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.