Things Fall Apart
One of Dad’s oldest friends Betsy was visiting from New York when Chris, Lars and I went to Dad’s house to do some chores for him. Dad had been persistently prodding Betsy to go through his library in the basement, thousands and thousands of art books, literature, mythology, to sift through them and take what she wanted. He’d been nagging all of us to do the same. It was the housekeeping of dying.
“I’m so glad you’re here today,” Bets said. “It’s really hard to be alone with all those books.”
She paused. “I mean, great, I’ll have all these books. I’ll find room, I have a big house, but what am I going to do with all these books?”
An expression of suffering graced Betsy as we talked, an expression many of us had worn those last few days, faces crinkled with emotional fatigue, eyes milky but dammed by necessity. We looked fragile, exposed, confused and scared. We were watching our rock slowly tip toward the sea and we couldn’t fathom it.
“He really wants me to take the books?”
"So I take the books?”
“You take the books.”
Her visit was full of conversation and celebration. Dad hosted many close friends from out of town, and Chris came back from his film shoot on June 30. We had lovely gatherings both large and small, but Dad was fading into a haze of exhaustion and illness. And, in a bellwether of things to come, he took a plunge backwards and fell on his ass while coming down the stairs from his porch.
Chris was visibly shaken by the event, but Dad thought it was hilarious. “I felt like a turtle who’d been flipped on his back!” he snickered.
We didn’t find it funny at all. Dad’s bones were compromised by the cancer, which spread like tracks of a freight train through his ribs, shoulders, but most especially his hips. They waged a war against his internal structure, and as his weakness became more profound we’d been holding our breath for this very moment. A broken hip would be a disaster of epic proportions.
It was also true that Chris and Betsy happened to be there to witness his fall, but Dad spent much of his time alone. If he hadn’t had company, if my brother hadn’t been there, Dad wouldn’t have had immediate help. And he wouldn’t have told us about the fall because he wouldn’t want us to worry. Which we all know is absurd because after all, he was dying. Things couldn’t get a whole lot more dire than that.
Unless he broke a hip.
Regardless, our pain was skimming very close to the surface while all of us, together and separately, struggled with the overt reality of Dad’s mortality.
Because Betsy was doing her reluctant duty sifting through the stacks, I was, by proximity, somewhat committed to doing the same. Chris had given me a gentle ultimatum the night before. “There are gaps in the bookcases,” he said. “You don’t want to miss your chance.” Chris had been loaded down with every photography book Dad had, and Betsy was getting the guided tour through the philosophy and classics sections. Other friends had plundered different regions in the landscape of books, Dad hand-selecting many that spoke to his great affection for the people he imagined getting the most out of them.
“Betsy has picked some real gems out of his paintings, too. You want to get down there.”
I’ll be frank: I hadn’t felt a pressing need. I don’t know why; I was aware of the finite timeline that had been picking up momentum in the last few months. But much of my time was spent with Dad, and when I wasn’t in the car or in lobbies or exam rooms, I felt like I should spend it washing clothes or picking up piles of detritus in our own house. Or writing, which happened less and less.
There were other more poignant, less practical reasons I hadn’t made it a priority, which became clear as Dad stood in the center of the room using his cane as a pointer, suggesting certain books to Betsy and different books to me. It seemed I had no criteria other than sentimental ones. I wandered toward modern art, pulled out Roy Lichtenstein and put it in my pile, because I remembered browsing through Lichtenstein as a child, amazed at the moiré dots of comic strips writ large. Maybe Milo would be similarly fascinated. I pulled out James Joyce’s Ulysses and set it aside, a book I’d never read despite its profound effect on my father. It was the same copy I remembered migrating through our house, shelf to shelf, to table, to shelf again, bound in blue cloth, worn gold lettering, no dust jacket. Dad read it so many times that he knew parts of it by heart; it lived in my pile now. Maybe I’d read it.
I pulled out two massive art books: Michelangelo and da Vinci. I set aside Mike because I pored over every sculpture as a child, amazed at the life he breathed into rock. Leo I pulled out because dammit, no one else should have it. It must have weighed twenty pounds. Maybe Milo would be inspired to learn backwards Renaissance Italian.
Chris looked at my stack as he passed through the basement. “Damn. You got the da Vinci.” I became confused, didn’t know why I picked it out other than that it seemed like someone should. “I thought Milo might learn how to build crazy contraptions,” I joked. “You can have it.”
“No, you. It’s fine.”
“You know where I live,” I said. “You can get it anytime.”
