Sensitivity and Tact
Sensitivity and tact were never my father's strong suits. I know he was upset about my mother being sick, and I know that he loved her. But nothing really changed once the news that she had cancer was announced. She still cooked and cleaned. She still chopped wood, mowed grass, picked up after him, and wrote out all the bills. She still took out and burned the trash. She continued to take care of him, just as she always had, even on her "bad days." He was perfectly capable of helping out, but it seemed that he would wait until she was gone before he did. He'd be okay without her, he thought.
Days passed and this thing on my father's back just kept getting bigger, so he made an appointment. Unlike my mother, my father didn't mind going to the doctor. I think he enjoyed shooting the shit with someone whose profession showed a little class. He went to see a well-dressed doctor a friend recommended. This doctor diagnosed a "strained muscle." They treated it for weeks with heat packs, ice packs, and hot showers. The thing kept getting bigger. After two months and two surgeries, my dad's lab reports were shown to another group of doctors, who immediately diagnosed him as having an advanced stage of an incurable sarcoma that had spread to his lungs.
In God's Hands
My mother was already six years into her cancer. She had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma after reluctantly going to the doctor for a biopsy. She swore it was the biopsy that made her cancer go crazy and spread. Her lymph glands were swollen all of the time from the cancer, which gave her neck the appearance of having gumballs stuffed just beneath the skin. The swollen nodes restricted her windpipe, and she struggled to breathe. She sounded like she was sucking each breath through a straw. Doctors told her she would live maybe a year with no treatment, but she said forget it. She watched her own mother go through that, and she would rather "put it in God's hands."
Car Dealer's Daughter
I received a call from my father in early April telling me that he thought I should come home to take care of my mother. I had been making trips to Pennsylvania every two or three months for the past six years, and I had been telling my mother all along to just say the word if she ever wanted or needed me to come home. Her answer was always, "Honey, I'm fine. I'll ask if I need help." According to my dad, she was now in a "bad way" and could use a hand. I packed up my cat and headed home.
I found out later that my mother's bad way came from taking care of my father on top of having cancer herself. Didn't he think I would come home to care for him?
When I first arrived home, I went up into my childhood room to unpack my things. As I looked into the fisheye mirror hanging on my bedroom wall, I thought to myself, "Perhaps this was a contributing factor to my low self-esteem and poor body image growing up?"
The Move to the Den
Shortly after I arrived home, my father permanently relocated from his bedroom to the den. The room was sunnier, his old familiar couch was there, and it made him part of the goings-on of daily living. He started out sleeping on the couch. This became a problem with the cleaning up of inevitable accidents. We suggested getting a hospital bed. This was met with much resistance. A hospital bed was symbolically one step closer to the grave.
The bed arrived. He liked the remote controls that came with it. "This is actually nice," he said. "I can see my TV better." As my father's cancer progressed, he would confuse the bed remote with the television remote. One day I was sitting in the living room with my mother and we could hear the familiar hum of the bed in motion. It dawned on us that this hum was humming a bit too long. We suddenly heard my father say, "What the fuck is wrong with this goddamn bed!" We went into the den and found him sandwiched in the mattress. We didn't mean to laugh.
My father was a very clean man with a ruddy complexion that always glowed. He'd stand in the shower until all the hot water was gone, and he'd emerge crimson. As weak as he was, he insisted on taking a hot shower every day. He'd pad up the stairs and get the water going until it was hot. I'd help him out of his clothes, and watch him lift his heavy, edema-filled legs up over the edge of the tub. I'd stand outside the shower holding his morphine pump with one hand and the shower curtain with the other, making sure he didn't fall. And just like every other shower he had taken in his entire life, he'd stand there until the water ran cold.
Cleaning and Gauzing
Hospice felt it was important for my father to weigh himself every day, and to take note of his weight. It was like pulling teeth to get him to eat, drink, move around, and talk, but he was happy to participate in this daily ritual. Hospice would stop by every three days or so. They arrived one morning and as my father shuffled toward the scale with his ledger in hand, the aide said that he didn't need to record his weight anymore. Dad never questioned why. He never asked questions about things I would have been extremely curious about had I been hosting a large cancerous tumor on my back. I walked the aide to his car and asked him what was going on. He said my father's tumor had gotten so big, not to mention the edema in his legs and feet, that weighing him was "a false hope and a waste of time."
