nonBlog: March 2008

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Lemons—Sunday, March 30, 2008

Each of these pieces I write about my questions surrounding my father’s recent death raises yet another question. Last week I was explaining why I came to understand that my father created many of his supposedly congenital health problems by chasing down surgery after surgery, crippling himself. I said I think of my father as having taken his lemonade—beautiful wife, three smart daughters, house on two acres, community of friends—and made lemons. But why did he make lemons?
 
I have an honorary mother in San Francisco named Linda. She looks remarkably like my father’s mother, which I find a tad woo-woo, and has the generosity and grace to step in when I need a maternal something. We call her Auntie Linda. She was in our kitchen recently when I was talking about my anger and confusion about my father’s choices. And in true Auntie Linda style, she boiled it down to one perfect sentence. She said that sometimes when a low-functioning person finds himself surrounded by high-functioning people and he recognizes he can’t hack it, he finds a way out.
 
And that’s what my father did. When his leg started to hurt, he drank and popped painkillers and had operations and declared that his life was over. He told my mother he wanted to quit his job and move down to St. Thomas to live near his parents. She was dumbfounded. What about our daughters’ educations, your career, our life? Over, he said. She fought him for six years. He never relented, not then or ever. They divorced, and for a few years he continued to work at his job in the city, reluctantly paying child support and saving money for early retirement. Then he quit his job and moved to the little town in Florida where his father had ended up and where my dad could have no responsibilities—no wife, no kids to support, no job. That was the way he liked it, and he was happy for a few years. He was no longer the angry man who had raised me, and we had a warm relationship. I told myself he was doing the best he could, even if his best was not very impressive.
 
Then my grandfather died, and my father broke his ankle and proclaimed himself paralyzed from the waist down. He must have calculated that it would take nothing less to make my sister Sharon feel she had no other choice but to take care of him. But as much as she did for him—and it was an astonishing amount—it wasn’t enough to make him want to live long enough to see his grandchildren graduate from college, or walk down the aisle. So he brought his health down yet another notch, and another, until he achieved his ultimate goal: death. After all the lemons he had made in his life, that was his version of lemonade.

 

Happy Birthday Dad, Part Two—Monday, March 24, 2008

I am obsessed with figuring out what it was exactly that made my father die six weeks ago at the age of 69. Some people who knew about his disabilities might scoff at such a question. He was bedridden, they might say. He was disabled, paralyzed. What more cause do you need than that? My uncle—my father’s brother—has always said my dad was dealt a bad hand of cards. I completely understand why he would say that, and to the degree that my father’s illnesses were purely physical he—they—are right. But I have never thought my father’s problems were all that physical. What I really think—what I have always thought—is that my father had lemonade, and he made lemons.
 
My father’s death certificate says the following. “Probable manner of death: Natural. Cause of death: cardiopulmonary arrest, debility. Underlying cause: gastrointestinal hemorrhage.” I don’t even know which piece of that information to scoff at first. What is natural about a man, whose own father died just shy of 90, passing away at 69, and with no cancer involved, no heart attack, no stroke? Doesn’t sound so natural to me. But let’s move on. Cardiopulmonary arrest. His heart and lungs stopped working. How helpful. Back when I was a reporter at Fortune and working on the Billionaires List, my editor asked me to find out what killed Christina Onassis. “Okay,” I said. I looked it up in the archives. “It says she died of cardiac arrest,” I told my editor. She looked at me as if she needed no further evidence that I was as dumb as a rock. “I get that,” she said. “Her heart stopped beating. But what made her heart stop beating?”
 
So I reiterate. My father’s heart and lungs stopped working. But WHAT made them stop working? Until I read the death certificate I thought it was the MRSA staph he struggled with toward the end of his life. But I was wrong—there’s no mention of the MRSA or of the pneumonia he was fighting at the end.
 
