The Coffee Mouse
I would, by my proximity and a settled life in Portland, be with Dad to the end. We knew this: Dad, Chris and myself.
But a decision fell to Chris. It was onerous, unfair and heartbreaking, but it was his alone. What Chris needed to decide was how and when to leave. We struggled with this every night on the porch; every day, or every hour, Chris felt differently about it. He loved Dad more than anyone on earth, but could feel their strange tango slowing Dad’s inevitable end. Something had to change and Chris felt that he needed to make this unenviable decision himself. Dad couldn’t help him any longer.
I went home for dinner and returned, and Chris was already half-crocked. Dad was sleeping his morphine sleep, which meant that we could talk unabashedly.
Chris was wrestling with the fact that Dad really might not let Chris stick around for his death, that he was too stubbornly hanging on to let Chris be a part of this momentous point in both of their lives. Chris was pissed.
“I can’t believe he’s blaming me for hanging on. Jesus Christ, Pop! Every time I come back, you rally! It’s not me, Dad; it’s you!” He was fuming in an amused, impotent way, railing against an impossible problem with no solution. “Fuck you! I wanted to be here for you, and you’re making it impossible! I can’t stay any longer! Now I have to go!”
“Ungrateful, thankless child,” I laughed. “Don’t you know your father is dying in there?”
“I don’t believe it. He’s going to outlive me!”
I remembered a story from The Milagro Beanfield War in which Amarante Cordova, beleaguered by every pox, plague, malady, and fungal infection under the sun, manages to defy everyone’s predictions and outlives almost all ten of his children. Dad was in the running.
Chris hurled his beer bottle into Dad’s beautiful garden, a toothless defiance which revealed his confusion.
Chris decided to leave. He did his laundry, packed up his suitcase and computer, told Dad he would be leaving for Vancouver again, and from there to visit the girl in Winnipeg. Dad was relieved and moved and terribly sad. As a threesome we had become settled in our funny routines, and he knew that this time would actually be the last time he saw Chris again. There were no more reprieves.
When Tuesday arrived, Chris puttered around longer than necessary, waiting, I think, for Dad to slip away, to change his mind about sticking around. But he was completely lucid, watching us wander the house packing things up, waiting for goodbye. Eventually Chris couldn’t avoid it any longer and sat next to his bed.
Milo, visiting between ad hoc play-dates, was exploring Dad’s lift chair. He loved Uncle Chris with the passion inspired by adults who aren’t parents returning their affection, and he was giddily waiting for Chris to finish so he could drive him home in his souped-up car. Milo was petting Chris, climbing on him, jumping off the sofa, being six. Impermanence being unthinkable, Milo was impatient.
Milo came out to the porch abashed; Chris, being hassled in this most tender of moments, barked at him. I explained, now very sorry I hadn’t thought to have Lars pick Milo up, that he was saying farewell to Grandpa.
And even though we didn’t shrink from explaining that Dad was dying, it didn’t make sense to Milo that one day Grandpa just wouldn’t be here any longer. Milo couldn’t fathom the difference between this goodbye, which was Chris’s last one, and any other goodbye, which simply meant “I’ll see you soon.” Milo lived only in the present. He took his scooter out front and skidded around Dad’s corner.
Chris came out on the porch after a long time, eyes red with tears and fatigue. “This really felt like goodbye,” he said. I helped him pack up his car, rounded Milo up, and sent them off while I settled in for the last leg. The loneliness was deafening.
My side of the bargain was calling in an aide not covered by hospice care to give me some time to go home every evening. Dad and I agreed that we could afford this small compromise: I wouldn’t turn Dad out of his own house on his death bed, and Dad would tolerate a few hours with an aide instead of me.
I called the agency and set it up: four hours a night, from six until ten. I would go home, eat dinner, put Milo to bed. Then I would come back to live out the night hours with Dad. I knew, and perhaps Dad did too, that this was more a symbolic separation than a real one. Putting the aide in place showed Dad what it would be like with others taking care of him instead of us, and it was a reality he wasn’t thrilled about.
When Dad had first fallen into bed, the hospice team sent us medication to aid the dying: morphine for pain relief and to help with labored breathing; and Lorazepam, a whopping anti-anxiety medication which was to be used if Dad became overwhelmed with his deathly reality.
We never used the Lorazepam; Dad was too happy with us around to feel anxious. Discomfort and annoyance, sure. But no anxiety. When Chris stepped out of the frame, Dad’s predictable descent began immediately. He started struggling for breath. I turned the oxygen machine up, but that wasn’t the problem: Dad could no longer postpone the inevitable.
The very air around him became too heavy to negotiate, and his iron will, bolstered by Chris’s presence, gave way. Dad began to panic, and for the first time I reached for the Lorazepam.
What Dad did not know was that Chris was across town with Milo, stepping in where he was needed. Lars was falling behind with his work, and we couldn’t afford to have all three of us unemployed. And Chris wanted to gather his thoughts about all that had transpired before he drove to Vancouver again, so he decided to say farewell to Dad and wait for a day to see how things played out. He would stay the night at our house watching after Milo, and leave for Vancouver the following morning.
That this created an interesting moral quandary did not slip under our radar. We were, in effect, lying to Dad. We were also assuming a tacit responsibility for hastening Dad’s end by telling him that his last great joy had fallen away, even though Chris was in fact hanging out with his grandson across town eating dinner in a Mexican restaurant.
We knew this. We struggled with it. We didn’t know what else to do.
After Milo went to bed, Chris came back to Dad’s house, entering through the back door and slipping into the basement. Dad was engrossed in North By Northwest and his hearing was bad enough that a little motion in another part of the house didn’t affect him in the least.
