Death Takes a Spring Break
My dad died Saturday at age 68. He had lung cancer that spread fast, to his liver and, apparently, several sitcoms from ex-Seinfeld stars. He started smoking in the Army, quit for a while to race bicycles, then for 35 years smoked a pipe, which, after he had been diagnosed with a lung tumor the size of a softball, he admitted to inhaling the whole time.
I called home Tuesday just to chat. Turns out, Tuesday was the last day dad could talk. My mom said that the new clinical trial of some drug had made him very tired but he was recovering. Turns out both my parents were in some serious denial, which is the modern pejorative for hoping for the best. The doctors told him to go home and be comfortable for the next couple months. Then the visiting hospice nurse said “better change 'months' to 'weeks'.” Turns out, it was a matter of days. My sister Marla happened to be there only because she came up a week before Grandy’s (dad’s mom) 100th birthday to help with the party.
Marla told me dad didn’t look so hot. Mom stopped her from telling me to come home immediately; after all, I would be there Saturday for the party, and that would be soon enough. But he went downhill fast.
I had only called home to tell him how much fun we were
Beth, Jacqueline, and I drove up to Orcas Friday afternoon. Worst traffic ever. Her Jaguar's dash readout said our average speed up to Marysville was 15 mph. We went 80 the rest of the way, parked the car, and ran onto the ferry. Had we missed that ferry, I would not have seen dad alive again.
When I got there Friday night, dad was just hanging on. Mom thinks he was holding out till I got there. I like to think he could hear me talking, but he probably couldn't. No matter; we had been talking my whole life. He had lost a good 40 pounds, something he had been unable to do for the previous 30 years, so there is some upside to chemo. His hands were clenched into loose fists, the way brain-dead people do; maybe that's evolution's way of keeping you from falling out of the tree. My sister said she knew he was a goner Wednesday night because he slept through the night with no coughing fits. My mom thought that meant he was getting better, but my sister knew that meant he had lost his ability to cough.
He died that night. I came for a party, but ended up loading my dad's corpse into a minivan. I actually had to close his eyes, just like in the movies. I tried to close his mouth, but it was fixed like concrete. His jaw muscles got most of the exercise the past few years and, in rigor mortis, they were too strong for me. He was usually talking or eating anyway, so open-mouth was fine.
Dad was always dapper and didn't even like to wear T-shirts with logos because he thought it made people look like walking billboards. The funeral home guy covered him with this chintzy electric-blue fake-fur body cover that looked like it came off the bench seat of a stoner’s Camaro. It had the funeral home's name on the side. Fortunately, death takes with it the ability to be appalled.
I went over to Grandy's apartment to post the Party Cancelled sign and visit with her for a while. I felt bad for my mom, but I really felt bad for my grandmother. You're just not supposed to outlive your kids and she had just lost her only son. She knew he had cancer, but no one expected him to go so soon. She talked about starving herself to death. I urged her not to. Thank goodness 4-year-old Jacqueline was there; she can brighten the dimmest gloom. When I stopped in again later that day, Grandy was tucking in to a bowl of stew. You don’t live to be 100 without being tough.
As Beth and I were walking around town with Jacqueline in her party dress and fake-flower hair band, a lady asked Jacqueline why she was all dressed up. She said "We were going to go to Grandy's birthday party, but everyone's too sad because Poppa died. He stopped breathing."
That afternoon, I sat on the deck trying to get dad's watchband small enough to fit me. Mom gave it to me and wanted me to wear it, but after removing every removable link and adjusting the clasp to its tightest setting, it still rattled on my wrist like a bangle bracelet. I should have left it as is and worn it like a choker.
Everywhere I looked, there were dad’s unfinished projects. I suppose every life ends as an interruption. Dad and I had built the garage and shop together a few years earlier. That was such fun, even though he had dropped a roof truss on my head. He was a great guy to work with, never got mad, always laughing, even at his own screw-ups. He came down for a week or so to help me with some demolition and foundation work on my house. I'm glad we had that time together. We both like remodeling but have different approaches. He likes to sit at the drafting table and make architectural-quality plans. I make a sketch on graph paper, then reach for the Sawzall.
