Pneumonia was the bitter punchline, really, to a death well crafted.
Things were going so well.
In the waiting room, it was round one: Dad had just been diagnosed with pneumonia to cap off his cancer. He needed blood drawn. We were waiting for the medical tech after pressing a red button, marked with this singularly pointed admonishment:
Press the button
Chris and I pondered the consequences.
“What happens if you press it twice?” he wondered.
“It’s a red button; the second time they send the bombs.”
“I think ninjas drop out of the ceiling panels,” Chris concluded.
“It makes perfect sense.”
We paused. Dad was parked in a chair, wan and coughing sporadically. Still, after the ninjas, what then? “What about the third time?” I asked.
“Pirates. A ship comes down the corridor, shooting cannons at the ninjas.”
“What a melee,” I laughed. “Tempting, though.”
We sat with the red button a long time without pressing it twice.
That afternoon, we had an appointment with Dad’s oncologist before my brother returned to Canada; Chris was going home for two weeks to pack everything he owned—a huge amount of crap since he’s cut of the same cloth as the rest of us Moones—and move it to a building next door. He hadn’t seen his friends in months. He hadn’t worked in Vancouver in months. Chris was over-extended and missing home, but two weeks seemed like plenty of time for what he had to do.
Dad wanted all of us to go to the oncologist together before Chris left so that we were on the same page about Dad’s future. It was July 13, a few days after the last of Dad’s visitors had gone home and a relative calm had settled around us again. Two weeks stood between us and the next visitor, Chris’s mom and Dad’s ex-wife Kelly. We had to take advantage, Chris especially, of the gaps between visitors, Chris’s only time alone with Dad.
Having unexpectedly ended up in the doctor that morning for pneumonia, Dad was exhausted, both from the coughing fits and the exertion of going out at all. He could barely walk any longer. We asked him if we should cancel, reschedule, wait for a day when he wasn’t already wrecked. Chris could listen in on a conference call from Vancouver. We had cell phones; we could make it work.
Dad was adamant. We had waited over a week for this appointment; they hadn’t been able to schedule us earlier. If they had known the condition Dad was in, they would have leaped to find an earlier time, but Dad told the office this meeting was informational, not medical. No emergency whatsoever. Merely an exchange of ideas so that we all knew what Dad’s wishes were and what we were looking at.
It should be clear by this point that we never, ever knew what we were looking at. Never. We were always taken off guard, which I find remarkable when faced with the overt signs of Dad’s dissolution.
Having bodily lifted Dad out of the car at OHSU, we scrambled a wheelchair several sizes too large and rolled him up to oncology. Dad was smiling giddily; he was surprised that he enjoyed the use of a wheelchair so much. His legs were more useless than usual, his strength spent on the morning’s adventure with ninjas dropping out of the ceiling and pneumonia.
We all shook hands affably, the oncologist greeting my brother again warmly since it had been a few months between visits. He asked, as he often did, if a student could sit in on the meeting and Dad agreed, feeling his life was well lived if it was spent teaching others, even if it was his own infirmity giving the lesson. We squeezed Dad into the room in his oversized wheelchair; Chris sat on a seat, the oncologist on a stool, I sat on the exam table, and the oncology student, hovering behind Dad, stood in a cramped corner by the door.
Settled in our motley way, the doctor began: “I’m curious: What’s with the wheelchair?” He smiled his reserved smile, measured and not overly demonstrative.
Dad answered in his usual way; he was hopeful, upbeat, but perhaps a bit optimistic about his condition.
“You know, I’ve got swelling in my feet. Hard to walk. Plus now I’ve got pneumonia. Oh, well,” he sighed. “It could be worse.”
“How long has it been?” the doctor asked.
I never knew when I too hastily offered up an opinion. But I often felt Dad, when answering on his own behalf, minimized the true drama of his condition. Today was a perfect case in point: it really couldn’t be much worse.
“He really became hobbled a couple of weeks ago,” I said.
Chris nodded. “And he fell down on his stairs last week.”
“It was hilarious!” Dad interjected. “One minute I’m up, next I’m on my back!” He laughed. “It reminded me of that time I got stoned, stood up and just fell on my ass! ‘This is what it must be like to be Quenby,’ — you were a toddler then and were always falling on your keister learning to walk.”
