My first memory is riding on a bike with Dad. It was a yellow bike, later on, when my sister and I were old enough to ride it, we called it the banana bike.
In my first memory, I’m about four, I think. Dad was pedaling, and I was in a kids’ seat behind him. I was laughing and laughing at the feeling of being on a bike, of being in motion, feeling the breeze on my face, and the neighborhood houses streaming by. I remember him continually turning around to check on me, because my four-year-old laughter could sometimes sound like screaming hysteria.
Dad was like that back then – continually befuddled by his role as a father, even though it was something he absolutely wanted. He wanted us, but he wasn’t quite sure what to do with us once we showed up, and left a lot to Mom. A classic story is him trying to dress my older sister into some sleepsuit that had a zipper on it, and he got her tummy pinched into the zipper. She screamed bloody murder, Dad quickly gave her to Mom and never tried to dress either of us ever again.
When I got The Call from Mom at the Zombie Run, while other runners were screaming in the background as they were sliding down the water slide, she told me that Dad, who had been in the hospital since Tuesday, was not doing great, that it didn’t look good, and to “be prepared.”
Okay. Okay fine. We knew this day was coming. We knew it ever since the Stage IV colon cancer diagnosis of last year. I sat on the ground and wiped tears from my eyes with a towel I had brought to clean off the mud and water and zombie grime. If this is how it goes, then this is how it goes. We had a year with him, which is much more than we thought we would have last year. I thought we’d maybe have four months last year.
So be prepared. Okay. Okay, fine. I’m ready for action, I’m ready to book flights, to fill out the Leave Of Absence forms at the Unnamed Movie Studio. I just need someone to say “Yes, go ahead.” Mom is saying Be Prepared, but she’s not saying Come Home. Dad’s supposed to be released on Tuesday, and we’ll know more after that. But I am ready when she says that.
I’m prepared. But Tuesday comes, Dad goes home, I even talk to him on Thursday, and he wants to see Argo, which he wants us to see together. So the plan is that I would book my ticket for next week, and come home to spend time with him. My sister Agatha is coming home too, so we’d be a family for a weekend again.
That is our plan. We book our tickets (the airline industry is a pit of unholy vipers for charging more for last minute tickets and they will totally get theirs). We are prepared.
I am so prepared that when Mom calls the following Tuesday to say that Dad’s back in the hospital, I don’t blink one bit. I don’t cry, I don’t panic. The tickets are already booked, and I’m expecting that he’ll probably be released on Thursday when we get there, and we’ll spend a very quiet weekend at home. I call the producers of Violet Giraffe and Paisley Bunny to get rough cuts of the movies so we’ve got something to watch. I am prepared.
So when Thursday comes, I meet up with Agatha at the airport and we take a cab straight to the hospital. We figure out what room Dad’s in at the hospital, and take our carry on suitcases to the fourth floor.
And once I walk into The Great Stoic Wonder’s room, things become instantly clear.
This man is not leaving this room. This is the Final Spiral.
He’s incredibly thin, I think I weigh more than he does. I think my carry on suitcase weighs more than he does. His skin is stretched tight over his skull. How did he get this thin? How did this happen? I last saw him in June, he was walking, and talking and watching Jurassic Park on the condo TV in the Bahamas. He was fine. I talked to him on the phone less than a week ago, we were going to see Argo in the theater. Now it’s an effort for him to speak.
But he talks. “I’m so happy you’re here,” he says, smiling. We hug him and sit by his bedside. We chat for a little while, I show him pictures on my laptop about the Zombie Race, though I don’t blame him if he doesn’t get it.
The oncologist comes by later to examine him and to consult with us, “He’s terminal. It’s a matter of days.” She says outside his hospital room (not unkindly, she’s actually very compassionate). He’s in a lot of pain and we can choose to switch him from morphine to Dilaudid, which will stop the pain, but also put him under until he slips away. But if the choice is between him being conscious and in pain, or sleeping and not in pain, everyone agrees on the second one. That’s what Dad tells the oncologist when she examines him, that’s what we tell the oncologist when she’s talking to us.
So we file back into the room, and Mom sits by Dad’s bed, “So, you’re not feeling great,” she says. And then we all start crying. We’re making this decision as a family, and I know this is more than what a lot of families get. But my God, it hurts.
