The Bill of Goods
Hampered by Dad’s surprising endurance and without Chris’s companionship, I tried helplessly to make sense of the house. I was still using dishes, so I couldn’t pack up the kitchen. I couldn’t unload Dad’s books though we were facing a Sisyphean task finding homes for thousands of them, ranging from utter trash to the spectacularly arcane. I emptied a couple of Dad’s dresser drawers, a gesture for Chris’s return so he could sleep in Dad’s room with a sense of belonging there. But the closet was still stuffed with Dad’s clothes, and the art studio was full of abandoned art supplies: easels, paint brushes, papers, canvases, twenty years of Art in America and ArtForum. The last abstract watercolor Dad started when he could still hobble out on his own was on the easel where he left it. The air in the studio was rank with mildew; it hadn’t been aired out in weeks.
Before Chris left, he and Dad spent an afternoon going through the landscapes and nudes Dad had painted over the last few years. Chris would trundle down to the basement, fetch one, have Dad review it, and stick a tag on it for its future owner. Twenty or so paintings were selected this way for Dad’s nearest and dearest friends; what remained were hundreds of paintings and drawings with no destination.
I emptied Dad’s pants’ pockets for the last time when there were no more days of getting dressed for him. The tender contents, some of which Dad had been carrying around twenty years or more, I set gently on Dad’s dresser: a Frank Lloyd Wright pillbox in which he kept ibuprofen, a gift from Chris. Two rocks, one from Spain, one from France, touchstones for places he left his heart on other journeys. Dad’s massive checkbook, leather and stuffed to bursting with receipts, the final check in his register written to the restaurant he and Chris visited the day of his last MRI. A Swiss Army knife. His well-worn leather belt, notches dented over different periods: plumpness when he was eating too much, thinness when he became sick and fooled us all into believing he was controlling his own destiny with “portion control.”
I handed Chris the eighty bucks Dad had in his wallet. Chris had no income and was burning through the money he did have, even though we were covering most of our expenses through Dad’s checking account.
“Rolling a dying man for his money,” Chris laughed.
“It’s all right,” Dad said. “I think I can spare it.”
I wandered through all these objects after Chris left and Dad was sleeping, walking circles through Dad’s life and not knowing where to put it.
Chris’s return to Vancouver had been wrenching. He did not want to leave us, but felt in a visceral way that Dad needed him to go. The job Chris had taken under the pretense of showing himself around town again was grueling because his heart was not in it; he felt distant and surreal, unable to concentrate, and kept wondering if Dad was dying now, or now. Or now. He sent us a photo of himself at work on set, which exposed his heart in the half-smile which played on his lips, eyes marred with exhaustion and sadness. Dad looked beyond that, hanging his hopes on the reality that Chris was in the world again. I couldn’t. All I could see was pain.
Chris and I texted each other back and forth.
Q: Dad hanging tenuously…I love you.
C: I love you too. I’m there with you in the trenches, different trench though it may be. I’ll be back soon.
Q: My trench has indoor plumbing. How about yours?
C: Cat poo!
Chris’s friends in Vancouver had packed up his entire two bedroom apartment without him and moved it into his friend Ray’s house; aside from Chris’s purely symbolic night of work, he had to help Ray make order of the madness in their newly shared apartment, boxes piled over every surface, nothing labelled. But Ray, who had congenital heart problems hanging over his head from the time he was born, was incredibly sensitive to issues of life and death. Chris took solace in their friendship, even as their house struggled to contain all of Chris’s unsorted crap. And Chris, isolated with me in Dad’s house over the previous weeks, asked Ray if he would join him in Portland the following week, presumably once Dad died and I had to sort through what was left behind.
Dad had been visited by the ghost cat, which I updated dutifully to Chris, and then the more alarming hallucination that he had fallen out of bed and I had abandoned him. All systems were lining up and falling down like dominoes; it was only a matter of Dad closing the doors and shutting off the lights.
Dad became maudlin about the past; he asked to hold the photograph of his grandma taken when she was a young woman, wearing a stuffy Edwardian dress and a topknot bun, but with a sly crinkle in her eyes. Dad traced the lines of her face, looking for the dumpling of an older woman he knew when he was a boy. Looking perhaps for signposts in the face of someone he loved.
