Sunday, December 17, 2006

Blue Christmas

Well, it’s coming up two years on Dad’s passing. I wouldn’t say things have gotten better so much as one learns that kids are meant to outlive their parents. It’s one of those levels in life you have to get pushed through, something nobody wants to do. Like getting your ass kicked. Just bad shit that happens to you, and you decide how you’re going to handle it.
Christmas has grown pretty subdued since then, mainly because it's Mom’s wish that everyone lay low for the holiday. And rather than force the issue, it makes more sense to follow her lead. About the one insistence I have, and ditto Brother J, is that we have a full turkey dinner, which both of us are capable of making, but we got Mom back into the groove last year after handling the duties while Dad was in the hospital. Come hell or high water, that turkey dinner is happening. Fuck the presents – that’s the one thing that will always make sense to me.
I guess things are better, because it doesn’t get much worse emotionally than getting slammed with that sort of shit full-on. I had come home a few days early that Christmas, for no other reason than I could. Late summer, Dad had been diagnosed with esophogeal cancer in a later stage of development. All that year, he had been losing weight -- and actually looking great -- but after a few months, it became obvious to Mom that the reason for this was because Dad was having trouble swallowing food, and she finally hounded him into seeing a doctor, when we learned this.
In September, Dad was given the opportunity to have the cancerous tumor attached to where the esophagus meets the stomach removed, but for whatever reason, he listened to the majority opinion of his crack team of asshole physicians, and he decided not to -- which might have saved his life, although who knows what his health would have been like after that operation. I was never that hot on doctors before this; now I despise them and will see one, or go to a hospital, only if absolutely necessary. This is what killed Dad? Well, we all die of something, and I can't help but thinking that when people get old and reach the end of their mortail coil, the name of the game with the medical profession is getting as much money as possible out of the patient. I didn't think this before -- I think it now. In the old days, people just dropped dead. Now, they hang around for years in a state of constant decline, while the medical profession hits them up for a steady stream of income. If you had told me this a few years ago, I'd have called you cynical. Now that I've seen it in action, I believe this completely and accept it as an unfortunate truth that no one in the medical profession would openly admit.
Just before Christmas, Dad had been in the hospital about a week, after having a fitful December. He had been in for a few days, starting Thanksgiving afternoon, got a little better, came back home for about two weeks, then started tailing off as what would eventually be identified as pneumonia was kicking in. I don’t think anyone knew how to gauge the situation – doctors, family members, anyone. Probably a lot of denial going on, too. Next time I know when things get hazy like this, that’s a sign to spend more time back home.
As it was, I got off the bus then got myself to the hospital after some lunch. Court rooms and hospitals: two places I want to spend as little time as possible. Doctors and lawyers: two kinds of people I want to deal with as little as possible. All of them make my skin crawl. The smell of those places, the attitudes, the various levels of tension you can feel oozing from each passing room. Just bad news.
And seeing him was quite a blow. He had lost about 100 lbs. or so, was gaunt and thin in a very bad way, looked like he had aged about 30 years since I last saw him a few weeks earlier. He had on an oxygen mask and was watching the History Channel – about the only normal thing going on. He was coherent, but was clearly so weak that getting out of bed wasn’t a possibility right then. And I can tell you – seeing the man that brought you into the world and raised you in this sort of condition is a knockout punch to your senses. Numbness is the reaction, not sorrow or weeping – you just don’t know what the fuck to make of it. If there's any emotion, it's anger at having to see someone you care about so weakened -- and you don't know who to get angry at.
We talked about the weather, Penn State football, how things were going in New York, etc. The usual stuff. Nothing dramatic. About the only dramatic thing was when I mentioned the bus ride back, he said, “You’ll have to get that ticket that takes you straight by the house. I don’t want your mother driving all the way up to Hazleton to get you.” Which was his way of saying he wasn’t going to be able to do that anymore, which had become a pleasant ritual for both of us over the past few years.
I was there for about an hour and figured I could do this every day while I was back there, assuming this was a bout of pneumonia he was going to beat, and I’d go back to New York two or three days after Christmas. I told Dad I’d be back tomorrow, he said, no, come back the day after, I think Mom and your sister will be here a lot tomorrow, we’ll have more time then. With that, I got up, and when I did, Dad stuck his left hand out and grabbed mine to shake hands.
Right there, he was saying goodbye, because we never shook hands. I gathered that he must have been worried about his situation if he was touching me like that, and it unnerved me, but I didn’t make a huge issue out of it and just left. Not having any experience with a parent who was deathly ill, I had no idea how long he had left, whether or not this was a scenario that would play out dozens of time over the next year, etc. This was all new to me, and I didn’t like it.
Next day passed, and nothing major happened. The following day was one of those strange off-season days in December – in the mid-60s and drizzly. I decided to head down to see Dad that morning, then do some shopping. I got down there mid-morning to find his room dark, with the door halfway closed. Not sure what that meant, but I walked in anyway.