We take turns hugging him and telling him we love him and take turns wiping the tears from his face. And he tells us he loves us and he’s ready, by GOD he’s ready for some new meds. If he had his way, he’d take a rocket launcher of Dilaudid to zoom him off this earth, that’s how ready he is.
It doesn’t happen that fast, however. The Dilaudid arrives after an hour or so, and they start him off with 1 mg/hour. When we get there the next day, he’s conscious, but still in pain, and not talking a lot. They increase the dosage by .5 mg. every six hours or so, and I think it was around 2 mg/hour when he started sleeping and stopped talking.
The next few days are a numbing blur of sameness. We wake up, we go to the hospital. We sit by his bed and read stories from the paper and what I can find on the internet to him, even though he’s not awake. We hold his hand, we smooth his hair. We ask Mom questions about how they met, their initial courtship, when she knew she was in love with him. Questions that she might not have answered in such degree had Dad been awake. But now she’s a fountain of details – he proposed in the car, without a ring, so that they could go pick one out together. The car was named Bessie, she named it (so I’m not the only one who names my cars). She went to his parents’ place in Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving, but his parents mailed her parents a handwritten invitation so they knew she was invited, and that Mom and Dad weren’t running off together.
Nurses keep bringing food trays that nobody eats (and I can’t imagine how good pureed waffle would taste anyway). Other nurses keep asking us if we need anything, keep letting us know when there’s a fresh pot of coffee made, as though this was a hotel.
I’m sure Dad would agree that those last few days weren’t necessary. And I often felt like God was not in those days, that He had taken a backseat to pure biology, as the hours kept adding on, adding on, marked by nothing more than Dad’s breaths, his chest rising and falling as we all waited and waited and waited.
The past thirteen months have been marked by no less than five deaths of my dogsitting clients: Ginger Puppy, Pembleton, Basil Diva Dog, Hickory, and most recently Babs the cocker spaniel are gone. (Before you say that I’m some Angel of Dog Death, know that four of them passed from old age.)
And when I was there taking care of those elderly dogs, I would continually watch them sleep, and sometimes stretch a hand out to touch their side, to make sure they were breathing, that they didn’t suddenly go, and I hadn’t seen it. And the breaths would keep coming, sometimes with a longer space in between than I would like, and I’d freak out, and wake the dog client up, and the dog client would look at me all bewildered, huh? What? What happened?
I have had quite enough of death for awhile.
Dad passed on Election Day morning, so he was spared the endless exit polling reports. He never got to see the rough cuts of Violet Giraffe and Paisley Bunny, though I’m sure he can see them now (he believed in God and Jesus, so the basics were covered.) We stood by Mom as she appeared to shrink more and more into her coat and red head scarf, as we shepherded her through the paperwork at the hospital, at the funeral home, at the cemetery, as the cards, and calls and food started coming in, as the parade of kind-hearted Southern people with thick Southern accents started up, “I’m so sawwwwwwrrrreeee for your lawsssssss.”
The trees in Alabama are showing off their glorious fall colors, and on Saturday, I decided I was going on a bike ride. Dad had bought a bike a few months ago, as he was getting agitated that he wasn’t getting enough exercise.
One of my favorite pictures of Dad is on a bike, ironically enough, back during the Disney cruise of 2009. He wanted to go ride a bike, which was unusual for him, but I was game and we both rode bikes all around Disney's Castaway Key island, and I took this picture of him one handed AND steering my bike.
The bike that's in the garage now is a red bike. The tires could use some air, but Mom and I couldn’t figure out how to use the compressor to fill them up (Dad would’ve just shook his head in dismay), so I did without.
And Mom watched me in her coat and red head scarf as I pedaled down the driveway and down the street. Passing by the same houses that I did when I was four and Dad was driving. Some of the people have moved, some of the houses have new additions on them, but they all basically look the same as they always did.
I was talking on the phone with Miss Eunice the day that Dad passed, and as I’m babbling about Dad and how I don’t understand those useless last few days we had to go through to get to the end, she says, somewhere in the middle of it, “I have a quote for you.”
And it’s this quote that I keep thinking about, as I pedal down the street of my first memory, looking at the fall leaves, seeing my Dad in front of me on the bike, continually looking back at me, making sure I’m okay.
O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in't!
O, wonder, o, wonder, o, wonder. O Brave New World and O, Wonder.
I’m going to be taking a few weeks off from the blog. I will try to come back at the beginning of December. Here’s hoping.