Knock Wood

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In March, I wrote a piece about one of my dogs, Millie.  It was in the days after our vet told us that she had cancer and he predicted she would not be long for this world.  I wrote of my sadness concerning the prospect of losing my beloved father and beloved dog in such close succession.  At the time of the writing, Millie’s stamina and spirits appeared to be on an upswing.  The piece was a prayer of sorts to and for my father and Millie and Eric and our other dog Ricky too.  I closed the blog saying that whenever her end came, we would say that we had longer together than we feared, but not as much time as we hoped.

I have hesitated writing about Millie because, I am as nervous on the page as I am in real life.  I won’t, can’t, say this without knocking on wood, but Millie is as Millie as ever.  Whatever is going on inside her body has not slowed her down much, if at all.  Her appetite is unfazed, her brother-sister wrestling matches have not waned.  There is one notable change, and I don’t hate it, I hope it goes on forever and only becomes more pronounced: she is even more spoiled than before.  There is always roast chicken in the refrigerator.  When she sits on the couch, she paws Eric or me to demand that someone pet her.  If she could have someone at home 24/7 to adhere to her petting needs, she would not say no.  And for all of this good, we acknowledge, we give thanks. But also with each other or to ourselves, Eric and I are always looking for a wood surface to tap our knuckles against and say again, “Knock wood.”

Two weeks ago, because she was doing so well, we brought her in to see the vet and to get a sense of how she was doing.  He felt the same areas of her stomach/abdomen/organs. With hope, he said, “I don’t feel the mass at all, this is great.” We weren’t shocked by the news, simply because she seems so healthy these days.  He suggested an ultrasound  to see what they might find. “Maybe Millie is a wonder dog,” he offered to us.  We scheduled it for the next day and for 24 hours, Eric and I went about our days with a cautious optimism.

A few hours after the ultrasound, the doctor told Eric that Millie was ready to be picked up and that the mass was actually still there, in fact, had grown a bit more.  Eric called to tell me and I hurried him off the phone.  I rushed to pick her up from the vet’s office and I brought her home. She was unfazed by all of it, but I was heartbroken. I went home and poured myself an early afternoon cocktail. (Mint vodka limeade, if you must know.) And I sat on the couch, my drink in my hand, the dogs flanking me and I called my Mom.  I started to tell her about Millie’s vet visit and the hope offered and then the second diagnosis, that the mass was still there.

I started to cry and then I cried harder and my Mom listened.  At one point, Millie jumped off the couch and ran into the bedroom to her secret spot under the bed. A dam had burst and my tears could not stop, in fact, they needed to flow. My Mom, listened and quietly assured me, “I know, I know.” And I wailed, not just about Millie but for my Dad too, how I felt that the last doctors Dad saw all, in their way, let him down.  They led him to believe that he was getting better while he felt worse every day.  They stopped looking him in the eye, taking him in. They did not compassionately say, “Your time is winding down, what are the things you want or need to do or say in these last weeks or months?” And my Mom and I, we cried to each other on the phone, not only that Dad was gone, but that he did not get to go in a less painful, less distressing, more life affirming way. (And let me say, I suspect that life affirming deaths might be a rarity.)

The vodka had started to act as both salve and fuel.  For 20 minutes we cried into our phones.  Not only about the sad parts of his death, but the happy parts of his life, how he beat cancer three times before. That he was truly surrounded by people who loved him at the end, and he knew, I hope, how much we loved him too.

Those last twelve hours, they stay with me. My Mom, my brother, my sister-in-law, my nephew, and my Dad’s best friend, we all sat in our living room looking at each other, wondering what we could possibly do to calm his spirit and ease his pain. We begged the hospice nurses for help, but help did not come until around 10:00 am Wednesday morning. The nurse gave us new pills for him.  We crushed them and, diluted with water, poured the solutiuon into his feeding tube. By 10:20 he was gone.  Almost immediately, the pained countenance left his body, but for the rest of us, it remained, and while I expect it will ebb and flow, the memory of those hours will never completely go away.

I am ashamed to admit that among the bounty of emotions I felt on that day and in the days after, woven into the sadness and the anxiety and anger and vulnerabilty, there was also a relief.  And then a little guilt.

I might be taking a risk to share that, but I have a feeling that relief and guilt are a part of it for many of us.

But getting back to that Monday a couple of weeks ago, when I cried those mint vodka lemonade tears and my Mom soothed my broken spirit with her own grieving heart.  When it was over, I think we both felt better.  I had cried like her baby boy that I will always be.  And she was there for me, she made it better. We each needed what we gave to and took from each other that day.

