I eat pickles the entire week. Occasionally, I have some chicken salad too, but it is tasteless. The pickles, at least, have so much vinegar, salt, and garlic that I can detect a faint hint of flavor. They crunch, and this, too, gives discernible stimuli. It is not just my taste that is numbed, but my sense of touch is gone too. I get a pedicure that Monday and cannot feel the massage, which is why I spend the money to do this in the first place.
On Tuesday, I speak to my Spiritual Director, and she tells me I am in shock. The lack of taste and feeling a sign my sympathetic nervous system has kicked into emergency drive, sending most of the blood flow to my organs. One morning, my smoothie tastes awful, but I drink it anyway thinking the strange taste just another symptom of this stranger week. Later, I realize I’d mixed my dog’s liver-flavored greens into it – somehow confusing my own supplement with theirs.
On the second floor of the house, in the master bedroom, my father is dying.
To say my father was not an easy man was like hinting at rain in a hurricane. We didn’t walk on egg shells, we levitated. What water was to a Gremlin, heat and humidity were to my father. He ignited when he got hot. He had an explosive temper in any weather, and I didn’t understand that his quick irritation was not personality but disease: a mood disorder and severe anxiety. I shared this condition, but mine was directed inward.
My father’s response to his failure to control the world (and everything in it: air-conditioning, the government, his children) was rage. His grey-green, yellow-flecked eyes would bulge from his face like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist. His Harvard-earned vocabulary became a vomitous purge of expletives:
God-Damned-Lousy-Modern-American _ – one complete word, fill in the blank with children, government, air-conditioning…
Stoop – for stupid.
And, a crowd-pleaser:
Shooshly-Assed – his very own personal creation, usually used to describe me.
I am in and out of the room countless times each day, two of my sisters come in shifts as they both live hours away and have businesses and families. My third sister will fly from Hawaii as soon as her husband gets through his first week of chemotherapy. I stay the entire time and take care of him.
There is more to do than you would think when someone is dying. Hospice supplies us with an arsenal of narcotics “to keep him comfortable.” One sister later gives this an acronym: DEAD – Drug Em’ And Dead. The pickles are just enough to keep me on my feet.
It is June and steaming hot and humid in New Jersey. I am constantly conscious of the temperature. I keep Dad’s air-conditioner on so he is cool, but the noisy oxygen tank emits it’s own heat, which makes the room hot, and loud, even with the AC. I can’t believe it doesn’t wake him every time I turn it on; it sounds this blaring alarm for 30 seconds— enough to wake the dead, perhaps, but not the barely living.
Although he’s never conscious, I talk to him every day. I wipe his sweaty, cold, clammy, and then burning head. I play and sing Johnny Cash for him, wailing the chorus of “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” One night I sleep beside him and hold his hand. I have my father’s hands as do two of my sisters. They swell terribly in the heat and we joke they look like sausages.
Every day the pickles remind me I am among the living. The tart and salty combination make my mouth water, and I can not only swallow but taste. I buy them by the quart and eat them whole in two’s and three’s. It occurs to me that there is some irony in my craving for pickles; pregnant women apparently want them, and so, it seems, do those who are death-watching. The pickle may be the quintessential food to usher a soul to and from the body. They’re phallic and green.
He dies on Thursday morning. My youngest sister is with me, and we hold him together. Both my parents died here in this room – my mother on my father’s watch, my father on mine. I turn the oxygen off and the air-conditioner down, and the next day the heat breaks.
Six years later, over the anniversary of him dying, this week has been glorious. Cool at night with perfect blue skies and low humidity during the day. I write in my journal reflecting on Dad’s lousy temper, especially in the heat and humidity. Many times he flipped out commuting on the train when the air-conditioning broke and was ordered to get off before his stop. This went on for decades every summer and is one of the signature stories I tell to illustrate how difficult he often was.
I suppose it’s fitting that it was so oppressive and humid the week he died.
Maybe his final days he was back on a train with a broken air-conditioner, having a fit. And then death came disguised as a conductor and threw him off the train.
He was mad as hell, of course, and breathless. But then a low glow rose over the horizon, and he stepped down into a cool wind and my mother’s waiting arms.
“Has this world been so kind to you that you leave with regret? There are better things ahead than we leave behind.”C.S. Lewis
“I haven’t seen my father in some time
But his face is always staring back at me
His heavy hands hang at the ends of my arms
And my colors change like the sea”
“Most of All”