(this is annie)

September FAIL

Pop quiz!

1. Which one of the following did not happen to Miss T. during the past four weeks?
  • a) Found lump in breast, had biopsy, turned out to be benign (whew)
  • b) Lost father
  • c) Lost boy
  • d) Fell off bicycle, narrowly missed being run over by light rail train, bloodied body and broke left foot (crutches!)
  • e) Won the lottery, received love letter from Robert Pattinson, bought swank apartment in the Marais

2. True or false? September 2009 is the worst month in recent, or even not-so-recent personal history.
  • True
  • False


Weird dream of the week, #47

I dreamed that I still worked at a job I hated, with the same person in charge of me. She kept giving me vague guidelines for finishing a project, and she expected me to work while mourning my father. "But we sent flowers," she said.* This is true; it was a bouquet of black and white tulips. I had to drive a rental car, and I thought I was in a line for a car wash. Fortunately, I wasn't, and I drove past a McDonald's (thought about getting a meatless cheeseburger in case it was the last food for a while, decided against it) and to a toll booth. A large truck carrying foundation makeup pulled up behind me and tried to clip itself to my car; I wouldn't let that happen.

Then I was home, but it was a not-home sort of home. It was Easter and we decided to go to Wal-Mart. (In real life this would not happen.) I was driving with someone, like a younger version of my mother, and she said that M-43) was about to change. It went from being dotted with houses and greenery and billboards to being flat, barren, dry. We got to the Wal-Mart parking lot and a man told us that you can't shop on Easter. So we decided to go to the nursing home instead.

I couldn't find the right door to open. They were a sickly shade of mauve. Teresa opened the door for me, and I walked in, and Dad was there. He was still alive. I tried to hide my shock. He was walking around, his chest bruised and purple, and he was in good spirits. "I'm going to be around a long time," he said, echoing what he'd told me in real life two weeks before he died. I held back tears.

I tried to call Scott (beau, not brother), because I wanted him to meet my dad. "Get here soon," I said. I wanted to ride on the back of his motorcycle, but he had only one helmet, and I knew my scooter helmet had been sold years ago. I sat to the left of my father and put my hand on his chest.

Not that dreams are that exciting to read, but this is more for me to remember it and analyze it later.

* Edited to add, this might make it seem like this is about my current job, but it isn't. It's about a job I had years ago; it still haunts my dreams.

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The emperor of ice cream

At the nursing home, the aides would bring my father a tray with assorted soft foods — usually some sort of vegetable, chicken, dessert — and we would feed him as much as he would allow. Because he was stubborn, he'd occasionally refuse to eat more than a few spoonfuls of food, leaving me to wheedle him into having dinner. "Just one bite," I'd say. "Then I won't bother you about it anymore." I got away with this because I am the baby of the family, and because I also acknowledged his weariness of the food. Though it was surprisingly pretty good, this was a man who loved chocolate malts and chicken strips and Mexican food. They don't serve those foods in nursing homes.

When we learned that he had only a couple of months to live, I said, "Well, whatever he wants to eat, he can eat. We'll bring him chocolate malts or McDonald's or anything he asks for." Betty wasn't sold on the idea, arguing that high blood pressure had contributed to the problems that would lead to his death. "Do you want to feed your father the hamburger that kills him?!" she exclaimed. I just raised an eyebrow, and ultimately she got what I was saying.

Sort of. By the days before his death, my father had lost the ability to feed himself and speak. He showed no interest in food. My brother, however, discovered that if you spoon-fed him ice cream, he'd happily eat. So that's what we did. The night before he died (or maybe the night before that, it's all a blur) I tried to feed him vegetables, and he refused to open his mouth. For ice cream, however, he gladly obliged. I was sitting at his bedside, spooning ice cream into his mouth, when Betty spotted his untouched dinner.

"He should have a proper meal," she said. "Some of this chicken, and some mashed potatoes and gravy."

"He doesn't want it," I said. "But he's eating the ice cream."

"Well, that's not very nutritious."

"Yes," I said quietly. "But this might be his last meal, and if he doesn't want mashed potatoes, I'm not going to force it. He wants ice cream, so I'm feeding him ice cream."

Betty made one of her little hissing sighs. "Well, for my last dinner, I'd prefer mashed potatoes."

"I'll keep that in mind," I said. (I am a terrible daughter.)

Betty puttered about the room for a few minutes while I continued to feed my dad. Then she said, "Oh, just let me try giving him the potatoes." Okayfine.

"Bob?" she purred, loud enough so he could hear it. "Have some of this, honey."

Fully expecting the cold sweetness of ice cream, my father dutifully opened his mouth, and Betty plopped the mashed potato onto his tongue with a smile. As soon as the tuber hit his tongue, his mouth puckered, his nostrils flared, and he slowly turned and gave her the biggest pissed-off stare you've ever seen. Betty started laughing, apologized to him, and then switched to the dessert. That seemed to please him. Maybe you had to be there, but he was funny until the end. And yes, his last meal was ice cream. Vanilla.

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Work finished early, and I was a gloomy little cloud, so I stepped out into the sunny day for a walk. The air smelled like hot dogs, the expensive made-to-be-grilled kind rather than the wiggly Ball Parks that my grandmother used to boil. It wasn't as bad as that sounds, but I would have enjoyed things more if they hadn't been so meaty.

