Rated R (language)
CAN I GET A RECEIPT? Impressions of my father’s last days.
I can fix anything with enough tape.—Barry Geller (December 2, 1932—April 10th, 2010).
When they carted my grandmother off to the hospital in an ambulance, where she would pass away two days hence, my grandfather, her husband of sixty-five years, wanted to know if he would be getting a receipt for her. That was the secret to their long-lived marriage. According to Nana, it was because Papa made her laugh.
FOR WHOM THE BED SORES
It’s hard to write when your father is dying upstairs. It’s equally difficult not to write. Our conversations are increasingly becoming nonsequiturs and frustration. Lately, it’s been impossible to simply watch TV with him—to relieve the boredom of his being bedridden.
How sad is it to take away a man’s remotes because he can’t make them do what he wants any more?
Pop wanted to watch (of all the shows he could have picked) Grey’s Anatomy—a hospital series laden with death. “Dying is hard,” was the first line of the show.
Awkward moment for me. I glanced at Pop, who was watching intently. I couldn’t bear the idea of sitting through the entire show and begged off quickly. “Be right back, Pop.”
I went and got Katy, my daughter, who is also a fan of the show and happened to be visiting for a few days. “Katy, get upstairs and watch Grey’s Anatomy with your grandpa, please.”
“Yes, you. I can’t do it. You know the show. You can talk about the characters and, you know… keep it light.” I smiled, pleading.
She gulped a little, sucked it up, and went upstairs. That’ s my girl.
I’m wearing a baby intercom so I can go about the business of home care—ever at the ready to respond to his yelling in panic and pain, or with which to lament his plaintive pleas of “Get me outta here” while I fold laundry, make a snack and, lately, supply the Morphine, Ibuprofen, Dexamethasone, laxatives and Lorazepam. I am the candy man who, for now, elicits the “Oh goody!” response from him.
It wasn’t that way at first, when he questioned and fought everything put in front of him that wasn’t a cookie. When he was done listening to explanations about what the pills did, for the 211th time, his lips disappeared—locked safely in his mouth. He gave us the clam. Once that happened, neither myself, my younger brother or my older sister could convince him that the prescriptions would help him feel more comfortable. Yes, even Sis, the motherly and utterly thorough one, failed.
I’ve been in Oregon nearly three weeks. It takes me 10-12 hours to drive here from the Bay Area but I prefer that to flying. Besides, it’s handy to have the extra car at home. Sis and brother JP have returned to their homes in Philly and Dallas to take care of some personal stuff. Other than the Home Care girls, who come for two five-hour shifts in the morning and evening, I’ll be alone in the house with Pop for three days before JP comes back. My job is to tend to Pop, who is bedridden with prostrate cancer, which includes giving him pills, or not, feeding him, or not, straightening him up when he slumps, watching TV with him, helping him through sporadic mental befuddlements usually involving TV, the phone, or remembering general shit, feeding the dog and cat, cleaning up after everyone, taking phone calls from Home Care and Hospice nurses, shopping, feeding myself and trying to catch some sleep in 1-3 hour increments.
And making sure there’s vodka in the house. In California I get vodka at the same store where I shop for food. Not in Oregon, where you have to go to a specific liquor store. Damned inconvenient, and what’s the point?
Nurse Beth calls. She has a new mattress to address the growing bed sore infestation on Pop’s ass. Has he shit yet? she wants to know, in too many words.
(MOAN FROM INTERCOM)
Since nurses seems to want to be all technical about it, I tell her it’s been in squirts and “smears” and ask about the nerve prescription for Pop’s back pain. The Doc sent Nortriptyline. I read the literature. It’s an antidepressant that takes 2-3 weeks to fully integrate into the system. That’s what they give for nerve pain to a man who hardly seems to have 2-3 days left on his calendar? I’d have thought the Doc would have given him something for actual nerve endings. According to Pop, the pain is “crawling” over his entire back, emanating from the spine.
“Frankly,” Nurse Beth continues, “…we don’t know what the Nortriptyline will do. We’re hoping it will address the nerve issue.”
Thanks. She will be stopping by soon. Any hour now.
Write in short bursts because ass ripped from chair for one reason or another at any given second.
Shirley (the bath lady) is here! I take her upstairs. She notices Pop looks like shit, to paraphrase her. I’m thinking: Good luck! and leave her to her task.
Season chicken with black pepper, garlic and paprika and put in oven. Don’t forget to set the timer.
One of the Home Care girls, the morning shift, just left. That would be Irma. She’s a nice ol’ gal. Very helpful. She cleaned the toaster and the toaster oven. Maybe I’ll give them to her when this is all over. There’s Irma, Isabel, Lisa, Janie, Jeanie, Judy, Lynn, Shirley and Suzette. I finally have their names committed to memory.
Pop reintroduces himself to all of them, every day. When he met Shirley (for the first time) he eyed her like he does everyone, with his “Who the fuck is this person?” look.
“You must be Barry,” she said.
Pop responded almost jovially, “No one else wants to be. So yeah, I’m Barry.”
At least he hadn’t forgotten himself at that point. That is, until the pain caught up to him yesterday. He saw the candy man a lot yesterday. Morphine, Lorazepam, by the bucket.
PHONE CALL! It’s the nurse from the Doc’s office. Pop’s seen this doctor for, like, four years. He didn’t have the heart to use the H word with my old man. Now he wants to tell him, on the phone no less, that he’s in Hospice, needs to take his pain meds, to move his ass around on the bed, and he should strongly consider a catheter. Oh, and a suppository. Or Milk of Magnesia, unless he’d prefer an enema or a “digital” removal—which took me a while to figure out meant that someone goes in there and digs it out with their fingers.
