Thursday, September 4, 2008

"It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch"

My dad trying to force my trifling-ass nephew's birthday gift on his head; early March, 2006

In less than a week's time, my family will mark the second anniversary of my father's death. He was 69 when he died on September 11, 2006; I was in Nashville, he was in Jackson, TN. He died alone in a room where he'd been taken to have tests administered. My mother and brother were in his hospital room a few stories above. Every time I visit Liz, I drive by that ugly ass hospital and think about it all, and sometimes I laugh bitterly.

The day of his death I was in training for the one and only job I had during my 8 months in Nashville, doing sales calls for a medical transcription company. The people were nice, but I am not a person who should have ever worked in sales, because I simply don't give a damn about selling things. Anyway, I'd had my cell phone off all day and when I got off work I had a voicemail from a friend, also from my hometown, who had heard that things had turned bad with Skip (that's my dad) and my family had been called to the hospital. I had no missed calls from my mother; she didn't know what to do at the time. I was 3 hours away; she didn't know that he was going to die. I didn't know what to do myself, after I spoke to her, I got more and more upset and wasn't sure about driving myself that far; I went to my best friend's house and sat waiting for her. I got a lot of mosquito bites, which I relished, because I thought I should be feeling some physical pain; things with Daddy were bad, and I wanted to feel on the outside the way I did on the inside.

Eventually I got a call from my sister-in-law that he was gone, and even if I'd left Nashville as soon as work had ended, I wouldn't have seen him alive again anyway. My mother has told me since that she is glad I did not see him that day, because he was (obviously) so deathly ill. She always adds that the last day I did see him, two days prior, he had been lucid enough to tell me goodbye, and asked later where I'd gone, and when she'd told him, responded with "Good, she doesn't need to be hanging around here with us old people, anyway."

My father had huge hands, and he could fix or build anything. Even after he retired, he worked pretty much morning to night every day outside, doing whatever was to be done that season. He tilled, planted, weeded the garden. He cut and hauled wood to keep the house warm. He built my mother furniture and bird feeders and whatever else she needed. 69 might seem old to some people, but my dad was so damned hardy and healthy; the nurses and interns at Vanderbilt never failed to mention his dark brown (farmer's) tan when he was being examined. He had an electric sense of humor, and when he was in a room, you couldn't help but pay attention to him, because he was so charismatic and funny. 

I got home and all my family was there. My dad was gone. I hugged everyone; somebody gave my mom a Xanax. Drug of choice for white Southern people dealing with loss. Everyone left and I sat at the computer to write his obituary for the newspaper. My mother went into the bathroom to shower, and a few minutes later I heard her wailing; an animalistic sound that came from low inside her and went on & on as she pounded on the wall. We hardly cried together during the course of his illness because we didn't want to admit to ourselves, to anyone else, that, all of a sudden, his life had an expiration date. The doctors never gave us a timeline. They never said, you have 6 months, 6 weeks, but as soon as he was diagnosed a cursory check of WebMD confirmed that the odds were against us. 

I lived at home with my parents that summer, from May until September; on June 1st, at Vanderbilt, they cut my daddy open and tried to remove the "very aggressive" tumor, as well as part of both his pancreas and small intestine (I think; my memories of organs have ran together in the past couple of years; could've been his stomach) in a surgery called the Whipple procedure. He was in the hospital for a month and when he came home, he had an open incision across his belly that had to be flushed and repacked and bandaged twice a day; a nurse did it in the morning and my mom did it at night. He had to try and heal from the inside out because he'd had complications when they'd initially sewn him up. My mom didn't think that she could do this until she started doing it, and then she did it every day like a champ. He couldn't eat until his intestinal track had had enough time to recover, so there was a tube, kind of like an IV, that ran into his shoulder and delivered him the nutrients that he needed to survive (straight into his heart, I believe; if that makes any sense). We had to hook him up to the bag every night, prime the pump, and let it run until morning. This went on for weeks, no food, no drink; just a bag of life potion disguised as a blue backpack that ran on batteries. He could however, have a wet swab to keep his mouth moist. 

I could go on an on about this horrific experience. I question why I am putting this up anyway; no one wants to read this; no one wants to think about my pain or the possibility that they themselves could experience something similar. But I think it's important that since I feel an urge to document this time in my life, I do so. Maybe I will not publish it. I don't want to try and make y'all respond to this, because there's nothing to say, nothing to do. "I remember, I remember," that is what I am saying to myself and to everyone else. 

I don't know how people cleave to religion after facing sickness and death. I wouldn't say that I had any faith to speak of when the whole mess started, but at the end of it, I was left certain that there was not a God, and in the off chance there was, I was really, really pissed off at It. If there was a God, assholes would get cancer and die. Racist fucks with venemous hearts, for example. Men who abuse their partners and children for shits & giggles. Not my dear, sweet Skip, who believed in ol' JC 'til the day he died, even having a vision of him while hopped up on pain meds and waiting to go into surgery. "Don't worry about me, y'all," he said to my tearful mother and I. "Don't worry about me, because you see who's right here next to me? Jesus." I appreciate the fact that my father was comforted by his strong, unquestioning faith, not afraid when walking through the valley of the shadow of death, only heartbroken to leave us all behind, but faith has not comforted my grief. I don't believe it has offered my mother any relief, either, although she sure has tried. I am ultimately mystified when people praise God in the face of great tragedy. It's obvious to me now that life is a series of random events that are sometimes terrible and sometimes wonderful, and it doesn't how much you talk to some invisible person, whatever's gonna happen's gonna happen. 

I think I'm done now. I wrote virtually nothing when I was living at home, but I do have a lone word document on my laptop that I wrote in the late summer; I'm going to close with a paragraph that I cherish because it is something I wrote about him while he was still with us. 
"Tonight I sat in the bedroom with him – I was going to check on him, he’d been in there laying down, hoping the hiccups would go away – and I held his hand, kissed him, hugged him, until we started to talk. He asked me if I knew what the doctor had said, and I gently reminded him I’d been there. You don’t know what to say a lot in times like these. We talked about how sometimes people lived for years with cancer. I didn’t say “But it’s already making you this sick, and that can’t be a good sign.” I didn’t say “I don’t want you to die,” which is what I think every time I’m in his presence. It seems selfish, and I know he knows anyway."

"It’s so quiet down here – if this is the end, shouldn’t we be talking and making sure we mark all this time with its true importance? Yet we cannot do that, because it would be admitting it might be the end, which is not something any of us want to say. Or feel. Or believe."

My lovely parents; Christmas 2005


theogeo said...

Oh, kiddo. This is an amazing post and I am so glad you wrote it. I got a little verklempt at work but I don't think anyone's paying any attention anyway.

Your father sounds like a damn fine man who didn't deserve the pain and suffering life handed him at the end.

He's no doubt proud of his baby girl, though, and her own electric sense of humor.

I'm here for you if you need me.

BetteDavisLies said...

I love you.

schmutzfynk said...

i don't know if love's the word, but the word that means there might maybe be love some day kind of like kindred so-and-so's but only as long as it doesn't creep you out. i 'that' you.


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