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.”
We finished our popsicles on his porch.
“I don’t think I’ve had a popsicle in years. Since you and your brother were kids,” Dad said. “It’s really good!” He spoke with a childlike earnestness since his diagnosis, which was completely disarming in light of current affairs. He responded to all kinds of things this way, with a wonder at the perfection of this moment, in this context.
“I saw during one of my symptoms,” (referring to his new addiction to the Home & Garden channel, a heretofore unidentified result of hormone therapy,) “someone’s kitchen that was even worse than mine!” But he didn’t want to remodel because he would live in a construction zone for a while. He didn’t want the fuss. That, plus the time. How much could he afford?
Dad had been limping awkwardly for a few weeks, an unidentified hassle of a thing, especially since he had the catheter to choreograph as well. He adopted a hobble-step-hop and balanced on a cane, making him look more frail than he was.
In the exam room, a new doctor took a look and said, “Gout.” They’d run x-rays and blood work to confirm, but she was pretty convinced.
“Gout!” Dad exclaimed delightedly. “Who would have ever thought?”
Chris and I were delighted too. After all the reviews and tests and scans, I prepared myself to hear that his bones were giving up the fight in an assault from both cancer and hormone therapy and Dad had suffered a fracture. Gout seemed quaint under the circumstances.
“Gout!” laughed Dad over lunch. “I can’t believe it. Who gets gout?”
If you can giggle over gout, you can laugh about anything.
The following week, Dad received a letter: he didn’t have uric acid in his blood work, so he didn’t have gout. It was a MacGuffin in his cancer drama, a spectre that disappeared like smoke.
“Well, there it is, in the dark again. All part of the human condition, I suppose,” Dad said. He was sanguine, but disappointed. We both were. It would have been nice for Dad to have something that seemed, if not treatable, then obvious and non-life-threatening. Instead we were left with a nerve-wracking lack of understanding about something making Dad’s life that much more of a pain in the ass. It would be nice to take a stroll down the block or a hobble to the store, but since we were unsure what his problem was, it seemed more tenuous. Gout was an easy compromise; the lack of knowing was not.
But if the lack of gout was a minor issue, that I finally realized Dad was mortally ill was monumental. I’d been chewing on it, reading wills, signing papers: Dad was ill and I knew it. But I didn’t understand it until I realized his weird swollen foot could be a part of the larger picture—that somehow, the subtraction of gout allowed other pieces to fall into place just enough for me to get a deeper understanding of Dad’s situation.
And while not confirming my suspicions, my Saturday night call to the on-call oncologist (say that ten times fast) did nothing to suspend them either: edema (water retention) is a characteristic symptom of advanced prostate cancer, sometimes from the hormone treatment, sometimes from the cancer itself. So we knew what it wasn’t (gout) but we didn’t know what it was (anything and everything else).
After I hung up, I went online and reviewed every single article that mentioned “edema” in the same airspace as “prostate cancer.” I searched high and low for answers that weren’t there because no one knows, ever, how things will progress. But in all these articles, though I found nothing about why Dad was gimped up, there were glimmers of a future I hadn’t absorbed: Dad was going to die from prostate cancer, and I was going to have to negotiate that with him.
This profoundly stupid epiphany was one that I needed to share, so the next day I bought us lunch, which we ate on his sunny porch. “I can’t believe it didn’t occur to me, that you were going to need help at some point,” I said. “We have to talk about what you want to do, where you want to go.”
“I want you to drop me off in the woods so I can die,” Dad sniffed.
I let it sit there.
“I don’t want to be taken to jail for manslaughter, so we need to talk about other options,” I said.
“If we lived in a more enlightened culture, I’d go into the woods.”
But Dad also understood that I finally realized he was going to become needful at some point, because he answered without telling me to ditch him on the summit of Mount Hood. “I don’t think it will matter at that point,” Dad said.
“What do you mean? It seems like nothing but that matters. It will be all there is.”
“Dying is essentially a state of diminishing horizons,” he said. “My world will get smaller and smaller until there’s very little left. I just don’t think it will matter where I am.”
Such pragmatism was reassuring to Dad, but it could be a little tough to take.
After this stark evaluation of end-of-life concerns, he began to reminisce about serving in the Air Force, a time I knew next to nothing about. And he spoke of it with real fondness—not like he would join up again because God knows he was no fan of military life—and respect for what it offered him at a time when he needed it. “It got me 1,300 miles away from my mother, that’s what it did!” Dad laughed. “It was great.” But more than that, it offered sanctuary in books he couldn’t get anywhere else: the base library would order him any book he asked for, no questions asked.
It was in the Air Force that he was exposed to some of the world's most influential authors and thinkers as he flew his Air Force-issue desk, and it gave him the inspiration and confidence (and independence from his smothering mother) to go into the humanities—not exactly a fast track to success. But success is what he found anyway. “People don’t believe me when I tell them I’m fine,” Dad said. “But I really am. I’ve been blessed! I’ve been healthy, I’ve gotten to create mischief in my life without getting fired, I have two great kids and I’ve had a great time. I’m fortunate that all my good health has been at the beginning. So I’m sick at the end,” he concluded. “I’ve had a great run.”
“At some point I’ll have to call hospice, you know,” I said.
“You mean ‘Our Ladies of Immaculate Immolation’ or some other ridiculous group?” Dad asked.
“I’ll make it clear that God is not a part of your world-view,” I assured him.
“It’s enough that I’m made up of the same stuff as the universe,” he said. “I’ll just return to that.”
“I wonder why that’s not enough for people. Isn’t it magical enough that we’re here despite the long odds?”
Dad howled with laughter. “Talk about the truth of unintended consequences!” he gasped. “Yes, it’s amazing we’re here at all. Who could ever imagine?”
And that’s where we left the great hospice debate. Dad wanted to be left in the wild, an old elephant wandering off from the herd, without the hullabaloo of intervention. No special accommodations, no extreme measures. If he could feed a nice bunch of cougars, he might agree to that. He didn’t mention vultures, though I didn’t think he’d be opposed.
It offended him that he’d be fussed over in the end. People had been dying for hundreds of thousands of years before him, and he would rather do it like them, say, facing down the bitter cold of the mountains in winter, or desert heat at the height of summer.
I didn’t mention that it could have gone a host of other ways—being at the wrong end of a gladiator, or bubonic plague. A plane crash, boiling oil over the parapet, a random knifing in an alley.
But I suppose that’s not the point.