Previously, I began telling stories of some of the military veteran hospice patients I was privileged to serve as a patient volunteer. Their stories continue ….
My next patient, Mr. Glenn, was a terminal cancer patient who lived with his grandson in a small house perched on a mountainside, two counties distant from my home.
Glenn was articulate and ambulatory, though in considerable pain, and I thoroughly enjoyed our time together. His was my introduction to the heart-breaking family dynamics so often involved in end-of-life situations.
Glenn was divorced, living in his remote house alone when his cancer was diagnosed. Since his two grown daughters each lived at considerable distance, and couldn’t be troubled to assist their dying father, the caregiving role landed squarely on his grandson. Butch was a bachelor who ran a home-improvement business in the county, but he gave up his business and moved in with his grandfather to tend him in his final days. To be able to stay at home, Butch converted his trade into making wooden wishing wells, play houses and lawn ornaments to support himself and his grandfather from home.
The maturity and good spirits of this young man always impressed me enormously. Whenever I arrived for my weekly visit with Glenn, Butch would cheerfully greet me in the driveway, standing beside his truck, ready to go down the mountain for his weekly grocery shopping trip. He never gave any indication that he felt imposed upon by the situation, the burdens of caring for his grandfather, or the abandonment of responsibility by the rest of his family. Our time together was limited to his departure and return from his weekly supplies run, but I always saw in him a degree of love and caring rare for someone so young.
My visits with Glenn were always enjoyable. Even in his pain, his sharp mind clearly showed through. He had been a chemical engineer who joined the Navy in 1940. His first project was to perfect a process to stabilize red phosphorous, so it could finally be used as a primer for explosives.
He turned his patent over to the US government and was rewarded with a commission in the US Navy. Following Pearl Harbor, he was rushed to the Aleutian Islands as a brand-new Lieutenant Commander to command a tiny outpost “defending” his microscopic island from Japanese invasion.
Glenn always spoke of the Aleutians in derogatory terms, declaring that the worst thing we could have done to the Japanese Empire was to let them have the useless islands, and spend their resources defending them from invasion. He seemed disappointed that the attack never came, so he could have abandoned his rock to their hapless troops. In his wry wit, he told me the Japanese were way smarter than the US Government when it came to defending islands from invasion, in the far north at least.
I remembered enough inorganic chemistry to be able to ask occasional intelligent questions, and Glenn delighted in telling me more than I ever thought I would want to know about phosphorous and the remarkable phosphate ion. Following the war, he had spent a career as a research chemist with Kodak, earning numerous patents, and he was a wealth of information about photochemistry. Every week I found myself looking forward with great anticipation to my sessions with this marvelous veteran.
I never did learn much about the family dynamics that led to his dying of cancer on a remote mountainside with only his grandson attending him, beyond the basics. But he never showed any sort of bitterness or resentment. The mutual love between Glenn and Butch was clear in everything I saw.
Every visit, Glenn needed to rise from his recliner and use his walker to get to the bathroom. As a patient volunteer, my job was to assist him up and down, and with his walker, but nothing else. But when somebody needs more help than that, you do what needs to be done without regard to the rules. As time went by, he needed more and more help with this procedure, and I could tell that his energy was slipping away.
So, it was not really a surprise when the hospice organization called to say that he had finally passed. I never knew how well his funeral was attended, or whether any of his family besides his devoted grandson Butch were there, or even whether he received the military honors that he had earned in his wartime service. But I wrote a card of several pages to Butch, and hoped, perhaps, that a part of it was shared with at least someone who would have cared.
These World War II veterans are a national treasure that has almost completely expired now. Take every opportunity you can to warmly greet any old veterans you encounter. Spend a while with them, listen to their stories and let them know that there is someone who understands and appreciates their military service. That is really all they ask of us.