Oh, those kind of digits!
OMG. How can anyone get in the business of Home Care? OMG.
I already know all this shit, Nurse. Since Pop is now in a delirious Morphine fog, I’m pretty sure the phone conversation is a moot objective and tell her so. If I change my mind, she offers by way of polite dismissal, I can set an appointment for the Doc to call in two days.
Fine. Thank you. You’ve been swell. Between cranky bursts of searing, expletive-ridden pain and tongue-waggling drug stupors I’ll have Pop call you. Maybe Friday, if he lives that long.
Turn and baste chicken.
I don’t want to grow old! Am I going to die in agonizing pain? Will I have insurance? Will I be able to score candy?
Pop’s home is an “end of road” house. Roughly five acres sit on the edge of a 50,000 acre forest reserve. He has 4600 sq. feet and a big yurt on the property. There are deer all over the place, and wild turkeys. A mountain lion drank from a small fish pond behind the house. Pop saw it out the kitchen window. We’ll have to sell the place. I get one third of the proceeds. Should I even think about that?
(Don’t burn the chicken. When will Nurse Beth show up? I’m fucking hungry. All I’ve had is coffee, cantaloupe and cigarettes between phone calls to Sis, brother JP, Nurse Beth, Lisa (the next Home Care shift), the Doc’s nurse and probably a few I’ve forgotten. Better check on Pop. BRB.)
A banana and a white russian settles my stomach. I’ve lost at least five pounds in the last two weeks, maybe eight. My guess is seven. That’s a good thing. Have to stay positive, you know! Keep your pecker up, and all that rot. Hoist the Jolly Fucking Roger.
What’s this? Another FUCKING message on my new phone from AT$T? Why are they hassling me about managing my fucking account online? Not now, not EVER do you send me a fucking commercial on my phone! Greedy bastards!
I have to smoke outside. Who can live with that kind of interruption? I’m going to smoke and look for deer.
Shit. I forgot to set the timer for the chicken.
Nurse Beth arrives! I’m going to have to help her digitally remove feces from my Pop’s bowels. What an inglorious day. Will this be before, or after my chicken? She goes upstairs.
My appetite is waning. Maybe Nurse Beth can prescribe some pot.
Nick wants to arrange a delivery time for the new mattress. It’s supposed to be easier on the bed sores. When can they deliver?
Uh… I wondered out loud how to move what I referred to as “the body on the current mattress” onto the new mattress.
(INTERCOM: “Hi Barry. Remember me, Nurse Beth?” MOAN!)
Nick says, “You mean the patient?”
No, the patient’s Maltese, you disadvantaged moron, Nick.
Note to self: Ask Nurse Beth what, and how, to feed Pop, now that he’s not eating—and hasn’t for twenty-four-plus hours.
Food, finally. I realize my ears hurt because I still have the ear buds to the phone in and take them out. Ah, chicken and beer.
Mouth open, poised, hovering over chicken leg… Nurse Beth comes back downstairs wearing a look that says: I’m ready for your help. She’s wearing fresh gloves. It’s April, that means baseball is starting. She is a “pinch shitter.”
I pound the beer and follow. I’m going to help dig shit out of my Pop. I suppose it’s fair. He may have cleaned the shit off my ass at one time, although I figure Ma did most of that—back when diapers were cloth instead of stretchy plastic with velcro tabs, wings, and perforations for various configurations and applications. You need a fucking mechanical engineering degree to make them work. Do not operate heavy machinery or fuck with Depends when you’re on drugs.
Nurse Beth is a shit-digging machine. She gives new meaning to Pop’s idea of “digital.” While I hold him on his side, she gives him the old-style digital J-hook.
A sphincter says, What?
You haven’t lived until you’ve dug shit out of your father’s ass. I checked to see that she was still wearing her watch when it was over.
…speaking of drugs, I’m fifteen minutes late administering the Morphine and Lorazepam, or Marzipan or whatever the fuck it is Pop won’t take unless he’s already stoned. I rush to liquify the pills and run upstairs. He’s asleep. Now what? I don’t have the heart to wake him, after what he went through yesterday, last night and today’s informal meeting with Nurse Beth’s digit.
It was bad yesterday. Pop folded himself in half and laid on his side. Then he curled like a potato chip, with his head in the crevice between the hospital bed and his own bed. His arm dangled, hand clutching the bed frame so he wouldn’t “fall.” He wasn’t going anywhere, but he thought he might. He was delirious with pain, basically.
It’s Jeff, the scheduler for the Home Care ladies. They’ll be coming earlier in the morning now, I’m told.
Another AT$T message about the wireless account I recently got roughly 150 milligrams of Morphine administrations ago (however many days that is). I got what I want now leave me the hell alone.
Come to think of it, have I taken a shit today? Or was that yesterday…
Are your digits busy, Nurse Beth?
Check on Pop. He’s still deeply into a Morphine-induced vacation.
It finally quiets down and I’m drawing a blank wall. Conversations and images float to the surface:
“Hey, Pop. Howya feeling today?”
“Depends what day I’m in. I don’t know if it’s yesterday or tomorrow. If it’s today, it’s a good day.”
“You live in three days?”
“Yeah.” He smiles, chuckles. “It’s wild.”
“You have to get me out of here,” he told me when he was in the physical rehab facility. “Once we get by the nurses station all we have to do is get to the elevator and…” He was all conspiratorial, on the sly. I was his go-to accomplice. He was clearly addled. There was no elevator.
That was when he was “clear.” Now, not so.
