Despite my being a neophyte in reviewing oncoming mortality, Chris opted to spend that night driving full bore to get back to Portland. Chris’s friends, sympathetic towards his utterly unworkable situation, gave him their blessing by assuring him they would finish moving his stuff out of his apartment. It was a massive emotional debt Chris assumed with their friendship but the situation was developing in such a way that Chris felt he had to return. Chris had been back in Canada since Thursday; it was Sunday. He had been home two-and-a-half days.
He texted one short line: On my way.
I spent the night calling people about Dad’s condition, pacing, and keeping Chris’s car on the road with the sheer force of my mind. I was concerned that with the burden of Dad’s oncoming deadline, Chris might make a fatal error in judgement somewhere along the six-hour drive to Portland. We updated each other on his journey in phone calls and text messages: sleeping for a bit in a rest area; that’s fine—just be safe.
After even stress could no longer keep me upright, I passed out for about an hour. Chris pulled up to Dad’s at three-thirty in the morning, his ghostly shape filling the doorway as he quietly walked in.
We both collapsed in relief: Dad was still alive for Chris’s return and Chris was still alive after a long drive, a grueling interview at the US/Canadian border, and stolen naps. Chris slept in Dad’s lift chair reclined all the way back; I slept on the love seat which was too short for anyone but me. The next day we would fold an old foam mattress topper in half and use that instead. Now we were just too tired.
Dawn crept in and Dad woke us with a request to help him to the bathroom. He hadn’t been out of bed since he had fallen into it Saturday night. After reviewing our situation and deciding that Dad might not be able to make it across the room, down the hall and onto the pot, we looked over at the bedside commode that the hospice agency thought, in their greater wisdom, might be a good idea.
The commode stood there like a gray industrial sculpture with a plastic bucket, parked next to some paintings and Dad’s classical CD collection. We hadn’t thought about it since its arrival, but now it beckoned.
I brought it over to Dad’s hospital bed, and Chris and I struggled to help Dad out of it and onto the porty-loo, which had never been set up properly. Chris and I were appropriately wide-eyed at how things had turned. Dad was quiet about the event.
It was not a smooth movement, in more ways than one.
“It’s no surprise,” I said. “Everything is tired. Your intestines are thinking, ‘I’m pooped!’”
The three of us laughed to gasping.
Chris took evening watch with Dad so I could visit Lars and Milo across town. Not for a long time, just a bit. Have dinner with them in the sun.
But Chris called me with tension in his voice. “I think everything’s okay, but he’s not lucid and it seems like he’s trying to say something. Don’t rush, but you might want to come back.”
I told Chris I’d be there soon.
Chris called me again, really encouraging I pick up the pace. We were now both on the giving and receiving ends of a phone call no one wants to make: Hurry.
I hauled my ass in the car and raced across town, stuck behind some bozo who couldn’t drive. It took forever to cross the three miles between houses. I pulled up, my adrenalin screeching like the car’s brakes as I raced into the house. I threw open the front door.
Dad was sitting up, talking to Chris, easy-peasy. I flipped him a solid middle finger on both hands. “FUCK OFF!” I shouted, laughing and crying in a moment of complete confusion.
Guffaws and relief: another bullet dodged.
On Tuesday, Ingrid came to review Dad’s situation in light of this most rapid descent, impressed with his complete meltdown. Chris filled me in later on Dad’s porch. “Dad asked her how long it was going to take, this dying thing.”
“What’d she say?”
“She asked Dad if he was an introvert or an extrovert. Dad told her he was an introvert.”
I thought about Dad with all his books and crippling shyness. His ability to burrow in his studio for hours or days, painting. It made sense. “Okay,” I said. “So…?”
“Ingrid told Dad that introverts get exhausted by being social. It makes things go faster. Extroverts are invigorated by visits, and lots of visitors could really make a difference in how long it took.”
“Huh,” I said. “What did Dad think?”
Chris thought about it. “He’s relieved. He’s glad he’s easily exhausted by people so he can get on with it.”
We sat with this reality: our presence would actually hasten Dad’s end.
We watched as Dad’s breath got shallower. We had few errands; the final chores were completed, or could wait.
“I guess we’d better call the burny places,” Chris said. “The Burn-o-Mat.”
“The BURNINATOR!” I said.
We were weeping, we were laughing so hard.
“BargainBurnBarn. ‘You bring ‘em, we burn ‘em!’” Chris’s slogan was a nice touch.
“Which crematorium do you like best?” I asked Chris. We had a list of budget funeral homes we got from the hospice agency.
“Well, the first one costs a hundred and thirty-five bucks more than the last one,” Chris said.
“Nothing too good for Dad!” I agreed.
