Essays

Last Day in Cheyenne

CONNIE KUHNS

Remembering her father's last days in a hospital in Wyoming, Connie Kuhns struggles with questions of mortality, memory and how to fulfill her father's dying wish.

How do you remember someone’s last days on earth?

A woman got on the bus at Johnson’s Corner. She sat next to me, although I offered her the seat behind me because there was more room. She was old. I helped her with her seatbelt. I didn’t feel like talking.

Her short white hair was brushed back like a rancher’s wife. The silver ring on her left hand was huge. I think it was a black stone. She was glamorous in that Georgia O’Keeffe kind of way. I stared at her hands as she placed her black leather jacket across the seat in front of us. I asked her if she rode motorcycles. Not since her husband died, she said.

“Are you coming from the airport?” she asked.

“Yes.”

She had been visiting her sister in Colorado and was heading home. I told her I had just flown into Denver from Vancouver and was headed to Cheyenne. She said she was from a small town in Nebraska “that you’ve never heard of.” I knew what she was going to say.

Alliance, Nebraska. Cattle Capital of the State. KCOW: the greatest call letters of all time. When we had a dollar to spare, Patti Nicholson and I would ride our bikes out to the radio station to buy demo 45s for ten cents apiece. Andy Williams. Maxine Brown. The park had a lily pond and a magical shooting fountain, which was restored just last year. Bulldogs. Football. Box Butte County.

I reached over and took her arm. “I was born in Alliance,” I said. “You look like my mother’s friend, Jean Schafer.”

My name is Jean Schafer,” she said, as if there could be two.

“I’m Connie Kuhns, Dean and Wilma’s oldest daughter.”

“How is your dad?”

“That’s why I’m here. He’s in a hospital in Cheyenne.”

So this is how it began: a long conversation with a woman who knew me as a child, who looked after my mother, a young wife ten years her junior. Jean’s four boys were legendary in the neighbourhood, kept in line occasionally by the leather strap that hung inside their back porch. She and her husband, Dick, made chokecherry wine with my parents in the summertime while we kids ran around barefoot and sweaty under a string of yellow bug lights. I hadn’t seen Jean Schafer in more than forty years. The last time was on the day we had moved away. I was twelve years old.

If the signs were any less obvious, I would have to have been unconscious. I knew then that my dad would probably die this trip. Jean Schafer was not on that bus for nothing.

I had my first McDonald’s hamburger in Cheyenne in 1967. My friend Rue Ann had to drive over there from our small town in the panhandle of Nebraska to get her contact lenses. Mom let me go along. The last time I was in Cheyenne was over twenty years ago. I was with my husband and newborn daughter. We were catching a connecting flight to Vancouver. Someone had parked in the handicapped parking space so there was no room for my dad’s van. I stormed around the airport in a fit of tears and anger, carrying my daughter, searching for the culprit who made even a moment of my dad’s life more inconvenient than it already was. I found him in the barber shop being interviewed. He just happened to be the governor of Wyoming.

My dad hugged my baby girl extra tight that day when we said goodbye. He always said that was what made her so shy.

It’s funny, the denial a person can be in when faced with something that’s not going to end well. My mom was staying in the hospital with my dad, but upon my arrival, my sister and I booked ourselves into Little America. I couldn’t wait to go shopping and have a steak. It was my birthday.

My mother examined my dad’s body like a nurse. She pointed to his lower back where his skin was deteriorating and asked me if I wanted to see the hole, which was now the size of a soccer ball. I declined. I was already taken aback by his appearance. His face and arms were swollen and his forearms were oozing. Seeping is the correct term, I think. He was so happy to see me. He had told my sister earlier that he knew he’d find a way to get me home.

I ran away in the summer of 1969. I had just flunked out of my first year of college and I knew that my dad would be furious. It seemed easier to run off to California with two girlfriends and no money, in an oil-burning Chevrolet that I had bought the night before for sixty-five dollars, than to face his wrath and disappointment. I still have the piece of paper he took notes on while talking to the highway patrol when he discovered I was missing. Linda Miller. Charlene Murphy. ’59 Chevy. Burbank. It was a horrible time for my mother, just one of many.

I went home a few months later to pick up my stereo and look after my siblings. Mom was in Denver, in the hospital with bleeding ulcers. I left the day after she was released. Dad asked me what he could do to make me stay. I was sitting in the swivel chair in front of the television. I had just announced that I was returning to California on the train the next morning. I made a joke that he could buy me a car, and then I turned the chair away from him so that he wouldn’t see me cry. I had gotten pregnant in California and I had to go back. I just couldn’t disappoint them again.

