I sat by my father’s bed.
If there was one place in the house I was often sitting, it was there, next to him. Holding his hand, reading to him, listening to him reminisce about how still, after all these years, he hated his mother, or that he loved his grandmother, or that the light was fading.
There were two paintings I hung on the wall of Dad’s art studio a few months after he died, which stayed there until I had to move the last of his things to make way for a new tenant. One was a small self-portrait he had painted in the early ‘90’s. In it, Dad wears an imperious expression, almost a scowl, a man with a serious chip on his shoulder. His beard is tightly clipped, his glasses too big for his face. This was a man unwilling to take shit from anybody, and he would cock his eyebrow until you knew it....
“You were the apple of your father’s eye the second you popped out,” Mom told me. “He was instantly smitten.”
Part I. Metamorphosis
Part I. Metamorphosis
Sometimes we know what we’re looking at. Go to a museum, and, because a museum is where people cram art, you can be pretty sure “art” is what you’re looking at...
Apparently the urology department had Dad’s prostate cancer medication under control (namely, a shot in the pooper full of girly hormones) because it was six weeks before we ended up in a cancer specialist’s office.
It fell to me to be Queen of Dad by proximity; Chris lived close enough to visit Dad but far enough for it to be unreasonable to ask him to make Dad’s health decisions on his behalf. In fairness to both, they wished that we could divide all joys and burdens equally between us, including, I imagine, Dad’s health care.
I brought popsicles to Dad's house on a scorching afternoon and gave Dad a lime one, perfect for a hot day.
"I think I had my first hot flash,” Dad said. “Hard to tell though. Came and went quickly, just got sweaty all of the sudden.” He giggled. “Well, who can tell?”
“I think you’ll know it when you have one,” I observed.
“I’m pretty sure. Well, I think so.”
The house Chris and I grew up in was a tiny thing, 1100 square feet, but it unfolded like a palace of surprises. This was due in no small part to the mountains of books stacked to the rafters in every room of our house...
“Feeling better?” Dad asked. It was Tuesday and Dad called to check in.
“Was I feeling bad?” I asked in return.
“You seemed at a low ebb,” he said. “On your blog.”
Milo was four when our cat Mini died, and his curiosity was boundless. He peppered us with questions for weeks: “Where did she go? Why did she die? Will I die? Will you die? Will we die at the same time?”
Round 2 of the hormone therapy has gone far better than anyone, Dad especially, could have imagined. We’ve become so accustomed to bad news that one could say we hoped for better, but expected more of the same. Upon receiving good news, it’s like Dad won the lottery!
In the beginning of Dad’s cancer adventure, it would have never occurred to me to take a picture of him. Not that photos are either bad or good—they are a medium onto which one person’s perception is recorded—but they are by their nature revealing.
This intermission brought to you by
November, 2009 through March, 2010
Dad stepped into the car and handed me an article from Atlantic Monthly called “Letting Go of My Father.”
“I’ve got nothing to say other than ‘Don’t let it get this bad.’”
I sipped my coffee on another sodden, gray morning in Portland. The new dog and the old cat flirted, the dog approaching her gingerly, the cat tolerating his approach until she changed her mind and raised a paw to warn him off.
On the carnival ride in earnest, or at the very least in the car a lot, Dad’s radiation treatments had begun and every night I whisked him away to OHSU Waterfront. Then he got on the Sky Tram, had a beautiful view for five minutes, and stepped into the building to get zapped.
Life outside Dad’s illness continued with little concern for our needs. Lars and I negotiated our way through the demands on my time gingerly; we didn’t have many people upon who we could call to take care of Milo when I was gone, so I tried to schedule as many of Dad’s appointments for times when Milo was at school.
“These essays are getting harder to write,” I told Dad on another trip home from the doctor.
“I know,” Dad said.
We didn’t say anything else; there wasn’t anything else to say.
