When he gets the call, Joe Doak is sitting in his one-bedroom apartment.

He answers the phone and immediately knows what he will be doing the rest of the night.

After accepting the assignment, Joe makes some coffee. Normally, he drinks decaf, but not today. He got up early to volunteer at an elementary school this morning, and won't have time to nap in between. He'll need the full octane version to stay up until midnight.

He gets ready to leave as his wife, whom he calls "wonderful Phyllis," gazes down from the photos on the walls, memories of vacations, their times raising their six children.

Just as he held Phyllis when she died and sat by her side for the last days and hours of her life, he's going to do the same again tonight.

He doesn't know this person. And yet he will be witness to one of the most personal things in that person's life — the end — if it happens during his shift.

HopeWest vigil volunteers such as Joe are trained to comfort patients, to be witnesses to their death, and to assure that no one dies alone. Whether they don't have family here, they've outlived their relatives, or family cannot be there for some reason doesn't matter, it's a vacancy Joe and his fellow volunteers are willing to fill for however long is necessary.

As one person dies, the lives of others go on, and it is comforting for both patients and their families to have a surrogate who cares at the bedside when the living require respite.

He'll simply be there by that patient's side, holding a hand to provide comfort. That simple touch, and talking in his soft, gentle voice will let them know he's there, even if their eyes are closed.

"We're the last connection with life, as their life is ebbing away," he said.

"The main thing is to tell them that they're not alone. They're not dying alone."

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Phyllis was sick for seven years before she died in 2011, and Joe was her main caregiver.

He installed a bathtub elevator lift so she could comfortably bathe in their Montrose home, something their friends marveled at and asked if they could try out, too, as it was a bit of a novelty.

He moved her to assisted living after it all got to be too much. She needed specialized care, and they had exhausted their savings trying to treat her diseases, and she started forgetting.

He had an elaborate routine when their adult children came to visit. He would show the front desk attendant a photo of their son or daughter before they arrived, asking the receptionist to call Phyllis' room when they walked in the door and let the phone ring twice before hanging up. It was his cue to ready her for that visitor.

While the visitor walked down the hall to her room, he would have just enough time to remind her who would be opening the door. After a visitor left, she always asked, "Who was that?"

All those years, he prayed for a cure for Alzheimer's and the other ailments. The hardest decision came later, when he prayed instead for God to take her.

After Phyllis died, Joe saw an advertisement asking for volunteers to help people who were dying. And he said to himself, "I have a little bit of experience doing that."

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Usually the call from Hope-West hospice seeking a vigil volunteer sends him to a nursing home patient. Once there, he goes to the patient's bedside and will remain there for hours until another volunteer relieves him from the overnight watch.

Sometimes, the hospice patients he visits are awake and want to talk. They're further from death than others and their bodies haven't reached the point where they are shutting down, reserving energy for only the basics such as breathing and keeping the heart beating.

But other times, Joe arrives mere hours before death. Their eyes remain shut, their breathing irregular.

No matter. He knows they can hear him, and he tailors his conversation to meet the interests and beliefs they shared when they could communicate.

A piece of paper called a context sheet helps him do this. It is what Joe gets when he arrives to sit with a patient. It tells him important information, such as whether the patient identifies with a particular religion, some details about family or the patient in general.

Once he arrives, Joe scoots a chair over to the patient's bedside and takes their hand into his. Even the simple gesture of holding hands is something he does carefully, gently placing his hand underneath the patient's hand and holding it from below. This allows the patient to pull away if they don't want the contact instead of feeling trapped by the small weight of Joe's hand.

And then, if the patient indicated they have Christian beliefs, Joe has hymns he likes to sing, like this one:

"Open my eyes, Lord

"Help me to see your face

"Help me to see

"Open my ears, Lord

"Help me to hear your words

"Help me to hear

"Help me to love, Lord

"Help me to love like you."

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Although the patient lies motionless and quiet except for the sound of breathing through the song, Joe knows he's heard. The signal comes in a tiny squeeze from the patient's hand to his, after he delivers the last lyric.

"My heart just jumps when they do that," he said. "I'm touched to the core."

He was prepared by Hope-West's training program to sit with patients of any denomination, and he has been waiting for a patient with Native American beliefs so he can talk about the Great Spirit and his connections with nature on long walks in the woods north of Gunnison, near Montrose, where he used to live.

He has never had a conscious patient turn down a prayer, no matter their beliefs, nor a song.

