Tuesday, July 1, 1986
It’s July first, 1986. The call comes from my brother Jack. “Dad’s in the hospital and Mom’s on a bender. We’ve decided one of us has to go home. You don’t have a job or children, so it looks like it’s got to be you.” Dad had called Jack because his right arm doesn’t work, and Jack’s number was preprogrammed in the phone. Jack called the hospital because Mom was too drunk to take care of Dad. I call to tell Mom when I’m due to arrive, afraid she’ll say “Why are you coming? We don’t need you.” She says “Oh, I’m so glad you’re coming.”
Wednesday, July 2
When I get home, Mom is getting ready to go to the hospital to see Dad. On the way over she complains that the hospital had called her last night at 9:30 to get permission to admit Dad because he couldn’t sign his name. “I don’t see why they had to call that late, why didn’t they get everything they needed before they left?” I bet she was drunk. She says “I don’t know what we give them all this money for. I’m not going to give them any more.” She acts like it’s a personal affront. I think of trying to explain to her about how big institutions work but don’t bother. She’s never wanted to know what it was like for anyone else.
In the hospital, Dad orders us around: “Get a washcloth. Rinse it out in warm water. Wipe my face. Put some ice cubes in a glass.” Then he fishes with his good hand in a drawer and brings out what looks like an eyeglass case. He hands it to me and says pour in about a third of what’s left. In the eyeglass case is a little flask of vodka. I pour it out for him. He can’t get very much down any more.
Dad asks me to cut his fingernails, something that Mom has real trouble doing. She can’t cut them close enough to please him because she’s scared of cutting him. I am able to do that just fine, especially after soaking them in warm water. Then he starts barking orders. “Open that drawer. Get out the envelope. Find Dr. —’S card. Go out to the desk and call him and get him to come cut my toenails.” Mom says with an edge in her voice “Why spend good money for that when I can do it?” I ask her if she wants to do it. She says yes, she likes doing it, even though she’s scared to do his fingernails. I tell Dad that his wish to save her trouble looks to her like rejection. He says OK and she is pleased.
We talk a little about trying to find home nursing care, so Dad can come home to see the Fourth of July special on TV. It’s the “Tall Ships” and sailing is something he really enjoyed. Dad says he knows Mom feels that getting nurses means she isn’t needed.
When it’s time to go, Dad says “I really love you, Froggie”, and she hugs him. I’m astonished to see that they really do love each other.
Here we have a man who has had a colostomy, has to be fed through a tube and get several medications every four hours (each time a different combination), who is on oxygen because his lungs are filling up with fibrous growths. He has a tumor in a lymph gland that is pressing on a nerve and causing weakness in his right arm, which means that he can’t even put on his oxygen tube by himself. He’s also beginning to be confused part of the time, probably because of all the drugs and who knows how they react with the alcohol. He’s still drinking, it’s all he can get through his swollen throat. And a woman who is elderly and herself an alcoholic has been taking care of this man for three months. Incredible! And totally crazy.
Thursday, July 3
Thursday morning. I’m awakened by the phone. It’s the doctor saying that Dad needs a scan related to more radiation treatments, and then he can come home. Mom comes in with a cheery good morning. I tell her what the doctor said and she crumples and begins to cry. She mumbles that she and Dad had made some sort of agreement on Sunday, presumably that he would have no more treatment, and now she feels he has let her down.
We are in the kitchen cooking lunch. We talk about taking care of Dad when he gets home. I say I’m concerned because I could handle giving him his drugs but I can’t deal with the colostomy bag. She says she has no trouble with the colostomy, she’s been helping him with it all along. I say we make a good team. We hug. I feel that everything is going to be all right, between the two of us we will be able to take care of him for the weekend.
But during lunch she begins to go downhill fast, her speech gets slurred, she begins to talk incoherently. I say “Mom, if you’re going to act like this, Daddy will be really unhappy and it makes me feel scared about taking care of things.” I speak sharply and she shuts up. I think what if his colostomy bag has to be emptied, and Mom is out of it. He can’t do it because his arm doesn’t work. If I try to do it I’ll vomit. (Get so intimately involved with the body of that hated tyrant? YUCK!) If I get nurses in the house Mom will lose it completely. If I ask to have Dad kept in the hospital over the weekend, she’ll get angry and say I don’t trust her.
