“I met Ward when he was a patient at the University of Washington Hospital. Another person I knew was there, fighting off a bad reaction to an experimental drug that caused her to retain water. When it got to the point that she could no longer walk, friends called an ambulance delivering her to the docs for their care.
She had been in hospital for two days when I went by to say hello. She had occasionally joined my group of speakers. I knew she had no family living nearby and would probably welcome a visit. The hospital is close to where I live so I headed there after taking my friend Sage for a walk along the lake behind Husky stadium.
When I entered Joyce’s room, she welcomed me with a big smile. After telling me, she was fine and the swelling was going down, she told me, “Go down to room 141. There is a guy in there that could use a visitor. Go ahead, go!”
From previous encounters with her, I knew it was futile to lollygag around; she would harass me until I did whatever she wanted.
“Usually, I would check with a nurse before entering a room to see what was what and to shore up for whatever might be coming my way. There wasn’t a nurse at the station, so I continued down the hall to 141. I knocked. I heard a feeble “come in,” so I pushed my way into the room.
“Jesus! The only thing I could concentrate on when I saw him was that his head was encircled by a metal halo held securely by large screws. On the top of his shaved head was what looked like an oil derrick coming out of the top of his head.
“Hi, come on in. Don’t worry; it doesn’t hurt. The brain doesn’t have any nerve endings, so it’s a lot scarier to you than it is to me.”
Obviously, the look on my face had given it away.
“Come in. Have a seat.”
“I approached the bed even though one part of my brain was trying to convince me that I was needed elsewhere – now.
“I am Ward. I guess I am a ward of the hospital rather than Batman’s ward. I’ve always wondered what that was all about! Haven’t you?” He laughed as he played with the words.
He had a great smile that made me a little less nervous and less afraid of what saw. I wonder if that feeling was generated by my fear of ever being in a similar situation to this poor guy.
“I see you noticed the little construction site on my head. Don’t worry; the first time anyone sees it, they are bowled over. The docs shoot the meds directly into my brain. Take a look!” I passed on getting any closer and looking down the derrick into his brain. I don’t know if I would have looked at his brain or not, but I was damned sure not getting any closer.
“He laughed, waving off his suggestion with a question. “What brings you here?” I told him about Joyce down the hall and how she blew up full of water. I told him it was her idea that brought me to his room.
“She’s a great lady. When she was first brought down the hall towards her room, she stopped her gurney so she could say hello to me. I was sitting out in the hall, scaring the shit out of everybody in sight when she arrived. She didn’t seem to notice my little headgear at all. She told me who she was, where she was born, everything about her malady, and how she was looking forward to me visiting her as soon as they got her situated. I’ll tell ya; it was a mighty nice change from how some react.”
Funny how fast I grew accustomed to how he looked. Besides the headgear, he had all the tell signs on his skin accompanied by the sunken eyes that had seen better days. I told him about my experiences with Joyce, ramping them up for the sake of levity at her expense. She would not have minded seeing how he was laughing at the exaggerations that were pretty transparent.
“She has been down here a couple of times a day checking in to make sure I haven’t broken out when the guards were doing a shift rotation.” He got a kick out of that, laughing until he started to cry. He pulled it together as quickly as he started to lose it.” She’s read to me. My eyes can only handle reading for a few minutes when I’m feeling my best. It’s nice to listen to her. She has a soothing voice.”
I sat next to his bed, wondering what to talk about when he said, “I won’t be here for long. Doctors give me all that positive BS, but I know there is no slipping out of this mess. This is it. This is where it ends. Right here in this room so far from where I’d like to be.”
The silence dragged on until I asked him where he would like to be.
“You ever been to Devils Tower in Wyoming?”
I told him I took a solo trip a few years ago to visit several sacred sites in Wyoming. We talked a little about Cody, the Shoshone, Wind, and Bighorn Rivers, where I’d ridden rafts, hanging out in Thermopolis, the wild of it all. He mentioned the loneliness that seeps through the vast expanse of mountains and wildflowers. We carried on trading stories of our favorite places.
“If you could revisit one place again, which one would it be?”
“I’d go back to Medicine Wheel,” I replied.
