Monday, May 22, 2006

A Sad and Personal Note

I think it's time for me to write about my father, who is dying.

The medical reason he is dying is that his heart is in the process of failing; a faltering machine only a tiny shadow of what it once was. The real reason he is dying is that for reasons I — and maybe anyone who looks out the window and sees a new spring born again — can never understand is that he no longer wants to live. Somewhere in the last few years he reached an internal tipping point, where the joys of his new family and his children no longer outweighted the demons from his past.

And those demons are truly creatures of nightmare, fierce Oni hunting for souls to carry to a hell I don't believe in. My father believes in it, though, and the dark shapes in the darkness may change shapes, but they are always coming for him. Always.

He killed men once on some Pacific island; came home and played some football; married the cheerleader queen; had three children and bought a VA house in the suburbs. And it should have been happily ever after, or at least mostly happy, but somewhere that train jumped the tracks and careened into uncharted dark territory.

The middle son, the brilliant talented brother I adored, died hard and slow, and the cheerleader queen young Mom spiraled out of control, taking the remnants of the family with her. Mental illness is catching, you know, an influenza of the soul. It passes from you to the ones you love the most, as you draw them deeper into your own death spiral. Until there's nothing left but a reverse image world, with a sun that no longer shines. If you are near that dark sun, you are left with a single option — escape.

And I did. It was neither easy nor pleasant. My younger sister also escaped, although in a different direction. We don't speak, unless someone dies. Then we speak in platitudes, which is of course another way of not speaking.

I thought I could save my parents and tried numerous times. I was wrong. The nature of "being saved" involves wanting to be saved. Their world was self-contained and provided everything they needed; they put on a good front for the rest of the world and continued spiralling down through the levels of hell.

And then my mother died. Suddenly, like I would wish to go, your proverbial bolt from the blue. She and I talked on the phone one Sunday morning, as was our tradition. My mother was excited. We think we finally have our lives under control, your father and I, she said. She was tired, she added, and thought she'd go lay down for a nap. I told her I loved her; two minutes later the phone rang with my father in hysterics. She just...died...he said. Died, just like that.

My sister and I began making plans for institutionalizing my father, because it was clear that he couldn't help himself. And then the strangest thing in the world happened — within inches of the ground, he pulled himself out of the nosedive. Quit the drugs and the self-medication; shook off 20 years of stupor and reintroduced himself to the world outside his and my mother's filthy living room.

He came to visit and spent time with me — in all the years I'd been gone, neither of my parents had ever set foot in any place I'd lived. Something I understood, since I was the bad seed, not the one who was supposed live.

So I actually met the father I never really had, and I liked him. A lot. He was smart and funny and humble; he remarried, to the nicest woman in the world with a huge extended Southern family — something else I could never give him — and even adopted a little boy. When he told me about the adoption, I took him aside. This time, I said to my father, you've got to stand up. Or don't do this thing. On my word, he said.

The train seemed back on track, but demons never sleep, do they? A couple of years later he had some health problems; went to the hospital, where the kindly doctors hooked him up to a morphine drip. Drip, drip, drip. They might as well have put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. By the time I got to Tennessee, he was a crazy man, my crazy old man back again — cursing his stunned new family in terms that were appalling even to me; on the phone to his old druggie contacts; ranting that he was in pain and needed the medicine. I reasoned with him that time, harshly, with the only line of reasoning that I knew would don't want to risk losing your new family, because you don't want to end up in my hands. I am the fate worse than death. Great.

I could take you through the years, the relapses, the recriminations, the fights, the reconciliations, but does it really matter? I understand the terrible hunger, the need. Maybe more than I would care to understand it, because some portion of each of us is the sum of our genes.

And I understand that it is ending. Ironically, the doctors tell me that they're making him comfortable, so in the end, he gets the morphine drip after all. If that is the only comfort left to him, so be it.

Through our ignorance, say Buddhist thinkers, through our lack of knowledge of who we are, we create so many prisons. I have nothing that profound to say. I am a writer; that's what I do, and telling stories is how I relate to the world. So this is my father's story, or at least a small part of it. His doctors tell me that he will never get out of the bed he's in, and I suspect they're right. So it's time for me to go sit by his bed. The Prophet said, "People sleep, and when they die they wake." Inshallah.

"Oh how many travelers get weary
Bearing both their burdens and their scars
Don't you think they'd love to stop complaining
And fly like eagles out among the stars"

— Merle Haggard
Out Among the Stars


Anonymous said...

mb--very hard and painful to write what you wrote--rabbi shlomo carlebach teaches us that each one of us travels thru life carrying our own secret bundle--and none of us wants to trade our bundle for another--in fear of what that new unknown bundle may contain!! dmd45

Anonymous said...

Live your life in such a way that you can look back and have no regrets.

I too watched my father whither to a shell of his former self.

I would imagine that only burying a child could be harder than burying a parent.

Thoughts are with you.

Anonymous said...

Powerful, eloquent words.

I hope it helps to know that you've touched even friends unmet.


Anonymous said...

When the sitting is done Michael, destroy the image.

Recall only the good times, the pleasant words, the sunshine. Erase the dark clouds of mind and body. Make your Peace and say your Good-bye. Keep forever what was good and right, discard the rest.

The bedside seems like just yesterday. It will help Michael.

Our prayers and thoughts are with you and your Sweetie. There is a Higher Power. jjnj

Anonymous said...

You and your family are in our thoughts in prayers.

I'm so sorry you have to face this.

If we live long enough, we all have to, someday.

Jerry The Geek said...

I'm sorry for your pain, and for your loss.