My Dad was in pain. I grabbed his hand and stroked his head. I introduced myself to the nurses and checked out all of his bottles and tubes. I was anxious to be alone with my mom and sister and to catch up. I remembered that three of my best friends from high school lived in Cheyenne now, and that I needed to call them. I knew that Bobbette worked in a hospital somewhere in town.

Dad liked to have the television set on. He couldn’t lift himself up high enough to see it, but he liked the sound. Most of the time it was on Fox News except when a good movie was playing. One night he described the action, scene by scene, of a favourite Western just by listening to the cowboys cock their guns and take cover behind some rocks. He was so smart. He remembered everything. But he was having some trouble making himself clear.

He had told my brothers the week before that he didn’t want to die in Wyoming. He made them promise to get him out of that place and get him home. That was his message. He was done. He was through. He couldn’t go on any more. My mother would get angry at him for giving up. “We’ve been through much worse,” she would say. “I haven’t hung in there for nothing.” Or something similar.

I would assure him, after my many conversations with his nurses in those first days, that he wasn’t dying. They all said that his wound would heal, but it would take time. He needed to eat. He was just weak from the infection and from a handful of successive operations to clean out his back. He told me how after the last one he thought he had died, and how he didn’t hurt any more, and how angry he was when he woke up.

When my dad began to refuse food, his nurses asked me to feed him. I could tell that they really liked him and wanted him to live. Even at the very end, one of his nurses said to me when I begged him to tell me what to do, “It’s really important to never give up hope.” But after a few days of trying to get him to eat, it was clear that he was doing it just because he loved me and not because he really wanted to live. Finally, I said that I couldn’t do it to him any more.

After that first night at Little America (with the best down pillows I’ve ever slept on), my sister and I moved into the hospital with our mother. They had a wing with rooms and baths just for visiting family members, at no charge. I left a phone message with my high school friend, Carol, and she came to see me immediately. She called another friend, Mary, and we spent a couple hours talking and drinking coffee down the street.

The hospital’s social worker was also an old classmate, Gayla. She was the one who told me that Bobbette was the unit clerk for my dad’s floor. Her desk was right outside his room. When we were seniors, my parents had let Bobbette live with us for a while. She had asked them personally. She was having some trouble at home that I didn’t know about, something about her dad. Bobbette was on vacation when we arrived in Cheyenne. She came back.

It was fitting that I should be surrounded by these women. They were my friends when my dad had his car accident back in the spring of 1967, right before our junior prom. Now, decades later, in a different place, they were my friends again. (And in the strangest twist of fate yet, my sister’s son was living with Tommy Lee, the Mötley Crüe drummer, as they filmed a “reality” show at the University of Nebraska. When Dad finally died, Tommy Lee shut down the filming and looked after my nephew.)

When I think back now, I find it hard to believe that the hospital just let us wander the halls, crying, eating and talking on our cellphones. We were living out our drama in every corner of that place. When we weren’t leaning against the walls drinking coffee, my sister and I would go out for walks, pray in the chapel, comfort our mother and then hit the mall.

One night we drove across the state line, down Highway 99, to our hometown to watch my sister’s youngest son play football in the high school homecoming game. It was a beautiful night. Crisp and clear. They crowned a king and queen at halftime. We sang our school song along with the band. The colours were vibrant. My heart was pounding. It felt like being on speed. It was all wrong and right.

There came a day when the hope had faded. I woke up knowing this would be the day. We overheard a nurse’s aid phone over to the kitchen. She asked that three lunches be sent over. “Make it nice,” she said. “Give them each a piece of cake.” She knew too.

I phoned my brothers in Nebraska to tell them they should come to the hospital. Poor Richard was on a job in West Virginia. He was alone and guilty in a hotel room. He had made that promise not to let Dad die in Wyoming. He wanted me to put Dad in a van and just drive across the state line. He couldn’t let go. Later, Rick and Rob smoked cigars in the van as they brought Dad’s ashes back home, so in a way it worked out.

Dad said to me, “How long?” I said, “Soon, Dad, soon you will be going home.” (What was I supposed to say? I could barely get any words out at all.) We gave him Dr Pepper on a sponge as we tried to figure out how to make this end for him. He talked non-stop. His last words of advice? Maybe even apologies? We couldn’t understand a word. Sometimes he would grab my arm and stare into my eyes so frantically and with such desperation while saying something over and over. Oh god, if only I could understand what he was trying to tell me.

