The cancer that started in his prostate now gnaws at his bones.
"I'm going to die shortly," says Lawrence Thomas, 73. "How do you face that?"
Some days are like this. Feelings overwhelm him. He's not scared, he says, but he can't plan for anything. He's experiencing things he never expected.
He feels alone.
On his good days, he's down-to-earth, warm and funny, says Laura Green, a hospice nurse who visits him regularly. Together, they watch TV, laughing at the stupid excuses people make on Judge Judy. His favorite? Reruns of the TV show In the Heat of the Night.
He tries to stay positive. He reads uplifting adventure stories and the Bible.
But the chemotherapy he has had twice a week for the past four months nauseates him and blurs his thinking. He can stand but not walk. In a state of depression, he once bought a bottle of alcohol. Instead of drinking it, he called Green. She listened. She told him his feelings are normal.
"You're a fighter," she told him. "I know you fight to live every day."
They talked through the hard topics, like how he wants to be cremated. He laughs about the woman's hat Green brought for him at her last visit. He has requested a suit to wear to church. She's working on that, Green says. He also wants a pair of size 9 leather diabetic shoes.
He pulls a picture of a dapper young man from a dresser drawer at Ruby's Residential Care off Hillsborough Avenue, where he has lived for six years.
He can't remember looking like that.
• • •
Thomas had always planned for the best.
He grew up in Tampa, the son of a maid and a longshoreman. He remembers the nuns who taught him at St. Peter Claver Catholic School. He remembers shooting arrows from a bow at a target and fishing with neighbors. He later went to Harlem Academy and Middleton High School.
As an adult, he remembers caring for the sick and dying, first as an orderly, then as a nurse at Clara Frye Memorial Hospital, Southwest Florida Tuberculosis Hospital and Lakeland General Hospital.
He has three younger sisters. He never married or had children. As an adult, he lived in West Tampa, down the street from his favorite place to eat: Alessi Bakery. He misses the marzipan treats, cinnamon buns and especially the Cubans.
He had been adventurous. He saved his vacation time and money for travel.
He once took four years off, traveling with the harvest season as a migrant worker across Florida and up to New York state, where he picked apples and pears.
He went to the Bahamas, South and Central America, and Europe. He remembers bamboo huts on the outskirts of the Panama Canal and taking his grandmother on her first trip abroad. He remembers her delight in the flowers and musicals at Tivoli, a theme park in Denmark.
• • •
As his health declines, his world has become smaller, especially since his wheelchair stopped working a month ago. It can now go no farther than the corner of his room, which means he can't get to his favorite fishing spot, to his Jehovah's Witness hall, to Alessi's for a good Cuban or to his beloved fruit stands.
"Persimmons are in season," he said last week. He can think of nothing better than to ride his motorized wheelchair to the Hillsborough Avenue fruit stands down the street to get one.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.