Full Moon at Noontide
A Daughter's Last Goodbye
By Ann Putnam
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2009 Ann Putnam
All rights reserved.
Lights Go Out
When did it all begin? That long, slow descent into the last goodnight, that sweet, sad goodbye, knit up of so many small goodbyes. Goodbye to the right hand, goodbye to the right leg, goodbye to dialing the phone, or knowing what day or time it is, or wanting to eat, or remembering to swallow — but never goodbye to knowing who we were.
It's a Friday and the Seattle late-afternoon traffic is already piling up, though as soon as I can shift into the express lanes it will be smooth sailing home. But it's always a perilous turn into those lanes that rush through the dark tunnel under the freeway.
When I make the turn, suddenly there is my father before me. He takes a step, then falls to the side and crumples to the floor — not in my mind's eye or memory but from someplace outside myself, an image that comes unmoored from its holdings across the miles and floats across my face. It lasts only seconds, just a flicker, barely a vision, but something turns over in me. I flick on my lights, pay extra attention. The traffic suddenly feels treacherous, cars shifting lanes precipitously, a car horn echoing long and mournfully inside that expressway tunnel. It's dark for way too long. I want to be back in the light because I know that three hundred miles away in Spokane something has happened that will change everything. Some way I know that losing him has begun in earnest. It's Friday, the thirteenth of September, 1997.
Not that I haven't suspected something like this for several years now. So many things already gone wrong, like the mysterious bone marrow failure, and then the usual laundry list of getting old — diabetes, high blood pressure. Still, he has a lovely vitality, a buoyancy, a good and kind spirit that greets the world with promise and laughter. Always rushing off to the Whitworth College campus, where he'd taught so many years, to take photographs or to attend political meetings across town or to his Monday date with Rotary.
The winter before, back home in Spokane for Christmas, I take a snowy walk with my father. We go a block or two, then he shrugs off for home. It's near midnight and the snow is falling all around, and I can see his face in the streetlight. "I just can't do this like I used to. I'm sorry," he says. We are across the street from the house now, and he turns to head on in, then looks back at me. "I've got to get your mother someplace safe." He looks weary, a little frightened. "I don't know what's going to happen to me."
"Dad," I say, "what are you talking about?" Of course I know. That bone marrow failure they're saying could turn into a slow-growing leukemia that's shadowed him for over a year now.
"We need someplace to go," he says. "This house is too much for us." We both look across the street at that three-story house, the yard, the driveway, the roof, all covered in snow. He wants me to find a retirement community for them where there is no snow to shovel, no icy sidewalks, no stairs to fall down, somewhere in Seattle near where my husband and I live. My father is eighty-two.
"Okay," I say to him.
"I never thought I'd get old," he says, shaking his head.
I give him a hug. "It's okay, Dad. Everything's gonna be okay."
"I love you, Pill," he says, invoking my childhood nickname. "Don't go much farther. It's too late to be out here by yourself." I stand there watching him making his perilous way across the street, how he holds the railing as he goes up the stairs to the front porch. There is snow on his shoulders, his scarf, his cap. He stamps his feet and goes inside. Tears run down my face. I look up at the heavy gray sky. It's snowing furiously now, and so I turn in too. No sense in walking out here alone.
Then I'm out of the tunnel and into the light laying itself on the waters of Lake Union busy with sailboats out for an early-evening sail. The skyline is blazing with sunset. I glance back at the Space Needle behind me in fast-falling light. The Olympic Mountains are purple now in the hastening twilight, and suddenly I know I need to get on home.
It's the second weekend in September, and Courtney, my daughter, who starts back to college on Monday, is waiting for me at home. We're celebrating with tickets for the Gypsy Kings. My husband, Ed, is off in the Straits on an end-of-summer fishing trip with his best buddy, who's the only one he knows who loves fishing as much he does. When I drive up the hill I see her watching out the window for me. She doesn't do jumping jacks or send me a clownish wave, like always. She's just standing there in the middle of the living room.
"What's wrong?" I say, as I come inside, reading the shorthand in her eyes.
"Grandpa had a stroke," she says with no preamble, and no way to soften it.
Doesn't it always begin that way? A telephone call across the miles, one reality exchanged for another in an instant. Not that you weren't waiting for it all along in some dark place of your mind where you hold such things that cannot yet be brought into the light. You wish for a bad connection, crossed lines, a lapse in hearing, a rush into dream. But you're only hearing what you fear, though none of it seems real.
