Everyone Knows It’s Windy

Ahem.  Yes.  1967.  I was 13.  Remember 1967? 

It’s windy.  Today and yesterday, in NOAZ (that’s what they call Northern Arizona), upon wave of wind up to 50 miles an hour!

The sky is a perfect blue diamond.  I’m surrounded by forest, Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, some kind of Spruce.

The waves of wind from the South-Southwest pile up on that majestic escarpment, the Mogollon Rim, and spill over into the Coconino Plateau, which rides above the Rim like a giant plate rising to 8,000 feet before cracking in half to form the Grand Canyon.

And I, in my tiny RV, with my not so tiny canine pal Atina, had a choice to either go crazy in the two days (so far) of relentless waves of wind, or…or not.

At times the wind rocks the RV so hard, I think it’s going to tip over.

Atina thinks so too.  I can tell by the way she clings to me and farts.  As I write she is wrapped around my leg with her ass in my face, farting great clouds of evil fumes.  At the risk of being covered in red volcanic dust, I have had to open the window.

Every three or four minutes, another wave of wind-here it comes now-roars through the tree tops and through my window.  Atina sleeps, heaves a big sigh, farts.

I’ve been nervously checking my NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) high-definition radar app for any approaching precipitation.  This volcanic soil, when rained upon, becomes a treacherous soup of slippery mud.  If the soil becomes saturated, it can turn into quicksand.  So I watch the sky and keep track of the aviation forecasts.

I’ve always loved weather.  When I was 10 or so, a gigantic tornado passed right over our house.  We were listening to a record on the old record player.  Suddenly there was a deafening roar.  The dog dove under the couch.  The lights flickered.  The phonograph slowed eerily to a halt.  The lights went out.  The roar passed overhead…we thought it was a low flying jet, but strange… Then the lights came back on, the record player started up again, the dog came out from under the couch, and everything went back to normal.

The next morning my mother and I went to the laundromat.  It wasn’t there.  Just nothing but the concrete pad it was built on.

The mile-wide tornado sheared the city of Toledo, Ohio, off at second-story level and dumped it into Lake Erie.
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My father and I were big buddies.  We used to pack a lunch, a frying pan, a little bag of corn meal, a couple slices of bacon, and our fishing tackle, and we’d go fishing.

Dad taught me to fly fish.  I was good at catching twigs from overhanging trees.  We never caught anything, but we did forbidden things like chewing tobacco (yecch) and smoking corncob pipes (blecch). 

We did better fishing in ponds, where we caught pan fish: crappie, sunfish, bluegill–cleaned and scaled them on the spot.  Dad taught me how to make a small cooking fire, and we’d fry the bacon, roll the fish in cornmeal, and fry them in the bacon fat.  A delectable feast.  We ate them, fins, tails, and all.  Crunchy.

We went surf casting in the ocean, using long heavy rods baited with 8-10 inch long Styrofoam lures called Atoms, bristling with hooks, in hope of catching a bluefish and not getting bitten.

Once I was in a rowboat in Narragansett Bay with my friend Becky.  The bluefish were running, a huge school of them, so many that it seemed the boat was riding on top of waves of bluefish instead of waves of water.

We happened to have fishing poles, so we threw a line in, without bait, just bare hooks.  Becky hooked one immediately, and it fought so hard it took both of us to get it into the boat.

(Breaking news: Atina just puked.  She’s such a good girl, she urgently asks to go outside when she has to puke.  It was the Malinois Empty Stomach kind of puke, so I just fed her.)

We got the angry bluefish into the boat.  It thrashed and snapped, jumping around in the bottom of the dory.  Bluefish have a mouthful of deadly sharp teeth.  They can take a finger off, and bluefish bites seem to always get infected.

Becky yelled, “Hold into him, there’s a club in this boat somewhere!”

It was her father’s dory.  He was an avid fisherman, so there had to be a club in the boat, for whacking fish over the head.  That’s how you kill a fish.

She had to find the club, because the only other choice was to throw the fish overboard and cut the line.

But this could not be done without getting bitten, because a dory is a deep sort of boat.

