleidoscope of damage to the body. Greg told me that hospice helps those who have six months or less to live. “There is nothing harder or more rewarding than this work,” Greg said. “You are with this person at the end of their time here; you are helping make the passage easier.” I nodded gravely. I wrote notes, thinking they might come in handy later.
I had heard the word hospice before, but I never quite understood what it was, just that it meant impending death. I had no personal contact with the practice. My three deceased grandparents had passed quickly: three photos on my wall that appeared blank when I looked at them most times, my face an unmoored reflection.
The air moved every few minutes and I wondered how it was recycled, how one bottled gas, what it felt like not to breathe.
Then I met Richard. The dark wings of the eagle on his forearm appeared skeletal—an X-ray of his own body. I didn’t know a whole lot about him the day we met in the parking lot of a restaurant that served free pie on Wednesdays. I stared at the slim silver canister strapped to a dolly with wheels that trailed him. The vessel hissed, or Richard hissed. The air moved every few minutes and I wondered how it was recycled, how one bottled gas, what it felt like not to breathe. To know death as a door you passed every day.
Back when his lungs are bright and clean, all tiny cells licking at the air, he sees a motorcycle run down the road and imagines air unbridled, wind meant for him. He’s tending to the family farm: the chickens in their coop, the neat rows of asparagus and beans. Once he sees the Harley, he stops buying the dime candy and juvenile toys with his allowance. Starts culling cauliflower at night. The darkness keeps the heads white as cotton until market the next day. In two years’ time, at fourteen, he saves enough to buy it: military green, shining skid plate, unfailing crash bar, blackout light, the engine naked and beautiful. The roar of machinery in his ears like a prayer.
Stacey, Richard’s hospice nurse, picked me up from campus in Albuquerque, and talked the whole forty-minute drive to Los Lunas, a medium-sized agricultural town to the south. I wondered what type of person you had to be to do hospice work, if there were certain things you could do or be to make it easier. If you had to drown out the deaths and illness. Maybe that’s why Stacey talked so much about casinos, restaurants, her boyfriend, her boyfriend’s daughter, her boyfriend’s daughter’s diaper rash, traffic, her dad’s green chile enchiladas. I tried to ask Stacey some questions about Richard, that first ride: Was he nice? “Yes, he’s a sweetie, but he has lived some life!” In pain? “He has some trouble breathing, but he can still talk up a storm!” What does he do all day? “He loves the slots and bikes, but he also loves reading—he’s a smart one!”
Stacey plucked a cigarette from her pack and sparked a lighter with a purple nail. She inhaled deeply, held the smoke a few seconds before releasing and said, “Richard isn’t here yet.” I squinted around the restaurant parking lot. I had come prepared with a tiny recorder and a list of printed-out questions. I was about to ask this man, a stranger, about his life, and had chosen what I felt were appropriate questions: What was your childhood like? What’re your favorite foods? Movies? Books? Animals? What do you like to do on Sunday afternoons?
“Here he comes,” Stacey said as a navy truck pulled into the parking lot. She crushed her cigarette under her bright white sneaker. I scratched the scalp under my thick hair, a nervous tic. Later, I thought about what I had expected of Richard. He was a former Hell’s Angel living in the middle of nowhere, a windswept lot, maybe listening to propaganda and working himself into a lather. I mostly wondered if he would dislike me: my round, Midwestern cheeks; the way I apologized when I didn’t need to; my general desire to please and be liked; my privileged upbringing and existence. Would he think me disingenuous? Dull?
From his truck, Richard emerged: a thin, bent man. His long, gray ponytail snaked down his back over his worn jean jacket. Something in his body was leeching the life from him—this was clear almost immediately from his gaunt face, his slow shuffling, his labored breaths. But his eyes blazed. They were the blue of gasoline fire.
I realized then that I wanted so badly for him to be a metaphor for something, anything: a cactus in arid country, prickly but alive; the scent of creosote on an empty plain. I knew he was dying. It shocked and stirred me that he would die, and that he knew it, and I knew it. Some grotesque truth that I had trouble getting from poems, things that could not decay, things I didn’t know how to trust.
