“I’m like a refugee who only managed to grab random crap on my way out the door,” I said, sitting in front of Dad somewhere in his house, sometime in the previous day or so. For example, I had brought a coffee maker and coffee, but no filters. No toiletries except a toothbrush; I had forgotten my medication too. Multiple pairs of underwear but no shirts. A hodge-podge of pieces but no whole.
“It was a rather hasty evacuation, wasn’t it?” Dad mused. Our conversation can only have taken place in one of two rooms; Dad had been confined to the living room and dining room since the morning before, though we hadn’t known it. We found that out Saturday night when he spiked with a fever of 102º.
I’d been there, decamped to Dad’s house, for three nights. Each night brought with it minor successes and new descents. After Chris returned to Canada to deal with his life-interrupted, I’d been filling the gaps as I could. I beat the retreat from my own life when it became obvious that Dad could no longer walk unassisted; his legs had simply given up, their final gasp coming the previous night after the series of precipitous declines over the week.
The results from the MRI came in: no paralysis. This meant that Dad’s body was just failing him, no reason to speak of other than one punctuated by certain finality. The findings guaranteed that Dad would not be further insulted by radiation. There was no need. There would be no more “palliative” measures in that respect, which was a relief.
The evening Dad spiked with a fever, I was on the phone with Chris. We were commiserating about our lives now that he was back in B.C., and as we talked I noticed Dad was a little warm. I stuck a thermometer in Dad’s mouth and wandered off to continue our conversation; a few minutes later I noted Dad was sweltering. It was, as always seems to be the case with medical emergencies, after ten p.m. on a Saturday night. I hung up hastily, Chris wishing he was with us, me wishing I was in the bar with him. I was not up to this challenge alone.
Dad and I had met with a hospice agency for the first time the day before. We had been quite mature about the whole thing—planning for a future which wasn’t here yet—and the nurse and social worker they sent were, much to Dad’s surprise and my relief, the opposite of prosletyzing do-gooders trying to save one’s soul at the end. I was reasonably concerned about this, since Dad was sour on salvation. Anyone who bothered with Dad’s soul was going straight out the door, on their ass, too, if he could temporarily muster the strength. It might just be his last great rally.
But when Lars dropped me off at Dad’s house for the initial meeting, I read the numerous stickers plastered over the whole back end of a strange car parked there. “She’s gonna work out fine,” I said to Lars as I released the seat belt. Over the depth and breadth of the car were bumper stickers hailing a non-conventional lifestyle which included rescuing feral cats and her other car being a broom.
“She’s a Tree-Hugging Dirt Worshipper,” I announced as I walked in without bothering to introduce myself. I recounted the bumper stickers to Dad and he laughed; Ingrid was outside the mainstream and wore it like a badge. “Just as long as no-one tries to ‘save’ Dad, we should be good,” I emphasized.
“Fuck that,” barked Dad. “I’m not interested in God.”
“Luckily, He’s not interested in you, either,” I said.
Ingrid smiled and picked up her cell phone to call her office. “I’m going to take Charles’ case,” she said into the phone. “I think we have a rapport that Charles is unlikely to have with another nurse.” Ingrid and Dad chatted for several minutes, talking about the facts of his disease as they stood, which, all things considered, looked pretty good for dying guy. When the social worker Renée arrived a few minutes later and took our relative cheekiness with good cheer, we figured we had done all the research we needed to carry forward with this strange, extremely personal relationship managing Dad’s last days. “Blessed Be,” Ingrid whispered as she leaned in to shake Dad’s hand before leaving with a bit of a wink, shorthand for her pagan dirt-hugging ways. Dad was in good company.
It was good that things went so smoothly with this hospice team, because less than 36 hours later I was on the phone with a hospice nurse when Dad’s fever seemed to be rising dangerously high. She asked the pertinent questions, me responding as coherently as I could. They had no information on Dad because Ingrid hadn’t given Dad a physical; it had been an interview only, and which did not give many details regarding Dad’s health profile. Ingrid wasn’t even scheduled to do a physical until the following Tuesday. We all thought there was time.
I explained we were brand-new patients. The nurse was my only lifeline, hastily introduced in this moment of desperate need. Dad had been off his feed for a few days, his last full meal only the half-eaten burger he had with Chris three days earlier. Dad’s appetite had declined exponentially as the days passed, and now he was living on fruit and juice, food of little substance. I asked the nurse: Ibuprofen to reduce the fever; was it going to make him nauseous on top of everything else? I never wanted to take medicine on an empty stomach. I mentioned his fever, and the nurse assured me that fevers often accompanied end-stage cancer. “What’s his temperature?” she asked.
“102,” I said. She was surprised at how high it was, but told me it wasn’t unusual for a dying person to spike with a fever. “He was fine yesterday,” I said, and as she looked over Dad’s charts—granted with many holes in it—she seemed concerned.
“I just want to make sure I’m not doing anything stupid,” I said.
“Ibuprofen will be fine,” she assured me over the phone. “You’re doing everything right,” she soothed.
“I mean, sure. What’s a little ibuprofen going to do: kill him?” I laughed. “God, sorry. That was inappropriate.”
“You’d be surprised,” she said. “Everyone has different ways of dealing with it.”
