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?”

I nodded.

“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 moirĂ© 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.”

“Jesus.”

“Sorry.”

“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.

Bastard.

 

“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.

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QUENBY MOONE used to be a graphic designer who wrote once in a while. After her father came down with a touch of Stage IV prostate cancer, she became a writer who did graphic design once in a while.

She's written a book called Living in Twilight (no relation to vampires - unless dying of cancer is a part of Edward's story) in which her design skills came in handy, and includes some of her stories featured on The Nervous Breakdown.

33 responses to “Things Fall Apart”

  1. Gloria says:

    Wow, Quenby.

    I started reading this thinking we were going to be talking about an Achebe novel. I didn’t expect this, though I should have. Of course this is why you don’t post on here much these days. You’re so busy with…everything.

    This is beautiful and raw and so magnificently written.

    I’m sorry. And I admire you. You’re kind of a tough broad – though you’re obviously very human.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      It was a risk that occurred to me as well: “Everyone will think I’m ripping off Achebe, or Yeats,” which of course I am. No one title worked as well as “Things Fall Apart,” so that’s what it is, I guess. Achebe will just have to share!

      I almost wrote to you yesterday after your piece with Storm went live to say, “I’m here, I’m not gone, just very, very preoccupied!” but then I became occupied by some other thing and the letter fell by the wayside. Such is life. That’s the way it is right now.

      But thanks. I’m tough, but very, very human. Imminently fallible and always stumbling from one thing to the next. I’m lucky in many ways, but life is complicated right now; we’re all working through it together, which is another lucky break for me: I have people to stumble with.

      Thanks, Gloria. I’ll see you soon, I hope!

      • Gloria Harrison says:

        You can always call me and we can sit at The Pub at the End of the Universe and drink a beer and be goofy. I also have great porch manners. This is my boy-less week, so if you need a break, just holler.

  2. Zara Potts says:

    This is so very important, Quenby.

    These lives. These days. These moments. You write about them with such pure grace that it is devastating.
    The sadness in your words is palpable, but so is the acceptance. Your strength in dealing with the grief of now, and the grief that you know is still to come is incredibly brave and moving.

    I feel like I know a little bit about your dad through this piece. The cancer may be weakening him but these words and pictures of him that you write here make him as strong and vital and full of life and love as he has ever been. You are a gift. Your words are a gift. These moments are a gift, and I thank you with all my heart for sharing them with us.

    You are wonderful.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Thanks, Zara. It seems we all share only one thing and that’s dying (and being born, though we don’t remember it), and so humans write about it. Here I am doing the same. It’s both incredibly banal and incredibly poignant for everyone, which I think is one of its mysteries. It’s one of the mysteries for me, anyway! I deal with Dad and it’s plodding and methodical, with moments of incredible clarity and wit and weirdness. One of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had, though every one of us will go through it.

      Hopefully I don’t make it as dull as the dullest points, but don’t make it as wrenching as the hardest points either. That would be tough to swallow, either way!

      Thanks, zid. (Megan, will she kill me for that?)

  3. dwoz says:

    Have to just pile on here.

    It’s such a fine thing to read a bit of work that wrenches an involuntary emotion out of you.

    There’s a profound strength in what you’ve put here. Not so much the strength in the writing, but the strength of the writer. Huge.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Hopefully the strength of the writing exists, too! Otherwise I’m embarrassed about putting it up!

      Thanks, dwoz! We’re all just chipping away as we slip away, Dad’s just closer to the finish line. It’s remarkable for the commonality of experience, if nothing else.

  4. Irene Zion says:

    Quenby,

    When Dad is
    gone,

    when Dad is
    dead,

    he will have done
    beforehand
    what he wanted to do.

    He has tasks
    he needs to be
    completed
    so that he can be
    satisfied
    that
    each singular item
    is with the
    right
    singular person.

    It is good
    that he has this
    mission.
    It takes his mind
    away
    from the pain
    for a while,
    the physical pain
    and
    the psychic pain.
    He needs
    to do this
    and
    you all are required
    to help him.

    When Dad is
    gone,

    when Dad is
    dead,

    you will
    knowknowknowknow
    that you did
    everything
    you could do
    to make this
    horrible
    dreadful
    unthinkable time
    as palatable
    as it could be
    for the man who is
    your Dad.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      I read this when I was at Dad’s house, putting up a new artist’s desk for him with my brother. It’s so meaningful because we know, in every moment, the futility or romance or simple practicality of each gesture now. And we knowknowknowknow that while it’s complicated and sometimes painful, it’s what we do, because we’re family and we’re going through it–good, bad, indifferent.

      Thanks, Irene. As always, you’re like a second mom. Lenore better be okay with that, plus the other passel of kids you’ve managed to raise!

      • Gloria Harrison says:

        Will you be my mom, too, Irene? ‘Cause that would be way rad.

      • Irene Zion says:

        Quenby,

        Thank you for the honor.
        (Lenore, although 4th in line, always wanted to be an only child. She would tell me this as a small child. She’s learned to accept sharing me, though. We’re so close that she hates me half the time.)

        You are a good woman.
        Angels are all around you.

  5. Greg Olear says:

    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.

    This made me like him even more.