Lots of noise and light. Tijuana. The car idles. The gun snug under his left armpit, a shotgun sawed off, easy to conceal this way. Everyone knows he has one, but they don’t know where, or how quick he is. Only someone paying attention can tell he’s left-handed and that gun warm against his right side. Four saddlebags of white blow and they’re done. They’re laughing, almost, on their way to Los Angeles where all the yuppies are going coke crazy. Fuck a job where you’re not your own boss! Where you can’t manage your own game. Drug running takes a type of discipline. The music producer wore white and had money coming out of his ass. The enforcer strolls back to his car and friends with a grin on his face and 100,000 dollars deep in his leather jacket. Ready to pull that shotgun the whole time.
When Richard first brought up the war, he looked at me and said, “I’m gonna tell you something that I haven’t said in I don’t know how many years.” It was only our third or fourth meeting, and as we waited for our food, Richard told me that he’d like to start talking about some heavier stuff. He’d answered my list of toothless stock questions (“Mom did the cooking—it was good, it was plenty; if you walked away hungry, it was your own damn fault”), and wanted to concentrate on Vietnam, bikes, running drugs. “That’s getting into the essence of me,” he said.
“It’s easier to kill a man than it is an animal.” I think I was nodding. I know my body was humming like a tuning fork.
“Don’t ask me who I killed or how many I killed, cause it ain’t none of your frickin’ business. Let your imagination run and know that it’s easier to kill a man.”
Later, I thought about Vietnam veterans. I had always perceived darkness in Vietnam vets, even though I had known few. But Richard told stories from Vietnam that were funny, like how they learned to look for holes drilled in the bottom of their Budweiser bottles: the bar owners would drain the American beer and fill it with the local stuff, over and over. “It tasted like horse piss,” he grumbled.
I liked to imagine Richard in Vietnam—sometimes bored and watching fuzzy television shows in the PX. But even more, I couldn’t stop thinking of him in darkness, working in early morning haze to ready the boat for patrol. I saw the jungle seething around him, the pressure bearing down, the air in his lungs thick as blood.
He wanted to join the navy to get the hell off the farm. Didn’t realize he was poor until he saw all the food at basic training—heaping and endless. He was used to catching his dinner and already knew how to shoot deer, but now he held an AR-15. In a few months, he found out it only fired on dry, clear days. In a few months, he saw babies in the middle of the road, crying, mouths a dark void. To step toward that child meant death explosive and crude. They ran like hell, but the wails were a shadow that followed them through the valley. The only death he still dreams of.
Hearing Richard’s stories made me think of history. Participating in something, anything. As we met more often, he spoke more of Vietnam, of that morning when he was just eighteen. He shouldn’t have been in the deep, damp jungle, not by the Army’s account; his biological father died on a battlefield in France, leaving Richard, the only man in the Toce family able to carry on the name. He didn’t know about his exemption and went over there and carried grenades, guns, the bodies of his friends. A year of this before some upper guy in an office back in the States noticed and had him called back to non-combat positions. He was nineteen. In the restaurant, Richard told me, “I did my duty.” There was a pause. Loud families surrounded us, eating, arguing. “Whatever it took, I did it.”
I thought the ghosts must live in him still, because he wanted me to do something for him, something he couldn’t do himself.
A string of birds in the sky. Clean lines of rifles bobbing up ahead. Ever think that the sun rising makes skeletons of everything? Maybe that’s just the country here, the pink and green of it. He isn’t used to the firmness of the ground. He misses the boat, even that rough river, but their men need help getting out. Their brothers. And it’s odd how he sees that dead tree lying down, and there’s a stump that looks like any other stump and suddenly an AK-47 is barking in his ears and the guy who used to be Dave who used to be next to him is shot through bleeding by the stump and his fingers clamp and squeeze and how did this young girl get here? Someone put this sixteen-year-old girl in black pajamas here in front of him and somehow she has her hands on an AK-47 and somehow she is dead. It’s not until they’re back at the boat (oh Lord, oh joy) that he can’t keep himself together anymore. Literally, he comes undone for hours, vomit and bile and some clear essence, and he remembers when his stepfather told him about “buck fever” and the shaking and the sweats, and he thinks that a human isn’t so different, maybe even easier, that the young girl tattooed Dave good, and that’s all he knew.
I thought the ghosts must live in him still, because he wanted me to do something for him, something he couldn’t do himself, because with his lungs, he was pretty sure he would never fly again. He remembered the two men lost from his crew on the boat; they’re both on the war memorial. “If you get to DC, go to the third panel up from the left. Put your hand on it and say, ‘Rrat’s still thinking of you.’ Do that for me if you ever go to Washington DC, okay?”
