My father is dying.
On December 13, 2020, I visited my parents' home. I was carrying three things: my mask, my purse and a canvas bag filled with homemade broth, a T.E.N.S. unit and a fur-covered hot water bottle. These are most likely the final gifts I'll ever give my father for Christmas, save for one. I await the delivery of a picture of my children - his grandchildren - embossed onto a slice of wood, with my handwritten message embossed on the back. I hoped that it would fit onto his bedside table. I hoped that maybe it would be the last thing he would see before he passed away at home.
There is a nice quote from Ram Dass about how we are all just walking each other home. What gives someone the audacity to say that someone else is dying, when we are all just at a different measure from that predictable end? How do you make the leap from the abstract ("The cancer is terminal") to the finite: ("My father is dying.") For me, it happened in rapid increments, one of which occurred during the above visit. It was then that I read the MRI results from August 2020. These forms are always filled with so much medical jargon, as though it should only be read by someone who studied this kind of thing in an overseas immersion program. My eyes skimmed for the familiar, the words I knew, the words I could "Google" and understand. I found the words and they were jarring. They were the kind of words that can blow a hole through you. When I finished, I knew that my father had a mass 5.3 cm x 4.3 cm in his left lung, malignancies in four vertebrae, in his ribs, in his lower abdominal cavity and in his scapula. On December 13, 2020, my father weighed 107 lb and walked with the defined stoop my grandmother had when she was in her 90s. Still, he was frank about his situation. "Isn't it something?" he mused about the deterioration of his body. "I'll bet you never thought you'd see your Dad like this, eh?" He liked the T.E.N.S. unit, partly because it promised relief from pain and partly because it was a gadget and he always liked gadgets.
What gives someone the audacity to say that someone else is dying? I think it's when your spirit recognizes transition. I had a dream a couple of weeks ago. My father walked through the backyard of my new house, admiring the mulch that Joseph and I had placed under a neglected Japanese Maple tree. The tree seemed to come alive afterward in a subtle way. Formerly, it had sat with exposed roots in a plot of eroding soil and bramble. He was impressed, in this dream. "Nice. Looks nice," he said, in his quiet way. When I woke up, I knew with certainty that he was never going to see our home. I knew that his Spirit had gone strolling around because his body never would, and perhaps it was a little bit of unfinished business for his soul to see our hard work before leaving our physical plane. Maybe my Dad was having the same dream? Several weeks after that, I had a dream that we were at the kitchen table together, but he grew transparent. I could see through him. I started to have memories about my father's side of the family - his mother, his brother, his uncle. They were memories that came with such specificity, I started to wonder if I had been awaking at 3 am because they were next to me, whispering in my ear: "Do you remember that time...?"
A really nice day in December
On the Saturday before Christmas, I remembered that my Dad and I had a tradition together. We used to head out to the mall every Christmas Eve to find my mother a Christmas present. He always trusted my judgement so much, probably more than I ever did. There was one unfortunate year when he purchased a vacuum cleaner for my Mom and she cried. This became the kind of familial legend that gets revisited every year around the holidays. Together, Dad and I would always find something wonderful for her. He was a practical creature, and for one day of the year, I got to be his guide to things beautiful and sparkly and soft. We would go into a music box store, a jewelry store, and department stores. We bought her lovely pieces of jewelry and created a tradition of hiding the tiny boxes within the branches of their Christmas tree.
Remembering this tradition, I was struck by two thoughts. First, I wondered if this would be his last Christmas on Earth. Second, I realized that he really had no way to buy a meaningful gift for my Mom this year. It was effort for him to walk to his own kitchen, and with his health, he couldn't risk crowds anyway. I decided to do this for him, a little twist on our tradition. In the store, I had trouble choosing between two pieces, and finally settled on both.
I brought them over and sheepishly kicked my Mom out of their bedroom so I could show him the pieces. It seemed to make her very happy to see us co-conspiring. I smiled and told him that I thought he might not be up to a trip to the mall this year, but knew he would still want to do something for Mom. Both of them seem befuddled by the fact that Christmas is days away, as though everything froze after my Dad's back surgery in September, and they are only now realizing that time has been passing for everyone else. I showed him the first necklace, a delicate gold chain with a pendant formed from two interlocking gold rings. I told him that it made me think of them, and how their marriage has lasted more than fifty years. He loved it and teared up a little, happy and proud of all of that time. After all, fifty four years is a long time to love someone. Then, I showed him the next one, a small navy blue locket embossed with a Family Tree/Tree of Life. I told him that we could save that one for her birthday, in March. Silently, I hoped that he would be here to give it to her.