"None of them complain about my terrible singing," he joked.

Joe is equipped with a variety of prayers he can use for different cultures and religions, and he tailors his vigil to the patient, not to his own beliefs.

Sometimes patients arrive at the end of their lives and they face the uncertainty of death with fear and worry. Those who are still communicative often ask Joe what it's like to die.

He tells them he doesn't know. He hasn't done it, yet.

During his time as a vigil volunteer, Joe has witnessed three deaths. He's been there for many more who didn't die during his vigil, and the families of those patients, too.

The first vigil patient Joe sat with who died is someone he will never forget, although he doesn't remember her name. It was an afternoon call and he went in earlier than usual to sit with the woman, who was unconscious. He had been there only a few hours when she died.

That first time was harder than he anticipated. The quickness of it all rattled him. It was a Saturday evening by then, and he left the nursing home shaky and upset.

"Right away, I wanted to be with live people," he said.

He went to his church, as Mass was just starting and he knew others would be there. He stood at the entrance to the church, shaking and holding onto a door to stay upright.

The priest came down the aisle between the pews, embracing Joe as he trembled and cried.

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Sometimes sitting vigil with patients who are processing the fact that the end is near involves listening to their worries about dying.

One woman confessed to Joe that she had done something terrible, so terrible she didn't think anyone could ever forgive her.

He didn't ask her to elaborate. "I told her there's a loving God who forgives," he said. "And if she was truly sorry, then she would be forgiven."

The longest he has ever sat vigil for the same patient was two nights in a row. But it's not the length of time that is important.

For Joe, it doesn't matter if he spent an hour with a patient or came back a second night. He loved that person for the time he was there, and extended that love to the patient's family who needed to be elsewhere and gave them the gift of peace.

"I strongly feel that to be loved and your ability to love are one's strongest achievements in life," he said.

Meeting people is Joe's favorite hobby. He loves hearing about everything they've accomplished during their lives, their challenges and successes.

He visited a patient recently, who told him stories about growing up in a rural town where her father was a doctor. They talked for hours and shared stories.

"I wonder how long she lived," he said. "She was just so interesting. Even driving away that day, I thought, I wish I'd asked her this."

■ ■ ■

Real-life dying isn't like it is in the movies. It's not sudden. There are no last words followed by one's head nodding to the side and eyes closing.

The end of life is accompanied by the sights and sounds of the body slowing down, signals that it is retreating to the core of itself. There are physical signs, such as unconsciousness and the purplish mottling of limbs as the body's circulation recedes to serve the heart.

But in the end, there's the breathing. It can be slow and shallow, or raspy and irregular, with long pauses that deceive, just before another hitched inhale.

Sometimes it's a gurgle, sometimes there's a wheeze. It all depends on how much the patient's throat muscles have relaxed. Everyone is different, but Joe uses the sound of breathing as a guide.

"I've been fooled a number of times," he said.

Just when he thinks someone has taken their last breath, after a long silence, there's another gasp. And so he keeps holding the person's hand. Keeps talking. Keeps singing. Keeps sitting there with the patient until there is no more breathing.

"When I think they've taken their last breath, I fold them in my arms, and as they take their last breath, I kiss them on the cheek and I send them off to God's eternal love," he said.

Then he calls a nurse to check the patient's vital signs, verifying the patient has, in fact, died. He calls the next vigil volunteer, the one who was supposed to relieve him at midnight for the second shift, to let him know not to come.

That's when Joe sits down again and cries. He's not sad. He's overwhelmed by the emotions that come with witnessing another person's last breath on Earth.

"In a short time, I made this connection with another human being," he said. "And that's vital. Whether they're communicative or not."

■ ■ ■

Although he is 96 years old, Joe rarely thinks of dying. He's too busy living.

But when considering the inevitable end of his own life, Joe thinks sometimes he would like to be surrounded by family and friends. Other times he thinks it might be nice to just die in his sleep, peacefully, in his apartment.

Either way, he doesn't really get too concerned about it.

"Whatever way the good Lord wants me to go, I'll go," he said.

He thinks sometimes about how he would like someone to be at his bedside, if he needed a volunteer like himself. In the end, he would want someone who made him feel safe and calm, just as he tries to do for others.

"I just hope that I've comforted and consoled them and given them hope," he said. He always keeps in mind what he believes and tells the patients who ask him what comes next.

"I tell them, the best is yet to come."