“Mine is definitely inappropriate,” I nervously chuckled.
I hung up the phone and got Dad the ibuprofen. He was glassy-eyed and dazed, and after he took the pain reliever I told him I was going to put him to bed. His brand new lift chair had been delivered that afternoon; now I gratefully raised Dad up and into my arms.
I planned on doing the full nightly routine, but when Dad collapsed forward in a heap, I tipped him toward the hospital bed instead, ironically and conveniently also delivered that afternoon. I turned him, balanced across my shoulder, and Dad roused, wild-eyed. “This is happening more quickly than I expected,” he gasped. I struggled with Dad and laid him askew on the new mattress. It was not elegant. Dad was cockeyed, and I had no idea how to straighten him out.
I began to panic. Dad could feel his death cresting over him in a wave and I was his only resource: helpless, untrained, completely under-qualified. I couldn’t even move him. Not to mention that Dad was aware, in a real and visceral way, that his end was coming much sooner than we thought possible. Other than being unable to simply move him, what then? What if Dad died? How did we get here so quickly?
I called my mother and begged her to go to my house across town to stay with Milo while Lars came to help move Dad. I sobbed on the phone with Lars, “I don’t know if he’s dying, but HE thinks he dying.” I hung up and waited.
The house was silent. The television was off. Dad was sleeping fitfully. I called Chris with updates, called the hospice nurse. Silence closed in on me every time I hung up the phone.
Lars rushed in and helped me adjust Dad, then stayed for a while as I recounted the events. Dad was floating in and out of consciousness, and Lars leaned over to speak to him. They held hands, professed their joy in sharing their lives, congratulated each other on being a part of something special. Lars thanked Dad for raising me, Dad thanked Lars for marrying me. Lars left after a short while, expecting Dad to be gone by morning. They said what they needed to say: I love you and goodbye.
The house was pregnant with expectation and surreality. The lights were too bright, the silence encompassing. I went from room to room turning off overheads and turning on the dimmest lights I could find—the stove top light, a reading lamp—and switched on the classical radio station. The music filled the night with less menace, though the announcer cut in with strangely inappropriate oddments of information. The programming was poignant, the station picking music that fit the mood of shifting hours, saving bombast and high energy compositions for daylight and reserving serene piano sonatas for dimmer hours. I was modestly soothed by the company.
I paced. I made phone calls.
The light, from Dad’s stereo or the stove, bathed me in colors echoing the waning summer night, dim blues and yellows from the stereo, grayish dawn from the hood fan. I felt, as I cut a path over Dad’s carpet, that I was performing vigil walking in circles, drawing Dad’s last hours in spirals around him as he hung in the traces. I could feel our night close and dear, and quiet and terrifying, the deafening beauty of this surprising end.
I checked Dad’s breathing by leaning in over him, kissed his cheek, stroked his hand. The street lights outside folded him in a cool, soft glow. I sat next to Dad and told him we loved him. I begged him to wait for Chris to return, after he had squared his life away in Canada and had a real opportunity to be with Dad.
When morning arrived, Dad was rejuvenated. Not healthy by any means, but certainly not dead. Dad wondered at his situation: one minute he was watching vampires on TV, the next he was dying in a hospital bed in his living room. “That was a surprise,” he admitted in the understatement of the year.
I called Chris to tell him Dad was definitely alive, and indeed looked like he might pull through Chris’s imperative trip home. I encouraged Chris to maybe pack faster, but no reason to panic. Dad had gotten through the night, and was pretty spry all things considered.
I called Lars. “Dad’s still here,” I told him.
“That’s so strange,” Lars said. “We said goodbye.”
I admitted it was odd. What do you say after you’ve said everything? Lars brought me lunch and Dad was sitting up, evaluating his new situation parked in the living room. Not bad, Dad thought. Not ideal, but pretty alright for someone who was dying.
“Hello, Charles,” Lars said.
“Hi Lars!” Dad replied. “Thanks for helping Q last night.”
“No problem! No trouble at all.” Their chitchat was odd; Dad not being coherent the night before wasn’t nearly as impressed by his recovery as we were, all of us basically waiting for him to draw his final breath. But here he was, making enthusiastic conversation about Lars hauling his bones into bed.
This was not the last time we would make chitchat about things unworthy of the word.
The most dramatic medical situation I’d witnessed in my life was my stepfather John: he’d collapsed in a flaming full-system meltdown many years earlier, but in that case John was in a hospital surrounded by trained professionals. Now I was the only person evaluating Dad’s condition, with the exception of the nurse sent by hospice the day after Dad’s collapse. Dad was, as we’d witnessed ourselves, pretty blithe about his condition. This day was no exception. He was chatty, funny, a little bemused. But he was Dad which meant he always underestimated his own body’s capacity for failing him.
I had no ability to understand his situation. Things looked okay, and then Dad crashed again, and just about the time I was ready to panic, he perked up. I had no idea what was going on. But between sitting with Dad monitoring each breath and talking to Dad’s friends over the course of the day, I finally called Chris to tell him things were not going according to plan: he might want to pick up the pace and come back from Canada earlier than anticipated.
“I’m gonna give Dad shit when I get there,” Chris said. “He gave me two weeks!”
I agreed. “I mean, come on, Dad; you got anything better to do?”