My father was getting smaller and the tumor was getting bigger. It was hot to the touch, and the skin over this thing was stretched so taut that I asked the aide if it could burst. He said that it wouldn't, but that it would sprout leaks. A few days later, I noticed some tiny spots of blood on the back of my father's shirt. Cleaning and gauzing the tumor was added to our daily routine.
I'd walk past the bathroom door and ask, "How's it going in there?" "Not too good," he'd reply. Occasionally there would be an accident that needed cleaning up. I read somewhere that if you put your mouth in the shape of a grin it helps to quiet the gag reflex. It doesn't work. It just makes you look dementedly happy to be cleaning up poop.
Pilsners, Lagers, and Ales
One of the ways the body prepares itself for the final stage of life is to decrease urine output. The kidneys start to shut down, and pee becomes concentrated and dark. I likened the various stages to the color of pilsners, lagers, and ales. One evening while opening a beer, I took note of how my father's urine earlier that day was actually darker than the brown ale I had just poured. I wondered if stout was humanly possible.
Do As I Say... Not As I Do
People would call for updates on my father and mother quite frequently. A lot of these people sincerely cared and kept the conversations respectfully short. But there was a handful that caused my heart to sink when I would answer. Their conversations were all about how my parents' cancers were affecting them. How they couldn't sleep at night, how they were just devastated. When they would ask if there was anything they could do, I knew their words were just empty niceties. I felt like responding with, "Yeah we would LOVE the help. Dad's tumor is leaking again, so you could start by changing the gauze. He's got some bedsores between his ass cheeks that need tending to—but be careful with the surgical tape: It can pull his skin off. And there's shit on the toilet seat and bathroom floor that needs cleaning up. That would be great. Thanks." I'd never say these things. But, God, how I wanted to. I'd listen and let them go on and on. I assuaged their anguish and guilt and thanked them for calling.
I was loaded down with a bunch of groceries as I walked in the front door. It was unusually quiet. "Hello?" My mother answered back, "We're up here." I found them both on the floor, struggling to get up. My mother was down on her knees, bracing herself on a chair. My father was completely naked, on all fours, using my mother as leverage to try and stand. My father was on day nine of not pooping. He had been trying everything—prune juice, bran, bananas, extra-strength stool softeners. He was a human repository of suppositories. Small plugs of medication were lined up on the runway, waiting for clearance... nothing was happening.
I was shocked at another pitiful sight, and I'm sure I sounded angry when I snapped, "What happened?" My once-strong parents were now as able-bodied as two turtles on their backs.
Dad received a lot of get-well cards. I found it interesting that he received so many caring words from people who "believed" when he pretty much pooh-poohed faith and God. My mother would speak passionately to him about faith. "Look at the flowers, look at the trees," she'd say. "How could all this exist without something greater? You are dying... do you realize that? You had a purpose. You have a greater purpose."
Dad was so sick at this point that Mom and I opened and read his cards to each other. He never seemed that impressed with them when he was coherent. I opened this one particular card from a woman whose name I didn't recognize. "Get well soon, Bill," she wrote. "We all miss you down at the bar." There was a P.S. "Hey, you think your kids are screwed up... my son is talking about getting a sex change!"
I couldn't believe what I had just read. I was caught totally off guard. I had always felt that my father was embarrassed of me my entire life. I could see it on his face. Now here was the written proof. He had been speaking poorly of me in some bar to some woman I had never met. I always hoped that someday he would tell me he was proud of me, but this card confirmed that that would never happen. His time was almost up and this card felt like his last words to me.
Carrion and Clemency
It was one of those perfect summer evenings where the air felt velvety. We were sitting by the pool watching the deer up at the fruit trees and commenting on how beautiful it all was. My mother pointed out some turkey buzzards circling over. "Look, Bill," she said. "They're coming to get us." There was some laughter, and then a long silence.
Warts and All
My father's illness had started to take its toll on me emotionally and physically. I was losing weight off an already slim frame. My hair was falling out. The right side of my jaw locked up. It clicked and clunked when I opened my mouth to speak or chew. Warts had taken root on my feet and hands. I now looked as bad on the outside as I felt on the inside.