After a bit of agonizing, I decide I can’t handle it, I’ll have to get nurses for the weekend. I say to Mom “I don’t like to go behind your back, so I’m telling you now that I can’t handle it and I’m going to call and get help.” She is very bitter. She goes off to bed.
I talk to a social worker at Cancer Home Care and describe the situation. I say Dad has a feeding tube and a colostomy and a complicated series of medications, and Mom has been taking care of him. She says in astonishment “At home?” I say yes. I say I had to take the responsibility for getting the nurses in the house because neither of them would. The social worker is very supportive, tells me to make sure that I take care of myself. She tells me I’ve done the right thing. This is a relief to hear after Mom’s complaining.
Suddenly the door bell rings — it’s the ambulance with Dad. I run up to wake Mom, it takes quite a bit of shaking. I say “Dad’s home.” She lights up like a Christmas tree. I turn on the air conditioning and the oxygen. I go back to the ambulance to tell Dad that Mom’s not too good. They bring him into the house on a rolling stretcher. He insists on walking upstairs. They say “Boy, you’ve got gumption.” They sit him on the bed. As soon as they are out of the room he says “Bring me a martini.” I get his ice and his glass and his little carafe of vodka. He tries to gulp it down in spite of the fact that he can’t swallow and ends up spitting most of it out.
I say that there are nurses coming round the clock and the first one will be arriving in about an hour. Mom is crabby and bitter, but she manages his 4:00 feeding and medication just fine. She is starting to give him a bath when the doorbell rings. I go down and it’s Irma — curly greying hair, snub nose, Kentucky accent. I tell her about the situation, that they are both alcoholic. She says “no problem.” I take her up but see that Dad is undressed. “Oh, he’s having his bath, maybe we’d better wait.” She says “Why don’t I do that?” Mom backs away. Irma walks right up to Dad and introduces herself. He’s sitting there, naked, looking all pitiful and shrunken, and he draws himself up and glares, for all the world like Ebenezer Scrooge, and says “How much do you charge?” Irma is momentarily taken aback, then speaks right up: “so much per shift, so much per weekend shift, time and a half on holidays.” He says OK so she gives him his bath.
Friday, July 4
This morning Mom is really crabby. First she sneers: “We don’t need these high-powered people.” She says “It’s inexcusable.” This makes me feel like dirt, since I was the one who had done it. She makes one of those suspicious little trips out of the room, to which her children are all sensitized, preceeded by a perfectly innocent excuse: “I’m going to find the paper”, “I’ve got to clean up a little in the pantry”, etc. We know she’s going for a nip out of one of the hidden bottles.
Mom complains about the cost of the nurses. She says “We’re paying them so much, and the house is still a mess.” I say “Shall we get a housekeeper instead, is that what you want?” She says “That’s a very unfair question to ask me.” She complains that the nurse emptied the wastebasket. I say “What’s the matter with that?” She says “We aren’t paying them all that money to take out the garbage.”
She complains that Dad made her come in and show the nurses how to do the colostomy bag. “We’re paying all this money and I don’t get a break.” I tell her to say “No, let the nurse do it.” Then she starts in about how the nurses aren’t any good and she can do it better. I say I think she and Dad are more relaxed since the nurses came. She said she is “tenser than ever.” I feel terrible. I got the nurses to make things comfortable for Dad, but she’s angry about it.
She says that until Dad went off in the ambulance Tuesday night she had felt in control and now control had been taken out of her hands. I feel she’s blaming me. I hurt like hell inside — I made a difficult decision, trying to make things easier for Dad, and she’s angry about it.
Mom is still upset that he is going for the radiation treatment. When I ask her why, hoping to get her to talk about it, she says as nastily as possible “You don’t know?” I say “I don’t know unless you tell me”, and she says “I just don’t know where to begin.”
Dad & Mom & the nurse & I all watch the tall ships on TV this morning. Dad seems to enjoy it. I love the part where they just have music and a lot of pictures of ships and white sails and sparkling water.
Mom has him completely in her power for the first time. I hear her on the phone, saying with delight “It’s like having an infant in the house.” No wonder she doesn’t like the nurses.
