Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Life and Death in Bradenton

I had taken the last week in August off, it being the only week during the summer that YFU didn't have full with summer school. (She had decided to take Geometry in the summer before high school so she wouldn't have to take it during high school. I had warned her that her classmates would likely be people who were taking it a second time as a result of having failed it, but she didn't care. She found the class ridiculously easy, and enjoyed spending time with people for whom academics are not a priority, so I guess it really was good education.) We spent a few days doing things locally, but I thought we had better take a trip to Florida to see my parents. My father had gone into a rehab facility for physical therapy and general care when my mother was no longer able to take care of him, and though he had sounded fully alert in the earlier part of the summer, two side trips from the nursing home to the hospital (one for a MRSA, the second for acute anemia and a possible UTI) had left him weak and occasionally delusional, though his mental faculties had returned whenever he'd been given a transfusion. His cancer, and its treatment, have taken erratic turns, and I worried that if we didn't go right then, we might not see him again.

We flew down Wednesday morning, picked up the rental car, and drove to my parents' house to say hello to my mother, then we headed over to the hospital, where he'd been for four or five days.

My father was barely recognizable; in fact, when I got to his room, I had to check the admissions bracelet on his wrist to be sure that the withered old man sleeping in the hospital bed was Dad. I had known for more than a year that he was dying, but what I had known before, I suddenly felt. It was the first acutely painful moment of a trip that was full of them.

As gently as I could, I woke him up, and he was very glad to see us, though it was a few minutes before he realized that YFU was there, even though I'd told him immediately. His nurse told us that he had recently had a Percocet and likely wouldn't be able to stay awake long. I sat next to his bed and talked to him and tried not to cry whenever he was awake. After about forty-five minutes, we got back in the rental car and returned to the house to see Mom.

My mother refuses to accept my father's illness, or at least his frailty. She gets angry when he doesn't answer the phone in his hospital room, and when I reminded her that he was too week even to feed himself, she says that he just isn't trying. Her short temper is difficult to accept, even when I think how much harder all this must be for her than it is for me. I only see my father a few times a year, and I'm devastated by his illness. She has spent the last sixty years with him, and who knows how she'll fare alone? YFU, on the other hand, seemed mostly unfazed by my father's frailty and ghostly appearance. But she never really knew the man I knew and probably can't understand how insubstantial a shadow of his former self he's become. It was not especially difficult for me when my grandparents died, and if I'm fortunate enough to have grandchildren, I reckon it won't be all that hard on them when I go.

By the time we returned to the house, it was nearly 6, and my mother had dinner ready. We were all tired, but it was a pleasant enough meal. I cleaned up the dishes afterward, and my mother went to answer email. YFU and I watched TV for a while and played with my mother's Shih Tzu. In the past, I have not especially appreciated the breed, as its appearance seems to bespeak a certain amount of fussiness not entirely unassociated with gay men. We were with my mother when she acquired this particular dog, as a puppy, and we had lobbied for Spike as a name. She had settled on Otis, which seemed like it would do nothing to counteract any fussy tendencies. Fortunately, however, Spike's hair had been cut short, giving him much less of a Shih Tzu look. He was also very friendly, especially with me. I found it comforting throughout our visit to play with a small animal.

My mother joined us and began to tell me about my aunt B., who is my mother's youngest sister. She lives alone in Orlando, having become estranged from her own children during her husband's final illness -- cancer, again -- last year. I do not understand the details, but apparently when he died, he managed to leave her without any funds or survivor's benefits, and now she is angry. I have not seen aunt B. in a number of years, but if memory serves, she was never very far from angry. My mother tells me that aunt B. has decided to take up Internet dating, in the hopes of finding men who will take her to dinner without demanding sex. Apparently, the endeavor is not going so well: her first date arrived at her house and suggested that they have sex first "to get it over with," and when my aunt demurred, he informed her that he had already taken a pill, to which she replied, "Then I guess you're going to be walking funny, and I'm going to laugh at you." To his credit, perhaps, he took her to dinner anyway, but she has not heard from him since. I suggest that -- personality not being my aunt's strongest suit -- she might want to loosen up on the dinner-only position, and my mother explains that my aunt is self-conscious about her body. I suggest leaving the lights off. My mother says that she'll pass the suggestion along, and it sounds like a joke but probably isn't.

