A Work in Progress
I had begun writing for a literary website, and when Dad’s cancer retreated to the level of background noise, I enjoyed my first experience with an audience larger than Dad. We both treasured my brief tenure as an essayist with a bent toward peculiar topics, ranging from the contents of my underwear drawer, why Pyrex Oven-Safe bakeware exploded around me, or what Walt Whitman had in common with blue jeans. But as Dad’s cancer took the stage again, the funny essays fell away: I began musing about illness, love, depredation and sadness once more. I wrote my first illness essay in months, but before submitting it to the website, I asked Dad its value as a standalone piece.
“It’s difficult to come in this late to the story without knowing all that has gone before,” he said. “It needs the context of the other pieces you’ve written. It’s a part of a greater story, a chapter of a much larger and unfinished work.”
I laughed nervously. “I don’t want you to be a work in progress!”
“I know you don’t, honey, but it is a work in progress. It’s still unfolding, and it hasn’t yet reached its conclusion.”
Dad was back to some level of pre-hormone therapy discomfort. He was perpetually sore, as he described it, a flu-like ache without the flu. Its persistence drove him mad. “On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s about a 4,” he explained. But it never abated; as a result even the naps he loved to take by his picture window were less enjoyable. And then there was the spring rain, which made sunny naps an impossibility.
Before Dad began feeling better, before the hormone therapy really took root and alleviated most of his symptoms, we talked about the necessity of getting him a new bed. Dad was funny about things like this; his bed was almost as old as me, some part miserliness, some part laziness conspiring to keep Dad in an uncomfortable, unending relationship with a mattress which supported nothing but the air between its springs. And he was a little embarrassed to buy one so late in the game, not when he suspected he might only be able to use it for a little while longer. It seemed wasteful to him, an undeserved luxury.
But he’d handed me the reins to his life, so I took the lead with such things: we’d get Dad a new mattress when he got his tax refund. It was a quality-of-life issue, and since it seemed his event horizon was getting closer we needed to maximize time however we could, even if it was just on a mattress that didn’t mock Dad and his compromised bones.
Other things showed signs of the hormone therapy pooping out on him as well. Namely, that he was pooping out. He slipped into quieter movements again, ones he adopted when he was sick the previous spring. He napped more frequently, though not restfully because of the pain. His appetite faded again, and he didn’t have the pluck necessary to fight the good fight of making dinner every night; he ate breakfast and lunch reliably, but dinner was hit or miss.
The watch was winding down, and I could tell that while his body was being assaulted with pain, his mind was bleary because of its constancy. He retired back into the warm embrace of silly trifles, the swashbuckler movies and adventure books of his youth; his illness, while not as gripping as it was the previous spring, was coming back into bloom.
And finally, in a tacit understanding, I called a housekeeper for him; nothing too invasive, just a weekly visit to come in and sweep up the dust bunnies. But it was a part of the larger picture, both that his time was precious and he shouldn’t spend the rest of it vacuuming, but also that his body was withering and didn’t have the same capacity to complete the jobs we take for granted in our healthier days. It signified Dad relinquishing his independence.
This man who withstood single-parenthood with two children, cooked us fresh meals every night for years, raised us, taught thousands of students who came through his classes for close to forty years, who painted thousands of paintings, sketched greater or lesser drawings for over fifty years, and read thousands and thousands of books over the course of his lifetime; Dad was having to let go of some of that remarkable independent heroism for a smaller, much more difficult dependence upon others. He still painted, but the cooking was fading. He was tired. He wanted to tie up loose ends.
This was the greatest blow of all, though none of us thought of it a burden. But it was Dad’s quiet resignation, and I tried to be sensitive to that fact: his life was the work in progress, and as such it was an exercise in him finally accepting what was due to him, the love being returned to him in triplicate, he who sacrificed so much for us over his own life.