Pam’s Pictorama Post: It is a tempestuous red and blue dawn on a lovely, cool July morning in the aptly named Fair Haven, New Jersey. I am sitting in bed eating a bagel and drinking cold coffee accompanied by my father’s cat, Red, with Dick Powell as The Singing Marine on TCM to keep us company. The bagel is a very reasonable one, although it has a vegan spread on it instead of butter – mom didn’t know I would be coming so only her own vegan offerings are available. I have a miserable chest cold, but despite that this would be a perfectly lovely perch if it wasn’t for the fact that I am here because my father is dying.
Red, my father’s constant companion, is my host cat when I visit
Most of my experience with dying has been of the fast and furious kind, starting with people dying young, mostly in accidents. Then when my sister Loren died of breast cancer, the actual end was upon us suddenly somehow, even after seven years of struggle. Dad on the other hand, is going by inches – slipping just perceptibly more one day or week, but then finding a new plateau. It is painful to watch and not the way anyone would really chose to go. After an especially bad dip I came on Friday, despite the chest cold. I found him mostly lucid, but falling into unconsciousness.
The nurses and hospice folks are gentle with me, preparing me for the obvious. They are all very nice people – as I said to a friend yesterday, the nicest people you never want to have to meet. First spring then turning to summer weekly visits to see him and his slow, but steady decline, and offer support to my mom. It is sad and difficult, but undeniably inevitable in a way my sister’s death at 40 was not.
My early visits home were accompanied by chocolate for Dad. I brought whatever I thought might tempt him a bit, sending chocolates online, bringing chocolate bickies from London after a trip. As he transitioned to in-patient hospice care I shifted to a favorite of his since childhood, black and white cookies. I remember being introduced to these first from my grandparent’s house in Mamaroneck, New York. Those visits were spotted with the large black and white cookies with slightly sticky frosted icing, and slices of marble cake, bottoms wrapped in yellow paper – the taste of either brings me back to long Sunday afternoons of my childhood. Dad remained a life long fan of the black and whites (a friend in college called them moon cookies which entertained me) and Penn Station offers a reasonable, if packaged, version that he likes and I pick up on my way through to NJ Transit.
My father has always loved ice cream. It was an open family secret that you could almost always talk him into an ice cream junket. If you were driving on a trip, pulling off at an exit for a Howard Johnson’s sundae was always an option, and more successful ploy than asking to stop for the bathroom. In our New Jersey town, an evening trip to the local Dairy Queen was an easy coax.
As spring turned to summer his condition worsened. Father’s Day approached and he had asked for ice cream (something more satisfying than the little cups offered with his lunch and dinner daily as per my instructions). A good friend frequently picks me up at the train to take me to visit him, I knew that week she could not. While it wasn’t at all logical it kept scratching at my brain that there must be a way to get ice cream from Manhattan to him somehow, but I failed to figure it out.
Kim has been devoted about accompanying me on most of these weekends to offer moral support. However, on that particular weekend I was traveling alone and hopped a cab at the train station. For those of you who live in suburbia you may understand that a local cab is nothing like one in Manhattan. Instead, it was a broken down Chevy sedan, driven by a guy about my age in cutoffs and flip flops. (I have frequently found myself in a cab with someone I went to school with – while this was not the case, but could have been easily enough.) The cab had torn upholstery, hemorrhaging stuffing where I installed myself in the backseat.
I gave the address and the name of the facility which has sufficed to get me to there previously as this is a relatively small town. Having lived there most of my young life I know the area well, but he took me in a direction I didn’t know, a fact that dimly registered in my distracted mind as I settled into my own thoughts, preparing for my visit and what I would find.
When I snapped to attention I realized that I was at a strange intersection, and as I was formulating an inquiry to get us where we needed to go, the driver turned around and asked me in a cheery voice, “Would you like to stop for ice cream?” You can imagine my amazement. I said, “Excuse me?” Him, “Yeah, there’s a great place for homemade ice cream just about 200 yards from here.” “Well, yes, actually I would love to, but your a cab driver, are you sure you don’t mind?” “Naw, it’s fine.” Me, as we pull into the empty parking lot next to a tiny white building that houses what turns out to be a family owned business, “Can I get you something?” Him, “No, I’m good.”
Ryan’s Ice Cream, Tinton Falls, NJ
So off I go, into this small white box of a building which has evidently been here for decades, attended by a high school student in summer job mode, the wares – more than a dozen large containers of homemade ice cream, taking up the length of the store. I purchase a medium order of chocolate chocolate chip for my father and a small cookies and cream for myself. Dad’s medium size ice cream was a bit unreasonably large, but happily he ate every bite much to my surprise. He hasn’t been able to eat nearly as much subsequently, but I keep bringing it. He’s partial to chocolate on chocolate, but likes vanilla with bits of Heathbar in it too, a blatant rip off of the Ben & Jerry’s flavor. Clearly ice cream will be more or less the last thing to pass his lips.
Part Two: I think we may have passed through all the possible good stages, these are the last days I guess. Dad is uncooperative, stubbornly blatantly so, refusing to take his medication or talk to me. Gone is the gentle joshing of a few days ago about who is bossiest in the family and maybe the tiniest mouthfuls of ice cream. He will only take a few sips of this or that. Dad, a few weeks shy of 88, has fought his death, with every fiber – blood clot in the leg, a raging infection, congestive heart failure all topped off with N Stage COPD – he has worked his way through nine lives in the last few weeks alone, rising again and again like an unlikely phoenix.
Just two days ago he was telling me he was thinking about getting up with his walker the next day. (This extremely unlikely given the state of his leg, but who am I to be discouraging at this point?) So, I sit, with the stubbornness he has willed to me, at least equal to his own – I always say doubled by that I inherit from my mother. I play early jazz on my computer, then classical music. He’s never been a fan of music in particular, but I think it is a nice change of pace for him and he might as well hear something other than the tv if we aren’t going to talk. Or rather if he doesn’t want to listen to me prattle on as our conversations have been one-sided for some time now. I have given up on reading to him from the New York Times.
As for me, if I am not here I am fretting about not being here, when I am here I worry about my inability to do much, to engage him. I have foolish thoughts about how other people are probably better at this than me – my self-inflicted burden for being competitive in every aspect of life and finding my own perceived inadequacies when left alone to my own devices. I reflect on how my father has actually always been good at just being there – never too chatty, but always willing when called upon to drive or sit somewhere he would do it, if silently, but without restlessness. I tell him stories about this now.
There are other things to be said about my father, but for now I will just say a few. A camera man for ABC News for his entire career, honored with two Emmy’s, nominated for a third, he was a man who loved his job and deeply embodied it, staying with it despite the physical nature of it, camera rig on his shoulders, until he was almost 70. By no means perfect, his current illness brings out an periodic belligerence – hard although I think it unfair to expect someone in his current situation to have be perpetually cheerful. His 6’5″ frame has long been folded into this bed, still massive, but shrunken. Always a silent man, he once joked that it tickled him to intimidate the occasional man I brought home. Perhaps in the future I will write more about him, the good and the bad, but for now these are the things I think about.
Dad died on August 11 and I sent six pints of ice cream to the hospice, with his and my thanks.