Thursday, January 31, 2008

Like Being Shelled to Death by an Elephant

My father died in October.

For reasons both understood and not … I find myself thinking about him a lot more lately than before … although I suspect it will take the rest of my life to fully *process* his life and who he was.

He was with Judi for over twenty years and even though when he died, he’d (re)found love again [a lovely story of adulterers who reconnect in their twilight years … a story for another time] and had been living with C. for four years … Judi cast a pretty formidable shadow.

She was indeed larger than life … she loved food and cooking … animals (there were pictures of the spoiled little brat/bichon frise, Louis, in every single room of the house – even a 3-D oil painting – but none of us children) … my father (I can still hear her saying “You asshole!”) … and always had a needy friend as a special project – she liked to think she could save people. She had tons and tons of the gaudiest costume jewelry you’ve ever seen in your life, and LOVED to gamble (slots) in Vegas and had special sequined couture just for the occasions. My Dad was a gambler, so it was fitting they married there, although not, as far as I know, by an Elvis impersonator. She was loyal. She was generous – to a fault. As loud and brash as she was, she was always impeccably put together – right down to her blond bouffant hairstyle that she committed to in her teens. She was a lady … a loud, brash lady, but a lady (or, broad, as my Dad would say). She was what you’d call a character.

She died ten years ago today of lung cancer (cigarettes).
Diagnosed right after Thanksgiving and dead by the end of January … but the actual end happened very quickly – she went from being able to manage navigating cellar stairs to go to radiation treatments on a Tuesday to dying on a Saturday … the sharp decline shocked her doctor, hospice, and of course, us. It was my unfortunate role to answer the phone and break the news to her friends and small extended family.

I’d taken a leave of absence from my soul-deadening NYC job to help out, and it’s remarkable to think I was only there a few weeks … they were the longest years of my life. I honestly do not know how caregivers do it…

Through a bizarre sub-plot that I swear made sense at the time, Judi didn’t know she was dying … so it was like a fucked-up sitcom device ... we all knew and talked about her dying, just, you know, not with and to her. I promise, it made sense at the time, but I wish we had that decision back … the jig was up the Thursday night before she died when one of her oldest friends, conveniently an ex-hospice nurse and probably the Nicest Person That Ever Lived spent time with Judi in the large paisley wall-papered living room where Judi lay dying (I’d gotten her a featherbed for the couch and she had her large TV and was within reach of the coffee table where she laid out and controlled all her meds). Donna came into the kitchen after a couple of hours, eyes red from crying and announced “She knows. She wants you to get a pad and pen because she has instructions for her funeral.” Judi dictated her wishes: Purple casket (check); “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and “Blue Suede Shoes” played at her funeral. Hmmm. Catholic mass … we got them to agree to a chorus singing the former (dedicated to my father) but they wouldn’t budge on the latter. Donna got around that by getting a pair of blue suede shoes from Marshall’s (totally Judi) and placing them on a pedestal by her casket. Oh, the joy it gave us to watch people approach, kneel, cross themselves and do that double take…

Being present for someone’s death … it’s an amazing thing, isn’t it? I guess the only thing more profound and intimate/universal would be witnessing a birth … by the very end I’d literally not slept in days and I’d done things I never thought possible and the emotion was overwhelming … but I wouldn’t trade a minute of it … it was a gift. On the last night she was home she was lucid for a stretch (before she became overwhelmed by what we later realized was dehydration) and we had this amazing, if not brief talk. She said she’d always wished I was her daughter … I never knew that … never would have guessed it … a gift.

When it was time to finally call the ambulance to take her to the hospital (I didn’t know if that was what she wanted, but felt it was the best decision for her safety and comfort, but I still felt so bloody guilty and like I’d failed her) … it was sleeting a bit and they suggested we get something to cover her, so I ran back and got a guest towel from the bathroom. It looked ridiculous.

My father and Judi’s pet names for each other was “Bum” … as the ambulance guys started taking her away, for the last time, from the house she loved so much … and had spent so so so so much money on (and hadn’t finished redecorating and renovating) my Dad said “Don’t worry, your Bum is right behind you.” The looks on the ambulance guys faces was priceless.

She rallied when they took her out and snapped out of her dehydrated unconsciousness enough to say “Make sure he’s got his damn keys!”

At the hospital my Dad paid a roving priest a C-note to give her Last Rites … my sister and I were silently weeping … “I’ll be following you soon,” my Dad assured her. “They won’t let you in,” she replied.

She was definitely having test runs to the Other Side and when she came back from one of them, her face beatific … her eyes and mouth smiling … it was so obvious she’d witnessed IT … she’d had a glimpse … a taste of IT … “What did you see?!” I asked, desperate to know this meaning of life! “I’m not going to tell you,” she said, smiling.

And I suppose I should confess that yes, I laughed at her deathbed … but in my defense:

Hospice – angels on earth, sayeth this atheist – had handed out a lot of literature about what to expect and it was so helpful and spot on. It mentioned how the dying person might be hesitant about leaving a person/s behind … be worried about them. That it’s a good idea to tell your dying loved one that it’s okay to go and that everything will be alright. I gently talked about this with my Dad at some point between that Tuesday and Saturday, because I knew she was worried about him … “He can’t even do the goddamned laundry!”

So. Saturday.
Donna had spent the night with her and called us early Saturday morning … “She was lucid this morning, she even got up a bit and we joked around – but now she’s deteriorating. She’s mottling. You need to get here as soon as possible.” I was unfamiliar with the word “mottling” and it was a weird image to think of Judi laughing one minute and then doing some sort of macabre voguing (I thought she was modeling) that was serious enough to warrant ringing of the bells.

So. My sister and I were there with her during the day while my Dad, who couldn’t handle it, went to the funeral home to make arrangements. Later in the afternoon, when she started dying, we were all there at her bedside … she’d not been awake all day … but in those last moments … her eyes were open … and fixed on my father … she mustered strength and breath she no longer had to mouth the words I Love You to him … indeed it was with literally her final breaths. Extraordinary. A gift.

Before that, though, we were all screaming our goodbyes – I noticed this in October with my Dad – instinct seems to be to YELL at the dying person how MUCH YOU LOVE THEM! – and my Dad, remembering what we’d talked about, said “You can go now,” “It’s okay, everything’s been taken care of.” … Well. Remember, I’d not slept and stuff. It was, I don’t know, the 114th time he said “You can go now,” that I could feel the laughter starting to bubble up, in a horrible Chuckles the Clown kinda way. Dear god, no, I thought … but Jesus, he kept on … until his tone warped into this “You can GO, already!” in my tiny, overwhelmed head. I did what I could, but was helpless to the spasm of laughter that erupted. I collapsed my head into my chest and only my sister knew I wasn’t crying. In my further defense, the next second I was weeping, okay? Okay???

My favorite memory of Judi isn’t even one I witnessed.
They lived off a busy road in Amherst, NH and one day there was a mama duck and her babies starting to cross the road. Judi pulled over and stopped both lanes of traffic until they all safely crossed.

You are missed, Judi … and although I don’t have the comfort of belief in an afterlife, I do believe that love never dies. Therefore, you certainly live on.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post! You really nailed it.

However I have read it thirty times now and am ready for a new one.

Thanks in advance.