Dad was asleep, naked, with his sheets kicked down around his knees. Again, a bit shocking to see him that thin. I pulled the covers back up over his chest, but made sure not to wake him. His breathing was labored, like a raspy snoring, but I could tell by the rhythm that it was regular, sounded like he was in a deep sleep. At this point, my mind played a very bad trick on me, that I thought Dad’s eyes were open, and they were black slits. What it really was: he had lost so much weight that his eye lashes now looked much bigger than they had when his face was more full. This is what I was seeing, and imaging this horrible vision of him with black eye sockets. I hung around a few minutes, realized there wasn’t much to do there, used his bathroom, took one last look to make sure everything was still cool, then left. No nurses were around – didn’t talk to anybody.
I went shopping at a local Walmart, picked up some DVDs, drove home – about an hour after I had last seen Dad. It was drizzling. As I got out of the car, my sister pulled by in her car with Mom in the passenger seat. Mom rolled down her window and said, “Your father just died. We’re going down there to take care of things.”
And I stood there with a look on my face that must have been something else. I had seen him sleeping about an hour ago. I couldn’t believe it.
“I saw him sleeping about an hour ago,” I said.
“Well, they called fifteen minutes ago. It just happened. Do you want to follow us down?”
“No. I’ll stay here in case anyone calls. Not much I can do anyway.”
“All right. See you later.”
And, so I went inside and chopped potatoes and celery for the turkey stuffing. Had to do something. This was the start of that hazy period of shock between his passing and the wake, lasting from that day, through the day of his wake. Those days floated by in a haze. Had some bad nightmares about the eyes that first night, really horrible dreams. I tried to do as much normal stuff as I could – that night, went out and had drinks with my friend George, who bought me a few free ones when he heard the news. (And knew where I was at as both his parents had already passed on.)
Mom learned that Dad had woken up that morning, told the doctor he was going to die that day, asked if he could get an extra dose of morphine to get some sleep, and told him not to alert the family, because they’d been through enough. He took the back door, which was his way, not to be a burden, or the center of attention in any way. And I can tell everyone weeping about my dad dying alone, bad news, folks, we all die alone, whether that room is packed with loved ones, or you’re all by yourself. Wherever you’re going, nobody’s going with you. I don’t think my life would be any better now if Dad had jolted awake while I was there and told me he was about to die. Gone is gone, and all I can suggest is that you get as squared away as possible with people who you sense are getting anywhere near that awful place. That’s all you can do. You’re not going to jam revelations and finality into those last few minutes – you’ll be dealing with this shit a long time afterwards, whatever does or doesn’t happen.
Like I said, the next few days were a haze. Thank God for our relatives from Virginia, my Dad’s sister and her two sons, who came up early to spend time with us. They always have a very relaxed, open quality to them, and the three of them coming up to comfort my Mom was a tremendous boost, and helped jolt all of us back into the reality that we had to deal with a wake and a funeral in short order.
I should also note here how great everyone was in the neighborhood, although we had to deal with a constantly ringing phone. (Hint: don't call people when someone in their family has just died. They're dealing with a lot of shit, and answering a phone every five minutes is a bad burden.) But all the neighbors came by at one point or another to offer food and condolences. The night of his passing, someone must have walked through our kitchen door, left a case of Yuengling Black & Tan, and left, totally unannounced and uncredited.
(On the other hand, the crack team of asshole physicans who had assembled to save my Dad's life ... not one of them acknowledged his passing in any way. No cards. No follow-up calls. Nothing. I've got nothing worthwhile to say about these people -- they were bad a their jobs, and their callous non-reaction to one of their patients passing on says it all for me. Just assholes making money at the expense of good people going through terrible times. If you are a doctor and reading this, and you do reach out to a family after a patient has passed on, I apologize. Otherwise, you can go fuck yourselves, and use the $100 bills you've stolen from your patients to wipe down. The only person from the medical profession who reached out was our family dentist! The only note we received from the doctors was on the day we buried Dad: a bill from the radiologist. Mom tore it up and refuses to pay it even now.)
I was expecting the wake to be a very bad time. It started off that way. They had Dad done up like The Scarlet Pimpernel – his face had way too much pancake make-up on it, and he just looked deeply unnatural and off. I’ve seen this before at other wakes and funerals, but it’s jarring with a family member, to have his body on open display in a living room while people come by to pray and offer respects. If Dad had been at his own wake, he would have took one look at himself, sighed, and left.
But I have to say, once people started arriving, I felt a sense of purpose I hadn’t in days, that I was glad and relieved to see friends of the family and relatives coming in, even some strangers to me, and that whole process had a very healing quality to it. I felt like a lost kid before that wake, but during that wake, I felt like I was getting some kind of grasp of what it would mean to go on without Dad, that I’d simply have to, and the best thing to do was absorb people’s sympathy and good thoughts, and keep moving forward. Something valuable learned – and that’s not regarding death alone, but everything in life. Seems like a simple thing to understand, but until something that harsh kicks open that door, sometimes it’s hard to see.
