When we left each other at the top of the jetway, my plan was to follow in a day or two. I reserved a flight for Monday, and another for Tuesday. (Southwest – my favorite airline – allows cancellation without penalty. So I often buy more than one ticket and as the date approaches, I cancel one. )
He was tired on Sunday from the trip, but sounded upbeat on Monday and was turning away visitors. He’d been away from California for about a month. Friends and relatives a were lining up to see him (“one last time” was the implicit modifier). And he really didn’t like that. He also told mom that I “really shouldn’t come rushing out to watch [him] die.”
Some of our friends and family are offended by this. Some are not. He doesn’t care what they think. He finds the “last” visits to be so painful and vacuous. One relative was going away on Wednesday for a week and wanted to come over and say goodbye. She didn’t.
When my daughter came over last week, there were no heavy questions or long pauses reminiscing about poignant moments in years past. She knew what he wanted – and perhaps that’s because it’s what she wanted too. Just to be together. Enjoy each other. No pressure to make it anything other than what it is. She loves games – so she brought one called trains that is easy to learn, yet requires a good strategy to win. Dad won. Then it was bedtime.
From 3000 miles away, it sounded like this week wasn’t so much fun. “Going for a walk” now meant only a few hundred feet. “Nap time” was getting longer and longer.
I struggled with what to do. Stay home? Go? When? I didn’t want to be like “one of them” – who would threaten to descend on dad – leaning forward – savoring the last visit. Yet I also felt compelled to ignore his request to stay away. Yesterday, I decided that I would go today. I told him that I was coming out for work – not just to see him. “That’s great. I look forward to seeing you.” He seemed relieved. Should I have decided sooner?
And then he called me at 1 AM. I saw his number on caller ID and worried that it was mom – calling me about some urgent event. I was still awake – finishing desk work and packing. He seemed not to know what time it was. He described his day – which sucked. “One of my worst.” His speech was slurred, and he was confused. he had awakened at about 4 AM the previous night shaking uncontrollably. Mom had reported that he was shivering, but dad’s description didn’t include a cold sensation. “My muscles are contracting uncontrollably and I have back pain like I did in March. It’s definitely the neurotoxicity from the chemotherapy I got last Summer.” He explained in the detail the mechanism of the neurotoxicity, which medications caused it, how his physicians downplayed the likelihood that it would happen – and the severity of the symptoms. “And that Dr K .. wow .. he didn’t have time to listen to me. He was always talking. Never listening. I’m glad we fired him and moved to Dr. S.” Yes. Dad is angry at doctors. Most of them don’t listen.
I listened to him for about 20 minutes – verbally nodding on occasion – until he declared that he was “talked out.” He was slurring his speech, but speaking rapidly – and with a sense of urgency I hadn’t heard from him in – well – months – since the last time his calcium level was high. That time, we rushed him to the hospital and he was back to normal within 12 hours.
He knew who he was. He knew who I was. He knew when he was. But he wasn’t really himself. His anger at the oncologists was palpable – and bubbling to the top. I had a sense that this is the monologue always running in that mind of this – and it’s so rarely allowed to escape.
Peace has eluded him for so long. I had a flash of a memory from 40 years ago when my grandfather – his dad – reflected to me that the only time he found true peace was at night – as he got into bed – reading the newspaper before he went to sleep. I have an image of this – his big feet protruding beyond the covers – and the San Francisco examiner – which was published in the afternoon – spread open in front of his massive bald head – with big Dick Tracy glasses perched on his nose. It’s possible that I never really witnessed such an event; this image was concocted from his narrative. Yet it remains an image of peace to me. Dad seems to find peace in writing, and teaching, and learning. He read the New Yorker last weekend cover to cover, and then re-told the details of the nonfiction articles to me.
So now I’m in flight – half way to California. I called my sister and asked her to stay with them last night after he called me. She’d glad she did. He fell once trying to get back into bed after going pee. He thought she was mom helping him back into bed. She didn’t correct him. I’ll take over when I land.
Here goes …