“What do you think about an urn? We get a free plastic one at the first one.”
“Environmentally irresponsible,” I concluded. “Dad’s got all these vases which don’t hold water,” I noted, “but they’ll hold Dad just fine!” I wandered over to his hospital bed, conveniently parked under the mantle which hosted a collection of decorative, elegant, but useless pottery. “Dad, when you’re cremated, which vase would you like?”
He smiled when I pointed to the mantle, my game show hostess arm waving appealingly under a large number of non-water-bearing vessels.
“I like the blue one,” Dad said.
“Good choice,” I said. “You look good in blue.”
Chris agreed. “It will really bring out your eyes.”
Chris’s mother Kelly, after hearing that Dad had taken a nosedive, decided to move up her visit to make sure she got a chance to say goodbye. We told her that Dad was in terrible shape, looked plumb awful and was mostly sleeping now that he was confined to his hospital bed.
The day after Kelly arrived, my mother Jane dropped by with her husband Bob. Chris, Kelly and I were there. Dad was sitting in his hospital bed, the back elevated to its highest point, and he looked out over us and his garden beyond, a goodly king holding court over his subjects. We hung on his words, each remembrance. Jane reminded him of some youthful folly, of scrawny ol’ Dad picking fights in bars to defend the honor of hapless victims. Dad winced at the tale; stories and laughter bellowed out the house. Other than his legs not working, he was great. A party had developed around Dad and he was laughing loudest of all.
The day after his impromptu celebration I woke up to the tone of a text message. There waiting for me was a photo of Dad eating a plate of pancakes, silly grin on his face, fork clutched in a death grip lest someone threaten to remove his plate.
He was improving.
Kelly stayed for a week, cutting bouquets, running errands and doing crosswords with Dad, and then she too left. Chris and I took turns on the mattress pad in the living room next to Dad for night shifts, though even when we slept in one of the bedrooms, we didn’t sleep well.
The quiet which enveloped us encouraged serenity, but not reverence. Dad’s voice was failing him; he had begun to whisper, thin reedy notes falling completely as the last of his breath was encouraged with the help of an extremely loud, rather imposing oxygen machine, choking out gasping sputters as it generated its own air.
“Tedious,” Dad whispered.
“What’s that?” I asked.
I thought about it. “Tedious for you, maybe. For us, it’s a few more stolen moments.”
He smiled. Laughter wasn’t possible anymore, but I knew he was laughing. “It’s not like I’m trying to get away from you.”
“I didn’t think so.”
“So.” He paused, not for emphasis, but because his breath was so light that a short word could catch him up. “How do I look?”
I looked him over earnestly. “Well, you’ve been favoring the left side of your head, so you have some flyaway hair on that side. Your beard is fuzzy.” I waited. He waited for me to continue. “Your beard is getting longer, but not too long. You don’t look like Rasputin or anything,” I said.
“Phew. That’s good.”
“Your eyes are sunken a bit. Deep rings have settled around them. Still,” I concluded, “I can see your cheekbones more than before, so in some ways I can see the younger you from pictures.”
“Your breast bone is quite prominent now. I never knew what your breastplate looked like before.”
“An old rooster,” he wheezed.
“You’re definitely going into the Coq au Vin,” I agreed.
“You’ll have to cook me a long time,” Dad said.
“Tough old bird.”
We waited a bit. I evaluated him as closely as I could, giving him the honest assessment.
“I could still pick you out of a line-up,” I concluded.
Dad smiled his laughing smile again. “‘Officer, he’s the impatient one, third from the left,’” he breathed.
“‘The one with the existential gaze, waiting for the shoe to drop,’” I said.
“I was always impatient,” Dad mused.
“Yes, you always were,” I agreed.
The previous Christmas, I read The Wind in the Willows because I knew how much Dad loved it when he was a boy. I remembered none of it from my own childhood, but as I dove into The River with its animals, I felt their nature and the earthly cycles embrace me with timelessness, the very reason Dad loved it so. I hadn’t been sure of much, but when I visited with the humble creatures of the wood and vainglorious Toad, I knew that I would read this to Dad when he could no longer read himself, a final act as Dad’s curtain fell.
Now it arrived, and after the visitors were all gone and we three were passing the hours, I read my favorite chapter from The Wind in the Willows to Chris and Dad, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” It was the only gospel we heathens had: Mole and Water Rat, two humble creatures concerned for their friend Otter’s lost child, set out to search for him in the eerie night. They find him sleeping peacefully at the feet of the great god Pan, amidst the splendor and wonder and terror of nature, through which Pan had been leading them by playing his flute at the break of day. But while they recognize something both terrifying and wonderful at play, they begin to forget almost immediately, lulled into a sublime ignorance by the song of the reeds.
