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The last time my father died was in 1998. It differed from his other deaths in that, this time, we buried him. The McEnroes were, until recently, the sort of Irish-American family that favored florid Irish wakes. I remember my parents returning from one of the last good ones, around 1970. They were pretty well lit, and my mother explained that one of the McEnroes, a man in the liquor business as it happened, parked a station wagon loaded with potables in the funeral home parking lot. The mourners would filter out there, have a nip, and return to the parlor, their enthusiasm for the wake and their nostalgia for the dead vastly refreshed.
Their bodies heavy with weeping and their minds sodden with drink, they eventually managed to lock the keys inside the station wagon. Very quickly, it came to pass that getting the station wagon unlocked was the thing of paramount importance, so that virtually everyone who had been inside the funeral home was now out in the parking lot giving advice and jiggling coat hangers. The poor corpse was left alone with one or two sniffling women.
My father was faintly amused, but it was, he said, a puny affair compared to the wakes of distant summers. "Then," he said, "the women would keen, making such an awful high-pitched racket you thought you were going to lose your mind. And when the men were drunk enough, they'd haul the body out of the casket and prop it up in a chair, put a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other."
He paused and smiled, letting his hazel eyes wander up in the air to where the memories floated like dust motes. "The whole idea," he said, a little dreamily, "was to make sure the son of a bitch was really dead." The last time my father died, the son of a bitch really was.
It starts in 1996. I'm with my father, on a spring afternoon in West Hartford, Connecticut, where we all live, watching my son, who has just learned to ride his bike.
Where we live, the forested reservoir lands are also parks. Paved roads, dedicated to hikers, joggers, and bikers, curl and course through the gorgeous woods.
I see Joey launching himself onto those roads, sailing away in looping arcs, out to where my father cannot follow. Joey is adopted. He is Mexican, and his skin is the beautiful color of coffee ice cream. In the summer, it deepens into a coppery chocolate. His eyes are wide and brown and startling. My father's hair is white as summer clouds, and his skin is ruddy from rosacea and Irishness. His body is thickset. In appearance, he has been compared, variously, to Chet Huntley and Spencer Tracy, although neither was ever as handsome, or as fey, as my father in his prime. His face is craggy, rugged. Merriment and sadness play across it in constant shifting patterns, the way those summer clouds, moving in the wind, might push light and shadow across the land.
I help my father from a car to a chair. He is stiff with spinal stenosis, shaky from late-onset diabetes, clutched by congestive heart failure.
There is something else I cannot see and do not know. Cirrhosis from secret late-night drinking sessions is scourging his liver.
In two years, he will be gone, and I will join the Dead Fathers Society.
At the moment, I feel only the twitching of life's giant clockworks. I feel as though the very mechanism of life requires my father to slow down as my son accelerates. It feels satisfactory and right. Maybe it is, too, but not in the nice, neat way I'm imagining.
Now it is 1997. Mockernut. Pignut. Shagbark. Tulip Poplar. Red Oak. There are little signs on some of the trees as you roll through the roads of the reservoir. A year has passed. Today Joey is on foot, and Bob is in a wheelchair. He has grown sicker, and I take him on outings.
Today I am trying to wheel him along the 3.6-mile course of the reservoir, which takes in some pretty steep hills. Descending them, I lean backward at sharp angles, like a man walking wild boars on a leash. Occasionally I pop a hand loose from one of the grips to either throw or catch a squishy little football Joey and I are playing with as we walk.
I have come to think of these excursions as the Sandwich Generation Triathlon. Walk, Push, Throw.
My father has now been diagnosed. He is terminal. We don't talk about that. We don't talk about anything unpleasant, but my father can see that I have, for months, devoted my free time to him. I have driven him to medical appointments and taken him on these walks and slogged through shopping trips. One day I take him to an art museum and dilate upon the meanings of the paintings. In front of a Winslow Homer, a pretty woman smiles at us, and I think she likes me for taking such good care of my dad.
A minute later I realize she was gently amused, because my pedantic lecture has sent the patient into a deep sleep. Still, when he gets home he tells my mother, "It was like a different world."
