On death, the afterlife and new cars

Death and dying are frequently on my mind these days because of recent events with my parents, and I assume they are topics that also preoccupy my Dad. Both he and my mom have experienced some potentially life-threatening health problems over the past couple of years, and my mother’s dementia steadily worsens. Couple those issues with their eighty-plus years of age, the death and decline of friends, various stays in hospitals and nursing homes, and the subject of death is bound to be foremost in his mind. While he’s perfectly capable of being absolutely maudlin at times, my dad’s sense of humor does extend also to the subject of death and the afterlife. He is fond of ruminating out loud to his black Lab and best companion Paco, “Paco, Paco, you have it so good. We haul the food to you and the shit away. When you die, you just die, and that’s it. When I die, I have to go to hell yet, besides.” Dad also refers to death as “going to the fields (of ambrosia).”

Despite any preoccupation with death and its imminence, my dad recently bought himself a new car even though it was probably not essential. But, who doesn’t love a new car? I take it as a very good sign that he’s not ready to “go softly into that good night” yet himself. Unfortunately, cars have changed enough in the past few years to create a rather steep curve around learning how to operate a new vehicle. For example, the lack of a key, having to depress the brake pedal in order to start the engine, figuring out how the cruise control functions, and–the biggest frustration of all–the placement of the fuel intake on the passenger side of the car. That discovery unleashed a flood of “pungent vernacular language,” some might say a diatribe, over the absolute idiocy of fixing something that wasn’t broken. Somewhere Dad believes it was written that the gas intake goes on the driver’s side, by God, and that there is no possible good explanation for putting it on the other side, necessitating walking around the car in order to fill ‘er up. Oh, the aggravation of having to take ten extra steps! A month ago I would have told him it was good for him to take those extra steps, given his very sedentary lifestyle. However, in mid-December he fell at the dump, standing right next to his car–lost his balance on icy terrain just turning around and probably broke his collar bone. I say probably because he has opted to treat himself with gin and hydrocodone rather than go to the doctor to confirm the break or not. Why pay $500 just for an x-ray and a sling? So, now I’m not so sure that any extra walking out in the wintry elements is a good thing for him, and I wish I could turn the clock back to a time when their local gas station offered full service. But, then, if I could turn back the clock to easier times, there would be no need to fret about infirmity, death, hell or cars with push buttons.

Weather reports

Winter has come early to Wisconsin, especially to the northwoods. “God’s country” or the “Garden of Eden,” as Dad calls it. I call it “God-forsaken” in the wintertime. When I called him during their first major snowstorm a week or so ago, he reported that the weather was “still and clear–still snowing and clear up to your ass.” On the other hand, if the weather in the southern part of the state is foul, and up north it’s sunny and mild, he tells me they “have an ordinance against” temperature extremes/snow/sleet/rain/hail/fog–take your pick. While he does get a little cabin fever by the end of winter (which didn’t come until May this year), he doesn’t seem to mind just hunkering down in front of the fire and reading the hours away with breaks to check the weather forecast on T.V. Nonetheless, a visit from one of us kids is always a welcome break from the tedium of being “Mama’s little helper.” Last winter I never even made it up there. After the big car accident on Christmas Day, at first I was just a tad leery about driving, period. Once I got my nerve back, the weather just never cooperated. I’d plan to drive up, Dad and I would both study the weather forecast and agree that it wasn’t a good idea due to extreme cold, predicted snowfall, bad roads, etc. I think in addition to the weather being really awful, he just didn’t want me on the road and vulnerable to the vagaries of other idiot drivers again so soon. So, we talked on the phone a lot–largely about the weather.

Watching the weather forecast on T.V. plays a huge role in Dad’s daily routine, and I must admit, I don’t like to go to bed at night without having watched the weather report on the news. And, yes, I know I can go on-line at any time and get an up-to-the-minute forecast. It’s just not the same. The weather people are our friends. Dad even has nicknames for them. The local news programs he watches are broadcast out of Green Bay, and the meteorologists (Dad would never call them that) are “Bright Eyes,” “El Greco,” and “Miss Goodbody.” Except, I believe that Miss Goodbody has moved on to another job and is no longer on the air. That was a sad day for Dad.