We talk with the day nurse about Dad going for more radiation treatment. I’m confused because I don’t know what Dad really wants. Mom thinks he’s being railroaded by the doctors. Mom says “If I had my way, I’d call a halt to the whole thing.” I say, very straight and serious, “Why don’t you?” She is silent for a moment, then says ‘“I can’t tell you that.”
Dad says to me: “The doctor made the arrangements and I didn’t say no.” I ask “Is it what you really want? Because if not all you have to do is say so — I’ll support you.” He says he doesn’t know.
Mom says that he told her he was doing it because the doctor wanted him to. The nurse says that the treatment might reduce the swelling and ease the pain. She doesn’t think he would regain the use of his arm. Of course he’s really panicked because with only one arm he’s completely helpless, he can’t even put his oxygen tube back without help.
Mom keeps saying “If he can’t be whole again, what’s the point?” Dad’s in the same boat. He doesn’t want to go on, but he’s not capable of saying STOP. And the medical people, true to their training, will go on trying to save him until he dies or somebody says no. They’re like two ships without captains, at the mercy of winds and currents. So it’s left to me to make the decisions.
Mom’s worried about how she will cope with the Hospital. I call the social worker who is helpful about arranging ambulance pickup. I mention the alcoholism and then begin giving monosyllabic answers. She says “Your alcoholic parent is standing right there so you can’t say anything.” I say “You’ve got it!” We both laugh.
This evening we watch the fireworks. We think the show will begin at 8:00. Dad puts off his sleeping medicine and gets comfortable on the couch. But the fireworks don’t begin til nearly 10:00 — Dad is too tired to enjoy them and begins to complain about the background music. He gets really angry. He would have stormed off to bed except that he has to get the nurse to help him. I can see that Mom thinks that it’s all her fault that the fireworks were no good.
I go outside to get away. I hear fireworks all around. I can see a few in the southeast. Mars is right there too, and Saturn in Scorpio. The trees are full of fireflies — it is lovely and magical.
After Dad is in bed, the nurse explains to Mom that the radiation treatment would spare Dad some pain. Mom says: “We’ve already been through that.” Nurse: “Yes, but this is a new site, they have to do it again for each new site.” Mom: “Why put us through all this business again?” Nurse: “If I were you I’d have the radiation, but not chemo-therapy.” Mom (outraged snarl): “Oh, they know better than to talk about chemotherapy to us. But why do the radiation?” Nurse: “Because it would spare him the pain.” Mom: “But why spare him the pain? If he just stopped being fed…” I can’t believe she’s saying this. I say: “Mom, the radiation won’t prolong his life, it will just make it a bit easier.” Mom: “But why do that?” (How do you answer such a question?) I start an angry “Mom —” but stop myself from asking “Are you going to take responsibility for stopping his food?” the nurse catches my eye, she gives a tiny shake of the head. Her support helps me swallow my anger.
Just now I hear Mom say to the nurse “He’s in pain. That’s all I care about.” I want to smack her, the hypocrite.
Saturday, July 5
Saturday morning. Mom says: I don’t understand why he has to go in for therapy. I say the doctor thinks it will relieve the pain and make him more comfortable. Mom: what does that matter? (I feel a surge of anger, how can you say that you bitch?) I say: Don’t you want him to be more comfortable? She says: He’s been uncomfortable for a whole year. She keeps going on and on about how she doesn’t want the therapy. (“I can’t seem to get through to anybody.”) (Yes Mom you get through, we just don’t agree with you.) I keep saying it’s to make him comfortable, not to prolong his life.
She says (dramatically, like a soap opera): “Three more months like this” (gesturing upstairs) “What’s the good of that? If he can’t be whole again…” She says “He’s not the man I love any more.” She says he’s a vegetable. (How can she say that? He’s still conscious, he’s still talking, as far as I can see he’s as much there as he ever was.) Yet she won’t leave, or give up and let the nurses do it. She complains that they don’t know what they’re doing, that she has to be there to tell them what to do, that she gave Dad better care, that the two of them had a routine worked out. She says she was doing a good job and enjoying it and now that’s taken away from her. I feel like this is all my fault.
