Sometimes we know what we’re looking at. Go to a museum, and, because a museum is where people cram art, you can be pretty sure “art” is what you’re looking at.
But sometimes we don’t. Lars and I have a wild, overgrown garden that I’ve nurtured over the years, which bursts with color, explodes with life as spring changes to summer and then to fall. One spring I found this plant: did I plant it in a fit of inspiration and I couldn’t remember what it was? Or was it a weed? If I planted it, I made a pedestrian choice: not interesting in either the foliage or the flowers, but it wouldn’t be the first time. On the other hand, if it was a weed it was a Very Fancy one, in which case, kudos to nature! Nicely played!
But still, what was I looking at?
You can make these same boggling oversights with people you know better than anyone on earth. Take, for instance, Dad: Once he moved out here to be closer to us, he put on a few pounds. Liked to eat, especially when I cooked, which was often. When he went for a physical (the first in many years) he was shocked to discover he’d gotten a little portly, slightly round, dare I say …tubby? So he set out to change it.
He was tickled pink as pounds dribbled away. “Smaller portions!” he proclaimed. “Portion control. Makes all the difference in the world.” He was delighted: he cut a rather svelte figure he remembered from earlier days. There was a nagging dislike of rich food, completely uncharacteristic for him, and a logeyness that pervaded, but so what? Thin is in…
My birthday has a track record of dramatic events unfolding on it, ones which seem designed to force me into maturity. I don’t know why this is, but I told a friend in my late teens that I hated my birthday because “bad shit always happens.”
I don’t take it as personally as I did then, perhaps a belated show of the maturity I was supposed to develop. But still, it is odd. In an early introduction to abusive romance, my boyfriend broke my collarbone on my Sweet Sixteenth. I suffered garden-variety unpleasantness on other birthdays: arguments, loneliness, poor judgment. In my early thirties I dodged the Crappy-Birthday bullet for a while, until 2007, a year after Dad moved to Portland, when our whole family was laid out: my eardrum ruptured, after which I was deaf for weeks; Lars was a psycho on prescribed steroids; Milo had a fever of 104; and Dad was so ill with pneumonia that I took him to the emergency room…on my birthday.
No matter. At forty, I mustered as much dignity as I could and threw myself an early wingding. There were cupcakes for kids and a keg for adults, the weather was warm and a gaggle of close friends dropped in while Dad sat under a dogwood tree in our bursting springtime yard.
“I used to be able to piss better,” Dad told them. “Arthritis makes it tough to sleep.” Perfect party chatter that makes people feel right at home. “Old age is a bitch.”
The next morning, Dad called and asked if I could take him to the doctor.
“Of course,” I said. “Anything you need.”
When I pulled up, Dad was waiting at his curb doubled over in pain. I tried to ease him into the seat gently, alarmed at how miserable he was. His doctor was only a mile away, but by the time I had driven three blocks it was clear we needed to stop: I screeched (maybe not screeched, but drove with authority) into Safeway’s parking lot and Dad hobbled to the rest room. I grabbed five-year-old Milo, who was confused and excited, and raced through the store looking for—of all things—Depends adult undergarments. I couldn’t think what else to do.
At the doctor’s office, he put one on. I was embarrassed on his behalf, but Dad was relieved: it was clear that his goods weren’t behaving and he had no idea what sort of unpleasantness might ensue as a result. At least the undies could save him from the panic he felt not knowing where the next bathroom would be.
Later the doctor catheterized him. Any discomfort or humiliation was ameliorated by the extreme pain the catheter relieved, and Dad was so thrilled to take a whiz he thanked the universe.
I sat in the car with Milo at the doctor’s office.
“What’s wrong with Grandpa?” he asked.
“I don’t know, honey. He’s having trouble peeing,” I said.
“Is he going to die?”
“Of course not.”
“I think he’s going to die.”
Eerie prescience aside, I assured Milo that Grandpa was suffering some minor complaint and admonished him to not to talk about Grandpa that way—betraying my nervousness with an inability to admit that things looked pretty bad.
That was it, my fortieth birthday.
It unfolded like this: Dad’s complaints about arthritis—nothing to worry about. His diet, which was working wonders, drifted toward bland food, the rich, savory dishes he favored being replaced by light meals featuring no sauce, half portions. But it was a diet, so no surprises there.
Then there was the birthday-bladder infection, which heralded a couple of tests. Those tests raised a couple red flags to someone, somewhere, which led to more tests, where numbers of elevated this-and-that in Dad’s blood signaled something less benign than a garden-variety urinary tract infection. Then Dad’s urologist, a cute thirty-something doctor who Dad flirted with shamelessly, “took an interest” in his case: she called up MRI's, CT scans, more blood work.
By then the curtain was being lifted ever so slowly…
...and it was time for the Big Reveal.
One day I looked up and we were in the waiting room of a department called “Nuclear Medicine.” One never wants to arrive in that waiting room, the one so ironically named: who on earth wants anything to do with medicine that’s radioactive? We were there for a “bone scan.” If that doesn’t sound ominous, I don’t know what does.
We were briefed by a rotating battery of doctors and technicians, all with assessments to add to a teetering pile, though Dad and I were stuck in Medical Primary School. But by the end of that week, we knew the score. No cute little bladder infection, no charmingly quaint arthritis. A rather severe case of prostate cancer had thrived in Dad’s body long enough that he was positively riddled with it. His prostate was feeling so generous that it shared cancer with lymph nodes and bones as far flung as his ribs and shoulder.
He was, just like that, dying.
One week you’ve got a little touch of the crud; the next you’re evaluating end-of-life issues and reviewing your health directives.
Chris had slowly been moving from Canada’s eastern seaboard west, finally settling in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he worked as a camera assistant on films and television shows. It was the closest we had been geographically in years: he was now only a six-hour drive from Portland. His life was in flux: 2009 had seen him getting knee surgery, separating from his wife, and ratcheting up his film career. And, though we didn’t know it, Chris got the first taste of Dad’s cancer when Dad went to help Chris move out of his wife’s house, but instead felt so crummy with what appeared to be a stomach bug that Chris made him tuna casserole and tucked him in bed for the duration. It was, we later realized, the first shot over the bow from Dad’s resident alien.
Now Chris came to Portland to digest the news. Since I saw Dad all the time, my level of surprise at his health wasn’t as dramatic as it was to someone walking into the frame. But when Chris arrived, I saw Dad through his eyes, and it was a devastating shock: his Rock of Gibraltar worn down by the vicissitudes of cancer, Chris was facing with an immediacy I didn’t have that Dad was pretty damned sick.
For his part, Dad immediately began squaring things away, getting ready for whatever came next; this included sifting through five-plus decades of flat files and artwork and throwing things away which didn’t pass muster. He handed things off to Chris in a casual, efficient way as he wandered the stacks. “You want this painting? I hope this one finds a good home,” Dad said as he moved on to the next pile.
How does one face a father scurrying about, making smaller and smaller piles of a lifetime of art, synthesizing as best he could what he believed to be the finest representations of his development as an artist? Making a Lifetime Retrospective, juried by himself? “It may be easy for you to be so casual about all this, but it’s not so easy for us,” Chris told him.
I told Chris that Dad wanted to leave behind as little mess for us as possible, but it was no solace: it was difficult to look at as a kindness. It was difficult to behold his father and hero, patron and friend, chipping away at the past to make room for a future without him.