When I was five or so my grandmother was burned nearly to death in a brushfire. Doctors told
the family that she probably wouldn't make it, and I've heard stories about how she looked and felt. None of those descriptions are pretty. I don't know that it affected her in any real way except for a few scars. A few years later she had a heart attack that laid her low. She gave up her chickens, but she still putzed around her yard, planting flowers everywhere, and even traveling to Israel and across the country. There were a few other scares that popped up now and then, but she always recovered - diminished a little each time, but she was here.
She finally had to leave her home at 99. I can't remember all the complications that put her in the hospital, but it had to do with sodium or sugar, and the family reluctantly let her move into a home. Almost immediately she ended up back in the ER and I will never forget walking into the room. She looked like she was gone. Her head was tilted back and her mouth was wide open. She could barely acknowledge me, but I sat next to her, held my tears in. A few minutes later she struggled to whisper, "I want to go."
How do you respond to that? Did she mean she wanted to die? That was a little hard to believe, and I didn't answer for a few seconds, but then quietly, I said, "Granny, you can do what you want. We love you."
She perked up, "I don't want to die," she said. "I want to go home."
I smiled and said, "Well then, get better."
She did. Not because of me, but because now that I think about it Death was waiting for her many times the last 30 years of her life, and each time the sweetest lady I've known stuck her finger in his eye and she said, "Not yet." She lived to be 101 and went the way she deserved - peacefully in her sleep. She might still be here if she hadn't taken that nap. Death would have been there and she would have told him to "git" like the stray cat that hung out on her back porch.*
A couple of months ago I got a call while I was in the shower. There are two people I always answer the phone for, mostly because they're the only two people who call me and that's my wife and my dad. This call was from dad and I looked at the transcription on my iPhone and I saw the word cancer. That's a breath taker and I listened to the message and I took a minute to collect myself before I called him back. He's probably one of the few people in the world who would leave a message that says, "Hey son, this is Pop. I have cancer. Call me back." It's sort of like Frank Costanza in the Seinfeld where Steinbrenner thinks George has disappeared.
I called him back and he answered the phone cheerfully as usual. I said something about his leaving a message about cancer on the phone and learned that his doctor had told him it was prostate cancer, but that it was slow moving. He told me that neither his heart nor his cancer would be the end of him. I took some comfort in that and hoped for the best while we waited a couple of months for his follow up appointment with a urologist. A few days after that, he was mowing grass and ran into a stick that cut his leg so badly he needed 16 stitches. He didn't notice at first that he'd cut himself so badly until he noticed that his mower deck looked like a small animal had been butchered on it.
This was not a big deal to me at first. I think my dad should be on his mower whenever and however he wants to do it. If he runs over himself I won't be happy, but I will be glad that he at least went out doing one of his favorite things in life - working. When it became a big deal is when it wouldn't heal and he got a blood infection. It seemed like no progress was being made and I worried that the worst would happen and that he'd have to lose a leg. I pictured him like Gus McRae lying in his bed with us begging him to cut it off. I never asked him about that, and we were probably a long way from that outcome, but I couldn't help but find it ironic that he said cancer wouldn't get him. For a couple of weeks I thought he might be right and that it'd be something stupid like his leg.
A couple of weeks ago we learned that his cancer was an aggressive form. It took a minute to process that because hadn't that asshole doctor** told us it was slow moving? What do you mean it has metastasized? What do you mean it might be in his bones? Why the hell did it take two months to get this appointment?
I went with him for his CT scans and biopsy. We had coffee while we waited at the VA between appointments and it was idle chit chat - the Dodgers, my stairs being refinished, my take on partisan politics especially in the state legislature (vote no on all the amendments by the way. He might tell you to vote yes).
I have never been a person who jumps to immediately answer the phone. I've always protested that notion because isn't what's happening in my presence more important than a phone call or text? The other side of that would argue that the person calling may have something important to say, but back to Costanza what are the odds this phone call constitutes an emergency?
So, a few days after the tests my phone rang in the other room and I didn't answer. Then a beep and I didn't go check, then another. Then Alison got a text from Dad's wife, Ginger, to call him. Not for a second did I think it was good news. I was right. In our conversation I heard prostate, abdomen, skull so maybe brain. Those are the only words I remember. I told Alison he had cancer in too many places to remember. Some of that was the hysteria of the moment and hearing only the worst. Still, the truth of it was that it wasn't a good diagnosis for him. In all of this I was steeling myself for the worst. Obviously, I don't want to lose my dad. The worst to me would be watching him waste away. Cancer is a bitch and that's what it does to people and I don't really have to tell anyone reading this about it because we've all seen what it does to adults and children. It's ravaging and merciless and leaves a wasted person behind. A shell of what they were, but the truth is death does that to us all, no matter how it comes.
My dad is country strong and that kind of strength doesn't exist in any broad sense. I think there are very few people anymore who grow up the way he did, milking cows, eating what you grow, making sure you have wood to heat. He was born during the depression so life was hard in a way most of us can't even imagine. I remember when I was a little boy getting him to let me feel his muscle and he'd flex and his bicep was a rock. He used to carry a few of us kids and a Christmas tree that we dug off of the mountain behind our house. A Christmas tree with a rootball. Cows would have their calves way up in the woods and in the middle of the night he would climb the steep mountain behind our house, throw the calf over his shoulders and bring it down. I could go on, but suffice it to say that he was an ox, and if and when he would call me Samson it would cause my chest to stick out just a little more. We were taught to grab it and growl.
I don't think of him as an 85 year old. I see him somewhat diminished, but still very vital. 85 doesn't seem old when it's your dad, but early last week I didn't think he could beat this.
We got some good news last Thursday. They had done another CT scan and there was no cancer in his brain or skull, and I'm not going to go into all the details, but the doctor even said he wouldn't recommend the surgery that dad is going to have Monday if he didn't think that it would provide a benefit to him and extend his life. In that moment I realized that my dad is like my grandmother.
Death came to him 11 years ago in West Virginia. His heart rate was at least 250 beats a minute and he didn't even get to a hospital for over an hour. Most people just fall over dead. It came again with the triple bypass, and again at the lip of the Grand Canyon when he was shocked six times by his defibrillator and airlifted to Flagstaff. Death may have been outside his door with the leg, and it sure has taken from him this year when he lost his brother Ralph and his dog*** of 15 years a few weeks ago. Unfortunately Steve Goodman is dead, but David Alan Coe told me he'd write the second perfect country and western song.
Before we went in to hear the prognosis and treatment options Dad said to me, "I dread this, son."
"I know," I said, and I started to do what I'd sworn all day I wouldn't do. I got choked up. I don't know if he saw, but that's my daddy, and I don't want to lose him. It's hard to see him vulnerable, but it's my job to be there when he is to stand with him, and I wouldn't be any place else. As I said, the recent diagnosis gave us a ray of hope, but I feel that he and his response would be the same. Either way, he'd take that finger and poke it in Death's chest and say, "Not yet."
*I told my grandmother several times that cat would go away if she stopped feeding it. She never did.
**the doctor may or may not in fact be an asshole. I'm sure he did everything right. Cancer is tricky, but the delay will always make him an asshole to me. Sorry to my doctor friends. I know it's a hard job.
***I wouldn't mention a dog normally, but if you saw the two together you'd just know...that was his buddy.