April 24, 2020

Father and Son

Father and Son

Another gray hair springs up on my head:
a dandelion in a suburban lawn.
I’m getting old.

I now strategize how I am going to pull myself off the floor,
which result in pushing,
but not too hard,
cause then my bum left wrist will act up,
sending pain messages:
"This is a test of the Emergency Alert System.
Sometime in the distant past you fucked up your wrist.
We don't know why, but it hurts so don't put much pressure on it.
This is only a test."
Oh, my, I’m getting old.

Taking a shit
is now a sort of study session,
where two hours later I reappear after finishing the latest double issue of Rolling Stone.
I'm debating moving a book shelf into the bathroom,
so I'm never forced to abort
because I finished what was at hand.
Yet, I'm peeing every 20 minutes
as if my prostate has swelled and now presses up against my bladder
like dancing with a drunk cowboy at a Country & Western Bar.
Oh, my God!
I'm getting old.

Oh, yes, I can tell you who I voted for in 1984-Reagan,
then switched over to Democrats every year after that,
have lived long enough to watch schools that I went to demolished,
parks paved over by interstates,
and what life was like when you had to use a rotary dial telephone and a party line.
Oh, my God, I'm getting old.

The other day I saw myself in a picture,
and despite what I thought,
I looked fucking pregnant.
It wasn't a joke.
I'm all toned legs, then arms
and then this medicine ball below my breast.
And I've aged,
but not like a fine wine or some cheese,
more like rotting meat or vegetables in a compost heap.
I may be good for some thing, some day,
but I ain't gonna look like this when that happens.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are indeed benefits.
I'm called Mister or Sir a lot,
people think my opinion really matters,
I’m not dismissed as young and inexperienced
and can actually look at women without the first thought automatically being,
No, that thought is a little bit later,
after the one that starts out with,
"What the fuck is that shooting pain in my...."
or "Damn, I’ve got to stop drinking coffee."
or "Coffee.  I need more coffee."

Oh my God!, I'm getting old.

                Sunday morning and I've been trying to touch base with my father a bit more.  But today, my wife is calling to wish my mom and early, “Happy birthday.”  So after 20 minutes, my wife hands me the phone, and I'm talking to my mother.
[Gordon & Sue]

            "So, what are you planning on doing for your birthday?" 
            She notes that she's probably not going to do anything, but hopes that they'll be able to go up to the mountains and celebrate her birthday as well as their anniversary (which is also in the same month).
It's their 55th anniversary, which is long time to be with someone, she notes, "even if that someone is asleep in his chair with his mouth open."
            I didn't think much of the comment at first.   Now, however, I'm struck by how it didn't really surprise me that he'd be asleep in his chair. 
[Retirement, the early years]
            When my mother finally retired, my parents set out on the road.  In a move that was a bit "disconcerting," they sold their house in Bailey, Colorado, dumped quite bit of the money into savings, and took the rest and bought a trailer--a 5th Wheel.
[5th Wheel]
            For the next few years, they traveled from campground to campground.   Sometimes they were the campground hosts; sometimes they just hung out.   As they traveled they developed a recurring circle of stops.   One such stop, which eventually became permanent, was Deming, New Mexico. 
            Deming is a small town near the Mexican border in western New Mexico.  I'm not entirely sure what prompted its town founders into putting a town there, but "sleepy" is an apt description.  Deming has brutal summers, but the winters are mild beyond belief. 
            Now, I'd like to downplay my parents' concern for my well being and ignore Deming's proximity to Albuquerque, about 3.5 hours, but their choosing Deming highlights the changes that would take place during their tenure there.  Thus, not too long into my parents' retirement, my longtime girlfriend, Maria, and I broke up. 
[Maria and Don]
            To say that I was emotionally prepared to handle this break-up, however much I saw its necessity, is to downplay what certainly guided my parents' decision making.  For much of that year, my parents split their time between Deming and a campground at the top of nine mile hill due west of ABQ.
            I was lonely, depressed, rundown, and in way over my head. I was also operating on a plan that went something like this:   get a teaching job, get out of the restaurant business, and start a family.  But depressed, around Thanksgiving, a little voice inside my head said, "Instead of offing yourself, why don't you just quit teaching at semester?"  Smart voice.  So in the winter of '97, I quit teaching and went back to waiting tables.
            This afforded my parents time again to travel and their retirement changed from a series of circles to out-and-backs.  They'd travel in spring and summer and then come back to Deming to sit out the winters.   My dad liked playing golf and the constant travel was beginning to wear thin.  A few short years later, they bought a small house in Deming and parked the 5th wheel in the backyard.
            Their days of traveling were over, and I was led to believe that they were just tired of the rootlessness of being an RVer.   What I later learned was that the physical demands of having to get the trailer ready for every trip was just too much for my father.   My mother never really adapted to driving with the trailer so their time on the road meant that he was behind the wheel the whole time as well.  
Yet the house, at first, didn't offer much more than the 5th wheel, so my parents began a series of projects.  With my father as lead project manager and chief laborer, they installed locks on the doors, tore out a brick planter in the front, replaced their casement windows, tiled the floors, remodeled the bathroom, knocked out a wall between the living room and carport and enclosed the carport greatly expanding the living room, built a brick fence around the front with gates, added a half bathroom, stuccoed the house, and installed a new door from the kitchen to the back patio.  On the back patio they covered it with the awning.  

