Life continues its inexorable march forward, whether or not you’re ready for whatever it is coming next. After the suicides of my cousin and my oldest friend in each of the previous two years, I’d felt a subtle internal shift, maybe not quite seismic but close enough. Every personal loss extracts its price. I felt like I’d been raising my ante a little too often lately. I wanted a break, some time to reflect on the big questions, the big meanings of what life means. But January arrived, announcing its presence with a bout of chickenpox for our two year old. Poor guy. Poor tired Michael and me on feverish night duty for what seemed like weeks. The infection which crept into his lower eyelid left a blank hairless hole where his eyelashes should’ve been. As I mentioned, there are always prices to be paid.
Thankfully, most kids are resilient. Ours were. Winter was relatively ordinary following that bout of illness. Michael and I were gearing up for his second run for alderman in our city. After his two vote loss in 1985, we were ready to do a better job at turning out his supporters. Once again I was his campaign manager. I was determined to help him get that seat on the city council, even though that meant his time at home on certain evenings would be abbreviated. We had a new family photo taken for the election information leaflet, two kids instead of one for this latest round of politicking.
Since my parents were no longer caring for our son, they headed off to Las Vegas for a quick trip and then went on to California to visit my older sister and her family. I was glad they had a chance to get away. We were so busy with work, the kids and the campaign that we barely noticed their absence.
We pounded our way through the end of winter into early spring. Michael campaigned door-to-door as he had during his previous effort. We had a loyal core group of volunteers who helped distribute campaign literature, made phone calls and talked to their neighbors. By the time election day arrived on April 4th, our organization was running smoothly. This time Michael won by a significant margin which was truly satisfying after the debacle in 1985. Again I was at the courthouse during the vote tabulation and was thrilled by the outcome.
A few weeks later, Michael was sworn in at the city building for a four year term as council member. I brought the kids and my parents along with me to enjoy the event. I have to admit, a part of me was always mightily amused to watch Michael grow into his role as a public official. When we were younger, the idea of my revolutionary partner from the 1970’s and beyond assuming any role in government was inconceivable. Another example of life’s unpredictability.
I suppose unpredictability is the operative word in characterizing 1989. Only a few weeks after we’d gotten through the election and subsequent victory, my mom called me at work one morning to tell me she’d found a lump in her breast. Within days, a biopsy was scheduled. The initial pathology report identified cancer but my parents wanted corroboration from a second source. Her results were reviewed by a Mayo Clinic pathologist who confirmed the results. I went with my parents to meet my mom’s oncologist. Mom was a complex patient with a multitude of issues. The doctor felt that radiation and chemotherapy would be too difficult a treatment course for her. As the tumor seemed to have been confined to one area, everyone decided that a radical mastectomy was her best option, not an easy choice for any woman. My parents went out for a last fancy dinner and then on May 22nd, two days before my 38th birthday, mom had her surgery.
Mom recovered for a few days in the hospital and then came home. My dad was a squeamish guy so I went over a few times a day to change the drain bag left in place, intended to ensure there’d be no post-operative infection. Mom was accustomed to hospitals and surgeries so her experience was helpful at this time. Still, she had a lot of adjusting ahead of her as she tried to adapt to the shocking transformation of her body. She wasn’t a candidate for reconstruction either. When things finally felt stable with my folks, Michael and I packed up the kids and headed to Florida for a recuperative week. Although being with his parents was never totally relaxed or easy, we needed some downtime to recover from the intensity of the previous four months.
Our brief trip was helpful and restorative. I had no idea how important that respite would be until we arrived at our home airport. My dad came to fetch us. When he approached me, he quickly confided that he’d been seeing blood in his urine for several days. I froze in terror. A scant month had passed since my mom’s diagnosis and surgery. What was happening now? My dad had been the heart issues guy, who’d had two bypass surgeries, along with the fear that he’d die at an early age as had his father. He told me that he’d been experiencing pain in his chest that he thought was lung cancer. A heavy smoker his whole life, that was certainly a legitimate concern. He confessed that he’d felt the pain since the trip out west in February but hadn’t told anyone. Within days, the oncologist he now shared with my mom, had ordered a cystoscopy of his bladder. I’ll never forget the abrasive urologist who marched into the small room where I sat with my mom and my younger sister, who announced that my father had a severe and advanced case of the most intractable bladder cancer. When he saw the looks on our faces, he quickly said he was going to put a disclaimer on what he’d reported until his opinion was substantiated by a pathologist. A CAT scan of dad’s body showed that what he feared was lung cancer, was actually metastases from his bladder to his ribs and pelvis. He was scheduled to begin chemo immediately. I remember thinking that he’d looked exhausted in his photo from Las Vegas. I never expected anything this dire.