So now, like so many nights before, my Millie is sleeping on our bed, buried under blankets. In the spot on my side where my feet would go.  After I finish these last couple sentences, and tumble into bed,  I will have to crawl into a fetal position. I will do it happily, one baby making a place for another baby.

Before I drift into slumber, I will pray that tomorrow will be another good day for both Millie and Ricky, full of treats and massages and walks and chicken and naps and cuddles and love. And then I’ll tap the headboard two times. Knock wood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Postcard from Paradise Island

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I have not been writing much since my father passed away. This confession would probably sadden him a bit. Once, when he and I were driving to Kansas City last summer, the day we went to watch the Royals play, he told me that he thought I had a book in me.  I laughed it off, saying that I didn’t feel like I could write a book.  What I did not tell him, something he already knew, is that I wanted to write a book but was afraid of failing.

A few months ago, while my dad was alive, my mom pulled out a box of photos and cards that had been tucked away in some closet.  Some pictures were familiar and others, new to me.  The cards and postcards were mostly tourist notes from family and friends’ visits to New York and Los Angeles and Chicago and San Francisco, placed I grew up dreaming about and except for Chicago, went on to live in for a while.  The notes on the back could all have been written by John Cheever or Evan S. Connell characters, simple observations from a new city.  “The wedding was beautiful!” “This church is the view from our hotel room.” “Tell everyone at Newberry’s I miss them.”

My Dad’s work trip to the Bahamas in the 70s looms large in my youthful memory.  It sounded so much more far away and foreign than Tan-Tar-A or Colorado. After a week, when he came home, he brought gifts for all of us. He brought my Mom a straw beach bag with the word Nassau embroidered into it.  (She still has it.) He brought giant coconuts that we had to crack open with a hammer.  And Bahamian coins and dollar bills for my brothers and me. (I still have mine.) He told us stories about his time there, not that I remember any of it.  I was a little kid, just happy to have him home.

Apparently, he sent my Mom at least one postcard from his travels because we found it a few months ago.  The image above is the front and the following image is the message he wrote to her.filename-1-1 copy

“Theresa, Boys,

This is where we eat at about every night, (sic) the water. We went downtown last night to see a show that they have on the street. Everything is high here. This is Sat and we just got back from golfing. We went out at 9:30 am and we got back at 4:30 pm. Everything they do here is slow. We are all having a good time. I wished you were all here to see everything with me. Will see you Wed.

Love, Ray”

And then at the top of the postcard, written in ink, he wrote, “This looks just like it.”

The postmark, I believe says July 14, 1975.  I would have just turned seven.

43 years later, I reread every sentence.  I try to imagine him sitting down to write the postcard in his room or maybe the lobby bar. Was he drinking Cutty Sark and water while he penned this? Maybe smoking a cigar?

Did he really wish his family was there with him or was he glad to just be unencumbered for a few days?  No negotiating with his wife over whether each decision was something the family of 5 could afford.  No disagreement among 3 very different boys as to how an afternoon should be spent. I don’t really know what thoughts passed his mind, but I can ponder.  A mystery.  I study his penmanship and admire its attention to detail, its politeness.  I compare it to the writing in the notebooks he kept to communicate in the last few weeks of his life, when most of us had a hard time understanding his words.  His pain medication made writing difficult for him too.  There are pages where he wrote most of a sentence and then he would scratch it out.  Fearful that he could not communicate the things he was trying to say.

So many times, I’ve thought about something I wanted to say, about my Dad, or my Mom or my family or this new place I’ve found myself in life. Something will cross my mind while I’m swimming or reading a book or driving home from work, but by the time I sit down with my notebook, I don’t know what it is I want to say.  I start a sentence then scratch it out.

I don’t think my Dad thought I was an especially great writer.  (Not that he thought I was a bad one, I hope.) But on that day, almost a year ago now, as we drove to Kansas City, I think he knew two things.  He knew he was dying and he knew how much I would need to write to get through the days once he was gone. Certainly, I need writing more than it needs me.

So, here I have shared a postcard from 1975.  A message from a midwestern husband and father to his family back home.  It can be taken at face value, or it can be studied like a mysterious code.  Unlock the mystery of your father and you’ll unlock the mystery of yourself. Maybe.

 

 

 

Either Way, I’ll Be Okay

800px-Kauffman_Stadium_at_night,_2009I’ve been writing this post in my head for the last few weeks. I didn’t want to talk about it, because I didn’t want to jinx anything, but I have been caught up in Royal Fever like many of my friends and relatives who hail from Kansas and Missouri. Even now, I think I might have jinxed the team by watching the game, but I watched Tuesday night’s landslide game, so, well, one can see the trouble one gets into by overthinking stuff like this. In the end, the San Francisco Giants won the seventh game and the series. My Facebook feed is full of people expressing their pride and love and support for the 2014 American League Champions, the Kansas City Royals.