I bring down the nurse’s bill. Mom reacts with her usual negativity. “I just don’t like to be pressured and that’s all I’ve had.” I know she doesn’t want to pay them.
I’m trying to help Dad with the mail, a bill for boat insurance. Mom (nasty): “What do you want to do that for? You won’t be using a whaler, It’s just sitting there at the Yacht Club, other people are using it.” Dad: “That’s what I want and I’m going to give it to Jesse.” Mom: “Jesse doesn’t want a whaler.” Jenny: “Lay off, Mom.” He asks her to go get the checkbook to find out how much the insurance cost last year. She pretends she can’t understand the request. He gets angry, shouts (to the best of his breathless ability) “Don’t make me waste my oxygen!”
Mom complains about the nurses: “why pay them to sit around doing nothing most of the time.” Dad reacts: “Don’t talk to me in that harsh voice. I can’t stand it. You keep quiet and I’ll talk to Jenny.” I don’t like the way he talks to me in her presence like she wasn’t there. I ask Mom if she would like to have a “shift” of her own, replacing one of the nurses. She says “I don’t want them in the house at all, I don’t think he’ll last two weeks, I don’t understand why they want to take him to the hospital.”
The nurses are free-lance, they like to be paid within a couple of weeks rather than waiting for an insurance check. Dad doesn’t trust Mom to pay them because she’s been complaining so about them. So he asks me to write out the checks and then make Mom sign them. I say “I can’t make her sign them.” I go down to get the checkbook, even though I feel it’s an insult to Mom. I tell her he has a bee in his bonnet about paying the nurse tonight and why not humor him. She gets all huffy, “I don’t like to be distrusted.” She gets out the checkbook and whines “I can’t do it til I’ve balanced it. I’ll go up and tell him.” I say “You don’t want to get in a fight do you? I’ll go up and tell him you want to balance it.” I tell Dad “Don’t push her, she’ll just resist.” He agrees. I go back to Mom. She snarls: “They don’t need their money right away, they can’t cash a check tonight.” I say “I don’t think the nurse cares at all. I recommend humoring Daddy.” She grumbles. I say “Well you can do it or not do it, it’s your choice.” She says “Oh sure,” very sarcastic. I repeat “You don’t have to do it.” She says “humph” and goes to Dad. I can hear them fighting.
They are in two different rooms. I am walking back and forth carrying the checkbook. Mom says: “I don’t like being pushed.” Dad says: “She’s making me a liar.” I feel like the ambassador to the Russians.
She says: “I talked to the doctor today and I just can’t seem to make her understand,” meaning the doctor continues to think Dad should have the radiation. Mom says “Nobody listens to me.” I say “The radiation may make him more comfortable.” She says “What does it matter.” I want to kill her.
I sit in the bedroom between them. I say to Dad: “She doesn’t want to be pushed.” I say to Mom: “Dad told the nurse he would pay her tonight and now he has to go back on his word.” I say to Dad: “I won’t write the checks for Mom to sign, it’s unfair to her. You can explain to the nurse.” I say to Mom: “I’ll put the checkbook downstairs and you can pay them in the morning if you want to.” This is how they choose to spend the last days of their time together.
Mom & I are spending a nice quiet evening with Dad on the night before he goes into the hospital. We are formally invited to “join him for the cocktail hour”, the nurse leaves the room. Do we have a pleasant visit, some gentle sharing? Not at all. First there is part of the great checkbook war, including bringing the balance up to date and checking whether the charitable contributions had been paid and recorded. Then the business of finding the flasks and filling them with vodka to take to the hospital. Two of the ones that look like eyeglasses and a larger one. We can’t find the larger one, we look all over the dressing room. I’m thinking this may be his last visit with me and all he cares about is alcohol. Mom says there are more flasks downstairs, but that doesn’t appease him. They’re cheap plastic flasks. I say “Why is this one so important?” He looks at me sheepishly and says, “We need all four of them for travelling, I keep hoping I’ll travel again.” I say, as gently as possible, “Dad, you won’t be travelling again.”