Dad remodeled every house we ever lived in. I grew up thinking that's what dad's do on weekends. It's why it has never bothered me that some part of my house is always torn up with power tools, sawdust, and wood scraps everywhere; that's what makes a house homey. If there’s no circular saw in the living room, you might as well be living at Motel 6. Dad even added a master bath to a house we were leasing; he just thought it needed one.
As my sister dropped us off at the ferry the next day, I asked her how long she'd be on the island. She said she had extended her leave from the Air Force and was staying another week. I said "Worst Spring break ever."
All-in-all, I still have to say it was a good death, as deaths go. Everybody goes too soon, but slipping away fast is vastly preferable to lingering in agony. He told mom he had had a good life and had only one regret: that he would miss seeing Jacqueline, his only grandchild, grow up.
He was proud of his children. He was a hard worker and was well-liked. It was hard not to like him. He would talk to anyone about anything. As a boy, I used to dread going along on Saturday errands because it would be hours before I got back home to play. Dad would talk to seemingly everyone he met: the clerk at the hardware store, the cashier at the hardware store, some guy in the aisle of the hardware store, some guy going into the hardware store,…
He loved fatty foods, especially fried. He once said “If you deep-fried dog doo, I’d probably eat it.” I have never seen another human being eat butter like dad. The butter-to-bread ratio could top 1-to-1 easily. In his later years, he eschewed all exercise; I once saw him drive a single flat city block on a sunny day rather than walk. Despite all this, his health was freakishly good: low cholesterol, low blood pressure, which irked my mom, who ate organic health foods and walked as much as she could, yet had a bad heart that often left her weak. We all just knew that dad would outlive mom: he was five years younger and his own mother was going strong at 100.
When he wasn’t remodeling, Dad liked to make things. He bought a sewing machine and made clothes, some for my mom. He carved wood, making a few pretty decent sculptures. He made toy catamarans for my sister and me. I made a sail for mine and actually sailed it in the ocean.
He loved sports cars. Paging through a book of classic sports cars one time, he said “had one of those… had one of those…drove one of those… had one of those…” He raced them as a young man and once beat Dan Gurney. If pressed, he would admit that everyone beat Dan that day because Gurney spun out early.
He also loved boats. When he wasn’t messing up the house, he was outside sanding and painting some boat. He spent at least a year rejuvenating an abused Star class racing boat when I was 12. The day came for the maiden voyage and he, my sister, and me set out from West Sound Marina. Mom didn’t come because a gale was blowing and mom had sense. That sailboat flew in that gale like the Miss Budweiser. It was leaned over way farther than I thought a sailboat was supposed or able to. My concerns about the desirability of aborting the voyage were impossible to convey to dad because my screams were no match for the shrieking wind, so my sister and I just looked at each other in fright while dad steered us across West Sound with a maniacal face-splitting grin. After covering the length of the sound in a minute, he decided that perhaps the wind was too strong and turned us around. As we approached the marina, too late did he see a thick mooring cable strung mid-mast high across the opening he was headed toward. We were going much too fast to stop. We dropped the sails and hoped for the best. I’ll never forget that sound of splintering wood and snapping stays as the front of the boat lifted out of the water and dropped back down. No one got hurt, but the mast ended up in 3 pieces. Turns out, the mast was the most expensive part of the boat and dad couldn’t afford another. He spent the rest of that day in his chair, a glass of something brown in his hand, looking out the window at the water. He had a full beard back then and he looked to me like the world’s saddest pirate. He spent a year’s worth of weekends for that one short sail, but it was a ride I’ll remember till I die.
Undaunted, he got another sailboat a few years later and fixed that one up too. When he died, there was yet another derelict sailboat in the yard waiting for him.