Hunting Memories

December 22, 2017

I guess I thought this first Christmas without Dad would be the same–just with him absent.  As if he were in another room, or perhaps away on the annual hunting trips he took with his father and uncles and cousin in the Adirondack mountains.

He took an entire week of his vacation every year to hunt, only a few times coming home with a deer.  The longer he hunted, the older he got, the less interested he seemed to be in the hunt and the more invested he became in just being in the woods.  He used to tell the story of unexpectedly coming upon his father one afternoon on the back of the mountain.  How he stood and watched my grandfather sitting with his back up against a Hemlock tree in the sun sleeping.  And how after that, hemlocks always made him think of his father, asleep there in the autumn woods.

He would come home changed.  He would have grown a beard, or the scratchy start of one.  He would be tousled and strange like an ascetic who could not communicate what it was that he had been seeking or had found.  He spoke of the dinners his cousin would make: huge (beef) steaks marinated for days and cooked outside.  A strange kind of asceticism, perhaps.  But the long days out of doors had worked something in him: gratitude, I think.  Gratitude for his silent father and the company of men.  And gratitude for the wonder of the woods: of moving for hours by compass and sun on the back of the mountain;  doing the work of  listening and watching, being part of the forest itself.

He would say in later years, that he was relieved when he did not see deer and have to decide whether or not to shoot.  And that after his father was gone, every year, he would look for a hemlock tree to sit beneath and sleep.  As if what he was hunting were not deer at all, but some communion with the memories the woods held.

These are my father’s memories.  –And, yes, my memories of his memories.  So I walk with him –or after him–in those woods.  Now it is my turn to look for a place to sit in the sun and commune both with what is gone and what is left.

It really had not occurred to me before this, that this would be a different holiday altogether.  That along with my father, and my parents’ home, that a time was gone, too.  And while some of the traditions of the holiday remained for us to enact, we were the ephemera now.  We were what was passing, while the forest of the holidays would remain.

Is this what it is like to age?  To see discrete lives within the times we live?  –Like a patch of sun beneath a great hemlock tree, a patch of brief ground illuminated, then gone?

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Falling Back

Thursday, November 2

My dad dies at 10:15 in the morning.  My mother is asleep next to him with her hand on his arm. The cat is lying on his legs, purring loudly.  My sister is sitting in my dad’s wheelchair next to the bed. And I am standing next to her.

I was on my way out the door to take some magazines to the recycling bin when she called, “Linda, don’t go!  I think he’s going…”   He had been taking those long breaths followed by longer and longer silences.  Just about the time I would think, he’s gone, there would be a startling catch in his throat and he would take a long gasp.

His head was tipped back and his mouth was opened at that unnatural angle that I see so often in the dead when I am working in the hospital. –As if he is frozen in the act of  taking a large gulp of air.

My sister, like her father, is a scientist: an organized, problem-solving, critical thinker. A few minutes earlier when he took one of those long, gasping breaths she set her phone to work as a stop watch.  I watch the numbers change so quickly, they can only be tenths and hundredths of seconds.  To the left the numbers climb more slowly until at 6 minutes I say, “He’s gone, Nan.”

The odd thing about death is that nothing changes. The cat is still purring, my mother is still sleeping, my sister and I are still waiting.  Everything–and nothing–has changed. He is gone and the world goes on.

Friday, November 3

Mom was up and down all night last night.  I would be watching tv and I would hear the scratchy shuffle of her calloused feet on the carpet. I would look up and there she was at my elbow, looking confused.

I would walk her back to her bed, lightly stroking her back and help her into bed.  Early on, I offered to sleep with her.  She said, no, I didn’t have to do that.

The second or third time as she climbed back into bed I heard her say to herself,  “I just have to get used to it.”

The last few times, as she put her head down on the pillow, she would say,  “Now, where is Nan?”

“She is home sleeping. She will be back in the morning.”

Then, later, again, “Where’s Nancy?”

“Nancy is at home, sleeping.  She will be back in the morning.”

“And where is Linda?”

“I’m Linda, Mom. And I’m right here. I’m not leaving.”

The last time I helped her back into bed and tucked the blanket around her chin, she said, “Do I have everything together?”

