As I type this my dog (originally Steve’s now after 8 years together I call her mine) barks LOUDLY in the background. The next door neighbors, still in Florida for the winter have their gardeners working up a storm. Sarah thinks they don’t belong. She thinks their machines don’t belong. She is probably right on some cosmic level, why do we build machines to tame lawns? In any case…it is who she is. She objects to the unexpected. For hours.
I’ve never been particularly interested in the weather, I prefer small talk to revolve around food or TV, but I am forced to chime in, because today it is snowing on April 21sit at the same time that my neighbors aerate and mulch. Its hard to feel self pity though, we chose to live here. Snowing in late April, what would we do if the mud never froze over during this weird not spring of ours. It is part of the Vermont identity.
Eleven years ago my father died. Before his first battle with cancer being his daughter was part of my identity. He was incredible, fierce in the least Tyra Banks way possible. He raged over indiscretions perceived and actual, he saw beauty in trees, he ate a limited menu of 6 foods, and was functionally illiterate. He provoked my friends into humorous and dreadful conversations, about spiders, architecture, whether the 14 year old’s life had beauty in it. He asked why they would ever want to go to college, if they had tried “magic mushrooms” and downgraded the full length of the Long Trail to “a nice walk.” Perhaps that’s why I don’t talk about weather. Every topic on earth was on limits for him. Doting daughter of the artist/provocateur. It was who I was.
After his diagnosis I became at least partially the daughter of a dying dad. In a way he was well equipped for dying. He rarely took into account other’s opinions or feelings, so it was not an adjustment at all for him to make demands from doctors and caregivers, and carefully outline his last meal, special trips, and determine what discourse would happen at the table.
His long death was what you might imagine (or if you are lucky, not) with skeletal physique, difficulty swallowing, dillerium. On his part and ours…after six months in and out of consciousness on a hospital bed in our living room, my mother and I started making summer plans in January. How to transport the bed to the cape. Time of day, month and year all became a swirling blur. Perhaps he would be with us in this altered state forever. Demanding caring, occupying our thoughts. Challenging us. It was who he was.
Born 29 years and 1 day after his dad our now six year old has usurped his fathers birthday. It is alright Steve reassures us. And it is. Some people still celebrate Steve. His parents drove in from Michigan like they do every year to mark the birthdays. Generous with their presence and presents the packages took many trips to bring in from the car. Everything is carefully selected to cater to what the recipient is interested in. Start wars legos, craft beer books, Redwings Jerseys. No enrichment gifts here. They want each present to bring joy. It is who they are.
Steve’s family is generous, polite, and cautious. They stand in stark contrast to my father (and me if I am honest) other people’s desires and opinions trump their own. When it is just the five of them together with no outsider to tip the scale they go round in circles trying to select a meal for dinner, looking to get it just right for everyone. No one is more solicitous than Grandpa, who gives up his seat, his coat, his plate of food to anyone who so much as glances at him. It has always struck me as inefficient, this desire to please. Although why efficiency matters I can’t really explain. Part of who my mom is. But that is another post.
Just one week after their birthday visit we got a call that Grandpa was in the hospital. From asymptomatic he appeared to be in liver failure. Steve flew home to them and met his siblings. Three days later the worst possible news. Untreatable, aggressive non differentiated pancreatic cancer. From apparent health to weeks from death in 5 days. 62, and just beginning to talk about his wife’s retirement so they can spend more time on the road driving the rhombus from Michigan to Vermont, to Atlanta to Florida. Those Midwesterners, always in the car. Driving distances that make east coasters call up their Kayak app is part of who they are.
Steve is investigating oncological protocols. He is juggling doctors and lawyers, flight schedules, insurance paperwork, advance directives and powers of attorney. He is calm and collected. It is, of course, who he is.
His sister is emotional. Expressive, connected. The youngest child, the only daughter.
His brother is trying to read his father’s mind, understand what it feels like to be some handful of days from death, as if deep empathy lessens the burden. The middle son, the one to find balance.
His mother is optimistic, imagining incorrect diagnoses, successful experimental treatment, carefully compartmentalizing the pain to be a smiling face. Living a bit outside of the real world, in this totally unreal situation is not so far from who she is in the regular world. Well respected and efficient at work, she is the object of Grandpa’s love and care for 35 years.
What do I wish for them? For us all? Perhaps a little of each other.
For Steve to let it all fly apart, to really feel like his sister. For Grandpa to listen to his own desires, like my dad could do every day of his life, and feel liberated to make demands. For Grandma to take the slice of this pain that she can, and dole it out slowly over the next decade, managing the project of living alone capably as she learns she can. For his brother and sister to share Chris’ balance, and Val’s connectedness and for them all to be a family for this last little bit.
Then the real pain starts.
Death is intimate. It changes our relationships. It changes what we know we are capable of. It changes for a while our perspective about everything on earth. After we emerge from the care of the dying, more fragile than we were when we went into that other world of changed time and space we are a bit scrambled up. We are raw, and feeling, and disconnected and interconnected.
We are not who we were.
But in my experience, we are someone better.