No luck with the club, so we pulled one of the oars and whacked the fish to death, but then a wave came along and snatched the oar; and we were forced to paddle back to shore with one oar, which was not an easy task.

In normal conditions, if deprived of an oar, a person would jump into the sea and push or pull the boat ashore; but the sea was filled with snapping bluefish, so we managed, after a long time, to get the boat to land, more worried about what Becky’s father would say about the lost oar than anything.  Becky’s father was a kind man; he didn’t say anything.  He was a man of few words.  Not so, her mother.

One bright blue morning, Dad and I packed up our surf casting gear and headed out for Horseneck Beach to try our luck.  Somebody had told somebody else, who had told Dad that the bluefish might be running.

By the time we got to the beach, it was starting to cloud up.  Nevertheless we hauled our tackle to the shore and threw a line in.

The tide seemed to be coming in strong, although by the tide tables it should have been turning, just at the end of going out and starting to come in (“neap tide,” in fisherman’s terms).  High tide wasn’t for a good few hours yet.

But we cast our lines and tried to smoke, he his cigar and I my Balkan Sobranies, daring black cigarettes with gold leaf where the filter would have been, if there had been a filter, which there wasn’t.  By this time it was impossible to smoke, as the wind kept putting our smokes out.  So we put them away and turned our attention to trying to get our lures in the water.

But the wind, which was now howling like a banshee, kept throwing our lures back in our faces along with sheets of rain and salt spray.  We decided to pack it in and go have lunch.

We threw our fishing gear into the back of Dad’s Ford pickup and wallowed through the driving rain to a nearby fishermen’s bar that served the best conch chowder ever.

The scratchy t.v.was on.

When we came through the door, soaking wet, stamping our dripping boots on the mat, the boys at the bar said,

“What in the world have you two been doin’ out THEYAH?  In the middle of this hurricane?  You-ah lucky you didn’t get taken by a storm wave!”

Hurricane?  HURRICANE!  Nobody said anything about a hurricane.

The lights went out, and the barkeep lit kerosene lanterns.  Dad ordered us beers (yes, I was only fourteen, but the law was that a minor could drink if accompanied by a parent), and we lit fresh smokes.  The fishermen looked on approvingly.  We ordered hot conch chowder, and crumbled Common Crackers, which the barkeep scooped from a barrel, into the rich stew.

It made us forget, temporarily, that we were soaking wet.

(For you who did not grow up in New England in the ’60’s or before, Common Crackers, also known as Ship’s Biscuits, are rounds of flour, water, and baking soda, slowly baked until completely dehydrated, and dangerous to teeth unless broken up into chowder.  They keep indefinitely when stored in an airtight container, and thus were taken on long sea voyages on whaling ships.  As long as they don’t get wet they are good practically forever.)

After the wind died down some, we hydroplaned for a couple of hours till we got home.  My mother was frantic.  No cell phones in those days.  For all she knew (she wailed, through tears), we could have been taken by a storm wave.

Mom seldom approved of our adventures.  That’s one reason we seldom took her along.

The wind-waves seem to be slowing down now.  The NOAA weather discussion said it was going to, but I don’t trust it, as that’s what it said last night and today was worse than yesterday.

So I’ll keep on recollecting pleasant memories of dangerous adventures that turned out good.  Atina and I are warm and dry, and we’ve got plenty of food and water, without bluefish…although they are very tasty.

image

My father, with a giant pot that he made for a demonstration at some art school or other.  Note that the pot is wearing his apron and hat.  He was 5’8″, so that gives you an idea of the size of this pot.

Below on the far left are a salt glazed porcelain teapot and vase that he made.  The rest of the pots were made by his former graduate students.  From a show in 2001 more or less.  I hope he’s playing in mud in Potter’s Heaven now…and enjoying a good conch chowdah, with a good cigar for dessert.

How My Father Outlived Death

In case any of you are new to BPFL, or happened to miss it, my father died on October 2nd.

It was an expected event, as I will explain; and although I miss him, I am glad his long suffering is over.

You may be thinking, but she said in her title that he outlived death.

He did.

Let me explain.

