Year To Live Project: The Search For Cowboy Twenty

“COWBOY TWENTY?” I ask Emelio at a volume that’s uncomfortable for us both.

He mumbles something inaudible in return – something I swear to Christmas sounds an awful lot like “cowboy twenty.”

So, I ask again.


I earn a head shake and finger wag in response.

I can tell he’s getting frustrated, but aside from this incident we’ve had a stellar afternoon. Emelio and I have become fast friends. We’ve discussed women, divorce, alcoholism, fishing, and the challenges of his back pain. I may or may not have broken some rules and given him acupuncture. Back rubs are a standard part of our visit, and now sometimes I think he may be putting me on a bit about how much pain he’s in just to garner some attention to his para spinals.

The Door Is No More

It feels good to have some of my natural skill set become of use in hospice. Earlier in the visit, I watched Emelio bump his elbow multiple times trying to drive his motorized wheelchair from one room to the next. The doorways are just wide enough for passage, but if the door isn’t open 100% or he’s off by an inch, then his elbow takes the brunt of his mistake.

After his last failed attempt, he waved me over, beckoning my ear close enough to his mouth to make out what he was saying. Unlike most of our conversations, this one was abundantly clear.

“Rip the goddamn door down for me.” Emelio pointed at the last of the three hinges holding up the door in the passageway in question.

“Sure thing,” I told him. “Do you have a screwdriver in your apartment?”

He looked at me rather disappointed and waved me back in for further instructions.

“I want to watch you rip the fucking thing down. No screwdriver,” he whispered in emphysemic gasps.

Well, well, well. Look who’s going to get to use his innate talents in this unusually foreign environment. The desire to rip shit off its hinges flows through my veins on a regular basis.

“You want to watch me rip it right down, huh? No tools, no nothing?” I asked to confirm.

Emelio nodded gleefully.

“That door,” I said pointing to the door to build dramatic effect. “That piece of shit door that keeps hitting your elbow? You want to rip that fucker right off the wall, don’t you?

Emelio began his own version of bouncing up and down in his wheelchair while clapping and flashing me a rare smile.

We drove his chair to a good vantage point and I cleared some space before I pretended to stretch out, crack my neck, and do the Tarzan pound on my chest. The doorframe didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell.  After four weeks of quietly sitting and holding space for these guys, it felt near orgasmic to have my physical strength be the determining factor in bringing joy into one of their lives.

The hinge cried out its own death squeal as splinters flew across the room and Emelio celebrated the victory by pumping his fist in the air. Hoots and high-fives echoed through the senior living center.

He’s Still Alive Inside

After expending his celebratory energy, Emelio faded a bit and we had to take a rest.

Earlier in the day, I had watched the documentary Alive Inside I decided to run my own music oriented experiment.

Alive Inside is about what happens when dementia patients are exposed to music and human interaction.Thus, after the allied victory of World War Door 2016, I had decided to see what would happen when I put music on for Emelio.

Magic unfolded.

We started by placing my Bose headphones on his ears and having the music be a solo experience for Emelio – a breathtaking one to view from my privileged position as a witness. I got to see firsthand the astral travel that began with the first note of the song. His eyes closed, his hand made its way to his heart, and Emelio was catapulted elsewhere in his mind. He cried, he laughed, and despite the emphysema, he sang out loud. Then he asked if we could listen together.

In only for four minutes and thirty-two seconds, I had witnessed the pain in his back being gone. Gone was the arthritis crippling his hands. Gone was the hump in his spine. Gone was the heartache of his absent family, the cirrhosis in his liver, and the life he was bound to now – he was free. Free to be alive at a time in his past when there was joy. When there was freedom. When there were reasons to smile. When life was good.

Emelio went from the slumped over and out-of-sorts to the man you see in the video and came alive at the second George Jones video we fired up on YouTube. When Wild Irish Rose hit his ears, he played both the air guitar and the air violin – becoming his own one-man show. Together we cried through He Stopped Loving Her Today, and then high-fived again after She Still Thinks I Care. Shared denial is a powerful healing tool.

What made the hair on my arms stand at attention was just how much life was left in this man. And how all it took was a four-minute song for that life force to take him out of his chair, out of his twisted body, away from his scarred lungs, and into the places of his past where none of the limitations existed.

Headphones Bring Happiness

Headphones are now a standard part of my hospice grab bag. Having them is like packing a magic wand with my rock and hand sanitizer. Headphones may not bring hope, they not bring diagnostic reversals, but they bring happiness. They bring light in the truest sense of the word. They bring temporary analgesia and joy.

What can each of us do in our own communities for the people who have paved the way for the lives we currently enjoy? If we’re all headed to the same house of death, with many of us destined to spend years saddled to wheelchairs in the waiting rooms that are nursing homes, shouldn’t we be making those rooms as comfortable as possible? Shouldn’t we doing for them as we hope is done for us?

I learned more in four minutes and thirty seconds about the power of music than I have in forty-plus years. Maybe more about the power of the human spirit and its ability to be rallied, if only temporarily, during the last minutes of the final hours. We are all alive inside. Despite what’s happening around us. Emelio’s taught me many things I’ll carry with me, and that is one of them.

Hell, now I even know who “Conway Twitty” is.



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