Listening to Johnny Cash with Eddie

I could tell he had been a big man, but the cancer had eaten away at him, thinning him to an elongated skeleton in the bed. His eyes were red-rimmed and, as he slept, his right one didn’t close all the way, so I could see the eyeball between the lids. I pulled the chair close to the bed. After a while, I stood and took the sponge, soaked it in water and asked, “Eddie? Are you thirsty? Do you want some water?”

An inarticulate grunt told me he did. I placed the sponge in his mouth, which he immediately clamped shut. He sucked in the water from the sponge, making satisfied noises. I soaked the sponge again, and a third time. Finally, “Oh, that’s good,” he said, “Thank you.”

The volunteer coordinator had told me that he had hours to live, a day at the most. It was midnight and volunteers would be with him around the clock, until his last breath, except when his daughter, his last remaining relative, could get away from her job. I was surprised that he was still around at midnight the next night. I was even more surprised that he was awake. He didn’t speak much, and he fell asleep within a half an hour, but not only was he awake, but he said he knew I was a hospice volunteer and he knew he was dying. His sleep was troubled. He called out a name “Lisa,” and moaned, “I’m sorry.” I’d have taken his hand, but he was a seventy-five year old man from rural Iowa.

I was surprised again two days later when I arrived to find him wide awake and eager to talk. Lisa, it turned out, had been his wife. She had had a stroke and died five years prior. He watched her die as he waited for the ambulance. But that’s not what bothered him. “I never really said I was sorry for the way I treated her when I was still drinking.”

People who know they’re dying know they don’t have time to waste. If they’ve got something to say, they usually say it right away, even if they don’t know you very well.


As he sat in the chair in my discharge planner’s office, Richard was clearly exhausted, but his shirt was flawlessly ironed and his tie was tight. It was clear why the family had chosen him to speak for them; he was all composure and competence. “It’s difficult to coordinate all these services,” he said, “and it’s frustrating to have to give the same insurance and financial information to all of these different people.”

“You know what I’m going to say.”

“I know. I realize that mom isn’t going to live much longer than a couple of months, and I know you’re going to suggest that we talk to the hospice at home.”

“It’s a great hospice, one of the best in the state. If I call them now, I would be surprised if they didn’t have the hospital bed and oxygen in your mother’s house by tomorrow.”

“I can’t. My mom can’t. None of us can. To us, it’s giving up. Even knowing what we know, we still hope for a miracle.”


The last time I saw Eddie, he was home in Kalona. He was excited. His daughter had just given him a Johnny Cash compilation, The Sun Years, the one that had the hits from the ‘50s on it, from when he and Lisa were first married. “I wanted to play these songs for you. You said you’d want to listen to some Johnny Cash, and I wanted to make sure I played him for you. I’ve always felt that he knew what it was like. Life. The world. Trouble. You know.” We went quiet as “Folsom Prison Blues” began.

When the CD ended, and I was getting ready to go, Eddie said, “I wasn’t ready to die when I was in that hospital. This last month has been a gift. I got saved. And when I got saved, I realized that Lisa wouldn’t have stayed with me if she hadn’t forgiven me. I believe she’s waiting for me. I’m ready now.”

Eddie died, of course, not too long after I last saw him. But he got a miracle, probably a better one than a cure. He took the extra weeks that he lucked into, looked at his life and found a meaning and a forgiveness that he could embrace. Ceasing to pursue a cure meant that he could turn his attention from prolonging his life to making his death mean something. Richard’s mother? I don’t know. I hope so, but I worry.

Listening to Johnny Cash now, especially the dark and guilty songs, I always think of Eddie, who loved Cash and passed that love on. And I think that many of the things that we call “entertainment” engage us precisely because they look into the darkness and the heaviness of life and find a way to convey it in a way that we can embrace. We look or listen and say, “this singer, or writer, or whatever knows what it’s like. Life. The world. Trouble.” I think of Eddie when I watch Deadwood or read King Lear.

Guess things happen that way.

Those interested in volunteering at Iowa City Hospice, or accessing its services, should check out its website,, or call (319) 351-5665.

The Palliative Care Team at University Hospitals uses volunteers. If you’re interested, contact UIHC volunteering at, or (319) 356-2515.

If you are a University of Iowa student, Patrick Dolan and Dr. Ann Broderick teach a service learning course combining Iowa City Hospice work with academic study of the hospice movement and end-of-life issues. Email Pat Dolan at for further information.