VI: Tuesday Morning on the Phone with Dad

“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.”

Dad kept up to date with my peaks and valleys through the essays I wrote about him and his cancer, and it was funny that any conversation we had might end up there. He had the experience of reliving his life through my eyes. Very post-Post Modern.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I just canned my first carrots.

“Really? That’s great!” Dad bought me the canner for Christmas so he had a benign, if removed, interest in my progress. Plus, he probably wanted to make sure I didn’t blow anything up, myself included.

He recalled canning with his Grandma. “You really had to wrench down the lids,” he said. “And those rubber washers had a little bump on them you’d pull to break the seal. Grandma would preserve a huge amount every year; I guess it was such a pain in the ass that she had to make it worthwhile. Funny how it all comes flooding back.”

“It looks rustic in here,” I said. 

“Rustic” in this case meant “chaotic,” every surface littered with Mason jars, lids and pectin, awaiting my next experiment: blueberry jam. Do we eat jam? No, we do not. And we didn’t have any room to keep all our new canned goods, but I figured we’d cross that bridge after we canned it. My life is often made up of this cart-before-horse sort of planning.

“I wasn’t too upset,” I said. “Although I’m fed up with my own whinge-ing: ‘Shut up, you big crybaby. Your life is awesome’.”

“We’ve been blessed,” Dad agreed. He told me about a co-worker who died at 59 of a brain tumor. “Compared to that I’ve had a long life. You just never know.”

“You can’t prepare yourself for it, that’s for sure,” I said.

“We’re always prepared,” he replied, “because anything can happen at any time. We didn’t expect cancer, but here it is. We deal with the reality and try to work with what we have.”

Since his diagnosis, we'd discussed the generalities of his illness but not the specifics, like lameness, or his skeletal fragility. I wondered how frailty was for Dad, this independent spitfire of a man. “What’s it feel like?” I asked. It felt nosy, a bit like an awkward teenager asking an older cousin what sex felt like. Except not titillating.

“I just recognize what’s gone. My shoulder aches. It feels like it has no cartilage in it... probably because it has no cartilage it!” He laughed. “And my footeven now that it’s getting better, I’m still aware of it all the time, always trying to not bring on another flare-up.

"I used to take steps two at a time, both up and down those cement staircases at school. I walked at such a brisk pace that I’d turn around and realize I’d lost my party. I’ll never do that again. It’s just gone now.”

He paused as he thought about it. “Bus drivers are pretty decent about raising and lowering the platform for people who need a little extra time, but you’re sitting there getting impatient. Or I was. Now I’m on the other side. ‘Sorry folks! Gonna be a while!’ There’s nothing else to do but deal with it.”

I remembered a moment in the beginning of his cancer drama—when Dad was in really rough shape—he wanted to walk to the grocery store for some fresh air but wasn’t confident to do it alone. He feared that weakness might overcome him and he would be at the mercy of strangers to help him back home. So I went with him and we slowly made our way to the market a few blocks away.

A car was exiting the parking lot when we arrived at the grocery store. As we walked in front of itslowly of coursethe driver glared at us with such hostility I almost slammed my fist on the hood of his car. I wanted to rip out his jugular and throw it to the crows: Where did he have to go so quickly he couldn’t wait for an old man to cross? Did he have to get his granola and instant pizza home? A special date with his trail mix?

My rage was intensified by the not-knowingness of Dad’s illness at that point, plus the surprise seeing Dad in this condition at all. I too remembered Dad taking stairs two at a time, and the brisk pace which left us all in his wake. For such short legs they propelled him with great speed. Dad always looked like he was in a hurry, even if we were just out for a walk, no destination. He did great in New York City.

Now he was hindered by so many things: creaky joints, stiff knees, achy feet. Hormone therapy and fragile bones. A catheter. There weren’t stairs being leaped in a single bound; he climbed them delicately now. “God knows I don’t want a broken hip!” he laughed.

Chug, india ink and gouache on paper, 1964

But there was no resentment, no bitterness. He made whatever still chugged along work in spite of what didn’t. “I don’t need to have paint brushes tied to my hands like Renoir or Chuck Close,” Dad said. “Things are pretty good.”

Things were pretty good.


Dad’s arthritis decided it needed to branch out, franchise, so it moved from one foot to stake out new territory, claiming the other foot for a Starbucks.

You can’t win for losing.

Dad had a few days of hobble-free walking, and then the other foot began misbehaving. So he was doing a new dance step, more of a hobble-step-hitch but the result was the same: Pop couldn’t walk.

His impatience didn’t do him any favors, either. Even with hints that the problem was returning, Dad couldn’t stop himself and he went back into his studio to keep working on the painting he had puttered with in the morning. He rolled his eyes when I asked if he could sit and work on things. “Eh, you know. I just want to keep doing what I’m doing when I’m doing it,” he said.

“It’s a real shame, because I feel pretty good otherwise…for someone who’s terminally ill!” Dad guffawed.

We pulled into a parking lot. We had finished eating sushi and were headed to our big event: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

 “We’re really early,” I observed.

“Ten minutes to hobble across the parking lot, another ten minutes to limp to our seats—I think we’re right on time!” Another burst of laughter. What a comedian.

“Plenty of time to empty the bag of pee on my leg before we sit down!” Chuckling now. 

We bought our tickets and limped to our seats.

“I have to use the rest room,” I said as I clambered over him.

“Not one of my concerns these days,” he said, patting his thigh. “Pretty convenient for movies!” Dad hooted.

 Reel Time, pencil on paper, 1967

Reel Time, pencil on paper, 1967

It was good that this had become a running gag for a comedy schtick because after Dad went to the urologist to talk about his future with a catheter, it seemed that he might have to make his peace with it: his options ran to the absurd non-choices of keeping a bag hooked to his goods, or surgery that could render him incontinent.

Hmm, let’s see…bag of pee or man-diapers? Tube in my dick or continuous risk of public humiliation? WHO CAN CHOOSE?

With choices like these, it’s good to retain your sense of the absurd as long as possible.

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