We move on to debility. Yeah, my father was pretty debilitated. But why was he so debilitated? Was it his bad hand of cards? When I was a teenager and my mother and sisters and I watched him go through surgery after surgery, we developed the theory that he was crippling himself much more than his arthritis would have on its own. We also collectively felt rotten even to think such a terrible thing, even if we did all agree. I questioned our conclusion every year thereafter, but I never did come to another one, although I hid my opinion from Dad. Then, several years ago, I confessed my greatest secret fear to my orthopod, who was helping me avoid surgery on a torn lining in my hip. I teared up just thinking about asking my scary question. “I’m afraid my problem is actually spinal stenosis like my dad had, and that I’ll end up in a wheelchair like he did.” The doctor looked at me quizzically. Also, warmly. He was a very kind man. He said, “I don’t think you have arthritis. We’ll see on the x-ray. But I have treated a very large number of spinal stenosis patients, and I can tell you with certainty that out of 100 spinal stenosis patients, not one will end up in a wheelchair. Not even one.” That was when I knew that my sisters and mother and I were right. To some degree, perhaps a great degree, my father did this to himself.
 
My mania to figure out what really killed my dad prompted me to pepper my patient sister Sharon with a ridiculous number of questions. When did Dad first contract MRSA, when did he break his ankle, when did he become wheelchair-bound? She finally made me sit down and talk it out with her until we had created a timeline and I felt less anxious. Some of what we came up with shocked the hell out of me. His first incidence of MRSA was 7 ½ years ago. I would have said four or five, max. Sharon also told me two things I never knew. The first is that when he broke his ankle in June 2004—the incident I would have said put him in a wheelchair—it wasn’t a very bad break. Yet when he was in the rehab hospital, he started proclaiming himself paralyzed from the waist down. Now, I have a long history of hearing Dad say he “had no feeling” in his legs—usually right before he’d ask me to caress them for an hour while we watched television when I was a girl. (Yes, it’s as repulsive as it sounds and no, I never forgave him for making me do it or my mother for not making him stop.) “My legs are numb,” he’d say, “but I can feel that.” But even though I had watched my father deliberately bring his health down a notch at a time for years, I didn’t think the paralysis was a put-on. Until Sharon told me that, in the last three months of his life when he had pretty much forgotten himself, his legs started moving again.
 
So now I know for sure how my father was able to say for a decade that he would die before 70, and be right. It was up to him. And as much as I love him, I hate him for it.

 

Happy Birthday—Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Today is my father’s birthday. He would have turned 70. But he didn’t, just like he had predicted for a decade. “I won’t live to be 70,” he would say. He said it as if living to be 70 was akin to a prison sentence. There was no actual health reason he wouldn’t live to be 70, so I didn’t imagine that he could possibly be right. But here we are.
 
I woke up such a basket case that it was clear Tom would have to work from home so I wouldn’t be alone. Every day since about two weeks after my father's death it feels like I’m walking around with no skin on, and I didn’t think it could get worse. But to have my father’s next birthday follow his death so closely made for a rather toxic psychic soup.
 
Funny the word “psychic” should have come up. Early on my father’s birthday, I got a notification from my web site that I had a new subscriber. I looked at the subscriber’s email address to see if it was someone I knew. Nope. A few hours later I got a message from the same email address. It was my childhood babysitter Pammie, who lived next door to us in Garden City. She found me 31 years after we moved away, and on my father’s first birthday after his death.
 
She didn’t know my father had died. She hadn’t seen an obituary. She hadn’t seen my book in a book store or read a bit of press with my name in it. There is no reason—not an earthly one, anyway—for her to have contacted me that particular day after 31 years. Here’s what happened. She was walking her dog the day before. She was suddenly preoccupied with the desire to find what happened to the Losee girls. She Googled me and found my web site. She called her sister Cindy—who babysat us with just as often in the old days—in great excitement. Cindy suggested she calm down. The next day, my father’s birthday, Pammie wrote to me.
 