Oftentimes, my first awareness of bad weather in other parts of the country where family members live comes from Dad. He really does keep his finger on the weather pulse. “Jesus Christ, it was minus 12 in Denver yesterday! Whatever happened to global warming?” Or, “Christ Almighty, have they been flooded out yet down there in Johnny Reb country? God must be really pissed off at the Baptists.” Or, “Geehovies, it’s over a 100 degrees in Houston! Thank goodness, we got an ordinance against that up here in God’s country.”

What taxidermy has to do with love

A while back I was reading a collection of contemporary Mexican short stories, and one particularly struck my fancy. In fact, I laughed out loud because it reminded me of something weirdly humorous that my dad used to say to tease my mom. Hardly anyone has the wide-ranging sense of humor that he has, so it was particularly delightful to find a common joke between him and a modern Mexican author, and a female to boot.

The short story, Los conservadores, by Ana Garcia Bergua tells the tale of a woman whose husband dies and whose nephew, a taxidermist, offers to preserve the body of his late uncle so that it will not decompose in the mausoleum, but will remain relatively intact for the widow to observe on her visits to her husband’s tomb. The aunt is enchanted and much comforted by the idea, but makes what the nephew thinks a strange request of him: rather than place the embalmed body in the mausoleum, he is to position the late uncle’s preserved corpse in his easy chair in her sewing room in front of the TV, so it will seem as if he never died. (The husband was never much of talker anyway.) The nephew reluctantly complies, and the consoled widow is happy for a while tending to her silent and slowly shrinking late husband. The story goes from the ridiculous to the sublime when the nephew’s fiancee, the daughter of a mortician, falls in love with the hapless corpse, the indignant widow feels scorned and finally banishes the philandering mummy to the cemetery after all.

So, here’s the joke: Dad would remark from time to time that if my mom died before he did, he was going to “send her to Jonas Brothers to get her stuffed” so he could keep her around–you know, as a tribute to what a “trophy” wife she had always been, etc. Dad attributes this line to someone else, who would apply it to any woman that he thought a particularly exemplary specimen of womanhood. For most of his adult life, Dad was an avid hunter and took many hunting trips to the western U.S. and Canada for elk, antelope, moose, bear, bighorn sheep, and mule deer. His house is decorated with quite a “dead zoo” of heads, skins, birds, fish, antlers and skulls–none human. The renowned Jonas Brothers taxidermy studio that he referred to was in Seattle, but there were other studios in Denver and New York as well. In fact, in downtown Denver there is still a tall brick building emblazoned with the Jonas Brothers logo on the side. You can read more about Jonas Brothers at http://jonasbrotherstaxidermy.com/content/history/ in case any of you are inspired to have any of your trophies, human or otherwise, mounted for posterity.



We Dodged Another Bullet

I haven’t written anything for a while, in part due to my usual laziness when it comes to writing, but there’s another reason as well. I was kind of angry with my Dad for a couple of months after Christmas and having a hard time appreciating his charm and humor. Here’s why. On Christmas Day, Dad, my two sisters and I were involved in a very serious car accident. A drunk driver spun out of control and ran into us as she approached us on a snow-covered road just five miles from my house. It was a violent crash, and several people involved sustained serious injuries, including my sister Mary, who suffered a fractured sternum and bruising to the heart and lung. Dad got really banged up and had horrible looking bruises from his neck to his ribcage on one side and a foot that turned black on the other side. (True to form, Dad refused to be transported to the hospital by ambulance from the scene, saying, “I’ve been biffed around before.”) The two of them were riding together in the back seat. Jenny and I were in front, and we only sustained some bruising and whiplash. All in all, we are lucky to be alive, given the speed and violence of the crash, and the fact that our car flipped over once in the air. Miraculously, we landed on the wheels in the soft snow in the ditch. So, why would this make me angry toward my father? Because, HE WAS NOT WEARING HIS SEAT BELT! “I think seat belts are a good idea, but I’ll be goddamned if the government is going to tell me I have to wear one.” (As you can imagine, the little dinging reminder to fasten one’s seat belt drives him into fits of profanity.) So, he wasn’t wearing his seat belt, and when he saw that we were going to crash, he dove down between Mary’s knees and the front seat as best he could. Now, you can admire such quick reflexes in an 80-year-old man, and I do. However, I figure he became a human missile in the crash, and probably his head slammed into Mary’s chest at some point. In addition to the drunk, I blame him and his bloody-minded libertarianism for Mary’s cracked sternum. At this point, three and a half months later, Mary is getting close to 100% healed up, she has not expressed anger at Dad, he has not expressed remorse but rather some sort of laissez faire amusement at the probability that he caused her injury, and now I always make sure he has his seat belt fastened when he’s in my car. It’s ironic that Dad was quite outraged over the fact that this woman was driving drunk on Christmas Day at 2:00 in the afternoon and had no insurance. “Drunk?! At two o-clock in the afternoon! On Christmas Day! Jesus Christ!” I’m not at all sure he would deem his own behavior in this incident irresponsible, but I sure do. Anyway, I’m over it and focusing on feeling grateful that my whacky family is intact and appreciating all their many wonderful idiosyncrasies.