    Hang in there, Quenby. We’re sending you good vibes from back East.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Agreed. It’s a wonderful work to get to immersed in. I hope you do read it, Quenby. And peace. Peace. Through times like the black arm of a seemingly capricious storm,…peace.

      • Quenby Moone says:

        Peace is capricious too, Uche!

        Love, and yes. Ulysses will be on the shelf for a while until I have to remember him and then I will pull it out because Dad loves it. Maybe I’ve been saving it for that.

        Or maybe not, but it’s in the stack.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Chief, I knew one thing when I decided to put this up. “Greg is gonna note the Ulysses.” And so you have!

      I feel the vibes, and give your fam a squeeze for me. You guys are here on my patio right now, as a matter of fact.

  6. Hi Q,

    I have to think about this for a while and compose myself, once again, before I’m fit to comment. These pieces tear me up.

    Hang in there. I’ll be back.

  7. Richard Cox says:

    I’m sorry about your father, Quenby. You write so beautifully about him and your connection to him and the way you relate to your family through the ordeal. How they relate to you and to him and try to make sense of things. Or just get through it.

    When I read your pieces I always feel like I am getting the bald truth, as if I have a direct connection to your mind. Like your feelings are not being colored by the writing at all. I hope you take that as a compliment. It’s meant as one.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      There’s very little varnish in what I write–which might make me a bit of a bumpkin, but I don’t know any other way to write! If I try to write in other ways, I often gasp with my awkward constructions and sad little attempts at metaphor; but if I just let it go, it may not be polished, it’s not Tolstoy, but it’s always real.

      So yes, I know what you’re saying and I’m not offended. Thanks, Richard. For one who feels a little strange about writing with a “direct connection to my mind” I’m glad when other people respond to it. It could be much different. You could be writing me hate mail about now!

      Thanks, Richard. Wish I could have tucked myself in the trunk with Simon and Zara for a little TNB meeting in the Midwest!

  8. Matt says:

    I read this when it went live earlier today, and couldn’t comment at the time. I was just too shaken up.

    This an extremely sad piece, and yet there is so much courage in it. Yours, of course, but also your father’s; it’s the rare human being who can face this kind of illness with so much humor and grace.

    The kind of person I wish I’d had as a parent.

  9. These stories you write about your father are moving and brilliant in equal measure. It must be so difficult to write them, but you’ll be glad you did. They truly are special.

  10. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    I want to say something but…. Just but. I can’t say “I understand” because everyone’s path is different, even when parallel. But I can appreciate. Your and your father’s strength and character, your family’s anguish and laughter, the hard choices to make, the harder times when the choices are beyond you. And, for what it’s worth, you and your dad should both know how easy it is for a complete outsider to see the living success story of your mutual love.

    Beautiful piece, Q. Please know I’m thinking of you and yours.

  11. Joe Daly says:

    Quenby, what a tremendous piece.

    Thanks for sharing the emotions with such deep sincerity. The careful and compassionate approach your family all seem to take with each other is inspiring as too often, these are precisely those situations where fear trumps courtesy and people do and say things that might be out of character.

    I’m sorry that you’re going through so many challenges, but it’s clearly helpful to you that you’ve got a wonderful husband and family to lean on for support. Good vibes to your father- his optimism and energy seem to really carry him through his ordeal with acceptance and joy.

  12. Judy Prince says:

    Falling apart, shockingly, at an unlikely odd emotional trigger-point, is a blessing, though it may not be appreciated as such at the moment, QB. I’m glad you described your course of grieving so honestly and straightforwardly, with much sensitivity. It will help others.

  13. Erika Rae says:

    This was hard, for reasons I think you know. You wrote with such honesty, grace, and art. You do your father proud by these. The picking through the library…his art…the physical remnants of his life. It doesn’t get more powerful or visceral than that.

  14. Carol says:

    You and your writing are a gift of the highest order, Q. I love how your Dad speaks of “The Gift” and how those with the gift are required by Universal law to use it and pass it along. It would be a shame to do otherwise. You are on the right path .. walking through the shady valley of death. We are all walking beside you.
    In love,
    Carol

  15. Quenby says:

    Hey, all. Thanks for the comments, which mean a huge amount. Things are complicated now and changing rapidly, but the kind words have meant a huge amount not just to me but Dad who always reads anything and everything here.

    Thanks, all. You’re mensch, every last one of you.

  16. Simon Smithson says:

    Oh Quenby.

    I’m sorry I’m getting to this late; it got caught in the no-mans-land between the top of the front page and the middle, and I’ve only managed to find my way to it now.

    What I liked the most about you when we met in NY was your brightness and humor; we didn’t get the chance to talk much but straight away we were teasing each other, and by the sounds of it, that’s something you’ve inherited from your father – what a wonderful gift for him to give you; something of him you can keep along with books and paintings and the memory of a man thoughtful enough to chip away, as he slips away.

    Please know that I’m wishing him well from across the sea, as I am for you and your family during these hours. He sounds like a good man, and that’s always something to be cherished.

  17. […] a blog post ‘Things Fall Apart‘ by Quenby Moone comes this rather pleasing […]

  18. Marni Grossman says:

    It was so wonderful meeting you in person, Quenby. This was wonderful. Heartbreaking. It’s not really fair, is it?

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