My father always loved to dance. Dad’s dancing earned him a plaque at a sales convention decades ago: Gold, spray-painted ballet shoes mounted on a maple square, a brass rectangle beneath pronounced John Reese “Twinkle Toes” for all time. That award hung in his home office for years after his retirement, long after he had taken down all the others he won throughout his life as a successful businessman, a traveler of the country, and a man almost as famous for his ribald sense of humor and vodka martinis as his business acumen.
As soon as we could walk without falling, he taught we three girls to move smoothly around a room, to twirl and touch lightly, then move out and around, beneath his extended arm, led by his gentle, confident hands. He was a big man all his life, yet when we pushed the coffee table aside and moved the chairs, he became feather-light. His feet knew exactly how to touch the earth, his hands to lead us in flight around the room as Benny Goodman did his turn on the record player. Fred Astair had nothin’ on him.
I couldn’t stop yawning. My long teaching day over, I just wanted to sip a glass of cabernet and settle in to watch the news and drift. When the phone rang, I didn’t want to answer it. The ringing eventually stopped but began again almost immediately so, reluctantly, I answered. It was my brother-in-law, Carlos. For the rest of my life I will associate the inciting moment of my father’s dying with Carlos’ voice over a telephone.
“Your father is in the emergency room. You should come.”
“He was at your mom’s, and we think he had a stroke.”
Earlier that Friday, Carlos had taken my father to the Alzheimer’s Day Care center where he spent a few hours putting puzzles together and dancing with the ladies. His mind was slowly shutting down; the myriad pills he had to take made drinking a cocktail impossible. He was no longer allowed to drive a car, but his feet still remembered how to move around a dance floor. He was a popular partner, and the ladies waited for a chance to be his. Afterward, Carlos dropped him at my mother’s apartment for a visit before Dad would return to my sister’s home where he now lived. He never made it to my sister’s. So began our lesson in the inexplicable cruelty inherent in the process of a dying that lasts too long.
It’s not as if I were a virgin to death. As a teen in the late sixties and early seventies, some of my friends died; one, on a rainy night, flew from his Harley, handsome head sans helmet crushed against a curb. One friend left his body behind after downing one Rohr 714 too many. Another, when I was a mother myself, the five year old child of a friend, simply slipped away in the middle of a bubble bath. I knew what dead was. I knew the fellow feeling I had for those deeply grieving others left behind, their eyes seemingly a bit wider, trying to assimilate a new inner vision created by the suddenness and shock of death. To the me who existed before December 2005, people were alive, then they were dead, and a funeral ensued. The process was usually sickeningly, startlingly sudden, and then it was over. Ironically, I came to understand that these are the lucky deaths. I was not yet familiar with the process death might choose to take, the long, sad whimper at the end of life that some human beings are forced to articulate before they are allowed to let go.
When I reached my father’s side in the emergency room, my mother was there, a woman whose body had literally shrunk in the last two years of my father’s illness. She looked fragile, her pale face a series of lines and shadows under the harsh glare of the hospital’s fluorescents. The man who balanced the checkbook, made the reservations, drove and gassed the cars, and took care of every bill had been slowly disappearing into his dementia over the many months leading up to this moment.
My parents had wed just after World War II. Products of their time and place, my father took care of everything—my mother supported him from home and as a charming bauble on his arm at conventions and other business functions. He was the worker bee, she the queen. It was almost impossible for her to accept that every truth she ever depended on was slipping away in the agonizingly slow substitution of this person on the table, whose second infancy was upon him, for her dynamic husband of over fifty years.
Though we did not recognize it at the time, that night in emergency was the beginning of my father’s long, painful, and disappointingly inarticulate conclusion. My sister Ellyn, in the next few months, truly believed Dad was going to get better and come home to her house where he lived away from my mother who was unable to care for him in his progressively dangerous wanderings and intellectual loss. He didn’t.
For hours, we took turns holding Dad’s thrashing and still remarkably strong body onto the emergency room table so he wouldn’t injure himself further. He could speak a little, but made little sense and was clearly not present from moment to moment. One thing I sensed was that this man was afraid. This recognition was hardest of all for me. My father never once in our lives indicated he was capable of feeling fear—It was impossible, absurd. Who was this person in my father’s body?
Thus began hours of sitting, weeping, cajoling, anger, begging nurses and interns for any information and, because this is my family, a few jokes to try to temper reality. We finally got Dad moved to a room upstairs. No one could offer us any definitive prognosis or diagnosis; dark faces in turquoise, purple, and pink scrubs simply glided in and out of his room, silently taking pulses, temperatures, injecting sedatives.
