Choosing How the Sun Will Set
A friend invited us to a barbecue and told me to bring Dad. It was a beautiful afternoon, warm sun cutting through the marine layer and scorching our friend’s grass.
Accustomed as I was to Dad's decline, I rarely had a chance to witness the changes as an interested observer. But public outings like barbecues brought it home in a way that doctors’ offices couldn’t. There were elevators in the clinics, concessions made for ill people, and always people in worse shape than Dad.
But as we exited the car—bucket seat threatening to pull him under as usual—I looked at my friend’s house and realized it was trickier than I expected. The porch steps were easy enough, but I remembered the stairs out to her back yard were steep. I suggested we go around the side of the house instead, and as we were picking our way over the gravel path, I felt the footing as slippery as if I were hobbling myself. Dad tottered through the gate, where the patio was absolutely baking in the sun.
The guests huddled under the patio umbrella, inadequate to the task of protecting twenty people from the beating heat. I scrambled a chair for Dad, but all the real estate under the umbrella was priced too high for anyone to relinquish their spot. I wanted to give someone the boot, but relied instead upon general civility which would answer the call to release a seat in the shade for this pale, obviously exhausted man on a cane. And so we sat in the bleaching sun, me getting up to fetch lemonade, Dad wilting silently with a vulnerable questioning half smile.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that no amount of our being pathetic would be enough to lobby the hearts and minds of the other guests, so I told Dad we were going inside. He seemed to melt before me, relieved that I was again taking control of a situation he couldn’t believe he was too fragile to master himself. We wandered to the stairs, the ones I had predicted were going to be troublesome. I stood in front of them, holding Dad’s shish kabob and lemonade, and gazing up as they rose before him like Mt. Fuji. “Let’s go around again, Pop,” I suggested.
But Dad was too tired to listen and forced himself toward the steps. His legs were shaky and leaden. With no handrail to grasp, I worried he would pitch backwards, so I perched underneath him to break his fall. I could feel him struggling against his own frailty as he willed himself up step by step, and I held my breath until we got to the top. Then we staggered through the house where only young people dwelled, no reasonably comfortable furniture in sight. One lone chair beckoned Dad and I snatched it lest someone come and steal it from us. Dad collapsed into it with complete relief and submission.
After getting him some more food and lemonade, we sat by ourselves in the living room, the barbecue a million miles away.
“It’s pretty surprising, isn’t it?” I asked. “Your level of infirmity, I mean.”
“Oh, man,” he said. “Yeah. I just watch my body fall apart as if it’s a television show, sort of detached from the experience. ‘Wow, that doesn’t work anymore,’ or ‘Whoops! I guess that’s gone now.’ I can’t get too excited about it, but it is surprising.”
We didn’t talk to many people, but we were okay. “It’s just nice to be somewhere that isn’t a doctor’s office,” said Dad.
Another day, another minor medical emergency: Dad’s catheter was blocked and it had to be flushed out. It was, of course, rush hour on a Friday afternoon. More calls, more hope he could see his urologist, but no. Not today.
Instead, a trip to his GP where, at 4:30 in the afternoon the earliest appointment they had was 6:45 in the evening. Two-plus hours with clogged pipes for Dad.
It was about this time Milo complained of hunger pangs, which meant he was well past the point of no return–he should have eaten a long time before. We were at a critical moment: no food equals Class A breakdown of a remarkable and embarrassing nature. And Dad was slowing filling with pee, but there was nothing to be done about it.
“You want to grab an early dinner, Dad?” I asked, feeling the strange normality of such a statement.
“Sure,” he said. What else was he going to do?
As we walked toward the car, the receptionist told us another appointment opened up at 5:30. Now only one hour stood between Dad and relief. Any little thing helps.
We ate dinner nearby, Dad having to pee, Milo blissfully unflappable about the ongoing and ever-changing medical circus, me taking in the wonder of the thing. You just never know where you’ll be when Moby Dick surfaces.
If there was one thing that disoriented me, it was dealing with outsiders who became privy to our ongoing saga. Many of our closest friends dealt with it the way we did: it was just the way things were and they faced it.
But others, unfamiliar with either me or illness or death or my father, often had unpredictable responses that confused me or make me uncomfortable. One woman hinted that we shouldn’t talk about my father’s condition in front of Milo, as if I’d kept it secret from him. It was ridiculous; too many situations had arisen in which Milo had to escort Dad with me; no one was available to watch him. Besides, I respected both my father and my son, and that sort of gigantic void of truth would have been impossible.
“Does your son know about your father?” people asked me.
“Yeah, of course,” I said.
“How do you explain it?”
“I just tell them he’s sick, he has cancer.” This felt like a trick question.
“Do they know he’s dying?”
“I don’t go out of my way to explain the grim details, but he’s picks stuff up about it. It’s normal to him. We’ve never tried to hide Dad’s illness.”
This was strange to me, the sort of hush-hush attitude about Dad. For me, it was my job. Other people went to work, I took Dad to the doctor. People exuded kindnesses and plaudits that made me feel odd; I was just doing what any decent person would do: you step up. That’s what decent people do.
There was a curiosity about our situation I could relate to; many people were trying to figure out what they’d do in similar situations they might face in their own future. But many reactions to my situation seemed steeped in fear of the unknown and embarrassment about infirmity in general. I guess I was afraid of it too, before Dad punked out on me. But it just became the price of doing business. You deal with it. It becomes a part of life, just like anything else. It was the absolute opposite of extraordinary: it was the most ordinary thing in the world.
“Sometimes I’m surprised at how blasé I am about this,” Dad admitted. “I just can’t get all bent out of shape about it.”
Milo and I had been playing a lot, running around with the dog, fixing up the Palazzo, playing video games. Sometimes the contrast between my father and my son was strange, but mostly it was hopeful. Dad at least had a chance to see the torch passed down to another generation, though he complained about the shoddy stewardship in handing a decent planet to Milo. It’s true that it wasn’t ideal. But our son, his grandson, was a great light rising in the east as Dad was setting slowly in the west.
And Dad was mindful of the quest for a good death, not one full of medical interventions or last ditch bids for more time, but of sharing moments with those he loved: me and my husband, Milo, his friends—but mostly his son Chris who was unable to be with him as often as they would both like. Dad made his peace with the end of things, didn’t fight the inevitable; he would drift with the tides wherever they might wash him ashore.
It was with remarkable aplomb that he fell to pieces, an old jalopy shedding parts as it rattled down the road. He shrugged as it lost the tailpipe; he waved farewell to the pistons as they blew one by one. I don’t know how I’ll face my own end, but watching him face his made me realize it’s not that bad.
It just is.