Thursday was my father’s seventy-third birthday and I spent part of the afternoon, with my mother, checking out the hospice suite where he is going to die. To say it was a surreal moment doesn’t even touch it.
In August my dad went to the hospital for a cardiac catherization because he had a stress test at his cardiologist’s office that didn’t go very well. Dad walked into that hospital under his own steam hand in hand with my mom. He’s been there ever since. The test found blockages that led to bypass surgery where there were complications that caused the six hour surgery to last nearly twelve hours. A few hours later the surgeon had to go back in because there was bleeding. All the blood thinners Dad has been taking for years had done their job so well he wasn’t clotting properly. Then there was the pericarditis that no one knew about before the surgery that kept filling Dad’s chest with fluid. That required another heart surgery. By this time he was so bloated and his kidneys were so fatigued they shut down. The doctors started dialysis to fix that issue and give his kidneys a rest. His breathing was labored and his oxygen levels were low which resulted in a ventilator. Somehow he ended up with a tracheotomy so the ventilator goes right into his neck. This means he can’t speak, eat or drink. To compensate he has a gastric feeding tube. He is now in bed almost all the time except for an hour or two that he spends sitting up in a chair and machines are performing all his bodily functions. It’s astounding how his condition has snowballed. He walked into that hospital under his own steam and now he has to deal with all this and a dozen other indignities I prefer not to share with the internet.
Dad is a big man. Always has been. As a young, healthy adult he was six foot one and two hundred thirty pounds; his fighting weight. He liked to drink, loved a good meal and smoked like a chimney. He stopped drinking forty years ago. Stopped smoking thirty-five years ago. He and good food, however, have a life-long love affair. Not surprisingly he packed on the pounds and was eventually diagnosed with type2 diabetes. He’s been battling that since the late 80s.
When I was a little kid he was kind of scary. He was a US Marine once upon a time and studied to be an Irish Christian Brother for a while. He’s big and loud and honestly he’s complete crap with little kids. He never got the knack of dealing with them which sucks if you were one of his kids. By the time we each reached an age where he knew how to interact with us we were all done trying to deal with him. He did have his moments though.
I have a lot of fond memories mixed in with some misery. When I was in kindergarten he taught me how to play cards. By third grade we were playing chess together. He helped me study for the Richmond County Spelling Bee and thought it was funny that I was a Catholic School student and got eliminated for misspelling ‘religious’. I forgot the second ’i’. In high school I would stay up late discussing philosophy with him. He loves Thomas Aquinas. He introduced me to the work of Thomas Merton. He loves baroque music and specifically Bach and gave me an appreciation of it. The night after his original surgery I was in my parent’s home keeping Mom company. I went down into his office to get her some batteries. His space is the same sort of organized chaos that I have in my art studio here in my home. I realized that he and I have a lot more in common than I would have wanted to admit when I was younger. The house is filled with books. There is a stack next to his chair just like the stack next to my bed. There is usually a New York Times crossword puzzle on top of his book pile and he usually finishes it. I prefer other puzzles. We both love a good mystery and get a sense of satisfaction when exercising “our little grey cells.” He’s an introvert and so am I. We both experience and observe things at the same time. If you aren’t an introvert it’s hard to explain that. If you are an introvert you know exactly what I mean. To think of his agile mind trapped in his deteriorating body is almost too horrible to contemplate. I think it would drive me insane to be in his position right now.
The Hospice Unit is in the same hospital on a different floor. You wouldn’t believe it if you were there. The energy is completely different. It even smells different. The nurses were great in how they talked to my mom. The compassion was palpable. The head of the unit was explaining the philosophy of hospice care and how they take care of the whole patient and that his comfort is the priority. While she was talking I was wondering why that wasn’t part of the regular hospital care. Why does each system of Dad’s body have its own doctor? The heart surgeon is really pleased with the progress his heart has made. The rest of Dad has fallen apart but the heart surgery was a success. His kidneys failed so he needed to be treated by a kidney specialist. His breathing was inadequate so he needed a respiratory specialist. He has wounds now that aren’t healing properly so an infection control/wound care guy is now part of the team. But they don’t seem to really be a team. They are each acting separately on different parts of Dad as if those parts were not connected to each other and to the man who’s been using them all for seventy-three years. The hospice director went on about palliative care and I wondered if that is even paid lip service in the rest of the hospital. If that had been the philosophy of care from the beginning how would Dad be faring now?