I really wanted the Royals to win. I don’t want to misrepresent myself, it’s not like I watched every game or even followed their trajectory for the majority of the season. Mostly, my Royals reports came only from my Dad. And I have to be honest, I really wanted my Dad to see his team win the World Series.

We were always a Royals household. Summer evening drives were accentuated by the sound of Royals baseball from the AM radio. When I was 6 or 7, we went to a Royals game and as we were leaving, a uniformed gentleman, singled me out and gave me a baseball that he told me was the one John Mayberry hit a home run with that night. The next day, we drove to a car dealership where Mr. Mayberry was signing autographs and he signed my baseball. It probably goes without saying, but when I think about baseball, I think about the Royals.

Two summers ago, I had a unique perspective. For the weeks that my Dad was at Kansas University Medical Center, most of that time was in a room on the 9th floor that overlooked most of the city, including Kauffman Stadium. My Dad wasn’t in such great shape in those days, but when there was a game, the tv was on. His bed faced west and the view of his room faced east. I would sit on a chair near the window, watching the game, watching my Dad and also look east to the dusky panorama that featured the stadium. Memories of those days are complicated, it felt so bleak, and there was something both comforting and vexing about the sights and sounds of Major League Baseball, the crack of the bats, the roar of the bleachers, the green, green field. While our lives as we knew it came to a complete halt, outside our window, life went on.

If you know the story, you know that my Dad did go home, he did get better. In fact, one of the things he credits for his return to health is the weeks watching the Royals play. There was something about watching their games that put him back into his own.

So if the Royals are even just one of the reasons my Dad is still with us, to me, it’s much bigger than winning a World Series. Last night, one of my high school friends posted a quote from one of my favorite movies, Field of Dreams, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again.” Sometimes people are surprised when I tell them this is one of my favorite movies, but it is. Besides being a love letter to baseball, it’s a love letter to a part of the country I cherish and most importantly, a love letter to dads.

On Tuesday, I called my Dad as I was driving to work. Game 6 was minutes away from starting. I asked him how he was doing and he told me, “Either way, I’ll be okay.” I laughed. We laughed. And last night, minutes after the game, I called him again. He was proud of his team, rightfully so, and was already looking forward to next season, hoping they could “keep this up.” While some might mourn the loss, my Dad was already looking to the future with optimism. That optimism has, for a lifetime now, served my Father well, so with any luck, it just might carry the Royals to a 2015 World Series victory. But either way, we’ll be okay.

About Fathers and Sons

167445_10151027019872755_1950056074_nI posted a blog yesterday that had a big response. I received several comments as well as several private messages about bullying and even about my specific subject, a person I’ll call Karl Johnson. Initially, I used his real name and I’ve since tried to go through and change the name to Karl.

I have one more memory of Karl that I’ll share and then, I promise, no more. Maybe it will make you like him a little more or have some compassion. Maybe you’ll just think I’m even brattier for sharing more ugliness about my little town.

Karl was an athlete, a good athlete. His father was also an athlete, and a coach. His father was at every game of Karl’s, City Rec through high school, either as a coach or cheering from the sidelines. Well, maybe cheering wasn’t the exact word. Karl’s dad was that dad who always yelled at his son from the bleachers that he was being an idiot when he screwed up. His constant verbal abuse was expected at every game, habitual. His wife, Karl’s mother, always sat meekly by his side. Was she embarrassed for her husband? Did he yell at her like that too? Was he even meaner behind closed doors? I wondered. Do I remember the exact names and phrases bellowed at those games? No, but I bet Karl does. I bet it’s affected him his entire life.

In our adult, 21st century vernacular, we understand how the bullied become the bullies. It can be and often is a natural progression. In it’s way, me trying to tell an unsavory story about Karl from 35 years ago could fall into that category.

I remember my junior high self sitting in the bleachers at basketball games reacting to Mr. Johnson’s predictable outbursts with a mix of pity and thrill. At least somewhere on earth, Karl Johnson was getting the treatment he deserved, what he doled out to others.

Did he deserve, at 11 or 13 or 16 to be called an idiot or a screw up or worse by his own father in front of hundreds of people? I don’t think so. Did Mr. Johmson’s outbursts make Karl a better player? A better student? Maybe.

Karl Johnson had much better grades than I did. He went to a much better college than I did. (No offense, OCC, I do love you, though.) I don’t doubt for a minute that Mr. Johnson loved his son and was proud of his son’s accomplishments.