It certainly wouldn’t be his mother Edna. Up until the end Dad tried and failed to forgive her. Even here, holding onto the picture of Edna’s mother, he railed against Edna’s vanity, her vindictiveness towards her ex-husband, Dad’s father. Her cruelty in forcing Dad to live with her, mostly to spite Charlie—even though he initially had custody. “How had such a woman come from my grandma?” Dad wondered. “I keep trying to find the good in her and I can’t do it,” he admitted. He asked me to hand him a picture of Chris, noting how noble he looked, chivalrous, Dad’s infatuation with swashbucklers come to life in his own son. Dad wept, feeling his chapter closing as he looked into Chris’s future. He grabbed my hand and cried. I wrote Chris to tell him Dad was saying farewell.
Dad slept, and I waited.
As Dad had previously raced the oxygen tank and lost, now I was watching other races. Watered-down cherry cider, the only thing Dad would put in his mouth any longer aside from ice water, was served in tiny four-ounce juice glasses to accompany his morphine; the cider lasted for two weeks, evidence of how little he was drinking. Dehydration had to be an issue, but it appeared to not bother him all that much.
Dad hadn’t eaten for almost a month—nothing but fruit the first week he was in bed, or maybe a tiny dish of ice cream, excepting one plate of pancakes. Chris peeled grapes for him, a hilarious suggestion which we took to heart because Dad couldn’t negotiate grape skins any longer. But that was weeks before; there was nothing left in him, and the urine bag from the catheter reminded me of this as it became darker and darker amber.
Dad was living on nothing but air generated by the oxygen machine.
Dad beat the cherry cider, I wrote. Two bags of ice down.
Holy crap, Chris replied. Good thing we don’t have money riding on him.
After four days of hallucinations, precipitous blood pressure drops and failing organs, Dad woke up Monday morning fresh as a daisy. He tried to get out of bed, having forgotten he was pinned to it by gravity and muscle loss. He gazed around the living room, wondering at his situation. That’s right, he snickered. I’m dying. After noting sardonically that he wouldn’t be able to run any errands, Dad decided to do the Sunday Times crossword instead. I handed him his glasses, a pen and the magazine with wonder and confusion. He had been unable to see much of anything for weeks; now Dad was reading tiny text and filling in the crossword just like any other day.
Instead, it was me who needed the hospital bed. With no one but me as his aide, except for my mother who would run interference every so often, I was unable to fulfill my role in my own home. I’d make calls to scramble up play-dates for Milo with neighbors, friends, anyone willing to step in for an hour or two, but many people were out of town. Milo was becoming distant from me the longer I was gone and I was short-tempered with him because I was exhausted.
That morning I told Chris I was so confident of Dad’s health I was going to sleep in the back room for a couple of hours instead of the floor next to Dad because I was falling apart and Dad was downright perky.
As I made motions to go sleep, Dad asked, “Isn’t Chris coming back tomorrow?” the barest hint of impishness flicking across his eyebrows.
Yes, I told him suspiciously.
Chris and I had been sold a bill of goods.
Dad was so convincing in his admission that he was an introvert, so relieved that he would be exhausted by visitors rather than rejuvenated, Chris and I fretted. But we needn’t have worried. Dad finally showed his hand.
Initially, as Dad’s PSA numbers began their final ascent and sensing that his end was coming, he said that all he really cared about was seeing Chris again. And when Chris came back in April to fulfill this hope but then moved on again, Dad’s body began to fall apart in earnest. Chris came back in late June after shooting a film in Winnipeg, got his Steadicam, stayed for a spell. By no means healthy, Dad was nevertheless solidly in the world. Upon Chris’s exit, he collapsed three days later, falling into bed for the last time.
Here we were again and the cyclical nature of Dad’s descents became clear: Chris left and Dad immediately drifted into a strange nether world populated by cat totems and betrayals by me. Organs shutting down. Glancing into the past while looking toward the abyss. He was, without question, dying. The hospice nurse confirmed it, I could see it. Dad was checking his hat.
What none of us predicted was the emotional strength Chris’s return might provide; we had been working under the illusion that we were wearing Dad out. But after Dad struggled through four more long, arduous days, he reached a point he didn’t expect to see again—one in which Chris might return one last time. His joie de vivre as he penned in the answer to 7 Down confirmed what we were beginning to suspect: Dad was waiting for Chris.
Twice was coincidence; three times was a trend.
Cape Cod, pencil on paper, 2000