Before going to bed, my mother tells me that my aunt N.'s first husband recently passed away. Cancer, again. I have not seen him in probably forty years, and the only memory I have of him is that in his and my aunt's house, he had pictures of himself in full Klan regalia. Apparently, he was very abusive towards my aunt, though only when he was drunk, so: all the time. My aunt N.'s second husband died ten years ago. I don't recall of what.

On Thursday morning, we sleep late, and when we get up, my mother has already gone to the hospital to visit Dad, so I take YFU out for a late breakfast. My mother returns from the hospital and makes some phone calls about getting my father -- who has received his transfusion and does not have a UTI -- back to the nursing home. Then she takes us to the cemetery where her and my father's ashes will sit after they're dead. It is a nice enough place, I suppose, though perhaps nicer when it's not August and there haven't been recent thunderstorms dumping inches of rain. There is still a lot of room for ashes and markers, but I suppose dying people are never really in short supply.

There are several receptacle/display options, including these sort of mini-wall crypts where, apparently, they drill a hole in the marble, put the ash container and ashes in, and then cover the hole over with a plaque. And perhaps a marble plug under the plaque: I didn't think to ask about the particulars. The wall crypts are very efficient, being able to handle the ashes of perhaps one hundred or more people in something not much bigger than a modest-sized display at a trade show.

The ashes of my great aunt, who died this summer, and her two daughters, rest in or beneath a family bench, upon which is also carved the name and year of birth of my great uncle. He is a man of noted parsimony, and it is a bit surprising that he was willing to pay a separate engraving fee to have his own year of death engraved after the fact. Perhaps he has resigned himself to the notion that you can't take it with you, but I would have expected him to have a target date (perhaps 2030: he is only 85, and it is unlikely that either Jehovah or Lucifer is particularly eager to have him) engraved and and figure that it was close enough. Sadly, he will be the last of his family to die, and it is unlikely that many people will visit his family ashes bench after he passes -- unless it's to gloat, but who would bother?. My great aunt was an especially vibrant person, even well into her eighties, and even after the deaths of both her daughters. I think that as bad as it is to have a father dying, it must be far worse to lose a child. I suppose that must be the gold standard of grief, worse even than a messy divorce, which, in turn, is worse than losing a beloved parent. So far, anyway.

The interment bench strikes me as an odd choice: people stand at graves, they kneel at graves, and occasionally someone comes to dance on a grave, but who sits on a grave, let alone on the grave of an entire deceased family? The wall crypt is perhaps slightly less odd, but my mother seems a bit unsettled at the notion of not having any control over whom she's buried next to. There are a great many people (both individuals and types of people) whom my mother would deem objectionable in this regard, but she seems to care less and less about this sort of thing as time goes by. She does care about being cremated, however. I was a bit surprised at her choice (less so at my father's agreeing to it since he defers to her in almost everything, and he may feel fortunate that he's one of the few people she is willing to be interred next to; let us hope she doesn't change her mind), but she explained to me that it's because she doesn't want anything crawling in and out of her eye sockets after she's dead. I guess it isn't particularly surprising that people choose their personal disposal options based on what they fear least.

After the cemetery visit, I send YFU off shopping with Mom, so I can go see Dad by myself. He is, over all, a little more alert, but still very wilted. When I get there, he's sitting in his recliner, with his uneaten lunch on a tray in front of him. He isn't able to feed himself, so I feed him as much of his lunch as he can eat, which isn't all that much, really. We start with the lemon meringue pie because, well, why not? Helping him eat gives me something productive to do, which is good, but yet another reminder of his overall state of helplessness is hard to take. He wants to get back into his bed, and a nurse, a nurse's aide, and an orderly move him from his recliner and check the dressing on his back.

After they leave, I pull up a chair and sit next to him. What he likes most is having his hand held and his head stroked. He keeps saying, over and over, "That feels so good." He is so grateful. He has worked so hard for everything and has had much misfortune and pain in his life, but it takes so little to make him happy. I wish I were ever as good as he has always been.

