Thursday, May 28, 2009

Night of the Living Wake

It's raining right now in my part of the world, not in a hard or violent kind of way, just a steady soak that's in for the long haul. Gaia obliged us with that starting yesterday morning, and it couldn't fit my mood better because that was the day we put my father in the ground.

Let me back up a little. Some of you might have noticed my uncharacteristic silence this past month, and, well, now you know why. A month ago, you see, my father's health took a sudden and unexpected fall off a cliff. For some reason, his lungs started to shut down. As the dosage of the immuno-suppressants had been reduced - a little early, given that he showed no sign whatsoever of graft vs. host, the grim specter that haunts all transplant recipients but none worse than those whose transplant is a new immune system - a cough had developed. One sunny Saturday morning, my mother and I were treated to an omen: the battery in our van abruptly died, requiring us to call CAA and prevail on a friend for a ride home.

That night, my mother returned to find my father delirious. She called an ambulance, and the next day my sister and I were visiting him in the hospital. Talking to him wasn't easy. The oxygen mask made it hard for him to speak, and the sound of the ventilator meant we had to shout.

That day, we returned to her house to find that her landlord had finally - 8 months after she moved in - decided it was time to clear the massive amount of debris out from the lot behind her bedroom. It was a Herculean task, and I don't begrudge him at all that he took so long to do it. In addition to a large pile of underbrush that we'd uprooted the previous fall (when we'd cleared out the jungle and organized what we found into piles) there were two large fallen tree branches, a pair of broken old barbecues, a fridge, a mattress, the stand for a projection screen, a bicycle, an old inflatable pool, tires, a tarp, the remains of several cushions, an old door, and an assortment of smaller items that, as best we could, we'd collected into bags. All of it left by tenants who'd occupied the building before the landlord had taken possession.

Looking back on that juxtaposition of events, I can't help but wonder if that wasn't another omen, of a kind, prefiguring the events of the subsequent month. The entire family, you see, came together, in numbers exponentially related to the seriousness of my father's condition, and with his tragic death unfolding in excruciating stages before us, well, a great deal of emotional garbage was brought out into the open, and some of it, perhaps, finally disposed of.

He wasn't awake for much of it. The last time I talked to him - or, I should say, the last time he was able to respond - I was practically shouting at him over the large new ventilator they'd hooked up to him. Nothing of much consequence was said: no one wanted to admit to the fear that this might be it. He - we - had already been through so much, with the chemo and the radiation and the stem cell transfusion and all myriad of pills they'd prescribed to deal with all of the side effects arising from those treatments. So, so much ... and everything had gone so well, all according to plan and so ... surely this was just a bump in the road. A little infection that would be dealt with soon enough, now that the professionals had him, and then we'd all get back to life as normal.


With this firmly in our hearts, we kept the conversation light. Even though he was coughing up blood that day, giant clotted chunks of it mixed into his sputum. He did a good job at filling a styrofoam cup and as I watched him coughing it out I wanted to cry I was so worried but my father, true to form, just shrugged. He'd never much acknowledged pain in the past so why start now?

The next day, my sister arrived at the hospital to find that he'd been sedated and intubated, because the ventilator was no longer enough. His blood oxygen had fallen too low, and so, their hand had been forced.

What followed was a blur. One sister returned, and another, who lived internationally, was summoned. My mother continued to work - a sister was teaching a week-long workshop on stop motion animation to the children at Mom's school, a commitment that could not yet be dodged. What free time we had, however, was spent at Dad's side in the hospital, going in and out to visit him, talk to him, hold his hand and touch him, and of course check up on his condition, deteriorating at such a slow pace that the almost inevitable reply to the question of "How is he?" was "Stable," almost as though we were the proverbial ants living so close to our two-dimensional world that we didn't see the subtle three dimensional curve.

The only problem was, 'stable' kept getting worse.