I call my mother. She's as stoic and noncommittal as ever. No need to rush across the state right now, no danger anymore. He'll be moved to rehab in a few days. But I can sense the fear in her voice. When I ask to talk to him, she says not right now. This alarms me more than anything. Tomorrow, she says. I think she's afraid he might cry into the phone.
Then I wonder if it's because his brain is scrambled, if his speech is gone. But she can read my mind. She knows where I'm headed. "Just a weakness on the right side," she says, understated as always. What she doesn't say of course is crippled. Half of him is useless now. She tells me he'll get better, that he'll be moved to rehab where they will bring the right side of him back to life. As if half of him is just off somewhere taking a nap, and only needs a good, stiff shake. But I want to hear his voice. I want to know that he's really there, that he is himself.
She tells me how they were just sitting in their chairs reading the newspaper after breakfast. My father goes to get up and slips out of the chair and slumps onto the floor. No prelude, no fanfare, nothing like that firebrand rushing up your left arm, no elephant on your chest — just a soft, quiet, slipping down. "Grace, I can't get up!" he says to my mother in such surprise she drops her newspaper and rushes to kneel beside him, while she scoops up the phone, as if she's been practicing this gesture for years. My uncle, who lives with them now, is downstairs in his room sleeping in.
This is how it should have happened: After the rush to the ER, an angel of a doctor comes in with an IV and plugs him into a miracle drug that brings to life what he thought had died — the arm and leg asleep by his side, the mouth shaped in a cry that never comes, the sounds he makes we do not understand, thoughts he will never have again. It's only a matter of days before he is himself again. And all the terrors that might have been have gone around some bend in the road for good.
But this is how it really happened: Three hours later — and that's all the time they've got before that clot's dark surprise cannot be undone — and they still haven't begun to dissolve it. They have not rushed him for an MRI or CAT scan to see what kind of stroke it is. That magical three-hour window of opportunity has come and gone. No miracle doctor, no miracle cure. Then it's too late for anything that can stop the brain death going on just out of reach. "They didn't do anything for me. They just let me lie there," my anguished father says. They just let him disappear into the glacial pace of any ER. I wondered then as now if they had not rushed to treat him because they thought he was just a throwaway old man.
I was told later there is some risk to this miracle drug, and it's true: things may have been more complicated in reality than they seemed over the phone. But it was a choice my father never got to make: Take this treatment and you're cured. You can walk out of here as before. On the other hand, this treatment might kill you. It's up to you, old man. Which way do you want it? He'd have chosen life. He'd have reached out for the brass ring and risked losing his balance completely. And my mother? I know what my mother would have chosen. She would not have abided the risk. She would kept as much of him safe as she could. Well, it would have been a house divided.
Because my mother did not call me at school, I had no vote, not that it was mine to give. She waited until I'd finished my teaching day and was on the long commute home before she called. "What could you have done?" she'd said later. If I'd been in that ER I would have run into the hallway and grabbed the first white coat I saw and screamed, don't just let him lie there. For God's sake do something. I would have remembered that magic potion and shouted its name. I'd had that bit of information tucked away somewhere for safekeeping for a long time now. But if she'd managed to reach me at school, I would have whispered its name fiercely over the phone. And later, I would have tentatively asked her — "Did Dad ever get that t- PA?" — because either he did or he didn't, and by now it was far too late for that.
Ah, the stroke. Grandpa had a stroke. Such a bitter cliché. Can't walk straight, talk straight, think straight. He's just leftovers now. A stroke is obscene. It twists the smile of your face, one side can't laugh or cry, speech is a tape come unwound, you mean one thing and say another, you laugh when you should cry, the right arm flops at your side, the right leg drags across the floor, everything tilts to the right, weighted forever to earth. And the mind. The precious mind. How it had reasoned things out all those years, put things together, taken them apart, seen them new and whole again. Now suddenly up is down. Visible proof of all the little deaths inside.
Have a heart attack instead, if you could choose. A heart attack gets all the attention. After the initial heart-stopping pain, of course, and some residual weakness and shortness of breath and terrors you cannot name. Maybe a little paleness around the eyes, a slower step going up the stairs, the cheekbones at a sharper angle, but only in a certain light, and who couldn't afford to drop a few pounds anyway? Have a heart attack any day, if you could choose such things. A heart attack gets all that rushing about, the paddles ready for rescue if the heart monitor goes flat. I'd seen enough medical TV. A heart attack doesn't leave you on a gurney for three hours while your brain cells vanish into thin air.
