Sunday, March 3, 2013
ONE SON’S VIGIL
FIVE YEARS HENCE
REST IN PEACE, DAD
A hard end for a hard luck guy
(Sunday March 3, 2013. New York, NY) Five years ago today the Brooding Cynyc lost his Father. That single death took from BC not only the finest man he had ever known but also his closest friend, confidante, and most trusted confessor. BC was blessed to have gotten to know his Father very well over the course of his last 18 years on earth. Not many are bestowed such a gift, the invaluable experience to learn the intimate memories his Father so graciously, generously and candidly shared.
BC learned about his Dad by hearing about him as a boy. The circumstances of his birthplace, birth order, and the composition of his family as well as the times of those days were all intricately provided by verbal brushstrokes and his Dad's ability to use his palette of colors to capture the mood and tone of his earliest years. His powers of recall never diminished and that the clarity of his memories was so potent attests to their significance in making him the man he eventually was. Hardship and grinding poverty formed his youngest years and those two forces left indelible marks on his character and spirit. In many ways, as was so common in pre-depression America and during that decade of shared sacrifice and vouchers, of rampant unemployment and despair, those experiences of deprivation girded him for what would be a lifetime of financial insecurity which compelled him to work two and at times three jobs just to make distant ends meet. He assumed his responsibilities and obligations in that straightforward a manner that seems to have been expressed genes in that generations DNA.
A HARD END FOR A HARD LUCK GUY
Nothing ever came easy for him and he never had a moment of expectation to the contrary; he expected to work and work hard, to stay true to his beliefs and code and maybe, just maybe, things would work out. His points of reference were rooted as were so many millions of his peers, in the Great Depression, a time of great difficulty the binds of which were finally broken, oddly enough, with the advent of the Second World War. After Pearl Harbor he listened with his family to Franklin Roosevelt on a crackly old Philco radio forever brand December 7, 1941 “a day that will live in infamy”. He watched as one by one his older brothers were sucked up by the great vacuum of the “war machine” that would out produce, out man, out do the Axis powers and ride that young generations shoulders to victory. None of his brothers returned from The War the same as they were when they went in just as Dad was changed by the Marine Corps when he was called to serve.
By the time he sat in the Chapel at Marine Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, the great war effort had become the burgeoning “military-industrial complex”. He told the young Brooding Cynyc years later his recollections of sitting in that pew before boarding a troop ship the next morning and thinking that the Marines who had occupied that very same pew were likely already dead on various South Pacific atolls and spits of blood soaked coral reefs as well as those far flung battle grounds that would come to define Marine Corps tenacity and bravery forever; Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iowa Jima, Okinawa and other godless anonymous tropical islands of death.
Perhaps after having a character forged in the cauldron of deprivation, sacrifice, and war, life, no matter how challenging and difficult, no matter how racked by tragedy, disappointment, and irony, could ever be seen as all that bad. His life, he knew, would never be graced by good luck and no amount of the hard scrabble daily grind that lasted decades could he call bad luck. No, his was a hard luck, a fate perhaps pre-ordained by a god with a twisted sense of humor and a touch of a mean streak he never spared one of his most loyal, devout and true believers from.
And so it was as it ever had been.
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Five years ago on this day that amazingly kind and gentle man passed away. In commemorating his life on this sad day, below are some of the notes made by his son during the course of a three week hospitalization. Brooding Cynyc kept watch over him every night of those three weeks despite the maddening fact that his Dad was comatose. Perhaps it is in the notes that follow written five years ago that the best tribute can be made to that fine and grace filled man can be found.
When he took his last breath I didn’t see it. I know he had to have taken a last breath because he was breathing very feebly, very shallowly, almost imperceptibility since the nurse and respiratory technician had decoupled him from the IV’s and tubes that had been doing for him what he could not do for himself for 20 days. Twenty days and twenty nights he lay there being kept “alive” or rather, more accurately, having his breathing and heartbeat sustained by the power ConEd supplied to the hospital. He never wanted this; he had been adamant about this very scenario. We had spoken of it probably more times than most fathers and sons do because death was my business. Not causing death, but trying to understand it from the criminal sense and the autopsy table in the morgue.
He had an advanced directive; he’d made clear his wishes many times in the years prior to his departure. But, when he had fallen down the stairs and lay unconscious with shards of his ribs piercing his lung causing a minute nick in his colon, the only person at hand when he was finally taken to the hospital was her. My mother, Mamma Mia. In their later years he had tried to discuss their deaths, make arrangements for burial and tend to all the other tasks that would suddenly befall family members in the wake of one of their owns passing but, she refused. She wouldn’t hear of it.
