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 After Thanksgiving dinner at my grandmother’s home - most of which was spent sitting in the living room, watching Grandma and my little cousins play with the enormous, loud slot machine (it was like a Jeff Foxworthy joke) - my parents dropped me off back at cousin Denny’s so I could get back to writing (Goddamn, books are big). Didn’t talk to them for a few days, until my mother - the supervising nurse at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center in Mattoon - called to tell me of something that had happened at the hospital.

She was in the critical-care ward Saturday night when a patient was admitted with a ruptured bowel (ouch). He had already fallen into a coma and held no hope of pulling out of it. The 61-year-old man, single, living alone, was on his deathbed. This is hardly a momentous activity in a hospital; happens all the time. When you are a nurse, or a doctor or even an orderly, you are forced to look at death with cold, dispassionate detachment. It is as common a daily occurrence as a copier breaking down in a office. You simply have no choice; to deal with each death on a personal level would drive one mad.

Mom checked his chart. She discovered there was no one mentioned either as family or friends. There was no one to contact. He would die alone. Presumably, in New York, this happens all the time; in Mattoon, it does not.

It was a busy day at Sarah Bush, and Mom, just recently promoted to supervisor, had her hands full. But for whatever reason, something bothered her about this guy. Surely, there had to be somebody who knew him. She looked at the chart again. Something about his last name sounded familiar. Pennington. Hmmm. Hey, wasn’t that Becky Short’s maiden name? Becky Short was someone my father had went to high school with and the mother of Brad Short, a kid I used to play baseball with. She and Mom hadn’t talked in years ... but maybe .... no ... patient confidentiality ... but he’ll die alone ...

Aw, hell, why not? Mom called. Ms. Short told her, yes, Pennington was her maiden name, but she wasn’t related to the man lying there dying, sorry. However ... “I think his mom used to write for the newspaper.” Ah-hah. That’s right, Geneva Pennington, used to be one of those small-town, community columnists - Jason and Mary Taylor had a baby last week, and congratulations to them! Robert and Debbie Grierson’s son Tim made the honor roll last semester. Way to go! - for the Mattoon Journal-Gazette. Eureka! That’s where Mom had seen that name. But she’d been dead for years. Would anyone at the paper even remember her?

Only one way to find out. Mom dialed up Bill Hamel, publisher of the Gazette (and the guy who once fired me as head film critic because I was too expensive ... at 20 bucks a week). “Hi, Sally!” he answered, because everybody knows the Leitches. Mom explained that there was a man dying alone in her hospital and he’s the son of an old columnist and you wouldn’t happen to know if he had any family? Maybe? “Oh, jeez, Sally, Geneva’s long dead.” I know, my Mom said. Bill Hamel was always a little slow to catch on. Would you happen to know if he had any brothers or sisters, or children? “Well, he had a sister, but I think she died years ago. Lemme do some thinking, Sally, and I’ll try to be back with you.” Mom knew Hamel to be not exactly the most reliable person in the world, and besides, she was busy, so she went about her rounds, at least comfortable in the fact that she tried.

The phone at the emergency room desk rang about an hour later. Sally Leitch, you have a call in the ER. “Yeah, Sally, this is Bill Hamel. Listen, I was just thinking ... he had an old friend who was a priest in Charleston. I don’t think he’s there anymore, but you might try calling the church. Or maybe the Mattoon priest. Do you know Father Neibrugge?”

Did my Mom know Father Neibrugge? Since converting to Catholicism three years ago, Mom had practically lived with the guy. My mother plunged into Catholicism the way Malcolm Little leapt into the Nation of Islam; I’m guessing Father Neibrugge is probably above me on the speed dial. Next phone call. Yes, Father, this is Sally (I imagine the priest sighing at this point; Sally again). I was wondering if you might know where Father Johnson went when he left Charleston. “Well, Sally, I think he went to Graffton.” Graffton is another small town about two hours southwest of Mattoon. Back on the trail; first, however, time to go home. Shift’s up. Another day up, another day down. A drop by Mr. Pennington’s room. Still dying.

A long-distance call, the bane of my parents’ existence, but it was worth it. “Yes, this is Father Johnson.” Mom did her best to contain her glee at reaching him, which wasn’t too difficult to do considering the news she had to deliver. “Oh, my, James. Poor James. I haven’t talked to him in months. My. Has anyone sent a priest over there?” Mom’s first question answered: He was Catholic. She told him she’d send one over right away.

But then the real issue: Father, did he have any family? “Yes, he does, a sister, in Santa Rosa, California. I don’t have her number. But I’m sure she doesn’t know about this.”

Mom thanked him profusely and then dialed information. She was told the number was unlisted. She then called the Santa Rosa police department.

Listen, this is Sally Leitch, I’m a nurse at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center in Mattoon, Illinois. I know this sounds odd, but there’s a woman there with an unlisted number whose brother is lying in a coma in Illinois, about to die, and I don’t think she knows. I know you can’t give me the number, but can you maybe ring her?

The suspicious police receptionist - those big city folks are always suspicious - said she would need to check the story out, and if it did, she’d dial. “Stay by your phone, Ms. ... what did you say your name was?”

A ring 15 minutes later. “Yes, this is the Santa Rosa police department. We’re sending a squad car over there to talk to Ms. Plimpton. Can we give her this number?” Of course. Another ring, 20 minutes later. Ms. Plimpton.

My mother explained Mr. Pennington’s condition. “Oh, Lord, I just talked to him last week. Yes, of course, I’ll be out there on the next flight,” she said between tears. “He has a dog. That dog is his whole life. The neighbor takes care of him when James is away, which hasn’t been much in recent years. Here is her number. She has a key. Could you call her and see if she can check on the dog?”

Yes, of course, yes. “Oh, and Sally ...” Yes?

“Thank you.”

Mom called the neighbor, who promptly headed to James’ home and saw the dog, who was a total mess, urinating all over the carpet and chewing up furniture, frantic as to the whereabouts of his master. The neighbor took him in, and then silently, in the dark, shampooed James’ carpet.

Two days ago, James Pennington, in the critical care ward at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center in Mattoon, Illinois, the only hospital in the Coles County twin-city area, peacefully passed away.

His sister and his neighbor - though, sadly, not his dog - were at his side. And so was my mother.



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