I have written before, somewhere or other, of the nights when I would come to visit him, from undergraduate school or medical school or work somewhere out West, and we would sit up long after my mother had said her good-nights in her short thin nightgowns that make me blush.  I have never liked to expose my body parts, not out of religious prudery but from sheer terror of exposure.  But I digress.

Dad and I had a lot to discuss in those days.  He called it “talking philosophy,” but it was really his way of being my teacher, guiding me through the process of critical thinking, of Devil’s Advocacy, hypotheticals–he would have made a good lawyer, except that he had a conscience and that was problematic.

Truth be known, he had always secretly wanted to be a medical doctor, so he lived that part of his life vicariously through me.

Our late-night philosophy-fests always featured a liquor bottle: either Dickel (Tennessee corn likker) or Dewar’s Scotch, depending on our taste and what there was.

One night waxed into three A.M. and we were both high as kites, and he says,

“Promise me something.  I mean, really promise me something.”

“Promise you what, Dad?”

“Promise me, and I mean really promise me, that if I get to where I can’t wipe my own ass, that you will shoot me and put me out of my misery.”

He did not own a gun “because if I had one I might use it,” he would say with a darkly suggestive rise of the left eyebrow.  I was never quite sure whether he would be tempted to use it on my mother or himself, but the situation was moot because he did not have a gun.

I, on the other hand, had a couple of guns at the time, a .22 caliber Ruger assassination pistol, which I still own, and a lovely child’s shotgun.  The latter always made me squirm, to think that a century ago and even more recently, people taught their 10-and-12-year-old children to shoot a highly destructive weapon like a shotgun.

I was caught between a rock and a hard place, Psylla and Charybdis, all of those really tight spots, you know, and I was, of course, obliged to tell him yes even though I fervently meant no.  This was no drunken demand.  He really meant it.  The part about not wanting to live if someone else had to wipe his ass.

We all thought he was doomed to perish in the course of his work as a ceramic artist: so many ways to keel over face first in the spinning clay, or burn up in the heat of the kiln and make an ash of himself.

None of that happened.  Instead he got about ten years of his brain and body being whittled away, subtly at first, then galloping along with each day reaching inexorable claws and ripping out some other vital function.  It wasn’t long before indeed he could not wipe his own ass.

Always the teacher, he accepted this new indignity with much more grace than I would have had.

He was about 88 when this happened.  Things tumbled down from there.  Eating became problematic because his hands had ceased to function, so he had to be fed a lot of the time; or else I had to guide his utensil to his mouth, and he might get half of it in if we were working well together.

As you can see, I never did shoot him.

He did make some inquiries regarding how much of his insulin it would take to kill himself, and also about what would happen if he just stopped taking his insulin.  But in the end he did not really want to die by his own hand, or else he was too afraid.  In any case he managed to live until he died.

He outwitted death by about two miserable, agonizing, humiliating years.  He lived right up until the moment that he died.

And wouldn’t you know it, his last request was for something I absolutely cannot do.  He made me promise, though.  Promise me you’ll….

Well, I think he knows what I can truly promise, and what I can’t.

But as far as he and I are concerned, he cheated certain death by two years, and that’s something.

 

So That I Not Forget

A dear friend of mine who holds down a spot for me in Jerusalem gave me this advice today: write down your memories of your last years, months, days and hours with your dad, because these memories fade quickly, and you don’t want to lose them.

I moved from Jerusalem to my parents’ property in 2011, in order to ride herd on the situation with my dad.  He had had several bad falls already by then, and flying back and forth from Israel every time he got a concussion was eating up my savings and causing me way too much stress.  So I packed up and moved here.

Dad was still pretty lucid then, but showing signs of dementia, and his physical body was falling apart piece by piece because of the same degenerative joint disease and degenerative disc disease that he passed on to me (thanks, Dad).  It was getting so that he couldn’t do much for himself anymore, between the cognitive decline and the physical disability.

We have always had what I can only call a platonic love relationship; certainly a father-and-daughter love relationship, but something more–a collegiality, a mutual admiration, and a non-sexual transcendent enduring love free of any vestige of pettiness or jealousy.

