“There ain’t nothin’ wrong with my liver. I’ve been picklin’ it for forty years”. - Harpo
January 4, 2017, I got a call from Chad. He had just talked to Rebecca, one of Harpo’s three kids. Rebecca told Chad, “Daddy needs to go to the hospital, and he said he ain’t goin’ unless you or Foster take him”. Chad was three hours away, so it was up to me to get Harpo to the hospital.
We get to the emergency room in Oxford somewhere around 10pm. They get Harpo in a room and ask the usual questions. “What’s going on with you tonight, Mr. Harpole?”. His reply? “Well, I’m trying to croak”. It wasn’t long before they had him in a hospital gown, and several nurses took turns rubbing the veins in his arms to try and find one they could tap into to get an IV started. Every nurse that came in that night was cuuuuute, and after they all left, I asked Harpo to swap places with me. “Why?”, he asked. “So they can ask me to take off my clothes and rub my arms”. He laughed. And apparently getting an IV started on him takes an act of God. They tried both arms and his neck before finally finding a cooperative vein in his thumb. If that vein didn’t hold, the doctor said they would have to tap into a bone to get an IV started. Luckily, it never came to that.
After all the poking and prodding was done, the doctor came in sometime after 2am. He closed the curtain to the room behind him. It was just the three of us...the doctor on a little stool on the left side of Harpo’s bed, me, half-asleep in a chair on the other side of Harpo’s bed. The doctor never asked me to leave. “Mr. Harpole, you are a very sick man. You have a mass on your liver, and it’s probably cancer. You have fluid on your stomach, and it’s probably cancer. Your lymph nodes are swollen, and it’s probably cancer”. He continued on, and after everything came “...it’s probably cancer”.
The doctor left the room, Harpo rolled over and faces me, smiled and said, “Well, that wasn’t a very good prognosis, was it? Do you still want to swap places with me, Mr. Foster”. “I would if I could, Mr. Harpo”. “I wouldn’t let you, Mr. Foster”.
When Harpo went home on hospice, he only had two requests.
1. He wanted to go on one last trip.
2. He wanted to die in the RV that we bought him after his trailer burned down.
The Saturday after he got out of the hospital, Chad and I set about making sure he got his last two requests. We went and checked on his RV, but there was no way hospice was going to let him stay there. So Chad and I decided to go pick him up and take him on his one last trip. We rented the Electric Blue shack at the Shack Up Inn. He was already on morphine by the time we picked him up, and he was quickly becoming hard to understand when he talked. He was sitting in the front passenger seat talking to me as I was driving, trying to tell me stories like he used to, but the morphine got in his way. I listened as hard as I could. I took cues from his stories and responded like I thought I should. I didn’t want to stress him out anymore or make him try to be any clearer. So I smiled when I thought I needed to smile. I would nod when I thought I needed to nod. I would laugh when I thought I needed to laugh. But all along I could barely understand a word he said.
When we got to the Shack Up, Chad and I got Harpo under each arm and helped him shuffle up the front steps of the Electric Blue. Ashley, Chad's wife, kept a hand on him from behind to make sure he didn’t fall over backwards. The front door of the shack leads directly into a bedroom with a wingback chair and a fireplace, and the three of us managed to get him into the chair in one piece. That short walk from the car to his chair had him worn out already, and he just wanted to rest. Chad covered his legs up with a blanket, and Harpo just sat in his chair while we unloaded the car.
For the next hour and a half, Ashley, Chad and I sat around and listened to one of the greatest storytellers to ever live tell his last. He’d had enough.
We got him to the bed. He was ready for his next round of morphine, and as Harpo slipped off to sleep, Chad stepped outside to smoke.
I ended up falling asleep in the wingback chair at the foot of Harpo’s bed. He didn’t sleep well at all that night. At one point, he was stirring around enough that I got up and went to check on him. “What’s the matter, Mr. Harpo?”. “I’m aggravated, Mr. Foster”. That’s what he always called me. Mr. Foster. “What are you aggravated about, Mr. Harpo?”. “It’s taking too fucking long to die”.
He fell asleep not long after only to wake up again a short time later. This time he didn’t say anything. He pulled the covers back and sat there on the side of the bed. I woke up from my chair long enough to raise my camera and take a picture of him sitting there. It was the last picture I would take of him alive.
We took him back to his family’s house that Sunday morning and got him situated in his bed. He didn’t even know we were there or where he was. We each took longer than usual saying goodbye this time. This one would be for good.
Harpo passed away on January 11, 2017.