Since Easter is a time of rebirth, it seems appropriate to bring the old blog back to life today. This is the very first entry of the original p² to the nth blog. I'm 99% sure that everything I wrote on that blog (at least everything I can still find) was written high on crystal meth. I think it's interesting to see how my mind was in some ways so different, but in some still so exactly me. When I post something from the old blog, I'll post the original date (as close as I can figure) that it was posted. If you read the old blog, I hope you enjoy the trip down memory lane. If you never read the old blog, I hope this is as close as you'll ever get to seeing my brain on drugs.
July 17, 2005
My mother called today. She sold her house. The house was up for sale, so it wasn't as if someone just walked in and handed her a pile of cash for the place; still, it stings. They (my mother, father, my two brothers and my older sister) moved in to that house in April, 1963. I was born in January, 1964. Do the math.
I didn't want her to live there forever. In fact, I suggested many times while my father was still alive that they didn't need a house that had three bedrooms and three floors, since neither of them ever ventured to the third floor except to shower and dress. My mother stopped sleeping in their bed circa 2000 because of her back. The sofa in the family room gave her more support (leaning against the back of the sofa seemed to help). Almost immediately, my father took to falling asleep in his recliner or on the floor, or sometimes on the sofa if my mother was still watching tv -- of course then she would have to choose the living room sofa for that night's rest. What I always took from that was that he slept better if she was nearby. They'd been married about 45 years when this all transpired, both of them in their late 60s. At first it upset me that they were content to sleep on rumpus room furniture separately, rather than together in their bed. I realized over time that their relationship was so much more, and stronger, than those things we typically associate with a good marriage.
They argued a lot it seemed. I wondered sometimes if they could even stand each other. But then I'd sit on the back porch smoking cigarettes with my father, and I discovered that being husband and wife does eventually become like being parent and child, brother and sister -- family. And it's not a bad thing. To have someone there who knows you, cares about you, confounds you. To have someone to talk to, take care of, drive crazy.
I'm only half joking about the drive crazy part. I was certain they were both insane. Mostly because they seemed to walk through the same trapdoors, into the same circular, never-ending argument spirals, every day. Every 20 minutes. It never occurred to me (until maybe just now) that they knew exactly where they were going. That they needed to know the other was still the same person he or she was the day before. That morning.
My father's illness crept up on him, and us. His doctor told him he needed to lose weight. So he did. He started losing weight in the summer of 2002, just before I moved to New York. He stopped losing weight on April 17, 2004. Nobody could figure out why he was losing weight. Scores of doctors, psychiatrists and nutritionists were stumped. So they blamed depression. He wasn't eating because he was depressed. He was depressed because he no longer felt useful. It was convenient that the symptoms began only months after he retired. He'd worked his whole life, since he was 14. Anyone would be depressed. Also conveniently situated at the onset, my younger sister (daddy's little girl) moved out of the house; and I (his back porch smoking buddy) announced I was moving to New York. My move apparently completed the dad depression trifecta because that meant all three of his sons now lived hundreds or thousands of miles away from him. This was pointed out to me by my mother after she helped one of the myriad doctors on the case come to that conclusion.
Because the doctors all discounted my father's actual complaints -- he wasn't eating because he couldn't swallow, his throat felt like there was an enormous amount of phlegm constricting it, and he didn't even know what the fuck depression was -- so did we. Look, dad. The doctors say you're depressed. So buck the fuck up and eat. We all love you. None of us are moving home. So open your goddamned mouth and put some food in there.
Also during this period, he began to get demented. Early stage Alzheimer's to complement the depression. Exacerbated by his unwillingness to eat. My mother was of course burdened the most by this. At his sharpest, he could be among the most obstinate creatures on the planet. Just a dash of dementia and voila, now you have a 70-year-old woman ready to stick her (or his) head in the oven. (As an aside -- and to give you a more vivid image of the goings on -- at this point we have a man who literally eats about 90 calories a day, and a woman who still cooks for a family of seven every day of her life.)
It really wore on me, as well though. I went to visit only occasionally as it was, but I came to dread the calendar as his mind dulled. I'd count the weekends since my last visit, mentally arranging excuses and alibis to extend my absences as long as possible. Their house was too big for them, but not nearly big enough for me to avoid him for an entire evening, which was always my goal. And then I got caught, coming back in from the back porch. I went out to smoke a cigarette. Without him. But not just without him, because the natural ebb and flow of our smoking lives meant that some weeks I was smoking more than him, some weeks less. He caught me red-handed (and red-faced). I hadn't even mentioned where I was going when I left the basement (which is what he had converted to a family room decades before). And he knew it. Even malnourished and on his way to senile, he knew what I was doing. He didn't make a big deal out of it. He just headed out to smoke with the look of a dad who realized his son didn't want to talk to him anymore. That weekend began my routine of passing the time on the train from Philly to New York by sobbing.
He'd been in the hospital and on a respirator for about five weeks when they finally came to the conclusion (only through guesswork since they were unable to do any testing for it) that my father wasn't depressed after all; he had ALS. Lou Gehrig's disease. A progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord (www.alsa.org). Over time, people with ALS lose the ability to initiate and control muscle movement. In other words, my father probably wasn't eating because he couldn't swallow. He was never coming off the respirator. Never going to have the feeding tube removed. Well, except that whenever they tried to wean him from sedation, he ripped them both out. So, he was never going to be coherent again either. I absolutely understand emotionally why my mother and my older sister struggled with the decision to take him off life support. But for anyone with an ounce of compassion and a teaspoon of common sense, the only battle that had to be won was the emotional one.
The last time I was alone with my father was the night before he stopped breathing. I might as well have been completely alone, because the body lying in the bed was as lifeless as the bed itself. But being a fabulously gay man, I couldn't let the opportunity for a dramatically grand gesture slip through unseized. I held my dad's hand and whispered in his ear (because that was going to ensure he heard me) that without him to sit on the back porch with, smoking lost its appeal. With just a hint of practicality, I told him that as soon as I got through the funeral and a short grieving period not to exceed three months, I was quitting. And I did. May 31, 2004 was the last time I smoked a cigarette.
And today is the first time I've really wanted one since then. I want a cigarette. I want my back porch. And I want my dad.