There’s something about a deadline. In 2010, one inspired me to finish a piece I titled “The Waiting Room.” I entered it in Upstate Medical University’s contest and, surprisingly, won the Bruce Dearing Writing Award. Originally published in The Healing Muse, “The Waiting Room” is a personal essay about my dad dying. I’ve included it below, but encourage you to check out The Healing Muse for more perspectives on illness, grief, and other inevitable facts of life.
The Waiting Room
One time between 1997 – 2001
My dad said, “If I had my way, I would know it was time to go, and would push off on an ice flow like an old Eskimo, without bother or burden.” With little fanfare or hoopla, my dad wanted to go efficiently and quietly. We do not live near any ice flows, let alone an expansive ocean vast enough to allow for drifting away or floating over the horizon undisturbed.
Drizzle, unabated condensation characteristic of most days that year in Portland, coated us in an instant. In the seconds it took to rush from the back porch to the gravel driveway, where my father sat warming up the car, one gloved hand on the wheel and the other on the stick already in reverse, moisture met skin and Gortex. Billions of droplets coated my mom’s hair, making brown and gray almost iridescent under the low dome light.
I ran a few minutes behind—my tardiness measured on the family clock. To arrive at least fifteen minutes prior to the scheduled appointment time, my dad would occasionally drive himself; three people would take two cars ten miles north, skirting the Willamette River through the city, to Kaiser’s Interstate oncology facility.
I had to eat on the way—something or anything—because we were not sure what the doctor would say. And as Phoebe knew, low blood sugar or not, I could start seeing spots across my vision when she’d review size of bone mets or implications of blood counts. I feared fainting in those rooms, especially because I was not the patient. How embarrassing to look up at overworked nurses tending to me, just dizzy. That’s why I would have to focus on breathing, remembering to take each inhale fully, and pull up my sleeves, especially if she OK’d chemo and we’d walk Dad to the injection room.
Down into the concrete parking structure we drove, to park on the purple or orange level. Rain puddled along the open side of the building. To enter, I pushed the handicap button to open the automatic door; Dad pushed the revolving door for himself and Mom and, once inside, would shake off his slicker, handing his satchel to Mom while he got out his card. Smells from a Sysco-supplied cafeteria wafted up the atrium. Few voices rose.
We walked to the double glass doors, propped open by the last person in line. Dad took his place. Mom and I made our way through the seating area, careful to avoid the hard-backed pink loveseat that hurt Dad’s hips, looking for three empty seats clumped together. I took the sliding rocker, the kind that would make his vertigo go, near the puzzle table, in between two low armchairs covered in faded florals. It was not difficult to tell who the patients were. Many were waiting, and about half looked ashen, pale, yellow with bloodshot eyes.
Most eyes, even the receptionists’, looked tired. Dad’s were puffy, like all Careys’ including my own. But his twinkled that morning when he told me about his walk. Unable to sleep from 3:30 am on, he got up at 6 and made it down to the railroad tracks, which he followed to Spokane Avenue, past the little white chapel. Not quite to the park or Monkey Trails from Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge up to the Doug Fir-lined cliff, but more than he’d done in a while, at least since the pain in his bones spread.
October 29, 1997
Outside Sellwood Middle School, on SE 15th Street, he idled. I’d been called out of class and excused for the day. After I buckled up in Bon Mot, the first of his white Corollas, we drove north to the bridge, then south to Lake Oswego.
My dad picked me up because Grandpa died. Then he cried. I’d never seen his face scrunch up like that or watched him wipe tears away from behind black wire bifocals.
We rode then, quietly—the two of us knowing how miserable Grandpa Joe had been with cancer, how sober for nine years, how crazed with anesthesia, how fascinated with clouds and planes and photography and the Wars and “the Orient.” And how he enjoyed shooting squirrels with his BB gun and feeding hummingbirds with red sugar water. I thought about how he loved all jellybeans except the black licorice ones, all two grandkids except when they shrieked.
“He’s not feeling pain anymore,” my dad said.
Any time after October 2002
Planning for any trip is interrupted by appointments, pharmacy runs, phone calls, doctor emails, researching experimental studies, tattoo-markers, chemo needles and, oh, pain: the pain of inactivity; the hurt of sitting. This pain melts glaciers, shrinks icebergs, stops snow and brings out the bright, bright sun to shine on our vision of the land of the Eskimos: no running, no biking, no motorcycle riding, no driving, and, then, no walking. This light casts no shadows—just reveals a rock hard landscape.
