'The Ground We Lived On': A Father's Last Days In January 2003, Adrian Leon LeBlanc was 85 years old and in the end stage of lung cancer. With his blessing, his daughter, the writer Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, documented the final months of his life in an intimate audio essay.
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'The Ground We Lived On': A Father's Last Days

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'The Ground We Lived On': A Father's Last Days

'The Ground We Lived On': A Father's Last Days

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In January 2003, Adrian Leon LeBlanc was 85 years old and in the end stages of lung cancer. A retired union organizer and father of four, LeBlanc spent his days in his home in Leominster, Massachusetts, a working class town near Boston, in the company of his family.

LeBlanc had just entered hospice care. It was the same house his daughter, the writer Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, grew up in. She would often drive from her apartment in New York City to visit her father. And with his blessing, she brought along a tape recorder to document his final months of life.

With the help of producer Sarah Kramer, she used those recordings to create this audio essay.

Mr. ADRIAN LEBLANC: Showtime. Showtime. Showtime.

ADRIAN NICOLE LEBLANC: I love your voice.

Mr. LEBLANC: Can you understand it?

LEBLANC: Yes.

Mr. LEBLANC: I can hardly hear it.

LEBLANC: Say something.

Mr. LEBLANC: How are you this evening?

LEBLANC: Can you hear yourself?

Mr. LEBLANC: Absolutely.

LEBLANC: Adrian Leon LeBlanc, my dad and my namesake, his keen joy in observing people and the world is the reason I became a journalist.

Mr. LEBLANC: I'm laying here where the reporter is establishing contact with the patient.

LEBLANC: My father was born on June 28, 1917. He was a traveler, a knight of the open road, as he called it, hopping trains during the Depression, shipping off to Italy during World War II, and for most of my childhood, canvassing factories as a union organizer.

Cancer was a journey that blindsided him.

Mr. LEBLANC: I'm not sure what trip we're on.

LEBLANC: What trip are we on?

Mr. LEBLANC: I don't know. We're on a trip of exploration into the feelings of a - I don't know what you'd call me. I'm ending my 80s, and it's an exploration of my physical condition, which is very serious, about which we have no definitive answer. And I think only time will resolve it.

LEBLANC: My father is propped up in a hospital bed in the living room of the house he built with his own hands. He's tucked in beneath a comforter, his body so slight he barely makes a lump under the down.

Mr. LEBLANC: I wonder what the hell I weigh.

LEBLANC: I'd say you're pretty skinny.

Mr. LEBLANC: Yeah. I would say 100 pounds, maybe.

LEBLANC: Yeah. Now what was your average weight?

Mr. LEBLANC: My average weight was around 160, 163.

LEBLANC: Yeah. You want to close your eyes a little?

Mr. LEBLANC: A little, yeah. But I won't go anywhere. I'll stay right here, okay.

LEBLANC: Okay. Let me take your glasses. I love you very much.

Mr. LEBLANC: I love you very much.

LEBLANC: And just bang your spoon if you need me.

Mr. LEBLANC: I sure will.

(Soundbite of break in tape)

Mr. LEBLANC: Hi, sweetie.

LEBLANC: Good morning, Mom.

Mrs. EVE LEBLANC: Good morning.

Mr. LEBLANC: Good morning, hon.

Mrs. LEBLANC: Good morning.

LEBLANC: My mom, Eve, and my dad have been married for 50 years. He made her coffee every morning until he was too weak to stand.

Mrs. LEBLANC: I love you.

Mr. LEBLANC: I love you. Have a good sleep, huh?

Mrs. LEBLANC: I did.

Mr. LEBLANC: Why don't you make yourself a coffee or something.

Mrs. LEBLANC: I will. Quite a morning.

Mr. LEBLANC: Yup.

LEBLANC: It's February. My father has been bedridden in the living room for a month now. It's always been his favorite place in the house. Before he got sick, he'd sit here in his armchair every day. He liked to read the newspaper or stare out the picture window. He'd wave us over to share whatever he was seeing - blue jays, squirrels, the color of the maple leaves.

Now his hospital bed is positioned where his armchair once sat.

Mrs. LEBLANC: (Unintelligible) pushed up to me.

Mr. LEBLANC: I moved around some.

LEBLANC: Do you want to try to get your foot up a little or are you okay?

Mr. LEBLANC: This is good.

LEBLANC: My father is the center of our attention. My mom puts all her energy into his creature comforts, ironing his sheets and pajamas, finding food that he can eat and in the spaces between, they visit.