Lisa’s here! I fill her in on all that’s happened in the last 24 hours.
Sis calls. I fill her in on all that’s happened in the last 24 hours.
JP calls. I fill him in on all that’s happened in the last 24 hours.
I’m droopy-eyed with all the filling in taking place. I’m going to take a three hour tour of my dream state… saw some logs… catch some Zs… take a cat-nap… get forty w—
FIVE HOURS LATER
I woke up to knocking. “Can I get your help with your Dad?” Lisa called through the bedroom door. It was pitch dark and I was completely disoriented, to the point where I rolled off the bed onto the floor.
“Sure,” I said. Clunk.
Man, that was a deep sleep. I awoke in the transcendent and had to drag my awareness along with my body upstairs to help change Pop’s diaper. I don’t see why we couldn’t put five or so towels under his ass, separated by a water resistant “chuck” between each, and simply pull the top one off every time he wets himself. It might be easier on his ass. But I’m a piss-ant dealing with pros—an elder care neophyte.
Finally, some P & Q. The intercom went to static but it turned out to be Sparky, the Maltese, chewing a dog treat on the microphone. I get to eat my chicken, along with some steamed carrots. The vegetables fulfill my daily requirement of butter and salt.
Spoke with Babe, my wife. I filled her in on all that’s happened in the last 24 hours. Maybe she’ll make the twelve hour drive from the Bay Area on Friday. I’m thinking tonight and tomorrow will be a good indicator of whether Pop will have an upswing or continue to go downhill. It may be her last chance to see her father-in-law alive.
The plan is to cut back on the Morphine and Lorazepam in the hopes of establishing a balance of pain management with conscious awareness. I’ll know tonight how that’ll work out for him.
“Murcie sure misses you,” Babe told me. Murcie’s one of our two cats, along with the kitten, Lucy. Murcie likes to stand over the keyboard while I’m using the computer.
Of course she misses me. I tell Babe to be sure and hassle them both for me while I’m away. “Talk to you tomorrow. Wish me luck.”
“Did I tell you what your father said to me when I was leaving for home?”
“I went to give him a hug and a kiss and told him to concentrate on getting better. The next time I see you, I said, I want you to be dancing.”
I didn’t tell Babe that Pop never danced.
She said, “He pointed his finger in the air and tried to sing: ‘Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive…’” She choked up, then started laughing.
Was that snoring, or choking? Better go check…
Whoa, musta dozed there for a while. I missed the 1:15 am Morphine and Marzipan hits. Pushed it to 2:45. Slept through the timer alarm until Pop’s loud nonsequiturs woke me up.
“I like the flat ones!”
O-h-h-kay! So this is what we get when Pop’s not too deep into the rolling-eyes, tongue-waggling Morphine stupor.
Our most recent conversation went something like this:
“Hey Pop-dude!” (Slight smile. He recognizes me.) “Feeling any better?” I ask.
He replies immediately: “Is there any explanation about flight time?”
“It’s a little bit luggy….”
Welcome pause as I try to intuit what “luggy” is, and what, exactly, or even remotely, is “it?”
“It’s lighten out. I want out.”
(Mumbles.) “Mean right now? I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Tell me about them. If I could do something, like a pen, or something…“
“Now we have to hide the wedding. Good.”
“Help! Pick me up! Another delight….”
“E, Y, L.”
(Moans.) “Ah!” (Mumbles.)
“Oh, what’s this other one?”
“Fine tuning now.”
Wait. Back up to hiding the wedding. Are you referring to your elopement with Ma?
“Help!” That was a real, current cry. I rush to get the syringes. He’s starting his body-curl again. That’s a sure sign of pain. Damn. I kick myself for missing the 1:15 doses.
“Oh goody!” Pop opens his mouth and takes his medicine. “I’m always working. Have you seen the light? …looking for happiness…”
Oh man, I don’t like that kind of talk.
Cue the eyes rolling up in head.
I need a drink, and find the vodka.
Later. I bring food.
“Are those the seniorettes?”
“These are grapes, Pop, the best you’ve ever had. Giant, seedless black.” I put half a grape in his mouth.
“Mmm, good,” he responded brightly. “Medicare will pay for it.”
I ignore that last remark and ask, “What’s a seniorette, Pop?”
“A female señor.”
I laughed, but Pop was frustrated. Whatever he wanted to say got stuck in his brain somewhere such that what came out were lottery balls of random phrases.
“It poofs up but that’s good for industries.”
THE SUN ALSO SETS
Stupor. Noun: suspension or great diminution of sensibility.
Followed by delirium: Noun: a more or less temporary disorder of the mental faculties… characterized by restlessness, excitement, delusions, hallucinations, etc.
A state of violent excitement or emotion.
There once was a man not from Nantucket,
When offered Morphine, gratefully took it.
His eyes turned blue,
His feet and hands, too.
Soon he would need not have it.
That was my day.
JP arrived tonight so I was able to get a good night’s sleep. He called me on the phone from upstairs at 3:20 am but I slept through it. He came downstairs to wake me up but I slept through that as well. Pop was suddenly not at all agreeable to taking his pain meds and JP wasn’t sure how to handle it. He handled it.
I talked to Nurse Jeanie about getting a patch of painkiller for Pop. It will administer something akin to Morphine through the skin. She is a believer in talking to the patient before administering any new prescription. She has moral issues with, say, sprinkling drugs on food unbeknownst to the patient. She tells me this as I’m crushing 6 mg of Ibuprofen, making ready to put it in a spoonful of chocolate pudding.