Betsy was deciding, based on my selections, whether or not she felt possessive of the things I had stacked. “I feel my cupidity coming on,” she admitted as she toddled over to where I stood, her own hips creaky with stiffness and metal. “What are you looking at over here?” Betsy asked as she gazed over my shoulder.
Dad admonished her gently. “You wouldn’t be interested in that, Bets.” He shoved her toward another area. He was pale, the circles under his eyes pronounced by the harsh fluorescent lights in the basement. The swelling in his face from the edema made him a doughy gray. He was unsteady, but unflinching in his desire to pass this torch, to get the job done. I moved a chair to the center of the room where he could choreograph our dance through the stacks of his life.
“If you’re going to take Finnegan’s Wake, Bets, you have to take the Key. It’s the only way to understand it.” Dad paused. “You should read it aloud. It makes no sense if you can’t hear the words,” he said.
“Maybe not this time,” Betsy sighed as she placed the book back in Joyce’s area. She grabbed a collection of shorter stories instead.
Unintentionally I found myself looking at the paintings Betsy had set aside and I felt my own cupidity rise. What if she took the one painting I wanted more than any other painting? What will I do without it? Dad hobbled behind me through the poorly lit areas where his artwork, hundreds of pieces, lived in tidy stacks against the walls, a lifetime of work housed here: nudes, landscapes, abstracts. Pieces from the Cleveland Painters’ Union: a fictional group of artists who together protested the National Endowment for the Art’s (NEA) dictates about “obscenity” versus “art” in a group show called “The Offensive Art Offensive.” Dad painted in six different styles for six different artists, even created a several-hundred-page dossier of correspondence and biographies for each artist and hosted “their” work at UCD. Now they lived here, all Dad’s alter egos, in the basement.
I crisscrossed from stack to stack, pulling out Dad’s landscapes. The more austere ones of Colorado didn’t speak to me the way the ones of France did, even though Colorado was my home for the first half of my life, and I’d never seen France the way Dad did. Maybe that’s why I liked his paintings of France; they were his alone.
I gravitated toward blue and lavender sunsets more than high sunlight. Lush foliage and dappled light more than his stark, spare mountain scenes. Desert scenes less than water views, but more than Boulder, my home town, which was strange.
But then I stumbled across a painting of Dad’s art studio, a silly ad hoc building covered by low shrubs and lilacs, cobbled together from recycled construction materials when I was just a baby. I was surprised at the force of my emotion, face to face with our home growing up. Our backyard. I began to feel ill.
Dad explained the location of each landscape with vivid clarity, each trip frozen in moments through his eyes and hands. But the paintings I set aside for myself, including the one of his art studio, seemed random and unedited, a poorly curated exhibition of Dad’s work. Or maybe I was too distraught to see clearly.
“I feel seasick,” I said. “I have to stop.”
“Okay, I understand,” he said.
I made my way upstairs to help Chris, abandoned to his task of putting up a railing where Dad had fallen the day before; and Lars, abandoned to the task of fixing Dad’s irrigation before the heat wave hit and Dad’s garden, which he loved, withered. I stood on the porch when Chris walked up. “I think I’m falling apart,” I said, as a wave of grief struck me with the force of a cattle prod in the heart. He put his arm around me as I gasped a couple of short hiccups of sadness.
And then I went to buy everyone lunch.
Dad was pleased. “We did some good work today,” he said. “It feels good, virtuous even.”
He was lucky. The rest of us felt like a train had hit us and then backed up to make sure we were really, truly damaged.
That night Chris and I sat on my patio, talking about our days with Dad. Mostly we laughed. We slapped away the mosquitoes, vicious that summer because of the late, wet spring, but we refused to go inside. We pondered Dad’s businesslike attention to the minutiae of wrapping up his life. We told stories about him. We drank too much.
“We’ll have to have a thing for him back in Colorado when he dies,” I said. “A party. All his friends are back there.”
“It’s just that it didn’t occur to me,” Chris said. “Of course we will.”
I’d lived face to face with Dad’s deterioration; Chris witnessed the peaks and valleys between visits. He saw Dad one month and he seemed pretty good. Wait a couple months and it was a changed landscape. Chris hadn’t had time to catch up, catch his breath. But the cancer wasn’t waiting for Chris. It had its own internal schedule specific to no one but Dad and itself.
I called Chris before his visit, just to give him a heads-up, to let him know that Dad was in a different place than he was the last time Chris saw him, but it didn’t really help. I told Chris about Dad’s weakness, frailty; his puffiness and the heaviness in his legs, but it didn’t matter. Dad’s voice on the phone was strong.
