In the summer of 2015 someone found my father in his car, unconscious, in a grocery store parking lot in suburban Detroit. Always an early riser, he’d been going to that store nearly every morning for years to buy a newspaper and other stuff before his wife Marilyn woke up.
This episode had something to do with a urinary tract infection. It also marked the beginning of my father’s final phase, a period that lasted a little over one year.
Dean called me in Colorado to let me know what had happened, and in the weeks ahead kept me up to date. At first my father wouldn’t cooperate – not with his doctor, not with the nurses, and not with the physical therapist. By the time I got there in September he had lost a lot of weight and seldom left his bed. He also had the first beard I’d ever seen on him, grown because they had him on blood thinners and wouldn’t let him shave.
While I was in town I spent as much time with him as I could, visiting at least once each day. He wouldn’t and didn’t say much about his condition. But he was happy to talk about whatever else was on his mind, and during one visit I jotted detailed notes as he spoke. I didn’t expect him to disclose a profundity, or reveal a secret I’d need to record, and he didn’t. But sensing the end was near, I wanted to write down whatever he might happen to say.
At first I made my notes surreptitiously. But it became apparent he was unaware of what I was doing, and before long I began to write them openly.
“Man, I can not get comfortable,” he said, as he shifted and adjusted his weight. “But this bed is about the best I could expect. All these toys here.” He meant the remote control devices lying beside him: one to adjust the bed, one for the TV, and another to call a nurse if need be.
The day before I had brought him a copy of National Geographic, because most of the reading material at the rehab place didn’t appeal to him. He began talking about the excellent photography National Geographic has always been known for. This transitioned into a free association about Life magazine and its famous, often iconic pictures.
“What was her name?” he asked abruptly. “There was a woman photographer, shot for Life for years. Ah – damn. I cannot think of her name.”
“Margaret Bourke-White?” I repeated, a little louder.
“Margaret Bourke-White?” I said a third time – louder still.
“Johnny – I’m sorry, I can’t hear you.” My father is one of the last remaining people who can get away with calling me that. I wrote the photographer’s name down on a piece of paper and thrust it toward him. “Oh – yes – of course – Margaret Bourke-White. How did you know that?”
“I don’t know, I just did.” Maybe he heard me or maybe he read my lips, but he seemed to understand; for a moment, it felt like ordinary conversation. It’s strange, but for a long time his hearing has, on occasion, seemed a little selective. Not likely under the present circumstances.
He wondered about my writing. “Dare I ask?” He always does. He is, understandably, enormously proud of me for getting a book into print, and for having had a literary agent, however briefly. He forgets a lot of things, but never that. Happily, he also remembers I don’t like talking about whatever I happen to be working on.
When he first asked, “How’s the writing?” I thought he had seen my notebook and flying pencil; that he’d noticed I was writing down almost everything he said. At that point I was still trying to conceal it.
He shifted uncomfortably in his bed. “Except for feeling like I’ve been wounded in a hunt, I feel pretty good.” By then I was pretty sure he either hadn’t noticed my note taking, or didn’t care. Probably the former.
His comments, which amounted to free association, turned to the distant past: his St. Louis childhood, and when he first married my mother in the late 1940s. By now they’ve been divorced for more years than they were married. After all this time, I’m still a little fuzzy on the chronology of their relationship. I know they were together in Hannibal, Missouri (the model for St. Petersburg, hometown of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn) and that’s where he got his first broadcasting job – which he referenced from time to time, like Ted Baxter’s hundred-watt radio station in Fresno, California. At some point they moved to Norfolk, Virginia, which I think had something to do with him going back into the Navy. He still uses the local inflection, pronouncing it Naw-fick or Naw-feck. Years ago he and Marilyn owned property in Hawaii, and I noticed then how he used to adopt what I figured were the local intonations when he rolled those Polynesian names off his tongue. So he is consistent.
“Did you go to church with your mother today?” The innocence of his question startled me, so I just said no. It was Saturday. A more honest answer, no matter what the day, would have been, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
He moved around in bed again. “God, I can’t get my leg right.” As far as I knew he had not been out of bed for the better part of a month. And it showed.
“They had the station right downtown,” he said – in Naw-fick, I believe he meant. But when he said “right downtown,” I heard “write down,” and thought, again, that he had noticed me openly scribbling away.
He swung his thin legs around and over the side of the bed, and announced he was going to walk to the bathroom – a distance of perhaps twelve feet, but further than he had walked in quite some time. He’d said the same thing the day before, and I’d asked him to wait while I ran for a nurse. By the time I got back he had changed his mind. This time, I figured what the hell: he can lean on me for support.
I told him to wait a moment while I opened the bathroom door. Then, as we were about to get him to his feet – he really seemed ready to stand up, or try to – a nurse came in with his lunch. I told her he was about to stand up and walk to the can.
