I calm Karen while briefly profaning my mother for worrying my daughter. My mother, who has called my number weekly for decades without a problem. I curse myself. Mom must be in a real state if she cannot dial the phone. I tell Karen it will be all right. "We have expected this. It’s for the best." I hear the tears in her goodbye. She hangs up.
“I know.” I’ve not been able to go all the times my father had been supposedly dying. I’ve received many calls telling me to expect Dad’s death, only to wait days to learn he pulled through one more time. I listen to Jim tell of his dilemma at work. I listen, but my thoughts slip into another channel. Dad has been dying at least six times in the last ten years. Each time was very serious, the doctors telling my mother he would not pull through. Memories flash through my mind.
Shortly after I was married, Dad lost an eye in a freak accident with a dropped baby aspirin bottle smashing into the bathroom sink. The emergency room would not touch him. They made an appointment with him for a specialist. The specialist could not see him for two days. Well, with glass embedded in his eye, he could not see any way, but by the time the doctor saw him, it was too late. They tried to save the eye, but for the year it was left in, he was in such pain that afterward, he could remember nothing of that year. From then on he had a glass eye.
Years after that accident, he had five bypass heart surgeries in a time when you stayed in the hospital for weeks. At the time of the first one, I lived in Lansing, and I waited with my family in the waiting room for the long surgery. A migraine started and I remember little. On the way home I had to have Bill pull to the side of the road, so I could vomit.
That had been years ago. The lung specialist said the heart surgeon had to have known. “They had to physically lift these lungs out of the way to get to the heart,” he told my parents. “They had to have seen.”
Years ago, when urban renewal had taken his Citgo service station, they gave him nineteen thousand dollars because that was all the property was worth. Riverfront property, one block off the town’s downtown area and on the main highway coming through town. It angered me. The town screwed him. Urban renewal destroyed my hometown as I knew it, and took the only livelihood I could remember my Dad having. For God's sake, what was he going to do?
My intellect tells me nothing stays the same, but my heart believes nothing changes. The man who just yesterday swung me into his arms when I ran to him yelling “Daddy, Daddy” might be dying. It was hard to fathom. I haven’t heard a word of what Jim’s been saying for several minutes. Blanking out a conversation like this happens to me a lot. “Tell you what Jim. You’ve been there when I couldn’t. Let me go up and see what is happening. If things look really bad, I’ll call you. Okay?” We exchange a few more words and hang up.
|Dad and four of his five kids -- that's me on the right.|
Bill has been listening. He has to work and can’t come with me. I’m grateful because I want to be alone on this trip, I prefer experiencing my sad moments in private.“Give me the phone and I’ll get you tickets.”
After Bill gets the tickets, I call my new employer and let him know I’d be gone. A few hours later I leave Lambert Airport in St. Louis headed for Metro in Detroit. After reaching Detroit, I’m an hour's drive from home in Fenton. The small post-war brick house looks the same, a little shabby, but welcoming. Mom looks the same as my last visit: worn, her dark brunette now silver-white. Her eyes are sad, but she is glad to see me. The last few years show. You have to respect someone giving up everything to care for another person. I always think I subconsciously suspect them too; wonder if I could do it, would do it; maybe, but grudgingly.
Juli, Patty, and Doug, and his wife Jan are there, the hometown family. I remember Jan lost her mother not so long ago. I wonder if I remembered to send a condolence card; hope I did. I’m so bad at carrying through on social graces. These are the ones who carried the brunt of family concerns, visited the hospital, planned holidays, birthdays, done the day-to-day things only they and Mom know about--like mow the lawn, paint the house, fixing this or that.
He is laying in the small family room on a hospital bed. It began as a bedroom he had built on after the house’s original two bedrooms were inadequate with four children. One more would come, but Jim would be graduating and joining the Navy shortly after that. Pat and Juli enter. I suddenly realize I’m involved in a death watch. It seems so totally archaic. I want to leave. I don't want people, family, to watch me die. I am embarrassed for myself, nervous, and uncomfortable. You’d think I was the one waiting to die.
I stand by the bed looking at Dad. Mom says he has been dozing. A sheet covers him. His oxygen tube is missing. He must not need it any longer. His eyes open. "My God, Robbie!" he says half rising and then collapses back into the bed. His eyes close and in minutes he is asleep. I say nothing. What am I supposed to do? I greet Jan. I love incurably kind and comforting Jan. She can keep a conversation going with such ease. I suppose it’s a good thing. Doug can be very reticent. As can I. We talk, our voices low, around a sleeping man. Mom says, “Go ahead, Robin, talk to Dad, he can hear you.” I am speechless. What could I possibly say in front of everyone? The kids are fine, bla, bla, bla.
Meaningless drivel? The often trivial deliberation involved in everyday exchanges? I say nothing. Hours go by in which Dad remains the same. We change rooms, move to the tiny living room and conversation normalizes with the general catching up between visits too far apart. Funny things that have happened, kids have been kids. We laugh. We’ve done this every time I’ve visited. It’s familiar, it’s normal. Mom perches nearby, fluttering between the bedroom and the living room.
Dad's common phrase was, “Feel fine, couldn’t be better,” even when he could hardly draw a breath. Even to the doctor. Even to his daughter. “Every day you wake up is a good day,” he’d tell me.
It strikes me there is a generation passing here. My Dad turned seventy-five in April, and never thought to see seventy. Five sisters predeceased him, all before reaching sixty-five, most from cancer. They lived harder lives than I have had to live. I remember my Dad speaking of his Dad bringing home a bag of potatoes or a fifty-pound sack of oats in payment for a day's labor. That’s what he and his sisters ate that week. His dad took his children frogging and sold the frog legs for two cents each to Detroit restaurants. When Dad told the story it was an adventure, but actually, it was scrimping by during the Depression. He had a baby brother lost to measles. My Dad was lucky in many ways to have lived this long. He had been on duty Sunday morning at Hickam Field in the middle of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.
