Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Age of Responsibility

This past weekend, we had some friends over for brunch to celebrate b&c's birthday. Under normal circumstances, I love to cook for friends, and I was having a great time planning the meal and doing some of the initial prep work right up until late Friday afternoon, when I was driving home from the office, and my mother told me that my father had been hospitalized with severe kidney failure.

It is not all that unusual for my father to be hospitalized. One of my earliest memories of him is visiting him in the hospital when he had his gall bladder removed: he was probably forty at the time. He was in his late fifties, I think, when he was climbing down from a roof where he'd been working on a commercial air conditioning unit, and the ladder slipped, trapping his leg between two of the rungs and giving him a severe compound fracture that he never fully recovered from, despite several surgeries and the application of bizarre and alarming appliances. It wasn't long after that when he had his first run-in with prostate cancer.

None of these, or many various other, ailments kept him from doing most of what he wanted or needed to do, or at least they didn't until he was well into his seventies. Over the last few years, though, the maladies have been more frequent, and he has been looking decidedly frail, at least physically. His spirit has never flagged, but that only makes the physical frailty all the more noticeable. After coming back from visiting my parents last December, just after Christmas, EFU figured that she didn't expect my father to make it to Christmas of 2009. She mentioned that in passing later, and I got very upset, though not with her. She was only seeing what I was unwilling to.

Anyway, despite the continual accumulation of bad news, I was still fairly optimistic after the initial call from my mother Friday. She was convinced that the situation was dire, but she always thinks that the situation is dire. My father, by contrast, always says that things are just fine, even when they obviously aren't. It's impossible for me to figure out which of them is right at any given time. Neither of them is purposefully misleading me or my siblings, but they inhabit entirely different universes. My mother very much resents my father's optimism and his ill health. During the initial bout with prostate cancer, I heard her tell another relative that the men on her side of the family dropped dead: they didn't have the bad form to linger or waste away. She seems to still feel that way, while simultaneously insisting that everything possible be done to make my father better. My mother has never been burdened by the hobgoblin of little minds.

Anyway, on Saturday morning, I called Dad in his hospital room, and he sounded better than usual, so I told myself that things were going to be just fine. But then I was on my way to Costco to do some shopping for the party, and I turned on This American Life just in time to hear Dan Savage read a story about the death of his mother and its affect on his faith. It was beautiful, funny, and touching, and it busted me up. That was when I realized that I wasn't convinced that things were going to be just fine. Worse, it was clear that I was due for a spell of fragility. I hate feeling fragile. Costco didn't help. There were many delays and hassles of an unimportant and uncharacteristic nature, so that a trip that should have taken no more than ninety minutes ended up taking just over three hours. Also: fragile.

But things still had to be accomplished. I had a birthday cake to make, I had cleaning to do, I had miles to go -- and a concert to attend -- before I could sleep. And the best palliative for fragility is keeping busy, so I got busy. Messes were made, cleaned, re-made, and re-cleaned. Ingredients were transformed into cake. Serving implements and flatware were inventoried. Shit happened. But then shit really happened. My mother called me to say that the exploratory surgery had revealed kidney blockage because the cancer had spread. The details were murky, but the upshot was that my father needed immediate surgery to drain the kidneys or death would be imminent. The procedure would buy him enough time for the cancer to kill him.

I was not prepared for the ferocity of anticipatory grief.

But no one is, right? Unless you're a character in a soap opera, you only live through the death of your father once, at most. I'd seen my father live through the death of his father, but I was in college at the time, so it was mostly from a distance. And, like me, Dad is usually not very public with his despair, so I reckon he probably just cried in the shower, or when driving alone, the way I have.

This is really not the appropriate setting to eulogize my father (who, after all, is not dead yet), but I will say that most people who've met him think that he's one of the kindest and best people they've ever met. He's also the poster child for Christianity. None of this news seems to bother him in the least. He went so far as to tell my sister that he had in mind a particular day in June when he would be "going home." And when I talk to him these days, he's always so grateful that he's not in pain and that his children are so concerned about him. The only two things that he really cares about are God and family, and by his own measures, he's had a wildly successful life.

My grandmothers were the same way. They died within a year of each other, both at the age of 89, and they both seemed downright eager to go. And I'm sure that level of acceptance made it somewhat easier for my parents and their siblings, but then again, maybe not. Knowing that someone's at peace when he or she dies is an intellectual band-aid on an emotional chest wound.

There wasn't a lot of time to process the news about my father. We had an 8:00 curtain to make, and we had to get dinner first, so there was only so much time I could spend sobbing in the shower before I had to dress and go. I was feeling a little bit better on the ride to the restaurant, but then my sister called me, and, well, conversations between two people who are trying desperately but mostly failing to keep it together are just not much fun. Besides, we had to discuss what was to be done.

The only silver lining of abject misery is that it keeps other problems out of mind. But it doesn't stay sufficiently intense (fortunately) for long, and then other matters start to crowd back in. There are many current and future problems to be dealt with. There are travel plans to be made. There is so much responsibility.