I wish you strength for your coming trials, and endurance of all those passed.

It's difficult to anticipate grief. There are no words which will ameliorate it.

Sandie and I wish you well.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear the bad news Mike.
You laid out a lot of personal info here and I admire you doing it.

I lost my Dad to the Big C years ago.
My thoughts are with you and yours.

For a while all I could do was dwell on Dad's death. After the initial period of Aww shit, the cruel reality would occationally hit me out of the blue and kick my ass for a day or two.

Now I can remember and celebrate the good times much more often than ANY of the bad.
In fact, it's really rare for me to even have one of the bad memories even raise it's ugly head.

Time heals all wounds..corny but true.


Anonymous said...

Michael; I'm with you. At least in spirit if not physically beside you. We've discussed how losing a child or your sibling can affect everything around you so you know where I'm coming from. My dad died two years ago and do I wish there were things that could have been changed? You bet. But, as you know we don't get the life we want, nor even deserve (perhaps that is one of life's greater blessings) -- we get what comes.

Please know you are in my thoughts and prayers.
Frank W. James

AnarchAngel said...

I think you've read of my mother and my brother Michael, I haven't spoken much of my father, but the story is similar.

I got out at 16, and I've stayed out as much as possible until 4 years ago when my mothers health started to fail completely. Nowe we're jsut waiting for the end, which would be half hell, and half relief.

I know that of which you speak; and how hard it is.

It is another plattitude, but that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger. I know that had I not had the experiences I had, I would not be the man I am now. I wouldnt have the strength, or the toughness, that has allowed me to survive and thrive. I'm sure you took the same lessons.

And that's really all we can ask isn't it.

Hobie said...

When you close your eyes, see your father as he had wished to be and was if for all too brief a time, and perhaps, to honor him, be a part of that big extended southern family and never, ever leave them.

Our prayers are with you, your family, your father and his family.

shooter said...

In some form or fashion, we've all been there. I've face my share of familial demons and have the scars to prove it. It is never a fun thing to experience. My prayers are with you and your family.

Anonymous said...

Michael, losing our parents is so painful -- and its compounded by the parts of our relationships with them that didn't work right. My heart goes out to you.

When my mother died, we had what seemed like 14-15 endless weeks during which we tried to keep her pain (colon cancer) under control so she could leave when she was ready. It was hard to get to where the memories of her were from better times -- but it does happen.

Then last summer my dad went into the hospital (they said it was minor) and was gone four days later -- before I could get there. It is hard to say which way of losing a parent is more tearing.

As you go through your experirence, please reach out to us as much as you can. Believe me, it will help you remember who YOU really are (beyond the confusing stuff that gets attached to us as the parent's offspring). I hope you can feel how much we care about the YOU we know and love.

Mostly, just know that I am thinking of you as you go through this.


Anonymous said...

I know my well wishes can't take away a lifetime of pain for you, but I wish it anyway. I'll make sure and give my son an extra hug and hope I never give him a reason hurt the hurt you feel.

Anonymous said...

Michael, bless you.

This is dedicated to another warrior in a different context, but you will find much commonality.

"It's not for sleeping, the night crown of flowers with zodiac stars.
The night, for one who knows, is for staying awake.
If I were to fall from my elephant's shoulder, and a tusker trampled me,
death in battle would be better for me, than that I, defeated, survive."

(Source : Theragatha, Book 8 of Khuddaka Nikaya, Sona Potiriyaputta Sutta)

- Kyle

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I have been in the same situation as you . My Father just gave up on living also when I was in my early 20's . He had lost both of his legs and could not deal with it anymore. The only thing worse than losing a parent is losing a child - unfortuantely I have also had that in my life.the only advice I can give is have strenth to be there for those that need you.

Anonymous said...

Fair winds and following seas.
My sincerest condolences Michael.

Anonymous said...

You might remember me, I served as "Dear Abby" at the USPSA nationals for a few years. Chasing my own demons is the biggest reason I no longer enjoy that duty. I was in and out of the bottle for years before a kindly doctor suggested an anti-depressant, and he changed, and saved, my life.

Speaking from the parental side, I know that I can never give back to my family the years that I wasted. Please believe that, somewhere in his soul, your Dad wishes life were different. He loved you as best he could with the hand he was dealt.

I am not a religious man, but your words will be in my thoughts for a long time. I wish I could do more.

Anonymous said...

Michael, for what it's worth my thoughts are with you.

Anonymous said...

I am 58. I have lost both parents in the past 6 years. I am 20 years into surviving Kidney cancer.
I have heard many words offered in kindness. I have spoken my share.
The "best" I have to offer is that you need not go through this experience alone.

Thank you for sharing your story.

Leonard Borden

Anonymous said...

I also have lost a 24 year beautiful child and my best friend who was also my Dad. GOD also sent his only SON to give us the hope of eternal life to those who believe by faith. I know I will be with my loved ones and friends who believe and and trust Jesus as LORD. May you be given GOD'S peace at this time. God Bless You.

Anonymous said...

miss you brother, see you soon.
you were in our thoughts at mule camp.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to hear about your father. I just saw my parents for the first time in 3 years, and for the first time in my life, my parents seem OLD. Not just "you guys are too old to understand what us kids are all about," but "you guys aren't the people I've known my entire life anymore."

It's scary.

I wish your family well.

Unknown said...

My condolences Michael. I just lost my grandfather not too long ago.

Shawn Knight
The Knight Of Light

RedNeckChris said...

POWERFUL... That's the first, second, third and fourth word that came to mind while reading this.
I hope putting this to the written word gave you some comfort. I know it it did ME some good. Bravo!