Saturday, October 16, 2021

Halloween 1995, Dad's Dying

“Hello?” I mummer, the phone’s ringer woke me from a deep sleep. My eyes squint to look at the clock: seven.

“Mom?” It’s Karen, my daughter. My mind clicks awake. This is Sunday, early morning for us. This is Karen, who I started phoning in the afternoon after waking her all too frequently at ten o'clock on Sunday mornings because of our locational time differences. Her voice is all-soft and tense, something is wrong voice. I’m instantly alert. “Grandma has been trying to reach you. It’s Grandpa. He’s dying. She tried to call you but couldn’t get through.”

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.

“What was that?” Bill asks from the bathroom door. He has showered and stands in the bathroom doorway drying himself. I explain. “What do you want to do?” he asks. 

“Call Jim.”  I looked up my older brother’s number and dialed the Tampa exchange. “Jim?”

“You got the call too, huh?”

“Yes. You going?”

“God, Robbie, I don't know what to do. You know how Mom gets. I’ve been up there so many times when Dad's been dying. I can’t afford to take more time off work for my father dying when he doesn’t.”

“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.

I remember on a phone call Dad told me he and mom had been at an event, and he went into a restroom to rinse the eye off, as sometimes things got in it. A man using a urinal ask if he were some pervert who liked to watch or if pissing embarrassed him. “No,” Dad told him. “I need to remove my eye.” The guy laughed in disbelief and wanted to see it happen. Dad told me with laughter clear in his voice, that he shrugged and took out his eye. The guy shouted and rushed from the restroom.

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. 

Then it was discovered he had emphysema. World War II soldiers smoked. It was the times, it was the war. My Dad smoked three packs a day until he lost his eye. While taking the pain medications he stopped smoking and stopped drinking a few beers (6-pack?) every night. Nothing tasted right.

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.” 

Too late again. Five years or more had gone by since the heart surgery and the emphysema had advanced. They gave him six months to a year to live. He lasted another decade, plus between bouts with pneumonia, he and Mom made trips to the Veterans Hospital in Detroit when the drugs became too expensive for him to afford. Dad had been self-employed, so had no pension, no health plan. Dad drove, scaring Mom because, with one eye, his depth perception was gone.

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? 

He got a job. He may or may not have been happy at it, I was living out of state and raising my own family, and time slid by unobserved. When he became too ill to work, he baked bread and peddled it around town to working women. Even his doctor took payment in bread. I think the doctor liked honey whole wheat best. Pies, cookies, great French bread, you name it, he made it. He taught my son Chris to bake during summer visits. My Dad never retired.

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.

"Come and see Dad,” Mom says. “I can’t keep pajamas on him. He kicks and shoves his way out of them. He doesn’t want anything on." She sounds so very normal. I don't want to go into the room.

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. 

In the back of my mind, my Dad's presence constantly lingers. He threads through our conversation. Dad anecdotes; everyone’s words echo “and Dad said,” or “then Dad.” The phone continually rings. Mom and Dad’s friends from a lifetime of living in the same town call. Food arrives at the door. Emogene brings a platter of cold meats and vegetables. She and her husband Howard were host and hostess at my wedding reception. Howard has passed on. Emogene is so shrunken and bent over with osteoporosis I’m surprised she can lift the huge platter she carries. Her smile remains exactly the same. Her voice holds the same cheeky buoyancy I remember. Others come, commonly saying, “I just can’t believe it. He told me he felt fine just the other day when I asked.”

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.

One of Dad’s fellow members of the American Legion arrives, another World War II survivor, grey now, shorter with age. He refuses to come in, his eyes water so bad he can’t speak. Just passes me a dish of food, waves away a thank-you, and leaves, one of the last of a dying breed.

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.

Mom comes into the living room. The Hospice nurse has arrived, and it’s the one my mother particularly likes. The nurse puts a diaper on Dad who has been lying naked, sheet and covers kicked off. He doesn’t rouse. Before the nurse leaves, she and my mother chat, everyday inconsequential things interspersed with what will happen and what to do when it does—facts and information. The bureaucracy is as involved with the dying as it is with the living.

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.” 

Dad has an eagle’s nose and I think he became one in our minds. Doug steps away and Dad wakes, his eyes popping open. “Huh?” he shouts looking wild-eyed above his head. He falls immediately back into sleep or whatever it was he was in. I don't know if Doug saw as he left the room. 

