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There's something reassuring about this banal fact: everyone dies. No matter who you are, where you come from, each life will end the same way: definitively.
The similarities end there: everything in between the starting gate and the finish line is up for endless revision and adaptation: beauty, horror, ugliness, fear, sublimity, ecstasy. Happiness, contentment, miserliness. Creation and destruction, or just mild entropy.
Our lives are an evolving production for the next stage, whatever it might be. But few people discussed in the course of my life how to help someone else through the wilderness of dying. My brother and I assumed that Dad would be the only human to defy the odds: Dad was going to outlive all of us in some remarkable stasis. Not immortal, certainly, but perhaps just suspended.
I began Living in Twilight when Dad came down with the crud—which turned out to be not-quite end-stage prostate cancer—penning essays that tracked his dying as it unfolded, with no small amount of irony and gallow's wit. Then I picked through the detritus his death left behind, both emotional and physical, as my brother and I tried to make sense of the senseless.
Living in Twilight is about our family figuring out how to go about this business, since nobody else bothered to tell us, and then scrambling back into the harsh daylight after Dad's short dusk.
I sat by my father’s bed.
If there was one place in the house I was often sitting, it was there, next to him. Holding his hand, reading to him, listening to him reminisce about how still, after all these years, he hated his mother, or that he loved his grandmother, or that the light was fading.Read More
There were two paintings I hung on the wall of Dad’s art studio a few months after he died, which stayed there until I had to move the last of his things to make way for a new tenant. One was a small self-portrait he had painted in the early ‘90’s. In it, Dad wears an imperious expression, almost a scowl, a man with a serious chip on his shoulder. His beard is tightly clipped, his glasses too big for his face. This was a man unwilling to take shit from anybody, and he would cock his eyebrow until you knew it....Read More
“You were the apple of your father’s eye the second you popped out,” Mom told me. “He was instantly smitten.”
Sometimes we know what we’re looking at. Go to a museum, and, because a museum is where people cram art, you can be pretty sure “art” is what you’re looking at...
Apparently the urology department had Dad’s prostate cancer medication under control (namely, a shot in the pooper full of girly hormones) because it was six weeks before we ended up in a cancer specialist’s office.Read More
It fell to me to be Queen of Dad by proximity; Chris lived close enough to visit Dad but far enough for it to be unreasonable to ask him to make Dad’s health decisions on his behalf. In fairness to both, they wished that we could divide all joys and burdens equally between us, including, I imagine, Dad’s health care.Read More
I brought popsicles to Dad’s house on a scorching afternoon and gave Dad a lime one, perfect for a hot day.
"I think I had my first hot flash,” Dad said. “Hard to tell though. Came and went quickly, just got sweaty all of the sudden.” He giggled. “Well, who can tell?”
“I think you’ll know it when you have one,” I observed.
“I’m pretty sure. Well, I think so.”
We finished our popsicles on his porch.
“I don’t think I’ve had a popsicle in years. Since you and your brother were kids,” Dad said. “It’s really good!” He spoke with a childlike earnestness since his diagnosis, which was completely disarming in light of current affairs. He responded to all kinds of things this way, with a wonder at the perfection of this moment, in this context.
“Gout!” Dad exclaimed delightedly. “Who would have ever thought?”
“I saw during one of my symptoms,” (referring to his new addiction to the Home & Garden channel, a heretofore unidentified result of hormone therapy,) “someone’s kitchen that was even worse than mine!”But he didn’t want to remodel because he would live in a construction zone for a while. He didn’t want the fuss. That, plus the time. How much could he afford?
Dad had been limping awkwardly for a few weeks, an unidentified hassle of a thing, especially since he had the catheter to choreograph as well. He adopted a hobble-step-hop and balanced on a cane, making him look more frail than he was.
In the exam room, a new doctor took a look and said, “Gout.” They’d run x-rays and blood work to confirm, but she was pretty convinced.
“Gout!” Dad exclaimed delightedly. “Who would have ever thought?”
Chris and I were delighted too. After all the reviews and tests and scans, I prepared myself to hear that his bones were giving up the fight in an assault from both cancer and hormone therapy and Dad had suffered a fracture. Gout seemed quaint under the circumstances.
“Gout!” laughed Dad over lunch. “I can’t believe it. Who gets gout?”
If you can giggle over gout, you can laugh about anything.
The following week, Dad received a letter: he didn’t have uric acid in his blood work, so he didn’t have gout. It was a MacGuffin in his cancer drama, a spectre that disappeared like smoke.
“Well, there it is, in the dark again. All part of the human condition, I suppose,” Dad said. He was sanguine, but disappointed. We both were. It would have been nice for Dad to have something that seemed, if not treatable, then obvious and non-life-threatening. Instead we were left with a nerve-wracking lack of understanding about something making Dad’s life that much more of a pain in the ass. It would be nice to take a stroll down the block or a hobble to the store, but since we were unsure what his problem was, it seemed more tenuous. Gout was an easy compromise; the lack of knowing was not.
But if the lack of gout was a minor issue, that I finally realized Dad was mortally ill was monumental. I’d been chewing on it, reading wills, signing papers: Dad was ill and I knew it. But I didn’t understand it until I realized his weird swollen foot could be a part of the larger picture—that somehow, the subtraction of gout allowed other pieces to fall into place just enough for me to get a deeper understanding of Dad’s situation.
And while not confirming my suspicions, my Saturday night call to the on-call oncologist (say that ten times fast) did nothing to suspend them either: edema (water retention) is a characteristic symptom of advanced prostate cancer, sometimes from the hormone treatment, sometimes from the cancer itself. So we knew what it wasn’t (gout) but we didn’t know what it was (anything and everything else).
After I hung up, I went online and reviewed every single article that mentioned “edema” in the same airspace as “prostate cancer.” I searched high and low for answers that weren’t there because no one knows, ever, how things will progress. But in all these articles, though I found nothing about why Dad was gimped up, there were glimmers of a future I hadn’t absorbed: Dad was going to die from prostate cancer, and I was going to have to negotiate that with him.
This profoundly stupid epiphany was one that I needed to share, so the next day I bought us lunch, which we ate on his sunny porch. “I can’t believe it didn’t occur to me, that you were going to need help at some point,” I said.“We have to talk about what you want to do, where you want to go.”
“I want you to drop me off in the woods so I can die,” Dad sniffed.
I let it sit there.
“I don’t want to be taken to jail for manslaughter, so we need to talk about other options,” I said.
“If we lived in a more enlightened culture, I’d go into the woods.”
But Dad also understood that I finally realized he was going to become needful at some point, because he answered without telling me to ditch him on the summit of Mount Hood. “I don’t think it will matter at that point,” Dad said.
“What do you mean? It seems like nothing but that matters. It will be all there is.”
“Dying is essentially a state of diminishing horizons,” he said. “My world will get smaller and smaller until there’s very little left. I just don’t think it will matter where I am.”
Such pragmatism was reassuring to Dad, but it could be a little tough to take.
After this stark evaluation of end-of-life concerns, he began to reminisce about serving in the Air Force, a time I knew next to nothing about. And he spoke of it with real fondness—not like he would join up again because God knows he was no fan of military life—and respect for what it offered him at a time when he needed it. “It got me 1,300 miles away from my mother, that’s what it did!” Dad laughed. “It was great.” But more than that, it offered sanctuary in books he couldn’t get anywhere else: the base library would order him any book he asked for, no questions asked.
“At some point I’ll have to call hospice, you know,” I said.
“You mean ‘Our Ladies of Immaculate Immolation’ or some other ridiculous group?” Dad asked.”
It was in the Air Force that he was exposed to some of the world's most influential authors and thinkers as he flew his Air Force-issue desk, and it gave him the inspiration and confidence (and independence from his smothering mother) to go into the humanities—not exactly a fast track to success. But success is what he found anyway. “People don’t believe me when I tell them I’m fine,” Dad said. “But I really am. I’ve been blessed! I’ve been healthy, I’ve gotten to create mischief in my life without getting fired, I have two great kids and I’ve had a great time. I’m fortunate that all my good health has been at the beginning. So I’m sick at the end,” he concluded. “I’ve had a great run.”
“At some point I’ll have to call hospice, you know,” I said.
“You mean ‘Our Ladies of Immaculate Immolation’ or some other ridiculous group?” Dad asked.
“I’ll make it clear that God is not a part of your world-view,” I assured him.
“It’s enough that I’m made up of the same stuff as the universe,” he said. “I’ll just return to that.”
“I wonder why that’s not enough for people. Isn’t it magical enough that we’re here despite the long odds?”
Dad howled with laughter. “Talk about the truth of unintended consequences!” he gasped. “Yes, it’s amazing we’re here at all. Who could ever imagine?”
And that’s where we left the great hospice debate. Dad wanted to be left in the wild, an old elephant wandering off from the herd, without the hullabaloo of intervention. No special accommodations, no extreme measures. If he could feed a nice bunch of cougars, he might agree to that. He didn’t mention vultures, though I didn’t think he’d be opposed.
It offended him that he’d be fussed over in the end. People had been dying for hundreds of thousands of years before him, and he would rather do it like them, say, facing down the bitter cold of the mountains in winter, or desert heat at the height of summer.
I didn’t mention that it could have gone a host of other ways—being at the wrong end of a gladiator, or bubonic plague. A plane crash, boiling oil over the parapet, a random knifing in an alley.
But I suppose that’s not the point.