My own Dad’s approach to fathering was different. Because it was a small town, I always felt a pressure to play sports. I was almost always the worst player on every team. One evening, after the last game of the the Little League season, I remember riding with my Dad to his work, the gas station he owned. It was closed, but he had to pick something up. And I remember sitting in the front seat, eating a Hershey bar and we were talking about the season that had ended. My Dad told me he was proud of me. And trust me, like I said, I was horrible. And then he turned to me and said, “I think next year will be your year.”

In most ways, that did not turn out to be true. When I signed up the next year, I was as bad as the summer before, but still, my Dad (and Mom, too) sat in the bleachers and cheered for me anyway, never missing a game, never failing to take me for a root beer sno-cone afterward. At 12, I thought I was lucky to have the parents I had. At 45, I know.

Anyway, that’s it. How self-absorbed to start talking about my bully and end up talking about me! I will keep my promise, though, nothing more about Karl Johnson. I do have compassion for him. Just like for the rest of us, his life wasn’t always easy.

Guest Blogger, Michael Patrick Gaffney: Old Wallpaper

wallpaper 2My good friend Michael has written another guest blog, the first guest blog of 2014!  Partly because my parents have lived in the same, relatively unchanged, ranch style house since 1980, I can relate to this story.  And yet, since this is a story about constants and changes and our relationship to those things, I am sure everyone can relate.  

Old Wallpaper

In 1973 my dad moved us from Queens, New York to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.  Needless to say it was a bit of a culture shock for the whole family.  No one could understand what we were saying with our thick, New York accents and every time the lady at the Piggly Wiggly store said, “Ya’ll come back now, ya hear”, we would literally come back to the counter wondering what we had done wrong.  It was like living on the planet, Mars.  But one of the great things about our move was that we got to watch our house being built.   The first time my dad took us to our lot, all that was there was the cement foundation.  Once a week the whole family would pile into the new Ford, Galaxy station wagon and check out the progress of our house.  Soon there were studs up, then walls, then brinks and stone, and then the roof.

When it was finally finished it was the quintessential 1970’s ranch house, with avocado green, shag carpeting, burnt orange appliances in the kitchen, a wagon wheel light figure in the living room and lots and lots of loud wallpaper throughout. 

Flash forward 40 years!  My mother and father still live in that same house, minus the green, shag carpet, etc.  When I was visiting last summer they mentioned that they might finally take down the old, original wallpaper in the half bathroom off the garage.  “Oh, no don’t!  That’s all that’s left of the original design and it’s so cute”, I pleaded.   I made sure to take a picture of the bathroom before I left in case they followed through with their foolish plan.

This morning on the phone, my mother casually mentioned that they finally remodeled the half bath off the garage.  She also mentioned that they were thinking of finally selling the house and moving to a smaller place.  A four bedroom house was just too much trouble for a couple in their late seventies.  It was time.

 It was just old and worn wallpaper, hanging in the half bath off the garage. It was dated and silly and dingy so it was time for it to be torn down and replaced with a fresh coat of beige paint.  Preparing the house for the next family to take over perhaps.  What’s the big deal?

But that wallpaper was my youth, my memories and a link to the past.  When I would visit my childhood home, little by little things would change but I could always go into that half bath off the garage and I was immediately  pulled back into the 1970’s and my childhood.  

As a kid I probably spent too much time in that bathroom, sitting there trying to figure out the story of those characters on that red and white, kitschy wallpaper. There was the woman sitting at her vanity painting her fingernails.  The bald man drying himself off with the checkered towel.   The woman with the night cap on, checking her wrinkles in the mirror.  The man in his bathrobe combing his hair.  The mom brushing her little girl’s hair while she plays with her toy, with the cat watching closely.  The naughty poodle pulling the towel off the rack.  What did it all mean?  Pondering it now I guess it was just a simple story about a family living together and sharing a space on a daily basis.  It could have been any family I suppose, but I guess to me it was my family that I imagined on that wall.   I think that is why I find it so hard to let go of it completely.   So this afternoon I blew up the picture I had taken last summer, put it in a frame and mailed it off to my folks.  I want it to be a reminder I guess…or a monument really, to that young family from Queens, New York starting off their new life and adventure together on the planet, Mars.

