It was Sept. 14, a Friday, when the ambulance pulled up to the Wayne T. Patrick Hospice House in Rock Hill. Ambulances are common at the building. Nobody thought anything differently that afternoon.
Patients come in on stretchers, sometimes in wheelchairs. Hearses are common outside, too, usually days later. Always, patients leave the hospice house on a gurney, under a sheet, to be loaded into the back of the hearse.
Victor Bresg was brought into the hospice after eight days at the hospital in intensive care with internal bleeding from so many places that the last words coming from a doctor were whispered: “There’s nothing more we can do.”
His knobby knees stuck out as he entered the hospice. His lungs were shot.
The workers knew the medical history. Lung cancer in 2005, tumors the size of tennis balls that went into remission after radiation and chemotherapy.
Scarring in the lungs, the cancer came back and more chemotherapy and a mini-stroke that threw Bresg for a loop that didn’t look like it would end with anything except death.
Nobody on that day at hospice knew that those strong legs with the knobby knees had walked about 300 miles during World War II.
The legs carried the teenaged boy from a tiny village in Russia to Poland, at the point of a Nazi bayonet, then were herded into a cattle car for shipment to a labor camp in Germany.
Nobody knew the whole family had walked, too, parents and a sister, all those brutal miles toward slavery.
“We walked for weeks,” the tough old man’s memory told him.
Victor Bresg – you can be sure the name was far longer and even more almost to the American tongue when he was born in Russia – could not tell this tale because he almost never told it.
Bresg was dying and it didn’t make a difference if he had walked to the store for a six-pack of beer or across two countries to years of forced labor.
It got to the point that Bresg said what someone who has been through hell and survived to live a life and sure should expect a heaven could say: “I just want to die.”
Bresg had refused to eat for days and was weak and had one of those masks for breathing and he would hold his breath, which is what people who are dying do.
His wife of 47 years, Evelyn, leaned in and whispered to him, “Vic, honey, it is all right. You can let go.”
The grown son, Brian, was there too, and the mother and son hoped that Vic would hang on until Vic’s younger brother from Oregon, born at that forced labor camp in Germany, could fly in to hold Vic’s hand before the buzzing and beeping lines on the monitors at bedside fell silent.
“He had given up, he was going to die,” said Kristie Poulton, the hospice nurse for the family.
But then something happened that confounded the doctors and stunned the hospice staff.
Victor Bresg hung on. That first weekend turned into Monday. Bresg asked a nurse how long it would take him to die if he did not eat. The answer was about 21 days.
That was far longer than Bresg, who had lived on stolen potatoes for so many war years, was willing to go through. Bresg, weakly, asked for some Ensure, something to eat. He rallied.
“I decided right then I didn’t want to die,” Bresg said in hindsight.
Bresg left that hospice house, to go home, to what all still thought was death.
A priest from the Greek Orthodox Church in Charlotte came to the house.
Bresg is not a religious man, but when you are born and raised in the Orthodox church in Russia – and the worst villains in the history of the world invade and take away your freedom and your religion and only through sheer will did you live through it – that religion is as much a part of the heart as the ventricles.
The priest gave last rites to an unconscious Bresg.
Evelyn Bresg, the Canadian-born beauty who had met her husband at a resort a half-century before, who had said so many prayers herself, prepared herself.
“My husband, right then, was going to die,” Evelyn Bresg said.
He lay in York because his son lived nearby, an architect who works in Charlotte. Like so many retirees, the old folks come to where the family is, so it was in York that Bresg lay dying instead of on the Russian steppes or the fields of New York’s Hudson Valley.
Bresg went to an American high school in upstate New York after the family immigrated after World War II. He struggled learning English, although he spoke fluent Russian and Polish and German.
The American kids who laughed at him could barely speak one language themselves, and Bresg laughed in his four languages and he went straight to work.
He started as an apprentice tool-and-die maker at IBM near Poughkeepsie, N.Y., after high school, then through hard work and determination, went to night school college and became a mechanical engineer.
He became a proud citizen of the United States of America and served in the U.S. Army and the Reserves. He went back to work for IBM, and over the years traveled overseas to places including Japan and his native Russia – and even back to Germany where he was a slave laborer.
This is a guy who came to America at 15 as a refugee with that family of former slave laborers and went on to become the real American Dream.
The old work camp papers with the Nazi eagle stamp on them had words that said Victor and his brother and sister and parents were “less than human.”
That is what Victor Bresg survived to become an American.
Bresg worked and raised a family and lived and loved and worked on Corvettes and other sports cars in his garage and traveled the world with his wife until his lungs gave in to cancer.
He could think of all of this as he looked out the window at the pond from that hospital bed as the hospice workers and everybody else expected the look to be the last – because hospice patients with lung cancer do one thing, and that is die.
But he didn’t die.
Bresg would lay there and Poulton, the hospice nurse, would hook up the machines and this mechanical engineer would complain that the machines were poorly made and functioned even worse.
As the days passed, Poulton would take away a machine or two each day because Bresg was not dying and didn’t need the machine any more.
By Thanksgiving, the hospital bed was gone, taken back to hospice, and Bresg was eating prime rib and turkey and anything else on the table that was not nailed down – and he was ogling that bottle of Chivas Regal that was in a cabinet.
Last week, he went shopping for groceries with his wife, him with a walker as she pushed the cart. The couple then went out for a pizza with piles of pepperoni and Bresg had a big cold beer that tasted like liquid gold.
“It was a Budweiser,” Bresg said. “It was good, too.”
Evelyn Bresg, the devoted wife, believes with all her heart that her prayers, and the prayers at her church and from others, are the reason for her husband’s recovery.
“No doubt in my mind, prayer works,” she said. “And hospice, too. This nurse right here, Kristie Poulton, she is an angel. She ought to wear a halo.”
Yet whether the recovery was faith or body, man or God, it is so far fact. Last week, Poulton came to the house. She took some medical readings and checked Victor’s breath and then packed up and left.
Victor Bresg, 78, given the last rites three months ago, who was prepared to die and had given up, waved goodbye. Somewhere in his heart, the will to survive a German slave camp rekindled into a fire that cannot be extinguished, so he was discharged from hospice care.
There will be physical therapy for the legs that have atrophied. There will be a wife caring for him and some doctor visits.
Victor Bresg will be look out the window at the pond, through the trees that have shed the leaves. It will not be a tiny village in Russia as the Germans rolled through, or the hundreds of miles and weeks of walking to the labor camp and then all that work.
Bresg will whisper words in Russian, anyway, to himself as he looks out that window and remembers what was.
It will not be the view of the Hudson River in New York where Bresg lived so long and became an American success story.
The view will be of the gleam of the sky in York, South Carolina, where Victor Bresg has lived for the past six years.
And where he decided that he would live still.