Breathe

Hugo Chavez is sitting on the side of the tub, watching my father as he takes a bath, his last one, as it turns out. My brother and I have limped him here to the tub with the built-in rails; rails it turns out he’ll never need because his time, from diagnosis to departure from this world, is less than six full months. Six months filled with chemo and surgeons, pills and emergency room visits. “Do you have any questions for me?” asks his new oncologist, not the sexy, youngish Italian Dr. Salvi he’d hoped for, but balding, slightly effeminate Dr. Norton.

Just one,” he said. “How long ‘til I kick the bucket?” It became his refrain at the end of each appointment, cutting to the chase. “How long ‘til I kick the bucket?” Dr. Norton answered him back directly—6 months—3 months—6 weeks—days.

It was by the time we got to days that Hugo Chavez began to appear, the result of the cancer eating into my father’s brain. Chavez showed up around the same time the imaginary cigarettes did, my dad sliding his gnarled, curled hand my way, pointer and ring fingers held slightly apart to make room for the cigarette. “Here, toss this in the toilet there, wouldja, before we burn this whole house down.” I would comply, taking the invisible butt from his fingers and waving my hand in the direction of the toilet bowl—a perfect shot each time—you could practically hear the singe of the ash as it hit the water.

~

The day after my father died, I turned toward his chair to ask him how many death certificates he thought we should order.  He wasn’t there, of course. He was dead. The thing is, I wasn’t used to making decisions without him. And this felt like a big decision. I didn’t want to order any death certificates at all.  I hadn’t even known we’d need such a thing.  My father’s total assets were a bank account of $917, a fourteen-year-old Volvo wagon, and a vast collection of paperbacks.  But my younger brother was planning to take his one third of the ashes back to New York with him, and in order to travel with human ashes, you need some sort of proof that you didn’t just bump off some random guy, shove him into the woodstove and decide to stash his burnt remains in a Ziploc bag for the bus ride home. Well, truthfully, it wasn’t really a Ziploc at all, the bag that held my father’s ashes, it was just a regular plastic bag, bunched at the top and sealed with a little metal clasp, a heavy duty kind of twist tie. But you can’t just hop on The Greyhound with a plastic bag full of human remains and assume no one will wonder if maybe you’re a serial killer.

And then there was the Volvo.  If we wanted to sell it, or even have it towed away for parts, we’d need a death certificate.  We’d also need one to close out his bank account, which would be used to pay the funeral home expenses. And then there were the bill collectors who were sure to come knocking; we needed death certificates for all these things.

They cost ten bucks a pop, these official State of Maine documents, certifying that I was the informant of my father’s death, that he had died at home, and that the official cause was respiratory failure, due to lung cancer.  In fact, it had been the most aggressive kind of lung cancer: Extensive Small Cell Lung Cancer. The kind that’s already eaten into your liver and your bones and your lymph nodes by the time they catch it.  I remember the first time I heard the diagnosis. I thought the words “small cell” were good, were hopeful.  I was wrong.

I thought about ordering an extra death certificate to send directly to Philip Morris & Co., but the ten bucks didn’t seem worth it. Because by the time Hugo Chavez had begun to appear by the side of the tub, we were all flat broke from traveling up and down Coastal Route One every day for chemo, and from taking so much time off work, and from keeping the house heated at 80 degrees all winter long as my father shrunk down to 120 pounds, then smaller. He became a whisper under indoor hats and blankets, shivering, while we were all running out into the nighttime air to cool down, to wipe lumpy snowballs across our sweaty foreheads, then standing there with arms crossed and shoulders hunched, bouncing on our toes, breath coming out in misty circles as we tried to figure out what to do. Tried to decipher hidden messages from the hospice nurses about which combination of pills might end his pain, this agony, and how we’d know when it was time. We never had to make that decision, though, because my dad, always in control, even up until the very end, waited for the exact moment, the exact configuration of people he wanted gathered around, the exact right final words from his older brother, and then left us, a silent note, a pause.