My dad is mainly housebound. One day I wheel him around the neighborhood in the sleepy afternoon sun, and I sing Johnny Mercer songs to him. "Skylark," "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," "That Old Black Magic," "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive." He likes that a lot. I'll never forget that day, singing to my father. Occasionally, as we wangle the wheelchair through a tricky doorway, he will mumble, "Who would have thought ... that you would turn out to be so useful."
If you have a spouse, a child, a dog or two, a sick father, a worried and very tired mother, one way to get through a long, hard Sunday is to make a list of tasks. You start it at 6:30 A.M. and keep crossing items off, glancing down to the bottom of the list where there awaits, you presume, a paradise. You will park your tired self on a sofa and maybe watch The X-Files, because at least the guy who is part-fluke and who lives in the sewers will have a life slightly worse than your own.
Even under the iron rule of a list, Joey and I sneak in a bit of fun, tossing a football in a deserted parking lot and walking at dusk, with the dogs, into spooky, empty, snow-dusted woods. Just as the air around us fades from gray to black we stand in the pie-powdery snow on the banks of a chilling stream. And it's so heartbreakingly weird and beautiful you wonder why people don't come here by the hundreds. And then back to work.
Last thing on the list: Bake cookies. I forget why. For school?
I'm halfway into the baking when my mother calls. It's 8:45 P.M.
My butt is feeling a sort of magnetic pull toward the promised land of the sofa.
"Can you come over? Something is wrong with Dad." Ohhhhhhhhh. For a brief moment, I am unsure which is the greater tragedy-my father's ill health or the fact that I'm not going to sit down and watch television. I drive over, and, indeed, he is failing in some ineffable way, dead on his feet, muddled in his head. I bring him into the bedroom and try to get him settled into bed, but his body flops and sprawls, starting to slide toward the floor. I haul him up again.
"Let me try to get your head in the right place," I grunt. "I've always wanted my head in the right place," he murmurs slurrily.
He's about ten synapse-firings this side of a coma, and he's still funny.
The next day I discover the interrupted cookies. They have congealed into a rubbery texture. Eating one would be like a hyena eating Gumby.
Things are worse, much worse. I sit down with my mother and my father's doctor. "We should get hospice involved," I say. There's an awkward silence. The doctor has to authorize this. He has to say that the patient is terminally ill. He has to say that the patient will not live more than six months. You can get extensions. They don't send a guy in a hood with a scythe if you miss the deadlines. All the same ...
"I'm reluctant to take that step," he says. "When you say the word 'Hospice' to a patient, it's almost like a death sentence." I look at him.
"Well," I say, "he is dying, isn't he?" The doctor kind of shrugs.
He is an old-school guy, operates out of a big white house on a main avenue. He was taught that you fix people until you can't fix them anymore. Then you let Nature take over and hope it's quick. This idea of giving Death an extended booking, two shows a night with a pit orchestra, is hard for him to grasp. My father, by all rights, should be dead by now, but my mother refuses to let this happen. When Dad begins to sag into a coma, she ignores the doctor's advice and summons an ambulance to take my father to a hospital, where he is transfused and revived, just as Death was set to swoop in and claim him.
My mother is a small, unassuming woman with downcast eyes. In a room full of people you might miss her. I think it's possible that Death underestimated her. She wears her hair permed up and back in a kind of sixties bouffant, dyeing it this shade and that, making all the stops on a subway line from blonde to auburn. My wife's hair, by contrast, turned a silvery white in her forties, and she let it stay that way. Her face is utterly unlined, making her white hair seem as anomalous as my mother's ash blonde hair hovering over an older face. My mother's voice has stayed musical and girlish, in defiance of all the cigarettes she smoked, a pleasant echo of the beauty she once was.
The doctor now believes he is caught in an unpredictable crossfire between Death and this very tiny woman. He has absolutely no idea what to do, and his plan is to meet with us as rarely as possible, return few phone calls, and check the obit page to see if this mess has, by any chance, resolved itself.
It takes a few weeks of my jiggling the handle, and then my father is a hospice patient.
This means we are all resigned to keeping him comfortable, easing his pain, soothing his soul, letting him die. Except my mother.