Mrs. LEBLANC: I was looking at all those pictures last night and I'd thought I'd show them he had a pretty nice childhood.

Mr. LEBLANC: Yeah, yeah you -

Mrs. LEBLANC: A lot of happy times.

Mr. LEBLANC: We did have a lot of happy times.

Mrs. LEBLANC: We've had (unintelligible) times.

Mr. LEBLANC: Yeah

LEBLANC: The house feels a lot like it did in my childhood, though now it's my father we're feeding, bathing, tucking in.

But he's still my dad in every way he can be. He agrees to do leg exercises he knows are useless, because I can't accept that he'll never walk again.

LEBLANC: Dad, you ready?

Mr. LEBLANC: One, two.

LEBLANC: Good. Another down.

Mr. LEBLANC: I want to do one more.

LEBLANC: Yeah?

Mr. LEBLANC: Okay. One -

LEBLANC: And bend it up.

Mr. LEBLANC: Okay.

LEBLANC: Great, great.

One of my dad's few remaining pleasures is having his hair washed.

Mr. LEBLANC: Don't be afraid to use your famous scrub.

LEBLANC: We rig a makeshift drain and use buckets of waters to shampoo it in his bed.

Mr. LEBLANC: Is the water running into the buckets or what?

LEBLANC: Yeah.

Mr. LEBLANC: It is?

LEBLANC: Running where it's supposed to.

Mr. LEBLANC: Good. Okay.

(Soundbite of water draining)

Mr LEBLANC: What is that noise?

LEBLANC: That's the water draining safely away from your bed.

Close your eyes, daddy. This is going to have to go in your eyes a little bit.

(Soundbite of towel-drying hair)

LEBLANC: So what I'm going to do, daddy, now is I just want to put your shirt on so you don't get a chill.

Mr. LEBLANC: Okay.

LEBLANC: I need to be near my father constantly. There are moments that caring for him feel spiritual. He's wasting away, but I experience an almost religious reverence at the sight of his flesh. For the first time ever, I want to have a child, a desire that I'm sure comes from wanting, literally, to hold onto the life in him.

(Soundbite of break in tape)

Mr. LEBLANC: Here we go again. Talking. In the recorder, I think. I hope I am. For my daughter. Oh, I've got my teeth out and everything. Talk about miscombulated. Or whatever the goddamn word -

LEBLANC: Discombobulated.

Mr. LEBLANC: Discombobulated. How's that?

LEBLANC: Can you spell it? That's what you'd make me do as a child.

Mr. LEBLANC: D - I - S -

LEBLANC: My father delighted in language. His only rule with us as kids was if they didn't know the meaning of a word, we had to look it up.

Mr. LEBLANC: I wonder what it is why I'm so intrigued with words. Oh, well.

LEBLANC: You always loved words. Remember, you used to -

My dad taught me that language was a powerful tool. He wished he'd gone to college because he felt it would have made him a better communicator and able to do more good in the world.

He was a gentle man, but he could be fierce whenever he saw anyone mistreated. Certain things always stirred his anger - shopping malls open on Sundays when laborers needed rest. The memory of his mother, who was a tailor, sewing at their kitchen table late into the night. Workers were his people, and he devoted his life to making their lives better.

I hope when I'm an old woman, if I'm lucky enough to get enough to get to be an old woman, I hope I will have brought joy to people's lives like you did.

Mr. LEBLANC: Oh, you already have.

LEBLANC: But I mean, like you also fought for people, daddy.

Mr. LEBLANC: I was one of many.

LEBLANC: I know. You're the one I love the most.

Mr. LEBLANC: I'm the one that you know the most, yeah.

LEBLANC: You're the one I knew the most and you're the one I love the most.

Mr. LEBLANC: Love the most and knew the most.

LEBLANC: Yeah. Love the most first.

Mr. LEBLANC: Yeah.

LEBLANC: You're so funny.

Mr. LEBLANC: You're so funny.

LEBLANC: Sweet dreams. I love you.

Mr. LEBLANC: I love you, too.

LEBLANC: Signing off.

Any chance I got, I spoke about my father. My pending loss gave rise to new friendships as some of the older ones gave way. Grief scares people and my pain was so raw, I think it was difficult for some of my friends to tolerate. I connected best to others who were wounded, many of them strangers. Serious loss brings you into one of the world's silent fraternities.

Mr. LEBLANC: How long have I been sleeping?

LEBLANC: You've been sleeping about eight hours. You woke up a few times.