For a couple weeks we took turns sleeping in Dad’s room at night, Carlos bearing most of the burden, as Ellyn and I were working, and my mother was exhausted, incapable of anything but a short visit or two a day. Some days, they strapped my father’s hands to the bed rails. We didn’t object. Numb, we deferred to the doctors, the nurses, anyone who remotely resembled an authority figure. We should have taken him home.
Finally, word came down that Dad could be moved to a temporary healthcare facility nearby for “rehabilitation.” He again knew us, (most of the time); he could walk, haltingly and with help; he remembered some things, forgot others. He seemed to show improvement, and there was reason for us to believe he actually might get better. As the days turned to weeks, we scheduled all free hours to be near his bedside in shifts, Carlos again taking the brunt of the night to morning hours, sleeping in a green lounge chair I brought from home because the facility was understaffed and could not protect my Dad in his desire to escape. After a few weeks, we hired outside help for the long night hours.
When Dad was first admitted, I noticed that every day eight or nine patients were pulled up in their wheelchairs in front of the nurses’ station down the hall from his room. Most sat speechless, semi-dazed, their mouths agape, hands twisted, lying useless on their laps. I felt lucky Dad was not anywhere near as bad as they were. I pitied them their plight even as their circumstances gave me reason to hope Dad would walk out of there someday soon.
My father was given physical therapy daily; we wheeled him into the garden and around the halls, gave him chocolate ice cream from the cafeteria and sat for hours at his bedside, a thin, white curtain separating us from a progression of much sicker roommates. The bed next to him emptied twice while we sat watch, our denial of death fraying with each new silence beyond the curtain, as Dad begged us over and over to let him go home. We thought the staff and doctors knew better, and so we ignored his pleas with smiles, offering platitudes that did not soothe him in his desperation to get back to the familiar.
My father slowly stopped speaking. The pureed food they gave him so he wouldn’t choke to death dried on the plate or dribbled down his chin as we fed him. I learned to tend to him in the bathroom, wipe him gently as I did my small children, and help him safely back to bed. One day I walked in to find him slumped in his wheelchair, the newest member of the lost people placed around the nurse’s station.
At 7:00 am on a Saturday morning, I found my father alone in his room, naked from the waist down, pajama pants puddled around his ankles, face contorted in pain. His body was braced in his wheelchair with a special pad that did not allow for escape, but his hands had managed to work themselves beneath the pad, and in the thirty minutes between the exit of our paid private helper and my arrival, he had managed to pull a recently inserted catheter only half-way out of his penis.
It took me four hours to get a nurse to remove the catheter completely—by that point, my Dad was bleeding internally, though we did not know it at the time. Death was now coming faster. After weeks of crawling toward my father, death had begun to run. He never spoke to any of us again. There was no sweet smile, no parting words of wisdom to savor over the long years ahead, no gentle goodnight, only an imported hospice caregiver and an increasingly harsh rattle of breath, morphine, and three days of unrelenting pain. My father died alone at 3:00 am. We had been told to go home and get some rest and come back in the morning. We were exhausted. We left.
Now I know most dying is undignified and cruel. It is not a gentle last smile on a loved one’s face before he sinks into some sort of heavenly oblivion. It is not a series of neat, final conversations that clearly mark the end of one’s beginnings. It is not a mother who turns for a warm towel only to turn again to find her baby gone.
In dying, many are not allowed to wrap up all those loose kite tails that trail out behind through the hurried air. Responsibilities one intends to meet tangle together like multicolored strings that multiply over years of living, strings most meant to braid into a coherent whole as time progressed. Often, these strings fray as they tangle; some flutter loose at the end to remain uncountable or uncounted. Some become knotted in ways that we are forced, if we are lucky enough to remain sensible, to recognize finally as irreparable.
Others in their dying do not get the opportunity to know anything at all. Much of the existential emotional work we imagine we’ll complete so neatly is often left behind, doomed to remain forever unfinished. Death is not the falling action, well directed, expertly produced, that viewers see over and over on television and in film. Death is not a neatly wrapped plot, a denouement that offers the answers to all previous events, not Dickinson’s civilized epiphany of that swelling of the ground. Dying is often sloppy and ugly, and for some like my father, far too long as it steals hours and then days from the living and dying alike.
I like to think that the real plans for my father’s end written in the book of death somehow went awry that last day before the emergency room, the hospital restraints, the rehab. Sometimes, when I imagine my father’s last day, I see him driving himself to his own home; my mother will mix him an Absolute martini with three olives, and just after he swallows the last, cool sip, he’ll tell a joke, look at her with love, settle back in his recliner, and his spirit will float painlessly from his body in a final dance, surrounded by family and the music he loves.
©JP Reese 2011
Published at Connotation Press: An Online Artifact http://connotationpress.com/creative-nonfiction/788-jp-reese-creative-nonfiction-