I am amazed at what modern medicine can do but I’m not convinced it should be done in all cases. Looking back over the last three months we are all pretty much in agreement that the original surgery was a bad idea. The doctors aren’t saying that. Only one of them will even hint at it. At the time, not having the surgery wasn’t even really discussed as an option. Apparently the phrase “I’m sorry, there is nothing we can do for you.” is gone from the practice of modern medicine. I’ve met most of his doctors and they seem like decent people. No one set out to cause pain and suffering but that is the end result. It would have been better for Dad if his pulmonary artery ruptured in the comfort of his own home than in the operating room that first day. It would have sucked for a minute or two instead of slow torture over months. It would have broken Mom’s heart all at once instead of chipping away at it while she helplessly watched her husband die by degrees.
On Wednesday he told my mother that he was tired of it all, his body is wearing out and he wants to go home to God. To watch them together now is to see what marriage is all about. They celebrated their forty-eighth wedding anniversary in September in his hospital room. Over the years I have watched them snap at each other, kiss each other, yell, curse and walk away from each other. I’ve also seen them be there for each other like she is there for him now. They really are devoted to each other. The hospice director asked Mom when she thought they’d be ready to move Dad into the unit. Mom burst into tears. She knows this is the right thing for him. It’s what he wants and so she wants it for him. She doesn’t want him to suffer anymore. She said “We’ve been together for fifty years. It’s like you’re asking me when do I want to be cut in half.”
While Mom and I were upstairs the nurses put my dad back in his bed. I came back to his room to find my husband telling him all about what our kids have been up to. Dennis tells a very good story and Dad was smiling. We all have to wash our hands and wear rubber gloves in Dad’s hospital room but I could still feel how cold and swollen his hands were when I held them. It’s comforting and unnerving at the same time to see how at peace he is with his decision to stop treatment. He has lost so much weight he’s back down to his ‘fighting weight’. His muscle tone is all but gone. He looks old and frail and nothing like the scary guy I remember from childhood. I kissed him good-bye and brushed back his hair. He told me he loved me. I have no idea how I held it together but I did. I smiled at him and he smiled at me. I left that room knowing full well that I may never see him again. I was fine until we were driving home. Dennis had the radio scan for a station and it landed on classical music. I heard Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and I started bawling. In spite of everything and as long as I live, he will be my daddy and I’ll be his little girl. It’s just not right that my cat had a nicer death than my dad.
This is my dad and me in 1966. He’s about twenty-six years old and I’m a chubby seven or eight months old. I nearly lost this photo when our water heater blew. I’m so glad the important parts are still there.
One week ago, right about now, I was in a Master Class taught by James Wells. He took us through “The Sharing Process” using deliberately chosen tarot cards to define situations in our lives. He lead us through holding space for each other while we each expressed our challenges and gratitude with the issue we defined. Taking turns and being present with love while the other spoke with honesty was a deep and wonderful way to start this amazing conference.
James went on from there walking us through the stages of grief once again using tarot. We chose from our decks the Major Arcana that we thought represented each stage as defined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. We mixed them back into the deck and then did a reading for ourselves based on which stage showed up first. There were more questions to ask ourselves about the situation or person we were grieving and more cards drawn and interpreted. For me, at this time, grieving a loss is not an issue. When I went through my cards “Acceptance” was the first card up. (This is why I love tarot so much. It just gets it.) Over the course of my life I have lost quite a few people. When anniversaries come around this reading will be very useful to me. I can imagine it working well with a trusted client as well.