Out here, the enemy is predatory and elusive, if definable. It is not the cougar that stalked Dad on his antelope hunt, the one who left paw prints in the snow larger than Dad’s outstretched hand around the one-man tent pitched on Central Oregon’s high desert plains. But it is after meat and bones. It waits, stalks, surges forth, slinks back, attacks, and then sits on its haunches, hunting the hunter with no map or compass or track.
Its pervasive presence shapeshifts everywhere. I see it in family, friends’ families, at clinics, in the infusion room, on the street; in those hairless or jaundiced or toothless or scarred or perfectly normal except for hallowed out eyes. I see its shifty iterations in every body tagged with a LIVESTRONG band. We, with those plastic yellow wristbands, are on alert. Watching for the formidable enemy, we count the days we are active one at a time.
Noon, May 15, 2006
The original prognosis, delivered during the fall of my freshman year of college, did not provide sufficient time for my dad to make it to my graduation. I attended the college he said we ought not go into debt for, the college about which he eventually became enthused, once he realized how many of its professors were interviewed on NPR and even in The Financial Times.
He continued to live with austerity and discipline. Determined enough, he made it to and through my commencement ceremony on this day in New York City. Here, in the most earnest and sincere of moments, he tells me he is proud of my B.A. in the Big Apple. He sees what I love-hate about Manhattan, the Ivy League, the world; and he sees I no longer hate him and maybe he can someday say he loves me.
In the waiting room, the things that make me queasy are not the same that make me lightheaded in the patient exam rooms. From the sliding rocker, I face the one glass wall of the room, so I can see people coming and going and stay focused on the business of the world as it revolves around the sun, or whatever is going on outside this stuffy, overheated, and hushed place. It is lowly-lit, ill-designed, dimly-fashioned, except for the kids’ play corner.
There, primary colors are scattered like splashes of paint. Elsewhere, some yarn stuffed in and overflowing from quilting bags with narrow circular knitting needles assists in illumination. I see doctors in scrubs and administrators in suits walk past. Dad, to my left, wears a cotton tee shirt and unbuttoned flannel, a Pendleton. Mom, to my right, is still in her black and white plaid rain jacket, which glitters with a bit of remnant mist.
I think there is nothing fair about the weather today or ever in this gray climate, and most certainly nothing (nothing!) sensical about the parade of people hurrying in to line up, to check in, to sit, to wait, to listen, and to watch, then to be called, then to wait again, squinting under fluorescent lights, to find out if chemo is even worth it. My stomach turns.
A tall man in an M’s baseball hat stoops to reach the handlebars of a wheelchair. He pushes a woman through the doors and her youth startles me, but not as much as her burgeoning belly. She is at once pregnant and yellow. A white towel wrap covers her head where hair should be. There is nothing bittersweet about her; it is all sour and sad. There is no room in her tired, tired eyes for color, let alone hope.
I feel miserable. For I get sad when I think Dad won’t walk me down an aisle; that the mets are growing and PSA rises incrementally; and that he has trouble getting into the car. But at least (at least!) I have this: he knows me. I feel my heart break in my chest and fall to my stomach at the same time. I want to vomit.
Midmorning, June 6, 2009
My father, an atheist, penciled future activities in his slim black monthly planner religiously. But the day he knew would come did so on its own time. The transfusions hinted at its arrival, as did his changing demeanor. But no one tells you what to look for when someone’s dying, and it sure as hell does not happen like the euphemisms people use.
Thank god for the straight-shooting hospice nurse. With her black bob motionless atop her petite, plump frame, she put it to me. The force of her words pushed me back against the fridge and I slumped to the floor. She put it to us, my mom and me, to be the ones to care for him; to help him go; to let him be; to push his ice flow into a cold, dark sea, to leave this wretched world and beautiful compassion and all the flighty antelope and sneaky cougars behind.
Activity flurried and waned. We’d practiced for years. We knew how to hurry up (learn med doses and bedside care and make calls after deciding who to call) and wait (sit. make tea. sit. then get up and not know what to say. so for one of the first times be numb enough for unplanned, prolonged silence. and in our home we made room for new sounds: his speech, slurred, and breathing, both heavy and raspy). And again we hurried and waited. This time was for real, for love, for family. We watched our loss unfurl.