More hours pass. Evening comes. Mom insists on making dinner. No one eats much. I try sleeping on the living room couch and hope lack of sleep doesn’t bring on a migraine. I don't know where everyone else is. Occasionally, voices drift into my bouts of sleep, waking me. Midway through the night, I give up trying to sleep.
Juli is sitting with Dad. She has been giving Dad pain medications, coaxing them down a throat that is probably only working by reflex. “No. He swallowed them himself,” she says. “He seems to be doing better.” She gives him water. I look at Dad remembering the horrendous coughing, the excruciating pain, the emaciated body; all part of emphysema. He doesn’t cough now, just breaths very lightly. How much weight can you lose without dying? I bet Dad doesn’t weigh a hundred and ten pounds. I decide not to call Jim, but I hope Dad doesn’t wake, remembering he can’t even sit comfortably. The cartilage between his bones is gone --that cushion that makes moving, sitting, or standing endurable. Maybe I’ll call Jim in the morning. Let him sleep for now. I draw a chair up next to Juli. She talks and I guess I do too. She has seen lots of death. She worked on the oncology floor at McClaren Hospital in Flint for years before becoming a surgical nurse. Couldn’t pay me enough to do what she does, but Juli seems to love it.
Doug comes in. He stands at the head of Dad’s raised bed and whispers in Dad's ear for several minutes. He pats Dad on the shoulder and says, “Fly with the eagles, Dad.”
Doug returns. “I called Jim.” Oh shit.
“Told him death was eminent and Dad would probably be gone before he gets here.”Not true. Dad is doing better. His color even looks better. Don't tell me he is going to do this again. I’m afraid to even contemplate it. Could he pull through? I feel buoyed at the thought but counsel myself to expect the worst. I try calling Florida. No one answers. Jim must be on his way.
The hours pass. I am tired; feel the cold, shaky burn of exhaustion radiate through my abdomen, through my bones. So does everyone else; I can see it in their faces. I realize I probably look as bad as they do. Can’t sleep—don't want to, anyway. Want to be somewhere else. We gather around the bed again. Everyone takes turns talking to Dad. I finally blurt out something meaning I love you and burst into tears. That was unexpected. I cover my eyes with my hand and pull myself together. Now my jaw aches.
Nine o’clock in the morning. Jim and his wife Gail arrive looking duly sober. I meet them at the door, Juli and Pat are close behind me looking over my shoulders. “Come and say hi to Dad,” I say. Jim blanches white. They come in and sit in the living room. I explain what has happened, while everyone talks at once. Even Juli thinks Dad looks better.“Damn,” Jim says. “Damn. They put a notice on the board at work, Jake's Dad is dying. Collected money. Lots of money. What am I going to tell them now?”
“It’s going to happen, you are just here early,” Mom tells him. Jim slowly recovers from the shock. “You know, Robbie, paybacks are hell.”
“I didn’t know how else to tell you.” Bane of my life, blurting out whatever, but calling him was not my fault. Two hours later Mom comes and gathers us. “It’s happening.”I wonder if Dad wants everyone watching him end his life’s journey. I don’t. Give me privacy. I think of a friend who died walking home from trout fishing. I wonder if he missed seeing or hearing his family one last time? Wonder if he looked up into the sky for a last glimpse of sun and clouds. I think that’s what I’d like to see. Let my family remember me when we last had a good conversation.
Juli, Patty, Doug, and Mom crowd around the bed, talking to Dad. They urge Dad on. Urge him to make the final transition. I know Dad wants this, wants to escape from the pain he has hidden for years from friends and from us. Mom is great. “Go John, just let go, fly with the eagles.” He still fights, drawing breath after breath.
“It’s over,” Mom says, “he’s gone.” It seemed like there was a collective sigh of relief. We leave the room, each trying to find a moment of privacy. I feel myself crying. Mom hugs me, and Pat. I hug them back. “I’m not crying for him, but for myself,” I explain.
Things settle down to a sniffly, teary, depleted silence. Except for Mom. She rises babbling a list of things she must do. Call Hospice. Call this person or that person. Her way of dealing with her grief. Hours pass. The body can’t be taken by the funeral home until the Hospice nurse arrives and determines if the coroner should be called. The coroner? Yes, Hospice patients are allowed to die at home, but no one is supposed to help them along. It’s several more hours before the nurse can come.
I’m getting antsy with the body still lying in the house. Don’t know why, Dad is beyond pain or caring. The hearse from the funeral home doesn’t arrive until five, and it is already dark out.
Where Jim gets his twisted humor, I suppose. Then I think of Dad dying on Halloween. He would enjoy that. Something within the genes, then. I often feel I am the only humorless one in my family. Never thought up really good pranks, never enjoyed those played on me.
One arrangement held small paper crows among the flowers. Dad believed one crow, among the many who came to eat bread dough gone wrong that he dumped in the backyard, was his dad, Carl. He called them Carl and the boys. Later, when I eventually arrived home in Missouri, and we got out of the car in the driveway, for the first time I noticed a crow sitting in the tall sycamore tree in our backyard. More deja-vu.
Wednesday was strange. The funeral home is full. I don't count the numbers, it doesn’t matter, but it is noisy, the room filled with talk, even laughter. No hushed viewing this. Laughter frequently bounces off the walls with some tale about my father’s past doings. I walk by the adjoining funeral parlor. It is quiet and somber; a child’s funeral. I think how hard it must be for these mourners to hear even the muffled noise coming from the adjoining parlor.
|Paybacks are hell.|