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.

[gravityform id="17" title="false" description="false" ajax="true"]
<div class='gf_browser_unknown gform_wrapper your-village-form_wrapper' id='gform_wrapper_17' ><a id='gf_17' class='gform_anchor' ></a><form method='post' enctype='multipart/form-data' target='gform_ajax_frame_17' id='gform_17' class='your-village-form' action='/listening-to-johnny-cash-with-eddie/#gf_17'> <div class='gform_body'><ul id='gform_fields_17' class='gform_fields top_label form_sublabel_below description_below'><li id='field_17_7' class='gfield gfield_html gfield_html_formatted gfield_no_follows_desc field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible' ><h3 style="font-weight:800; font-size:34px;">Let's get started</h3> <p style="font-size:18px;">Fill out this form and we'll contact you with information about marketing with Little Village!</p></li><li id='field_17_4' class='gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible' ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' for='input_17_4_3' ></label><div class='ginput_complex ginput_container no_prefix has_first_name no_middle_name has_last_name no_suffix gf_name_has_2 ginput_container_name gfield_trigger_change' id='input_17_4'> <span id='input_17_4_3_container' class='name_first' > <input type='text' name='input_4.3' id='input_17_4_3' value='' aria-label='First name' tabindex='2' aria-invalid="false" placeholder='First name'/> <label for='input_17_4_3' >First</label> </span> <span id='input_17_4_6_container' class='name_last' > <input type='text' name='input_4.6' id='input_17_4_6' value='' aria-label='Last name' tabindex='4' aria-invalid="false" placeholder='Last name'/> <label for='input_17_4_6' >Last</label> </span> </div></li><li id='field_17_5' class='gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible' ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_17_5' ><span class='gfield_required'>*</span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_text'><input name='input_5' id='input_17_5' type='text' value='' class='large' tabindex='6' placeholder='Company name' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" /></div></li><li id='field_17_3' class='gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible' ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_17_3' ><span class='gfield_required'>*</span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_email'> <input name='input_3' id='input_17_3' type='text' value='' class='large' tabindex='7' placeholder='Your email address' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false"/> </div></li><li id='field_17_8' class='gfield gform_validation_container field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_' ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_17_8' >Email</label><div class='ginput_container'><input name='input_8' id='input_17_8' type='text' value='' /></div><div class='gfield_description'>This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.</div></li> </ul></div> <div class='gform_footer top_label'> <input type='submit' id='gform_submit_button_17' class='gform_button button' value='SUBMIT' tabindex='8' onclick='if(window["gf_submitting_17"]){return false;} window["gf_submitting_17"]=true; ' onkeypress='if( event.keyCode == 13 ){ if(window["gf_submitting_17"]){return false;} window["gf_submitting_17"]=true; jQuery("#gform_17").trigger("submit",[true]); }' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_ajax' value='form_id=17&amp;title=&amp;description=&amp;tabindex=1' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='is_submit_17' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_submit' value='17' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_unique_id' value='' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='state_17' value='WyJbXSIsIjlmNzc1YTEyZmZjNmYyODk5Mzk0NDM3ZjRlOGYyZDNmIl0=' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_target_page_number_17' id='gform_target_page_number_17' value='0' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_source_page_number_17' id='gform_source_page_number_17' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_field_values' value='' /> </div> <p style="display: none !important;"><label>&#916;<textarea name="ak_hp_textarea" cols="45" rows="8" maxlength="100"></textarea></label><input type="hidden" id="ak_js_1" name="ak_js" value="193"/><script>document.getElementById( "ak_js_1" ).setAttribute( "value", ( new Date() ).getTime() );</script></p></form> </div> <iframe style='display:none;width:0px;height:0px;' src='about:blank' name='gform_ajax_frame_17' id='gform_ajax_frame_17'>This iframe contains the logic required to handle Ajax powered Gravity Forms.</iframe> <script type='text/javascript'>jQuery(document).ready(function($){gformInitSpinner( 17, '' );jQuery('#gform_ajax_frame_17').load( function(){var contents = jQuery(this).contents().find('*').html();var is_postback = contents.indexOf('GF_AJAX_POSTBACK') >= 0;if(!is_postback){return;}var form_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_wrapper_17');var is_confirmation = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_confirmation_wrapper_17').length > 0;var is_redirect = contents.indexOf('gformRedirect(){') >= 0;var is_form = form_content.length > 0 && ! is_redirect && ! is_confirmation;if(is_form){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_17').html(form_content.html());if(form_content.hasClass('gform_validation_error')){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_17').addClass('gform_validation_error');} else {jQuery('#gform_wrapper_17').removeClass('gform_validation_error');}setTimeout( function() { /* delay the scroll by 50 milliseconds to fix a bug in chrome */ jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gform_wrapper_17').offset().top); }, 50 );if(window['gformInitDatepicker']) {gformInitDatepicker();}if(window['gformInitPriceFields']) {gformInitPriceFields();}var current_page = jQuery('#gform_source_page_number_17').val();gformInitSpinner( 17, '' );jQuery(document).trigger('gform_page_loaded', [17, current_page]);window['gf_submitting_17'] = false;}else if(!is_redirect){var confirmation_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('.GF_AJAX_POSTBACK').html();if(!confirmation_content){confirmation_content = contents;}setTimeout(function(){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_17').replaceWith(confirmation_content);jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gf_17').offset().top);jQuery(document).trigger('gform_confirmation_loaded', [17]);window['gf_submitting_17'] = false;}, 50);}else{jQuery('#gform_17').append(contents);if(window['gformRedirect']) {gformRedirect();}}jQuery(document).trigger('gform_post_render', [17, current_page]);} );} );</script><script type='text/javascript'> if(typeof gf_global == 'undefined') var gf_global = {"gf_currency_config":{"name":"U.S. Dollar","symbol_left":"$","symbol_right":"","symbol_padding":"","thousand_separator":",","decimal_separator":".","decimals":2},"base_url":"https:\/\/\/wp-content\/plugins\/gravityforms-asdf111aasdfffs-nope","number_formats":[],"spinnerUrl":"https:\/\/\/wp-content\/plugins\/gravityforms-asdf111aasdfffs-nope\/images\/spinner.gif"};jQuery(document).bind('gform_post_render', function(event, formId, currentPage){if(formId == 17) {if(typeof Placeholders != 'undefined'){ Placeholders.enable(); }} } );jQuery(document).bind('gform_post_conditional_logic', function(event, formId, fields, isInit){} );</script><script type='text/javascript'> jQuery(document).ready(function(){jQuery(document).trigger('gform_post_render', [17, 1]) } ); </script>