The house Chris and I grew up in was a tiny thing, 1100 square feet, but it unfolded like a palace of surprises. This was due in no small part to the mountains of books stacked to the rafters in every room of our house...Read More
“Feeling better?” Dad asked. It was Tuesday and Dad called to check in.
“Was I feeling bad?” I asked in return.
“You seemed at a low ebb,” he said. “On your blog.”
Dad kept up to date with my peaks and valleys through the essays I wrote about him and his cancer, and it was funny that any conversation we had might end up there. He had the experience of reliving his life through my eyes. Very post-Post Modern.
“I’m fine,” I said. “I just canned my first carrots.”
“Really? That’s great!” Dad bought me the canner for Christmas so he had a benign, if removed, interest in my progress. Plus, he probably wanted to make sure I didn’t blow anything up, myself included.
He recalled canning with his Grandma. “You really had to wrench down the lids,” he said. “And those rubber washers had a little bump on them you’d pull to break the seal. Grandma would preserve a huge amount every year; I guess it was such a pain in the ass that she had to make it worthwhile. Funny how it all comes flooding back.”
“It looks rustic in here,” I said.
“Rustic” in this case meant “chaotic,” every surface littered with Mason jars, lids and pectin, awaiting my next experiment: blueberry jam. Do we eat jam? No, we do not. And we didn’t have any room to keep all our new canned goods, but I figured we’d cross that bridge after we canned it. My life is often made up of this cart-before-horse sort of planning.
“I wasn’t too upset,” I said. “Although I’m fed up with my own whinge-ing: ‘Shut up, you big crybaby. Your life is awesome’.”
“We’ve been blessed,” Dad agreed. He told me about a co-worker who died at 59 of a brain tumor. “Compared to that I’ve had a long life. You just never know.”
“You can’t prepare yourself for it, that’s for sure,” I said.
“We’re always prepared,” he replied, “because anything can happen at any time. We didn’t expect cancer, but here it is. We deal with the reality and try to work with what we have.”
Since his diagnosis, we'd discussed the generalities of his illness but not the specifics, like lameness, or his skeletal fragility.I wondered how frailty was for Dad, this independent spitfire of a man. “What’s it feel like?” I asked. It felt nosy, a bit like an awkward teenager asking an older cousin what sex felt like. Except not titillating.
“I just recognize what’s gone. My shoulder aches. It feels like it has no cartilage in it... probably because it has no cartilage it!” He laughed. “And my foot—even now that it’s getting better, I’m still aware of it all the time, always trying to not bring on another flare-up.
"I used to take steps two at a time, both up and down those cement staircases at school. I walked at such a brisk pace that I’d turn around and realize I’d lost my party. I’ll never do that again. It’s just gone now.”
He paused as he thought about it. “Bus drivers are pretty decent about raising and lowering the platform for people who need a little extra time, but you’re sitting there getting impatient. Or I was. Now I’m on the other side. ‘Sorry folks! Gonna be a while!’ There’s nothing else to do but deal with it.”
I remembered a moment in the beginning of his cancer drama—when Dad was in really rough shape—he wanted to walk to the grocery store for some fresh air but wasn’t confident to do it alone. He feared that weakness might overcome him and he would be at the mercy of strangers to help him back home. So I went with him and we slowly made our way to the market a few blocks away.
A car was exiting the parking lot when we arrived at the grocery store. As we walked in front of it—slowly of course—the driver glared at us with such hostility I almost slammed my fist on the hood of his car. I wanted to rip out his jugular and throw it to the crows: Where did he have to go so quickly he couldn’t wait for an old man to cross? Did he have to get his granola and instant pizza home? A special date with his trail mix?
My rage was intensified by the not-knowingness of Dad’s illness at that point, plus the surprise seeing Dad in this condition at all. I too remembered Dad taking stairs two at a time, and the brisk pace which left us all in his wake. For such short legs they propelled him with great speed. Dad always looked like he was in a hurry, even if we were just out for a walk, no destination. He did great in New York City.
Now he was hindered by so many things: creaky joints, stiff knees, achy feet. Hormone therapy and fragile bones. A catheter. There weren’t stairs being leaped in a single bound; he climbed them delicately now. “God knows I don’t want a broken hip!” he laughed.
But there was no resentment, no bitterness. He made whatever still chugged along work in spite of what didn’t. “I don’t need to have paint brushes tied to my hands like Renoir or Chuck Close,” Dad said. “Things are pretty good.”
Things were pretty good.
Dad’s arthritis decided it needed to branch out, franchise, so it moved from one foot to stake out new territory, claiming the other foot for a Starbucks.
You can’t win for losing.
Dad had a few days of hobble-free walking, and then the other foot began misbehaving. So he was doing a new dance step, more of a hobble-step-hitch but the result was the same: Pop couldn’t walk.
His impatience didn’t do him any favors, either. Even with hints that the problem was returning, Dad couldn’t stop himself and he went back into his studio to keep working on the painting he had puttered with in the morning. He rolled his eyes when I asked if he could sit and work on things. “Eh, you know. I just want to keep doing what I’m doing when I’m doing it,” he said.
“It’s a real shame, because I feel pretty good otherwise…for someone who’s terminally ill!” Dad guffawed.
We pulled into a parking lot. We had finished eating sushi and were headed to our big event: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
“We’re really early,” I observed.
“Ten minutes to hobble across the parking lot, another ten minutes to limp to our seats—I think we’re right on time!” Another burst of laughter. What a comedian.
“Plenty of time to empty the bag of pee on my leg before we sit down!” Chuckling now.
We bought our tickets and limped to our seats.
“I have to use the rest room,” I said as I clambered over him.
“Not one of my concerns these days,” he said, patting his thigh. “Pretty convenient for movies!” Dad hooted.
It was good that this had become a running gag for a comedy schtick because after Dad went to the urologist to talk about his future with a catheter, it seemed that he might have to make his peace with it: his options ran to the absurd non-choices of keeping a bag hooked to his goods, or surgery that could render him incontinent.
Hmm, let’s see…bag of pee or man-diapers? Tube in my dick or continuous risk of public humiliation? WHO CAN CHOOSE?
With choices like these, it’s good to retain your sense of the absurd as long as possible.
Milo was four when our cat Mini died, and his curiosity was boundless. He peppered us with questions for weeks: “Where did she go? Why did she die? Will I die? Will you die? Will we die at the same time?” While we chose to not be terribly graphic about her death, we opted to be honest about what we knew, or admit that we were fuzzy about some things.
Our second cat succumbed to kidney failure five short weeks after the first, and Milo came home from preschool to a petless house. “I’m sorry I have to tell you this, honey, but Max died today,” I said.
“No he didn’t,” Milo said, and he walked away.
We didn’t ask if he wanted to talk; it was clear that two deaths were more than he could process, so we let him be.
A few weeks later Milo told us a story. “I know where the cats are,” he said. “Wax and Wini are worms and they live in our backyard.”
It was an elegant explanation to a riddle he couldn’t solve.
In a quiet moment at my own home—a break from Dad's drama—I turned on the television to find some sort of time-sink, something to arrest my brain. Something mind-numbing and shallow. What Milo glimpsed instead was the procession for Edward Kennedy’s funeral. “Can we watch this?” Milo asked. He was intrigued.
Since Lars and I were moved by Senator Kennedy’s passing and indulgent about Milo’s interest, we left it on. His curiosity was piqued by the long cortege of Cadillacs and vans, blinking motorcycles and police cars. It was a parade of his favorite things.
But he stayed glued for other reasons. We were happy to indulge him with answers to the barrage of questions for the hour-and-a-half we watched (“Why are the hazard lights on?” he asked. “Why are they driving so slow? Why did he die? Why is he in a coffin?”) and it gave us a meaningful opportunity to explore issues of death, memorials, and government. He was rapt for reasons beyond the long string of cars winding through the streets of DC.
We were leaving for dinner around the time Senator Kennedy was being laid to rest, but Milo resisted, despite our going to his favorite restaurant. “It’ll be on in highlights and replays for days,” we assured him.
“What are highlights?” he asked.
“Moments of an event they play over and over again,” we explained.
“Okay,” he said, suspiciously.
At dinner Lars received an email from a friend who was near a wildfire in southern California; the friend had sent pictures of the blaze as it crept closer to where he worked. “Why is there a fire?” Milo asked. We explained that weather conditions or human error could have contributed. We told him about friends who fought fires, pilots for airplanes who dropped retardant and supplies to firefighters on the ground. Milo was unusually silent, while Lars and I chatted about the more mundane issues of the day, none of which had to do with dead senators or conflagrations.
Suddenly Milo waved his hand in a gesture of apocalyptic soothsaying and the voice of a tiny prophet rose over our table. “There’s two things,” he began, “One, the forest fire. Two, the funeral of Tedward Kennedy. These are happening today. Planes flying, forests burning, people dying…” He continued like a tiny Cassandra, crafting a surreal juxtaposition between the issues in his day and our Udon noodles.
“You have an apocalyptic vision, son,” I said.
Lars laughed. He knew it personally—his childhood was informed by knowing more about the conflict in the Middle East at eleven than most adults will in their lifetime. He was that kid.
But it occurred to me as I watched our small oracle that Milo was trying to make sense of things he couldn’t fit into his world view. He was shaken by the impermanence of the forest and of this man who no longer walked among other men. Milo was scared, and trying to process the complicated feelings he had about both fire (which has always scared him) and dying, which he had never witnessed but was trying to understand. I realized I needed to intervene.
