The Tower card, reversed | Field notes from the Pacific coast

This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5 (#30 post). It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.

That last night Dick was at the house none of us knew it would be the last night. It was my birthday, the last day in November, and Dawn and I were supposed to have a date night, the first one in months, Charlotte about 10 weeks old. We took separate cars for some reason and Dawn got there first, said her dad was in the hallway in the dark just standing there. We were all worried he was coming down with dementia or Alzheimer’s, he’d been forgetful. Only 67, about to turn 68 in January I think. We had a party for him in the hospital after he had the surgery but couldn’t stay long, he really wasn’t up for the company, and the risk of young kids carrying germs was bad.

We’d just put Dawn’s cat Phyllis down, whose kidneys crapped out and the vet said we could manually drain her in the shower with a catheter every day, that was the only option. We didn’t take too long to decide, though it was hard still. Dawn was trying to breast feed and Lily was only two. The house in West Seattle was small: we’d recently put two and two together, deduced the reason for Lily’s late night freak-outs (her screaming and crying in bed, whipping off her diaper and pissing in the crib) was her trying to communicate we had rats. The rats were coming in from the basement through a hole behind the refrigerator and the closet in the nursery, drawn by the scent of breast milk on linens. The droppings were mixed in with the excess birth announcements from Lily in a shoebox, all the photos we made but didn’t send, it felt strange to discard.

And with traps laid in the basement of that old house it was a phantasmagoria of horror throwing open the door every day to check status. Now it was clear, the greasy smears along the walls were rats skittering around the edges—it’s how they scurried, in the dark: and the dead in the traps, lured by a dab of peanut butter, now headless, larger than you’d think: I put two and two together, it was the other rats eating the heads off the dead, all of it. Same as our cat Roxy, with the baby bunnies: just eats the heads off, all of it. The same phrase (“all of it”) I got from my VP at my last job, the day he said he wanted the process decomposition for the end-to-end phases defined down to a gnat’s ass level of detail to expose everything, all of it.

Dick was a big man in spirit and form. It would not be easy convincing him to go to the hospital to get checked out. Dawn said when she got to the house he was in the hallway between the rec room and main level just standing there in the dark, the hallway with all the photos of them as kids, the ’80s.

The phone rang and Dick answered. It sounded like Dick’s boss from the steel factory, Jim Bloch. I could tell by the somewhat formal (employee to boss) tone it was Jim—Dick just kept saying thanks, I’m fine. No really, I’m fine. (Starting to get frustrated now), I’m fine. Thanks for calling.

I took the phone and checked the caller ID, called back. I asked Dick’s boss what was going on, and he told me. Dick was acting strange, Jim was concerned. He’d come in on days he wasn’t supposed to (he was semi retired, part time) sometimes wearing business attire which wasn’t needed or appropriate in the shop. Like outfits Dick probably wore earlier in his career, with his briefcase. Would disappear for long periods of time over lunch. Jim wondered if Dick was lost, forgetting how to find his way back. He thought Dick should get checked out.

I asked Dick if he wanted a drink but he said no. He’d stopped drinking which was odd, having a Scotch now and then was one of our things. He just looked away, said he couldn’t anymore.

Dawn called her brother Rick, and asked Rick to come meet us at the hospital. I’d drive Dick there and Rick could talk to him; Dawn would stay home with the kids. We broke the news to Dick it was time to go to the ER. He should go upstairs and pack a bag, Dawn said. Beth (Dawn’s mom) was in Colorado visiting family, away for a long weekend. I left them alone for a time, listening, trying not to: Dawn’s voice was shaking, Dick wanting to please her, but not wanting to go.

We were out in the driveway in the dark by Dick’s pick-up truck when he yelled at me, a guttural growl from deep inside. He said get in, let’s go. I drove and Dick navigated, looking smug as he did. I didn’t know the way to the ER, didn’t get over this way often. We made small talk, but going to the ER there isn’t much to say.