A Difficult Visit Before Christmas
My Aunt V looks enough like my Mom that they are easily recognizable as sisters, but aside from that I've always marveled that they were raised by the same parents. My Mom is a peaceful, generous creature and a born nurturer - often to her detriment. She is a caretaker. My Aunt V is vibrant, intellectual and a born problem solver. She was a CPA and perfectly suited toward it. She and I are both Libras. She and my son share a birthday, only two days after mine. All of us have a restless curiosity about the world and all of the people and animals that inhabit it. At our best, we're the kind of people that close around you at a party as though you're an exotic creature that we are giddy to have encountered - charming and genuinely interested in everything you have to say.
Typical Libras, at our worst, I suspect we all fall into intellectual hydraulics, convinced that if we just had a little bit more information or understanding, we could stop heartbreak and roll back tides. So, I knew that any conversation with Aunt V regarding Dad would bring questions. Not just any questions, but insightful and prescient ones. She is no amateur after all, but a Libra refined by six decades of life experience.
She came to our doorstep on December 22nd with presents for the kids. I was still in the clothes I had worked out in, and threw a blue mask over my face when I heard the doorbell. I wanted to hug her, but we kept our distance because of COVID-19. I spoke to her through the screen door. We talked about how this seemed to be a good week. My father was more alert and had more color in his face. I told her that when I saw him on Sunday, he was even eating a sandwich. These things are now major successes - a sandwich a point scored against Fate. I told her about how I read the MRI report from August 2020. I told her what I had read. She asked questions: Why did they keep everything a secret for so long? Did they even tell you when he had the kidney out? When we were all at that anniversary dinner in 2016, they knew but didn't say anything?
I tried to explain it to her as best I could. After all, I was raised by my parents and I believe I understand them. "When you tell people things, you start to see your reality reflected back to you in their faces - their concern, their worry. I don't think that they want that." She mentioned that it seemed like denial, and I agreed. I continued, "I don't think there is any harm in being in denial. If all of his affairs are in order and he doesn't feel like he has any unfinished business, why not be in denial until the time comes when denial is not an option anymore." She pointed out that he couldn't possibly be in denial, as he was having treatments regularly. I told her that I think he is. I told her that he knew that there were "spots" in his lungs and spine, but mused on the fact that he would often look to my Mom and I to sort out details of life. He would look to me to write a recommendation letter he had no problem dictating. He would look to my Mom to rehash a doctor's appointment he had just attended. I told Aunt V that while he knew what was going on, I didn't think that he had ever read the MRI report. I watched that recognition cross her face.
For a family so fiercely committed to honesty, it must seem strange to see privacy cloaked as evasiveness or denial or shielding. I told her the details of the MRI. She asked if he was on a morphine patch. She mentioned that Grandma Schild had one at the end of her life. She didn't know what it was when she saw it. The nursing home workers told her that Grandma had started to curl into a fetal position and it was painful, so they had given it to her. "Give him anything he wants for pain," Aunt V. stated bluntly. "Your Mom told me that she was giving him pills two times a day for pain, and that she didn't want him to get addicted." This struck her as outrageous, a concern about addiction. I suspect that my Mom's real concern was the one I stated aloud to Aunt V.: "Once the pills stop working, where do you go? A morphine drip? I think that's why you need the pills to work for as long as possible." Because the other options are tethers, because the other options are risky, because the other options are not followed by other options. She asked all of the questions she needed to, but the one that stood out was when she asked if my Dad was coughing up blood. A friend's husband had died from lung cancer and he had coughed up blood. I stumbled, affirming that Dad didn't have any trouble breathing. She said that this man hadn't either.