So, advanced directive or not, he was transported to the nearest Emergency Room by FDNY EMS and the staff there began doing their jobs. You see, he was conscious, sort of, when he arrived in the ER but gravely, lethally injured; certainly not aware of just how serious his condition was. So, the nurses and doctors did what they are supposed to do. After all, what is the alternative? Had I been present that wickedly cold early Sunday morning in that ER and had I told the staff that my dad had an advanced directive would they have said, “Okay…thanks for letting us know. We’ll stop what we’re doing”, and pushed him on a gurney into some shadowy, drafty side corridor to die? No. But once they began tending to him they unintentionally initiated what would be a protracted, dehumanizing, but, on their parts, valiant effort to make him well again.
But now I was with him 19 days after that Sunday. He’d been through a great deal. His punctured lung was discovered and repaired that first night in the hospital but it would be another 3 or 4 days until a tiny tear in his transverse colon was radiological identified and, by that time the contents of his colon had been leaking out into his abdominal cavity and a raging infection had overtaken him. By the time that nick in his bowel was surgically repaired he had been in an induced coma for 24 hours. He would never rouse from that odd state; from the place he was poised along that gradient of consciousness, and coma. The monitor that sat on a small shelf adjacent to and just above his head tracked his brain activity with puzzling consistency. He was not “brain dead”. But, where was he? Could he hear what was going on around him, was in suffering and in pain, did he feel my hand in his when I clutched it? No one will ever know.
I became his night shift sentinel holding vigil with this man I loved so much. Hour after hour, night after night, I listened to the mechanical sounds of the life support apparatus. I spoke to him, maybe I spoke at him, I don’t know. It did not matter. I stayed with him, read to him, told him the news of the day ,old jokes and stories. I studied him, his face with all the intensity I could muster until I saw his face even when I fell into a few hours of restless sleep.
I could draw a perfect portrait of that face although I am not an artist. I knew every line and crease. I knew the odd twist the respiratory tube gave his lips. I shaved his face some nights; slowly, as gently as I could I did for him what he had so many years ago taught me to do for myself. Funny how such an innocuous, mundane matter of grooming became akin to a sacred ritual on those nights.
The fateful cascade of events that ensued following his mysterious fall was brutal to observe. But the vigil would not end until he ended it. And, it would be ended by a decision, a wrenching decision that could have been avoided or could it have been? I suppose that at any time after the colon surgery as his white blood cell count remained increasingly and astronomical elevated and, gradually system by system, organ by organ his corporeal body began to fail, my mother, his wife could have stepped in and said “Enough! No more attempts at dialysis, no more center lines, new drugs, or anything.” But, she could not even after it had become grossly apparent to me and my siblings that he would never return to us as he had been; that this three week war within him was being lost and all further medical intervention would be nothing more than mutilation. We could not allow that but it was not our call.
My sisters each separately spent time alone with him to say good bye, to tell him they loved him and it was okay to let go, it was okay to stop fighting, it was time to go Home. They both returned to their homes and lives but I stayed on. I could not, would not leave. I didn’t care how long it took but I was also acutely aware what task had been left for me. I would have to tell my mother that she had to tell him it was okay to go Home. Wherever his consciousness was, whatever neural capacity remained, he had to hear her voice giving permission to leave us. So, I did. I told her on a bitterly cold Sunday night and after a while she came out from his CCU room, she told me she had said good bye to him and then left to go back to their apartment.
The window in his room looked out on the Hudson River, that familiar sight was a mere 80 yards from the main entrance to the hospital. I stood looking out the window and five stories below I saw my mother waiting at the taxi stand. The wind was whipping the bottom of her coat and one end of her scarf. Her little shopping back was being tortured by that fierce off the river wind. She looked so small, so alone, so deflated. I watched as she got into the back seat of a cab and saw as she glanced up in the direction of the room I stood in. Maybe she was saying a final good bye to the old fella. I don’t know. I never asked.
Within an hour or so his doctor returned to the CCU holding the papers in his hand my mother had signed giving permission to have all the machinery removed. Although it was close to midnight he was impeccably dressed; a charcoal grey three piece pin striped suit, starched white shirt and sedate burgundy tie. It must have been his standard uniform. Every time I spoke with him he had that suit or one nearly identical on. He had a few other ties too. He had been a fine doctor to deal with, a very intelligent, perceptive man, a good clinician. I had come to like him in that odd way that we can become awkwardly attached to a stranger who shares a crisis with us. He kindly told me that I had done the right thing encouraging her to let my dad go. He said words to me that I knew to be sincere; I knew he wasn’t just saying words, that he was expressing his real sentiments. It was as if he was condoning dad’s impending departure for surely he’d not last long absent the life sustaining technology. I appreciated his candor, the respect he always showed my comatose father, and the quiet dignity with which he carried out the duties of his profession.