But how does one guide the conversation without minimizing its import? “There are scary things in the world,” I began. “People die, forests burn, bad things happen. Not just bad things, but sad things.”
Seriously, how does one address these issues?
“We hear about these things, the bad things, because they scare us. People want to talk about things that scare us, so they’re on the news all the time. But nobody talks about the good things because they’re boring. No one talks about the rest of life because it’s just like our lives: people work, they go to school, eat food and sleep. Everywhere you go people are doing the same things. Maybe they eat and sleep in different ways, but they still do it. The world is an amazing and wonderful place. Most people are kind. And good things happen all the time.”
He looked skeptical.
“And there are trees that can’t make baby trees if there isn’t a forest fire. Their seedpods won’t even sprout unless the heat from the fire opens them. Fire is a part of life and a good part of nature. Nature needs fire.”
Milo ate the rest of dinner without too much brimstone philosophizing.
The next morning we woke up together.
“Can I turn this on?” Milo asked, holding the TV remote.
“Can you find the highlights of Tedward Kennedy’s funeral?”
We spent the morning watching Face the Nation and Meet the Press.
Doctor’s visits weren’t fraught with the same level of anxiety as we adapted to the cycles of Dad’s illness and its maintenance. His foot was a nagging annoyance but not terrible; he stopped using a cane. He was chipper, and still thought that his illness was something about which to laugh, not cry.
But it was the Summer of Sick, no matter how or when his illness reached its conclusion. It began on my birthday, and with summer winding to its end, our lives had changed. Doctor's offices, once infrequent stopovers for Dad, were a necessity. He was smaller now, more frail, and I was always concerned about him though he wished it wasn’t so. His priorities had changed; they were quieter, but more precious. No grand gestures any longer, but small ones made for people he loved.
Milo was going to kindergarten, a reminder that life was fresh and young and growing, that the milestones were about more than just endings, but beginnings too. I was moving into the next stage as well, trying to figure out what I would do with all the time I didn’t have before. Would I start my graphic design business in earnest? Would I write? Would I actually get the laundry done?
We’d moved through the first step of Dad’s Last Step. The days were perceptibly shorter than just a few weeks before, the light more golden. The days were hot, but there was the crispness of apples in the mornings. Our backyard chickens, dopey girls, went to bed earlier, diurnal critters mapped in nature by the very light changing.
Dad was moving forward too. His steps were shallower and lighter on the earth, but no less profound.
Round 2 of the hormone therapy has gone far better than anyone, Dad especially, could have imagined. We’ve become so accustomed to bad news that one could say we hoped for better, but expected more of the same. Upon receiving good news, it’s like Dad won the lottery!
To recap: Dad’s PSA numbers when we began this race: 271. This was very, very bad.
Today’s PSA results: 2.5. This is very, very good. It means, most importantly, that he has been given a real, genuine stay of execution. The hormone therapy has done the good work it was supposed to do, bringing the cancer to a dull, almost undetectable roar and he’s allowed to live the rest of his life rather than prepare for dying. I’m postulating, but I think he’s got genuine years ahead of him. It is the best possible outcome, under the circumstances (Stage IV being, you know, pretty serious).
So today is like A Very Special Christmas, with Extra Special Guests who drop in on an already great line-up. Think Jon Stewart, with a visit from Charlie Chaplin. And maybe Billie Holiday and Mick Jagger doing a duet of “The Christmas Song” with Victor Borge on piano. You know, great.
After we received the results from Dad’s blood tests in the urology office, I took my leave; it seemed inappropriate to stay for Dad’s hormone shot since he had to bear his bum to have it delivered. I celebrated Dad’s great news by making an appointment to have my boobs mashed for a mammogram and then got a cup of coffee: genuine, appropriate honorific. I waited for him in the lobby.
When I spied him walking towards me, Dad had a hint of reserved glee. Calm, but jaunty. “I’m not wearing the catheter!” He spoke in a stage whisper, barely containing his obvious thrill. “I don’t even know what to do!”
His docs, encouraged by the rest of his numbers felt like Dad was ready for a test: to see if he could take a whiz. Have a slash. Drain the weasel. Water the horses.
And he did, just like that: no help, no bag, no catheter. Free as a flag in the breeze, liquid gold unfettered by medical grade polycarbons shoved in his doodle. That the urologist read the milligrams of pee by flashlight because there was a power outage just added to the surreal joyousness of the moment.
I pondered the magnitude of the morning on our way to grab lunch with Lars, also joining our impromptu revelry. “I’ve tried to figure out appropriate ways to celebrate,” I said, “but I can’t think of anything. Just have another really good pee.”
“That would be great!” Dad laughed. “Fingers crossed!”
When we got to the restaurant Dad ordered iced tea. “Drink up! Drink fast!” Lars and I chanted.
Dad called later to tell me he had celebrated: he drained the weasel in the privacy of his own home, not a medical device to be found. “Once seems like good fortune; twice is a trend! I took your advice and sat down. Good thing, too. It’s a little crazy down there!”
It was a final great liberation: his mood instantly lifted. I’m not sure if he knew how much the catheter had been affecting him until it was gone, but once it was off, he admitted “Thank you. Without you I would have despaired.” This was a great compliment, but one which made me realize the gravity of his situation under all his jollity, and grimly aware of the emotional activity under the surface of his lighthearted response to the cancer.
Good numbers, good PSA, good kidneys, good pee. It was a great day for Dad.
Dad had subscribed to numerous seasons of dance performances over the years; it was our thing.But going to a bunch of ballets was an impossibility once the cancer settled in.
That week, wewent to see Mikhail Baryshnikov perform. Other than me wearing a skirt as homage to my first love (“girlish infatuation” not being nearly a strong enough word for my 12-year-old ardor), it was as it had always been: a girl and her pop out for a night on the town.That this seemed impossible just a few weeks before emphasized how lucky we were to live in the modern age. That Dad, who looked as though checking out was preferable to any alternative in June, looked forward to a very exciting cultural season of symphonies, dance performances, and visits from friends was amazing. Two shots of hormone therapy in the butt and the removal of the catheter gave him a bonus round.
“I’m thinking about getting back on my bike,” Dad said as we toddled back to the car from watching Baryshnikov perform—dancing more creakily than other days, but lovely just the same. “And it seems like if I’m entertaining the idea, I should probably just go for it,” he concluded. This was an absurd thought two weeks earlier; now it was a real consideration.
We had been planning around his increasing infirmity before; perhaps it was unstated but both of us considered big events to be eating dinner out, and taking in a movie once in a while, mostly at home. Dad maintained from the first diagnosis that he wanted to see as many of his concerts and performances as he could, but when he said it a couple months before, it was under the assumption that he would be missing some. Maybe most.
After the latest tests, he was planning on seeing all of them. He had hot flashes once in a while, and was still devoted to the Home and Garden Network, but on balance it was a small price to pay.
Previous: Summer's End Next: The Photograph
In the beginning of Dad’s cancer adventure, it would have never occurred to me to take a picture of him. Not that photos are either bad or good—they are a medium onto which one person’s perception is recorded—but they are by their nature revealing.Read More
November, 2009 through March, 2010
Arguments around the dinner table are not our family’s modus operandi. More akin to a debate team, we parry details and minutiae, until we realize we’re preaching to the choir. Then we laugh. Arguing is a scholarly endeavor. We leave the messy emotional disagreements for discussions.
Tempers do not usually flare in so stereotypical an arena, either: the dinner table argument, a conceit utilized by movies and novels to illustrate the failure of the suburban dream. Anyway, this was not us. Not unless you added one dose of Stanley.
Stanley. My love.
My first encounter with Stanley was in the classifieds, which seemed an unlikely location to meet anyone I fell in love with. Looking for a “Friend with Benefits,” maybe, an afternoon assignation while out of town on business. But this was love.
He was not classically handsome. Face like a rugby player, wide-set eyes, underbite. Muscles for days, but small. Bow-legged. Looked like he got hit with the ugly stick over and over again.
Except for his smile; that was pure gold. And the sad, thoughtful look in his eyes that spoke of great love and the desire to share his personal joys and sorrows with someone. Someone who would love him despite the ugly stick, despite the rugby-player build and his oafish manner.
I drove several miles out of town to the cell where he was being held. Everyone else was cat-calling and howling when I walked in; I was nervous, didn’t know quite where to go. After all, I was new at this. I had never gone out of my way to meet anyone so unlike myself, from such a different background. Would he like me? Would he see my charms the way I saw his? Was I crazy? One photo does not indicate love, merely the potential for love. But like anything with potential, there is its opposite: the reality that it won’t work, that there is not really any common ground.
But Stanley stood up silently to greet me when I walked in, a perfect gentleman. No howls and hoots, no rude, brash hollers. His eyes met mine and betrayed a little of his nervousness, but also his calm acceptance of me. I met the potential, and he did too.
Our meeting was brief, but it was clear that we had something. Stanley and I had that spark of recognition that only happens once in a while, sometimes never.
But Stanley and I were not meant to be....
