Little Black Dots


My father-in-law is dying. His wife called and told us he’d had a stroke, and we rushed to the ER. Techs ran scans that showed little black dots around his brain, and those little dots are cancer.

Amadeus and I were planning to spend Christmas with his father and the woman he calls his “sorta stepmother.”  I was going to cook dinner and bring it over, and we had little gifts and our secret plan was to inject a little happiness into the lives of a sweet, curmudgeonly old man and his dour new wife.  They’re typically a glass half-empty kind of couple, and Amadeus and I wanted to fill that glass for a little while.

I love my husband’s daddy. He’s eighty-three years old, visually impaired and for months, he’s had trouble walking. He’s a bona fide grouch, but as I think I’ve said here before, I’m somewhat enamored of grouches. It’s the challenge of cracking that hard shell, the reward of seeing a smile cross a stern and gloomy face.  My father-in-law is as tough as an oyster shell, but inside that shell is a Sta Puft marshmallow.  A year or so ago, I told Amadeus that I hoped that I’d know his dad for a very long time, but that’s not going to be the case.

Our hospital holiday was sad, and it was hard. Amadeus, Sr.’s wife screamed and raged at the staff in a thick Germanic accent. In her eyes, she was surrounded by incompetence.  The food sucked and the doctor’s orders were nonsensical.  My father-in-law was sometimes confused, sometimes lucid, often agitated and very, very sad. He cried a lot, and I dabbed his tears and fed him pears. Amadeus sat by his bedside and although they talked little, it comforted them both.

I see rivers of history running between father and son. Amadeus Sr. sometimes can’t remember the names of friends and family, and he couldn’t see the people who were coming in and out of his hospital room, but he always knows when my husband is near. Their skin is the same, pale and smooth. They share many mannerisms and they speak in much the same way, though Amadeus’ voice is gentler. Their relationship has been complicated, and they’ve suffered greater losses in the past five years than most people could endure, a silent bond that no one else can fully understand. The blood they share is about to evaporate from the old man’s body, and it fills them both with grief.

Five Decembers ago, Amadeus’ mother died after a long illness. Three weeks later, the day after Christmas, he lost his only child, a sixteen-year-old son. It was Amadeus’ fifty-third birthday.  Last August, his brother (his only sibling) died of cancer.

Five Decembers ago, Amadeus Senior’s wife died after a long illness and more than fifty years of marriage. Three weeks later, he lost his grandson. Last August, his eldest child died of cancer. And now he’s leaving too. It’ll be just Amadeus after that. Well, Amadeus and me, but he’s the last branch on that tree.

We brought our little Charlie Brown Christmas tree to the hospital, determined to infuse some joy into that sad and sterile room. It seemed to work. We placed the tree where Amadeus’ dad could see the ornaments and the tiny twinkling lights, and on Christmas Eve we brought presents and pie and he seemed delighted.  For a short time, his wife stopped Gestapo-ing the staff and bitching about everything and it was lovely to see the two of them smiling. Amadeus and I force-fed them a big old IV bag of love, and they didn’t mind a bit.

During his entire stay, Amadeus Sr. kept thanking Amadeus and me for being there.  He apologized a million times for things we didn’t understand and cried with regret about his impending death. He became obsessed with funeral plans. Cancer cells pressed on different areas of his brain and his personality changed in accordance. He was gentle one moment, angry and frustrated the next, and in a split second he’d be crying. He was confused. Pointing to a tall visitor, he asked, “Do you play basketball for Oklahoma State?” He wanted to run ads advertising his passing in the newspaper—sort of a pre-death announcement. For a while, there was a football game going on in the room that only he could see. No matter how out of it he was, the indignity of not being able to pee without help humiliated him. He was and is very, very tired.

There’s nothing left to do but wait. The other day, he was sent home to die. Amadeus and I can see their house from our yard. It’s a forty-five second walk from ours, and we’ve already worn a rut between the two places.  Their domicile has been invaded by hospice ladies and V.A. workers, though Amadeus and I are a bit amazed at how little assistance they actually get. There have been no workers to help him in and out of bed. He’s a sofa kind of guy, not a bedridden one, and lifting him is a major operation. Amadeus’ back aches and I’m a little pooped myself.

