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At first glance, Leo LeTellier looked like any other senior in the nursing home on a rainy Tuesday afternoon.

He relaxed quietly in his wheelchair, eating his peas, roast beef with gravy and a small cup of fruit. His coffee sat on the side of his tray, virtually untouched, and would remain there until the nurse comes to pick it up.

I always brought him a coffee actually worth drinking.

This wasn’t the first time I visited Leo in the nursing home, but it was the first time in a few months. Over the past two years he had fallen down a flight of stairs, broke both hips, some ribs, and contracted pneumonia. Normally I would sit and shoot the bull with him in the gas station while scratching tickets, but when he ends up here I would come and visit as often as I could.

“Jesus Christ, Leo! What happened to your foot?”

“I got MRSA. Don’t worry, it’s not the worst kind, but the treatable one. Damn bastard’s all infected and swollen.”

He often told me about his time there. His wife visited him every day, usually grumpy. He hated not being able to have a real conversation with most of the patients at the home.

After a while of talking he looked up at the clock, and I instantly knew what he wanted.

“I brought an umbrella so we can still go outside for your cigarettes.”

“I was just gonna say it’s time to go out. Always thinking. I like that.”

I wheeled him down the hall to the elevator and asked if he had his lighter.

“Don’t say that too loud. The nurses don’t want me smoking.”

“Leo, you’re 77 years old, you can do whatever the fuck you want at this point.”

“That’s what I tried telling them! It’s not like I’m going to live another 10 years without ‘em.”

Despite the crude language and one-liners, this stuck a nerve. I knew Leo’s time was coming, especially since he had said so since I met him four years before. I was worried that he couldn’t live alone anymore, considering the number of times he fell and severely hurt himself. Still, I never really thought of his death to be imminent. He seemed almost at peace about it, but I was not.

Instead of telling him, I just lit his cigarette for him. We talked for a couple of hours about all sorts of different topics: politics, the economy, sports, women, the whole nine.

“David, I really enjoy talking to young people like you, especially when they actually know what the fuck they’re talking about. You know a lot about the world around you, but a lot of young people today don’t. It’s refreshing to hold a conversation with you, because most kids your age care more about booze and pussy than about the bigger picture.”

With that, he pulls out another Marlboro Smooth. I lit it, and he took a deep drag and looked out past the misty air down the street.

His eyes shone a crystal blue I seldom saw in someone his age. His skin, though pale by his standards, still showed a tan pigment common of every French Canadian in the area. The tattoos on his forearms have long-since blotched and faded past the point where I could recognize them from my vantage point, but they still parlayed the tough S.O.B. that once towered over many a man. He sat with an air of dignity I didn’t often see. As I took this all in, I wondered if he noticed I was watching. More importantly, I doubt he cared.

As I wheeled him back into the building I noticed the pink wristband with his name next to the letters DNR. Do Not Resuscitate. I almost shuddered at the sight, but I tried not to let on that I had put two-and-two together.

I told him I’d stop by again soon and he shook my hand with a grip much stronger than someone in his condition might otherwise have. It said that he’s still living life the way he wanted; on his terms with no regrets.

Most importantly, it parlayed a quiet message that most others would feel the need to shout at the top of their lungs:

I have dignity, and not even death can take that away from me.

Now if only the nurses got the same message about his cigarettes.

Burning Loss

Burning Loss

Day's End

Day's End