Second Movement: The Death
“I am so Goddamn proud of my family and I love them very much. We all have a need to love and we can’t be saved without love.” These are the words of my father who died on August 28 at 8:10 pm. His words have become my credo – truth in its purest form.
My father was a raging, charming, playful, brutal, brilliant alcoholic. I have come to understand that there is no way I would be who I am without him and this is beyond genetic. There’s plenty of stories to share about how bad it was. My mother was his drinking buddy and together their passion and their pain was intense occasionally boiling over into physical altercations. One Christmas instead of Santa showing up it was the police. The mind goes numb.
As an adult I’ve probably spent a lifetime unpacking this and a lot of my behavior was about, not keeping the lid on, because I was used to extreme volatility, but trying to feel safe. At the same time, part of me loved the drama of it, but I needed to learn how to stand up for myself. The world was and is unpredictable. Chaotic at times. I both thrived in it and was consumed by it. Initially, my response was to try and be perfect, but that seemed to have little effect. My two brothers competed for being the most outlandish child. There was no room for me there. I began as a helpless little girl but graduated to a fighter.
My dad lived to be 91. We had a long time to clean up the mess – battle fatigue wears the soul but afterwards we sought redemption. I screamed at him and let him know in no uncertain terms that he couldn’t do that shit to me anymore. Everything vomited like a missile. He had to own his own shit and stop trying to blame his failures and limitations on me. One can only beat a dead horse so much.
Words have an impact. I had beaten him down as he had done to me, but is this the way to find power? And did that REALLY feel good? Revenge was better than chocolate cake, but then how long does that last after the last bite? Then, and only then, could I really start seeing him in a different light. Once we can remember our own parent’s history (my dad’s dad was a decorated war hero with a brutal streak…. he was a soldier’s solider and World War 1 was not enough, so he left his family for a second round (WW11) while his wife was in a sanitarium for tuberculosis leaving the kids farmed out to different family members. She died young, 47, and she was a pleasant drunk). When we understand the trauma of the past generations the only answer is to love “for we can’t be saved without love.”
And that’s what I did. I loved that man as much as was humanly possible. I brought him into my home knowing he could never survive or deal with living in a nursing home. Nursing homes are way stations to death. Before bringing him to New Orleans he had lived in an assisted living facility in Chicago and I would go and visit him most days, but his memory was slipping. And the response of the administration was to keep him stored away in his room.
Through it all, I was my dad’s advocate. It works for a short time. He actually sat at a table with three other men. My dad who had been so isolate happy (?) with his New Yorker, political books and NPR used to live in his red recliner suddenly had a social life and we even joked about finding him a girlfriend–how handsome he was with his fully head of white hair and “baby blue eyes.” But then he became more forgetful and disheveled. Who knew even old people discriminate against their own? I guess my dad reminded them of what might become of them and, like a cancer, they wanted no part of it. When one of the men at his table anonymously complained they didn’t want him at his table, they got rid of him. Dad acted like he didn’t mind eating alone (because they moved him not the guy who complained), but I cared.
I truly didn’t know if he just didn’t care or was too far gone to notice the petty politics going on. Shortly after that he fell and they used that as the reason for locking him up in his room (was it a coincidence that they started working on capital improvements-no i was not interested in donating- so that they could attracted younger and higher functions residents?) and they needed my father with his unkempt hair and stained shirt out of sight. His disappearing was good for business!
I protested. At an agency meeting to discuss my dad’s “care plan” I let them know this is not in my dad’s best interest. His only pleasure and social life was mealtime in the dining room. They reassured me that they weren’t charging me extra to have his meals brought up to his room and dementia patients need less stimulation. They were politely trying to tell me I was in denial about my dad’s condition and, if I didn’t like it, I could move him out (please!).
Eventually, that’s exactly what I did. My dad taught me how to handle paradox for so long I wanted the world to make sense. I needed people to be black or white, there was no room for contradictions or people changing their minds. It may have initially seemed the world was more complicated or confusing, but I learned in reality truth is always more nuanced and vibrant.
But both my parents, my dad in particular, taught me that everything is inside one person. We are “saints and sinners.” Shadow and light. No one is exempt. At the same time there is evil, and my dad once told my Pollyanna self to “make an enemy” and I’ve been doing that every day since especially as my dad’s advocate. And he told me all the time he was proud of me. But the little girl no longer needed to hear that. It wasn’t any more about approval it was something much deeper and fuller than that. I think after a lifetime of struggle we both learned something about unconditional love.
Remember I aint no “Pollyanna” and I don’t want to make this sound all sugar and sweet. After a year of living in an assisted living facilitate here, he fell again and they also wanted him gone. The weekend before he fell, he had been in his apt (I was out of town) and when I got back all his meals were stacked up uneaten. The staff simply brought them in and left them there. Not checking to see if they were eaten or to throw them out. My dad could have easily eaten rotten food.
My dad walked out into the dark and fell and cracked his head open on the sidewalk (anyone whose been to New Orleans knows just how easy this is to do day or night). They notified me the next morning and by the time I had arrive in the ER he already had nine staples in his skull, and I could take him home. What? They told me there was no medical reason to keep a 90-year-old overnight with blood still oozing out of his head? When I brought him back “home,” the staff told me he needed to go back to the hospital and could no longer live alone. He ended up in the VA hospital for close to a month.