My father's 63nd birthday rolled around on August 1. I made him a huge "Happy Birthday, Dad!" sign that I hung on the wall in the den. It made him smile. My birthday fell on August 5. I felt a deep kinship with my father because of our birth dates... as if the closeness in dates somehow reflected a closeness in our relationship. We were both Leos and shared a stubborn and proud approach to life. There were other similarities—a physical likeness, our senses of humor, a strong desire to be independent. I believe that one of the greatest differences was the fact that I had gotten to live my dreams and he hadn't. I was living my fantasy of being a full-time artist. He seemed unhappy, lost, and empty, having given up whatever his dreams were.
On my birthday, a local florist delivered a beautiful bouquet of flowers with a card that read, "Happy Birthday, Toni. I love you. Dad." The bouquet contained several impressive, heavy bird-of-paradise flowers. My older brother Todd always purchased bird-of-paradise when he bought flowers for someone. It was a dead giveaway. Dad looked confused when I thanked him for the flowers.
Toward the end my father was on massive amounts of morphine. He was on so many different medications that there was no longer any balance in his body or brain. There was no semblance to the person he used to be. He looked, smelled, and acted like a completely different person. He certainly wasn't at peace. He was miserable. It was just punishing at this point, and out of mercy I wished he would die. He was like one of those crestfallen apes in the zoo that throws its feces at onlookers out of futility and frustration. It was heartbreaking to watch. There was no getting out of this cage.
A Dying Breeze
It was August 14, 13 days after my father's 63nd birthday, around 8:15 on a Friday morning. My older brother and I had been talking to him earlier that morning. He mentioned things that weren't there, and spoke in a dreamlike state. I don't know how we knew, but we all gathered at his bedside at the same moment. We noted that he was going to die at the same time as the weekly Manheim Auto Auction that he had attended every Friday, without fail, for as long as we could all remember. It seemed fitting.
We stood and quietly watched. You could see that he was in another place, and with the hum of what sounded like insects in my ears, it began. It was like watching someone giving birth in reverse. There was straining and pushing and breathing, but he was going somewhere instead of being delivered. He tugged at the covers, he attempted to sit up, he pushed at the air.
It's like we were in a swirl. Space felt like it was being emptied and filled at the same time. It wasn't scary, but it was difficult to watch because he seemed to be frightened and resisting whatever was happening to him. At one point his eyes popped open and his face lit into this surprised expression, like he'd fallen off a cliff but hadn't hit the bottom yet. He said two things during this transition. He looked at us at one point and very lucidly said, "I just shit my shorts." For a second I was laughing with him. The sad became funny, the funny became sublime. My father's final words before he passed were, "The Lord is magic." He said them tenderly, like a girl. His eyes were slightly open, so my mother closed them with a feathery sweep of her palm.
It happens every day... lifetimes ending in 15 minutes... the living left wondering how tomorrow could ever follow today, and the dead now a breeze carrying so much mystery and meaning.
Ashes to Ashes
Later that same day, my mother and I packed up Dad's clothes. We bagged up his nicer things for the nephews and brothers to go through and dumped things we knew no one would want. We threw pills into the toilet, packed up oxygen tanks, boxed up stomach pumps, threw out stained blankets and pillows. We opened windows. I found his watch, still ticking, in the drawer of the nightstand next to his bed in the den.
My mother asked me to go outside and burn a bag of "sick clothes" that she had gathered up. Normally I would have made a comment on how horrible it was to barrel-burn trash, but not today. As I stood by the barrel, with smoke in my eyes, I thought of my father's last words, "The Lord is magic," and the power and irony they held. I couldn't help but think of "ashes to ashes," and how souls aren't born, and souls don't die, and how we are composed mostly of water and air. I was tired, relieved it was over.
The cotton clothes burned hot and clean. A sock that contained synthetic fibers did more of a melt than a burn, and adhered to the stick I was using as a poker. Surrounded by smoke, I understood that it was the process of love that was love, not the results of love. What I had just gone through, with and for my father and my family, is what you do for people you love.
It was mesmerizing staring into the rusted barrel of smoke and flames. "How could this daily ritual of burning trash not have contributed to my parents' cancers," I thought, "or to the cancer of some innocent neighbor miles away downwind?"
I looked down to my left and focused on an army of ants carrying the carcass of a beetle away.
Ashes to ashes.
This is a condensed and edited excerpt from Car Dealer's Daughter by Toni Wolf. A professional working artist, Wolf hadn't drawn cartoons since her teens. She rediscovered cartoons as a way to help work through her grief after the deaths of her parents. She lives in Portland, Maine.