The doctor smiled benignly. “Have you made any decisions about the trials?” he asked.
We agreed we had, and that after weighing out the options, there wasn’t much on offer except more of the same. The oncologist asked about Dad’s appetite, which oddly hadn’t fallen off yet; and his general health, other than the cancer and the obvious problems with mobility. He noted that the PSA tests, despite the Casodex and Lupron, continued to rise.
And he checked Dad’s feet. Huge, bloated, misshapen, they poured out of Dad’s shoes like a toad. These were not healthy feet. I had not been privy to his feet in this extremity, though we knew how difficult it had become to walk. We were appropriately aghast.
The doctor gave us the summation: Dad was dying. Not a little dying any longer. Not slightly dying—just dying. The doctors wanted to make sure Dad wasn’t going to be paralyzed on top of everything else, so oncology ordered another MRI to review the cancer around his spine and to see whether or not he had spinal compression—the potential side-effects of which we might already be witnessing in the limping, shuffling gait Dad had been left with. I wondered if cancer patients ever catch a break. Paralysis? Good grief.
“Now I don’t expect you to have a crystal ball or anything,” Dad began. “But if you have some sort of timeline, that would be helpful.”
The oncologist, inevitably delivering this sort of news with alarming regularity, said, “A few weeks, maybe, to a couple of months. Three, tops.” I thought back on my conversation with this same doctor a scant few weeks before, evaluating Dad on his degree of healthiness: me being concerned Dad wasn’t healthy at all; the oncologist giving him, at that time, 16 months. Had Dad, with his hopeless optimism, blown smoke in the eyes of the doctor? I was always more concerned than the doctors were, it seemed. I should have called hospice already.
“Do you have an organization lined up?” the doctor asked, echoing my internal monologue. We admitted we didn’t, which, though I didn’t say it, I laid at the feet of our upbeat diagnosis the previous month. “I’ll have the nurse call you with some options,” he said. “Hospice is our eyes and ears for the next stages.”
He didn’t mean it. With the exception of the on-call nurse, with whom by this point I had a deep, personal relationship, we never heard from oncology again.
Thunderstruck with the expected but unwelcome death sentence, we poured Dad out of the wheelchair, got back in the car and drove to Dad’s house.
“Well, a couple months then,” Dad said. “Hopefully they’re being overly optimistic.”
We howled with laughter.
“We’ll have to do a little post mortem on all the information we received today.” Guffaws.
Chris and I were stupefied, but Dad was downright jolly. We decided, if not to celebrate, to ring in the news with a meal in one of Dad’s favorite restaurants, the same one that we marked the occasion of signing Dad’s will. Since it became clear over the previous months that Dad was, if not dying, at least declining, we had been hemorrhaging money on taking him out to eat, often picking up the tab for everyone. It was the last pleasure left to him as his body collapsed, his johnson attached to a bag, his mobility impossibly hampered; we wanted to give him the last joys we could.
“I get the can opener when Dad kicks,” I said.
We were driving to our date with sangria though Dad was off the sauce completely; it upset his stomach or his equilibrium, or just didn’t sit well any longer. Another pleasure gone.
“No way! That thing is a museum piece,” Chris argued. Growing up with the “Swing-Away” has spoiled us to all imposters to the “can opener” crown. It has never failed us. They stopped producing them twenty years ago and this one is a relic.
“That can opener is great,” Dad agreed. “Maybe you can trade it every couple of years,” he said.
“I’m Queen of Dad, and I get the can opener,” I said.
“Not if it’s in my half of the house!” Chris rejoined.
“Dad,” I whined, “Chris is subverting my authority again!”
“Maybe I’ll donate the can opener to a museum,” Dad laughed.
Dad paid the bill; he wouldn’t be hosting too many more parties. Each trip out was now potentially his last, and Dad felt that, knowing he was soon to rely on us more than he wanted to, he owed us this, at the very least.
Dad: our indefatigable, doggedly loyal booster, no matter our crazy pie-eyed dreaminess—which was pretty much the rule rather than the exception—apparently Dad wasn’t going to defy all predictions after all. He was just as mortal as everyone else. He had a few months to live and help us over into the rest of our lives without him.