“Bowel movement?” she asked.
“I was going to go to the bathroom,” he replied, settling back onto the bed. “Never mind. I changed my mind.” I think she embarrassed him; he never did rise.
Lunch was a grilled cheese sandwich, a pickle spear, a bag of potato chips, a fruit cup, tomato soup, and coffee. To my surprise, he ate most of it. We ended up passing the bag of chips back and forth like a joint. He only ate half the sandwich, and offered me the remaining half. I didn’t want to take any food out of his mouth, but by then I was pretty sure he wouldn’t eat it. So I accepted it, and a soggy thing it was; the first grilled cheese sandwich I’d eaten in many years.
He picked up the fruit cup and looked around for a spoon. As he looked, the fruit cup tilted in his hand, and I reached out to steady it. “Careful!”
But he couldn’t hear me, and answered with a non sequitur: “I don’t know. A bunch of canned fruit.”
Twice more that afternoon he said he would stand and walk those dozen feet to the bathroom. Twice more I stood and opened the door – a wider than ordinary door, as in most hospitals, to accommodate wheelchairs I guess. And twice more he sat back down, claiming to have changed his mind.
“Hannibal, Missouri,” he said, floating back into the past again. He added radio station call letters that I didn’t write down and have forgotten. “Ten-seventy on your dial, broadcasting all of your Cardinal games, home and away!”
He mentioned Mark Twain, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. “That’s writing.” He recalled Twain’s famous whitewashing the fence scene, which in the advanced wisdom of my years I see as evidence of what a manipulative little prick Tom Sawyer was, but which my father still admired. Huck Finn is much more to my liking – as a character and as a book.
“If I can think of a way to dismiss myself,” he said, meaning the magic words that would get him discharged from the rehab place, “then I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“I don’t think they’ll let you go until you can walk,” I said. “Do you want to try standing up again?”
“No. Maybe later.”
He had a surprisingly large room. He could have risen and paced back and forth, if he had the gumption to do so. He even wore non-skid socks. But he did not have the gumption, or the muscle strength.
“My father adored Arthur Conan Doyle,” my own father said, with no obvious prompt. “Holmes. Watson. Moriarty.”
A nurse came in to give him an injection. “What is it?” I asked.
“A blood thinner,” she replied. “Heparin.” The shot went directly into his stomach. Some patients are able to administer it themselves, not unlike diabetics and junkies. My father, though, rolled accommodatingly to one side, and the nurse held the needle aloft.
Soon a young woman entered the room, pushing a cart with reading material. Mostly mainstream junk: Sports Illustrated, Field and Stream, Golf Digest, The Christian Science Monitor, and a local newspaper called Southfield Living. He selected a train magazine.
So there is much to read, I thought, as my pencil finally came to a rest. And he loves to read.
But he was still stuck in that bed, and thinking about going home.
I left Detroit convinced my father would never walk again. But he did; he even got out of the rehab place.
In the months that followed I received periodic updates from Dean – usually short texts, but sometimes with a photo attachment, like the one taken on my father’s 88th birthday, just before his discharge. Smiling and alert, he gazes into the camera, clear-eyed, a cake on a tray before him. In another photo, taken during the holidays, he’s in his kitchen at home, supporting himself with a walker.
I called him every month or so, but the conversations never lasted long. He could barely hear a word I said, and within a few minutes he’d end the call, claiming we had a bad connection.
This went on for months. Then in June 2016, I received a text. “Call when you can,” Dean wrote. “No emergency or anything like that.”
I called right away. If not an emergency, it was urgent. My father was back in the Evergreen Center. He’d taken a fall at home and spent a few days in the hospital, before being transferred back to rehab. Then he developed another urinary tract infection. He was very weak.
Dean, to his credit, handled all the unpleasant details, and without complaint.
By then I’d been going back to Michigan each summer for years, usually with one or both of my kids. It never felt like going home. These visits usually lasted five or six days, and constituted my vacation for the year. But I hadn’t yet made plans for this summer. “It sounds like I should get there sooner rather than later,” I said, and Dean agreed.
I flew into town on July 8th, a Friday afternoon, sensing even more keenly than before that the end was drawing near. Dean picked me up at the airport driving my dad’s car, which I’d have use of while in town. It surprised me the car hadn’t been sold, since my father’s driving days, plainly enough, were behind him.
We drove first to Dean’s place. His wife Deborah had started gathering photographs representing a lifetime: my father at various stages of his life and career. She’d laid them out on poster boards and imagined them as part of a fitting tribute at his funeral service.
“I hope it doesn’t seem too cold,” she said. “It’s not like I want him to die.”