Within hours the flowers started arriving, and the food.  First came the chicken soup and casseroles that people must have started making ahead of time. Then came the chocolate chip banana bread from the new neighbors across the street. The banana bread arrived at the same time the hearse did, blackened windows creeping slowly down our dead end street, causing confusion when it backed into our neighbors drive before turning around and making its way back to our house. Then came the calls from the funeral home about when we’d be in to sign the paperwork, and how many death certificates we wanted. Because I was the oldest, and because my father lived with me and my young son–had been living with us for years, in fact–I was the decider of these things.

~

My dad was an excellent listener, and so if you came to him with a problem, he never told you what to do, but instead would fold his Bic ballpoint into his bulky crossword book, set it down on the table beside him, and sit there with you for the longest time, leaning forward, elbows on knees, tugging at his grey-white beard, helping you weigh the pros and cons of even the smallest of choices. He never made you feel that he might have something more important to do, someone more interesting to talk with. He was only interested in you, and in that very moment, in everything you had to think or say. Nothing you said or thought, even your innermost wonderings, were too offbeat, too weird.  Nothing shocked or surprised my dad.  It’s why people were always sharing their secrets with him. And when it came to decisions, he weighed every angle with you, so ‘though it sometimes took awhile to get there, you almost never made a decision you regretted later.

How many death certificates to order?  This was the first decision I had to make without him.  There were other decisions to be made about the death certificates, too. Things that should have been simple, but were complicated when it came to my dad. Marital status, for instance.  Divorced, was the short answer, but my parents had reconciled to such a degree by then that my mother was right there with him, by his side, driving him to chemo and to the supermarket and to his hip surgeon for all the final weeks and months and days, right up until his final breath. They’d spent the ten years before that planning dinners together, playing Scrabble, working on home repair projects, listening to Garrison Keillor. They were inseparable, in way. There had been a time, many years, in fact, when they didn’t speak to one another at all. But then my son had been born in an emergency, the kind of emergency where we both almost didn’t make it.  Soon both my parents were by my bedside, both of them in love with their tiny little grandson. Whatever resentments they’d been storing were forgotten.

And then there was his occupation. For a short time, my dad made enough money that we rented a winter condominium where you could ski right to the front door. But that only lasted a couple of years. The rest of the time we were broke, and happier then, too.  My dad had been a taxi driver, a carpenter, a house painter, a handyman, a pool player, a card shark, and even, for a few embarrassing years in my teens, a gas station attendant.

His education, too, wasn’t so cut and dried. My dad had read the entire dictionary and just about every other thing there was to read.  He could tell you practically the whole history of any country you pointed to in the atlas. He could quote Shakespeare the way most people quote The Godfather. He could beat you at every word game, every card game, every match of wits. He’d also dropped out of college after his first year and went off to hang out with the Beat poets in Paris, before running out of money and returning to Boston to drive his first cab.

The most difficult decision though, was whether or not he was a Veteran. He certainly didn’t call himself a Veteran, and never talked about his time in The National Guard.  That’s probably because by a stroke of luck, he was colorblind and never had to go any further than New Jersey. I hated it when, years later and in the reserves, Vietnam still lingering in the air, he would strap on his uniform and disappear from us for days or weeks. I always thought it was the last time I’d see him.

~

The second night after he died, the house was still full of aunts and uncles and friends and neighbors. We’d ordered pizza and were all sitting around talking about the crazy hold my dad had over women, the near miss bar fights, about the time he and his older brother were followed by a throng of autograph seeking girls who thought they were the Everly Brothers. When the pizza finally arrived, I turned to call out to my dad again, to tell him dinner was here, it was time to come to the table.

~

It’s been over a year now since the banana bread and the hearse came down the road, over a year since we ordered the death certificates. Summer is here again.  My son is 12 now. Last week, we were out at the lake when he finally screwed up the courage to leap off the jumping bridge, like his buddies have all been doing for years.  My dad and I had always been a little worried about this, about why Isaac wouldn’t jump into the water like his friends, if maybe we’d been too overprotective with him, made him too risk–averse.

