Monday, August 20, 2012
A year ago this week.
I was less than two weeks away from officially marrying the man I love. On the weekend of our 20th anniversary of being together.
I had been an integral part of the biggest and most successful launch in my company's history - Watson, the Jeopardy! quiz show winning computer. A computer that is now learning about medicine to help save lives.
And we had just celebrated the 100th anniversary of the company at our research facility. I got to be in the big tent for an epic and memorable - and historic - one time event.
What could go wrong?
Jokingly - but in an 'I've been here before' half-serious manner, I asked Brian, "So - what do you think Dad will do to screw the wedding up for us?"
My father - disabled for the previous 15 years - invariably invaded the happiest times of my life by being admitted to the hospital or claiming imminent death or something. He'd fall and break his good leg. He'd have trouble breathing. His ass hurt. (this was a serious recurring problem for him - turns out his hip had disintegrated.)
My father was also a Drama Queen. Ever since childhood, he could play us kids like a fiddle, whipping up mountains out of mole hills.
My favorite 'after the fact' performance:
Me: "Why? What for?"
Dad: "Well. You know...it was pretty scary. Your mother found a lump in her breast."
Me: "WHAT? Oh my God is she okay?"
Dad: "It's okay - the surgery went fine."
Me: "Dad! What the f*ck? Mom had surgery and you didn't tell me?"
Dad: "We didn't want to worry you."
Me: "Then why the hell tell me now? Is she okay? Is she gonna live?"
Dad: "It's fine. It turned out to be benign. But we sure were worried there for a while."
Me: (smashing whatever is breakable at hand) "For God's sake - why didn't someone tell me?!?"
Dad: "We didn't want you traveling all that way" (I was living in Phoenix and they were in North Carolina)
As it turned out, the lump had actually been diagnosed immediately as a cyst and Mom had an outpatient procedure in an afternoon. She ended up with four stitches and a band aid.
But Dad had to be Dad.
But a year ago this week, Dad was in the hospital recuperating from a broken leg - a situation that, if things didn't go well, could result in an amputation. This would be a death sentence for him since - even though he had no knee in the broken leg - it was fused straight - he had no hip attaching the other leg to his body. That meant a nursing home - and he'd take his life before ever going to one of those places.
He had watched his own father disintegrate for 11 years in the lowest of the low nursing homes. A place where we'd go to visit and find my grandfather propped up in bed, snoring - without his teeth. His flimsy robe twisted and exposing everything south of his navel. Flies walking around on his bald, spotted head.
He was never going to go out like that.
I had barely uttered the half-serious words to Brian when the phone rang.
"Your father has cancer."
Well, fuck me running.
I was not going to let this spoil my buzz. Of course he had cancer. What else was left? He'd 'nearly died' a dozen or more times and never made the most of the opportunity to shuffle off his misery.
I just knew the Universe was having a huge guffaw at my expense again.
But I did not rush home. I had too much on my plate here.
We moved ahead. We got married. We had friends and family around us and it was magical and wonderful and everything I hoped it would be.
Two weeks later, I was in Nebraska - helping Dad celebrate his 71st birthday in the hospital. My estranged brother moved out of the house while I was there - it was part of the deal for me to come back.
My mother called me in tears the morning of the day before my flight.
"Your father doesn't want you to come. Not if it means Chris moving out of the house. He can't understand why you can't just be brothers again."
My blood boiled.
"What's his room number?" She told me.
I telephoned the man I had feared for my entire childhood and part of my adult life. After that, (and lots of therapy) I just felt sorry for him.
Me: "Do we have a problem?"
Dad: "Well, yes - I think we might."
Me: "No - I think you have a problem. I am coming back and Chris is not staying in the house. If you think I'm going to sleep with my work laptop, cell phone and anything of value stuffed under me in bed - that is not happening."
Dad: "Well - then I don't know if I want to see you."
Me: "I'm not coming back for you." >Click.<
And I went back. And whenever we were out of the house, my briefcase was with me. At night, anything I wasn't using was locked in my rental car. My brother can not be trusted. Ever.
I saw Dad and we only referred to the phone call once. He was still bothered by my reluctance but I stood my ground. He inferred that had I spoken to him that way when I was younger, he would have kicked my ass around the yard.
I reminded him that he had no hip and no knee and no upper body strength, so he should shut the hell up and that I could take him out with a pillow.
As a sop, my brother and I made a guest appearance the morning before I left. It seemed to make him happy.
Three weeks later my phone rang at 1 am.
"Dad's in the hospital. He's having trouble breathing. Here - talk to Mom."
Mom: "He's not able to draw a full breath. They want to intubate him. We had living wills made that said no extraordinary measures. What do I do?"
Me: "Well if it's just getting him air, let them try it - I don't think that's extraordinary. I'd hate to think we killed him over a bit of oxygen"
Mom: "Okay - I'll call you in a bit."
My brother called again about 15 minutes later.
"Okay - he's breathing - but it's a struggle."
Me: " Fine. Call me in the morning and let me know how things turn out." (I said, presuming this was just another of Dad's three-act plays.)
I called back a few minutes later and apologized for being a callous asshole. Of course, I said, call me with any changes.
Chris called me a few minutes later to inform me that Dad was indeed dying. They had removed the breathing tube and the pastor of their church was there with him, holding his hand.
And he was gone.
I reminded Mom - he got his wish. He'll never be in a nursing home.
October was a blur of airplane flights, undertakers, ceremonies, tributes, tears, condolences, thank yous, memorials - all punctuated by days of simply free-floating through the unreality of the situation.
When I eventually returned home, I had missed weeks of work. It was suddenly the holiday season. And everything I knew had changed.
I don't remember Thanksgiving. Or Halloween. I barely recall Christmas.
Despite all the leave I had taken, I still had weeks of vacation to take or lose. I spent the last three weeks of the year at home, drinking vodka and becoming an expert at playing Angry Birds (Original, Seasons and Rio) and eventually beating them all.
Then Brian's aunt died.
Then our brother-in-law Robert lost his battle with cancer.
Then my brother abandoned his wife, kids and our mother.
In addition to one trip back home to help Mom purge, I've had to keep her sane by telephone. Reassuring her, advising her - helping her with all the stuff Dad used to handle. Helping her deal with the hysterical requests for money from my brother's wife.
Supporting her through bankruptcy and telling her that it wasn't her fault. That it was 15 years of medicine and hospital stays and physical therapy and ambulances and Medicaid donut holes ... and 15 years of indentured servitude for her. Unable to leave. Unable to travel. Unable to trust that he wouldn't die when she was not there.
What a goddamn year.
And it never got easier. Until just now.
A year ago this week, my father had cancer.
My brother was back home supposedly trying to bring his family over from the Philippines.
My mother was excited about being a grandmother again.
I was about to be married. And I could not have been happier about my life, my job and my future.
A week from now, I will board my last flight to Nebraska.
On Wednesday, my mother will close on the sale of her house.
The movers I arranged for her will pack and load her possessions.
We will gather our few things, Ethan the dog, and point the pickup truck East.
And it will then be just us. Mom and me.
(and of course, Brian - who is very excited about having her here.)
And a brand new chapter will begin.
I think it's gonna be good, ya'll.