Being a parent, despite the fact that parents like to complain, a lot, is the best thing on earth. No amount of sleeplessness, poop, puke, weird interests, illness, or chaos theory personified can take away the fact that you love the little dickens beyond any amount you ever conceived. But when Lars and I considered the question “One or More Than One?” we were tired. Skull crushingly, crazy-making, profoundly tired. Do we have the one remarkably awesome kid, and carry forward in our happy little triad, lovey and schmoopy and trinity-ish? Or would we take the chance on the sperm roulette wheel and see what happened? We discussed this when we were tired, as I said, but also in the realm of the expiration date: I was in my late thirties and Lars was in the brilliant age of sagacity.
But we never made any plans. Time passed. We slept little. Suddenly we had an older boy, and it seemed we had made our decision by not making any decision at all: Milo was going to be a singleton, an only child, and we would remain our little triad. He was six, and amazingly more amazing than when he started.
We were a nice group, us three, sleeplessness and all.
I’d been trawling the pet listings at the Humane Society website for a couple of years. It was casual, like browsing a bookstore when I’m not really looking for anything in particular: old, arthritic pooches with seizure disorders, spastic pups who would terrorize my family within a week. Really sweet looking dogs who looked like they needed to catch a break.
I would have liked to give them that break, but I’ve never been a dog person. I grew up with cats, every last one of them strays until our last two girls, which we picked up from the pound after Milo had experienced the death of our two cats within five weeks of each other. I felt we couldn’t wait for new cats to stumble into our lives like all the other ones had; Milo should be exposed to the lively, fun beginning of cats, not the depressing, sickly end of kidney failure. I was finished with having a pet at the time, but the house was lonely without our critters, and we felt disconnected without them.
Lars wasn’t really interested in the pet thing, either: no cat was going to measure up to the one he had just lost. Mini was his cat made in heaven, one of the weirdest animals we’d had the pleasure of knowing. So he tolerated my reasoning for getting new pets, and agreed to it because he’s indulgent of both me and the boy, but he could have just as easily not had any for a while.
I guess I’d been trawling the pet pages on the sly. It’s not like I announced that I was stalking pooches in my off-hours. I noncommittally cruise Amazon too, when I’ve already exhausted all the other stupid internet novelties I’m accustomed to, and just need to fill in that last half hour before bed when I’m watching some crappy police procedural out of one eye.
It went in stages. Months of no dog trawling went by, and then something would tap my inner dog alarm. This particular time it was set off on the beaches in Sayulita, Mexico, where tons of Americans were walking though the little village with their dogs. Imagine! Trotting down the beach in a foreign country, and you’ve got your buddy, your pal! Not that I thought I was the sort of dog owner (in the hypothetical, of course) who was going to pack a dog in a box and bring him to a foreign country.
And then there were the frail, stray dogs of Sayulita, the wanderers and beggars who made themselves at home wherever, whenever, and with whoever. One sweet terrier adopted us on our patio (we resisted feeding her, because we knew she’d never leave) and then walked with us through the town, until some other person caught her fancy and she left as unromantically and pragmatically as she came. But we walked three whole blocks together, and I thought it was pretty cool.
Once we returned from Mexico—I can’t say with 100 percent accuracy but a pretty good educated guess—the first dog I looked at was a Pomeranian named Baby Carrot. I’ll admit I’m partial to the name.
But soon I was hitting the dog listings on the Humane Society website pretty often, and then cruising PetFinder.com to widen the search parameters. I researched breeds to see what types (in the hypothetical, of course) might suit our family: No herding dogs, because to break them of their herding instinct around our flock of chickens would be cruel to all parties involved. Papillons were an ancient breed that looked like bats, which was a plus, but I worried about their fragility around Milo, who, though a gentle soul, was still six. I considered the importance of training. I didn’t want a Jack Russell terrier because I thought they were smarter than me.
I mentioned in passing to Lars that I had been thinking about a dog.
Seriously, he should have known.
We’d been together long enough that he should have known that if I’m bothering to say it aloud, something was in play. Something big, like an iceberg. Something not particularly interesting on the surface, but huge and ponderous underneath, the relatively benign sentence, “I’ve been thinking about a dog” deceptively innocent, while there’s this lurking, hulking beast waiting quietly, submerged in a placid open sea.
Lars made clear in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want a dog. He did not want a dog. He told me many times, itemized all the reasons thoroughly and completely, in triplicate, and delivered the message to all parties. No dog.
So what had I been doing for two years?
Milo was a kid who had an uncanny ability to absorb historical and geographical facts and recite them as if he was writing a book. If you wanted to know about the sinking of the Lusitania or the Titanic, their similarities versus their differences, he could tell you. He’d throw in the sinking of the Mary Rose if you’d like. He once used this stunning ability for car facts and figures, but he tapped out after we took him to the LA Auto Show, after which he decided he was ready to move on to disasters on the high seas. That was it. He was done.
He fit in our bookish family well. But he was only six, and we couldn’t debate the finer points of history all the time; there were plenty of opportunities for him to mouth off, be a pain, jump on us like a monkey, run into us like a tiny Brahma bull, and smack our butts as hard as he could because he was completely impressed with all the other kids at school who did it to their parents. Lars and I had the onerous job of correcting his behavior and trying to foster membership in the world, detracting from a descent into complete incivility. Milo had friends to tumble with, to smack their butts while they chased him and dragged him through the dirt—but he had to wait for play dates to do it: all the stuff he wanted to do with us, but were too old and boring to get behind it.
Many of his friends had siblings, who not only channeled all their six-year-old exuberance toward my kid, but toward each other in this super-sibling-y way that I’d never experienced. Milo might be a unifying force between siblings, or he’d bond with one and then the other in an interesting exchange. But siblings so clearly had each other that even when they were ready to kill each other, it made me sad for Milo, who only had us, the grumps who didn’t want their butts smacked.
And Lars and I are intense. We’re interested in things in deep, intense ways, we love intensely, we debate intensely, we laugh intensely. We don’t mean to, but we protect Milo intensely too. We probably have intense expectations because the little dickens is so damned smart. But there are two of us grown-ups, and one of him. Sometimes all our intensity is focused on him alone, two beams of parental interest impossible to divert.
It must be rough staring up at us sometimes, feel a little lonely.
We went to a birthday party for our best friend’s son who turned one. Their big, dopey dog Otis played endlessly with Milo, tossing a slobbery, disgusting ball back and forth, back and forth, Milo giddily happy to have the undivided attention of someone so energetic, someone so easily pleased to do exactly what he wanted to do. Otis never tired of the game, and neither did Milo.
I told Lars that I had in no way set this up ahead of time.
Apparently my subconscious had been chewing on the great sibling debate in the dog listings, because it was clear we were never going to get a dog. Lars made sure I knew that he was not interested at all. It was a hobby of mine.
But this is probably akin to people being curious about seeing a real live hooker for the first time in person, not to, you know, do that, but just because, like, it’s so interesting. So you ask someone where you can find the red light district, to drive by the streetwalkers to gawk. Then maybe you sneak a peek on Craigslist, just because, you know, you’re intrigued. And some of the ads are really, like, super-specific. And, wow. Just…wow. It’s all right there in front of you, all the weirdness you never knew existed explained in vivid detail; not only that, ON OFFER. So, like, um. Why not?
Yeah, that’s me.
So when I mentioned to Lars that I was thinking about a dog, he had no idea of the enormity of the iceberg underneath the surface. He didn’t know that I knew more facts and figures about dogs than many people who own dogs, that I had narrowed down breeds. That I had found a number of very interesting possibilities. That I was particularly fond of a dog named Stanley, who won me over with his under-bite, pricked ears, and two pictures which worked their way into my heart like a flesh-boring-insect, one in which he was lying down, looking up at the camera as if waiting for me specifically to come to his rescue; the next in which he had hopped up to greet me, so excited that he was finally going home.
I realized that I was planning on going to the Humane Society just to, like, you know, visit. I also discovered that I had not even discussed this with myself much less Lars; I had been operating on the purest instinctual level. I had been searching and trawling and looking high and low for a companion for Milo for two years, for a sibling analogue, an animal who would unconditionally love Milo no matter what. Who wouldn’t reprimand him about his potty talk, who would hang out with him when everyone was tired, who would play catch with him and run with him for hours, with whom he could find solace when Dad and Mom were just being too damned intense.
I finally showed Lars the depth of the iceberg that he was unwittingly bearing down upon. He was completely taken off guard, since he thought I also didn’t want a dog. We’re cat people, right?
Stanley was a Staffordshire Bull Terrier.
He was one meaty dog. Tan with a white blaze on his chest, golden eyes, little pricked ears, he was a hamburger on legs. But when I walked into the kennels he stood up silently, placed his paws on the gate and waited for me. He didn’t bark, didn’t whine, didn’t holler. All the other dogs rose in a chorus of cacophony around him, but Stanley was like a brick wall, so still and calm was he. He was one solid muscle on squat legs, but he stood there delicately, posing like a dancer.
When I approached the pen, he wiggled and writhed in expectation. But for all that meatiness, he was pure gentle affection. There was a bucket of kibble on the gate so that people like myself could have a little meet-and-greet, a breaking of the proverbial bread. I grabbed a couple of nuggets. “Sit,” I said said gently, and he sat. I held the kibble down toward the floor, “Lie down,” and he hunched down, gazing at me with his funny, squinty golden eyes checking to make sure he doing what I was asking him to do. I gave him the kibble and he took it gently from me, barely using his teeth at all. Almost a kiss. He tried to squeeze his muzzle through the chain link to meet me more officially, though it was clear to both of us that we were each other’s, and that he wanted to go home now, and what took me so long anyway?