After I read, Dad fell asleep and Chris and I sat on the porch, the only place we experienced the summer which moved forward without us. I thanked Chris for listening, for sharing the moment, full of light and awe and the impermanence paralleling our own.
Chris welled up. “I’m Mole, you’re Water Rat, and Dad is Pan,” he said.
“He’s Badger,” I said.
“He’s also Pan, the old goat leading us through the wilderness to safety,” Chris said. He was right, of course.
“Except for the odour,” I said. “He doesn’t smell like a goat.”
A long night with labored breath: Chris and I weren’t sure if he’d make it, but come morning, Dad was still there.
“How are you, Dad?”
In a stronger voice than the day before, “I wish I was feeling a lot worse than I am.”
We had switched Dad from the wheezing electric oxygen machine to the enormous but silent oxygen tank standing like a Cold War missile in the corner of the living room. The oxygen machine was so loud generating its own air that no one but Dad, aided by morphine and some deafness, could sleep.
“I’m changing the tank again,” Chris said, as he changed from the oxygen-missile back to the electric machine once morning arrived and the sound was not so bothersome; we would save the silent tank for night.
“If you must,” said Dad.
“Unless you want to race,” Chris said. “You against the oxygen tank, whichever runs out first wins.”
Dad really wanted to win.
Dad didn’t beat the oxygen tank.
Dad didn’t beat the oxygen tank.
Chris couldn’t sleep. He knew Dad desperately wanted to let go, so Chris sat up and did his version of the Shamanic “passing through the gates” dance, which included rolling his eyes back in his head and speaking a little made-up “ooga booga.” It didn’t work.
We woke up and discussed the night.
“I didn’t sleep at all,” Chris said.
“I did for a bit, and then came to check on Dad who was rattling pretty loudly,” I said. “No luck falling back asleep.”
“Dad wanted a little death-bed humor, but I couldn’t come up with anything.”
“Performance anxiety,” I said.
“I got nothin.’” Chris agreed.
We sat for a bit, pondering death-bed humor.
“I’ll sleep when you’re dead!” I said to Dad. “How’s that for a little death-bed humor?”
We laughed, though we were tired. We kept thinking Dad was going to check out, but he didn’t.
“Always leave ‘em laughing,” Dad said, “BUT LEAVE ‘EM!”
He was sick to death of dying.
Chris and I stepped out for lunch, figuring if we both left at the same time, Dad would find the heart to die already. We grabbed a bite at Dad’s favorite lunch place, back in the days when he still ate. I was antsy, because really, who wants to be gone during the big bow after all that waiting? It’s like getting up to use the loo during the movie Fight Club at the point when you get the Big Reveal; I’ve never recovered from that particular bit of bad timing. Our reaction to missing Dad’s final breath might make both of us lose our taters.
Not after us being so dutiful and all.
“Turns out I had my two weeks,” Chris sighed. “I would have been back to Portland last Thursday.” We wondered at the time which elapsed since Dad’s dramatic decline. “But I wouldn’t have traded being here for anything.”
“You would have missed a lot. We make a really good team. Plus, we laugh all the time.” I thought about what the weeks without Chris would have looked like and shuddered. “You’ve also made my life infinitely less complicated.”
“Some of those bathroom adventures would have been a disaster,” Chris said.
I couldn’t imagine taking care of Dad without Chris’s sheer strength to move Dad around for our midnight misadventures. I can never be grateful enough to have him as my compatriot in these nighttime nightmares. I even reconsidered giving Milo a sibling just so he wouldn’t have to go through the same thing alone.
“I’m thinking of taking a job in Vancouver on Friday,” Chris said. It was Tuesday. He got a day-call on the television show he was working on when I so rudely pulled him out of his life again.
“It doesn’t matter either way,” I said. “If you take it, Dad will die and you’ll have to cancel, but if you don’t take it, he won’t.”
Chris sighed. Both of us were in suspended animation. Dad was merely suspended; the animation was gone.
We drove back to the house after our brief lunch. A woman with a cumbersome walker not unlike Dad’s was slowly pushing herself to a bus stop.
“Show-off!” Chris shouted.
“Dad used his for 36 hours,” I realized.
“Damned people with their mobility.” Chris murmured. “You got it pretty good, lady! Stop rubbing it in, huh?”
The woman looked miserable, but under the circumstances she had it pretty good.
Chris, now flat broke, took the job in Vancouver. He said a tearful farewell to Dad, packed up, and promised me he would return soon to help me after he died. He apologized that he had to leave at all, but he was gratified that at least he had accompanied both of us so close to the end. Chris and I would sort through the house, make sense of the emptiness Dad left behind. But at least we would do it together.