The Shaman

Chris and I separately arrived at the same idea shortly before we had received word that Dad was wrapping things up—that we should mark Dad’s end run with something ceremonial.

Lars and I had spoken about it after I had fallen apart a few days earlier; maybe we should have a party, renew our marriage vows. Dad missed our wedding because we popped through Reno on a long weekend fourteen years earlier, and he had no time to scramble up travel arrangements. Dad loved Lars like his own son. Perhaps to mark the occasion another wedding was the ticket, and Dad could witness the bonds of love and the continuation of the family line for himself.

Chris’s world was more complicated. His life had been in flux, with a marriage that fizzled and a career simultaneously blossoming into something rich and strange. But he was rootless, always waiting to see what the next job was, trying to climb the greasy pole. And then he decided on something crazy, daring and totally terrifying: Chris was going to buy himself a fifty-thousand-dollar piece of camera equipment and become a Steadicam operator. He had spent many soul-searching hours deciding this course, often on the phone with Dad. Chris had taken a workshop for Steadicam operators in the spring where he had learned some of what this crackpot idea entailed. He got a loan, ordered the Steadicam and had it shipped to our house in Portland, in several enormous anvil cases which piled up in our front hall looking awesomely technical and overwhelmingly official. 

“In some ways I’m doing this for him,” Chris said. “He’s always supported me no matter what, and now I’m taking this huge chance.” It was a fifty-thousand-dollar chance was what it was, but Dad didn’t shrink from such risks. “I was thinking I should ask the Shaman to bless the Steadicam,” Chris said.

It made perfect sense. The renewal of our wedding vows was a nice idea; we wanted Dad to be recognized officially as “patriarch” and “clan leader,” but there was something incongruous about it. Maybe it wasn’t personal enough, being less about Dad and more about us.

What Chris was suggesting couldn’t be more perfect: a ceremony with the Shaman, one of Dad’s great inside jokes with himself.

The doctors had delivered their determination: Dad was dying. If there were any particular day that deserved ritual observation, this was it. And, though not completely frenzied like the Maenads of Greece, Chris and I were pretty loaded. Open to the songs of the universe, listening to chaos, our consciousness altered dramatically with booze and shock, witnessing the pattern of life at its most basic: beginning and ending.

Chris was devastated, dreading this news with a special apprehension because he, unlike myself, was so unsettled. I was married with a child, a home, a base. Chris had a future of risk and unpredictability, and now one without his father, the one person he perceived as his still point in a churning world. The sounding board of his life was leaving.

We pored through Dad’s closet looking for the Shaman’s vest, also adorned with silly talismans and found objects; and the shirt, now almost forty years old, a tunic he had worn to his second wedding and a wistful reminder of his failed marriage to a woman he’d never gotten over. We found the Shaman’s mask tucked in a cardboard box with an ancient decaying bundle of sage. The mask smelled terrible, musty and moth-eaten, the leather crunchy from neglect. We unwrapped Dad from his button-up shirt as he precariously balanced on his cane in the living room, lit with a non-ceremonial fluorescent bulb—I was too tipsy to search for candles. The tunic was tight, stretched across his round belly, and his vest was crunchy like the mask, leather strips brushing like sandpaper against each other. Root Man, the little wood knot Dad found decades ago, and which wore a disconcertingly impish expression, we hung around Dad’s neck from its strip of rawhide.

Chris put on his Steadicam vest, the symbol of his future and all its inherent risks, making him look like Dad’s strange technological twin: Dad an earthy, slightly disheveled voodoo priest and Chris, a human-machine hybrid from some near-future reality.

We pulled the mask over Dad’s head. We stood there a moment. No one said anything.

Dad’s voice was muffled and echoed dankly from the depths of the musty mask. “The Shaman has come,” he said with humility. “Though it’s still ol’ Dad under the mask, the mask brings forth something else.” He paused. “You can feel the change, right?”

I welled up as the Shaman tottered on his cane with the goofy mask in place; I left Chris in his private audience with the Shaman by not falling to the temptation of glancing at him. How was he taking this? I was already wrecked.

“We’re here to mark this moment in time, when I will pass into history, and you two will pass into a future without me. I mark this moment by passing on the belief you can go forward without the old man. You’ll go forth into your lives and carry on, where I’ll live through you.” He turned to me, perhaps knowing I was easier: I had been through it all with him over the last year while Chris wrestled with the dichotomy of developing his career while balancing his desire to be with Dad. “Quenby, you’ve got a great husband and child, and you’ve come so far. You’re strong and talented. And you’ve given me a great gift over the last year, taking care of me better than I had any expectation of anyone caring for me. But you must go on, keep writing, or creating, and you will keep writing without me, and it will be great, no matter what you choose to write about. Be good to your family, who could not be here tonight but are in our hearts, but be good to yourself, the person you’ve most given short shrift in your life.”

I was sobbing when the Shaman turned to face Chris, who was not in much better condition. “We’re here tonight to bear witness to a moment when you, Chris, are moving into an unclear future. I know that you will feel abandoned by me when I go, but you’ve gotten everything you need from me. The Shaman stands here before you to bring you into that future. This,” he tapped his mask, “is just a symbol, but the sentiment is real: you’re going to be fine. I’m giving you all you need to go into that future and do great things: believe in yourself, do what you know in your heart to be right. You are the Shaman now.”

