I just noticed the last time I was really here was in March of 2017. Is that possible? Yes.
It was around that time that my father asked me to not share any news about his cancer. So I didn’t. And that basically shut me down.
He said, “you can write about it — but you just can’t write about me; you can’t tell people I have cancer.” For me, a “troubadour of truth” as a cousin calls me, that wasn’t an authentic way to live, so I didn’t.
He had prostate cancer. He was a new 85-year-old and his privacy had always felt more like secrecy. Sometimes it was appropriate and sometimes it was due to an inflated sense of his gravitas. For me, all it felt like was control. So I stopped writing. And I suffered. It wasn’t that I couldn’t not write about him, but if you’re me, once you’re told you can’t do all of what you’re accustomed to doing, there’s no sense in even going halfway. For some people it’s dance, or engineering, or singing, or building… for me, it’s writing. It’s in my blood.
He is gone now. “Gone to God” as Mom would say. If I take the tack that when we die, we go to a place that lands us similarly where we were when we left, he and Mom are sitting on supple leather couches, eating sloppy reubens, drinking big glasses of cold milk and watching a “Columbo” marathon.
He lasted longer on the meds than the average; sometimes doubling the time other patients would be on them. He opted for experimental drugs when he knew his time was running out and that the transition to palliative care only would be the way he would continue to “live.” It seemed that as his illness progressed, so did his defiance and desire for more time. That doesn’t mean he became softer, or transformed into the Dad I always wanted or thought I needed.
He fought the good fight as any Olympic rower worth his seat in that boat would. With intensity, grit and domination. He literally fought until he decided he was done. He died in his room, in his house, after resisting a hospital bed for months, “those aren’t for me. I don’t want one.” That ended about four weeks before he left us. One night he flopped off his bed in the wee hours after solo trip to the ‘loo and apparently he just waited in fear until his morning caregiver arrived and helped him get back into bed. He couldn’t reach the phone and he stopped wearing his “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” device years ago. He didn’t have any outward bruising, just his ego.
That morning, after I answered a fretful call from his nurse aide, I drove over to his house and I said, “Dad, it’s either a hospital bed or 24-hour care. We can’t have you pouring out of bed in the dark and waiting for your helper after dawn.” He blamed all the hysteria on his aide; she was a strong woman who had definitely seen worse events in her life and I knew her concerns were rational. I was just as determined to get the bed as he portrayed himself to be against getting it.
“Ohawright,” he muttered and followed up with something unintelligible but likely crabby. Then it took four days to get the damned bed in the house. It was sort of ridiculous. After that bed, he resisted 24-hour care. “It’s too much money. Don’t let the bastards take it all just to sit around and wait for me to shit.”
When you have a guy like this in your life, someone who’s always spoken quite candidly (and increasingly inappropriately) to you, you have two routes: charm and persuade or comply and lose.
I employed the former for important emotional and tactical heavy lifting such as getting a lawyer to review his Last Will and Testament; what to do with the remains of my brother who succumbed to death at three days old; and encouraging him to be kinder and nicer and softer in the last few weeks of life — that bickering and poking at the daughter who’s only trying to help, is not worth it. “Can you stop it Dad? Can you stop pushing all my buttons? We don’t know how much time you have left.” That won. He didn’t change into Jesus, he just stopped being churlish.
The latter was chosen when it was just as easy for me to leave the decisions to his health aides. “I just work here” was the route I would take. Anything that would spare me stress and only mildly annoy his care team was a risk I felt was worth taking. How loud should the music be in his room; where to charge his laptop or cell phone; whether to turn off the tv when he was sleeping — things that had nothing to do with discomfort or pain.
That said, he resisted morphine entirely. Its toll on his digestion was almost as bad as the cancer pain he said. It cut me emotionally sometimes to hear him in pain, but even so, I knew that was his decision. The home hospice team didn’t use needles. He had to be able to take everything orally.