He seems like he's falling asleep, and I want to do something else for him, and the only thing I can think of is a hymn. I'm too shaky to sing, but I hum a couple of verses of "Precious Lord," which -- aside from not being a hymn he's really used to -- makes me feel at first ridiculously self-conscious, but he is obviously appreciating it, and I am glad that I can do something, but it just gets harder and harder the longer I hum. It is not so good, strategically, to bring music into a situation when I'm already just barely holding back tears. Clearly, I can handle a little more emotional trauma if it makes Dad feel better, but when I get to the end of the second verse, he starts to speak, and I can tell he is about to tell me how good hearing the music makes him feel, and I know that I am about to dissolve into a puddle of saline when we are interrupted by the arrival of his urologist and the nurse.

My dad had seen the urologist (inappropriately, I couldn't help noticing how cute the doctor was; alas) just a few weeks before, but after examining my father, he is visibly affected by how much weaker Dad looks. I try not to think about his reaction. I sit with my father another fifteen minutes, stroking his head and hearing him say "That feels so good," until he falls asleep. I go out to the car and cry behind my sunglasses, thinking of the urologist's reaction. And everything else.

When I return to my parent's house, I am very unsettled, and I want the solace of wide open spaces, for which nothing is better than the sea. It is late in the day, and no one else wants to go, so I make the drive alone. The beach is nearly empty, and I find a parking space immediately after turning off the highway. I have not packed any beach-appropriate footwear, so I take off my trainers and socks and carry them with me as I walk in and out of the water.

I don't have much time, and I end up walking only two jetties down. Standing on the first jetty is a group of impossibly young and attractive men who appear to be university students from Germany. They are likely not thinking about death. I watch the birds and stop to pick up a shell fragment, then stand there, slowly sinking ankle deep into the sand as the waves move in and out. There is a nice breeze, and the sun is low, and it's the first time Florida hasn't seemed oppressively hot and damp.

I would have liked to stay there longer, but I reckon that while you can never get too much of the ocean -- if you lived there, being on the beach every day for hours would still be helpful -- it takes not very long to get just enough. In any case, I feel better. The expansive vast, the water, the birds, the sand, the people, they all merge together into something like the collective unconscious which is the closest thing I have to god. I am grateful to have it for comfort. And I am grateful that Dad gets comfort from a personal god.

Sadly, a personal god makes no sense to me in a context of monotheism. For that matter, it doesn't make any sense in a context of ordinary polytheism. I think it requires massive multitheism at a level even greater than the most massive of massive multiplayer role playing games, which is something that I shouldn't say, given that I don't really understand the whole MMORPG concept, let alone its scale, but I can really only get behind a personal god concept if I posit a personal god for each fundamental unit of the universe. And I don't mean a sort of typical animism, like "there is god in this rock," because while that's certainly among the best practical attempts at massive multitheism, it doesn't go nearly far enough. Sadly, I don't even know what the fundamental unit is. In the past, I suppose we might have posited a god for each atom and then a god for each proton, neutron, or electron, but I feel confident that we've gone further in and farther down, even though I don't know where we are now. Quarks? Strings? Something more detailed than that? I used to fear that my unwillingness and/or inability to keep up with happenings on the frontiers of science would be enough for the faculty of my undergraduate institution to pull my bachelor of science degree, but if that hasn't happened yet, it isn't likely to. Anyway, let's just say, for the sake of willful ignorance, that the fundamental unit is a string; in that case, I'm prepared to accept, if not exactly believe, that each string has its own personal deity. I have no idea how many strings are in, say, an atom of carbon, and an attempt to find out has left me a) with a headache and b) wondering whether the question is even meaningful, let alone answerable, but let's say the number is, well, a lot. So that the number of strings in a small stone would be, well, a whole lot. And for anything out of the ordinary, anything supernatural, anything divine to happen, you need consensus among the various deities associated with each string of each atom of that rock. This is, perhaps, similar to the concept of Brownian motion [you should discount all of this, or at least the specific terms, based on how little attention I actually paid during my Freshman physics classes] and the rather insane odds that if a physics professor standing in front of a classroom dropped a tennis ball, all (or enough) of the subatomic particles in the tennis ball would move up at the same time thereby counteracting gravity and causing the tennis ball to go up rather than down. I do not remember the odds, but I have seen physics lecturers write the odds on the blackboard and then drop a tennis ball. And it did, in fact, go up, but only after it fell and bounced, which, I am given to understand, is the result of simple mechanics, rather than Brownian motion. Anyway, if we posit massive multitheism, we have to go even farther and figure that the stone lying there on the beach will not throw itself unless we can get the deity of every string within the stone to agree to this action, and given the animosities that cannot help arising among absolute rulers of itty bitty kingdoms, the probability is quite low indeed. This would certainly explain inertia.