I returned to my post; an uncomfortable oddly shaped chair of whose Byzantine design was incomprehensible. Dad looked so different without the tubes and sensors, impaled no longer by valves and gauges through which sustenance and antibiotics had flowed. They had changed his bedding. The clean white sheets were pulled almost up to his neck and one of the nurses had made a considerate fold down on the top of that sheet. From where I sat, then stood, that pristine, stiff sheet covered his once sturdy body; a body now rendered so small and frail. But I had witnessed so many sorrowful transformations during the course of his CCU stay that I was not particularly moved.
I was moved when I put my mind to it, when I allowed my emotions and memories to take the field. I stood and looked at this man who had given me life and so very much more looking for a sign; some movement or motion that would indicate some change of state. Just as I had sat night after night looking for a twitch of a thumb, a crease in his brow, a return grasp on my fingers, it did not come. How many nights had I conjured up optical illusions, how many moments had my heart skipped a beat when I thought I’d gotten through, that I’d made contact? Like a thirsty desert traveler with a sunbaked brain who sees the nourishing, lifesaving pool of water beneath the shade of a wide frond of palms, I was prone to mirages; staring so intently at this man that my eye saw movement when there was none. But, I kept the Faith until it could no longer be kept.
Alternatively throughout the next hours I sat and stood. I never stopped speaking to him, telling him that a great and well-earned trip was ahead of him: that he’d soon see his own mom and dad, his brothers’ and sisters who’d preceded him in death, his old buddies from the Marines, and all the others he’d known, loved, and lived with throughout the often rocky, hard luck course of his years on Earth. For those hours that passed like minutes I adopted his Faith, his child-like belief in the catechism of Catholicism. I so desperately wanted all he believed in to be true because then everything would make sense; all his hurt and pain, his labors and burdens, his reliance on what he believed, would be worth it; rewarded because he had remained true in his Faith.
There was a last breath. I just missed it. I did see his final exhale; it was as soft as a slumbering baby’s sigh, as gentle as the Soul that was departing from his now lifeless body.
I gripped the cool metal at the foot of his bed and felt a sudden chill. My feet got cold and I took two steps forward and I was at his head. I kissed him on the forehead and ran my fingers through his suddenly soft white hair. I looked at him. I put my hand on his chest and thanked him.
He was the finest man I have ever known and I remain humbled and proud that he was my dad.
He was the best of the best; the strongest of the strong and I will miss him not only because he was my Father but because he was my friend.
Step lightly over.
You have been called home.
I love you Dad, always will. You made the difference.
March 3, 2008
Nyack, New York
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Physics and Death
Some of the most basic of the Laws of Physics relate to matter; that which occupies space. The fundamental definition of matter explains that it can neither be created nor destroyed. All the matter that has ever existed in the universe still exists; the only change it is subject to is the form it takes. Solids can turn to liquids, inert gases to compressed volatile elements capable of creating energy.
Where do we fit into the Laws of Physics, after all, we are something else. We are matter in the most empirical sense meeting its simple definition but transcending it by leaps and bounds. Still, the basic principals hold true and that much has been recognized since antiquity. Written in the King James Version of the Bible in the Book of Genesis, is the phrase "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return." Some scholars say that the more familiar phrase, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust", which is often used in funeral services comes not from the Bible but rather The Book of Common Prayer which is firmly based on that verse 3:19 from Genesis. Maybe so but this is not a theological analysis.
This is about death, a very personal death, the most personal death I have ever experienced. What lies before me just feet away may be physical matter but is really my dad, a man, a human being who has lived many decades, seen, experienced, and participated in many events from the most mundane to those that were most significant within the contours of his life. He was an animate, thinking, thoughtful, caring, loving being until just days ago when a fall began a cascade of biological events within his body that have him here now, tonight, as last night and the night before, hovering in a state of being that exists only because there is machinery that allows it.
February 22, 2008
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
IN THE CITY
He’d lived his entire life within a ten mile radius of the place he was born. Aside from his time in the Marine Corps, this radius was the entirety of his world. He walked the same streets as an old man as he did as a child. His memories were his daily landscape, he was never far from what had driven him and haunted him; from the sites of his happiest moments as well as his bleakest. The world changed around him, the buildings and streets aged, saw times of despair and rejuvenation while he remained who he had always been. The confines of his world could be as comforting as they could be saddening. It was all a matter of perception and perspective.