Chris and I shared a beer while he boxed up the books he had intended to pack when Ray was in town. “How’s Dad?” he asked.
“Definitely dying,” I said. We both laughed, knowing that this may or may not be true. “The breathing is freaking him out. I’ve never really seen him scared, but he’s scared.”
“He’s watching a movie,” Chris noted.
“It’s amazing. Just put on a movie for him and you can suspend any reality.”
Chris and I had both witnessed this at various times over the weeks. Though Dad was often barely coherent, when we put on a favorite film of his, he was rapt until the credits ran.
“You think my leaving had anything to do with it?” Chris asked.
“I wish I could see him. He’s right upstairs.”
We sat together, boxing up Dad’s life, listening to the muffled sounds of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint struggling over the face of Mount Rushmore.
The aide’s name was Mary Bailey. This piece of accidental comedy was especially hilarious because upon looking at her I knew that she embraced a sort of “Mary Bailey” ethos which would drive Dad insane. She was sweet, round, had a nice Midwestern twang, and brought a book of Reader’s Digest puzzles to keep her busy if Dad slept. She was the antithesis of Chris and I, his irreverent beasts of children, and she was going to take her job of caring for her terribly ill charge very seriously.
I chatted politely with Mary before I left, making modest jokes about George Bailey and asking what Mary was doing out of Bedford Falls. Instead of being annoyed by the quips she must have heard a thousand times, she embraced her Bailey-ness. I could feel Dad roll his eyes.
When I came home, Dad was asleep. Mary had talked with him for an hour or so, and then he professed tiredness so she gave him some morphine and he slept the rest of the evening. I knew he was bored; he fell asleep to avoid Mary.
“I wanted to tell you,” Mary said as she packed up for the night, “your father wanted me to know he was okay with dying. But it really seemed like he was trying to convince himself. I just thought you should know.”
I thanked Mary, and wondered at the ability for complete strangers to assess Dad’s situation more realistically than we did.
Chris postponed again. He decided he could afford to stay in Portland until he left for Winnipeg, so that he might be with me when Dad took his bow. At the very least, we were going to go to the Whiskey Soda Lounge to eat Ike’s chicken wings and get blisteringly drunk, raising toast after toast to Dad’s memory in an embarrassing display of love and grief and maudlin excess. We talked about it often; this was our only plan.
I updated Chris: Dad had definitely loosened his grip, but he was hanging in there.
I called Mom to sit with Dad one afternoon; I felt that Chris had made the ultimate sacrifice, but it was also up to me to put some space between Dad and myself so he could continue with the tricky business. Jane came over, and they, unlike Mary and Dad, jawed away the afternoon.
Jane and Dad were fast friends after all these years; he had been one of the four people at my stepfather’s funeral, including Mom, myself and Lars. And now they reminisced and talked art; Mom was one of his last connections to the art world, and they yammered about all their passions and frustrations with the creative spirit. But mostly they talked about Chris and I, Dad waxing about how proud he was. “This has been a good death,” he told her.
Mom told me she was amazed at Dad’s energy. Tell me about it, I thought.
When Mary came back that evening, Dad didn’t even bother to engage her in conversation. He just went to sleep. He was shutting her out and shutting down in a strange symmetry of boredom and release.
Dad was losing time again, the way he had when the cat arrived. Days were fuzzy, but he could sense that it was late summer. “We wanted to make it through the summer,” he said. “But not longer. I couldn’t take another winter.” Summer was a solace to all of us because Dad didn’t feel the chill of the previous spring.
I tried to crawl in bed with him one afternoon while he was sleeping, but the twin bed was too small and I hung precariously on its edge, like he imagined himself when I abandoned him. Instead I laid my head on his chest and wrapped my arms through his, recalling times I climbed in bed with him even when I was a distraught teenager, soothed by his infinite love, no matter if he was sleeping. I wouldn’t have the chance again. I wept on his shoulder.
When Milo was born, Lars and I counted the minutes he’d been in the world. Then hours; “He’s ten hours old!” we’d say. We counted days that he had been among us. “Can you believe he’s four days old?” Then we counted weeks. Then months.
I was now counting in reverse: Dad’s remaining life in months, weeks, days. I couldn’t sense the hours, but I knew they were coming. Then minutes. Then he would be gone.
Dad’s limbs were incrementally turning purplish-blue as his circulation began retreating back behind the battle lines, saving his faltering pulse to protect the vital organs in his body’s final struggle. Tracing the patchwork pattern up his legs, hour by hour I could follow where the blood would no longer travel.
I updated Chris, who was running errands around Portland but would finally be leaving the following morning, Thursday. Chris stopped by in the afternoon to give me some ice, and to see Dad one last time.
Dad was by the window as always, calmed by the Lorazepam which released him from breathless fear, but also put him under completely. Chris, fearing Dad would rouse and be confused by the spectre of his son already gone, stood some distance from his bed. Chris watched him a long time, frozen in the room like Dad’s watchful guardian until finally he turned away.
There’s a coffee mouse in the basement, Chris wrote.
I went downstairs the next morning where Chris, using the garage door opener to let himself in, was sorting through the boxes he had packed and was loading up his car. He handed me a cup of coffee, and I watched as Chris thoughtfully sorted out what he would take and what he would leave for another time. I handed Chris some things I had gathered from upstairs, little trinkets and some glassware. Tokens. All the real packing and sorting was a long way off.
Finally, Chris packed what he had come for. His own time had run out. My ally and companion was having to strike out alone while I stayed behind watching the embers die. Our goodbye was pregnant with the reality of fatherlessness the next time we met, and we hugged. I didn’t watch him drive away. I went upstairs to sit vigil with Dad.