How to Save the Postal Service and Get Revenge at the Same Time

I don’t think my dad has ever read Don Quijote, but he certainly shares some characteristics with that valiant old man of La Mancha. I was reminded of one of those traits the other day when a postage-paid reply postcard fell out of a magazine I was reading. You know the ones. You can fill them out and send them back to subscribe to the magazine (as a gift, perhaps), and they always fall out onto your lap or the floor or the ground as you anxiously pluck the latest edition from the mailbox. They’re a mild annoyance, and most of us just throw them away or use them as a convenient bookmark. Who would think that such an insignificant piece of marketing material could be reason to wage all out war? Enter, The Ingenious Don Bill Pence of Sawyer Lake. These little bits of cardstock falling into his lap so infuriate my dad that he has taken it upon himself to attempt single-handedly (because I’m pretty sure no one else bothers to do this) to put an end to this offensive practice. His strategy? He mails every single one of them back to the magazine, without filling out any information of course, thereby, according to his twisted logic, causing the magazine to incur unnecessary costs for return postage and wasted time processing the useless documents. And, naturally, my dad does not do all of this quietly and calmly. He rants and raves with a predictable string of profanity every time a postcard falls out of magazine and someone is there to hear it. My questions are these: Does anyone else do this? Do you think the magazine publishers have noticed? If we got a grass-roots campaign going to mail back all of the reply postcards out of magazines, do you think we could save the Postal Service? Do you not agree that this would be an endeavor worthy of Don Quijote?

Sparring with adversity

Apparently my dad did a little boxing in college. He never talked much about the actual boxing, although I remember a period of time during my childhood when the entire house would reverberate in the evening as Dad worked out in the basement with a punching bag. I thought he seemed pretty good as the bag swung rhythmically and faster than I could see. Some boxing terminology crept into his vernacular as a result of that experience. My sister Jenny has always received high marks for being a person that “always answers the bell.” “We’ll just have to counterpunch that” is Dad’s standard line when he’s not sure how things are going to work out or what course of action he will take. Dad is an aggressive person, not one to pick a fight, but always ready to defend himself and his family if he perceives a wrong. He never backs away from a fight. He drives aggressively, his debating style is aggressive, and he always fights to win. When we were kids, Dad loved to provoke us into debating with him, sometimes playing the devil’s advocate just so we would argue with him. Dad once coached my brother to “punch the kid right in the nose” after said kid had stolen my brother’s shirt in school and refused to give it back when asked. My brother gave the kid a deadline for returning the shirt and warned him that if he didn’t, he was going to punch him in the nose. The kid did not comply, so my brother punched him in the nose as directed, perhaps breaking the fellow’s nose. Naturally, my brother got in trouble with the school authorities for fighting in school. When the outraged principal called my dad and told him that my brother had punched the kid “right in the nose and may have broken his nose,” Dad replied, “Good! That just what I told him to do!” This pugnacious, some would say belligerent, approach to life has enabled Dad to gain his way in most instances. So, he’s used to getting his way and not used to having to submit to anyone else’s will.