I tell her, “He’s delirious and irrational, operating under an automatic-pilot, pre-existing bias against taking drugs. I tell him we need to get him over this pain hump before he can begin to recuperate…” (a pipe dream at this point) “…so he should take the painkiller and agitation meds. Ten seconds later, we repeat the conversation until finally, after twenty minutes or so, he tightens his lips and clams up.
“What would you do, Jeannie?”
“If it was my father?”
No, if it was Sparky the Maltese. “Yes.”
(Pause) “I would want him to be comfortable.”
“Good. So can we get this patch today?”
She asks me to list the meds Pop’s had over the past 24 hours. That’s 120 mg of liquid Morphine and a boatload of Marzipan. To eat, he’s had half a grape, a square inch of watermelon, two sips of chicken broth, and half a sugar cookie Suzanne the neighbor made. For measurements sake, in plain words, he’s filled approximately one half can of concentrated frozen orange juice with excrement over the past 72 hours. Same consistency, btw.
Time for Morphine again. He’s asleep and I don’t have the heart to disturb him. Twenty minutes later, I ask if he wants some water. I have a syringe of water and one of Morphine. He opens his mouth and I’m able to give him half the dosage of the Morphine before he closes his mouth again. He’s not talking very much, and when his eyes are open they quickly roll up into his head. Isabel is due any moment. Perhaps she can coax him into taking the remaining half of his candy.
I’ve opened a 2007 bottle of Coppola’s Rosso wine that I found in Pop’s cupboard. It’s a cab/syrah/zin mix and it’s not bad. Very delicate for a full-bodied red wine. Nice balance.
I’m trying to arrange a metaphor between the opening of a fine wine (a celebration) and the ultimate release of a human from their bottle.
Death is like a fine cab/syrah/zin mix. Once you pull the cork, the Rest is history.
Nice dinner of salad, artichoke with mustard, and corn on the cob. JP brought a feeling I had to the surface:
“I don’t want to go up there,” meaning upstairs. “It’s fucking depressing, man.”
I had the same feeling.
“It makes me feel guilty,” he said.
Isabel is amazing. Five-two, maybe a hundred pounds with clothes on, twenty-something with thick, dark hair she keeps in a swishing ponytail. Single mother of a six-year-old daughter, Chastity. She sits with Pop, syringe full of chicken broth, feeding him ml by ml, brushing his hair back, talking to him, manipulating his hand for circulation, swabbing the grit out from the back of his teeth with a sponge on a stick. When Pop periodically opens his rolling eyes, he sees and reaches out for her.
“I don’t know what that’s all about,” she said, “but I let him do it.”
The girl is a born caregiver. To see her in action is like watching a live painting. Pop might have called it The Caregiver, though he would have preferred to paint a live, nude Isabel. Or Nurse Beth, whose left breast he grabbed for support while we changed beds from under him.
“I’m sorry I haven’t gotten to the laundry,” Isabel said, with doelike, caregiving eyes. I almost cried in the midst of her saintliness.
Remind self to tip this woman.
Some friends came by earlier to visit Pop. I’m pretty certain he recognized them all but he is uncommunicative to any degree above the odd one-liner. And if you missed it, he had already forgotten what he said so asking What? was pointless.
I believe he hears and understands way more than he can articulate. Talk about frustrating. Then you pump a heap of opiates in him and WTF? What a battle. Babe’s natural father died suddenly of a stroke. Her adopted father was brushing his teeth when he had a career-ending, massive, fatal heart attack. (Babe is no stranger to death. She has also lost eight siblings and many beloved aunts in addition to her two fathers.) That’s the way to go. Fuck this painful two-month sieve of your awareness into the Almighty or Perhaps Existential endgame. I’d rather get nailed by a bus.
Can I put that in my DNR form? Somewhere beneath Do Not Resuscitate: If it looks like it’ll be awhile, please throw me under a bus.
We now have a duragesic transdermal called Fentanyl. Or maybe that should read: a transdermal duragesic called Fentanyl. Or just Fentanyl, in patch form. All I know is, it’s a strong narcotic pain reliever, measuring 50 micrograms. First there were milligrams, then milliliters, now micrograms. If I was a fifth-grader I could probably make the relative conversions between the three measurements into tablespoons without a calculator, but Mrs. Cox failed to mention it would be 45 years before I’d need that particular skill set.
Isabel and I stuck the patch on Pop’s back, between the shoulder blades where he can’t reach. It kicks in after 12-17 hours. In the meantime, stick with the Morphine every four hours, the Marzipan every four to six, the Dexamethasone in the morning and half as much at night, the thyroid once in the morning, the laxative twice a day, and the Ibuprofen. Replace patch after 72 hours. I’d consider purchasing half a dozen timers but I’d have to label each one and it all gets so fucking complicated.
Guilt. Am I being impatient with the patient?
Everyone should have one or two epiphanies in this life. I’m pretty sure I’ve had a couple, but can’t remember what they were.
Nature starves herself when she knows there’s no hope for recovery. Pop is not eating.
THE OLD MAN AND THE SEEYA
My guess is there’s probably two or three days before Grimm’s Reaper ends Pop’s fairy tale. He is in his comfortable stupor, unable to speak, or chew, and can barely swallow. His feet are plum colored, as are the tips of his fingers. His breathing is shallow and rough. His hair looks thinner. Everything about him seems to have had the air and color sucked out of it—to the point where his skeleton is beginning to show on the outside.
Alas, I knew him well!
A question surfaces. If I have a colorful bowling ball, then “colorful” is the adjective. But if I have a “fucking” bowling ball, is “fucking” an adjective?