That evening, my mother wants to take us to dinner, so we get in the car and drive up Route 70 a couple of exits to the Anna Maria Oyster Bar. My mother fears that we might have trouble getting a table at 8:30 on a Friday night, but I tell her that since it is in fact a Thursday night, the point is probably moot. And, in fact, the restaurant is mostly empty.

Because I want to show my support for the local economy after the Deepwater Horizon incident, I order fried Gulf shrimp. I have not ordered fried shrimp in many years, since there are almost always more tempting items on a seafood menu, but I recall that when I was a child, we would often visit my grandparents in the Norfolk area, and many of these trips would include a stop at a restaurant whose name momentarily escapes me, and I invariably ordered fried shrimp, which seemed like the biggest treat in the world when I was ten. I mention this to my mother, and she tells me that the restaurant closed down many years ago, something I already knew because she we have had the same conversation before, more than once, though without the fried shrimp angle. When I visit my parents, I can sometimes go hours without hearing anything I haven't heard at least three times before. When I was younger, I found this annoying, but these days it's a little bit comforting.

My fried shrimp are very good, and completely free of any sort of petroleum product or taste, though they have clearly been cooked in oil of another sort. My mother also has the fried Gulf shrimp, which she can not finish. YFU struggles to choose between the popcorn shrimp and the garlic Alfredo until she realizes that the garlic Alfredo can be ordered with shrimp added. She enjoys the shrimp, but she does not much care for the Alfredo. I was surprised, as Alfredo is something that is very easy to get right, or at least right enough, but when I take a forkful of her entree, I realize that the sauce is really just a bechamel to which has been added some roasted garlic and half-hearted cheese. Fortunately, YFU is not one to whine over gustatory disappointments. I should be at least notionally outraged at the restaurants' playing bait-and-switch with Alfredo, but it is not something that I ever ate as a child, and there are more pressing matters demanding my worry.

Friday morning, we are greeted with the news that my father is being moved from the hospital back to the nursing home. He would rather be there than anywhere else at this time. A couple of months ago, he was ready to relocate to Texas to live with or at least near my sister, who would have been happy to have him, but he has given up on all that. As far as I can tell, he has pretty much given up on everything, which seems to me an entirely rational and reasonable response to the situation. A year ago he was in hospice care, and then he fought back with some chemo, and now I wonder whether he thinks the exercise was worthwhile, but of course I can't answer that. I already feel guilty enough because I don't think it was worthwhile; besides, I know he would say that it was. When he was better enough to be released from hospice, he credited God with healing him. I also know better than to say that God did rather an incomplete job of it. I am reminded of an interview I heard on NPR with a noted rabbi who had said that you can't really look at the universe without concluding that there are limits either to God's power or to his compassion. The rabbi felt that it was easier to believe that God was not omnipotent, but that belief is not an option for my father. I wonder whether he's troubled by God's lack of compassion. It is another thing that would be pointless to answer him. I want only for him to have peace, which he may have now and will certainly have soon.

There is some difficulty arranging the transport, so we have to wait until the afternoon to see him in the nursing home. My mother tells me that when, in her words, she gets to be too much trouble to handle, she wants us (her children) to put her somewhere where she isn't too much trouble. "Oh boy," I think to myself, "something else to look forward to." We're worried about making our flight on time, so we pack and put our luggage in the rental car before we head over to the nursing home.