His people had come from Ireland in the 1880’s and settled in Brooklyn. By the time his Dad married his Mom in Holy Trinity Church in Hell’s Kitchen his fate may have been sealed. Who knows? Are we all not subject to fate? To birthplace, birth right, and genetics? Yup. It is very difficult to move too far beyond where we began. No, it’s not impossible but it requires a conscious effort, energy, desire and a fair amount of luck.
But his generation did not really think in such terms; they did what they had to do both out of obligation and expectation and, if afterwards they managed to break through the ceiling, so much the better but, you had better not think it would happen. That would be wrong; don’t get above your raising, don’t forget where you come from, remember who you are.
February 19, 2008
The Bronx, New York
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
The finality of death is close at hand. Actually Death is here. He is lurking in that far corner right now, that corner between the little bedside table and the window from which the Hudson River shimmies in the night from the reflected lights of upper Manhattan. Yes, Death is so close he can almost be touched. I’ve tried. I’ve lunged toward him when I thought he’d let his guard down or was too preoccupied with other items (souls) on his agenda but, I was never quick enough, not quite nimble enough to grab him by the wrist. But, he is here and he seems as patient as I. We can both maintain this watch over my father who lies silently but perhaps aware of his two guardians; I, determined to wrest him away from the abyss, the other eager to be done with him and move on.
Much has been written about Death. Volumes could fill the shelves of numerous libraries as repositories for all the words that have been written about Death.
Death sometimes comes “like a thief in the night”. That is not so here. That he is a thief there can be no mistake but he has chosen this time to arrive with feigned politeness, to sit among us in this cramped place, and wait. We are all waiting. But we are waiting for different and vastly contrary outcomes. We wait for the physiology of this one particular man, his internal organs and systems, the variety of specialized cells that comprise him to finally make him whole again, to complete their assigned tasks and permit him to be roused from his most unnatural sleep.
Death is waiting to take him. Death mocks us and our hope, our prayers, our energy. Death sits with his legs crossed and a sinister sneer on his face as if he knows something we don’t. But we know what he knows. He is certain he will be victorious, proven right and ultimately take this man from us. He sits with the patience that confidence brings. After all, he’s been at this a long time. This is new for us, bewilderingly, heartbreakingly surreal. This is his ballgame and we just his current opponent.
When I am alone in the small hours of the morning and it is only Dad, Death and I here together, I can fume, I can seethe with rage that, if unleashed would certainly be capable of beating Death to death. How about that? Beating Death to death.
Death is a formidable adversary especially when he sets his cold gaze on one who has not lived a full life, anyone finding themselves confronting death prematurely. These are prized captures for Death and he seems to take a particularly cruel delight when he can escort one to where ever Death takes them.
Perhaps it is wrong of us to accept some deaths more easily than others. But human nature infuses us with expectations; points of reference that allow us to categorize, rank, and rate death based largely on age. When grandma expires at 99 years old even the jargon used at such a time is vastly different from when our neighbor’s 7 year old succumbs to a fatal disease or is struck by a car while chasing a bouncing ball across the street.
We all live with the specter of death. Its inevitability, inescapable but most of us do not dwell on it or, when we do occasionally contemplate it, we will only go so far with that line of thought. As we age we go further and further with that line of thought simply because the arithmetic of sentience becomes less and less abstract. The 20 year old sees an almost unlimited open vista of days to live ahead while the 80 year old knows that the days ahead are limited.
Death is nothing if nothing, creative. He comes in my guises. Sometimes he uses disguises. He comes in many and varied forms and shapes from disease to disaster, from accident to incidence. Perhaps his most sadistic incarnation is when he dons the cloak of malignant disease; of a long protracted debilitating descent that takes his target piece by piece and, in so doing inflicts collateral damage.
I know he is here. I am not sure he will win this time. He will ultimately take dad just as he will me and everyone I’ve ever known and all those who occupy this planet with me today. He just seems a little settled in and getting more accustomed to the routine he has established in this little cubicle. Death can be “cheated”, “narrowly escaped” but never defeated. It is just not possible.
From where I sit tonight Death’s estimated time of departure, that moment when he has seen enough and helps extract my dad’s Soul from his lifeless body, has not yet been posted but I check the board every now and then. He might be a bit delayed by turbulent weather or grounded by the fog of antibiotics coursing through the system of a body elsewhere in this building. But he is here. He has arrived. He’s just not yet ready to leave.
The question now, the only remaining question, the question that begrudgingly lets me say a prayer, hold dad’s hand, kiss him on the forehead and just sit with him is, when will Death make his exit? When will he depart? He came here alone but will leave with someone else. He’ll make the next leg of his timeless journey in the company of another. It could very well be that he will leave and take my dad with him.
February 25, 2008
New York City
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