This is not Denial of the inevitable. This is called “Veering from reality.” I deny that I’m in denial about Pop’s imminent passing. I merely stray from the subject at times.
Time for bed.
It’s quiet this morning. Too quiet. Pop is “alseep,” but I wonder what the difference is between sleep, unconsciousness, and coma.
No moans. No disconnected sentences. The nonsequiturs are silenced. There’s no defiance. No discomfort. His life is hidden and protected inside of himself. Pop’s experiences are relegated to the Akashic records, and the living will add their own memories of Barry Everett Geller to his story.
Forgive me for speaking of you as if you’re already dead.
Janie, would you shut the fuck up, please? You talk incessantly, as if I want to know what you think about dogs, or the weather, or what book you’re reading. Maybe you could check Pop’s diaper? I wish to sit with my old man and listen to what may be his last breaths.
I am cruising through our experiences together. You taught me how to swim. You taught me Checkers and Chess. You taught me how to ride a bicycle.
After that, not much direct instruction from you, Pop. You let me loose, and it turned out to be a good thing for me. Remember when Ma told us she thought we were friends in a previous incarnation? It’s hard to imagine, since we were never really friends in this life. We were friendly, but I never opened up to you like I do with several of my friends from the old neighborhood. We never went there, you and I, and it was okay for both of us. You led by example. It took me a while to realize that. When I became a parent, I began to appreciate your side of our story. I guess I had to grow up before I could understand you.
Your patience and generosity kept me in touch. Our common interest in art gave us something to talk about. Our mutual utilization of humor kept the mood light.
Wheezeling goes the Pop.
Nurse Lynn came and left. She says you are not asleep, but comatose. Your extremities have mottled quickly. Your breath is raspy and short but you seem to be comfortable. Is “comfortable” the right word for someone in a coma?
Sis will be here at midnight.
I’ve built a big fire in your honor. It crackles in the fireplace. Tony Bennett is playing. He’s in a New York state of mind. That’s where we spent the most time together, you and I. It’s already a lifetime ago. You tried to teach me how to drive in NY.
Sorry the Corvair didn’t work out for you. You should have kept the VW.
Your painting of Oswald, exhibited at the 1969 World’s Fair.
Illustrations for Playboy and magazine covers and Herald Tribune editorials…
Paintings everywhere. Paintings of Marilyn, Wonder Woman, Jack Ruby, Jesus…
The fish tanks.
The books. You Turned the Fables On Me. (Can you fix this with enough tape?)
The series’. Artists in Cars. Cats 22.
But wait, you opened your eyes! Is that possible when you’re in a coma? Spice eyes, like the Navigators for the Spacing Guild. Are you on Arrakis now, exploring the universe? (What, exactly, or not, are you Dune?)
“Lorna, what are you Doone?” you said during a TV commercial once for Lorna Doone cookies. Makes me laugh today.
“I’m not a good witch, or a bad witch,” you said during The Wizard of Oz. “I’m a sandwich!” I believe that play on words was the first pun I ever heard.
When I strained toward the ceiling on that not-quite-tall-enough ladder, trying to stuff some wires in a metal tube, you supported me. “You conduit,” you said. I nearly fell twelve feet.
When we drove to Yosemite that fall, and I mentioned that the roadside corn fields were lined up so regimentally. “Sure,” you said, “they’re colonels.”
And Denial is a river in Egypt.
Who among us can say their Pop had a Spaz Dance? Mr. Mica was a dental technician. Mr. Malossey a cab driver. Our Pop, dear siblings, painted naked women, wore vests, owned a hermit crab, and worked for gurus.
I don’t care that you threw a ball like a girl, and couldn’t bowl worth shit. Your pocket pool was lousy, too. But man, could you body surf! Those waves on Fire Island took courage. You went under for a long time once and came up bloody.
“That’s all for today! Let’s go eat some clams!” you said.
I still love clams. And the Mallomars we used to fight over. And the laughs we had. (Are the laughs not the father’s most important job?)
Did I hear a moan? It sounded like a moan. A blessed moan! They sound different when coming from this side of a coma. More optimistic. Or am I reading my own optimism into your searing pain? If I want you to die, for comfort’s sake, will I feel guilty later?
No sense in dawdling if your quality of life is unbearable, eh? That’s how I’d want it, I think. I don’t want the bus to clip me without finishing the job. I’d have to wait for another to come along and you know how long that takes.
Your fire is strong. It’s my voice that’s gone weak. I’m practically inaudible, not my usual, bartender-clear self.
Dying is similar to getting birthed. You get through it and forget about the transition.
And so it goes….
JP and I play Wii—the interactive video game where you smash your fingernail on a piece of furniture while playing ping pong and the blood clot remains for a year or more. Katy pounded me in swordplay and kicked me off a very tall platform once. It went like this as she beat me about the head: Kank! Kank! Kank! Kank! Wheeeee! You lose!
Anyway, we finished and JP went upstairs to check on Pop. He came back while I was tending to the Fire of Strength. “Hey, come upstairs. There’s a smell up there.”
A smell, you say?
I approached cautiously, sniffing the entire way. When I entered Pop’s room, I saw he was snoring. Comfortably, it seemed to me. There was a distinct odor of human gas. “Oh God.”
“What is it?”
“It’s gas, man.” I moved into the adjacent sunroom, where the air was fresher. JP followed. We stood together and started chuckling. “I had my mouth open and everything, dude.” Then we started laughing outright. “How we gonna get across the room now, Brutha?” I asked.
“Wet towels on our heads?” he suggested.
