One of Dad’s oldest and dearest friends Betsy was visiting from New York when my brother Chris, my husband and I went to Dad’s house to do some chores for him. Dad had been persistently prodding her to go through his library in the basement, thousands and thousands of art books, literature, mythology, to sift through them and take what she wanted. He’s been nagging all of us to do the same. It’s the housekeeping of dying.
“I’m so glad you’re here today,” Bets said. “It’s really hard to be alone with all those books.”
She paused. “I mean, great, I’ll have all these books. I’ll find room, I have a big house, but what am I going to do with all these books?”
An expression of suffering graced Betsy as we talked, an expression many of us have worn in the last few days, faces crinkled with emotional fatigue, eyes cloudy but dammed by necessity. We look fragile, exposed, confused and scared. We’re watching our rock slowly tip toward the sea and we can’t fathom it.
“He really wants me to take the books?”
“So I take the books?”
“You take the books.”
This visit has been full of conversation and celebration. Dad has seen many close friends from out of town, and we’ve had lovely gatherings both large and small, but he’s fading into a haze of exhaustion and illness. And, in a bellwether of things to come, he took a plunge backwards and fell on his ass while coming down the stairs from his porch.
My brother was visibly shaken by the event, but Dad thought it was hilarious. “I felt like a turtle who had been flipped on his back!” he snickered.
We didn’t find it funny at all. Dad’s bones are compromised by the cancer, which has spread like tracks of a freight train through his ribs, shoulders, but most especially his hips, and the medicine he’s taken to combat the cancer also thins his bones. They are waging a war in tandem against his internal structure, and as his weakness becomes more profound we’ve been holding our breath for this very moment. A broken hip would be a disaster of epic proportions.
It’s also true that my brother and Betsy happened to be there to witness his fall, but Dad spends much of his time alone. If he hadn’t had company, if my brother hadn’t been there, Dad wouldn’t have had immediate help. And he probably wouldn’t tell us about the fall because he wouldn’t want us to worry, which we all know is absurd because after all, he’s dying. Things really can’t get a whole lot more dire than that.
Unless you break a hip.
Regardless, our pain was skimming very close to the surface this week while all of us, together and separately, struggled with the much more overt reality of Dad’s mortality.
Because Betsy was doing her reluctant duty sifting through the stacks, I was, by proximity, somewhat committed to doing the same. My brother had given me a gentle ultimatum the night before. “There are already gaps in the bookcases,” he said. “You don’t want to miss your chance.” Chris has been loaded down with every photography book Dad had, and Betsy was getting the guided tour through the philosophy and classics sections. Other friends had plundered different regions in the landscape of books, Dad hand-selecting many that spoke to his great affection for the people he imagined getting the most out of them.
“Betsy has picked some real gems out of his paintings, too. You want to get down there.”
I’ll be frank: I haven’t felt a pressing need. I don’t know why; I’m aware of the finite timeline which has been picking up speed in the last few months. But much of my time is spent with Dad, and when I’m not spending it in the car or in lobbies or exam rooms, I feel like I should spend it washing our clothes or picking up our neglected piles of detritus in our own house. Or writing, which happens less and less these days.
There are other more poignant, less practical reasons I haven’t made it a priority, which became clear as Dad stood in the center of the room using his cane as a pointer, suggesting certain books to Betsy and different books to me. It seems I have no criteria other than sentimental ones. I wandered toward modern art, pulled out a Roy Lichtenstein book and set it in my pile, as I remembered browsing through Lichtenstein as a child, amazed at the moiré dots of comic strips writ large. Maybe my son will be similarly fascinated. I pulled out James Joyce’s Ulysses and set it aside, a book I’ve never read despite its profound effect on my father. It’s the same copy I remember migrating through our house, shelf to shelf, to table, to shelf again, bound in blue cloth, worn gold lettering, no dust jacket. Dad read it so many times that he knows parts of it by heart; it lives in my pile now. Maybe I’ll read it.
I pulled out two massive art books: Da Vinci and Michelangelo. I set aside Mike because I pored over every sculpture as a child, amazed at the life he breathed into rock. Leo I pulled out because dammit, no-one else should have it. The book must weigh twenty pounds. Maybe my son will learn how to read Renaissance Italian backwards and learn to build proto-airships because we have this book.
My brother looked at my stack while passing through the basement. “Damn. You got the Da Vinci.”
I became confused, didn’t know why I picked it out other than that it seemed like someone should. “I thought Milo might learn how to build crazy contraptions,” I joked. “You can have it.”
“No, you. It’s fine.”
“You know where I live,” I said. “You can get it anytime.”