Later, after the jump and the cheers, I swam out alone toward the buoy at the edge of the designated swimming area. I stopped, ducked under the water, lingered there in the the cool place where all my worries seep away and thought, “I can’t wait to go home and tell Pops that Isaac finally jumped!” But then, just as I came up for air, as my forehead broke through the surface again, I remembered.  I couldn’t tell my dad that Isaac had jumped.  I couldn’t tell him anything, ever again.

~

Six. Six was the number of death certificates we settled upon. One for my brother, one for the bank, one for the car, one for the bill collectors. Two spares. I think my dad would have agreed with that, thought it was a good decision.

~

The cars from Massachusetts are arriving now, timed with the Lupine and the long days. Soon it will be near impossible to get through town.  Those of us who live here will cut around Elm Street and then Church, lopping off the line of cars heading down the narrow peninsula road to the lighthouse and the rental cottages, as we make our way to the supermarket for milk and paper towels. The parking lot is full when you arrive, more cars from Mass., bicycles affixed to the rears, space age looking luggage racks attached to the roof. The bicycle tires spin long after the cars have stopped and the shiny, beautiful vacation people pop out, heading into the aisles for bitter greens and chanterelles. Most of these people don’t understand the rules here. They move too fast, hover on bouncy feet behind the person in front of them in line, burst their cars through the crosswalk and honk their horns when they are impatient for the lobster rolls waiting for them down at Fisherman’s Wharf. Their clothes are brighter, tidier, tucked in, their shoes less scuffed, their skin smoother, their hair shinier. They don’t have the dark circles and crows feet of working two and three jobs each summer, trying to stretch the dollars through the bitter months, waking two and three times a night to feed the wood stove.  The men have less facial hair, the women more silicone.

By August you know you will have reached your breaking point with these people, you will make quick eye contact with your neighbor, your banker, your son’s teacher, as you try to move invisibly through the aisles, making your escape as quickly as you can. By November, when the tourists and the summer people are all gone again, you and your neighbor, your banker, your son’s teacher will stop and linger with one another, making chit chat in front of the potato chips, sinking back in to the slow pace, the familiar, relieved to be alone together again. Now though, you scurry through as fast as you can, the crowd and the noise and the pushiness of it all crawling against your skins, crushing at your chest.

As you’re loading your pale plastic bags into your trunk, you glimpse a Massachusetts car out of the corner of your eye. You know at once it’s a Mass. car, because it’s shiny and black, there’s no Bondo holding the rusted panels together, no mud splatted on the license plate, even the interior is spotless, you know from your glance. And then the typical people pop out, the crisp and clean people, with shiny hair and unscuffed shoes.  The blonde mother and the rusty haired father, the two lean and muscled children, all tanned and gangly arms and legs.

But wait, this family is different.  They don’t march into the store with military precision while the mother calls out key items n the list and the father looks like he’d give anything to be back in his tenth floor office in the financial district. They stop and laugh and stretch and the father breaks into a little dance, grabbing his daughter by the wrists, moving her arms up and down with his, doing a little jig that embarrasses and pleases her at the same time.  The mother turns and smiles broadly at them, she still likes her husband, you can tell. He still makes her laugh. The boy and the girl and the mother make their way over to the carts while the father turns away, toward the side of the parking lot, shoulder hunched now a little against the wind that’s just beginning to pick up.  You recognize that hunch, arms circled forward, the flick flick, twice, of the thumb against the lighter, sending a spark up toward the cigarette, the end glowing red as you inhale, that first drag setting your brain afire-alive again-while also calming you, smoothing the edges. It makes you smarter, more focused, turns you into a laser for a moment, a wittier, smoother laser, on fire with ideas that suddenly all make sense.  It’s why, even long after you quit, you were drawn to the smoking area, not for the nicotine, but the conversation. The smoking crowd always had something to say, there was always a twinge of sex and danger on the air, of open possibility.  Back inside people would be talking about their jobs and their pasta salad recipes, it was a hard transition.