The funeral was the exact opposite of the day he died: a bitter cold, windy, sunny day. Everything in stark clarity as opposed to that murky weather in which Dad passed on. The weather suited the purpose of putting a loved one in the ground. So many odd little moments that day. The absolute worst was having Mom and the rest of us kids being the last people in the room at the funeral home to close the casket. Frankly, I wish I could have avoided the situation, but it was tradition. We all stood there looking like we’d been shot, because we had in a sense, and just before closing the casket, Mom let out a sob and touched Dad’s face for the last time. Whatever weird shit I’ve gone through in my life, very few things are going to affect me as much as that moment. This was all horrible shit to go through, but in that hard way death has, it seemed necessary. The priest had earlier said something to the effect of, “Living on after a loved one has passed is like walking alone through the desert” – and I thought, boy, truer words were never spoken. That’s exactly how I felt those few days.
We then drove to the cemetery on the hill in our hometown and went through the ceremony. The last time I had done this for a family member was with our grandmother, back when I was 17, a few days before my birthday in June, and I had no concept of what was really going on, or how adversely affected my father and his siblings must have been. There were so many people hovering around our house those few days, most of whom I didn’t know, that us kids (Grandma had lived with us) kept to the background. I recall sitting with my brothers at the top of the cemetery in our Sunday’s finest, with our shoes and socks off because it was so hot, sitting there as people arrived for the funeral and not wanting to participate. Kids have no concept of what death means, as well they shouldn’t. Afterwards, there were so many strangers around that Brother J and I got in the car, went to the mall, and saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, which helped clear us out a bit. I don’t remember a lot about that day, save that it was strange and disorienting more than sad, as we’d been watching our grandmother slowly fade out over the course of about five years after having a severe stroke.
Dad’s funeral went off without any issues, then we all went to the horrible Dutch Kitchen Diner for the post-funeral dinner. This is a minorly famous diner just off Interstate 81 in Frackville, PA that serves the worst fucking food I’ve ever had. Really, I don’t know who eats there regularly, but the place has been around for decades, so someone is. As with all bad places, I stuck with burger and fries, which were mediocre, at best. Everyone ate, and talked, and then we all parted, a few of the relatives coming by the house to say goodbye. The sense of relief after all this, to clear everyone out of the house on a sunny, cold-as-hell winter's day and have silence, was palpable – it felt good.
I hate to say it, but all these rituals, the wake, the funeral, the dinner, while I thought they were bullshit before this, now made perfect sense to me. They were rituals allowing people, step by step, to put death into some type of context in which one could say goodbye, seek comfort, grasp the finality of seeing someone who in a sense is no longer there, close the lid, and put the box in the ground. A very hard, black-and-white proposition, but when you pass through each step, it guides you in the right direction, that life has just shit on you, as it must, or at least as it should (our parents burying us would be a much worse deal), and that you have to piece together how you feel about this in pretty short order, accept it, pick it up, and keep moving. If you had any doubts about being a grown-up before something like this, this sweeps them all away.
What have I learned since then? Nothing concrete, just that sense of how to live, not to sweat little things, to only have people in your life who genuinely care about you, to value time over money (which I always did anyway). Money’s been tighter since then. About two months after that, my boss at the investment bank I was working at got canned. Things were left in a very vague position, so I pretty much threw in the towel and went back to temp and freelance work. I sure do miss that big money, but the pressure I’d have been under the rest of that year, on top of still feeling very raw over Dad’s passing, would have put me in a dark place emotionally, and I knew well enough not to go there. Life is like that. It’s pretty rare that you find everything you want in one neat little basket. One thing moves forward, another falls back, a few years later, those things reverse themselves, and you learn to roll along and not sweat it. Or at least that’s my take on it. If you want to sweat things, sweat away! But it’s all going to seem pointless when you watch one or both of your parents die. And I can only imagine how empty and senseless so many things are going to seem when it’s our turn to die.
Keep moving. That’s the main thing I took away from Dad’s passing. Take care of yourself physically – work out and eat right – because when you’re health goes, forget it, you’re truly fucked, nothing compares to losing your health. You lose your health, you've lost everything, over money, over love. It’s best to move with time, because that’s reality, it doesn’t stop, and when you try to stop it at important moments, to take it in, you’re not grasping any sort of truth so much as you’re either holding on to a good moment that won’t last, or pitying yourself. There’ll be enough pain and happiness coming up as you move along. Just keep moving the best you can until you stop. This is how I get through Christmas now that this unwanted weight has been added to it. That fucking turkey keeps me sane and alive, and you better believe I’m going to eat my fill.