He’s been mostly lucid these past few days, clear enough to realize what’s happening, but not quite with it enough to remember his new wife’s name. He knows Amadeus’, he remembers mine, but he calls the woman he lives with by his dead wife’s name, which infuriates her. Sometimes he calls her Whatsername, and she’s a little more okay with that. He offers her a million apologies for being clumsy and spilling things, and Amadeus wants to scream, “STOP apologizing!!!”  He could pour a million gallons of coffee onto the floor and drop five thousand melted chocolate bars. We’d gladly clean it up. What do messes matter when your number’s about to come up? We want him to be at peace. We want him to be content. We don’t want him to go.

Yesterday, we stayed with him for a few hours while Whatsername ran errands. He and Amadeus watched football on his big screen TV. The television set is about the size of an SUV and sits four feet away from his face, but my father-in-law still can’t see which team is doing what, so Amadeus supplied a running commentary.  I explained to him about my sports impairment and confessed that I sometimes only pretend to know what’s going on. I confided that I had no idea which team was Rutgers and which was Iowa State, which made him laugh. I love making that old man laugh.

I went for a little walk during all of this, and when I returned, the two men looked a little frazzled and very sheepish. Amadeus had tried to help his father pee, but his dad missed the bottle and urine soaked through his pants and his pads. It’s impossible for one person to lift the man, and when I got there, they were sitting happily, side-by-side, still watching the game.  Amadeus Sr.’s pants were halfway down and his Depends was scrunched, but he was clean and dry. At some point during this fiasco, they agreed that as long as he was comfortable, they’d just go with this new fashion statement. So long as they didn’t miss the game, they were fine. It was like watching two old bachelors chilling, without the beer and pretzels and the pants. Amadeus and I managed to lift his father, and we pulled everything up and put a new pad beneath him.

Later, Amadeus went home to make his dad some chili. I stayed and watched a huge Judge Judy with my father-in-law. “You seem a lot happier,” I told him during a commercial. “You were really agitated there for a while.”

“It’s the drugs,” he smiled. “They’re great.”

He spoke of his impending death. He’s matter-of-fact about it, and seems more accepting of his fate with each passing day. It’s odd, witnessing this sorrowful process.  Again, he thanked me for all we were doing.

“Well,” I said, “you did give me your son.” I expressed how much Amadeus and I love each other. I wanted to reassure him that we would be okay. “He’s my angel,” I told him, and promised to keep his boy in line. A grin spread across his face and he looked out the window and said, “That’s good.”

Last night, Amadeus and I curled up on the sofa and wrote songs and drank a little whiskey and talked about death. We’d both seen the video of Ben Breedlove, the eighteen-year-old Texas boy who shared stories of his near-death experiences on YouTube before finally dying of a heart defect on Christmas day. In the end, he was ready to go—in fact, he couldn’t wait. He’d seen where he was going, reviewed his life and was proud of the things he’d accomplished. He was completely prepared to leave this world.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone were that happy and accepting of death?” I asked Amadeus. “You know, if we knew that it was going to be peaceful and joyous? Not in that stupid  ‘He’s in a better place now’ way, but in a way that makes you thrilled that you’re on your way to this fantastic new place.” I loved imagining that each of the people we’d lost—his mother and brother and son, my father—had experienced the happiness that Ben had felt when he’d met with death, before he came back to tell us about it.

We discussed our own dream deaths—how we wanted our lives to end, and at what point we’d want them ended for us if things became too rough. Amadeus took out a sheet of paper and wrote. “If we lose our faculties, if our quality of life is gone, if we’re a burden and there’s no hope left—do not resuscitate. “

Our dream deaths include a wake by the Buffalo River, and we both hope the weather cooperates. We want people to pass a bottle and tell stories about us, and laugh and cry and sing and play music. I’m going to write a song for Amadeus, and he’s going to write one for me. Our ashes will be scattered in the river, and they’ll mingle and fish will swallow part of us and the rest of us will float downstream.  We signed and dated it, and for a minute, we considered having Theo the Wonderdog® witness it, but we had no inkpad for his paw.