“Yes, Mom, you have it all together. You can sleep now.  I’m right here.”

Sunday, November 5

The time changed last night. We “fell back” an hour.

My mother is still in bed, sleeping, I hope.  –Although she has this habit of lying in bed with her beautiful, startlingly blue eyes open, looking at the ceiling and doing, I don’t know what.

I awoke in the night and realized I had slept several hours uninterrupted.  Even that much sleep makes a difference in the morning when I wake again.  I get up because I am cold.  How I can be cold in an apartment which is kept at 75 degrees is a mystery.  I don’t try to solve the mystery, I just take a hot shower in what was Dad’s bathroom and lay down on the love seat and stare at the ceiling.

Nan and I both feel Dad’s presence in the apartment, as if he is still here with us.  I don’t think Mom feels that way.  I think it comes at her in waves: lifting her on the crest of realizing his absence–then dropping her into a trough of forgetfulness.  Night seems to be the hardest time. She is like a small boat unmoored and she will ask, “Where’s Dad?”  “What happened?”  “Are we going home tomorrow?”

Nan and I are ruthless, I suppose.  When she asks we answer, “He is at the funeral home.”  “His heart failed.”  “This is home, Mom.”

–“No it’s not,”  she said fiercely, once, last night.  She’s right. This is not her home.  Not really.  Their home is gone.  Her husband is gone.  Their old pets are gone.  Many of their friends are gone.

And the world rolls on.

The clocks don’t stop.  Time doesn’t skip a beat.  We fall “back.”  But “Back” is not a direction time and life recognize.  They move relentlessly forward and we are carried with them, like boats, unmoored, carried on their waves.

 

 

Paraphernalia

I was tired today.  I woke around 2am (my worry time) and worried about my parents and their getting enough care. Then I read awhile and finally fell asleep again. In the morning we got what the locals call “a soaker.”  Raining cats and dogs, we said when I was young.  The maple outside my 2nd floor room which has been a yellow torch against the lawn, was first dishevelled and is now completely undressed.  Another across the road has lost all of its leaves on top and from the waist down, still has a raggedy slip of yellow on.

Still, the air is not chilly. It is humid and warmish. I could sit out on the porch with a cup of coffee this morning and enjoy the fresh air. But no more walks.

Today was largely uneventful except that I was watching the clock and counting the hours until my sister came in after teaching (4pm) to relieve me.  I didn’t take a break away from the apartment because I expected the delivery of the wheelchair and other hospital paraphernalia and I didn’t want my mom alone there when it came. She is understandably confused and angry by all the sudden changes in their lives with the advent of hospice.

Of course, the wheelchair was delivered while my sister and I were downstairs in the dining room and Mom and Dad were alone in the apartment and by the time we got there I could already hear Mom’s voice in the hall. I set up the bedside commode and moved the bedside table into the dining room until we find a permanent place for it. The wheelchair, while not as big as I had feared, is still a presence, and my sister was unhappy with it.

In a totally unexpected turn, when I asked my father about placing the commode by his bed, he said that was “good.”  And in a strong voice I only rarely hear now, he addressed my mother directly when she asked what he needed that thing for.  He said, “It is a miracle that I haven’t fallen in the bathroom before this!”  And I thought I was the only one whose heart raced whenever he was in there alone among tile and sharp corners and holding on to the towel bar.

Tomorrow the hospice nurse comes back to talk to Nan and I together. I think that will not be a happy conversation. I think we see my father’s abilities differently and being the prodigal daughter who has taken no responsibility for my parents’ care during the last very hard year, I have little or no credibility.

The one thing we do agree on, though, is that we don’t want to lose each other in this.  To lose my dad and then my mom–and then each other?  That would be tragic. So we will be okay.

I have always been a worrier. If worrying were a triathlon, I would qualify for an Iron Man. But living with cancer has leant me some perspective.  I have learned–am learning–sometimes–to open my hands and let go.  To recognize when I can do nothing more than accept.

I have to trust that my sister and I will do the best we can by my parents. –And they will still die.  And all we have done–especially all my sister has done–in the name of love–will be enough. Simply because it is done in love.  We have no other gift to give them now.