In the years since I have been here, our relationship was forged even stronger thanks to my mother’s need to have time on her own, a healthy thing that provided my dad and I with ten or so uninterrupted hours every week to review the events of our lives and our life together, to share our meaningful and downright fun times, and our regrets at not having spent more time together.

We also had the blessed chance to talk about how we felt about each other, the feelings and the hurts and the wishes.

As he moved toward his death, we moved deeper into the dark side of his relationship with my mother, who has always had a short temper, no patience, and no particular respect for much of anything.  He had always kept her under control by means of fear–whenever she (or, rarely, I) got out of control he would seem to triple in size, and bear-like, roar his displeasure.  My mother was terrified of these “Hulk” episodes, and the fear of provoking one kept her screaming fits in check, most of the time.

But as he became incapable of terrorizing her, she pulled out all the stops and reveled in her newfound power over him.  I won’t go into detail, since this is an essay about him and not her, but I mention it only to say that he often poured out his anger and feelings of helplessness during our ten hours a week.

During his various stints in the nursing home in his last months, I sat with him many hours a day.  Often, we just held hands, since his brain was further damaged by head injuries sustained in various falls.  And until he lost the faculty of speech, in the last weeks, we processed things that we cherished, things we wished we had done while we had the chance, and things we had done or experienced that we wished hadn’t happened.

We held hands and kissed our dry pecks said “I love you” a million times.  I am so glad we did that.  It’s bitter-sweet now, and perhaps will always be, but at least I have the comfort of knowing that we did not hold back out of artificial formality.

Two nights before he died I was restless, could not sleep until four in the morning, when I fell into a dark slumber from which I awoke with a feeling of urgency.  I dressed quickly and drove to the nursing home.  He was lying in the “quiet room” where they put people who are about to die.

The previous day, he hadn’t known me.  Even though I knew this would likely happen at some point, it hit me like a cannon ball in the gut.  I lost it.  Hot tears choked me, I fell off my feet into a wardrobe which came close to falling on me, and I didn’t care.  I slid to the floor sobbing.  My mother wanted me to get control of myself.  I ignored her.  After some time I sobbed myself out, and asked her to go get me a latte, which gave me some time to just look at my father, who was now asleep, and remind myself that it wouldn’t be long.

It wasn’t.

The following evening I packed up my “24 hour kit” with my jammies, toothbrush, meds, and what-all, drove to the nursing home, and took over the other bed in his room.  He had his eyes open, and they seemed to be clear and not hazed over like they had been the last few days.

“Hi Dad,” I said tenuously.  I didn’t know what I would do if he didn’t recognize me this time.

“Hi Laur,” he said weakly.  I breathed out.

“I love you, Dad,” I wept.

“I love you, too, Laur.  I really, really, really love you.”  He had hold of both my hands, and I stood there, physically hurting from the odd position but with heart full of love.  I stood there till his hands relaxed and his eyelids drooped, exhausted.  I extricated my hands and, taking only minimal meds so that I could wake at any sound, lay down on the spare hospital bed to rest.

His breathing became more difficult, and he began to cough.  The coughing was followed by the gurgle of fluid.  I called the hospice nurse, and she ordered a cocktail of morphine, atropine (to dry up secretions), and Ativan.  This helped a lot.  It was ordered for every two hours as needed, and we needed it.

I must have fallen asleep, because at 4 am I was awakened by a high-pitched, primal, animal scream.  I rushed to his bed and found him unconscious, breathing deeply for four or five breaths, followed by 25 seconds of no breathing at all.  Cheyne-Stokes respiration: the breathing pattern that precedes death.  I called the hospice nurse again.

She arrived fifteen minutes later.  Yes, she said: death was imminent.  It could be minutes, hours, even days–but it would be here soon.  I cried, but she did not offer a hug.

Half an hour later, his breathing pattern changed to a regular rhythm, but very rapid.  The nurse took his pulse oximetry: 78.  Normal is in the high 90’s.  We knew it wouldn’t be long.  I called my mother, and she appeared in record time.  She must have flown over the mountain roads.

The moment before he left, his face contorted as if making a huge effort.  It seemed to me as if he had to consciously make that leap into the unknown.  And two shuddering breaths later, he breathed his last.