It gets weirder. Pam and Cindy’s mother died at 69. My father died at 69. I asked Pam if she getting the woo-woo vibes as much as I was, and she said, “I think your father and my mother bumped into each other in heaven and your dad asked my mother to make me contact you on his birthday. He must have known you’d need comfort. What other explanation is there?”
 
There isn’t one. Because here’s the thing: getting Pammie to find me is what my father would have thought of to do. It never would have occurred to me. My father was nostalgic for his days in Garden City—the town where he was raised and where we lived before he was diagnosed with an arthritic spine. Only my dad would have known that one of my sources of grief is the fact that one of the very few people who remember my childhood is gone, and that I would need reminding that other people who do are still here. And only my dad would have found someone I saw every day from age 3 to 12 to do that for me.
 
One more little bit of weirdness. Pam and Cindy were best friends with another teenager across the street from our two houses: Bridget. We adored her as well and she also babysat us with great frequency. All three women are in their late forties, all live in different areas of the country, yet somehow all are still close friends. Pam and Bridget are godparents to each other’s children. So with two emails and one phone call I got back not one, not two, but three people from thirty years ago who remember my dad the way he once was and who grew up with me.
 
Door: shut. Window: open. Thank you, Dad.

 

Beset and Bewildered—Thursday, March 6, 2008

I have been avoiding writing this entry for days. Twice I sat down to compose it and my hands began to shake, so I left my desk.
 
I have been hit by a veritable freight train of grief and anger. So have my sisters. I am shocked, although some friends I’ve spoken to say they knew it was coming. I think that when someone you love wants to die, and strangers are preventing him, it’s a horrible yet emotionally straightforward situation. You know what to do: fight for what your loved one wants. And that’s what I did. For several years I tried to convince my father that he shouldn’t want to die. I actually asked him to remain on the planet for my sake, because I needed him to be here. For a while, he did. And then, after he nearly died several times 18 months ago from MRSA staph, I told him I understood and that it was okay for him to go. And then I tried to help him get what he wanted—which he did, on February 10th.
 
My initial reaction was relief and resolution. My father was no longer suffering. I was no longer suffering for him. I flew down to Florida, spent time with my sisters, memorialized him exactly the way he wanted. It was a satisfying experience. I didn’t expect to grieve much more than I already had, which was a great deal, because when my father began dying in 2006 I cried a bucket of tears, a barrel of tears. After that point he was less and less himself, and the father I missed wasn’t really here anymore, even though his body was still here and he sometimes sounded like he knew it was me.
 
Now I am so stricken that my eyes feel like they’re moving strangely inside my head. My mouth is not aligning correctly. It’s the sensation I’ve sometimes had on camera when my smile starts to shake and I don’t know how to get my face to work right again. I am afraid to be out in public; I don’t know what my features will do or what will come out of my mouth. My sister Sharon described bumping into an acquaintance she hadn’t seen in nearly a year in the grocery store and pouring out the whole story of our father’s recent death to this near-stranger, and the entire time she was speaking her brain was yelling, “Shut! Up!” But she couldn’t stop herself. And I am exactly the same.
 
People expect me to be okay now because I expected me to be okay. One very dear friend who knows my father died has neither called me nor stopped by. I am sure she thinks I don’t need anything, and I am sure I have given her that impression. Other people knew what would happen before I did, and they have sent flowers, cards, called me daily—how am I today? “Grateful” does not even begin to describe how I feel towards these friends who knew I would fall, and have their arms out to catch me.
 
This morning I woke up in tears, shook my hands out, and turned to Tom, crying, “Help! Help, help, help…” And so he helped me, all morning long. We spoke out loud the questions my grief and anger are about. Why did my father want to die so badly? And why is he dead? I don’t know how long it will be before we can find the answers.

 

New, or Practically New

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  • Fame and Fortune: Currently working on, and shocked to find I’m making headway with, the latter. Partly because of a bit of movement on the former. Perhaps endurance is the key to everything after all.