Old Man’s Friend

Steve MerrymanStories2 Comments

“I wish I could die of pneumonia.”

It was a warm, May morning in 2007. I was driving Dad from his home in Sequim to Renton, on the other side of Washington state’s scenic Puget Sound. We were on our way to Greenwood cemetery to inter my mother’s ashes, and death was on Dad’s mind.

“What?” I asked, baffled.

My Dad

My Dad - the FireEater

“They made me get vaccinated for pneumonia. Back then we all got shots at the fire station. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. It made sense.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” I agreed. “The city didn’t want a bunch of sick firemen.”

“Yep.” A pause. “And we didn’t always go into the most healthy places.”

“‘Entering Healthy Places’ wasn’t exactly in the job description,” I said.

“True, that.” He smiled.

I wondered where Dad was going with this line of thought. Was he confused?

Mom didn’t die from pneumonia. She had Lupus. A weird malady causing her lungs to slowly crystalize. The official diagnosis was “congestive heart failure” because her heart was having to work twice as hard with half the oxygenated blood. One thing led to another and she had a stroke in July of 2006, which took away almost everything that made her Mom.

Dad never left her side. He rebuilt the house for wheelchair access. He fed her by hand. He gave her medication. He cleaned her diapers. He did everything.

He looked particularly haggard when I visited in October.

In the beginning, she had hope. They both did. But she didn’t improve. Her brain was too damaged. She eventually lost that hope and in the end simply refused her meds, allowing nature to take it’s course.

Six long, grinding months after her stroke, she died. It was Christmas Eve, 2006.

I thought about this as we drove to the cemetery with Mom’s ashes in the trunk.

Retrieving his train of thought, Dad said, “Pneumonia is a gentle way to go. No pain. You just drift off. Fade away.”

“I didn’t know that,” I said.

Mom’s ashes were buried in Greenwood cemetery next to my older sister, Teri, who died in 1983 after being hit by a car.


After Mom died, Dad soldiered on for six more years. I think he spent most of the time preparing for his own death. All his possessions were put in order; his papers collected; all debts paid; nothing was left to chance.

It was like he knew…

He called me on my birthday in 2012.

“Well,” he said after wishing me the best, “I know my expiration date.”


“Pancreatic cancer. Doctor gave me six months.”

After I recovered my wits, “Dad, I’m sorry to hear that. How you holding up?

“Not bad so far. My oncologist is a woman, and she’s gorgeous! Makes me want to stretch it to seven months just for a sponge bath reward.”

“That’s the spirit!”

He made it three months. His second to last week was excruciating as the cancer ate through his torso. His last week was spent in a morphine fog in a hospice bed at home. On the mantle, a portrait of Mom watched over him. I’m not sure he recognized her. He died seven years ago yesterday, on April 15, 2012.

But back in 2006, as we drove to bury Mom’s ashes, he wanted to talk about pneumonia.

“A nice, gentle slide into oblivion,” he said quietly.

“Dad?” I was starting to get worried.

“You know what they call pneumonia?,” he asked, looking at me.

“Dad, you okay?”

“You don’t get it now. But someday you’ll understand,” he said looking past me at something only he could see.

“Okay, Dad. What do they call pneumonia?”

“The Old Man’s Friend,” he said almost to himself, and turning, watched Puget Sound slide by in the window.



Steve Merryman is a cranky old fart. He writes about things that make him tick, and things that tick him off. You may object to his views; you may think he's a moron; and you might wish to tell him so. In return he would remind you that his lack of concern for your feelings is only exceeded by his indifference to your opinions. Good day, Sir!

2 Comments on “Old Man’s Friend”

  1. The last time I saw my Pop, he didn’t even recognize me. It was as if a stranger had come to visit – but I wasn’t surprised – he had last recognized me had been years previous to that.

    It was enough. And I made sure that I had told him everything I needed to say before the light was extinguished behind his eyes.

    1. That had to be hard for you.

      I was fortunate that my dad was still sharp until those last two weeks, when he lived from one morphine dose to the next.

      Three weeks before he died, I ordered him a cheeseburger from the hospital kitchen. He was able to eat half of it and we talked like old times. That was the last good memory.

      Later when the morphine ruled his life, he looked out the window of his hospital room. He had a great view of the San Juan Straits. He asked me if he was on a boat.

      The last week, when he was at home in the hospice bed, he looked at the rails encircling him and asked if he was on a train. I said no, but he just laughed like he didn’t believe me, and told me to get out of the way.

      It was funny and sad all at once. I just rolled with it and agreed with him most the time. My sister was freaked out and couldn’t handle the absurdity. In those situations, I think it’s better to be kind than truthful.

      Thanks for reading, John.

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