He died in November of 2018. What blows my mind now as I look back on it, is HOW FAST his decline was once he decided to stop driving in August; once he decided to stay upstairs in late September; then once he flopped out of bed. I think that incident broke him in some ways. “I hate this thing, it’s so lumpy and small,” he’d say of his hospital bed. “But I do like this — watch” he’d announce as he would make portions of the bed incline and recline into various positions with his newest remote. Other than that, the new bed held little appeal for him. “It’s all temporary anyway,” he’d say dismissively as he looked it all over, wiggling his feet beneath the stiff, cotton, rental blanket.
After Mom died I’m pretty sure he filled her void on their mattress with his gear: his laptop, a half-dozen rosaries, a couple of leather-bound catholic missals, a few spiral-bound “Reporter’s Notebooks,” his Montblanc fountain pen and some other pens, four remote controls, a small book of Shakespeare’s sonnets, two phones, his checkbooks, his wallet, at least four pairs of reading glasses (one that I think was Mom’s: it had pink frames, only one remaining earpiece and he insisted on keeping it nearby); at least one book by Bonhoeffer and several newspapers. He was used to space on his own bed and was attached to her form’s indentation.
Also, it was terrifyingly apparent how much he’d declined in the two weeks between the two big visits. The first time in mid-October we gathered to sign legal documents and make changes to plans and also to hang out. During that visit he was verbal and full of energy, stories, opinions, and gratitude. I’ll never forget it: he asked for help with his laptop. He was having trouble reading it. Something about his email not working, the size of the fonts and the web browser. So I took a turn with it.
While I was working on that, he talked about politics, sports, told stories about his old friends, stories about Mom, and generally gossip. Then once he got the laptop back, he opened his email and a web browser and it was as though I was a small child again… I faded into the background and he entered a trance… he began to softly speak to his laptop and say “Well, ya never know…look at that… ” and “Hm… how about that… ?” and “Oh yeah… I forgot about that …” I looked around the room, realizing my smallness and I laughed to myself. “I guess I can go now” I said, and Dad didn’t even hear me… so I kissed him on the head and we said our farewells. We were both afraid. I had my wall up to lean on and he had his laptop to hide behind.
Afterward, I went to the neighborhood Thai place for lunch with a friend, despite not being terribly hungry and I talked about how the next time we see each other, I might not have a Dad anymore. We reflected on the differences between my mother’s death and my father’s coming death. Mom died unexpectedly and mercifully fast of a cardiac arrest several years before.
“Given the choice, for me, I’ll take this version, where we can talk to him and reminisce and apologize and ask questions,” I said and my friend nodded; both her parents were still around, playing golf somewhere. She knew Mom’s loss was crushing and gutting. I never want to go through something like that again.
The next time I saw Dad where his condition radically changed was about two weeks later, two days before he died. It wasn’t solemn, but it was real. His weight hadn’t changed, but his skin tone did. He felt more papery and he had bruises on his forearms that I could only attribute to his new bed. He was quiet. He’d lost the ability to speak a few days before. The trinkets on this bed were mostly gone. One rosary. No remote control. One prayer book. No reading glasses. But a picture of Mom was new. He just laid back, in his yellow striped rugby shirt I bought him for Christmas in the 90s. No more up and down with the bed remote.
I set up a wireless speaker and opened a playlist to play some piano pieces by Scarlatti that Dad used to play on our family piano when we were children; some Julian Bream and Andres Segovia on guitar, a little Bach and then Gershwin and Porter. Dad’s hands would lift and his arms would gently wave with the crescendos, his head would swoon or roll with the music, and he’d tap his fingernails gently in time on the chrome railings securing him in this bed. He’d smile greatly too, a giant grin as he found succor in the music he himself would play with determination and focus so many years before on the piano or his Gibson downstairs.
To extend a hand in the most fragile of moments and touch a man who remained a mystery to us for most of our lives was like asking the air to grant a wish. He never abandoned us; he always came home, he did what he could to keep our family afloat, but our connections to him were ephemera — thin and patchy, like tissue paper. I guess he gave us what he could of himself. Even on this day, his grip was strong and attentive. He was “in there.”
He told me in October that he wanted to last to the midterms. Anyone who knows my dad knows that’s about elections. “I want to see them bury Trump” he said. He didn’t make it to the midterms, but he got very close. Just like his boat’s final heat in Melbourne in 1956. He got close.
I think I’ll stop here.
I hope to be back soon. Thanks for reading.