“I had read about it and decided to make the trek. I followed my map, driving up through the snow to a small parking lot at the base of the hill. I was sitting there wondering if I should change from shorts into warmer pants when the forestry person approached me. Not sure what she was, but she was there at the foot of the hill. She must have come out of a hut when she spotted my jeep pulling up the hill. She said hello and then immediately asked me if I had any tribal affiliations. I made some remark, about clans that she seemed to enjoy. She gave me encouragement to change and hike up the hill to where the wheel is located. I did. It’s a pretty good hike.”
“I know. I’ve been there a number of times. Lived in a cabin in the valley, you look down over from the wheel,” He said.
“Wow! That must have been nice.” I said. He nodded. “As I got close to the top of the hill, a young lady who was volunteering for the summer approached me. She was a student somewhere, can’t remember, in the south somewhere. Anyway, she told me all about the wheel, the critters scurrying around, why the ribbons were attached to the fence, where she was living, and how much she loved being on this mountain top sharing it all with the few tourists that made the trip. Her enthusiasm was magic.”
“I loved going there. Listening to the wind talk to all who would listen.” He quietly added.
I could see the profound sadness in him that he hadn’t shown moments before. He wanted to go home to listen to the wind. I wanted to take him – we sat saying nothing for a bit.
“I worked for the forest service for a number of years. When I got really sick, I had to give it up. I was assigned to the park that encompasses the tower. I think I can still remember parts of my introduction to the tourists and climbers that flocked to the tower.
He took a minute resettling himself in his bed.
“ Here goes:
“Devils Tower stands 1267 feet above the Belle Fourche River. This 1347-acre park is covered with pine forests, woodlands, and grasslands. Deer, prairie dogs, and other wildlife scamper all over the land. Devils Tower is also known as Bears Lodge. It is a sacred site for many American Indians. It was President Roosevelt who proclaimed Devils Tower the first national monument in 1906.”
He caught his breath for a moment before continuing.
“I would go on to share the story of the seven little Indian girls who climbed up a tree to escape, the bear that was chasing them. As the tree grew to assist them in their escape the bear grew in size and determination. He clawed the tree as it grew, though he was not able to catch the kids who changed form flying off to safety. There are other versions, some long and some short. The claw marks on the stone are from the bear. I never heard what happened to that bear. The girls became what we call the seven stars, or the Pleiades ” He laughed when he finished talking.
“The Kiowa call it “tso-aa” meaning Tree Rock. That is where I visit when I shut my eyes. That is where I hope I go when this ends.” When he said that, he waved his arm in a circular motion.
We talked about the fields of wild lupine, the challenge of the Beartooth range, early explorers, and what it was like to be a gay man in Wyoming. He didn’t say much about that, but I got the drift that it wasn’t easy.
“When I began to get sick, I had to leave. I needed to try these last-ditch methods, just in case.”
Our swapping of yarns was interrupted by three doctors who were there to do whatever it was they were there to do. He protested, asking them to come back later. They said they needed to administer some meds. I was asked to leave. I took his hand, giving him a squeeze. He thanked me for the visit and I exited the room.
I felt like I’d known him all my life-
I took a few moments to pull it together before returning to Joyce’s room.
Joyce was carrying on about what she was going to do when she got out of the hospital to a couple of ladies who had joined her while I was gone. When I walked in, she seemed to read my mind and emotions.
“Great guy, huh?” That is all she said when she completed reading me. I nodded a reply.
I stuck around for a few saying my goodbyes. I waved adios to Joyce on my way out the door, telling her I would call tomorrow. I wanted to go back down to Ward’s room to talk some more about the freedom of the Wyoming sky. As I passed the nurses station, one of the nurses told me the doctors were still in his room. She further stated that he wouldn’t be in the position to receive visitors until morning. I knew that sounded damn weird, but I let it go. I thought I might come by the following afternoon.
When I called Joyce late in the morning, she told me Wade had died about nine-thirty.
He was peaceful at the end, she said.
If there is anything to all of this, I hope he is wandering the hills and valleys picking wild iris and lupine just within sight of Devil’s Tower.”
*The photo on this posting is a Getty Image chosen for privacy reasons.
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