“Not at all. In fact, I’ve already started writing a eulogy.” An idea for a eulogy, a hook, had come to me the previous September. I made a few notes, but began writing it in earnest shortly after Dean texted with the latest. If not cold, it did feel inappropriate to be writing such a document while my father was still alive. But I knew I’d be expected to say something at the funeral I now foresaw happening within a few months. And once I learned he had died, I’d surely be in no mood to write.
From Dean’s I headed to the rehab place, stopping to pick up Marilyn along the way. We found my father in the Evergreen Center cafeteria, a smallish room with several long tables, where he and seven or eight others were taking a meal.
He sat in a wheelchair, and it only took one glance to see how much he had deteriorated since September. My first thought: he resembles a Union soldier liberated from Andersonville, the notorious Civil War-era POW camp. Skin and bones. It didn’t seem possible he could be even thinner than he’d been the previous autumn.
“How much do you think he weighs?” Marilyn asked, as we stood in the cafeteria entrance.
“Dean said they told him 120 pounds.”
He saw us approaching and seemed to light up. “Tige!” he said to me, his voice weak and raspy. Short for Tiger, his nickname for me since childhood. “What a surprise!”
“Hi Dad,” I said. “How’s it going?”
How’s it going? Did I not have two good eyes? My father had reached a stage where even the blandest pleasantry might be inappropriate.
The food arrayed on the tray before him was mostly pureed, and mostly untouched. The only solids were flakes of what appeared to be canned tuna, and a scoop of mashed potatoes. He had trouble swallowing, I learned, and most of his food had to be a certain consistency. Even his glass of water seemed to have a high viscosity.
After this initial recognition and salutation, my father’s face grew blank, and he withdrew into himself. Ordinary conversation became impossible. There would be no talk of National Geographic or Life magazine, or Margaret Bourke-White.
Three or four other patients shared the table with him, but they all ignored each other. One man stared blankly. An ancient woman raised a spoon to her mouth; her hand trembled fiercely and her food spilled to the tray below. Several seats beyond her, a man sat dozing in his chair.
And then there was my dad, who appeared ready to nod off himself. He didn’t, not that first day, but he did during later visits. Each time, his head slumped forward. Saliva pooled at the corner of his mouth, and began seeping out; a fine strand dripped, stretching from his lips like elastic.
Once, as he dozed, Marilyn said we should go, and we both stood. But he woke up: “Leaving already?” So he was aware of time passing.
And this is how it ends, I thought gloomily. From a robust existence to this enfeebled state in a clean and well-run, yet cheerless rehabilitation center. His life is spent; all used up. An all-too-common fate: years of slow decline, a gradual weakening of the body and its systems; finally taking to what becomes your deathbed. Better to stay healthy, and drop dead without warning – felled by a massive heart attack or stroke. Dead before you hit the ground. If only we could choose.
“John?” Marilyn asked him. “Are you going to eat?” He ignored the question he couldn’t hear.
We stayed for about an hour that first day, the beginning of a nearly unwavering pattern. I’d stop to pick up Marilyn for the five-minute drive to the Evergreen Center. We’d gather around him, usually in the cafeteria. We would attempt conversation. My father would insert the occasional non sequitur. Sometimes he fell asleep. After an hour or so, we’d leave.
When I dropped Marilyn off that first day, I came in the house for a few minutes. I noticed a handwritten sign taped to a kitchen cabinet door, instructions from a physical therapist.
Home Exercise Program - 3/30/16
Continue with leg exercises. 15 reps each.
Walk to the mailbox daily. Pick up your feet. No Shuffling!
Stand up and sit down from green chair, 10 times.
March for 2 minutes holding the walker or kitchen counter for balance.
As he looked fondly at this picture I asked what the caption meant. “Five hundred kilocycles,” he replied, without hesitation. “The international distress frequency.”
My father never gave an overt indication of his spirit – at least, not anything I picked up on. But I think by then he had just about given up; I think he was ready to die. Dean all but confirmed this when he told me that a month or so before, without any prompt, my father had said, “I’m tired of being a burden.”
On Monday night, my last night in town, I sat with Dean and Deborah on the back deck of their home, sipping beer, munching pizza, and discussing practical matters: where should we have his service? He said he wants an Irish wake. Should there be an open casket?
A service in a small, nearby church would suffice. An Irish wake? Sure, what the hell. But an open casket? Out of the question. This man’s vanity, and his wife’s, were and are boundless. We all agreed on that point. No matter the embalmer’s skill, he could never come close to recreating my father’s public face; what he had been in his prime.
Deborah said he wanted a military honor guard – a flag over the casket, the playing of taps, the whole bit. As a Navy veteran, this was his right. But there was a hitch: he did not have his discharge papers, and any copies were presumed to be among millions of military records destroyed by a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in 1973 – in St. Louis, of all places. No paperwork meant no proof of honorable discharge, and thus no honor guard. She’d been around and around on the phone with a series of bureaucrats. The whole thing might choke on red tape.