It's March now. My father is sleeping more. He needs more morphine. My mother's attempts to get him to eat subside. The house feels heavy. We slow down.

Mr. LEBLANC: Is your mother sleeping?

LEBLANC: She is dead to the world. She was very sad today. I think she's going to miss you.

Mr. LEBLANC: Yeah.

LEBLANC: It must be scary, I would think. All those years. You get so used to being with someone.

Mr. LEBLANC: Well, calling somebody for something. Or sharing.

LEBLANC: Like cuddling with someone.

Mr. LEBLANC: Sure.

LEBLANC: It's becoming harder to record, but my father encourages me. Our voices are the ground we've lived on, so we keep talking, even about his leaving me.

Daddy, is your chest hurting while I'm hugging you?

Mr. LEBLANC: No. No. No.

LEBLANC: It feels so sad. I feel like so many changes are happening.

Mr. LEBLANC: Yeah.

LEBLANC: They're just changing and I can't change it from changing.

Mr. LEBLANC: Some things you can't change, yeah.

LEBLANC: I'm going to be fine, though. You know that.

Mr. LEBLANC: Yeah.

LEBLANC: And very, very strong.

Mr. LEBLANC: I know you are, honey.

LEBLANC: I just feel like you're my, you're like my soul mate, you know.

Mr. LEBLANC: We just love each other.

LEBLANC: Some comfort I am. Clinging to a sick man in a hospital bed, crying on his skinny chest.

Mr. LEBLANC: We're silly. We're silly. And you're recording it all, besides.

LEBLANC: Illness transforms the things you most fear into the things you crave and would hold onto if you could. Like my father moving to the living room. No one in my family wanted to replace his armchair with a hospital bed and now no one wants the hospital bed to go.

You can go to sleep. I'll watch you go to sleep.

Mr. LEBLANC: I'm just going to close my eyes.

LEBLANC: You do that. Go ahead. I'm just going to sit with you quietly.

Mr. LEBLANC: You don't have to be quiet.

LEBLANC: A week passes. He has only the strength to speak in whispers. I absorb every word.

Mr. LEBLANC: (Unintelligible) my leg.

LEBLANC: You want to move your leg.

Mr. LEBLANC: Yeah. I've (unintelligible).

LEBLANC: You've always been moving your legs, daddy. You've walked a lot of miles. You've walked miles. Remember, you hopped trains?

Mr. LEBLANC: When?

LEBLANC: Oh, from when you were a young man. You want to see your legs?

Mr. LEBLANC: Yeah.

LEBLANC: Okay. They're very skinny. Look, can you see them?

Mr. LEBLANC: Okay. Where's my teeth?

LEBLANC: Your teeth are in the bathroom. And your legs are attached to your hobbledy hips. Where are you?

Mr. LEBLANC: Front room.

LEBLANC: Front room, that's right.

Mr. LEBLANC: You are kind.

LEBLANC: It's easy to be kind to you.

Mr. LEBLANC: You are gentle.

LEBLANC: Gentle?

Mr. LEBLANC: Gentle with me.

LEBLANC: You look so beautiful, daddy.

Mr. LEBLANC: You are gentle.

LEBLANC: In his last days, I sit for hours on the rug by his bed and listen to him breathe. My mother sits on a chair by his side and we try to do what for me will never be complete. We say goodbye to my dad.

LEBLANC: Daddy, it's Adrian Nicole.

Mrs. LEBLANC: A pretty name, Adrian Nicole, isn't it? And I insisted it be spelled the way your name is spelled, A-D-R-I-A-N. Because I loved you. Are you in pain?

Mr. LEBLANC: Yeah.

LEBLANC: Daddy, the sun is setting and the trees look so beautiful in the backyard. The little red house that you helped build me, that I used to play in. Yep.

Mr. LEBLANC: I love you.

LEBLANC: I love you.

Mr. LEBLANC: How about a kiss?

Mrs. LEBLANC: Holding your hand, see?

LEBLANC: You're such a good man, daddy. Such a good man.

Mrs. LEBLANC: You can let go. You did your work all right.

LEBLANC: My father, Adrian Leon LeBlanc, died in his living on March 21, 2003.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Adrian Nicole LeBlanc is a journalist and author of the book Random Family. Our story was produced by Sarah Kramer with help from Dave Isay at Sound Portraits Productions.

NORRIS: There are additional extracts from Adrian's audio diary as well as photographs and other resources at our Web site, NPR.org.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.