I said okay. I nodded yes.
“And if you ever go to the little museum, you will probably see a little gold rat—that’s mine. I sent it up there with some friends to let them know I’m thinking of them.”
Now Richard’s memories poured forth. It seemed there was always gravel in his stories. And I mean more than the shit that got kicked up in his face by police officers, or the feel of foreign grit under his hands as he crawled his way through Vietnam. I mean there was pain. Something that reminded him that life was for the living and then the dying. In that order. And writing these stories back made me realize it’s not enough to look up toward the trees and hear the low coos of doves, see the lush green leaves. I could fill myself up all day on that if I wanted to. But Richard—to know a human life.
About half a year after we started meeting, Richard pulled out a thin sleeve of glossy photos and I got to see Julie, his third and final wife. Thirty years ago, on their way from Connecticut to New Mexico, Richard and Julie had stopped in some dusty ghost town on their bikes. Next to the empty storefronts, Julie smirks, faces the camera with her shirt pulled up over bare breasts.
“She’s pretty!” I exclaimed. Richard chuckled.
I looked forward to this kind of candor. Stacey had stopped working for the hospice center, and I now drove myself to meet Richard. He had arranged for us to talk at a local college in Los Lunas, someplace quieter, where we wouldn’t have to spend any money. The spring sun beat down on us then, and as we walked from the building back to the parking lot, Richard had to stop to catch his breath. It seemed like his lungs were worsening.
I could imagine Richard virile. He hummed with energy when he talked about the past: the bikes, the fights, the drugs, the women. This was in part why I was enamored of him, why I would refer to him reverentially as I drank at parties. The confidentiality paper I had signed seemed inconsequential in the face of Richard’s life; how could I not share these stories? How he told an acquaintance who stole a special lighter of Julie’s (imprinted with a gold pot leaf), “If you ever come within 100 yards of this house, you better call your mother for a casket, because I’m going to blow your fucking ass away.” I loved it when Richard swore, the words knifing from his thin lips. I viewed myself as a soft person, had grown up soft, enjoyed soft things, had a life of seemingly constant comfort. Being with Richard made me feel closer to danger.
I still talked to Richard fourteen months after I first met him, eight months longer than I expected to. I knew he used to snort coke every morning until a few years ago when his heart jumped staccato and his body felt foreign. He told me how he loaded transport trucks full of ShurFine Sugar and AI-15 rifles for his Grandpa, an Italian Mafioso known as Handlebar Mustache Pete. But I never pointedly asked about his health, the progression of his illness. When we talked on the phone, I asked how he was doing. “Not too bad, not too bad,” he responded most often. Or, on worse days, “I’m not doing so well, Nora, having some trouble breathing.”
I remember one call, near the end, when he told me the spring sun made him itch to get riding again. All he could think of was the road open before him, a beautiful woman at his back and a perfect bike underneath. He told me he changed some things in his will. “I put down that I want to be cremated, and I want Julie to put half my ashes in the gasoline tank of my bike. Ride it out to open spaces. It’ll be my final ride.” I could smell it before I saw it—the greasy gas plume a river from Richard’s gleaming bike. In my imagination, his motorcycle thundered on the unfolding road and the sharp smell of exhaust stayed with me. Richard stayed with me.
Subby feels the end imminent all over his body, like afternoon air before a rain. It weighs heavier than his black Comancheros jacket, the one that’s been on him for all these years. The patch they all wear is red, black, and white, the colors of brotherhood. Subby remembers that it was more than raising hell, this band of young men on bikes just out of the war. They talked about the beauty of Harleys, women, and drugs. They didn’t have to talk about the war, the shit they’d seen. Keep the dark stuff in their minds. Subby doesn’t know what’s going to get him in the end, but he feels it close. He picks up the phone and rings Rrat: “I got about four or five hours I’m gonna live. I know it. Fuck it. Bring me a goddamn bottle of tequila and drink it with me.” Subby knows he can count on Rrat. And Rrat does come over. And Rrat drinks tequila with his friend until Subby is dead.
I finally started to transcribe the hours of meetings with Richard. The work was arduous. The tiny mic picked up the noise of dishes clanging and motors juddering through the intersection. What was clear, listening back on the interviews, was Richard’s intelligence and dark wit. Also his illness—how his voice carried through clear at the beginning of the tape, slow and uneven toward the end. I could see him across from me, in his jean jacket and leather vest, his gray hair loose at his temples, the clear tubes of his oxygen tank snaking down his side. He breathes deep between each sentence; his lungs pull at the restaurant air.