For the visit, Mom had got dressed up and put on a blue and green dress that’s casual but elegant. When she walked in, he said she was too dressy and she was crushed. Later, outside, we talked about how he was lying there, in his underwear, and of course felt defensive. She understood, but it never seems to sink in. I suppose it takes years of practice to learn to see from someone else’s viewpoint. Later still, Dad said how pretty the dress was. She blushed and smiled like a teenager. They do really love each other, I’ve been able to see that in these last few months. When I was growing up I thought they hated each other because of the way they acted. Neither of them ever learned how to behave lovingly. Their marriage was one long battle for control.
I call Aunt Betty for help and have to leave a message. She calls at about ten. I answer the phone and immediately burst into tears, my god a sympathetic responsible adult to talk to. After I calm down I describe the situation. Aunt Betty is very supportive. I tell her that I had called to get the nurses because neither Dad nor Mom would take responsibility. She is dumbfounded. I tell her I’m upset because I’m caught between the two of them. She says “No, you can’t do that. Leave immediately if you have to and let them fight it out.” Mom comes into the room. I keep on talking like she wasn’t there. I’m sick of carefully editing my telephone conversations. I say “It’s totally crazy here.” I say “They’re behaving like two-year-olds.”
Mom is still in the room after I hang up. I say “I’m exhausted, I’m going to bed, good night.” Halfway up the stairs, I hear her call. I go back and she wants Irma’s last name — she’s writing the check. Or at least I think she is, I don’t stay to see.
Sunday, July 6
This morning she starts into her routine about how she doesn’t like him going for radiation, and the nurses aren’t doing the colostomy bag the way she learned to do it and she thinks it’s painful for Dad. “When you’re used to doing everything correctly and see everything going flooey, it’s distressing,” says she slurring her words and staggering slightly as she leaves the room.
I won’t be seeing him tomorrow, so when the ambulance comes for him, I say good bye knowing that I might not see him again. As they are wheeling him away he looks straight at me like he has just realized he might not see me again. He says “Thank you.” I burst into tears.
I talk to my brother Jesse on the phone. I say I’m emotionally OK but physically burned out. He says “Get outta there, Sis.” I say I’m torn apart between the two of them. He says, yeah, that’s what they did to us as kids.
I get a reservation out on a plane tomorrow. Mom’s supposed to go stay in a room next to his at the hospital. She’s not looking forward to it. She’s scared: it’s a big confusing impersonal place. She says “Nobody’s ever done this before.” I say “There are lots of other wives in your situation.” She doesn’t want to hear it.
I try again “There will be other wives there with their husbands. Maybe you’ll even like some of them.” She starts to resist, maintaining her posture of being the only one who’s ever gone through this, then she laughs, accepts my suggestion, says “I’ve always liked people.”
Two weeks later:
He’s been in a coma for the past week. On the day he was supposed to get out of the hospital, I arrive from the airport. Mom says “Do you want a glass of water?” She gives me one without waiting for a reply. I think this is an odd greeting. She says “Sit down.” I sit. She says “You’re the last to know. We lost him this afternoon.” What did she expect, that I’m going to faint? At least she’s sober.
My brother and sister and I go to view the body. The coffin is at one end of a big room lavishly decorated with white and gold. He’s wearing his green LL Bean shirt. His cheeks are puffed out from the prednisone. He looks like a chipmunk. I touch his cheek. It’s cold and hard and rough, like painted plaster. We say things we couldn’t say while he was alive. Jack says “You were a lousy father and we love you.” We laugh and cry and hug each other.
I’m by the graveside. It’s just the family and a few close friends. The minister says something about “all his defilements shall be washed away.” I imagine my father free of the disease of cancer, the disease of alcoholism. The service is over. The gravediggers wait for us to leave, but we want to be there. They take away the green tarp that has concealed the grave and lower the coffin. It’s a creaky, clumsy business. They take away their equipment and my brother Jesse jerks the shovel of the pile of dirt and hands it to me “You first, Sis,” because I’m the eldest. I shove the spade in the dirt and throw some on my father’s coffin. I feel enormous satisfaction.
When we get back to the house, it feels unfamiliar, decontaminated somehow. The emotion is palpable but I can’t name it. Years later, I am reading a book by an incest survivor. She describes feeling “not terror” when she went back to her father’s house after his death. That’s it. “Not terror.”