By my reckoning, Saturday evening was when my area of responsibility grew from one generation to two. I had to make arrangements to go down and visit my parents. There's an off chance that I've been getting bad information about the seriousness of my father's condition, so I need to find out for myself exactly how bad things are. And my sister wants me to let her know whether she needs to show up immediately or can wait a couple of weeks until her kids are out of school. But mostly, the trip is insurance that I get to see him again while he's still around and coherent. There is not really anything that remains unsaid between the two of us, but there are things that bear repeating, and there is comfort to be given and, perhaps, received.

The concert Saturday evening was Haydn's Creation, and it was magnificent. The soloists and the chorus were all splendid, and the orchestra never overshadowed them. There was a libretto, with an English translation next to the German text, included in the program, so I was able to keep my mind fully occupied by the performance, which was a much-needed relief. When we got home, I started working on the lime curd. I had used non-stick layer pans in making the cake, and I had forgotten to adjust the baking temperature downward to compensate for their darkness, so the cake was somewhat overcooked on the outside, but I knew I could compensate by splitting the layers (which I would have done in any case) and filling them with lime curd. I had in mind a dulce de leche buttercream to go between the middle two (of four, post-split) layers and to frost the cake.

I was really, really, really not in the mood to entertain the next day, but it was a responsibility that I'd agreed to, so I got up, went to the supermarket for a few last-minute items (I needed a shitload of birthday candles: I could not miss an opportunity to emphasize that b&c is considerably older than I), and then went into full-on cooking mode. Normally, fully engaged cooking is something that I love as much as I love singing, but in this case, it was just a good way to be too busy to worry about other things. The spread was very modest by my standards, but I still had to make the buttercream (I made up the recipe on the spot, and it was soooooo good.), fill and frost the cake, reheat the chick peas, make the garlic sauce for the chick peas, cut up the watermelon and strawberries for the red mimosas, cook the sausages, slice up the pineapple and more watermelon, slice the bread, set the table, adjust the seasoning, assemble and plate all the food, and fry the eggs.

I was still working when people arrived. The first four guests all gathered in the kitchen, right in my way. After saying "excuse me" for the eleventh time, I finally kicked them out (politely, I think) and made them take their mimosas to the living room. Nominally, I shooed them off so that I could finish the food, but I mostly just didn't want to deal with people. I was almost finished (the eggs had to be fried at the last minute so that the yolks would still be runny to provide a sauce for the chickpeas with spinach) cooking when the last group of guests arrived. They, also, took up residence in the kitchen, even though there were guests and plenty of room in the living room, so I kicked them out, too.

I managed to keep myself pretty busy for about the first forty-five minutes, but then I actually had to sit and talk to people. And this is something that I normally love to do, and these were all people that I like very much, but it was just awful. Fortunately, with ten people around, I didn't have to say very much, especially since many of those people really like to talk.

I was able to occupy myself for another ten minutes putting the candles on the cake and then lighting them, but then everyone gathered around the dining room table to eat the cake and talk more, and I just did my best not to be miserable. I considered excusing myself to do something in the kitchen and then sneaking upstairs to be alone, but I concluded that would be irresponsible. And rude. Still, when the brunch got into the fourth hour, it was all I could do not to stand up and say, "Will you people just leave, already?" But I didn't, and everyone left after about 3.5 hours, and I think everyone else had a good time. At least b&c had a good time, and that was the point.

And then it was time to pick YFU up. I had promised to take her to Florida to visit her grandparents, and I had hoped that it would be a happier occasion, but I still meant to take her with me, so I had to make arrangements with the ex. Then we came home, and we had her new computer to assemble. That took a while, and then I started to look into airfares, and that took a while. I talked to my father again, and he assured me that he was feeling better than he had in a long time. I reckon it was the painkillers and the fact that he's vaulted right to the acceptance part of dying. My mother made him retract the statement to my sister about having a date in June in mind, but I'm pretty sure he still thinks that. I suppose that all of our days are numbered, but most of us probably wouldn't be so chipper about figuring out that the number has only double digits.

Intellectually, I know that I should not be surprised at how overwhelming all of this has been for me, but visceral reactions cannot be fully anticipated or appreciated until they happen. I know, also intellectually, that grief abates over time, but this is the sort of grief that's certain to get worse before it gets better, and it already feels like my plate is full. But there is, of course, no option but to handle what must be handled. It's the way things are, it's the way things always have been, and it's the way things always will be. And it sucks.


  1. Sorry to hear about this, keep strong. You're in finance, so forgive me if you have this sorted already - but it's worth checking out your parent's bank accounts, etc, and exactly how their finances work, in order to protect your mother's position during the probate period.

    Even though my parents owned everything jointly, the interest on their capital account was paid directly into my father's current account. I had to get him to sign it over to my mother's account when he was on his deathbed. He was very reluctant to do this, but eventually we persuaded him: it was the last time he signed his signature, and it saved my mother a lot of legal hassle.

  2. Sorry about that. Take care.