Having received benediction, I left Chris and the Shaman to have a more private ceremony together; I picked up the now highly flammable sage, lit it, and began giddily bobbing through the house, brackish tarry smoke burning far too quickly from the ancient smudge stick. I wandered downstairs through the basement, past Dad’s paintings, through his vast library, out to his art studio, gray smog filling the house and belatedly making me concerned about Dad’s recent pneumonia diagnosis. I wandered back through the house, having stubbed out the stick like an enormous stogie, and was embarrassed to see blue smoke hanging thickly around Dad and Chris, standing where I left them.

Chris was weeping, the Shaman weaving unsteadily on his cane but erect, rising against pain and weakness to make one last Shamanic appearance before He slipped into history, sinking silently with Dad when he died.

“Are we done?” Dad asked quietly. We nodded, crying, and Chris and I helped the Shaman disrobe to reveal Dad once more, a small man ravaged by illness and medication, worn out by radiation, slightly pudgy and bowed by gravity which had been bearing down particularly heavily upon him.

“Thank you, Dad,” we said.

“I think I should probably show you both what you’re in for now,” he replied, and we understood, if not overtly, that this was the moment when Dad passed his independence to us; he simply couldn’t manage any longer.

Dad took us through his nightly ablutions, a series of specific steps he had devised trying to overcome his infirmity. “It just works better if I do the steps in a certain order,” he said. “First the dentures,” and he showed us how to scrub to sticky gel from his uppers properly before he dunked them in their nighttime bath. “Then drain the bag,” Dad said as he lurched unsteadily toward the toilet where he physically lifted his left foot with both hands to get it on the rim of the john. This was a delicate dance which revealed the layers of precariousness Dad dealt with to do the most simple actions: he could not lift his foot at all. It just didn’t work. But his lack of balance made this airy toilet perch a daring feat of acrobatics; he bent over and Chris and I held our breath while Dad found the clasp on the valve to drain the bag into the loo. “It’s a little tricky at first, but you’ll get it,” Dad said. “We’ll rinse it out, but we have to get my pants off first,” he said.

He led us down the hall to his bedroom where he sat down on the bed, and Chris and I squatted by his feet to help him get his shoes off. Chris had already helped him get them on in the morning a couple times, but we were both unprepared for how difficult it was going the opposite direction; by morning Dad’s feet were far less swollen, having been elevated while he was sleeping.

Dad wallowed back on the bed like a sea lion and we un-peeled his mummified feet from their swaddling, so swollen the shoes didn’t tie any longer. Then we gracelessly unyoked his belt and shimmied his pants off. Now completely exposed in all his infirmity, Chris and I looked at each other in a wild mixture of horror and embarrassment; why hadn’t he asked us for help? Why did he wait? His legs were completely atrophied. No strength left, his knobby knees and shin bones the only evidence of a leg remaining. His sturdy stature, a fireplug on two muscular legs—all gone.

“You’ll have to do a quick swap now,” as we waddled back into the bathroom for the change from the “day bag,” more petite for subtlety and convenience while worn under clothing, to the “night bag,” voluminous but cumbersome. Dad was matter-of-fact about the operation. Chris and I made awkward jokes. We were fumbling like new parents with a diaper, but one never expects to be this close to a parent’s most basic physical needs.

“Make sure the valve on the bag you’re using is closed. Believe me,” he said, “I’ve made THAT mistake before.” An image of pee dribbling from the bag as Dad walked became a distinct reality as Chris and I stuffed this unbelievable information into brains struggling with all that had transpired. “Now we rinse the bag and put it away.” Dad filled it with warm water a couple times, sloshed it around, drained it, and set it on a shelf for the next day. “Tomorrow we do it in reverse,” he stated. “Sometimes I have to poop, but I think I’m good tonight.” He grabbed his cane from the towel bar and wandered back down the narrow hall to his room. “That’s it,” he said.

That’s it? I thought dourly. It took us over an hour. My own nighttime ritual took, on a good night, five minutes. How had he been managing? Chris and I shared a couple meaningful glances as we tucked Dad in, our roles reversed in a dramatic and unsettling way. We kissed the Shaman goodnight, now a skinny little man barely making a bump under his blankets. We turned out the light and walked outside to Dad’s porch to collapse and gather our thoughts.

“Jesus Christ,” Chris groaned. “His legs have completely atrophied. What the hell?”

“I need a smoke,” I said. “What a fucking day.”

Chris, sympathetic or merely wanting the company, got in his car to buy me smokes and us a twelve-pack. I wrote Lars to tell him I would be at Dad’s awhile as Chris and I adjusted to our new reality. How weird, I thought. On the other side of town Milo is in bed, Lars is watching TV. I’m here, having just gotten a visit from a Shaman and draining pee out of my father’s catheter after learning that he’s dying. Life is very strange.

Chris came back and we sat on Dad’s porch until dawn, laughing our asses off. “Did you see all his shirts?” I said. “They’re organized by color. I can’t believe it.” 

Chris wiped tears away. “He hangs up all his pants,” he sighed. “It’s really sweet.”

It was the end of a very long day.


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