I still remember being with dad as he was preparing for his first chemo infusion. He was prone in a bed and full of bluster. As the drip started, he announced,”I’m going to beat this cancer the same way Grant took Richmond.” Inaccurate as that historical statement was, my dad’s bravado was just as false. His arm showed a dull red streak where the chemicals had burned his vein. He was rapidly undone by nausea, along with hair and appetite loss. After the first chemo round, the doctor ordered another scan which showed stable disease. She was puzzled by my dad’s rapid decline as the cancer had not advanced. The truth was, he didn’t have the tolerance for enduring this assault on his body. I don’t think he had enough practice at being degraded by treatments, unlike mom who bounced back regularly from difficult, embarrassing and appalling medical crises. He refused radiation treatments as a religious choice, stating that the directional marks on his body, intended to guide the rays, were just like tattoos prohibited by his Judaism. That was a big stretch, indicative to me that he wasn’t up for a prolonged siege with his disease. Wheeling him out of his doctor’s appointment, I sensed he had something to say. He sent my mom on a phony errand, turned to me and announced that he wouldn’t be taking any further treatment. He asked me to make his funeral arrangements, to be budget-conscious and to remember that graveside visits were useless. He said all interactions between loved ones should take place while people were above the ground, rather than after they were below it.
Dad and I had always been close but I was uncomfortable with his request. I affirmed that I’d do as he asked but I thought the asking was inappropriate. My mom was still alive. These decisions should have been made between the two of them. But she’d always been his baby. I thought about what it meant in football when the quarterback threw a lateral. That’s what dad did to me, sidearmed my mom to me. In the moment I simply did what he asked of me.
Life was still happening outside the cancer realm. Michael and I had hired a roofing contractor to replace our leaky roof. The guy we hired said his crew would have the job done in a week and that they’d begin after the 4th of July. Meanwhile, Michael, who’d spent years swinging a bat among his other athletic endeavors, was struggling with lower back pain that was escalating in intensity. He finally met with an orthopedic surgeon who ordered a CAT scan of his lumbar spine. The technician running the machine congratulated him for having the second-worst herniated disk that he’d ever seen. The doctor, who always offered a conservative approach as the first choice before surgery, advised bedrest and lots of painkillers. So began a three week stint of Michael tossing and turning in our bed, trying to find a comfortable position. I was soon running up and down the stairs, serving him meals in bed. Eventually I wound sleeping on the floor to avoid being in the path of my thrashing partner. Overhead, the roofers banged. The week passed, then two and three. Somehow I managed to keep the kids fed, clothed and alive. I went to work, at least sometimes. I ran to help my mom whenever she called, most often when dad, growing weaker, slipped and fell. By August, he needed hospitalization for dehydration. The roofers completed their job leaving our yard filled with Big Gulp cups they’d discarded, along with dangerous roofing nails and siding covered with tar splotches. I refused to pay the contractor until he came back to fix everything. The job took six weeks. Michael’s pain worsened. One morning I told him he was done with conservative treatment measures. I drove him to the ER from where the surgeon was called to schedule his operation for the next day. While we waited for his room to be ready we went to see my dad who hadn’t seen Michael in three weeks. When I wheeled Michael into dad’s room, Michael looked right at him and then looked past him to the next bed. Dad was unrecognizable to him.
I can still remember so many details from my dad’s birthday celebration that year. He was scared and miserable. My mom’s inexplicable ability to navigate trauma was never more on display than during that time. At one point my father was in my living room crying. My daughter, all of just under 8 years, walked up to him and asked why he was so sad. He told her he was crying because he was going to miss everyone and everything. She replied that he was right here, right now and that he should try to take as much pleasure as he could from the moment. Pretty practical and wise advice from a young kid.
The first day of school was the day after Michael’s surgery. With both he and my dad hospitalized, I thought I could drop my kids off at school and head to work for at least part of a day. School for my daughter was only a morning gathering but she was going to my neighbor’s house for the afternoon. I was relieved to be in my office, being a regular person instead of a frantic caregiver. That morning we had a powerful, violent thunderstorm with lots of lightning. As I sat at my desk, the phone rang, a scant hour and a half after I’d arrived. My neighbor was calling and her first admonition was to tell me to sit down. I was instantly terrified, thinking something dreadful had happened to my daughter. She said it wasn’t my daughter – it was my house. After the six week roofing and cleanup job, lightning had struck a huge tree on the parkway in front of our home, sending branches crashing through the new roof. I jumped in my car and sped home to see that lots of city employees had come around to see the destruction at the new alderman’s house.
I stood in the street, initially stunned but then breaking into guffaws of laughter. The symbolism of the moment wasn’t lost on me. As in the child’s fable Chicken Little, the sky was indeed falling. My job was to continue being strong enough to withstand the collapse. After staring at the tree for a few minutes I ran off to the hospital to tell Michael the news before anyone else contacted him. He was doing well. Anxious to set what his surgeon told him would be a record for the fastest post-surgical discharge, he was released the next day. Luckily for him, the doctor had removed two pieces of disk material which were floating freely in his spinal column, knocking into nerves, causing that horrific pain. He might’ve benefited from an extra day in the hospital as I would’ve, now running between him and my parents. But home he came.