I asked the woman at the front desk if I could meet Stanley more personally, and she looked up his paperwork. She asked me a couple basic questions about whether we owned or rented our house, did we have pets, did we have children. Stanley was a young boy, with no obedience lessons to speak of; classes were a requirement for taking Stanley home. Which was fine with me; any dog I wanted was going to be a good dog, and we would learn how to be each other’s allies in cooperation.
“How old is your child?” she asked.
“We can’t let you adopt Stanley,” she said. “We’ll only let Stanley go home with someone ten or older.”
I asked if this was ironclad, if there was any room for negotiation, but she was adamant: rules were rules.
I met a couple other dogs who were sadly wanting and went back to say goodbye to Stanley. I sat on the floor in front of his kennel feeding him kibble bits, him gently taking them from me, trying to impress me with his worthiness. He didn’t need to; I knew how amazing he was.
I sat in the parking lot for a long time before I drove off without Stanley.
I discovered in Stanley the Staffie my perfect dog. What I also found was Lars’s antithesis: a muscle on four legs with huge jaws, a gigantic appetite and a high likelihood of drool. He probably smelled very much like a dog. He might even be a crotch sniffer, or worse, a dog who displayed affection with a giant tongue in the face. In Lars’ eyes, I could not have picked a worse candidate.
Reluctant to get a dog of any kind, when he noted the feverish glow of obsession and the depth of heartache Stanley inspired, Lars realized that he was cornered: he would have to help select a dog he could live with so that he wouldn’t be forced to live with his worst nightmare. When my heart bled giant pools where Stanley was supposed to be, Lars stopped ignoring the links I sent of this pup or that pooch.
I had met another dog, a little beagle/dachshund mix named Kate, and thought that maybe she would be a good dog for us. Affectionate, energetic. She was neither timid or overwhelming, just a nice dog. I had met her myself; now that Stanley had been removed from the list of possibilities, I told Milo we should go meet her.
Kate was nice, perky, friendly. But she was completely non-selective about us in particular. She was as interested in the walls as she was in me. Our son liked her, I liked her, she was nice. A nice dog.
The last person that had to meet Kate was Lars, who couldn’t come with us until the following day.
That’s okay, I thought, since we have to go to dinner at Mom’s tonight.
Mom had pulled out all the stops. She made a multi-course Chinese meal: soup, salads, two main dishes. It was difficult to maintain any discipline in not eating too much of one dish, but all the rest promised to be just as delicious. It was punctuated by our usual jocular conversation, bad puns peppering salty stories.
In recapping our lives over dinner, I mentioned our bizarre and unexpected quest for a dog. Mom was surprised, because she, like everyone else in my life, had no idea that I’d been cruising dog websites for years. But she agreed that dogs are great, especially for kids, and wondered what kinds we had been looking at.
I told her I had been looking at a ton, almost all of them small, but that I had met a Staffordshire Bull Terrier which hadn’t worked out. Plus he was too big, and Lars would only tolerate a small one.
She leaned towards me menacingly. “I won’t come to your house anymore, I promise you, not unless you chain him up and keep it far from me.” No pit bulls! she admonished, with a patronizing superiority that instantly enraged me.
“Why?” I asked. He isn’t a pit bull, I told her, though he is a bull terrier.
“Do you know how many people those dogs kill?” she asked. “Those dogs are a menace! You should know better!” she snarled.
I was pretty hot under the collar as well. “Any dog can be trained into violence; that’s the fault of the shitty owners!” I retorted. “People who abuse their dogs, train them to be fighters, or starve them because they suck don’t deserve to have dogs themselves!”
“My father got me a vicious dog when I was a kid!” she insisted.
“Your father was a psycho who reveled in cruelty!” I spat. It’s true; everything he did was tainted by bitterness, sadism, cruel humor or just plain meanness. He was a real bastard.
Lars, Milo, Dad and Bob were stunned, our happy little family meal disrupted in a flash by intense, uncharacteristic anger. We had gone zero to sixty in a hair’s breath over a dog I didn’t have, and wasn’t going to get.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Mom said.
“You haven’t had a dog in fifty years! What are you basing your knowledge on? Your shitty experience with a dog your insane father got you and archaic thinking about dog training?”
Lars knew that I was in no condition to be having this conversation. I had met my dream dog and had to leave him in the kennel, walk away from Stanley. I was frayed. “I can promise you that Quenby would never put any of us in danger. She would never do that,” he told everyone. Mom stared at me with a grumpy half-smile, and I stared with fury at my plate. “And if she did, I would turn around and take that dog right back,” he insisted.
Silence fell. “It’s irrelevant, since I can’t have Stanley anyway,” I said. “We’re meeting a beagle named Kate.”
“That’s for the best,” my mother said.
I was more dangerous than Stanley could ever be, so livid was I.
Bulldogs and Mastiffs are strong, tightly muscled dogs originally bred to bait bulls or bears, so it’s no surprise that they’re built like tanks. But that was hundreds of years ago, and several breeds have evolved out of the original bulldogs. Crossbreeding bulldogs with terriers produced a smaller fighting dog called the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and from them, the American Staffordshire Terrier and the notorious American Pit Bull were developed. But Staffordshires (Staffie’s, Staffs, or simply “the Nanny Dog”) had long since left their fighting days behind after dogfighting as sport was banned in England, and Staffies became one of the most reliable family dogs, known for extreme loyalty, courage and love of children. The English don’t call Staffie’s “the Nanny Dog” for nothing.
In the meantime, Staff’s were being bred to become the American Staffordshire and the American Pit Bull, where as usual bigger is better. And then the pit bulls became singularly famous for vicious attacks on children, strangers, owners, other dogs. Bad press was the only press that pit bulls managed to procure for themselves, and sadly the poor Staffie had been pulled down in the campaign.
But like any dog, bred in conditions which train for killing, they will become a successful killer. Smaller dogs left in horrible conditions or trained to violence will become violent, or terrified, dysfunctional and broken. That they don’t have the sheer force of the bull terriers doesn’t make then any less susceptible to horrible treatment.
People forget that dogs are creatures created and honed by man. A vicious dog attack does not incriminate the breed, it incriminates the people who have trained it, abused it or raised it. Poor old Stanley looked like a thug, but he was just a big galoot. He wanted to go home. And I hoped that if he couldn’t go home with me that he went home with someone who could see the heart of sheer warmth under the massive mug.
When we got home, I was still seething, but as I explained it to Lars, sadness welled up and flooded the kitchen: Stanley was this sweet ox, but people were going to assume, based on his face and sheer muscle mass that he was a weapon with fur, a ticking time bomb in a dog’s body who was going to snap at any given time.
But my grief was also the realization that our ship had sailed, and it was without a sibling for Milo. Lars and I never marked the passage of that milestone; we were too tired and we let time decide for us. We hadn’t realized the importance of bringing our son a companion into this world, a friend and adversary, a partner to rumble with, a person with whom he could collaborate against the two bigger people running the show, even if it was just under the covers at night, giggling. An adult in the future who Milo could bond with during the struggles of dealing with their nutty parents when we were too damned old or sick to be anything but a pain in the ass. Now, no sibling.
We were the trinity: The Father, A Loon and Holy Smokes. But I wished we had the foresight to realize that quadrangles are more stable.
Sometimes a thing is just a thing, and sometimes it’s some other thing altogether.
I sent Lars a link to a dog who looked directly in the camera, staring with his nose pressed almost to the lens. His ears rested flat against his neck, folded back like he was apologizing for something. He was small, red, and short-haired. Looked like a large dog, but was only 11 skinny pounds, a large dog run through the dryer too many times. Not a chihuahua, not anything else. Oddball. Lars agreed he was an option and so we went to meet him.
Lars couldn’t escape the fact that he was absurdly cute. His legs were long—so long that they looked like they belonged on a fawn, spindly and knobby. His tail was a tightly curled corn chip, wagging with fury. And his ears, folded back in contrition in the photo, were more like Gizmo’s ears, the gremlin from the movie of the same name: expressive, upright and twitchy, they moved like radar dishes with every sound. He really liked us, he sniffed us without shoving his snoot in our crotches, he clearly wasn’t a drooler, and though his legs were too long to call him a pocket dog, he was certainly slight.
Lars didn’t hate him.
Moxie—who had plenty of it—was the fastest dog we ever saw. An Italian sports car at the dog park, we dubbed him “The Rabbit” because he led a chain of dogs behind him, all trying and failing to catch him as he bobbed and weaved with agility we envied. Lars admitted a grudging pride in his sheer athleticism. I took Moxie to obedience classes where he was a fast learner and eager pupil; I had to make him the best dog in the entire history of dogs because Lars was so grumpy about the whole canine thing in the first place. I was grateful that Moxie was up to the task.
Moxie, for his part, learned that I was in the position of training, love, beef lung treats and general go-to dog attention, but that didn’t stop him from identifying Lars as someone who he would force into loving him by sheer persistence. On the sofa Moxie put his head in Lars’ lap, mooning with devotion, as Lars cursorily patted his head while rolling his eyes. Moxie followed him around the house like a shadow, Lars would trip over him, bark “Dammit!” and Moxie would dart into his crate. But a couple minutes would pass, and Moxie would delicately follow in his footsteps again.