“His spirit is already gone,” mused my mother, doubtless trying to placate me–knowing how strongly I feel about keeping the Jewish burial practices, and not desecrating the body by burning it–“no more suffering, my love, no more suffering,” addressed to the lifeless shell on the nursing home bed.

Yes, he did suffer, mightily.  And as always, he was my teacher, my guru, in teaching me how to suffer.  He taught me how to live, how to suffer, how to die.

Tzeitcha be’shalom, Dad.  Have a safe journey.

Talking Shop

I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but I’ve noticed, that I haven’t been posting.

Lord knows I’ve wanted to.

Blogging serves many purposes for me, as I’m sure it does for you: catharsis, self-expression, connection, community, dialogue, intellectual challenge, exercise and sharpening of one’s writers’ craft teeth, etc.

But: things around here have been less than peachy.

Dad had another stroke a week ago, was in a coma for a couple of days.  Then he began his struggle back into This World.  He’s not quite as “with it” as he was before–and he wasn’t too “with it” then either–but sometimes he knows where he is.  Thankfully he still knows who I am.

While we thought he was dying or about to die, there was a certain amount of drama (really?!) on the part of my mother, who actually hugged me and wept on my shoulder for an uncomfortable while.  I do feel sorry for her, but not that sorry.  But it’s not as if I would push my mother away while she’s having a dramatic sad moment, or a sadly dramatic moment, being about to lose her husband of sixty-six years.

Life is now a patchwork of caregivers and nurses coming in and out of the house.  That’s good, because I cannot help with physical needs other than the food-related ones.  I can prepare food, and help him eat it; and if he’s too “out of it” to get his food into his mouth, I can feed him.  Some days he’s able to feed himself, and some days he’s just too exhausted.  He’s hungry, but he just can’t manage the eating part.  I never realized how complex the act of eating is, until this experience of watching Dad’s stepwise loss of the mechanical ability to manipulate food, even with his hands, let alone utensils.

Once it’s in his mouth he can usually chew it up and swallow, but sometimes he needs his food “blenderized” and sometimes he just can’t eat at all.  I know that’s part of dying.  And sometimes he absolutely refuses to eat, and that’s part of dying too.

We try to keep him hydrated, at least.  He’s on a medicine that decreases the fluid in his blood, taking some stress off his heart, which does make him feel better but causes increased urination, so getting the fluids into him is important.  I know, it seems paradoxical: on one hand, taking the fluids out, on the other, shoving them in.

The other day we were sitting alone together, watching the afternoon coming in through the brilliant greens of the forest canopy, and he said:  “You and I need to go up into the woods and talk shop.”

I know what he meant.

We have always been best buddies, even when times weren’t so good, even though he served as my own private “Flying Monkey” who tried to explain away my mother’s evil ways.  I always came back, for my dad.  Here I am!

Just about every night, starting from…when?  Maybe after I got back off the road, when I was seventeen–every night when I was visiting and would be staying over, my dad and I would sit up late drinking whiskey and “talking shop.”  We would solve the world’s problems, solve problems for worlds that were entirely theoretical at the time but in fact exist now, and dig deep into authors, poetry, philosophical genres, the nature of human existence, art (of course), artists (same), relationships of all sorts….and now and then my mother would stick her head down the stairway to ask us to please “keep it down.”

I do salute her for allowing us those times together and not throwing a monkey-wrench into things, which she is quite capable of doing.  She knew that those late-night rap sessions were sacred.

The only time my dad and I ever got into a shouting match was oh, around 3 am when we were both three sheets to the wind, and somehow or other we fell into the topic: “Does God have a sense of humor?”

He staunchly and solidly maintained that God does NOT have a sense of humor.  The Holocaust.

I equally stubbornly held that God DOES have a sense of humor, because WE exist and that is the ridiculous proof!

Neither of us would budge, and having put a good dent in a fifth of Bourbon whiskey, the volume worked its way up until we were actually shouting at each other in earnest.  Luckily my mother yelled down the stairs for us to “knock it off down there.”  We sheepishly toasted “to Life” and stumbled off to our respective beds.  We never did resolve that point.

So, we need to go up into the woods and talk shop.  Some more.  Soon.