Sunday, June 16, 2013

When Dads leave...


In 2005, the Satellite Site of the Northern Virginia Writing Project was launched. Following the directive to "write what scares you" I chose to work through Dad's death in January of 2004.
   I am grateful to my writing group who helped me work through my new position as girl without a Dad by listening to draft after draft of the scariest moment.  Not the happiest of Father's Day essays, but a moment we all face: losing a parent.

We sat in the waiting room with the walking dead.
My sister, my father, and I had come to Johns Hopkins cancer treatment center for Dad’s follow-up appointment.  We were to find out when the surgery would occur to remove whatever-it-was they found a month earlier in the ducts of his liver.
After the last hospital visit, he went home with a tube we flushed regularly for him that cleared his system of the fluids that built up.   Dad helped my sisters and I adjust to this new role—daughter as caregiver—with his usual humor.  Surgery was the next step, and today the adult children would coordinate the next phase of care.

We checked in at the door and then waited to be called by loudspeaker.  The waiting room was nearly empty—and huge. Arranged to mimic an extended living room, with clusters of chairs, sofas and lamps, it could easily hold three hundred and began to fill, a group at a time. All new arrivals were a contingency of awkwardly cheerful, overfed relatives, surrounding a paper-thin patient.
My eyes followed the first group circling a man shuffling through the door. He’s going to dieAnd that’s his mother and father.  He must only be about 25 or 30.
Another group came in.  A man bent over an IV pole, sliding his slippered feet along like an old, old man.  His white-grey skin was cloaked by a robe and pajamas that dangled as freely as if they were still on a wire hanger.
Another walking dead person, I think.  Did they bring him downstairs for this? Is he a patient somewhere up in this mile-high hospital?
Now, in comes a group of healthy men surrounding the patient.  He must have AIDs.  They aren’t his family
In this room, there are more sick men than women, but they all look eerily the same.  All have a set expression, so different from their escorts.  “I’m dying,” it says.  “I’m dying, and I need to concentrate all the energy I have left to do this next job.”  Fevered eyes burn in hooded sockets.
The place is surreal.  So many struggling to survive while their companions pat them, avoid looking at their wasted frames, fiddle with cell phones, make small talk after rushing in from busy, distracted lives.  My older brother shows up while we sit here.  He comes in too fast, entering from the world of the living and bringing that frenetic pace into a room where distance is measured in small, weak steps. 
Dad does not look at all like the other patients.  He is still overweight and pinker in the skin, though his walk has slowed to the same tiny steps.  He has not recovered from the earlier hospital stay and the trip from Martinsburg was long.  We aren’t any different from the other relatives though, chatting him up or letting him listen to our conversations as we catch up on each other’s news.  But I watch the other groups carefully, a portent of what might come: a series of visits, a wasting patient struggling against the poisonous cure.
When Dad is called, my sister—the trained nurse—goes back to the examining room while my brother and I wait.  My parents are in the habit of deferring to her when there is medical news.  They accept her presence in any embarrassing medical circumstance.  My parents have always divided the five of us into the roles we would perform.  Being in the middle, I never felt I had a clear calling, but for this crisis it seems I am driver, probably the only one who can remain calm in city traffic.
I hadn’t seen my brother in a while and quiz him about the time he spent in Johns Hopkins with Dad the previous month. Still, I keep one eye on the room that continues to fill.  It begins to look like the waiting room of an epidemic - a cancer epidemic - as one after another of the wasted and diseased comes in through the door. Nearly every seat is taken now.  Does this room fill up with a different group everyday?  It seems impossible that there could be so many.  I can’t stop imagining what every family is doing to cope with the devastation that has entered their lives – our life. 
Johns Hopkins appears to be a magnet pulling in the withered iron filings of wasted bodies, snuggling every last flinty remainder into this central location.  There are too many of them.  Maybe I’ll get used to this.  I steel myself to face lines of victims, my dad included, when we bring him back for treatments.
After only a short while, they call my brother and I back to hear about the next step.
Inside the examining room the air is laden with a conversation that occurred while I counted the doomed in the waiting room.  My father sits on a bed.  The doctor, an obviously nervous young woman, stands with her arms folded, an older doctor behind her.  She is uncomfortable and has called in support, a mentor?  My sister is on a stool.
The interrupted talk continues with an explanation of the possibilities of undergoing chemotherapy.  The doctor mentions that it would be Dad’s choice about whether or not he wants to pursue it.  It could help.  It might not.
I am baffled and look from one face to another, confused.  This conversation doesn’t make sense.
“What about the surgery?”  I ask.  “When will he have the surgery?”
There is a long pause. Everyone exchanges looks and Dad stares off at the wall. Finally, my sister says with deliberation, “There isn’t going to be any surgery.”
“Why not?”  I insist.  “Isn’t that what we came to find out?”  Everyone looks at me. The young doctor twists her hands.  She looks like a little girl—a girl who would like to be somewhere else.
“The surgery won’t help,” my sister says thickly. 
What...?  What does that mean?
There is a pause, one in which no one says anything.  No one says, “Your father will die.  There isn’t anything else we can do.”  No one says, “Go home and get your affairs in order.”  No one says, “I’m sorry.”   The poignant moment is left to be inferred.
Isn’t anyone going to say that there’s no hope? That he’s going to die?  Is he going to die?  Is that what they’re saying?  Don’t you have to say the words?
And then that was it.
Everyone knew. 
No one said.
The doctor added something about who to contact in Martinsburg if Dad wanted chemotherapy.  But, essentially, she was signing him out of her care.  Nothing to be done.  We mumbled OK.  We didn’t say thank you.
She left.
We left.
But only because that is what you are supposed to do next: get up and go out.
We walked out of the waiting room, and the room full of patients I had diagnosed as walking dead now looked like creatures whose eyes burned with hope.  The hall of horrors had become a sanctuary where thin IV tubes tethered wispy people to the solid earth and tied them to a circle of family. 
But we had been turned out, abruptly set on the street corner, alone.
The hallway we exited to had none of the comforts of the waiting room.  Sterile, like a shopping mall, two-story windows flooded light into a linoleum-lined atrium with a few hard benches placed as respite from a long hike between cavernous hospital buildings.  For minutes, with unfocused eyes, we wandered and stumbled around this space, the four of us, having nowhere to put the news we had received, or to form the words that would prepare us to face the end of life.
At the nearest bench, my father collapsed. He slumped over, chin on his chest, and began to cry like a child who has broken something that can not be put back together. My brother and sister kept wandering, looking for a place to rest their eyes – or maybe for something that looked familiar – unchanged, unlike the rest of the world. 
Because he looked so alone, and because he was my father, I went to him reluctantly, not wanting to stand in as a mother/wife for this father/boy who had lost his own mother to cancer so long ago.  Against the tall, light-flooded windows, I could see the shadow of the lost eleven-year-old, grieving not for his mother this time, but for himself.
“Oh, your poor mother.  What is she going to do?  Poor old soul.  She can’t live alone.”
My mother? What about my father?  What will he do?
And then we cried, the two of us.  In a sterile office building, where people strode with purpose between their obligations, we held on to each other and cried in a little forlorn heap, until I finally muttered something comforting, promised to take over the responsibilities he had modeled for us, and got ready to say goodbye to a father.