We lost another victim of Hurricane Katrina last night. No, he won’t be in the statistics of the hundreds of lives lost across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. But he should be.
Mr. Walden lived along the Gulf Coast near Pascagoula, Mississippi. He’d been up and active and managing his life until recently, when it just got a little too much. What is a “little too much” for a 97 year old retired Coast Guard lifer, I may never know.
I don’t know much about Mr. Walden’s life, but I do know that it was a full one. If you ask him, he spent most of his life on the sea, traveling all over the world in the Coast Guard, though its early days. He retired in 1947, at the age of 40 and went on to work on boats and do other labors of love in Mississippi.
His oldest son, Lester, was also a lifer in the Coast Guard, following his father’s steps. He is now retired, too, and when Hurricane Rita approached, as usual, he drove over to Mississippi and brought his dad back to stay with him here in our little oasis campground of Shady Acres.
After we came back from evacuating, returning to the destruction and anarchy left in Hurricane Katrina’s wake, I checked in with the long timers here in the campground to see how they fared and offering what help I could. I got to spend some time visiting with Lester and his father as they would sit on the porch in the early mornings and evenings when the temperatures dropped.
Tall and think, barely flesh on bone, Mr. Walden was still a fiery spirit. He would talk about the past, the present, and the future, proud of his age but weary from the recent struggles with his poor health. While standing up took some effort, he would walk around with little help, dragging his long clear tube to his oxygen tank all over his son’s mobile home. He’d wipe non-existent sweat from his brow in the heat and his tattoos would shift and move across his long boney arms, stories of a more exciting past.
You could see that he was once a lean, strong man, not afraid of work nor sweat. I’m sure he gave his supervisors a hell of a time with his own opinions, but stuck to the guns of rule and discipline.
One morning, I stopped by to find Lester hurrying around in a panic. He had to go back to storm ravaged Mississippi to track down medicine for his father. He needed the paperwork and to talk to the doctors and get the prescription, and it was near to impossible to do that with local officials in Alabama, so he had to figure out how to get through the back roads. But he didn’t want to leave his father alone. So I volunteered.
I quickly ran to take a shower and grab some paperwork and brought it back to the mobile home. Lester left me with instructions on what his father ate for lunch and his medications and then headed out in his truck for parts known but unknown. From Mobile to New Orleans, all along the Gulf Coast, barely a town, highway, or building is left standing. Bridges are destroyed, homes straddle roads – what should be a two hour round trip at most is now an adventure and nightmare.
Mr. Walden was napping in the chair, the television on full blast. I turned it down a little and sat in front of it to get some work done. I babysat one or twice as a kid and hated it. I never cared for children, literally and figuratively, so babysitting is not something I’m familiar with in any way, shape or form. But caring for the sick, injured, and ailing, this is something I know well. Too well.
I got about two hours of work done when it was time for lunch. I woke up Mr. Walden and helped him get up and followed behind his tall frame guiding the oxygen tank leash as he headed for the bathroom. While in there, I prepared his lunch, mashed sweet potatoes and fruit. Lester told me that sweet potatoes were his favorite and he had some already prepared.
We ate together and chatted a bit, about odds and ends. He kept asking me how I got there. I told him I walked. He’d tilt his head and look at me strangely. “You walked all that way? Why?”
I reminded him who I was and that I lived only a couple trailers down, and that calmed him down a little. We talked about the president, the hurricane, the poor suffering people who lost their homes, and about the crap on television.
He ate only a little bit and then slowly drifted back to sleep. I cleaned up and attacked more paperwork, getting a lot of odds and ends I’d been putting off done.
“I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. You know I love you.”
I looked up. Mr. Walden had his eyes open, his arm up and over his head. He was watching me, an odd, but gentle look on his face. “You know I love you. I love you more than anything.”
“That’s nice, Mr. Walden. Thank you.”
“Tell me you know I love you. I do love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. You are the most important thing to me in the world. I love you so much. You know I love you, right?”
His whispery voice was almost singing as he said “I love you” over and over and over again.
“I love you, too.”
He leaned forward, arms on his knees. “I will always love you. Do you know that? I have always loved you. I will be there for you forever. No matter what. I love you. I love you. You are the best thing in the world and I love you so much.”
He slowly leaned back, his voice growing softer. “I love you. I love you. I love you. You know I love you. I love you….” and once again he was asleep.
I looked down at my papers, my busy work, and found a drop of water had blurred the ink. I touched my face and found that I was crying. I’m a horrible crier. My nose turns red and starts to drip and it’s hard to breath, so it is very rare that I cry without knowing it. Why?
Why was I crying? I knew that he was on medication that made him sleeping and that I wasn’t whoever he was talking to. Why should his rambling effect me so much?