The stories left aren’t meant to teach and riddle me toward some lesson. They are the bare bones and muscle of someone’s life.
I thought of all that air he’d taken in and cycled out. I thought of the blood on his hands and the dust in his pores. I remembered that talking to him could make everything else seem insignificant. That he could be dead and I hadn’t thought to call in weeks. Hurriedly, a quick text. His prompt responses.
The stories left aren’t meant to teach and riddle me toward some lesson. They are the bare bones and muscle of someone’s life. They have hefted themselves through forty-eight states and never regret not setting a foot in frigid North Dakota. They aren’t mine.
I went to see Easy Rider, a movie Richard talked about with light in his eyes. I walked into the cave of the theater and saw the screen: Peter Fonda smiling into the sun, relaxed on his motorcycle, Captain America. And Jimi Hendrix songs filled the theater, discordant and beautiful, and a man in the audience slurred with joy, “Jimi, my boy!” and I thought for a moment they were both Richard—the man bellowing and the biker on the screen. Everything seemed stamped with him: the bright acid trip in a New Orleans graveyard, the cracked lips from swallowing so much highway dust, the man yowling his memories alive in the dark theater. All I could think about was Richard. Rrat.
I remembered the leather vest Richard had proudly shown me. He had finished his pancakes and produced a cracked, black vest with patches from his various motorcycle clubs. This had been on him all those road trips, up and down the country. Watching the bikes rage across the screen, I realized I should have thought to ask more about his own rides, the people he met, the police batons that cut into his head.
In the theater, I was on edge. The images on the screen were bright and lush: skinny-dipping in a mountain pool, waves of guitar riffs washing over the audience. I thought of Rrat, and the stories he breathed into my life. I teared up at the final scene, when the round barrel of a shotgun blasts at the audience, at the bikers. Maybe we do live in a world already gone bad. And the stories are all we have to survive it.
It’s the month of fires. To the West, they burn all day, all night. The sun is burning a dreadful red. It looks like it’s dying. He can’t go outside anymore; his lungs hurt him terrible. He watches the wind take the flags on his lawn and whip them alive. Out of the corner of his eye, they look like animals running by, huge. He reads books about war; he wants to figure out why his father died in a field in France. Why he himself didn’t die the day after his eighteenth birthday, on the riverboat, the Mekong a storm of black under them. He and his blood brothers. Young Dave’s life wet on his face. The same face now aged, the creases like ironed pleats, water carving through rock. The body with three bullet holes and bad lungs. And the soul? What of it. It’s had plenty of scares over these sixty-seven years, maybe had parts shocked out of him over time. He’s been the small, sudden hill of a dead deer in the square of a clearing. He’s been a clear creek that’s so cold it makes the hand ache, a wild branch of blackberries choking through purple Moonseed, a two-lane highway crooked in the rearview mirror. He was good and bad; he was human and he was Rrat.
I finished the transcript. I typed out and ordered Richard’s life under headings like “On Growing Up,” “On Hanging with the Rich and Famous,” “The Real Biker and His Bar.” After I sent it to him, he called to say how much he liked it, how he wanted to take me out to dinner, that he’d been saving his money for “someplace nice at the Casino, where we get waited on.” I knew the casino he was talking about, the orange building that rose from the desert like a neon forest. It was one of his favorite places; sometimes when I called him I could hear an avalanche of coins in the background.
The last time I spoke to him, he told me that he thinks about me, worries about me being alone in the middle of the desert. I felt honor in this, to have this man looking out for me, to be able to call him a friend. We spoke right before I went to China to visit my brother and sister-in-law. In Shanghai, I wandered into some side-street store. I saw a small stone rat, its head sharp, alert. As I paid a few yuan, I realized I didn’t really know why Richard was called Rrat. I had always accepted it as truth, a self he shaped through time. I’ve kept the stone rat on my desk for years now, wrapped in parchment. I am still waiting to send it to him.
Originally from Milwaukee, WI, Nora Hickey now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A graduate of Kalamazoo College and University of New Mexico, her poetry has appeared in Narrative, The Massachusetts Review, Mid American Review, DIAGRAM, and other journals. She is member of the Dirt City writers collective and teaches at University of New Mexico and Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
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