I made sure that he knew I was sorry. I was sorry I had run away. I told him he was the best dad anyone could ever have. I was sorry for everything I had ever done that had made him worry. I sobbed. I have no idea if he understood me, but he wasn’t dead yet. In a moment of clarity, Dad did say that there were two little men in the room. One was up in the corner and the other was behind his bed. They had both come for him. He told one of them to “Get the hell out.” I was relieved to know that he was still in charge.

Finally we had a meeting with the doctors. We helped Mom sit down at the big table. We all agreed that Dad needed to rest. They would give him a shot to help him sleep.

We had gathered like this before, the morning after Dad had been discovered lying in a field. His van lay on its side. It had rolled over and crushed him. He had been alone in the field all night with his merchandise blowing all over the great plains. When he was finally discovered by a friend who recognized his van, it was almost too late. “I can’t feel my legs,” he said. The ground was frozen. I remember what it felt like under my feet when I walked through the crash site the next day.

We were all together then. I was just sixteen and the oldest of five siblings. The phone call came around 3: a.m. I was already awake and waiting.

“Connie. Go get your grandmother. Your dad’s had an accident.”

A neighbour pulled up outside, and Mom was gone. I stood in the dark in the hallway and made phone calls. I hoped I wouldn’t get in trouble for calling long distance. When it was light I took my brothers and sister to church. Finally, in my nice navy dress, I drove thirty miles down the highway to see my dad.

Mom said the first thing Dad wanted to know was if Dave had asked me to prom.

“Tell him,” she said.

I stood at my dad’s bed. His face and body were shredded and torn by pieces of glass. I held his hand and said, “Dave asked me to prom.” He squeezed my hand and cried.

That last night in Cheyenne, Karen and I and Mom said goodnight to Dad. He was in a very deep sleep and I doubt he heard us. Mom went to her room while Karen and I began watching Ever After on television. We knew we shouldn’t change into our pajamas; we knew we needed to stay up.

At about the place in the movie where Drew Barrymore gets sold to the old man, I wondered if I should take a cross up to Dad’s room, just in case there was any doubt about which direction he should be heading. Then the nurse appeared in the doorway.

“Your dad has just passed away. We checked his breathing and it was really slowing down. We didn’t have time to come and get you.” She hugged us.

Mommy?

We knocked at her door. And waited. I knocked again. We looked at each other and started to laugh. Suppose she had gone to bed and died as well. Then we heard a tiny sound and she opened the door.

Daddy’s dead.

She looked so small. Her room was dark except for the light from the hallway. She stood for a moment and then began gathering her things. Glasses. Her sweater. Kleenex. We went upstairs together in the elevator.

The nurses were removing all the tubes and bottles from his room when we arrived. He looked great. His skin was warm and pink. All of his swelling had gone down. We stood around his body and I rubbed his chest. I don’t think I had ever touched my dad’s chest in my life. We just kept saying how wonderful he looked, as if that was going to make any difference.

We were offered a priest. He came immediately. He was Jewish and Catholic and Greek Orthodox and very tall. He had a beard and wore a long black robe. Bases covered. We told him about the little men in Dad’s room and what Dad was trying to tell us. He said that the dying have their own language. They really do speak metaphorically.

We prayed. We stood around the hospital bed holding hands, sending Dad on his way. I hoped that he was still in the room with us. When Mom turned away, I grabbed a pair of scissors and clipped a lock of Dad’s hair. Later, I would rub some of his ashes on my neck. Please give me a piece of you.

The men from the funeral home looked like they had been in detox once or twice. But they were quiet and respectful. They waited until Mom had touched him one last time, then they took him away under a velvet cloth. It was four o’clock in the morning and they were wearing suits. I called my brothers again.

Read of a review of "Last Days in Cheyenne" in The Globe and Mail.

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CONNIE KUHNS

Connie Kuhns has a forty-year history as an essayist, journalist, photographer and broadcaster. Her essay “Strange Women,” (Geist 95), about women in Vancouver’s early punk scene, was a finalist for a National Magazine Award;  “Last Day in Cheyenne” (Geist 84) was named a “Notable Essay of 2012” in The Best American Essay series and a finalist for a Western Magazine Award;  and other essays have been finalists in publications ranging from the LA Review to Prism International to the New York Times Modern Love column, and the Southampton Review Frank McCourt Memoir Prize.  

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