You watch this father, and think of your own, also a dancer of parking lot jigs, also an inspirer of love and broad smiles, also a slow moving, take your time dad, a listener, a thinker, and a smoker, too. And you wish you could walk over to the side of the parking lot and smile at this father from Massachusetts to let him know that you totally get it–how good that cigarette tastes. But also this: that with each drag, each long, delightful inhale of time and taste, he will devastate those two children inside the store. That one day they will be hovered over a rented hospital bed on wheels, murmuring with hospice nurses about morphine doses and ‘do not resuscitate’ orders, and they will be angry, and they will not know how to navigate the world anymore.

You sit in your car with the engine running, thinking through every detail of how you will approach him, have that conversation with him, make him understand, make him stop, save those children inside the store. You run all the sentences through your head, how you would tilt your head a little to the left and smile as you walk toward him. How you would slowly bring him into your confidence, lean back a little, you are not confronting him, not judging him, you just need to make him understand, make him see. And then you fast forward to the place where he is nodding in comprehension, tossing the butt on the ground, twisting the point of his sneaker over the ash, extinguishing it, then growing old with his children and grandchildren and the wife who still smiles broadly at him.  You could save those children, you think, if you could just make yourself convincing enough.

You watch him inhale deeply as you exhale, as you let go of the fantasy, as you shift into reverse, ease out of your crowded in space, and head slowly home, where you will dissolve the leftover morphine into coffee grinds like the hospice nurses told you to do, so it doesn’t seep into the landfill.

~

You cannot hear him coming until he takes the first breath of his cigarette against the morning air. His voice is gruff, not yet ready to meet the demands of the day. He sips instant Maxwell House from a PBS Mystery mug–a pledge drive gift that changes with the temperature of the liquid inside–the warmth of the coffee revealing a dagger above the head of a woman, then disappearing as the coffee cools.

He sits on the front stoop in paint-splattered jeans and work boots, their tattered tongues flopping open over untied laces as he scuffs back and forth to the kitchen for second and third cups of coffee. He’s dressed in layer upon layer of long johns, tee-shirt, plaid flannel, then blue chamois shirt, breast pocket bulging with his notebook full of phone numbers and medical appointments and gas station receipts. My dad never throws anything away.

His beard is mostly white now, his baldness covered by the watchman’s cap he wears all winter long, indoors and out. His nose is red from the morning chill and from too much whiskey and wine, abandoned years ago now, but the proof of it still there.

You can see him start to come alive as his thoughts slug through the morning fog, he begins to clear his throat, to ask you for the five letter word that will fit in 18 across, mesh with 21 down.

By afternoon his eyes will have regained their mischievous blue sparkle—the sparkle that used to woo secretaries and now works its magic on nurses. More and more nurses who will hook him up to chemo and oxygen but still laugh at his jokes and blush at his teasing and sneak him extra sugar packets despite his diabetes.

For months he will sit on the stoop to work on his crosswords and drink his coffee and smoke his Winston Reds until, in confusion, he lights a cigarette while still hooked to his portable oxygen tank. Nothing happens, but it is the start of the hallucinations, the start of our goodbye.
In a few weeks the hospice nurses will give him the choice of going to the hospital or stopping treatment, of dying at home.  He chooses the latter. “I wanna get cleaned up, get into some fresh clothes and get outta here,” he says.  And so we head toward the bathroom, not knowing yet that Chavez will be there waiting for us, signaling the end.

 

 

5 Responses to “Breathe”

  1. Allen Davies

    This is really touching and so well written with so much love.

  2. sue granzella

    Really really great piece. You’ve captured so much of your dad in this, and so much of your feeling for him. The decision about such a mundane task that is so surreal, the ordering of death certificates. Really powerful piece. Thank you.

  3. Laura Devin

    Such an amazing experience and an amazing account of that experience. Thank you.

  4. Sandell Morse

    What a fabulous piece. A joy to read, rich with detail, soulful, contemplative and lingering. Andrea Vassalo, you have nailed this one. Thank you so much.

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