It was a few minutes later before I realized I had taken that question like a bullet. She said something about wanting to do everything possible to ensure that my Dad didn't suffer. I just crumpled when she said it. "That's the hardest part..." I trailed off, fighting off sobs behind my blue mask, behind my screen door. She and I looked at each other. She couldn't hug me because she wasn't wearing a mask, wasn't even inside of our home. She left, I think partly because she felt she had caused damage she hadn't meant to cause and partly because it was only supposed to be a brief little visit, a little pick me up of Holiday cheer. I felt terrible, but also proud that I hadn't instinctively said "I'm sorry" when I started to cry. I caught myself as I was just about to say it aloud.
People don't seem to understand why we've kept so much of this to ourselves, but I do. When people know the truth they might ask you if someone you love is coughing up blood. Sometimes even people who love you more than anything might ask you things like that.
Blue jays and 4:30 AM
On Christmas Eve, I sat at the dining room table writing out cards and gift bag tags. Henri was bursting with excitement. He and Joseph called me into the living room urgently. As it turns out, there was a blue jay in our yard, only steps away from our front door. Blue jays are not exactly rare in the Midwest, but they don't seem to make many appearances in suburbia, which makes their presence a little magical. It was mesmerizing watching him flit around the grass and dogwood in our front yard. Henri and I stood at the window of our front door for a long time watching him. When I sat back down at the table to complete my cards, I instinctively reached out for a set of free address labels I received after donating to a wildlife protection cause. I stopped when I realized that they too had blue jays on them. A single blue jay, nestled with a bright red cardinal. At times like that, I wonder if the Universe is trying to send me a sign. I try to remember which of my departed relatives loved blue jays. Both of my grandmothers used to feed birds - one all of the waterfowl, the other all of the songbirds. I hoped it was a sign from one of them.
My son turned seven in October and we bought him a big set of helium balloons. All of them have gone by the wayside, but inexplicably, we've held onto a shiny red "7" balloon. Only recently has its ability to float waned. Usually, it stays tucked in a corner of the dining room, another relic that should probably be a victim of decluttering, but which gets to survive because we are all just a little sentimental and think that red, crunchy balloons are funny. I had been working on December 23rd, while Baby Girl was napping and the "boys" were out of the house. It was a rare moment of stillness and quiet in a house usually teeming with noise and activity. It was actually strangely quiet! At that moment, the "7" crept slowly out of the kitchen and swept across the floor until it was right next to me. Then, it turned and "looked" at me. In its crinkles was the clearly discernible outline of a face. I couldn't stop staring at it. Then, it backed away, still "facing" me, and rested in the living room. A scientist at heart, my mind already released a couple of tangible theories about the air currents in the rooms, the draftiness of our 1965 house. But I was there, and it was strange. I told the boys about it a day later and they thought it was the most fun thing they had heard. "What would you do if it lunged at you from across the room?" Joseph asked gleefully. "I would sell the house," I laughed. Henri was exuberant - "the SEVEN is looking at you!" It was one of the best laughs we've had in the new house and I couldn't help but wonder if that was why it had happened.
I'm writing this at 6:16 AM, but I've been awake since 4:30 AM. I wake up at that time a lot now. I've been a proponent of Chinese medicine ever since accupuncture helped me heal in the past. 4:30 AM appears to correlate with the lungs and the processing of grief and sadness. Yesterday was Christmas, a strange one, marred by the ever-continuous presence of COVID-19. My Mom came over to spend time with us, but my Dad was not well enough to come, so he rested at home while we tried our best to bring joy and fun to a much smaller celebration than we are used to. It was restful and quiet and the kids really seemed to have a nice day. Joseph and I didn't buy each other anything. We figured all of the money we've spent on home improvements was enough generosity for us. Mom didn't have an opportunity to buy anything for the kids, and I didn't want her out and about with the virus around anyway. I had started ordering gifts for the kids back in November, and simply saved the best of them and said they were from "Grandma and Grandpa" on the tag. Henri was jubilant, both at her presence and these final gifts of the day. Charlotte was enamored of this lovely woman who smiled at her and shared her enthusiasm for the fact that she has a bellybutton Every Day! Still, it was the first Christmas I did not spend in my Dad's physical presence, something that I silently regarded all day, not wanting to call attention to it and risk upending the day. Instead, I wake silently at 4:30 AM to read, and write, and exercise. It's a little easier to be up so early at this time of year, a little easier to be sad in the glow of a Christmas Tree and fireplace. It's a little easier to have an entire day before the day even begins.