That started me laughing harder, which required deeper breaths, necessitating more laughter. Not wishing to disturb Pop, we made our dash across the room, mouths trying to be closed, but belly-laughing by then. Sprint through hallway and downstairs we went.
I call Babe. It’s been a few hours since we last spoke. I begin to tell her about Pop and his lethal gas. The story seems so stupid under the circumstances, so utterly incongruous, that I can’t help chortling anew as I relate it. We are chuckling like junior high sophomores.
JP catches my eye and motions for me to hang up and follow him upstairs.
“Gotta go. Call ya back.” I take the stairs two at a time. “What’s up, bru—?” I say, entering the room, and closing my mouth. Abrupt stop. Pop is white. He is absolutely still. No breath, mouth open slightly. I can see it from across the room. JP is checking his pulse as I creep closer. Pop’s hands are white, too. It’s stone-cold quiet. You could have heard a Marzipan fall on the carpet.
“Oh God…” I whispered. I’m waiting for the last gasp to break free and scare the shit out of both of us, but there’s nothing. No pulse. Nary a blip. It’s too fucking quiet. Eerily silent. Pop’s gone. I have no parents. There’s no tears. I know where they are. There will be no final gasp. He has slipped away in his sleep. I’m relieved. I’m glad the struggle is over for Pop. He’s left one, unfinished canvas. It’s a carpet of nasturtiums bordered by tiny cat-logo shapes. The series he had planned has evaporated along with his spirit.
Overall, not a bad run.
Too fucking quiet. “Ha-wah!”
JP jumps and I start laughing. “Sorry, man. The silence was killing me.”
I laughed some more. “I was afraid he was going to suddenly gasp and scare the shit out of us.”
We gazed at the shell that was our Pop and Dad. His whiteness was in stark contrast to the pastels in the room. The paintings mourned his passing. Sparky, the Maltese, lay on the adjacent bed, Pop’s own bed, with his head down and eyes open. I felt sorry for his loss and wondered if a dog could intellectualize, or emotionalize, the death of their beloved master. I felt sorry for my brother and sister, and for the living who’d miss Pop’s presence. I was sorry for the paintings which died with him. Sorry for the humor he left behind. I am sorry for myself, and I will cry some time later—as I did for Ma.
I looked at JP, tears welling in his eyes. “You realize that the last thing he may have heard us talking about was running out of here with wet towels on our heads.” I couldn’t help myself and started laughing again. JP didn’t want to smile, but did in spite of himself. I laughed harder. “I guess it wasn’t gas… Aha-ha-ha-ha!” It was his farewell shit. His epi-log. Nature’s curtain call. The scenario was simply too bizarre—not what I expected. If I had any expectations they were about holding his hand as he dearly departed and did that loud, rattling, last-gasp thing. Instead, I fled the room howling like a school boy, running from my father while he passed gas and last gasped.
I laugh to cover up other emotions. It’s my natural response to all things uncomfortable. Like a dog peeing when they see you, I laugh during emotional peaks.
Oh shit. Babe. Better call her back.
“You okay, brutha?”
JP nodded, appropriately unconvincing. Of course he’s not okay. This sucks. No parents anymore… All that’s left is the history.
Sure, they’re fine, both of them, and our grandparents and Great Uncle Merv, too. But it leaves the rest of us with a big fucking hole, that’s what. Yer on yer own, kid. Seeya on the other side. Good fucking luck. Make the best of things. God bless. Have fun while you can. Write if you find work…
Mark the TOD (time of death). Can I get a receipt?
“I feel sorry for Sis,” I said. She missed the time of death by ninety minutes. Nice try, though, coming from Philly at the drop of a hat. When she sees both of us waiting for her at the airport she’ll know.
“Yeah. That sucks.”
“I’m going to call Babe back. I’m sure she’s wondering what’s going on.”
“Pop’s gone.” It may have been while she and I were speaking a few minutes earlier. She grew silent, then started to cry. “It’s a good thing, Babe,” I reassured her.
“He was wracked with pain.”
“I know. Were you with him?”
Not exactly. “We had just gone to check on him because JP thought it smelled funny upstairs.” A giggle escaped. I felt the rising tide of emotion.
“What was it?” she asked.
“Well….” and I started to tell her about our brush with gas. It hit me again how stupid it sounds, and how absurd the end of life played out between my father and me. It was too funny. Pretty soon I was in full hysterics, trying to talk to Babe between bursts of “…I had my mouth open and everything…” and “…run out with wet towels on our heads…” and “…maybe that wasn’t just gas…” and OMG I was in tears. Even Babe couldn’t help laughing while crying. “…and it’s my karma for all the farting I did at the dinner table. Bwah-ha-ha..!”
So that’s probably a little unusual as far as familial last moments go. Am I the only one in history who has mistook the Grim Reaper for a grim ripper? Should I feel badly about this, the last contact between my father and I?
I checked with Ma’s soul. She gave me the response I needed. She couldn’t stop laughing either.
“Babe, are you okay?” Babe asked me. I could hardly talk, between laughing and getting the breath for it. I was afraid my sides would cramp—which has happened before, to the point where I laid on the floor in agony, twisting and turning until it subsided.
JP had come back downstairs and was staring intently at me. I tried to wave him off. It’s okay! I’ll be fine! Just let me get over this….
“Wet towels! HA-HA-HA-HA!” I was out of control.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I…”
“It’s okay, Babe.”
“It’s just so fucking ironical.”
Babe soothed me. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
We drove what was now JP’s car to pick up Sis at the airport. I struggled through some giggles.
“You’re not going to tell Sis about the wet towels, are you?”
“No, no. Of course not. Not now.” I promised.