There’s something so horrific and yet so beautiful about the demise of the sweet, grouchy old man who raised my husband. He’s had the gift and the curse of knowing that the end is near. He’s surveyed his life, expressed his regrets; he’s making his peace and saying his goodbyes. He got to tell his son that he loved him, and he got to hear it back. That might be the greatest gift of all.

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16 thoughts on “Little Black Dots

  1. Ann Marquez says:

    All I can say is {Hugz} and blessings to all.
    This is absolutely beautiful Moonbeam.

    Ann– thank you for the hugs and thank you for the blessings. We need ‘em.

  2. Heather says:

    I’m so sorry Moonie!
    Losing a parent is the pits. I lost my mama last year and it’s nearly killed me.

    ((((Heather)))) I’m so sorry about your mom. I can’t even imagine.

  3. Love you, Moonbeam. (((((HUGS))))) You can share some of those with Amadeus Jr. and Sr.

    Love you back, Mr. P. I’m definitely sharing those hugs.

  4. Kendall says:

    You’ve written this with love, with kindness, with humor where I would have thought humor was impossible, and with wisdom. It sounds like you’ve both been as patient as humanly possible with the step-mother, and you’ve been wonderful to the old guy and to each other. That’s all you can do, Moonbeam. You’re on it. You’re doing it. And you’re writing it. Meanwhile life…and death…does what it does. There’s no stopping it. Keep breathing, Moonbeam. Keep taking care of yourself and Amadeus, because this really hard on you both. I’m glad you’re able to keep writing. I hope it keeps you sane and refills your exhausted supply of energy.

    Thanks, Kendall. You give me too much credit. Though I am cordial and (hopefully) helpful, I want to bitch-slap that sorta stepmother into next Tuesday. Today, I started writing another blog post on the latest developments, but I finally had to stop after 2000 plus words of anger. I don’t know if I’ll publish it, but blogging is the best therapy.

    We’re trying, we’re really trying. And thank you so much for the reminders. I needed that jolt.

  5. Renee Mason says:

    Lady, you can write your ass off. This has me sobbing, but also so happy that your husband has you in his life at this time. And good for you for being able to extend your kindness and caring to the evil stepmama!

    Thank you Renee. I’m sorry I made you sob.

    You know, I’m still amazed that my hubby and I ended finding each other in this world. We trade strength back and forth and we talk things out and no matter how horrible things get, we’re both just so delighted to be together. There’s something in that foundation that reassures us that no matter what, everything will be okay in the end.

  6. Irene says:

    Wow, this was ever so profound. I don’t think I could ever write something like this without breaking down. We all have seen and experienced some sort of family death, more than others, but I don’t think I’ve ever read someone’s inner thoughts and feelings on the subject. I think it’s an issue we don’t like to dwell on. I mean it’s death. But you’ve seem to bring the realistic side of it without being morbid or somber. It’s the circle of life, something we have to accept and accept without grievance. Because there’s nothing you can do about.

    Talk about profound…this is beautiful. These are great words for me to read right now. Thank you, Irene.

  7. Claire says:

    Dear, dear Moonbeam. Boy, am I right there with you. You have no idea how close to home this hits. Before I go there, I want you to know how much you touch me with your writing – funny, sad, poetic, touching, deep – just about every emotion possible and I always look forward to reading your posts. You are blessed to have your Amadeus and his daddy right there. I was present when my father passed (1993) and he was ready to go. What a huge, huge spiritual gift that is to witness someone passing. Some think that morbid but I don’t. He knew where he was going and couldn’t wait. He was 64. My mom is 92, nearly 93. She is getting more and more frail and last September suffered cardiac arrest post surgery. (They brought her back within just under 3 minutes.) She’s in the hospital right now as I type this. She had a cold and that threw her heart off balance. She has congestive heart failure and atrial fibrulation. She’s so very, very delicate. But I am fortunate too – like you – because I am honored to be by her side. She may be around for another year or two – but honestly, I think the likelihood of that is very, very slim. No doctor has to tell me that. I’ve been watching the progression. So sad, but I get to be the daughter and be by her side. And I totally get what you mean about not caring if they spill 100 bottles of whatever and that you’d gladly clean it up for them. Same with my mama. I don’t want her to go, but we all go. It’s inevitable. I’m about as braced for it as I possibly can be. Meanwhile, like you, I treasure every second with her for as long as she is here, which I hope is for quite some time still.