This gave me time to figure out how I was going to have my dad live with. Fast forward a little more than a year. Like my brother, I watched him wither away, but he NEVER lost his personality. Sometimes he would be difficult and sometimes funny like when he negotiated with the VA caregiver who wanted to remove his shitty diapers. “What’s in it for me?” There were plenty of sweet MOMENTS like when my sister would call, and we would sing, and he would join in. I think in the end that was my favorite memory and how he would repeat my words “Sugar boo” when I would call for my dog or would repeat “rock and roll” when I told him it was time to reach the railing and pull himself on his side.
I understand (and don’t) why we put our loved ones in nursing homes. It’s brutal watching the decline inch by inch, step by step, moment by moment, it all ebbs away and suddenly the child is taking care of the parent and the parent has become the child. It’s not easy, but the bond my dad and I had isn’t something I can exactly explain.
Doesn’t memory give us our sense of humanity? My dad once said “love conquers all” and, at least in this case, it did. He danced with death for quite a while. In the end he still knew who I was if sometimes he called me his mother. It really didn’t matter because he was calling out for love and comfort and I gave that to him when I wasn’t yelling at him. Remember, he told me not to go all Pollyanna and so I have to tell you the truth. It was FUCKING hard and some days I wanted him gone and some days he wanted to be gone, but other days I couldn’t imagine not having him say “oh boy” when I would bring him a banana. I can hear him in my head now. It’s his voice I miss the most. Sometimes a demanding voice which I didn’t like, but mostly a voice that had learned so much about love despite his own trauma.
My dad was more intellectual than soldier and that never went over well with his father. His brother died at the age of 30 and he was much more than man’s man, that his dad wanted. When his brother died his wife said to my dad “why couldn’t it have been you.” I mean I get it he had to go before me (he’d already lost one child) and he was honestly a walking miracle (triple by-pass, heart attacking, carotid artery, diabetes, alcoholic, prostate cancer) but no matter how much time you have to prepare it doesn’t really matter.
He’d been having trouble swallowing in his final weeks. He would cough and sputter and choke and it wasn’t easy to watch. The pleasure of eating was becoming a time bomb. He was only eating soft foods and my neighbor had brought over cheesecake that, and blueberry yogurt, were the last things he ever ate.
Then it happened. Emergency. A fire fighter wanted to do CPR on a man who looked like a concentration camp survivor. My word was not good enough, so I started running around looking for my DNR paperwork. I called hospice back who eventually sent a text message showing he was a DNR. By law the firefighters have to do CPR and break his ribs unless I could show them the correct form. And don’t even get me started on the funeral home. That was WAY worse. To avoid any unnecessary trauma my sister and I had gone to a funeral home during an earlier visit. We thought we were prepared, but they have the “20-hour rule” which means don’t die on a Friday night.
If you die on a Friday night (and the don’t have “refrigeration” then they have to embalm you even if you tell them your father wants to be cremated and absolutely does not wish to be embalmed. And then they will expect you to pay for it. This insanity created a lot of insanity with my siblings because I was still my dad’s power of attorney and this little funeral home’s plan was a big fat no go. My brother wanted him incinerated as quickly as possible like burning him up would burn off a bunch of old shit and I wanted something resembling dignity.
But there is no dignity in the big business of death. None whatsoever. And, for the record, the ONLY time the VA is efficient is when they come looking for their money. Had my dad known they if he died on Aug 28th the VA would want their money back for the whole month of Aug he would have waited. Now I’m waiting to see if they can go into my bank acct and take the money back.
The only reason for this shit is it gave me a temporary distraction from the permanency of never hearing his voice and after the “you can keep his body” (after they embalmed him against his wishes) I had to let it start seeping in. It was so deeply off the entire ordeal (the hospice nurse arrived AFTER he died and interrupted me while I was telling my kids their granddad died because she needed me to witness the disposal of the morphine and she had to go!). After the storm it grew quiet…just me and my dad’s lifeless body. I picked up his hand which was warm and soft and I place it on my heart and then I took my hand and placed it on his heart and then it all poured out. The only noise in the room was me. And I honored my father with the deepest grief because where the love is deep the grief is wide.
And since that day I’ve been adjusting to life the way it sort of used to be where I can run out any time I want (with a mask on) and do what I want and only think about getting home for my dog. But it’s different– I don’t feel the overwhelming suffocation of the responsibility and I also can’t believe he’s gone.
I’m quite sure my dad has impacted the type of man I need. He has to be deep and flawed and real. I can’t take this swiping, superficial, let’s fuck bullshit. Nor can I take the greed and the bureaucracy and the self-indulgent BS. Not having him here means the world is less illuminated, less witty, less special and I really, really miss his voice.
“Jen Jen” that’s what he used to call me. No one else calls me that and no one will. I do take some comfort in knowing how deeply loved he felt by me and how deeply he loved me. Perhaps, part of his dance was he didn’t want to leave me. He knew how difficult it would be for me, but in the end, despite how much we want to be in control, death is the ultimate boss.