Coroner Story: Old Men

It was pretty odd to get a convenient coroner call.  But this one came right at the end of my day in the clinic.  Sheriff’s dispatch called at 4PM requesting me to go out to a home just west of Deary.  I told them I’d finish with patients and be out there in half an hour. 

It was a warm fall day.  The sun was low in the southwest.  Some trees had changed; the fields were golden stubble or plowed.  As I drove east, I remembered another afternoon coroner call that had been convenient. 

I was finishing patients in a rural clinic, 15 miles east of town, fifteen miles short of Deary. The sheriff’s office had requested me to go to a home just four miles east of the clinic.  There I found an old man lying face down in the grass under some trees next to a car with the hood up.  Kinda weird.  But he was really old looking- late seventies- early eighties. Wrinkled and spare, like I have now become.

 It looked like a natural death. But the car hood was up and him outside and all made me a little concerned. The deputy told me what he knew. The old man lived by himself here on this property in the country. No one had seen him since this morning. His sister had come out to cook him breakfast. He had seemed fine for the eggs and potatoes. Then a neighbor had dropped by this afternoon and found him here dead in the grass.

I called his doctor. He filled in the story. The doctor had the answer.

“You don’t say.” he responded when I told him of the old man’s death. “I just saw him last week.  He’d been having chest pains, so we did a stress test, and it was strongly positive for coronary artery disease.  I presented him with the options, you know, medicine, surgery.  He said he wanted to go home and think about it.  We were supposed to meet tomorrow and make plans.  He’s widowed now, five years.  His wife died of cancer, and he’s been living on the old homestead there.  I’ll bet he just died of a sudden arrhythmia”– And that’s what it looked like to me.  He was winterizing the old sedan- checking the battery, oil, and antifreeze- sudden lightheaded feeling maybe and he collapsed on the lawn of the old homestead.

Maybe he was thinking about his options. I wondered if dropping dead in the yard was a consideration. I can imagine a lot of old guys might choose that way. But there are other choices to make.

  As I drove on east, I drove past the road up to that house; I could see the trees where the sedan had been parked with the hood up from the highway.  It looked like some young folks had moved in. There was a minivan.

The farmed hills rolled off to the south and up to the north the crests of timbered ridges rose.  Aspens here and there were yellow.  Tamarack hadn’t turned yet but bracken was a burning red.  The dust of harvest had been cleared by a recent fall storm.  The clarity of the air and the lovely, sharp yellow sunlight brought out the edges of things.  Like you could actually see the line someone had drawn.

I finally found the home of the deceased. It was off the main road. There were two sheriff’s cars in the drive. “Hello Jeff, ok if I park here?” I asked the deputy from my rolled down window.

“Why don’t you pull over here. I might have to go.”

I knew he was bluffing but pulled sideways.  There was a rutted gravel driveway up the gentle slope to an older two-story farmhouse.  It was neatly mowed, but the siding needed paint.  The porch was a bit worn leading to the front door.  A dog sat alertly on the front porch, looking at me as I parked my truck. It didn’t bark. The deputy and sheriff approached as I got out.

“What do we have?”

“Old man shot himself.”

“Who called it in?”

“The daughter.  Seems she’d been bugging him to move into town, a nursing home or someplace, and he’d been fighting it.  His wife died a few years ago.  He was born on this place. Can you believe it?  Eighty-two years old and living on the place he was born.  His daughter said she was really worried about him.  He’d been failing a lot lately.  She said she was really worried about him falling and not able to get up.  He’d also become kinda forgetful.  He would drive to town and have coffee then couldn’t find his car.  And the neighbors told her they’d seen him driving up and down the road, missing his driveway, like he was lost or something.  Anyway, finally, he agreed to go to this Assisted Living place.  She took him out there Monday and then Wednesday he said he’d move.  She was supposed to come out today- this afternoon at 4 pm and drive him into town to make the move.  But she got a sense something wasn’t ok.  He didn’t come to town for coffee this morning.  She called here at about 1 pm and he didn’t answer.  But that was pretty common she said.  He’d go for walks- or be out in the shed and just not make it back to the house to hear the phone.  She usually talked to him on the phone after dinner.  Last night she talked to him, and he seemed to be ok, she said, maybe a bit more tired she thought, but not angry, or depressed or anything.  But she said she kinda started worrying then.”

“Did he have any health problems?”

“Oh, the usual old age stuff.  He wasn’t on any medicines.  Didn’t like doctors.”  Jeff grinned at me.