When we get there, Dad is obviously happy to be back in his old room, and happy to see us, as well. We talk for a while, and various medical personnel come in to evaluate him and order him something to eat. My mother arrives a bit later and feeds him some of the fruit plate they've brought him. He likes the pineapple.

It is very crowded in the room -- I have to perch on a wheelchair -- and my mother's combination of solicitation and impatience is unsettling to me, but he seems not to notice it. We are there for not much more than an hour before it's time to leave to go back to the airport. It seems probable to me that I won't see him again, but I have already said everything that needed to be said back when I was sure that he could hear it, so I kiss him and tell him that I love him, and we say goodbye to Mom and leave the building.

Unfortunate weather had been our constant companion on this trip. Severe thunderstorms in Tampa had kept the plane grounded in Baltimore on Wednesday, and we were an hour late getting there. The rain had come down so hard during the drive to Mom's that I missed the exit. We had to wait for a slowing in the downpour to get out of the car at the hospital the first day, and when the rain finally let up, the humidity was crushing.

On Friday, the day seems fine, but as we got closer, on the long drive to the airport, the sky gets grayer, and there's lightning. The departures screen tells us the flight is still on time, but this turns out to be a lie. The plane has not even begun offloading its passengers from the previous flight when our scheduled departure time arrives. Once in the cabin, the pilot assures us that the weather is fine -- in Baltimore. And, indeed, most of the way there. Of course, the weather is always fine when you're above the clouds.

On the flight home, YFU reads Life of Pi, her summer reading assignment, which must be finished by Monday morning. She was reading it on the way down, while I slept and then read a few pages of Gravity's Rainbow, which had become my reading material for captive situations. I somehow left my copy on the southward flight when we deplaned. It's true I was a bit groggy, and anxious about the delay, but it's hard not to read more into my abandonment of Pynchon. How long will I keep trying? Surely I should just give up and read some Hardy instead. Thomas, that is, not the Boys.

Throughout the trip, I noticed frequently how mature YFU has become, both in looks and demeanor. My parents noticed it as well, my father exclaiming when she told him, on our first visit to the hospital, that she'd be starting high school in a few days. Seeing my dying father with my maturing daughter, and I thought of the ending of Metamorphosis:
While they amused themselves in this way, it struck Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, almost at the same moment, as they looked at their daughter, who was getting more animated all the time, how she had blossomed recently, in spite of all the troubles which had made her cheeks pale, into a beautiful and voluptuous young woman. Growing more silent and almost unconsciously understanding each other in their glances, they thought that the time was now at hand to seek out a good honest man for her. And it was something of a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of their journey their daughter stood up first and stretched her young body.

There is at least some sense of continuation to go along with the grief. Knowing this helps me bear what cannot help but be borne.

Inevitably, I think about the accelerating passage of time: no one knows where it goes. YFU is still young enough for a year to seem like a long time. I have known at least since college that time is a fugitive, but what I knew then, I feel now. My mother told me that my father wanted to live longer than his own father, who died a few months short of his own 78th birthday. My father's 79th birthday was today, so I suppose he succeeded, though it seems not to be the sort of thing that he'd care much about. My grandfather died nearly 30 years ago, and that seems like much longer ago than yesterday, but during the discussion of burial places, my mother mentioned that her mother had been dead a dozen years, and even though in the time since I've come out, gotten divorced, and had and lost a partner, it seems that there's hardly been time for a loaf of bread to go stale. YFU will be in and out of college before I know it. On the flight back, she leans her head on my shoulder while she reads, and -- yet again -- it's nearly more than I can bear; still, it's wonderful.


  1. I am sorry for you about it. I do hope it won't be too painful. Take care.

  2. That was almost as hard to read as it probably was to pen. I don't want to face what is an inevitability (unless I go first). Love your writing as usual and particularly this little bit:

    When I visit my parents, I can sometimes go hours without hearing anything I haven't heard at least three times before. When I was younger, I found this annoying, but these days it's a little bit comforting.

  3. I wrote a long comment and then deleted it. I'll just say "everything you wrote" and leave it at that.