The Awning

A being capable of anything:
long drives without bathroom breaks,
driving around me on the basketball court,

asking for the Phillips head, flathead, crescent wrench, socket set
as I stumbled through the basic fixes,
unable to summon the patience
to read directions, pay attention,
to think before I acted.

Now, in a year when I actually worked on my car and made it better not worse,
to think that I would be the missing variable
in the equation of his retirement awning.

I was the one who climbed up on the ladder,
who lifted the heavy, yet not unbearable weight above my head
and up and over and down the post,
the crossbeam resting on both sides in position for the washer, bolt, washer, nut.
I was the able body, the patient mind, the driving force.

In the afternoon, I knew he was tired,
wanted to call it quits and disappear into a cold shower,
the leaning rock of recliner,
but I insisted.

Let’s get as much done today as possible.
He plugged away, though watched me work more often than in the early morning hours.
And we did as much as we could with the materials at hand.

In a small town, 60 miles from the next bigger town,
we were stuck.

This suited him fine,
and I looked at the mass of wood, crossbeams, canopy pieces, bolts, hoists, joints, and nails,
and knew that I was strong.
I was the body that my brain could still abuse.
And my father, once capable of anything, was old.

 [Prostate Cancer]
                To be honest, I don't really know when my father got his diagnosis.  As is common in our family, we just don't talk about those things, or, more than likely, it is just not something my parents shared with me.   The whole notion of having to think about what my body is doing is, frankly, a little strange, so to think about what my father’s body is doing is even stranger.   For example, I don't remember me and my father ever having "the talk."  I know me and my mother talked about it when I was in late high school.  From my cloudy recollection it went something like this.
                My mom, "What is she doing in your room?"
                Me, "Um....nothing.  We're just hanging out."
                "No.   You cannot, under any circumstances, be alone with a girl in your room with the door shut."
                "But...we were just talking."
                "Right.   How are you going to feel when you meet her sometime in the future and you've had sex with her but aren't with her anymore?"
                So, it doesn't come as much of a surprise that I don't know when he was actually diagnosed.   I do remember periodic updates on what his PSA count was and what steps they were taking.   My parents have an aversion to taking pharmaceuticals and even with a prostate cancer diagnosis my father tried to supplement what his doctors required with avoiding certain foods, taking whatever miracle cure my mother researched, and vitamins, lots and lots of vitamins.
                These attempts to manage the cancer came to a screeching halt in the winter of 2008.   In a frantic set of phone calls and negotiations between me and my sisters, it was determined that I needed to get down to Deming and assess what had happened.
                At first, they thought my father pulled a muscle working at the country club (he was helping out part-time so he could play golf for free), so he laid low for a little bit, got a massage, and loaded up on Tylenol hoping it would just go away. It didn't go away.
                When I arrived, my father was "sleeping" in a chair in the living room because he was in too much pain to lie down.  He couldn't feel his legs, but thought maybe it was just because he couldn't lie down.  They'd go to the hospital, wait for the specialist to come out and see if the specialist called for further tests.  By this time, my parents thought it was his gall bladder, but the doctor wasn't convinced because some of his complaints were asymptomatic;  he was in constant pain and it didn't get noticeably worse when he ate fatty foods.   So they'd been going to the hospital, waiting for the specialist, getting a test, then waiting for the results, then meeting with another specialist, all while my father was losing the ability to control his legs. 
                My God!  Just last week they thought he'd pulled a muscled and now he couldn't even stand up on his own; he couldn't get up and down without help.  He couldn't control his legs.       
                My father is not a small man.  He's six foot three inches tall and, at this time, hovered around two hundred pounds. My mother is five foot five inches tall and maybe clocks in at one hundred and twenty.   Having to help him get up and down, move about the house was a big undertaking for her.  For me, it wasn't physically demanding, but emotionally I was a bit freaked.
                Similar to what I did when my father laid out a year hoping his ruptured disc would heal in the early '80s, I poured myself into a role playing game.   Then it was Dungeons & Dragons and I'd spend hours copying my character onto new and improved character sheets, designing dungeons, reading up on the monsters, etc. This time, I poured myself into World of Warcraft, spending hours playing the game to just distract me from my complicated and unpleasant emotions, and avoiding my real life role of son.
[WOW Screenshot]
                Deming, a perfect town when they were healthy, was too far away from me and my sisters.  What followed was a series of phone calls trying to determine the best course of action.  My oldest sister, while agreeing that this was a big deal wasn't sure if my solution (moving them to Colorado) was actually the best idea.
                Finally, things came to a head and we took my father to Las Cruces, the emergency room. 
[Las Cruces]
                We tried to do as much as we could in Deming, but the lack of any tangible results and the constant waiting was too much.  Once removed, the pain would subside and he'd recover the feeling in his legs and be back on his feet in no time.
                In the emergency room, they drugged him up, scheduled an MRI and checked him in.  He was right; it was his gall bladder, but it was also something else.  

