Respectfully, I’d prefer snakes in the fireplace

Respectfully, I’d prefer snakes in the fireplace

I’ll never know for sure, but it’s possible I was the last living thing he ever saw.

If it’s true, I hope he realized I was only trying to help.

Part of my job is being trained to deal with death, which is not exactly what I expected when I applied for a position as a security officer in the gated community we’ve called home since the turn of the century.

I figured I’d be the guy with the clipboard, checking a list to make sure everyone who wanted to visit had his or her name on it.

Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

Little did I know back in summer 2012 how much more would be involved, stuff that’s second nature to me now, but the learning curve was steep indeed, especially when it came to death.

The call came across the scanner as a lift assist, and as I got ready to respond, my partner advised he’d been there for the same thing earlier that day. This was unusual but not unheard of since a majority of the residents are retirees who fall from time to time.

It’s a service I’d always been happy to provide because the results were immediate and visible, unlike so many calls that ended with an ambulance pulling out of a driveway, heading for the hospital.

Most of the time, we never knew what happened next.

But helping someone to stand up can be dangerous, and you’ve got to be prepared for anything once you knock on that door. I’d been on dozens of lift assists and was confident I knew what to do.

So I walked in, identified myself and knew immediately it was bad.

For one thing, the man was built like a beer barrel or an oil drum, not morbidly obese, just, well, very thick from shoulders to hips.

For another, he was in a position that reminded me of a sliding board, halfway between sitting and standing, looking like a ramp as he lay motionless in — and out — of a leather recliner.

His wife, whose red-rimmed eyes hinted at a long struggle, approached me slowly and asked, “Can you get him in the chair?”

I’m 6-feet-5, so I had leverage on my side, but her husband outweighed me by a good hundred pounds, maybe more. It was hard to tell, given his angled posture, but I thought I’d need help.

Which is what I told her.

“We’ve already had the emergency squad here once today, and I don’t want to be a bother,” she said. “Can you just try? Please?”

Which is how I found myself — half kneeling, half squatting — with my arms wrapped around his shoulders, my face up against his.

When he opened his eyes — his first sign of life since I’d arrived — I was startled by their bright blue intensity and the way they locked onto mine, as if memorizing my features. It was eerie, for sure.

But despite my best efforts and not wanting to hurt him (or me), I sat back to regain my bearings, and it was at that moment I realized his life had ended. His eyes were unblinking as I checked for a pulse, tried to hear a heartbeat, checked for even shallow breathing.

I looked up at his wife and asked if she wanted me to start CPR.

“No,” she said. “We talked about this. Just let him go.”

In the silence that followed, I moved away from the chair and watched as she sat on an arm, gently cradling her husband’s head.

At a time like that, the only thing you want to do is be of assistance in any way you can. You have to be respectful. You have to be sympathetic, but most of all, you have to be helpful, so you ask.

“Would you like me to call someone for you?” I said. “A family member? A friend? Anyone?”

She smiled that same tired smile I’d seen a few minutes earlier.

“You could call his hospice nurse,” she said. “Her number’s right there by the phone. She’s supposed to be here early in the morning, and now, well, she won’t have to drive all the way here.”

“Consider it done,” I said, amazed by her kindness toward others.

After that, as is the case whenever someone dies, things took on an inevitable momentum. I notified my partner, who notified the sheriff’s department, who notified the medical examiner, who notified the coroner as the wheels of protocol whirred.

As we waited for the necessary bureaucracy to unfold itself, I asked her how long she and her husband had lived in the community, where they were from, what they liked to do.

Just making conversation, a couple of strangers sitting across from each other in the middle of the night, passing the time as pleasantly as possible, given the circumstances.

“Did you go to the ocean often?” I asked, noticing nautical touches.

“Oh, goodness, yes,” she said. “We love the sunrise. So calming. ”

So I shared a couple of stories from the times my wife and I had witnessed the same thing as we sat on the beach, the sky glowing as the sun seemed to rise from the surface of the water itself.

“Do you ever see the dolphins?” she asked.

“They’re my wife’s favorites,” I said. “They make her so happy.”

“I’ll bet you make her happy too,” she said. “Am I right?”

“I guess you’d have to ask her,” I replied. “I hope so.”

And then the house got crowded as a stretcher was rolled in and preparations to transfer the body began, which I knew she probably didn’t want to see.

“You want to sit in the kitchen for a while?” I asked. “Let me talk to these men and I’ll join you as soon as I can. That be OK?”

Once again, she gave me that sad, knowing smile.

“Take your time,” she said. “You’ve got a job to do.”

In the weeks and months and years that have followed the events of that night, I’ve dealt with lost dogs and snakes in the fireplace, rowdy juveniles joyriding in golf carts, cable outages and downed power lines, domestic powder kegs and neighborly disputes.

I’ve seen the best and worst side of residents and their guests, experienced the frustration of timeshare owners who’ve lost their way, seen flat tires and watched as workmen arrive and continue hammering on roofs as hurricanes approach and the time just flies.

And all the while, I just try to do my best to be as helpful as I can.

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