"I made a commitment," she says, repeatedly. No one can remember hearing her make this commitment, but apparently it has the force of something you might say while pulling Excalibur out of a rock. The commitment includes keeping my father at home and administering medicines and meals with a precision and doggedness no hospital could achieve. My mother is Star Trek's Borg Collective, a flying cube of quasi-mechanical imperialism. My father will take his medicine at the exact time prescribed. He will eat balanced meals, three times a day. Assimilate or be destroyed. Resistance is futile. My father lives an extra nine months or so because he is almost too busy to die. Paid caregivers from the outside are held to rigorous standards of conduct.
"Where's the hospice aide?" I ask one day, darting into the apartment in between work and home. "I fired hospice," my mother says. "Very funny." "I did."
"Nobody fires hospice. That's like ... I mean ... um ... they're the last word in ... last words." I concede that this is not exactly Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. I'm kind of babbling while my mind bids farewell to all those brisk, competent hospice workers who were-I had thought-going to get me through those moments when I'm weak and exhausted and afraid, like right now, for instance.
"Hospice are the people who take care of you when you have nobody else," I try again. "Everybody likes hospice." (Possible title for final Raymond episode?) It's no use. My mother is scared. Her response to fearfulness and isolation has always been to set up an even more fearful and isolating situation. The hospice people are not helping enough. So they must go.
We find a different hospice agency and reenlist. "You have to promise not to fire them, even if the aides show up late," I begged, "I'm not promising anything."
My mother does most of the work and grows so tired that we arrange a five-day respite for her. My father will go to a beautiful nursing home in the woods.
Early one morning, I drive my father out to the McLean Home for this short stay. I step through the sliding doors and behold the sunlit atrium, the California fireplace, the greenhouse, the smiling and friendly staff, the soft jazz playing in the lobby. It is impossibly peaceful and cheerful. "You don't happen to have a second bed available, do you?" I inquire weakly.
The soft jazz turns out to be a man playing, perhaps a little dementedly, the Natalie Cole version of "Avalon" over and over, but in all other respects, McLean appears to be paradise on earth for the middle-aged, the weary, the sandwiched. I don't want to leave.
Conversation between me and my son, who is eight. "Does anybody live to be one hundred twenty?" "Not very often." "How old will I be when I die?" "Old, I hope." "Will you live to be one hundred? How old will I be when you're one hundred?"
"Sixty-five. We can be old men together." I get a lot of this these days. It's evening, and Joey and I are driving back from McLean. He's a trouper about visiting my father, but spending a lot of time around the very old, around the near-to-death, has stirred up questions in him. "Do really old people want to die?"
"Sometimes. Sometimes people who are ninety or one hundred say they feel they've lived enough; they're tired in some way we can't even begin to understand."
We come up over a rise in Simsbury, and Hartford surprises us, twinkling in the distance. Life is long, life is short. We're just guests here, checking off tasks, getting through our lists. The car surges through the night. There's a lot to talk about. When the five days are over, I drive out to bring my dad home to my mother. I have slipped into some horrific high-functioning mode, where my voice booms out cheery good advice to him and my manner is that of a bustling and businesslike male nurse.
This is precisely what my father does not need. He needs some humanity from me. He needs to visit with me in the kind, intensely personal way that a father may visit with a son. I do not give him that. I give him an officious, hearty, no-nonsense parody of myself.
"I thought we might eat lunch together," he mumbles weakly.
"No time for me to eat!" I boom, with a big false smile. "I've got to get you all packed up, load up the car, get everything squared away with the people here while you eat."
I have become a Sim. "The Sims" is a computer game in which you build digital people and orchestrate their lives. They marry, have babies, get sick, lose jobs. They seem to set themselves on fire by accident a lot. You assign personal traits to each one, but the palette of emotional colors is pretty limited. I read that in 2001, the people who play "The Sims" noticed an odd phenomenon. Their fake people would begin to cough and then die, in uncommonly large numbers. The players began discussing this on Internet message boards and discovered a common denominator.
Excerpted from My Father's Footprints by Colin McEnroe Copyright © 2003 by Colin McEnroe
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted August 5, 2003