And then Chris saw this little old man, shrinking before him. No strength to pick up his legs when he climbed in the car. No color in his face except the purple rings under his eyes. Flaccid skin that never healed after he got blood drawn, bruises then weeks and weeks old.
“I thought I had twenty more years,” Chris choked. “He had this ridiculous longevity in his family. I just assumed he was going to be around. I haven’t done all the things I wanted to do with him. I don’t have kids. My kids will never know him,” he gasped, raw grief ripping through him. “Bastard,” he laughed through his misery.
“Your experience is so different from mine,” Chris mused. “You see this part of Dad I don’t see, while he just keeps handing me stuff that he wants me to have. ‘This vase…I’m not sure it holds water. You’ll have to test it.’ But I don’t care about the vase; I just want to talk to him.”
“I’m a project coordinator for Dad,” I said. “It’s not terribly emotional a lot of the time. I make sure his doctors’ visits are scheduled, I take him to his appointments, we get his medicine together. I talk to doctors and nurses about his issues. I’m a taskmaster much of the time, which is fine with me,” I said. “But because we’re together so much doing the most pressing things, he doesn’t really feel like telling me to get in the basement to sort through books like he does with everyone else.”
Dad’s obsession with getting everything sorted before he was too weak drove Chris crazy. I understood; Chris just wanted that time to talk to Dad, not make it about the shifting of material goods. But I understood Dad, too. He was overseeing things to the last extent he could—making sure that the most banal parts of his death did not bog us down when he finally took his bow. He wanted us to be able to grieve when he died, not sift through books looking for their new home.
As with all things, it was a dichotomy that sat better with some people than others. For Betsy, having Dad stand weakly in the middle of his library making observations about the literary merits of one book over another was a bitter chore. It was casual for Dad, this housekeeping, though it signified a conclusion many of us weren’t ready to accept.
But Dad just chipped away as he slipped away.
I’d been on cancer duty for a year, squiring Dad from Point A to Point B, making phone calls, parsing medical information, reading instructions about side effects and making decisions about how to run Dad’s medical life without too much fuss. It was a job with great perks: I hung out with Dad a lot. But like many jobs, it was a detail-oriented gig in which I didn’t invest a huge amount of emotional weight. It wasn’t that I segregated my emotional life; it’s that I did my job like any job: with a certain detachment.
The dam cracking was inevitable, and it happened in an unfortunate venue: a sunny afternoon gathering with old friends over bottles of vinho verde. Some combination of the heat and the wine, and the week’s heavy emotional burden, which accommodated not just my own grief but many of the people I love, conspired to create a perfect storm of emotional collapse. I fell apart before my friends’ eyes, much to the surprise of everyone, myself included. It was a complete dissolution of my being into small pieces of confusion and sadness, bitter tears, and the admission that Dad was making his exit. I wept without restraint, and as I tried to explain it, I cried harder. It was a shocking loss of control for a person who had made her way with relative calm about this whole mess.
I walked outside, hoping I could stop myself from weeping all afternoon. I sat on the curb smoking a cigarette I had lit desperately off my friend’s stove. “Okay,” I whispered, “okay, okay.” I laughed at myself and my impromptu spectacle between sobs that still choked from me. I pulled on my cigarette between the repetitions of my meaningless mantra. “Okay,” I whispered. “Okay…okay,” spurring myself to being okay, to being right again, to close the gash spewing grief.
I laid back on the weedy parking strip under a beautiful tree, and gazed through its branches, noting the gaps where golden afternoon light fell, forest dark greens and browns broken by bluest azure, yellow highlights bouncing playfully across the leaves. It was a painting Dad might have crafted himself.
Slowly I stopped repeating myself. I stopped crying. I put out the cigarette. I dusted myself off, a little shabby, face puffy, but not falling apart any longer.
I had Lars drive me to Dad’s house so I could share with him my love, confusion, and personal suffering which rose up like a geyser. I never ate dinner, but had drunk wine all night, so I was bombed. I didn’t care. I sobbed on Dad’s shoulder about the choices we faced, none of them good ones: radiation or letting the cancer run its course; keeping the catheter or undergoing surgery; hospice care. Talking about my loss which hadn’t arrived, but which I felt bitterly going through his paintings.
Dad listened just like he always did. His voice was still strong, though the rest was falling apart. I fell apart, and like a bad flu I retched it up, some of it all over Dad. And he held me, though I provided the balance now, since his legs were too frail to carry him.
And Dad, despite the weakness in his legs and the gaps in his library, had not tipped into the sea just yet.