My mother always told me she loved me. Over and over and over again. She would insist upon telling me and saying “you know that I love you”, as if demanding that I reassure her. My father has only recently learned how to say it, but it comes with a punch in the arm and insulting jokes to hide the tenderness. My husband tells me he loves me dozens of times every day. Early in our marriage, he would tell me over and over and over again, reassuring me of his love. I have to admit that I felt totally loveless and unlovable for a very long time in my life, and his unconditional love went a long way to healing those wounds.
I could use those excuses for my tears, but there was something more. I stared at the wet spot on the paper for the longest time. Why? Why this? What was it about his words? Or was it the way he said them?
Ninety-seven is old. There is no doubt about it. He knew how old he was, and was proud and determined to reach 99. He told me that he didn’t want to be 100. That was just a little too much. Ninety-nine would be good enough. So he understood he didn’t have much longer to live. We’d talked a little about that. He was a fighter but he wasn’t afraid. He told me of watching men die in World War II, and that death was reality. You hate it, you fight it, but it will get you in the end. He was glad to be with his son, and to have his family nearby, and he was tired. Tired of the nurses, medicine, struggle…just tired.
I’ve had a lot of death and loss in my life. Haven’t we all. I’ve wondered often about death, as we all have. In a game we played years ago, I was asked to choose my final words if they were the last words I would say before I died. They were “I love you”.
And here I was, looking at this 97 year old man who had fought a brave fight all of his life, knowing his time was short, and he couldn’t stop saying “I love you” like he was releasing the feelings of years and years of imprisonment and needing to make up for lost time. Like he knew that these were going to be his last words.
The next few hours, he’d sleep then wake up and more “love yous” would return. Then he’d wake up more and we’d talk a little, and then he’d drift back to his nap.
Hours later, Lester returned, frazzled and stressed out. He’d had to take back roads to get around the damage and destruction and they gave him grief, but he got the medication and paperwork he needed to begin the process of hooking his father up with services in Alabama. He tried to pay me but I refused. This is not what we are hear for. I punched him in the arm and said, “Don’t insult me.” I thought he’d never stop grinning.
I’d stop in when I could over this last week, saying a quick hi to his dad. This past weekend, most of his family came by for a visit. Grandchildren, great grandchildren, and more. The kids were playing games on the floor and the others were sitting around the mobile home, and one young woman was holding Mr. Walden’s hand, sitting on the arm of his chair. Lester introduced me to everyone, telling the story of the “love yous” that I’d told he and his sister about. They all laughed and Lester pointed to one of the younger women and said that she is probably who Mr. Walden thought I was. We all laughed some more.
I kissed Mr. Walden on the cheek and told him to enjoy his family. He said that they were wonderful and he was so lucky to have them all here. He looked more tired than last I’d seen him. I knew that Lester was fighting to get him to eat, and if it were possible, he looked thinner. I knew he loved having the family there, but it tired him out, too.
Yesterday afternoon, as I walked up to the campground office for my evening shift, Lester came running out of the mobile home calling to me. He put his hand on my shoulder and pulled me towards him.
His words were hoarse. “Dad’s taken a turn.”
Turn? My brain translated the term. Turn? Turn around the block? Finally gone to the hospice nearby that Lester was negotiating with? Southern synonyms for phrases I’m very familiar with still catch me off guard and it takes some processing to figure them out. I didn’t have to work too hard as Lester saw my confusion and quickly filled in the blanks.
“The nurse is with him now. His kidneys have shut down and they say it won’t be long now.”
That’s probably not the best response to “My father is dying” that I’ve ever offered, but my brain locked up with grief.
I hugged Lester and told him how sorry I was. I promised that I would come by later that evening, but probably first thing in the morning for a visit. I should have just walked right into the mobile home, but I knew Charlie was waiting for me at the office. I knew if I went inside, I’d be there for hours, so I hugged Lester again and told him to call me if he needed anything and that I would be there first thing in the morning.
Early this morning, I headed out to see if they were awake, and when it looked like they weren’t, I started out on my walk, knowing they would be moving by the time I returned. As I passed by, Lester pushed open the door and rushed towards me. Then stopped.
I knew. But I knew he had to say the words. My heart stopped. Time passed and left us behind, a little quiet pair, staring at each other. He didn’t want to say the words and I didn’t want to hear them.
“Dad passed about two o’clock last night.”
I hugged him and we said dumb things. This short, stout, Coast Guard solider fought back the emotions, having been through so much over the past few hours. I asked him if he’d already called family. “I called the ones who needed to know. The rest – well, who cares.”
Yeah, well, that’s the way of it, isn’t it.
The move out of the path of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, away from the scheduled medications and care, was just too much change for Mr. Walden. The destruction of everything he knew, and the diaspora of his friends to other parts of the state and the country, took away what little connection he had to what was left of his old life. His fragile strength couldn’t handle the change. He might have hung on a few months or years, but all of this was just too much.
But I will always remember him, for his strength and his love, whether or not it was directed at me or to who he thought I was. He taught me that love is eternal, and you can never say it too much.