Emboldened by beer, I reminded Dean and Deborah of the eulogy I’d written, and mentioned to them my first day in town. Would they care to hear the current draft? They would, so I opened my laptop and read it. It’s about seven pages. Whether that is within conventional eulogy limits, I can’t say; nor can I say whether its topics were all acceptable. I don’t imagine there are too many boundaries with eulogies, beyond respect for the deceased.
The eulogy is anecdotal and unashamedly nostalgic, with only an implied sense of sorrow and loss. In piecing it together I culled through a dozen or more letters my father had written me long ago, seeking excerpts that might best illustrate a point in time, if not an entire life. It had been years since I read any of these letters, and it shocked me to come across one with a paragraph he had written more than twenty years before, as his own father, my grandfather, declined.
The burden of my father is getting to be a heavy one...he becomes less functional and at the same time more demanding. I know he has no real idea of what he is asking. It sounds cruel to write it/say it...but there are times when I believe the best thing would be for him to die. He’s never going to improve.
I didn’t use that excerpt. There was plenty of other stuff. But its parallels to the present could not be missed, nor could an unintended meaning: I’m next in line.
The eulogy describes his youth, stressing the Navy and his jazz drumming. But it ends with a quote from a letter he’d written me in the 1990s, after I’d moved to San Francisco: “Remember this. You’re my son and you ain’t got no idea how much I love you and miss you.” That conclusion, along with the evening’s general somberness, had a powerful effect: Dean and Deborah were both in tears. It felt proper, and I sat quietly as the three of us shared a moment.
Yet the writer in me exulted: bullseye!
Late the next morning I picked Marilyn up one last time, and we drove over to the rehab place. My flight back to Colorado was just a few hours away.
Only after arriving did it occur to me that this might be the last time I’d see my father alive. I took my notebook from my backpack, prepared to jot things down again, like I had the previous September. Marilyn noticed me penciling in the date. What are you writing? she asked. Something for work, I lied. I go back tomorrow. If I don’t write it down, I may forget.
This time, though, there was nothing worth writing down. And so, as the time for my departure neared, I took a good long look at my dad.
My thinking was absolutely unoriginal. This is the man who had helped to raise me; who had done so much, wittingly and unwittingly, to shape me. The man who took me to baseball games and played catch with me. Who signed my report cards, even as he berated me for lousy grades. Who bought me birthday presents and Christmas presents, and sometimes took me to work with him. Who in turn adored my own children, his grandson and granddaughter. Who never failed, when the need arose, to come to my aid or defense.
That final morning, July 12, 2016, as I kissed him, told him I loved him and said farewell, he remained as he had been: indifferent to most stimuli, and a prisoner, perhaps, in his own body.
But he knew who I was. And to Marilyn, as he had several times over the preceding days, he said, “You’re really beautiful, you know that?”
My father hung on for two more months. And then he died.
At the funeral in suburban Detroit, the pastor delivered an unremarkable sermon and I read my eulogy. An old colleague spoke. The honor guard happened: tenacious Deborah had kept at it, and at the eleventh hour someone located those missing discharge papers.
And so the coffin rested on biers at the front of the church, draped in an American flag. Two Marines in brilliant white uniforms stood by. Deborah’s veteran brother wore his dress blues. As the service drew to a close, the Marines lifted the flag from the casket and folded it with great ceremony, tucking and turning it into a snug, star-spangled triangle. When they finished, one of them leaned forward and handed it to Marilyn.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said softly. “On behalf of the United States, I thank you for his service to his country.” Then, as Marilyn accepted the triangle, he carefully removed one white glove and extended his hand. She grasped and shook it. He replaced the glove, took a step back, and saluted her.
On September 17th, the day that he died, it so happened I was home alone – wife out of town on business, daughter in Denver, son in Arizona. And I remained alone for the next four days, with only one thing to think about.
As anticipated as it was, absorbing the reality came slowly. After making and taking a series of phone calls, I settled onto the couch and stared blankly at the TV. Eventually I had to get out of there, so I got on my bicycle, thinking of a long, favored route that would take the better part of three hours to complete. But after a couple of miles a front wheel spoke snapped, forcing me to curtail the ride.
“I’m not sick, after all!” he announced. “It was all a big mix-up!”
Before I could reply, he collapsed onto the floor.
Based on what Deborah told me later, it was about this time that a jazz band played for the Evergreen Health and Living Center patients. She wheeled my dad into a big room for the performance. Either he could hear some of it, or the mere sight of a working band was enough – but she said it really perked him up. “You know I play drums, don’t you?”