The days were balmy after the intolerably late start to summer. Portlanders were twitchy and edgy, all chatty conversations winding inevitably to the hope for summer to finally make itself known. But no one felt the delay more acutely than Dad, whose temperature had been in the reptilian range.
A friend invited us to a barbecue and encouraged me to bring Dad. It was a beautiful afternoon, warm sun cutting through the marine layer and scorching our friend’s grass.
One of Dad’s oldest friends Betsy was visiting from New York when Chris, Lars and I went to Dad’s house to do some chores for him. Dad had been persistently prodding Betsy to go through his library in the basement, thousands and thousands of art books, literature, mythology, to sift through them and take what she wanted. He’d been nagging all of us to do the same. It was the housekeeping of dying.
Part II. Living in Twilight
Part II. Living in Twilight
Pneumonia was the bitter punchline, really, to a death well crafted.
Things were going so well.
Chris and I separately arrived at the same idea shortly before we had received word that Dad was wrapping things up—that we should mark Dad’s end run with something ceremonial.
The hangovers Chris and I suffered were well-deserved. I fell asleep after texting a message to Lars around three that I might finally come home around dawn. I never made it, instead falling asleep on Dad’s small leather loveseat.
“I’m like a refugee who only grabbed random crap on my way out the door,” I said, sitting in front of Dad somewhere in his house, sometime in the previous day or so.
Despite my being a neophyte in reviewing oncoming mortality, Chris opted to spend that night driving full bore to get back to Portland.
Dad fell into a deep, illness-induced sleep, not quite a coma, not quite normal rest. Somewhere between here and there, which was where he lived much of the time now.
I was in twilight again, where I had been two weeks before. Dad had been watching television when he became feverish and then collapsed. It was like clockwork: the hospital bed had arrived from hospice that afternoon and by night Dad was in it.
Hampered by Dad’s surprising endurance and without Chris’s company I tried helplessly to make sense of the house. I was still using dishes, so I couldn’t pack up the kitchen.
Traffic jams, border back-ups and a late start got Chris and Ray to Dad’s door at around six in the evening, though they intended to arrive much earlier. I practically collapsed with relief when I saw Chris’s car pull up, both because I wanted to see him, but also because I hadn’t slept in days.
If there's such a thing as truth, it’s that dying with comedy is hard.
I know because we tried. When Dad hit the skids and there were no more visits to the doctor—or anywhere—any longer, only a bed in a living room filled with the remaining hours, we laughed.
Chris and I were alone with Dad again in torpid August heat, the sun dipping slightly in its southerly course but scalding the earth. Dad was tenuously balanced between here, with us, his champions and light, and his event horizon was near but murky.
I would, by my proximity and a settled life in Portland, be with Dad to the end. We knew this: Dad, Chris and myself. But a decision fell to Chris. It was onerous, unfair and heartbreaking, but it was his alone.
When his lungs began fighting the very air, Dad confided, “Maybe there’s something to it.”
“What?” I asked.
“I was waiting for Chris after all.”
I didn’t rub it in.
Dad spoke about his horizons diminishing when he talked about dying, and I understood his perspective as his needs and wants contracted into smaller spheres towards a vanishing point.
Part iii. Day
Part iii. Day
After Dad could no longer defy logic or the inevitable, I moved back home. Lars and I were shell-shocked, having suffered personal wars separately.
Ticket for passage across the River Styx, issued by
The box on the table contained a jumble of completely inconsequential objects with which you are intimately familiar and feel absolutely no passion about one way or another.
The weeks following Dad’s death were spent remembering where I lived and who I lived with. Milo and I were still at odds, and I realized that by this point it was me and not him.
“I’m going somewhere tropical for Christmas,” Chris said. It was November and the holidays were coming. “You want to come?”
When I was seven, Dad took me to a dusty gem shop and I picked out a quartz crystal in a plastic display box. Nestled on a small bed of foam, its geometric solidity offset by ethereal translucence, it was a rock important enough for a small label typed out in blotchy text.