And, in the way that siblings are both a blessing and a curse, Moxie kept Milo company, even when Milo didn’t want it. When Milo sat on the sofa, Moxie sat on him. When Milo forgot our advice: “Put your toys away or Moxie will eat them,” sure enough, just like a sibling trashing your favorite action figure, Moxie would sneak off with the Star Wars AT-AT Commander into his crate, leaving behind little but a foot and a disfigured helmet. A peacenik, he disarmed Nerf guns with dexterity and sharp incisors.
I wanted a dog, but Moxie represented so many things.
Dad stepped into the car and handed me an article from Atlantic Monthly called “Letting Go of My Father.”
“I’ve got nothing to say other than ‘Don’t let it get this bad.’” We pulled away from the curb and onto another journey to the clinic. The oncologist had requested a second blood test in a week. I hadn’t seen the article, but the meaning was plain: here we were again. We needed to get back to the business of cancer, which was suspended for a great, special, amazing while.
But the statute of limitations had possibly run out.
When we heard that Dad was riddled with cancer the previous June, those early weeks were spent at crisis levels of management as we tried to make Dad more comfortable and to make sense of all the medical blah blah blah.
But eventually there was no more to say. The hormone therapy tamped down Dad’s testosterone. His appetite returned. His mysterious ailment/bum foot slowly improved and he began taking walks for pleasure again, even entertained getting on his bike once in a while. By the time Christmas rolled around he was positively hale. We all celebrated Christmas together, kissed farewell to the crappy old year, rang in the new one, and planned a trip to Mexico.
“I keep forgetting he’s sick,” Lars said over Christmas break. It was an easy mistake to make; Dad’s appetite came roaring back and he was eating food for both sustenance and pleasure again. He walked with his camera to take photos of his neighborhood so he could spend hours and hours in his studio painting what he found there. Dad was over the moon with his returned mobility and he maximized it.
He was just Dad again.
Mexico was the first vacation Dad ever took. When I planned the trip, I considered Italy at first because Dad had always entertained some profoundly irrational dislike based on his prejudice against Renaissance art. The fact that it was the birthplace of the Roman Empire and the seed for much of the development of the Western world never seemed to enter the equation. He was like “Reg” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian who asked, “But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
So, like, whatever Dad.
He seemed up for it. Dad kept an open mind because he knew that we were bonkers for it. Plus, come on: the Sistine Chapel, the Forum, centuries worth of fountains littering the city in a blanket of cultural detritus. Ancient aqueducts. The Pantheon. Fried artichokes. Gelato.
But I took a step back and realized that because Dad was Dad and Rome is Rome, he would make it his mission—his duty—to see every last single artifact the city coughed up for him. Dad would visit Rome the way he’d visited all the rest, which was to chase down art like a cultural bloodhound in every corner and hallway, and then move on to nearby cities if he had time.
Rome began to seem like a lot of work. It seemed like it wasn’t going to be very relaxing. It was exhaustion wrapped up in the glitter and pomp of history.
I changed my tack and lobbied for a small, relaxed fishing town called Sayulita, in Mexico. Dad readily agreed because he thought I was trying to work around Milo’s school schedule; I didn’t disabuse him of this.
We set down in Puerto Vallarta in February, and the air was so heavy and warm that Dad instantly fell into vacation mode. Our taxi driver Antonio, was waiting for us with a cooler of Tecate and a stream of interesting stories as we drove through the jungle en route to Sayulita. The region and landscape was so utterly “other” to Dad— who had always visited places to see something rather than just being—that he collapsed into the mood of mellow immediately.
“Never in my life would I have imagined myself in a place like this!” he enthused. Our house was palatial to us, came with a housekeeper, had its own palapa with a hammock and dining area, banana trees, coconut palms. A short walk to an idyllic beach. Eighty-degree days, sixty-five degree nights. A small stroll into town where we could pick up the best ice cream outside of Italy that we’d ever eaten. A restaurant which consisted of a family who spoke no English, six tables, and two hammocks in the jungle; they served the best fish tacos in town. Iguanas were the only traffic at points, wandering the dirt roads looking for a new tree to fall from.
Dad didn’t do a blessed thing. He pulled out his sketchbook only once, and didn’t even contemplate finding an art gallery, though there are a few. He sat on the beach and watched the sea. He stared at the jungle hills. He drank Negra Modelo and ate coconut shrimp on three different occasions. He read books. He splurged by drinking coffee for the first time in ten years under our palapa with muffins from the Muffin Lady. That was it.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a real vacation in my whole life,” he said. “This is great.”
Back in the bosom of Portland’s winter, which is mild all things considered, Dad was feeling good after soaking up the heat and sun of Mexico. But about a week after our return he got a little crotchety again, mostly because of the damp. He always felt better when he could read books in his chair by the window, catch a couple of Z’s in the sun, and have southern exposure cook out the cranky.
I began to suspect that his foe was making its unwelcome return a few weeks after Mexico. Dad was more lethargic. He seemed paler than I remembered. He complained of aches and stiffness and cursed Portland for its cloudy days. At dinners he wasn’t as pluck, his appetite not as enthusiastic as it was the month before. I asked him about it and he was blasé, convinced his arthritis was bothering him again, though he did entertain the notion that the cancer might be sending up ﬂares. He was coming up on his next Lupron hormone shot, so we thought perhaps the hormones coursing through his system were a little thin and that was the corollary with the timing of his aches and pains.
The week before his hormone shot, he went in for his PSA test. The docs called him with a request he get tested again because his numbers were sharply elevated—up past 50—and they wanted to double check.
But neither Dad nor I doubted the results: too many inconvenient facts were lining up. His PSA numbers were elevated enough that it appeared the hormone therapy has lost its efficacy, and we were into the next phase.
Some people last for ten years on hormone therapy alone. Dad would not be one of them.
We sat in the car after I had taken him to have the second blood test. We had spoken of “Cancer” and “Illness” again, though it had been months since we’d mentioned it. We’d had a reprieve of sorts, a suspension of wartime action, but it appeared the armistice had been called off.
“Here we are again,” I said to Dad as he was getting out of the car.
“Here we are still,” he reminded me.
Here we were. Still.
I had begun writing for a literary website, and when Dad’s cancer retreated to the level of background noise, I enjoyed my first experience with an audience larger than Dad. We both treasured my brief tenure as an essayist with a bent toward peculiar topics, ranging from the contents of my underwear drawer, why Pyrex Oven-Safe bakeware exploded around me, or what Walt Whitman had in common with blue jeans. But as Dad’s cancer took the stage again, the funny essays fell away: I began musing about illness, love, depredation and sadness once more. I wrote my first illness essay in months, but before submitting it to the website, I asked Dad its value as a standalone piece.
“It’s difficult to come in this late to the story without knowing all that has gone before,” he said. “It needs the context of the other pieces you’ve written. It’s a part of a greater story, a chapter of a much larger and unfinished work.”
I laughed nervously. “I don’t want you to be a work in progress!”
“I know you don’t, honey, but it is a work in progress. It’s still unfolding, and it hasn’t yet reached its conclusion.”
Dad was back to some level of pre-hormone therapy discomfort. He was perpetually sore, as he described it, a flu-like ache without the flu. Its persistence drove him mad. “On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s about a 4,” he explained. But it never abated; as a result even the naps he loved to take by his picture window were less enjoyable. And then there was the spring rain, which made sunny naps an impossibility.
Before Dad began feeling better, before the hormone therapy really took root and alleviated most of his symptoms, we talked about the necessity of getting him a new bed. Dad was funny about things like this; his bed was almost as old as me, some part miserliness, some part laziness conspiring to keep Dad in an uncomfortable, unending relationship with a mattress which supported nothing but the air between its springs. And he was a little embarrassed to buy one so late in the game, not when he suspected he might only be able to use it for a little while longer. It seemed wasteful to him, an undeserved luxury.
But he’d handed me the reins to his life, so I took the lead with such things: we’d get Dad a new mattress when he got his tax refund. It was a quality-of-life issue, and since it seemed his event horizon was getting closer we needed to maximize time however we could, even if it was just on a mattress that didn’t mock Dad and his compromised bones.
Other things showed signs of the hormone therapy pooping out on him as well. Namely, that he was pooping out. He slipped into quieter movements again, ones he adopted when he was sick the previous spring. He napped more frequently, though not restfully because of the pain. His appetite faded again, and he didn’t have the pluck necessary to fight the good fight of making dinner every night; he ate breakfast and lunch reliably, but dinner was hit or miss.
The watch was winding down, and I could tell that while his body was being assaulted with pain, his mind was bleary because of its constancy. He retired back into the warm embrace of silly trifles, the swashbuckler movies and adventure books of his youth; his illness, while not as gripping as it was the previous spring, was coming back into bloom.
And finally, in a tacit understanding, I called a housekeeper for him; nothing too invasive, just a weekly visit to come in and sweep up the dust bunnies. But it was a part of the larger picture, both that his time was precious and he shouldn’t spend the rest of it vacuuming, but also that his body was withering and didn’t have the same capacity to complete the jobs we take for granted in our healthier days. It signified Dad relinquishing his independence.
This man who withstood single-parenthood with two children, cooked us fresh meals every night for years, raised us, taught thousands of students who came through his classes for close to forty years, who painted thousands of paintings, sketched greater or lesser drawings for over fifty years, and read thousands and thousands of books over the course of his lifetime; Dad was having to let go of some of that remarkable independent heroism for a smaller, much more difficult dependence upon others. He still painted, but the cooking was fading. He was tired. He wanted to tie up loose ends.