I had barely eaten in the preceding 24 hours, so I decided to search for some food. The city seemed happy, with lots of people smiling and enjoying the warm day. I walked past Tartine, past the restaurant where Scott and I had his birthday dinner, and into Bi-Rite. The market was moderately stuffed with park-goers buying picnic supplies. I picked up a jar of Paul Newman pasta sauce, two pints of ice cream (salted caramel, balsamic strawberry), and a container of frozen cookie dough. My favorite Bi-Rite checkout boy beckoned me to his register. I like to think that I am his favorite customer, as a supermarket fantasy sort of thing.

"How are you today?" he asked.

This is the kind of formality that people trot out, usually expecting a simple "good" or "fine." If those responses had been accurate, I would have said so. Instead, I twisted the right side of my face and said, "Not great."

"I'm sorry," he said, pausing as he held the cookie dough. "These aren't going to make it to the oven, are they?"

Of course not. I laughed a tiny bit, he wished me a better day, and I walked home. Sometimes leaving the house is a success; today was one of those days.



I've always known how I planned to eulogize my father. "He was an imperfect man," I'd begin, and then I'd segue into a movingly bittersweet tribute to him. In my head, it was going to be meaningful and noble, the kind of thing that would leave people with deep philosophical thoughts about life and death. (Embarrassingly and selfishly enough, I also figured that I'd move through the speech tearlessly while switching on the waterworks in the crowd.)

Except that's not how it happened. Dad always disliked funerals, even "accidentally" showing up late to meet me and my mother before my grandfather's service. (That was one of the few times when I gave him hell.) So it made sense that he'd left instructions to forgo all the clad-in-black depressing stuff. Instead, he wanted us to have a party to celebrate his life. That was the kind of man he was, usually joking and smiling and looking at the bright side. It's not that he was without his flaws — he could be unintentionally self-centered, he wasn't the most industrious guy, he used to drink too much — but when I think of him, I don't focus on that mess. I remember the best about him.

People keep asking how I'm doing. Up and down, I say. It changes hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute. The whole Kubler-Ross thing is accurate to an extent, but it's happening as a jumble rather than a sequential progression. One minute I'm sobbing, the next I'm laughing, the next I'm numb. Softness, ache, then nothingness. The worst moments accompany the realization that he's never coming back. I mean, I know he's gone, but dying seems like something he had to cross off on a to-do list. I'm not yet used to the new, lonelier reality. When I force myself to think about that, to realize that I'll never see him laugh again, I crumple. I always suspected this would be one of the most difficult experiences of my life. It is.


I'm sorry, Al Gore.

These last two years have been the busiest traveling years of my life. And the trips are not spaced out well at all; I think I had 17 flights in six weeks last year. The last 48 hours have been similarly insane: I flew from San Francisco to New York, was in the city for 10 hours before jetting to Chicago, at which point I drove 85 miles per hour to Michigan. I'll fly some more in a few days, then back to Chicago in a few weeks. The jetset lifestyle is not as glamorous as I had imagined it would be.


I laughed to myself upon waking up this morning, because I realized that my sister and I had never slept in the same room before last night. Three decades and it takes the impending death of our father to have that happen. We slept a room across from my dad's in the nursing home, each taking a spot in an extra-long twin bed with maroon blankets. I'd forgotten to pack a nightgown, so I slept in a hospital gown. The whole thing would be ridiculous if it weren't appropriate (I was bandaged underneath) and sad (for obvious reasons).

It has been another long day, and now my mother is sleeping in the bed where I slept last night. It's like an exhausting version of musical chairs, but it is a quiet gift to be with my father during his last days.

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When it pains, it roars

A well-lived life is flush with cinematic moments, and usually I love feeling like I'm cruising through celluloid. Not this time. I am moving through days like their events are predetermined; I have no control over the script or direction. I wake up, I go through the motions, I remember little, I respond to less, I have nothing to do but wait for the end.

Since understanding what death is, I have always feared losing my father. Just thinking about his eventual death choked me up, even as a child. And I have always known that I would have to go through that final separation at a relatively young age — an unfortunate side effect of being born when he was 47 years old. That doesn't make it easier. It becomes harder now, with time working against us.

I went home last weekend. I spent hours at the nursing home, trying to record as much of my father as my mind and heart would allow. I felt an urgent need to keep him. Then I finally understood why years ago, my mother kept all of my baby teeth in a small box next to the china. The desire to preserve a moment — or who a person is in that moment — becomes frantic when such a time will never repeat itself. Most of our time slips by unrecorded, and even the important events don't always reveal themselves until they're long over. But when we know what's in the future, whether it's a child growing up or someone we love dying, every minute is weighted with significance. You can't help but mentally document each small gesture, each sentence, because it might be the last time it happens.

So last week, while watching my father nap, that instinct supplied me with a fleeting flash of grotesque thought: Could I keep part of him? I'm ashamed and somewhat repulsed to admit that I considered clipping his fingernails or snipping a lock of his cottony hair. My eyes scanned his whole body before I snapped back into the world of non-crazy. (Then, I laughed at knowing that at its morbid best, that would leave me with only the parts that were already dead.) Still, with the naive desperation of a child, I wanted souvenirs of my father. I wanted to sleep in his old shirts, to know what his favorite movie was, to record, record, record.

We still have some time together, and for that I'm grateful. But I keep looking back, recording in the present, and avoiding the inevitable for as long as we can.

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    it's anniet at gmail.


© 2009 avt

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