Since that last time I wrote, things haven’t gone quite as well as we were hoping. Mom’s surgery was successful in that her foot was revascularized, but her recovery over the past two and a half months has been fraught with complications, some foreseen and others not. The foreseen complication was that eight hours of general anesthesia on a woman with dementia made the dementia much worse. This fact, of course, makes everything else harder to deal with. My dad, oddly enough, is something of an optimist, or maybe just a reality denier, because he keeps expressing hope that as Mom overcomes each setback, maybe she will “perk up” mentally. Not likely. The unforeseen complications were manifold, and Dad has been “counterpunching” each one with the plucky determination of the old boxer that he is. There was a slightly longer than usual hospital stay followed by a short stint in a rehab center post-op that the inexperienced surgeon predicted would only last five days. What the surgeon didn’t know, and neither did we, was that the red tape involved in getting someone discharged from a nursing home/rehab center is so onerous that it can take precedence over the medical necessity or lack thereof of the person’s being there in the first place. Never mind that she was well enough from a medical standpoint to go home after five days. There was a billing issue, and a paperwork issue, and a “customary practice” issue, and a personnel scheduling issue, and a day-of-the-week issue, a “who the hell discharges the patient anyway?” issue–none of which had anything to do with Mom’s care or well-being and therefore was irrelevant as far as we were concerned. Dad just wanted her home ASAP and figured as soon as the surgeon gave the go-ahead, he would just waltz in and take her out. Well, technically, I guess he could have, and he probably would have if I hadn’t stepped in to try to accomplish the discharge “by the book.” I figure, since this is the only nursing home in town, we may need them again some day, and we had better not burn our bridges with the management there by causing any more of a row than Dad had already caused by “laying the clinical manager and the ‘socialist’ worker out in velvet” and telling them he would let everyone he could know “what a piss poor operation they were running.” Anyway, Mom left the rehab facility after five days and went home to continue her recuperation. At that point her recovery consisted mainly of walking and letting her incisions heal, so Dad figured they were “farting through silk” at that point. Three weeks post-op the staples were removed (there were over 100 that stretched from her hip bone to her mid-calf on one side and from groin to knee on the other). The incisions were still open in a few places, so Steri-strips were placed at the surgeon’s office. Despite the huge incisions, the only pain that Mom complained of was in her back, and it would get really bad at times. Dad was slipping her the “pocket rockets” (oxycodone) again from time to time, but that didn’t always relieve the pain. I get her an appointment with the Physician’s Assistant for the back pain. Dad drives her to the appointment, the PA takes one look at the ghastly incisions, forgets all about back pain, and calls in the real doctor. They make her an appointment with the surgeon for the next day. Dad takes her, the surgeon takes a look at the wounds, re-dresses them, sends her home. The next day she goes for a routine blood draw.  A couple of hours after they get home from the hospital where the blood was drawn, Mom is in so much pain she’s “shaking like a dog shitting tacks.” Dad calls the ambulance, she goes first to the little local hospital, then is transferred to the bigger regional hospital (where she had the surgery). Turns out she has an infection, spends another week in the hospital on IV antibiotics, has another small surgery to drain an abscess and debride the wounds.

Throughout all of this, Mom is a trooper and cooperates with all of the medical personnel, but she has no idea what is going on, why she had the first surgery, where she is, why Dad doesn’t take her home, why she can’t get out of bed, etc. At one point, she got really mad at Dad for leaving her in that place (whatever it was) while he got to go home. Mom left the hospital after a week with five wound vacs attached. Wound vacuum is a therapy the involves packing the wounds with sterile sponge, applying airtight tape over the top and attaching a vacuum pump which keeps constant negative pressure on the wounds. The dressings have to be changed three times a week, there’s a lot of plastic tubing involved, and the patient is constantly hooked up to a small portable vacuum pump. That went on for about six weeks at home. Now, all the plumbing is off, and her wounds are almost completely healed, but her memory is pretty much a soup of disjointed bits that float around and spill over the edge at inappropriate times. So, Dad has been dealing with a lot of bad stuff, trying to keep his chin up (is that a boxing expression?), counterpunching his ass off. I’ve been encouraging him to get more help at home, since his goal is to keep Mom at home as long as possible. He keeps “counterpunching,” waiting to see how long he can avoid making that next capitulation. For a while I was getting frustrated with his foot-dragging, thinking he just wasn’t dealing with reality and couldn’t even organize himself to make some damned phone calls to home health aides. Now I realize the old boxer is still just counterpunching as best he can, bloodied but not broken, hoping for a miracle in the 15th round. Can’t really blame him.