I honestly don’t remember what we did to celebrate our daughter’s birthday in late August. I’m sure we had a cake along with sending cupcakes to school. But my father’s decline had gotten to the point when hospice was required. Most of my time was spent making sure that everyone was stable including me. So many small memories from that time come rolling out of my brain. My usual hostility. I argued frequently with the hospice visitors who were mostly volunteers, their own ideas and expectations informing what they did. My dad was a shy person who suddenly had strangers in his bedroom, trying to shave and wash him. One time a person shaved off his mustache which he’d had all his adult life. They weren’t particularly observant of their patient. Ironically it grew back. They also were constantly questioning my weak and confused father about how he felt, trying to get him to rank his feelings on a scale of one to ten. Preposterous. I wouldn’t let them continue that practice. We encouraged them to keep their religious beliefs to themselves. So many side issues. Dad was fading. He couldn’t make himself eat. He loved a banana bread I often baked so I tried that option. We cut the bread into tiny cubes which he called cake. He didn’t eat enough to support a small animal. We began bringing the kids to visit him every day. One evening my daughter crawled into his lap for snuggling. He managed to say a few lines from the emotionally charged kids’ book “Love You Forever.” We all cried. Watching my toddler trying to get grandpa out of his bed, back into the flow of life was sad. My son would grab his special yellow Tupperware cup and bring it to dad, asking him to fill it with soda, his favorite treat. When my dad was unresponsive, the little guy was so puzzled and unhappy. Those were challenging days.
By mid-September, when it was clear that dad was winding down, my older sister arrived to join my mom, my younger sister and me in sharing 24 hour shifts. We had a hospital bed in a spare room which also had a couch. By Friday night, September 22nd, dad was more unconscious than awake. His last food was a banana sliced into sour cream. The last deliberate move he made was to flick my mom’s hair away from her eyes as she sat next to him on the bed. He was catheterized so he no longer needed to get out of bed. We kept him comfortable, doing the awful job of administering medications by mouth syringe and suppositories. By Sunday, the 24th, he was in the dreadful death rattle breathing which is so awful to witness. Mom wanted to have him admitted to the hospital but I convinced her that dad wanted to stay home. She and my sisters went out for awhile but I stayed, continuing to talk to him in case he could still hear me. That night, the breathing eased and slowed. He died on the morning of September 25th. All of us had our hands on his body when he died. My mom pronounced in a solemn voice, “ your father just drew his last breath.” Then he breathed one more time. We all laughed, levity and sorrow mixed together in the jumble of emotions. Michael, who was doing well enough to deal with the kids, came to sit with us until the funeral home came to collect dad’s body. Before that happened, I walked to the back room where the hospice people were preparing him for transport. I saw him flopping like a rag doll and backed away. One of those events you can never unsee.
The weather was beautiful on the day of dad’s funeral. Family and friends were gathering. After a graveside service we’d have a shiva. I drove to a bakery to pick up some food, marveling at joggers and bicyclists out enjoying themselves while my family and I were experiencing profound grief. At the funeral, we employed the traditions dad would have wanted, although we were given black ribbons to cut instead of “rending our garments.” My son brought his toy dinosaurs with him and the juxtaposition of his playing with them on the somber day was another reminder of “life goes on.” When everyone went home, our little family here was left with the task of adapting to our new reality.
October arrived bringing another Halloween. Our son was Superman that year. I have nothing to remind me of our daughter’s costume, although one memory of her as a harried old woman in a bathrobe, white wig holding a rolled-up newspaper comes into my head. Back then, I started talking about having my mother come to live with us and even got an architect friend to draw up a blueprint for an addition to our house. Mom surprised us by saying she wanted to live on her own. She’d always been with her parents or my dad. Her never having a driver’s license would become a problem for the next twenty-five years. She did get a state ID and a bus pass which she used into her early 70’s. A time fraught with trying to establish boundaries and definitions of who was in charge of whom, I had no idea of how complex our dynamics would become.
H turned three in early November. Never a great sleeper, he was up and down constantly in the nights. He wound up dragging his bedding next to my bed and sleeping on the floor in our room. I was truly frustrated about not having any way to explain the abrupt disappearance of my dad to this little kid. Of course I was trying to explain a lot of complex thoughts and emotions to myself. Did bad things always happen in three’s? Surely an old superstition, but to have three hugely significant deaths in three consecutive years? Plus my mom’s cancer, Michael’s back surgery and the crashing tree within such an abbreviated time frame? I hoped “threes” were the limit for awhile.
The year wound down. Somehow in the midst of everything, E had a soccer season and H was in day care with kids who’d become his friends for life. Michael was quickly becoming an adept politician. I was negotiating a new life with my mom as a widow and without my dad. I was glad to stay away from too much thought about the future. I had plenty to figure out about my past and present.