When she saw us, she stopped and her shoulders slumped. Her look said, No…
Our expressions replied, Sorry, Sis.
I wrapped my arms around her. “You just missed him. I’m sorry, Sis, but we have no parents any more.” The poignancy was instantly wet with tears. I probably shouldn’t have said that, but the notion hit me hard when I saw Sis. We are the closest in age, with a fourteen year gap before JP came along and was raised in completely different circumstances. Sis and I knew our parents when they were in their bold and beautiful twenties, and in their confidence-building early thirties. Fraught with faults and mistakes, they did their best and managed to fumble out three fairly well-adjusted, kind children. Now we were really, finally, absolutely and unequivocally on our own.
Note to daughter, Katy: As long as your parents are alive you’re not truly on your own. Whether you make use of us or not, we are still there for you to reference—like an online encyclopedia with a timer. All I ask of you is that you be with me at the end. I cleaned your ass, you may have to assist cleaning mine (without making any bed sores worse), so get over it in advance. Same with your mother, and your step-mother. Sorry about the three parents thing, what with Babe, but hey, Babe worked to your advantage many times so it’s a trade-off. Your parents need to see you at the end. If you’re lucky, we’ll have sudden, massive heart attacks.
The three of us gathered around Pop’s former body, which had turned to chalk. The physical Pop was reduced to a broken vessel to be cast aside. His glass was by no amount full. It was worse than empty. It just… wasn’t, him, anymore. He was an It. The body.
Sis finally shuddered. “We should call the funeral home.” And it was done.
Appx. 1.5 hrs. downtime—in shock, trauma, denial, acceptance, whateverness—where memory fails me. Downstairs, sitting around the dining table, talking or not talking, wandering around, fixing drinks. That’s it, Happy Hour!
That is, until Seth and his sidekick Leonard, from the funeral home, knocked on the door—all suit-and-tied up—at precisely 2:15 am. OMG? Are they really as creepy as first impression permits? Come in, please.
Oh yes, they are über-creepy. Seth has his hands folded in front of him, as if he were in church already. He acknowledges our sibling trinity, but with a bare minimum of eye contact. His face showed all the emotion of an Idaho potato. “We’re sorry for your loss.”
Of course you are. Paperwork? Sure. Please, sit down. Will Lurch be joining us later?
“We feel for your…” “We want to…” “…assurances of…” “…sign here…” “…and here…” “…upstairs?”
“Yes, upstairs. You may have noticed the ramp to his studio outside?”
Fine. So I guess you’ll get to it, and, uh, get it done?
Yes, we guess we will. We might be wondering if you’ll watch as we roll up the gurney, cover it with nice, maroon velvet, pull out a xxx-large plastic bag, remove the linens and pillows stuck in your father’s crevices, then slide his egg-shell white, stiffening body off the hospital bed and into the plastic bag, zipper up the maroon velvet and make it a nice, comfortable, insulated chrysalis of the dead.
I will, but my siblings won’t. Sparky will. Sara the cat would, indifferently, if she were in the room, but she isn’t.
“So, who’s the painter?” Sidekick Leonard wants to make small talk.
“You’re moving him,” I reply. (Wasn’t that hump on the other side before?)
I follow their every move, through the inconvenient bathroom leading to the upstairs studio through which to find the outside deck and the ramp where their Astro Van awaits Pop’s lifeless remains. Once outside, I light a smoke and watch them navigate the wooden switchbacks down to the driveway. They’ve thanked me. For what, watching? The body, It, is pushed inside the van and Seth slithers toward the driver’s seat.
From above, a question comes to mind I’m compelled to ask. “Say, don’t I get a receipt?”
Awkward pause while Seth chewed that cud. There was an outdoor spotlight behind my head. He squinted, rubbed his hands, and tried to find my shadow so he could see me better. I may have looked like an angel of God, which I very well may once have been, with a halo such as you might see in a Byzantine painting.
It is I who should be providing the receipt!
Poor Seth. He stammered. Sidekick Leonard actually chuckled.
Seth was confused, searching for a reply. “I, uh, it’s not something we usually do, but I can make one up for you.” Poor guy was literally wringing his hands. I could see the creases in his forehead from upstairs. I was smiling, but he couldn’t see my face well enough to know. My ancestors are laughing. It’s all a family joke. Grandma Nana playfully punches Papa’s arm. Ma is hanging onto Pop like a cheerleader in love with the water polo captain. Pop looks happy and relaxed. All that is missing is a Panama hat and an umbrella drink with a fat pineapple wedge garnish. Is that my old sheepdog, Richard, running in the background?
Oh, but to Seth the question is withering! His cheeks become gaunt as the sands of time drain the color from his face. His eyes bulge out, and he stoops under the weight of this deviance from the established path. The query sucks the life out of him right in front of my eyes. Like private parts in an April sea…
I let him dangle while I wonder what his receipt would look like.
This is a receipt for one lifeless body, formerly named (Your Father’s Name Here), claimed April 11th, 2010, at 2:00 am. Signed by Lenny and Squiggy, representatives of the Addams Family Funeral Home.
Alone again. Sis left this morning with Sparky, and JP decided not to come this week. It’s 9 pm, dark and not quite lonely, but alone-ly, is perhaps a better word. I’ve spent the day gathering the artwork and ceramics both my parents produced over, let’s just say, a helluva long time.
We got the Death Certificate, and the obit from the newspaper. I guess I got all the receipts I’m going to get.
Here’s the receipt for your memories. In lieu of contact with the people who brought you into this life, cared for you, provided a bunch of stuff and loved you, we’d like to present these papers along with a Laurel and Hardy handshake.
