This was an incredible blow for him, obviously, and it devastated me for a few days before I righted myself and sought to help him fight this damn thing. Well, on a visit to North Carolina to see him last month, on the Saturday morning before Father’s Day, he suffered a massive stroke due to the tumor in his lung, which had thickened his blood. Were my brother, John, and I not visiting, he would probably not have survived, or have lost completely the power to speak, perhaps even been confined, forever, in a wheelchair.Fortunately, we were there, rushed him to the hospital (where he now resides temporarily in the rehab unit), and he’s recovering well. Each day he gets stronger and is more easily understood. Those first days he couldn’t talk at all and could only say my name when sandwiched into the “Happy Birthday” song.
As the days pass, and roomates come and go (one in worse shape than Dad), we keep getting hopeful that he’ll get better. The dreams are at once small and large, reachable as a pen on a nightstand and as ridiculously distant as the tips of thunderheads. We want him back to work, teaching Spanish, performing magic, walking up to his second story apartment with the books and magazines scattered about (and therefore difficult for a wheelchair or walker to maneuver).
When those goals begin to take on all the reality of his winning an Olympic gold medal, so too do the targets shrink, come closer: we want him in a nursing home, we want to hear him talk, see him walk, and be able to choose where he’s going to live. Personally, I want him to do crosswords (a great reflection of writing skills and undamaged cognition) and to live in a place where his blind cat can also stay. I want him to go see a movie in a movie theater. The movies remain a part of his life.
Reading is difficult, though he manages to wind his way through the Raleigh News and Observer every day. But on the second day, when things were so very bad and we didn’t know if the man my brother and I knew was completely erased, we brought in his little Toshiba portable DVD player, the one he bought to use during the arduous chemo sessions. He took great joy in watching a flick or two with John or I peeking over his shoulder. His first film was An American in Paris, which he saw in the Neurology unit, when he still couldn’t speak, and we were still uncertain as to how much, exactly, was going on in that brain of his. He knew that John and I were his sons. But did he know where he lived, what kind of truck he drove, his favorite author (Kurt Vonnegut or Terry Prachett), or how to fold the bunny bill? We didn’t know.
But when Oscar Levant started pounding away at the Concerto in F, Dad started playing the piano right there on the bed. It was a welcome sign, and although it didn’t really tell us anything, both John and I were so desperate we both wore big, stupid grins that afternoon.
On another day it was Singin’ in the Rain, then Roman Holiday with Audrey, and by then he was just beginning to talk. Down in rehab, we all sat around and watched Steamboat Bill, Jr., and he shrugged, and said he thought it was just “OK”. I’ll take that.
The other day, pushing his wheelchair through the hospital hallways, I said to John that this reminded me of the end of Amadeus, when Salieri is absolving his fellow inmates of their mediocrity. Dad began to mimick Salieri, absolving no one there in the hallway. The movies have made us chuckle together (God damn what a blessing laughter is), and have filled those moments when we have nothing to say, or are tired, so very tired, of the effort of trying to understand one another.
I write about baseball, and if you read anything regarding the noble sport you come quickly into acres of material about fathers playing baseball with their sons. That was not my lot–Dad never liked baseball all that much, never followed the sport, threw the pill, and took me and John, begrudgingly (for everyone–no one, including my brother, likes baseball) to Tiger Stadium just once.
And that’s OK because Dad was never content with our simply watching Star Wars as kids–”there’s a lot more out there” he told us one day while we were slapping at each other with homemade light sabers (yardsticks spraypainted red and blue with black electrical tape handles). So off we went to Saginaw’s gorgeous Temple Theater. It was an amazement even in the late 70s when it smelled of mold and the paint was chipping. Off we went to see Singin’ in the Rain and Citizen Kane and a slew of other classics that ranged from Giant to Brazil.
Who knows where the hell the weeks and months will take us? Dad’s fighting a growing tumor in his sacrum (that was merely a blip when his lung tumor was discovered, and thought to be weaker and eradicatable with the chemo), he’s got a ways to go with his eating, swallowing, walking, talking and writing. Tonight he’s watching OSS 117, a delightful spy spoof, to help him get through another day of drinking Ensure and enduring the soul-crushing hospital.
Every night I come back to his place, to sit amongst his books and posters, and I wander between moments of awful pain and sadness, to crushing fatigue, and then, just before sleep, a sort of scarred grace when I’m thankful for whatever time I have with him at whatever quality. When I get angry, infuriated that so much of him has been taken away, that he’ll now never live in Minnesota, near me, and we won’t get to, among many, many things, get to pass our days arguing about the merits of, say, The Wire or Ingmar Bergman. He’s too tired now, and, in a sense, unable to handle the depressing nature of that television show or the famously dour Swede.
But the grace comes when I remember, and really understand what Niebhur wrote, that we must simply enjoy one day, one moment at a time, and accept these hardships, these adventures, as they come, steeling us, as it were, for peace. There are times where I say damn that, I want my father back, just as he was, but I know I don’t get to choose this world, though that thought often sickens and angers me. For now, in the good moments, I think at least we have the movies. Sometimes, that’s enough.