3 comments:

Drooch said...

"Keep moving. That’s the main thing I took away from Dad’s passing. Take care of yourself physically – work out and eat right – because when you’re health goes, forget it, you’re truly fucked, nothing compares to losing your health."

And... don't forget to wear sunscreen.

Well done, Bill. I hope it'll be awhile before I need this advice, but I will definitely keep it in a safe place until then.

And I couldn't agree more with your assessment of the medical profession.

Lydia said...

"I've got nothing worthwhile to say about these people -- they were bad a their jobs, and their callous non-reaction to one of their patients passing on says it all for me."

I am a healthcare professional. My knee-jerk reaction was anger. Then, I became defensive. Now, I find myself examining my own behavior.

Like you, I keep moving the best I can. When those ER doors slide open and I leave the hospital, I try to clear the deck. I go home to my family and leave the events of the day behind. I keep moving. I return to work in the morning knowing that there are dozens of new patients to be cared for. I keep moving. I have convinced myself there is little time and even less energy to think about yesterday. Your post coaxed me to stop moving and to think ... is there another way, a better way to care for my patients, their families, and myself?

Thank you, Bill.

William S. Repsher said...

Glad I could help out, Lydia. All that I ask from my end, as the son of someone who entered a hospital to be treated for cancer and died of pneumonia, is that if the patient passes on, please, in some way acknowledge your regret to the family of that person. A card. A call. Whatever you can do. If you have an assistant, this is a job for that person. Anything. It should be a part of the job. As far as I'm concerned, after you leave the job, I would hope you can clear out your mind as best as possible. I don't expect any healthcare professionals to bear the weight of their patients' passings. But a simple show of sympathy would work wonders.