Not really. But I do have slices of my parent’s souls. They’re in the art.
Oh the poignancy!
These are my parent’s prized possessions, their creative selves! When Ma passed, Pop kept everything, naturally. But now that he’s gone suddenly their souls are being split up.
I almost cried. Not yet. But I got that lumpy feeling in my throat.
Make that thorax.
My legs are throbbing as a result of the fourteen stairs in the house. There’s forty-six hundred feet in this place and every proverbial, real or imagined nook and architecturally cool cranny, ledge, and sill has a large, medium, or small ceramic Ma made in or on it. Many of them have dried, silk, or plastic flowers stuffed inside. There are hundreds of pieces scattered throughout, and I can only carry two or three at a time.
Fourteen steps of poignancy. Hallways and rooms of memories. Pops’s room is the hardest to go into. The paintings left on the walls stare at me, watching me go about collecting stuff and putting it in a staging area downstairs, from where we will decide who gets what.
Something bumped. I turn up the music so I don’t imagine I’m hearing things.
Am I spooked? Holy shit!
I haven’t had a cocktail all day. What the hell was I thinking?
I still have Sarah the cat for company.
You want to talk about flower arrangements? I’m not suggesting these are dainty and small. We’re talking some thirty-pound ceramics with three-foot tall stalks of fake roses, hibiscus, lillies, gladiolas and god knows what else stuffed inside them.
You want to talk about the dust of nine years?
Three arrangements fill a thirty gallon garbage bag.
Just a while ago, after making my short, dark white russian, I made seven trips carrying ceramics from the kitchen to downstairs. Gotta keep going. I’m beginning to see peripheral flashes of movement. Things in the mirror… someone in Pop’s room as I walk past?
No fucking way.
Music louder, please?
Shit, I left my cocktail on the counter. BRB. May as well take a smoke break while I’m at it. Outside, under the partly cloudy stars, I conclude that sex after death is only possible with a res-erection.
And I find more ceramics.
And there’s hats all over the house. Ma’s flower arranging evolved to hot glue guns and hats. Lots of hats. Thirty-six, so far. Make that forty. What are we going to do with forty walking flower arrangements?
And furniture, lamps, rugs, albums full of photos, linens, dishes and over a dozen quilts, comforters and blankets, and tools and…. styrofoam heads. Why are there two dozen styrofoam heads above the water heater?
Found more ceramics, in Pop’s studio sink. Fourteen steps.
Where is Teal Cloth, the acrylic on wood? I can’t find her. But I find another ceramic in the upstairs bathroom. How could I have missed it?
…and another, outside.
…and another, outside. Ma! Yer killin me!
I guesstimate there’s a thousand paintings.
How many art books? There’s the Bonnard and Vuillard books Pop had once given me, then asked for them back with a promise to return—which I understood to mean when he was ashes. I didn’t mind. They were his books to begin with.
He has graphics and typography books and E charts and croppers and PMS books and color conversion charts and software and… What’s this? It’s Pop’s old twin lens reflex camera, the Yashica 124G. I take it out of the cardboard box with reverence, as if it were a family jewel. In the box is a roll of Ektachrome. This is the camera that took baby pictures of Sis and me, and modeling pictures of our mother. It would sit nicely in my collection next to Grandpa’s Bolsey.
I laugh again about wet towels on our heads. I should have been holding your hand and telling you it was alright to leave. We’ll be okay. Remind self to cry, later.
Recarpet, repaint, and put the house on the market. Drive out the driveway one last time. Cry then?
Make that forty one hats.
Will the son’s achievements match those of his father? Why did I go third person all of a sudden? You were right on the cusp of your ultimate recognition, that of having a museum show. Is that why you said, quite simply and with undeniable resignation, Damn for no apparent reason on page 15?
That’s a bitter pill.
Did you get enough soma this lifetime? How did that enlightenment thing work out for ya?
LOL, I know. Some “five-to-ten year plan,” eh what? It’s good to have hope. That’s what faith is based on, is it not? It may very well be that we’ll all see each other again. That is, unless our karma is done. For this Creation, that is—before we do it all over again, if we are to believe certain gurus. Should such a faith be so Assuring?
I bagged your clothes today and found five more ceramics, plus three paintings, in the process. How many paint brushes did you think you had? At least two hundred. I’m going to gather them up and put them in one of Ma’s pots as if they were a flower arrangement. Thanks for the sneakers.
Hope many pushpins did you think you had? Ten thousand and eleven?
Three more ceramics. Sun room, hidden behind seven-foot plants. And seven more candles.
You told me to treat Manhattan like it was a football field and I was a running back. I never forgot that advice. When you took the subway you knew which car to get into and which door to stand at so the train let you out in front of the escalator. Your fob hung just so. Your fingernails always immaculate. So linear and orderly on the surface and yet you were an artist. Passions and appreciation found their crossroad with perspective, rules and tools within you, as they had with Leonardo.
Sometimes when I look in the mirror I see your features and it bugs me. I don’t want to see you. We were more dissimilar than we were alike. We had few common interests, but I miss you.
We had Sparky and Sara stuffed and put inside the wood shed.
Kidding! They were sold with the house.
Kidding again! They went to live with Sis, happily ever after.
To donate to the Children’s Education Program of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon in Barry Geller’s name, send check with note to:
Ms. Deidre Sandvick
Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art
1223 University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403-1223
On the check simply write “Barry Geller” and Deidre will know what to do with it.
RIP Barry Everett Geller, December 2, 1932—April 10th, 2010. And as I write this, over four years later, the tears begin to flow.