I wondered what it would be like, this spreading darkness in the brain. A string of Christmas lights going out one by one. Plugs loose in their sockets. The right arm and leg not exactly numb, but detached from the will. Or body parts that look like yours but really belong to somebody else. Not that you'd mind missing an arm or leg, or a few words here and there, or a few thoughts you couldn't think anymore, so long as you lived. So long as the core of you remained, there was no reason to shout or call out. No reason to complain about the slow service in the ER.
Imagine waking up mornings unrecognizable to yourself. Like Gregor Samsa on that first morning of the metamorphosis. But wouldn't you permit yourself a few golden moments of forgetting, in order to remember life as it had been on some fine morning with the sun streaming in your window, and you ready to turn to your wife and touch her there and there and there?
I wondered if there were laws of compensation for such things, if something came in its place. Something simpler, purer, a distillation of spirit after all. Was it a worthy exchange for an arm and a leg?
That was Emerson. Or was it laws of correspondence? Emerson was never my guide anyway. It was always Thoreau, with his uncompromising, luminous facts. How he could believe in the miracle of Walden Pond and still have to know if it was truly bottomless as myth would have it. And then front the measurable fact that it wasn't. I loved the realism of Thoreau and the transcendence.
I loved Thoreau because of my father. It was my first term in graduate school at the University of Washington, and I was terrified I would not be good enough or smart enough, and any day they would find out it had been a mistake to let me in. And my first assignment in my first course: read Thoreau's Journals, all fourteen volumes of them, and write a paper about some progression you saw playing out as you read. A single set of journals on reserve in the library that could not be checked out, but had to be read in the library in two-hour stretches. It would take me months to read those journals sitting at a library table in the reserve room two hours at a time. I already had Courtney, my year-old baby, to take care of, and my two little boys, Chris and Robb. I couldn't read fourteen volumes of journals in the library and write a paper in three weeks.
I was in tears when I called him. My graduate school career would be over before it had even begun. I started to laugh then began to cry. All my life I had known that my father would do anything for me. And so it was. Some way he charmed the librarian at Whitworth College, where he was a professor of history, into letting him check out Thoreau's Journals, all fourteen volumes of them, on reserve in their library also. She was keen on him anyway, and believed everything Professor Homer Cunningham told her. But how he explained his intentions with the Journals I cannot imagine even now. I remember her as a pinched and suspicious woman who liked books best when they stayed on their shelves. These were rare or semirare books that were never, under any circumstance, to leave the reserve room of the library. It's a good thing she never knew that he was going to put them in cardboard boxes and take them to the bus station to make their way from Spokane to Seattle in the cargo hold of a Greyhound bus, for my own luxuriant use. When I got them home and unpacked them, I lined them up on the couch and took their picture.
And reading them I fell in love with rain, and the clouds moving across the sky, and the first green slips of spring you wouldn't notice unless you knew how to look and see that you had survived the hard season of winter once more. And that just as promised, there it was after all, joy in abundance. Plenitude after all. Those weeks with my very own Thoreau and the rain drumming on the skylight above where I read, the comfort of my abiding father kept me safe from all winter storms.
That semester I fell in love with Thoreau and his metaphors. The fact would always flower into significance for Thoreau. He only needed solitude and time. "I grew like corn in the night," he wrote in Walden. During his dreaming time the metaphor was born. But writing this now, I wonder if it is the same for me. Christmas lights, legs and arms unmoored, plugs and sockets. And later an ice storm, and other such metaphors down the line. Why not describe the behavior of damaged neurons instead and leave embellishments behind? Just measure the damned pond, not fabricate some dreaming symbol. But oh how I have searched for the metaphor for what happened to my father. I want to gather it all up into a constellation of meaning so that he was not just some old guy dragging an arm and a leg through what life remained to him. I would seek the metaphor I needed, the thing I could rub between my fingers, then tuck away in my pocket like a lucky charm. Metaphor would draw me close, not push me away. I would let the brutal facts flower into understanding. Maybe what I knew from memory and an imagination forged in love might, if I were so lucky, yield a greater truth that would extend beyond all the sorrows to come and my anguished part in them. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Full Moon at Noontide by Ann Putnam. Copyright © 2009 Ann Putnam. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.