Betsy was deciding, based on my selections, whether or not she felt possessive of the things I had stacked. “I feel my cupidity coming on,” she admitted as she toddled over to where I stood, her own hips creaky with stiffness and metal. “What are you looking at over here?” she asked as she gazed over my shoulder.
Dad admonished her gently. “You wouldn’t be interested in that, Bets.” He shoved her toward another area. He was pale, circles under his eyes pronounced by the harsh fluorescent lights in the basement. The swelling in his face from the edema made him a doughy gray. He was unsteady, but unflinching in his desire to pass this torch, to get the job done. I moved a chair for him to the center of the room where he could choreograph our dance through the stacks of his life.
“If you’re going to take Finnegan’s Wake, Bets, you have to take the Key. It’s the only way to understand it.” He paused. “You should read it aloud. It makes no sense if you can’t hear the words,” he said.
“Maybe not this time,” Betsy sighed as she placed the book back in Joyce’s area. She grabbed a collection of shorter stories instead.
Unintentionally I found myself looking at the paintings Betsy had set aside and I felt my own cupidity rise. What if she took the one painting I wanted more than any other painting? What will I do without it? I had no criteria to work with there in the paintings, either. Dad hobbled behind me through the poorly lit areas where his artwork, hundreds of pieces, live in tidy stacks against the walls, a lifetime of work housed here: nudes, landscapes, abstracts, pieces from the Cleveland Painters Union, a fictional group of artists who together protested the NEA’s dictates about “pornography” versus “art;” Dad painted in six different styles for six different artists, even created a several hundred page dossier of correspondence and biographies for each character/artist and hosted a gallery exhibit of “their” work at his university, hiring a friend to play the part of Irene Varvel, a woman who created installation pieces. Now they live here, all his characters, his alter egos, in the basement.
I crisscrossed from stack to stack, pulling out his landscapes. The more austere ones of Colorado don’t speak to me the way the ones of his trips to France do, even though Colorado was my home for the first half of my forty years and I’ve never seen France the way Dad did. Maybe that’s why I like his paintings of France; they’re his alone.
I gravitated toward blue and lavender sunsets more than high sunlight. More lush foliage and dappled light than his stark, spare mountain scenes. Desert scenes less than water views, but more than Boulder environs, my home town, which is strange.
But then I stumbled across a painting of his art studio in Boulder, a silly ad hoc building covered by low shrubs and lilacs, cobbled together from found and recycled construction materials when I was just a baby. I was surprised at the force of my emotion, face to face with my home growing up. My backyard. I began to feel ill.
He was explaining the location of each landscape with vivid clarity, each trip frozen in moments through his eyes and hands. But the paintings I set aside for myself, including the one of his art studio, seemed random and unedited, a poorly curated exhibition of Dad’s work. Or maybe I was too distraught to see clearly.
“I feel seasick,” I said. “I have to stop.”
“Okay, I understand,” he said.
I made my way upstairs to help Chris, abandoned to his task of putting up a railing where Dad had fallen the day before; and my husband, abandoned to the task of fixing Dad’s irrigation before the heatwave hit and Dad’s garden, which he loves, withered. I stood on the porch when Chris walked up. “I think I’m falling apart,” I said, as a wave of grief struck me with the force of a cattle prod in the heart. He put his arm around me as I gasped a couple short hiccups of sadness.
And then I went to buy everyone lunch.
Dad was pleased. “We did some good work today,” he said. “It feels good, virtuous even.”
He was lucky. The rest of us felt like a train had hit us and then backed up to make sure we were really, truly damaged.
That night my brother and I sat on my patio, talking about our days with Dad. Mostly we laughed. We slapped away the mosquitoes, vicious this year because of the late, wet spring, but we refused to go inside. We pondered Dad’s businesslike attention to the minutiae of wrapping up his life. We told stories about him. We drank too much. Smoked too much too.
“We’ll have to have a thing for him back in Colorado when he dies,” I said. “A party. All his friends are back there.”
“It’s just that it didn’t occur to me,” he said. “Of course we will.”
I’ve lived face to face with Dad’s deterioration since the beginning; Chris is witness to peaks and valleys between visits. He sees Dad one month and he seems pretty good. Wait a couple months and it’s a changed landscape. He hasn’t had time to catch up, catch his breath. But the cancer isn’t waiting for Chris. It’s got its own internal schedule specific to no-one but Dad and itself.
Chris was devastated when he arrived last week. I called him the day before, just to give him a head’s up, let him know that Dad was in a different place than he was the last time he saw him, but it didn’t really help. I can tell Chris about Dad’s weakness, frailty. His puffiness and the heaviness in his legs, but it doesn’t matter. Dad’s voice on the phone is strong and full like old times.