Patty comes in. With only a small lamp on, the room is dark and warm, almost cozy. We three sisters talk in our usual comradery. I find myself petting my Dad's feet that are in easy reach. Feet generally are not attractive, but Dad's are beautiful. Thin, long, high arched, the toes perfect in size and order. They are cool but fleshy pink in color. When I mention this, my Mom, who has joined us, quips, “A good understanding.”

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.

Bill calls. He has talked to our children. They are both okay. He has arranged airline tickets for them to come to the funeral. He is fine. The cats are fine. Went out and got Halloween candy. I’d forgotten. Today is Halloween.

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. 

Jim and I sit quietly on the couch. Jim turns to me. “I feel kind of lucky. It’s not every guy who gets to see their old man draw his last breath,” he says. “I’m glad I came when I did.”I don't know what I said, or if I even answered. This is taking forever and I’m disgusted with myself for thinking that.

“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. 

In the meantime, Juli bathes Dad. “I’m not leaving this for someone else to do,” she says. I reluctantly help her. “Actually, Dad had it pretty easy,” she tells me while she dries his body. This was easy? When we are done, I call Bill and tell him. He has already made arrangements. Karen is on her way and Chris should arrive sometime in the evening. Chris calls a short time later. He doesn’t have a suit. He is doing a Fellowship at the Culinary Institute of America. “Since Grandpa influenced your decision to become a chef, I think he’d like you to wear your Fellow’s jacket.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.” I’m too tired to worry about other people's expectations of how we should appear.

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. 

Jim and Doug are out on the porch, stopping Trick or Treaters and giving them candy before they reach the door. Jim told me he was having fun scaring the shit out of the kids. “Hey kid, you want to see a dead body?” Is this another one of Jim's tall, pull-your-leg tales? I expect many parents bypassed our house that night. Who would take their kids to the door of a house with a hearse outside, even on Halloween?

Jim gets his penchant for stories, mostly true but with slow gag lines, from my Dad, who every night over dinner told us stories. Funny experiences from his childhood, from the war, from work, mostly true but slightly slanted. 

With time and distance from childhood, I realize everyone has a different perception of events. A totally different reality. I often wonder about my Dad’s stories. He never mentioned the horror of what he saw on December 7th or those of the following years, not until recently, when he wrote an account of that day and some of the other events of the war and of his life. They were different from the childhood stories I heard, although each story brought a strange deja-vu of family dinner. If my house ever caught fire, I’d grab that loose-leaf book first. He wrote poetry too, but most of it was for the Consumer's Power linemen who came into the gas station to get their trucks serviced. As a young ‘lady,’ I didn’t get to read it, but not from choice. I remember starting to read once, but Mom pulled me away. “No, you don’t read that.”

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.

It was Tuesday afternoon before we could go to the family viewing. The morticians took years off Dad. I know it is makeup. Wax? Dad lays in a simple pine coffin looking like he did before emphysema ravaged him. It was a blessing to see him like that. After the ceremony part, he would be cremated. The Legion friend returned, bringing a flag to cover the coffin. Flowers were arriving and being arranged by the funeral home personnel.

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. 

We went to dinner that evening at a local restaurant, then returned for the evening’s public viewing.

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.

We went back to the house after the viewing. Jim wanted a picture of me with Karen. I hate having my picture taken, but Karen and I arrange ourselves next to each other. Hearing movement behind me, I turn my head shocked to see Bill walk out of the bedroom. Jim takes the shot. "Paybacks are hell, Robbie," Jim says. Now there will be this picture of me floating around looking like death, head turned and mouth flopping open. Bill has his sheepish grin on. He likes giving surprises, I’ve never liked surprises. I even read the last chapter of a book right after the first chapter, since I like to know what I’m starting.
Paybacks are hell.

Back at the funeral home, it isn’t as hard to view him in his coffin. Dad now has a scouting pin on his lapel. Years ago he was troop club master for the local area. Later I learn my brother pinned it on him. Maybe I’m just past feeling, but I know part of it is because of the people around me. Sharing experiences, sharing life. We all sit through the service. It ends so fast.

We left my mother looking part relieved, part grieved, and still shocked. Already lonely, but the core of strength that has seen her this far remains. Chris and Karen are back on planes to return to their lives. Bill and I are on Southwest headed back to St. Louis. Of everything, I can’t help but remember Dad's feet.

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