    I love the way you write about your mother, Claire. It’s awful to watch a loved one age and wither away, but it does give us more time to get used to the idea of their absence. I don’t know what I’ll do when my mother goes. I flip out just thinking about it. I haven’t seen her in years, but we have a bond that’s more unique than anything I can imagine. We go way back. ;) I’m glad you’ve had time to brace for the inevitable. I’m also happy that you got that gift of being with your dad at the end of his life.

    I’d like to say that this is all loving and wonderful and perfect, but in actuality, it’s been increasingly nightmarish. The dying are seldom the issue. It’s these damned living that make things crazy. It’ll all be okay though.

  8. David says:

    Kendall, Irene, and Claire have put it so well. This post is powerful, and also carries some of that anguished tedium of the waiting for death. How lucky that man is to have you and Amadeus in attendance.

    Thanks, David. “Anguished tedium.” I love it. Perfect.

  9. joanharvest says:

    I didn’t know you were still blogging. I decided to visit my old blogging friends today. I read this post and just sat here afterwards digesting all that you had written. You wrote it so well and with so much feeling that I was able to visualize everything as if I were watching it in real life. The last time I was here you weren’t married so I am happy you found someone to share your life with though I am sad to see you and your husband slowly losing someone so precious to you both. I hope to start blogging more in the future at least for a little while until my grandson is born at the end of March.

  10. Joan- I’m so happy to see you here. Thanks for the kind words. It’s been a happy/sad roller coaster ride around here lately. I hope you get back to blogging soon, and Congrats on the upcoming grandbaby!

  11. Care says:

    Oh Moonbeam. You truly are a gift to this planet. I love reading your words and what you create with the order you put these words in. So sorry for the pain and sadness. Wishing sunshine through the rain.

    Your comment is a gift to this writer. Times is tough– these words help. (((Hugs)))

  12. Claire– 

    I accidentally erased this! Testing to see if I can get it back. This is what happens when I try to answer comments on a cell phone.    My front porch has a mood swing. http://moonbeammcqueen.wordpress.com

    ________________________________

  13. Pat . says:

    I think you could blog about a high-speed road crash with twenty dead and body parts scattered everywhere and still make it readable and amusing. Hey, “Happy New Year” – oops, that doesn’t work.
    ((((Moonbeam & family))))

    Thank you for the hugs, Pat. I don’t know if I could actually make the car crash thing work, but maybe a small bicycle wreck with minor injuries?

    It’s not been all that happy a new year for us so far, but things will get better. I hope yours is fantastic!!

  14. linniew says:

    Oh Moonbeam. These kinds of times move slowly, with lots of worry about doing the right thing. You have such excellent, loving instincts. And patience. My mother died a couple years ago, almost 90 and quite demented, but she became very clear when she told me how my dead father had been visiting her a few days before she died. (The staff in the care facility said that happens, before most every death.) Then she spoke not at all for the last couple days, except when I sat with her one afternoon and tried to talk to her and I ended up in tears, and then she smiled and said “I think everything will be all right.” Her last words really, and I’m betting they are true. xo L

    I have been reading your comment over and over for days, Linnie. It’s really just so beautiful and Amadeus and both I thank you. I’m sorry about your mom, but I love the story you relayed.

    My father-in-law definitely sees something or someone (or someones) in his room. He gazes and nods or shakes his head and shrugs in response to something that we can’t see. In the end, I hope that he goes without any inner turmoil or physical pain.

    Your mother sounds like a lovely person, and I’m with you on that bet. xo back

  15. ivdanu says:

    So sad, Moonbeam, so sad. But then, that’s life and fortunately you have the writing to vent (remember the Graham Greene citation: “Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.” ?) My best wishes, to you and yours! (as for myself: we are taking care of our first grandson, Gabriel – 1.5 months and another one is on the way…)

  16. What a beautiful quote, Danu. It’s so true. Amadeus and I have been writing songs throughout this very difficult, insane time. His father died on Saturday, and yesterday I sat and wrote 60 pages about the experience. The funeral is tomorrow, and they are playing a song that we wrote and recorded for this wonderful man. I don’t know how we would have gotten through without writing and music.

    Congratulations to you on your grandbabies! Many hugs to you.

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