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We’re Looking at Christmas!

loopedopen460eNo surprise here, I have been following Valerie Harper’s cancer journey since she announced it last March.  I remember hearing her tell the story of receiving the dire diagnosis and the effect it had on her, her husband and daughter.  At the time, it reminded me of something my family experienced about the same time one year earlier.  I’ve talked about my Dad’s cancer here and here, but hearing Valerie’s story last March reminded me of the day that my mother left a message saying, “We just got out of the doctor’s office.  Go ahead and give us a call when you get a chance.”  I knew my parents had gone to the oncologist and I knew that if the news had been remotely good, she would have indicated as much on the voicemail.  I called her when I was in my car, driving home, along Olympic.  She asked if I was driving, I said I was.  She asked if I wanted to pull over, I told her I was fine.  She told me that the doctor told them that Dad had cancer in his jaw and they were going to perform surgery to remove the jaw.  It was not a surprising call, my Dad had been bothered by a persistant sore in his mouth for a few months, but it was not a diagnosis any of us were prepared for.  And soon, we went into the saddest, longest, weirdest summer of our lives.  My Dad had his surgery and after 2 surgeries, 5 weeks of hospitilazation, 3 or 4 staff infections, countless cards, flowers and prayers, he was back home.  And then, with each week that passed, there seemed to be more hope that he would get better.

Valerie Harper was on the Today show today, the link to the article and video is here.  The cameras were with her when she visited her doctor recently and he told her that her cancer was “pretty close to a remission”.  It’s heartwarming to watch, but what tugged at me the most is toward the end when Valerie and her husband Tony Cacciotti are talking to the cameras and he says, “Going from having three months to live, or less; we’re into our sixth month, and now there’s even hope beyond right now we’re looking at….” and his wife finishes his sentence with, “we’re looking at Christmas.”

Of course it made me think of my parents.  After such a precarious summer, it was not until October that I thought maybe my Dad would be with us to celebrate Christmas.  And as he continued to heal, I looked forward to the holiday in a way, I had not appreciated it in a long time.  When he and my Mom picked me up at the Tulsa airport at Christmas, I could not believe how healthy he looked.  And I felt very lucky, all three of us did.

I realize that not everyone celebrates Christmas, but whoever you are, there are the yearly events, often holidays, that mark the passage of time.  I realize that none of us have the promise of another Thanksgiving or birthday or Christmas or New Year’s, but it’s nice to have something to look forward to. It’s all about hope.

So, today, I celebrate Valerie Harper’s good news. I know how much it must mean to her family and it reminded me of a time when the bad news turned into better news and we, too, said to ourselves, “We’re looking at Christmas!”

My Father’s Garden

20130615-213737.jpgWith any luck, my Father’s garden will have a bumper crop this year. Already, it’s produced lettuce, radishes, strawberries, peas, green beans and spinach. The basil, bell peppers, banana peppers, tomatoes, carrots and more are on their way. Almost anytime I call home, unless the sun has already set, my mother wistfully says, “Your Father is in his garden.”

Now, I’ve written a bit about my father’s health before on this blog, here and here, but it brings me much joy that he’s thriving after a challenging year. It also brings me much joy that his garden is thriving as well. Last Summer, while my Dad was in the hospital in Kansas City, I drove down to Independence to spend the night and take care of some business matters for my parents. It was the first time, in a long time, that the house was empty and the quietness broke my heart and even frightened me a little. And my Dad’s garden, at the end of a markedly dry July, was dying. Though a few of his friends had made visits to water and pick the produce, it was failing without the regular attention, one might even say love, of its caretaker. For my dinner, I picked some peppers and tomatoes and cooked a steak I found in the freezer and it should have been a meal for a king, but I felt so sad, so alone eating it. At that point, I honestly did not know what the future held.

My Dad did get better, he did leave the hospital and gradually he has regained his health. And I think that is one of the reasons he has spent so much time in his garden this Spring and Summer, because he is thrilled to have the energy to work so hard. But also, between you and me, I think there is another reason. My father had cancer, in fact, he had jaw cancer. On July 10, 2012, the longest day I’ve ever experienced, he had a 12 hour surgery to remove the tumorous jawbone and replace it with a new jawbone created from a bone graft and titanium. He was hospitalized for five weeks and the rehabilitation process was arduous and lengthy. And while the doctors had hoped my father would be able to eat food again, he has had difficulties swallowing and he currently feeds himself through a tube in his stomach. It’s his daily routine and I know it must depress him sometimes, but I have never, ever heard him utter a self-pitying word. He has made progress, he drinks water and Sierra Mist and coffee and can eat a little ice cream or mashed potatoes. We have a hope that he will eat again, but we do not know when it will happen. It is a regular plea in all of our thoughts and prayers.

Some would say it’s ironic that the man who can not eat is on a mission to grow the most vibrant garden so he can feed everyone in his world. I actually think his fervor is his way of making sense of the situation. If he can’t enjoy his tomatoes, he can derive a little joy from how much you love them. Happy Father’s Day!
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