This was the greatest blow of all, though none of us thought of it a burden. But it was Dad’s quiet resignation, and I tried to be sensitive to that fact: his life was the work in progress, and as such it was an exercise in him finally accepting what was due to him, the love being returned to him in triplicate, he who sacrificed so much for us over his own life.
I sipped my coffee on another sodden, gray morning in Portland. The new dog and the old cat flirted, the dog approaching her gingerly, the cat tolerating his approach until she changed her mind and raised a paw to warn him off. Our second cat hid in the basement; she hadn’t come to terms with the new resident. I missed her. I didn’t want to trade her in for the pup; I wanted it all.
My coffee reminded me of Dad, as it often did. Though Dad stopped drinking it when he retired from teaching, he was a dedicated coffee drinker for most of his life, grinding his beans in a spice mill and brewing it in his little stove-top espresso pot. And in my teens, when it became clear that I was cursed with insomnia and a devilish reversal of diurnal human behavior, my father threw me a life saver by making coffee for me every morning.
Most mornings I was so wrecked that I’d lie down in the shower, water pouring over me until our small water heater ran cool. I was lulled into procrastination by the falling water, begging for two more minutes of sleep, thirty seconds, whatever I could scrape together under the weak water pressure. Dad wordlessly came into the bathroom and set a cup of coffee down on the edge of the tub, doctored with the requisite sugar and milk, and I’d roll my eyes upward in thanks.
It was a silent ritual, performed every school morning of my late teens. I don’t know when it started or how, but it was a ritual that Dad performed diligently and probably thanklessly for years. But it was crucial to me, that silent compassion, his understanding of my deeper nature coming into direct conflict with the morning society at large, though he himself was a morning person through and through. He didn’t think I was lazy. He knew that I was a reanimated corpse in the morning and offered aid the best way he knew how: morning ambrosia.
Dad started on painkillers, and the next day the results of his MRI and CT scans began rolling in. He received multiple phone calls about this finding and that result which got lost in the slurry of his new pain medication. When he called me to report on the results I got only a fuzzy outline of what the tests revealed. Dad was fixated on one thing: he had been prescribed steroids. The significance of anything else turned into white noise in Dad’s head.
Chris called me from Vancouver and exhaled anxiously over the phone. “Dad told me they prescribed him steroids, he told me like six or seven times. But he can’t tell me why!”
I filled in the gray areas for Chris: The MRI revealed that while Dad had no spinal compression, he had an area of cancer near his spine. Because of this, his doctor referred Dad to radiation oncology, where presumably they would blast whatever creature was living there back to Kingdom Come. Of course radiation was no picnic either, but in a battle between Evil Klingon in the Spine and Radioactive Ray of Doom, the radioactive adversary seemed like the better bet. There was the potential for chemotherapy if the new medicine didn’t stomp Dad’s PSA numbers back down. Dad’s bladder was blocked by cancer, so now he was up for something the oncologist glibly called “the RotoRooter treatment,” to carve a new channel from Dad’s bladder to the toilet bowl.
Chris was relieved I was on the case; it was a lot more information than “steroids.”
The next day I called Dad to see how he was feeling. “Oh, pretty good,” he slurred. “Pretty tired.” He giggled. “I like naps!”
“Did you pick up your prescription?” I asked.
“Which one?” Dad wondered, more to himself than me.
“The steroids,” I said.
“I wasn’t sure that was my prescription…I thought it might be someone else’s.” He paused. “Why am I on steroids?”
“To reduce swelling around your spine,” I said.
“What’s up with my spine?”
I hadn’t bargained for this: I knew he was goofy on the painkillers, but he couldn’t remember anything the nurses told him. I now had the unenviable task of telling Dad that he had cancer pressing dangerously near his spinal cord, as though he had never heard it before, and it was imperative that the doctors address it quickly. “The steroids are for inflammation, and the radiation treatment is to take care of the cancer on your spine so it stops growing.”
“Huh. Well, I guess that’s not a surprise,” he said, though clearly he was surprised.
We brought Dad to Mom’s house for Easter dinner, akin to bringing a drunk date for the holidays. And while none of us begrudged Dad his loopiness and were thankful that he wasn’t in pain, it was odd to sit at the table when Dad was close to napping in the gravy.
We ate dessert in the living room, Dad parked in the comfy seat relinquished by my stepfather Bob, and we watched as Dad fumbled with each bite. He gingerly cut the cake with his fork, an action undertaken millions of times during millions of meals before, but the plate slipped to a sharp angle, the cake clinging to it only because of copious density and a surfeit of stickiness. The bite on his fork hung precariously as Dad brought it to his mouth. The plate tipped further south in an uneasy aerial show; we mustered our self-control with each tentative bite to not race forward, to rescue both the cake and his dignity should Dad lose dessert to gravity.
The cake mastered at last, Mom handed him some water while the rest of us chattered on. I peered toward Dad out of the corner of one eye as he nodded out, the glass tipping at the same angle as dessert the moment before. A confection in Dad’s lap was no problem, but clearly water in his lap would make for an unhappy pappy, so I reached out to grab it.
Dad snapped out of his opioid reverie. “I’m fine!”
“I just want to set the water down, Dad,” I assured him.
“I’ve got it!” he spat. Lively little dickens when spurred.
“You’re about to spill it, Dad.”
“Well I am NOT!” he barked.
We struggled over the water glass for a few tense seconds as I realized that I might spill the water myself, which would just, um, take the cake. “Please set down the glass,” I begged.
“You’re such a pain in the ass!” he bitched as he released his grasp.
I walked back to my place on the sofa, feeling defeated. “I know, Dad. That’s why you made me Queen of You.”
I called Chris to commiserate. He felt awful about the situation, and neither of us could win. I wished I could share the responsibility during Dad’s illness, or at least have another ally, while Chris wanted to be around to help, or at least be around, but his home was in Canada. There was also the problem of cash flow, which directly impacted his ability to simply pick up at a moment’s notice to join the circus.
But the other part of our shared pain was the loss of Dad at all. It came in waves, the recognition that this was one small step in the greater step of the loss of our patriarch. We felt orphaned prematurely, though he was not dead and we were not orphans.
Which brought us full circle back to Dad: he brought us to this point, or at least nurtured us along the way. We psychically wrestled with what our lives would be without him and it was a lonelier, scarier place. Who would be our champion, our domestic knight, slaying the beasts of day-to-day living if it was not him?
Chris recognized that this was not a useful way of thinking. “I’m trying to change my attitude, trying to get a different outlook. Be more positive.”
I agreed that it was easy to be gloomy and harder to be constructive. “Maybe this is the part when we pay him back for all that he’s done. The responsibility has shifted to us: we’re the ones who have to be there for him now. He was always there for us no matter what we did; now we’re going to have to be his point of stability in the world, which is pretty weird.”
Chris chuckled. “You mean that I’m going to have to be a responsible adult? That’s a pretty tall order!”
I was in the lobby with a coffee after shuttling Dad to his first radiation appointment. They marked Dad’s spine with tiny tattoos, upon which they zeroed in with a blast of radiation, five days a week for two weeks in the quest to keep the alien at bay. The specialists said there was little potential for bad side effects, which was a kindness, and the benefits included less pain around the many sites of the cancer in his bones.
There was an ominous weather system blowing in as we pulled into the parking lot; its clouds rose up in front of us, brooding and spectacular and black. But the day was bright and full of sun, the trees fuzzy with new spring growth, stronger light falling upon us as the sun continued its northerly arc toward summer.
It was fitting, this mix of turbulence and beauty. It lived within us too.
On the carnival ride in earnest, or at the very least in the car a lot, Dad’s radiation treatments had begun and every night I whisked him away to OHSU Waterfront. Then he got on the Sky Tram, had a beautiful view for five minutes, and stepped into radiation to get zapped. I waited for him below, not quite knowing what to do with myself. The iPhone stood in for what was once the ancient stack of magazines lying in lobbies of medical centers the world over. It was a better waste of time, but still a waste. Then Dad took the tram back down, and into the car we went.
Dad had treatment #3 that evening. There was little to it; after the radiologists dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s, it was a matter of making their blast of radiation line up. Dad said, “They’re smart bombing the bastard.” Or at least we hoped; it would suck if they were strafing.
Lars accommodated our ever-changing schedule, even if it factored into clients breathing down his neck. And Lars was even learning to cook. My absence in the kitchen had become pronounced enough that he branched out from the breakfast ghetto toward the intimidating but ultimately simple “dinner menu.” I’d always told him his palate was such that he should be the chef in the family; maybe it would come to pass, another truth of unintended consequences.
Milo and I bonded over a video game, which was another complete waste of time, but one in which there were few emotional demands on me. The video game that Milo and I bonded over was a beautiful one; Okami is rooted in Japanese folk tales, and the style, rather than the harsh 3-D world so many games embrace, was rendered to look like sumi-e ink paintings. And while the goal of the game was obvious enough (we fought evil), it was more pleasurable when evil took the form of mythological Japanese characters, including chimeras with the bodies of teapots, weapons that included Taiko drums and kites, and devilish monkey imps who insultingly smacked their butts at us.
Perhaps the most therapeutic part of the game (other than knowing that evil and good were easily identified and any ambivalence would quickly be resolved) was that you are a god—a white wolf named Amaterasu—resurrected to bring Nippon back to life, after demons and evil spirits had laid waste. And in a stroke of genius, much of it partook in this meditative action: the player wanders the length of Japan bringing trees back to life, digging up dry springs to water the land and crops once again, dusting off shrines, feeding birds and beasts. So much of the game was made up of these benevolent gestures that Milo avoided all the conflicts with the demons and instead wandered around feeding birds and reviving plants.