The last part of his class was to use tarot to deal with a Curveball Experience. Sometimes awful things happen suddenly and with no warning. Getting a handle on the situation and to help yourself process it James created the Curveball layout. Again, not apropos to my life right now but the genius and gentle power of it guarantees that it will be in my repertoire should the need arise for myself or a client.
Everything about this class was strong and gentle, just like James himself. His ideas and processes are very loving and brave. Digging deep into yourself in the quest for understanding yourself, your feelings and the best way to process it all is scary work sometimes. James didn’t flinch from this. He lost his beloved father just the past January and yet held space for all of us to do this work.
This class was a truly singular experience that will stay with me for a very long time. Thank you, Sir James.
There are many things that no one tells you about being a parent. It’s not that they are keeping secrets or candy coating the experience. It is simply that there are some things you cannot tell in a way that will make them understood. Some things need to be lived to be understood. Parenting is very much one of those things. We have five children. After each one was born and I was home that first night with our new baby there was a moment when I woke up in the middle of the night to feed the child and felt a bone-deep exhaustion I hadn’t felt since the last child was an infant. I could go on and on describing the feeling but unless you had that same sort of night you won’t really know what I mean. Letting new parents figure this out on their own is not cruel. There really is no other way to know it and that right there pretty much sums up parenting.
One of the many things you find out the hard way is dealing with illness. Try to take care of small children with a stomach virus while you yourself are afflicted and you’ll know what I mean. Thankfully those kind of bugs only last a day or two. Having a few friends and neighbors whose children have disabilities or serious, chronic illnesses keeps the whole stomach virus thing in perspective. So, when Joyful January turned into Germy January I tried to roll with it. I kept the phrase “This too shall pass” in the back of my mind and powered on.
It started when the littlest one came down with what we thought was a cold. She just turned thirteen so it’s not like caring for a frightened toddler. I didn’t give it much thought until the third morning when she wasn’t any better. She was, in fact, worse. I took her to the doctor thinking it might have been strep. He thought it was mono. It wasn’t mono. It wasn’t a cold. It wasn’t the flu. After a whole battery of blood tests we have no idea what it was. All we know is that it was/is a virus and it’s contagious. I like our pediatrician quite a bit. One of the reasons is because when he doesn’t know what the problem is he actually owns that. He is one of the few doctors I ever heard say “I don’t know what this is.” It is actually much more satisfying to hear than some made up diagnosis that means the same thing like ‘non-specific dermatitis’ which is doctor-speak for “I don’t know what caused this rash.”
Joyful January became Germy January and deteriorated into Jammies January which was the point when we gave up pretending and spent our days in our jammies. This past weekend was the first time since Christmas that I actually felt like myself. It was the first time in a month that I had a decent night’s sleep. I haven’t sneezed in a few days. Nothing is runny or swollen or achey. I managed to function at about half power for the last month or so. I didn’t feel well but didn’t really feel sick most of the time. I was sharing this feeling with three teenage girls. (Somehow my husband managed not to catch this. I think he should be studied.) None of us were very productive. The youngest one seems to have had it the worst and missed two weeks of school. The rest of us just went about our days as if we were sleep deprived and on the edge of a cold which is pretty much how it felt. According to the doctor this bug is going around. It isn’t killing anyone, just annoying the hell out of them so it may never get a name. If you catch it then you will know what I mean.
As for Joyful January, I still have all my notes but I’m not sure how I’m going to follow through. It’s obvious that I need a better blogging routine. I will be picking up where I left off with my card of the day on Facebook using the Joie de Vivre Tarot as I intended for the month of January.
Now, I’m going to go clean my house because I haven’t really done that for a month and a half and I just can’t stand it anymore.
February 2nd is Imbolc, the Pagan holy day associated with the goddess Brigid, patroness of poets among many others. She was later turned into St. Brigid, also the patroness of poets. In her honor on this day, for the last few years, many bloggers have posted poetry. I have actually lost track of the original blogger who started this but I like the idea so I’m going to keep doing it. I like to use Irish poets to honor an Irish Goddess/Saint.
The Two Trees
W. B. Yeats
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with metry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the winged sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.
Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile.
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For ill things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.