And then you see this little old man, shrinking before you. No strength to pick up his legs when he climbs in the car. No color in his face except the purple rings under his eyes. Flaccid skin which never heals after he gets blood drawn, bruises now weeks and weeks old.
“I thought I had twenty more years,” Chris choked. “He had this ridiculous longevity in his family. I just assumed he was going to be around. I haven’t done all the things I wanted to do with him. I don’t have kids. My kids will never know him,” he gasped, raw grief ripping through him. “Bastard,” he laughed through his misery.
“Your experience is so different from mine,” Chris mused. “You see this part of him I don’t see, while he just keeps handing me this stuff that he wants me to have. ‘This vase…I’m not sure if it holds water. You’ll have to test it.’ But I don’t care about the vase; I just want to talk to him.”
“I’m a project coordinator for Dad,” I said. “It’s not terribly emotional a lot of the time. I make sure his doctors’ visits are scheduled, I take him to his appointments, we get his medicine together. I talk to doctors and nurses about his issues. I’m a taskmaster much of the time, which is fine with me,” I said. “But because we’re together so much of the time doing the most pressing things, he doesn’t really feel like telling me to get in the basement to sort through books like he does with everyone else.”
Dad’s obsession with getting everything sorted before he’s too weak drives my brother crazy. I can understand it; Chris just wants that time to talk, not make it about the shifting of material goods. But I understand Dad, too. He’s overseeing things to the very last extent he can–making sure that the most banal parts of his death do not bog us down when he finally takes his bow. He wants us to be able to grieve when he dies, not sift through books looking for their new home.
As with all things, it’s a dichotomy that sits better with some people than others. For Betsy, having Dad stand weakly in the middle of his library making observations about the literary merits of one book over another was a bitter chore. It’s casual for Dad, this housekeeping, though it signifies a conclusion many of us aren’t ready to accept. But Dad just chips away as he slips away.
I’ve been on cancer duty since my birthday last year, squiring Dad from Point A to Point B, making phone calls, parsing medical information, reading instructions about side effects and making decisions about how to run Dad’s medical life without too much fuss. It’s been a job with great perks: I hang out with Dad a lot. But like many jobs, it’s a detail oriented gig in which I don’t invest a huge amount of emotional weight. It’s not that I’ve segregated my emotional life, it’s that I do my job caring for Dad like any job: with a certain detachment.
The dam cracking was inevitable, and it happened in a most unfortunate venue: a sunny afternoon gathering with old friends over bottles of vinho verde. Some combination of the heat and the wine, and the week’s heavy emotional burden which accommodated not just my own grief but many of the people I love, conspired to create a perfect storm of emotional collapse. I fell apart before my friends eyes, much to the surprise of everyone, myself included. It was a complete dissolution of my being, into small pieces of confusion and sadness, bitter tears, and the admission that Dad was making his exit. I wept without restraint, and as I spoke about it, I cried harder. It was a shocking loss of control for a person who has made her way with a relatively calm dignity about this whole mess.
I walked outside, hoping I could at least stop myself from crying all afternoon.
I sat on the curb smoking a cigarette I had lit desperately off my friend’s stove, repeating myself and laughing at my impromptu spectacle between sobs that still choked from me. “Okay,” I said. “Okay.” I laughed. “Okay. Okay.” I pulled on the cigarette between repetitions of my meaningless mantra. “Okay,” I whispered. “Okay…okay.” Spurring myself to being okay, to being right again, to closing the gash spewing grief.
I lay down on the weedy parking strip under a beautiful tree, gazing through its branches, noting the gaps where golden afternoon light fell, forest dark greens and browns broken by bluest azure, yellow highlights bouncing playfully across the leaves.
It was a painting Dad might have crafted himself. Slowly I stopped repeating myself. I stopped crying. I put out the cigarette. I dusted myself off, a little shabby, face puffy with crying and heat, but not falling apart any longer.
I went inside, embarrassed but calm again, relatively speaking.
I had my husband drive me to Dad’s house after the party so I could share with him my thoughts, love, confusion, and personal suffering which rose up like a geyser out of nowhere. I never ate dinner but drank wine all night, so I was pretty loopy. I didn’t care. I sobbed on his shoulder about the choices we faced, none of them good ones: radiation or letting the cancer run its course; keeping the catheter or undergoing surgery; hospice care. Talking about our loss which is not here yet, but which I felt bitterly going through his paintings.
He listened just like my father always did. His voice is still strong though the rest falls apart. I fell apart, and like a bad flu I retched it up, some of it all over Dad, but now I feel whole again. Dad holding me, though we’re the ones who provide the balance now, since his legs are too frail to carry him.
And Dad, despite the weakness in his legs and the gaps in his library, has not tipped into the sea just yet.