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. Being the sole party caring for Dad was showing in gravely carved lines around my eyes which Dad noted sadly.

Our lives were—with the exception of Dad who was ecstatic with all the love pouring in—falling apart. Lars desperately tried to keep several clients happy while making sure Milo was fed and clean and entertained. We developed no contingency after Milo’s brief summer camp ended; we didn’t have time. My evacuation had been so hasty and unforeseen that we were just trying to keep the balls in the air from minute to minute.

I tried, with complete impotence, to parent Milo from across town. I came home every now and then to share a family dinner and to put Milo to bed; Milo didn’t think this was adequate and let me know. We were at cross-purposes all the time.

But when Milo would come to Grandpa’s house, Dad was unhappy because he didn’t want Milo to see him in his degraded state. Milo was fine with Dad’s reality in the way that kids, when faced with any reality, think that’s the only reality there is. He rolled with the punches better than the rest of us.

We watched movies at Grandpa’s: American Graffiti (featuring a rotating coterie cars, which Milo loved) and The Blues Brothers (featuring singing, car wrecks and loads of swearing, which Milo thought sounded an awful lot like Mom in her present state). Milo would watch with us in disbelief, or sit on the porch peering through the mail slot if the film became too intense. He spent Star Trek either parked behind the door peering in or riding his scooter back and forth on the smooth concrete pad, listening intently for explosions which he then couldn’t decide if they were worth viewing or reason to keep scooting.

One of the nights I slept at home, Milo, already beleaguered with a case of summer pneumonia, came down with a violent stomach bug and I held him helplessly as he sobbed and puked. We couldn’t catch a break, or even a full night’s sleep, if our lives depended on it.

Ray, who had accompanied Chris to help sort through Dad’s effects after he died was now charged with a much different task: entertaining Dad. Because Ray had a nicely fatalistic take on the world, honed by living with a condition that might end his life any day, Dad took to him immediately. Dad’s voice got stronger and stronger with Ray, laughing and telling stories, listening and being moved by all Ray’s health struggles in his own young life.

That, plus porn. Something about being on his death bed gave Dad the freedom to talk openly about one of his favorite hobbies with a complete stranger. “We have a lot in common,” Dad winked. Whether Ray was amusing a dying man or he genuinely understood the various nuances of porn, Dad felt downright glee about sharing this insider information with Ray, his porn habit sadly neglected as the testosterone in his body became Dad’s worst enemy and his goods knocked into submission by his catheter. He got the chance to share his epicurean tastes one last time, and Ray gamely played along. Ray sat by his bed for hours, listening and laughing with Dad, while Chris and I tried to make sense of what the hell was going on.

Chris was shell-shocked by this twist. He couldn’t afford to take any more time off work. He wanted to help me carry the burden of caring for Dad but was watching as his career slid off a cliff. He said goodbye to Dad more than once, and we were all at our wits’ ends with goodbyes. Chris and I were wearing our stress in short-tempered flare-ups and far too many beer bottles in the recycling bin. And though he was grateful to Ray for coming down with him, now he wished he hadn’t because it was rejuvenating Dad.

This admission, that we needed Dad to die, was horrifying. And the belated recognition that Dad had sold us a bill of goods, that Dad had sold himself a bill of goods, made us keenly aware of the reality: we were, for all intents and purposes, keeping Dad alive with our mere presence.

Ray noted this with the perspective of an objective observer.

“Oh, God no!” he laughed when we told him about the “introvert” discussion. “He’s totally an extrovert! Look at how happy he is talking about whatever he wants with me! He’s totally being recharged by us. You can tell.”

This epiphany was one of the great lightbulb moments of our lives and we felt absolutely ridiculous for not recognizing it earlier. But now we remembered: Where did Dad shine brightest? In front of friends, students, co-workers. On stage behind a lectern. True, he could stay glued in a book for hours, not leave his art studio for weeks, allowing Chris and I to agree with his self-evaluation that he was an introvert. But that was not where he was truly alive. 

No, Dad blossomed in front of an audience, and here he had one completely captivated. We could have used Ray’s insight weeks before; it would have helped us prepare for a much different reality.

 Sepia Source Sketch, sepia and india ink, 1985

Sepia Source Sketch, sepia and india ink, 1985

 

One of the only social engagements Chris and I shared that summer was spent in my yard across town, my mother Jane being called in to sit with Dad while Ray got to see something in Portland other than a room in a dying man’s house. We laughed loudly about our reality, and stumbled through the numbing understanding that Dad was waiting for us to blink first because, all protestations to the contrary, he was not ready to die. Not with us there. Not with him having such a great time. Dad couldn’t let go.

Ray left after Chris decided to stay in Portland with me, though he couldn’t afford to do so. Chris struggled with the decision, knowing that no matter what he chose there were consequences. We bought Ray a train ticket back to Vancouver, and Chris and I settled in for the final stretch, which seemed more hazy as time went on.

 

While I unwound the hours with Chris and Dad in my father’s house several miles away, Lars was fortunate for a couple of weeks. His work schedule was light and he could hang out with Milo, partake in summertime events, trips to the zoo, walks in the park, and Moxie wasn’t a terrible imposition. But after I had been gone about three weeks, Lars got bombarded in a hail of competing clients. Not only was he at the mercy of recording industry deadlines (which naturally had no concern for the needs of a family dealing with a mortally ill loved-one), but our son was soon caring for himself with video games. I made play-dates for Milo from Dad’s house, trying to help Lars raise our child from afar, but it was a band-aid to stanch a gushing, jagged wound.

One of the few times Moxie came to Dad’s house, he jumped on his hospital bed with magnetic certitude and curled up in a ball to sleep. While Dad was charmed by this instant affection, he was also too frail to appreciate even a small dog leaping upon him, and so I left him across town with Lars.

Moxie became a real burden. He was unwelcome. He demanded time that was nowhere to be found. Our neighbors graciously walked him when they could, but it wasn’t enough. Lars began using Moxie as a babysitter by focusing a streaming video camera at Moxie’s spot on the sofa: as soon as Moxie leapt to attention, Lars knew Milo was either awake, the house was being robbed by ruthless criminals, or a conflagration had burst out, and he’d leave his studio in our garage to check on him. But beyond this, Moxie was a cigarette burn on his wrecked nerves.

We expected, after Dad’s initial collapse, that he would be dead by morning. Dad was as surprised as anyone when he woke up the following day, bright-eyed and bedridden.

We kept thinking he was going to die any minute—all of us, including Dad. But one day passed, one week, one month: bed-bound, one-way ticket acquired, hanging onto the shreds of his body with no food, little water and a wicked sense of humor providing the only fuel to keep the engine running.

Lars waited for me to come home. Five weeks of half-assed child-care between clients, eating out because he couldn’t teach himself how to cook, five weeks of caring for a dog he didn’t want.

Lars really, really began to hate the dog.

Previous: The Bills of Goods    Next: The Marathon

 Wailing, gouache on paper, 1995

Wailing, gouache on paper, 1995

 

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