And then we got there, a Friday night at the hospital waiting area, and waited. And Dick patronized me and his son Rick, sat with arms folded over his chest. And I felt sorry for myself and bitter, here on my birthday, a Friday night at the ER with my father-in-law and Dawn’s brother, Rick. And the woman at the desk who checked us in was horrid: she patronized the three of us for being there, said look around at all these other people who really need help and here you are you three fucking jokers wasting my time with all this. I was so angry I couldn’t speak. All that came up was fuck fuck fuck. When we finally got seen by someone proper they started the interview with Dick, to check him. They asked what year it was, the president: we joked, made light of it, waited. Dick rolled his eyes, but got the year wrong. And then he went the wrong direction when they asked again, he kept going too far back. And in a very strange way I felt vindicated by that awful woman at check-in who challenged us—I thought, so there…see?

There was a problem in Dick’s brain, a tumor, from the time he’d been sick before, gotten treated for a form of Leukemia. It was impinging on a part of his brain governing reason and memory. They wanted to operate Sunday. Dawn’s brother Chip flew in from Colorado, and we all met in the waiting room—and the surgeon came out afterwards to say it had gone alright, but it was a long recovery period to follow. We got a Christmas tree for his room and went to see him, and then they moved him in January to a transitional place with a name like Spiritwood or something. But he never made it home, though his kids were all with him the night he went. And so was the church pastor, the same one who married me and Dawn: and I thought I could see the value of faith for the first time, this guy who came to be with Dick all those times to sit by his bedside and talk, to give him comfort. That’s faith, love. But then Beth went to a small-group grieving thing from the church and they told her, don’t expect to see your loved one in heaven. It didn’t work like that. They were with you on earth but it was different in heaven. None of us understood, were angry. Beth was shaken by it, couldn’t understand. Belief she’d see Dick in the after-life was all she had to help her get through. But I guess it’s because for people who remarry, the logic gets muddled in the after-life. Like, how do the new partner and former partner reconcile things, in heaven (the three)? It was easier to just coach those in grief to accept they wouldn’t be there. That’s the flaw in relying on people to translate faith, some are just assholes. Or faith doesn’t map in a clean manner, has no logic, doesn’t need to.

They were operating on Dick that Sunday and I had nothing to do, couldn’t sit in the waiting room any longer, so I went to the office to get my laptop. I never went in on weekends, it was dark and quiet. It must have been before the layoffs because I still had a desk by the window, had more status. And nothing looked the same to me then, it’s like I saw things in a new light. The photos of my kids, my family: keepsakes I scattered around my small cube. Faced with the prospect of death everything looks much different. It’s not a bad way to look at things either, it’s not as much a prospect as it is reality.





Categories: death, Memoir

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

11 replies

  1. What the hell, like anybody knows what happens after we die. Just last night I reassured my kid, who has been anxious lately about death and dying, that sure I believe we get to be reunited in heaven. She loosened and calmed after that, I could see it. So hard to be the one left behind, heartbreaking but sweet post, this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know, it can get into the realm of the ridiculous. And all the strange filters and controls we put into place. Glad you liked this and found it sweet…thanks Kristen. “Keep the faith” as it were.

      Liked by 1 person

    • When I was in my 20s I had a girlfriend who was prone to panic attacks about different things. Before I realized that one of the triggers for those attacks was fear of death, I told her that I didn’t think there was anything after we die. That didn’t help much when the attacks came and I tried to calm her.

      It is one of those difficult things to discuss with people. I’m not shy about my belief and when somebody I know loses somebody, and those questions come, I generally try not to say anything more. Let them find their answers elsewhere.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, that’s one of those perhaps dark boxes in this story I might open, will see. Courtesy of my hair stylist Donnie. Ah, life is good. Here’s to that, Prost.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It is difficult to discuss and can’t be proven, a strongly held and emotionally charged opinion. Hopefully that girlfriend found peace in that and other areas. It surprised me that my kid asked me, like she doesn’t know yet that she gets to decide what to believe. I don’t mind sharing a little comfort until then.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. a tough post, but well-written, bill. how odd the woman who told dawn their would be no reunion in the afterlife. i don’t get why anyone would say that to someone who believes.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful and painful and illuminating and just kind of incredible. Well-done.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I want to wade into the ‘faith’ thing – what a word! what a concept! – but won’t.
    Enjoyed this sombre piece, Bull.


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