At the Hospital

At 3:50 in the morning, the computer, asleep,
like I should be,
doesn’t wake fast enough.
Writing, I realize,
is all secretarial, taking dictation,
and it is only at 3:54.
and the words are coming faster than my finite motor skills can type them.

We are all so frail, fragile, complicated machines
that can do so many things.
Yet upon spending any time at all in a hospital
we make these silent pronouncements,
these proclamations,
“I will never pass this way.”
And, “I will not be such a burden.”
And, “I will not ask my family to do this and that.”
But in the end I realize that those words are hollow, meaningless.
I don’t have control of that either,
and when my machinery gives out,
I will ask a stranger, the nurse,
to help turn me over,
a family member to put a pillow behind my head,
stretch my foot (clad in tube sock and smaller, frailer than I thought it'd be).
Does dignity have meaning?
Are vows hot air?

My body, in its long slow decay, surrenders to mechanical failure.
That is my realization
not bitter betrayal.
Words forgotten.
Letters that couldn’t be typed fast enough,
and a period placed, then erased, then replaced
as the words (once so clear at 4:01 a.m.) just decay
and no longer betray the once clear thought.
that you transcribed this day.

                The initial guess that the loss of feeling in his legs being due to not being able to lie down was wrong.  His prostate cancer had metastasized and there was large tumor pressing on a nerve that ran down to his legs. They removed the tumor, but the damage had already been done and my father's days of playing golf were over.
                It seems silly characterizing the complications and further damage as meaning nothing more than the end of a hobby, but golf was part and parcel of who my father was.  He'd always played golf and sold me on Deming because he could play in the winter.   With the question now being, "Is he ever going to walk again?" the question, "Why Deming?"  was answered in new way. They were in Deming because he could play golf.   And if he couldn't play golf, let alone walk, there was no reason to stay.
                A few more phone calls and it was decided.  My parents would move up to Greeley, a few blocks away from my oldest sister.  My other two sisters were in Denver, about an hour away, so, to me, the move made perfect sense. 
                In time, some of his mobility would return, but he’d walk positively shaky.   He'd never regain the balance he had before and certainly grew more dependent.   The transformation was more than physical, for both my parents.   Clearly, they need help now, and their independence, once prized, they shrugged off.   Still gracious, but not so proud.  
                I find myself, upon visiting them, insisting that my mother give me a list of things they need done.  Inevitably, it involves moving furniture, crawling under desks, scaling ladders, all those things that my father just can't do anymore.   He's grateful, communicates what he wants, and doesn't seem to mind the shortcuts I inevitably take.    It just seems like old age just suddenly caught up to them.   Maybe old age catches us all?

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