“So, who found him?”

“Well, we did.  She was worried after her call, but she didn’t really want to come up and check on him. Maybe she knew. She was supposed to come up at 4:00 pm anyway, so she drove by and tried to look up here from the road.  His car was parked in the shed.  But she really was worried when she saw the dog on the porch.  The dog always stayed with him.  So, she figured he might have wandered off some place or gotten hurt or something and the dog came back here.  So, she called the sheriff’s office to come check on him.  She said she didn’t look around any or come up here from the road.”

The deputy turned and started walking toward an outbuilding 80 yards to the east.

“This is where we found him.  The dog was sitting on the porch looking this direction.  Hell, probably looking right at him.  We first looked through the house and in the car, then when we came back to the porch and the dog didn’t bark, didn’t growl or move. I sat down next to her, and she was looking over this away and there he is.  I seen the flannel shirt in the grass.”

By now we’ve gotten to the body.  He’d sat down against a cut bank that faced north.  After the shot, he’d fallen back against the bank.  The rifle was still between his knees.  His chin is split, and his face is gone, shredded.  The top of the skull gone.  The remaining skull is empty.  The blood on the bushes at the top of the bank still glistens. People don’t appreciate what a rifle does to the human skull.

“You guys clear the gun?”

“Not yet, waiting fer you.”

“Please do.”

The deputy lifts the rifle from between the old man’s arms and checks the chamber.  Lever action.  No second round in the magazine, just one 30.06 shell spent.

“Is he still warm?” I ask.

“Well, the blood and brains on that tree were still dripping when we found him.”

His boots are laced but worn.  The pants are a bit dirty and also worn and a bit big for his wizened, spare old bones.  His gnarled hands were stiff in death. Though, I imagined, they were when he last pet his dog. Old hands get stiff.

The flannel shirt seemed big for his spare frame. It was frayed at the neck and cuffs. Like it had been worn.

“Heck, he was probably sitting here when she drove by.” the deputy said.

I looked down at the deceased’s boots, then back to the house and the dog, looking back at me.

“Who knows. He may have been sitting here when you started up the drive,” I said. “Any notes in the house?”

“We didn’t look real close.”

I walk away from the body, looking up toward the house. I see the dog looking this way, though not at me as I approach.  I go up the steps, past the dog, she’s still looking east, and I go into the kitchen. 

Linoleum floor is chipped and worn.  There’s some dirt in the corners like the cleaning may have gotten to be a bit of a chore.  He may have, through failing eyesight, not seen the dirt. Or maybe his failing energy did not have the enthusiasm for careful cleaning.  Or maybe he’d seen the dirt, intended to care for it, but then became distracted and couldn’t remember the chore. There will be no answer to this line of questions.

What will the coroner find in my house, I wonder.

The house was, by in large, neat.  He had, at some point, learned the discipline of neatness.  And this stayed with him to the end it seemed.  I had seen plenty of old bachelors who didn’t have the concept, probably never learned it.  The only clear area in their hovel was where they sat or slept.   Not for this man.  Furniture arranged neatly and stuff put away mostly.  But not tidy.  Like his old bachelor ways were not up to tidy.  There were a couple dirty dishes in the sink.  The oil stove had been on. It was warm, but the day was warm enough.  The kitchen table was piled with catalogues, boxes, odds and ends.  There was a place where he could sit and eat.  Sit and sort this stuff that needed sorting.  His bed wasn’t made.  But no note that I could find. So, he was tidy, but not neat. My garage will not be judged neat, or tidy.

I come back out on the porch. The dog is still sitting, looking east. I ask the deputy. “Anything missing?”

“The daughter came up here right after we found him and went through the house.  She didn’t say she found anything. But she did take his checkbook.”

I look at the deputy.  He looks at me.

“She said she was handling all his financial stuff now and had been for a few years.  Just put some money in his checking so he could buy gas and coffee.  She said she did the grocery shopping.”

“Do you know this family?” I asked the deputy.

“Yeah, they’re ok.”

I look east to where the denim of his pants is barely visible. The dog looks too.

“Well, I guess he just didn’t want to go to the nursing home.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

The trees are still. From down below the sound of a passing car rises up to us. The dog doesn’t move.

“You suspect anything Jeff?”

“No, I think it’s just a suicide.”

Cause of Death:  gunshot wound to the head.

Manner of Death:  suicide.

About ddxdx

A Family physician, former county coroner and former Idaho State Senator
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