Milo relied upon me to slay the imps, which was symbolic of something, I’m sure.
Dad was playing a difficult game balancing his need for pain relief and the desire to keep a clear head. If he went light on the oxycodone, the pain poked through and he struggled with certain movements. But after the Great Easter Pageant played out with all the dramedy of Chekov, he wanted to keep his wits about him a little bit more.
There was the issue of his guts, too. Not to put a fine point on it, but “opiates” equalled “constipation.” He hadn’t said it overtly, but Dad’s greatest struggle seemed to be intestinal. Prune juice was purchased after radiation one night, and he mentioned “voiding” the following morning, an unusually quaint metaphor for him to employ. I realized Dad embraced the quaintness for me, not him, which was touching, but also illustrated how personal things had become between us.
After radiation one evening, as Dad and I walked to the car, he said, “If there’s anything you want to know, anything at all, now is the time to ask it.”
I wasn’t sure what kind of “anything” he was referring to and said as much. “Anything,” Dad said. “About your childhood, about my childhood, about our family history. Anything. You should ask now before I won’t be able to answer.”
I suppose I should have, but I didn’t know what to ask, which was depressing.
“I let my membership for MoMA lapse,” he mused, gazing out the car window at another turbulent April sky. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve certainly supported them loyally.’ But I’m probably not going to be making it back to New York.”
This from a man who, no matter his finances, no matter when he was going back to New York City, always supported his favorite museums through thick and thin; that Dad had let his membership lapse was akin to a man removing a pinky because he just wasn’t using it much anymore. It indicated, as he described it, his horizons diminishing.
“I just want to stay close to family now, putter in my studio. Sit on my porch in the sun. I don’t think I’ll be making too many trips from here on out. And that’s okay. I’ve seen New York, I’ve done it.”
This was the greatest blow I’d taken in while. Being steeped in the realities of his medical condition by merit of constant visits to doctors’ offices was not enough to make me accept the realities of finality. But it was impossible to avoid if the person looking toward the finish line was summing it up by letting go of the possibilities of a different future. Dad might not have made any more trips after this point, but he hadn’t voiced it. Now it was out there, and I had to face the finish line as well. The MoMA was not in it, nor the Metropolitan, nor the Guggenheim.
They were a part of his past now, not his future.
As we pulled up to Dad’s house, I observed that he seemed to be feeling the constraints of time much more. Dad admitted that he was. He was mentally winding things up, nesting a bit, fluffing the pillows and making arrangements for smaller events: organizing that pile of art in the studio, going through his books, sifting through the archives of his life for any stories his kids should know before those archives were lost forever.
I didn’t mention any of this when I got home, but I had a ripping headache, so I went to bed early.
“You want to talk about it?” Lars asked.
“We can talk about it in the daytime,” I said, “which makes it less depressing, somehow.” Lars agreed; since I’m prone to insomnia anyway, we didn’t want to encourage it by inviting the imps in before the lights went out.
The imps came anyway, and that night I was too weak to fend them off.
Life outside Dad’s illness continued with little concern for our needs. Lars and I negotiated our way through the demands on my time gingerly; we didn’t have many people upon who we could call to take care of Milo when I was gone, so I tried to schedule as many of Dad’s appointments for times when Milo was at school. Lars would take a break from work if I just couldn’t swing it, but his own job was ramping up, and more clients were knocking on his door. Lars juggled a full docket while making room for the inevitable hiccups Dad’s condition created.
At last Lars got an offer he couldn’t refuse, and though he had carved out a career where he mostly worked from home, sometimes Los Angeles demanded he show his face around. Lars packed up ruefully, knowing Dad’s situation demanded more of me than was available.
Thursday morning, two days after Lars left, I pulled lunch together as I cajoled Milo to finish a poster for his kindergarten class, which, confusingly, he lovingly crafted but didn’t want to take to school. I put cereal in front of him because it was just easier that way.
When you’re six-years-old and your poster is finished, and it’s lovely and sweet and made by hand, and it’s about your favorite bird which happens to be the nightingale—why do you resist taking it in? It had me stumped, so I asked him about it while he was slowly chewing Cheerios. He shrugged.
“Is it because you have to talk about it in class?” I asked.
Milo’s sobs burst like a dam, and I looked for anything to grab onto which, it seemed to me, was levity and a little humor.
"There are people who have to speak in front of other people all the time,” I started awkwardly, “and they get nervous, too. They have ways of dealing with it; one of them is pretty funny!”
You know this part, right? When I explained that the best way to deal stage fright was to imagine the audience in their underwear? Perfect six-year-old humor. A shot out of the park. A home run straight over the fence.
Milo laughed for a second. Then he got really upset. “It’s not funny! I’m going to make Nuclear Bomb Number 11 and blow everything up!” he blurted as he ran from the room, now not just horrified at having to speak in front of his class, but horrified that his mother, that MOM, his champion and imp-slayer, could minimize his terror this way.
This wasn’t going according to plan.
“I’m not making fun at all!” I babbled, looking for ways to make what should have been right—and turned so wrong—right again. “People really do pretend that they’re speaking to a room full of naked people!”
“It’s not funny!” he wept bitterly.
“I’m not trying to be funny,” I said, which was maybe true? Not true? Partly true? What the hell was I doing? “I’m trying to be helpful,” I said, pathetically.
“You’re making it worse! IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!” he shouted.
“Come on, you can’t be mean just because I’m not helping.”
I coaxed him into a false sense of security by telling him that I would talk to his teacher about how nervous he was, as I corralled both Milo and the poster of satanic nightingales into the car, whereby a Nightingale of Gomorrah had the temerity to fall off the poster and get lost, making me look even more criminal.
I pulled over Milo’s teacher in the hall. “He’s really…”
“He’ll get a chance to practice one-on-one before he does it in front of the group,” she replied in her soothing kindergarten voice.
“I know, these little guys are so amazing. Every year I give them this assignment, and every year they really pull it together.”
I said, “But the…”
And she turned around and that was that.
I drove home and parked, where our sprinkler system had commit seppuku and was blasting rockets of water into the air, turning our yard into the Bellagio, gallons of water streaming toward our house, its porous foundation held together by sand and prayers. I went to the basement, turned off the system, which had never—in the five years we’d lived there—worked, and soaked up the water that leached through our foundation, but not before I slammed my head into a bolt under the mop sink.
It was 8:15 a.m.
I sat down with a cup of coffee before Dad’s radiation therapy, one of those cancer-specific oxymorons that makes you wonder who, exactly, is naming these treatments? And then I drove to Dad’s.
Dad was flattened, curled up like a tired dog. But I was also tired, defeated before ten in the morning, and not inclined toward much in the way of being soothing or nice.
Which was okay, because he wasn’t either.
“Do you have anything you need done today, Dad?”
“I have a list of groceries at home and we can pick them up later,” he said.
“Just give me the list.”
“No, it’s all right. I have some checks I need to deposit, so I’ll come with you.”
I looked at Dad. I wanted to cut my losses. “I don’t need you to deposit checks,” I said. “I can do it.”
“I need the exercise,” he said.
Dad was gray. He was wasted from the radiation. He didn’t need the exercise, at least to my mind. Plus, I had things I needed to do being pushed further into the recesses of my already crappy day. “Save your energy for taking a walk around the block, doing something you want to do,” I argued. “You don’t need a chore to get some exercise.”
He snorted. “Shows what you know!”
We got him zapped and I drove Dad home, still arguing about whether he should come shopping or not. “I can do all these things. You’re tired, you’re under assault. Go home!”
“I’m concerned if I don’t exercise now, I’m going to lose all function!” he spat. “If I don’t keep some muscle tone in my legs I won’t be able to pull myself off the toilet! I won’t be able to walk across my house! I won’t be able to do my laundry!” Dad was curling up protectively but also lashing out; I could sense, for the first time, exactly how vulnerable he felt.
It didn’t make me any more retractable or accommodating, however. I was also exhausted, already spent from a crying boy and broken sprinklers and leaking basements. I still felt the throb of my head where I had smacked it; a big lump had grown there. I was in no mood for it.
“Is this all you need?” I asked when he handed me the abbreviated list. It was pretty paltry.
"No, there’s stuff I need from Trader Joe’s, too. I’ll get it later.”
“Give it to me,” I demanded.
Dad filled out the rest of the list with a petulant glower. It was easier for me to do it alone, but in Dad’s eyes I was being meddlesome and bossy, impinging on what little remained of his self-determination.
Which was just how it was going to be, I guess. I went shopping and to the bank. I brought his groceries home and we barely spoke as we put them away.
It was time to pick up Milo from school.
I had signed Milo up for an after-school class, and made sure that he was enrolled with a couple of kids he knew as a buffer to his shyness. But his morning had been so raw that I wondered if it was fair to leave him hanging like that, though I needed nothing so much as a break. I decided to see how he was and let the day unfold as it would.
I waited in the hall as all the kids filed out to their parents, Milo crying inconsolably at the rear of the pack. It was the first time he had left his class in tears since the beginning of the year. I took him home, fed him, put him to bed and curled around him, both of us silent and marred by circumstance. All of us were miserable, Dad, Milo and I, but when Lars called that night, there weren’t words to explain.