Eventually, it declined to the point where we had moved in, for all intents and purposes, to the hospital. Whenever we were allowed, at least one of us was in there with him. We hoped desperately against hope that perhaps our mere presence, our love for him, would be enough to give him the subtle energetic boost that would reverse the downward trajectory he was on. The doctors could do no more than slow his descent. They didn't even know what it was that was killing him: all their tests, for every kind of infection known to medical science, were coming back negative and so it was no surprise that what treatments they could administer had no effect. Before long they were throwing more antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals, and other assorted steroids, diuretics, narcotics and sedatives at him than any other patient in the hospital. For all the good it did, they might as well have been dancing around his bed in painted masks, shaking rattles. The final diagnosis they gave him was ARDS, or Accute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, a fancy medical term that when you parse it shows pretty clearly that they have no idea what causes it.

Well, they do, after a fashion. The cause can be any number of things: infections, smoke inhalation, water damage, other assorted traumas all of which when taken together apparently have some small chance of starting what amounts to a raging forest fire in the lung tissue. I assure you it's been debated within the family whether or not the grueling treatment regimen he'd undergone predisposed him to this, and the general consensus seems to be that that explanation works as well as anything else we've heard. No doubt some amongst you are thinking, well, he should have pursued natural alternatives, and no wonder this happened, all those toxic chemicals. Tsk. To which all I can say is, not in this case. He had AML, a particularly aggressive form of leukemia that was simply too fast-acting for natural remedies to have any time to take effect. In addition to that, he was availing himself of natural options as well: daily berry yoghurt shakes, free-range meat and eggs, organic produce, macrobiotic cereal, a spice rack loaded with all the good stuff and liberally used, too. He wasn't neglecting the psychological side of things either: positive thinking, visualization, anything and everything he could do, he did.

There are no guarantees. No matter what, when your number's up, it's up.

By the beginning of the last week the family gathering included all of his children, and several of his brothers and sisters and assorted spouses, some of whom made the journey down despite their own health issues. A meeting with the medical team had the women of the family in tears, because the sad fact was, none of them had ever seen anyone pull out of the downward spiral he'd entered, and while a thin window of hope was still open it was closing rapidly.

I'd noticed - and maybe this was just wishful thinking - that while his condition seemed to remain stable during the day, it most often decayed overnight. Perhaps, I thought, this was because during the day we were with him and at night we weren't, and so we got a room at the hospital, and set up a watch, all through the night.

The first night we did that, I prepared myself with a short meditation in the interfaith chapel, just down the hall from the ICU. There was a painting on the wall, an abstract piece that my sister thought resembled a sunset, but which looked to me like an open, festering and infected wound. With that image in my mind, I did what I could to heal it. I centered myself, and all at once in one of those flashes that anyone who meditates is well aquainted with, I asked what was next for him, if this was really it. The answer came simultaneous with the question: on the day he would die, a woman in Africa would be raped by a soldier, and she would conceive. Nine months later my father would be born into his new life, one that will start with hardships but see him rise to a position of great influence, from where he will do a great deal of good. This, then, was why he was pulled away from us at such a young age, with so much still to live for. Not to go 'to a better place', as the callow ladies from his church tried to assure my mother, but because he was called by a higher duty, to a troubled land in great need of what he had to offer.

We never gave up. Not until the very end, when his blood oxygen had fallen so low that brain damage had set in. Every night (for during the day, with relatives about, I had little opportunity) I was in there with him, holding his hand, another hand on his head, trying to turn love into positive energy to channel through his crown chakra, to give him the strength he needed to pull through. My sisters were doing the same. It was a losing struggle, and I knew it. We all did, though none of us were willing to say it. We had to keep fighting until the very end, because that's what he would have done but ... sedated ... there was very little fight left in him and so, we had to fight for him in whatever way we could.

It took a lot out of all of us. In my case, I wasn't eating right, or getting enough sleep, and emotionally, I was a wreck. That's not healthy under the best of conditions and the petri dish of infectious bacteria known as the ICU is not the best of conditions and so, by the end, I'd picked up some kind of bug. Or several kinds. My throat felt like I was gargling with broken glass, I was running a high fever, I was coughing up blood whenever I cleared my nostrils and then the diarrhea hit. I was falling apart on the outside as well as the inside.

On the last day his eldest brother flew out from British Columbia, to see him one last time. It was clear by then that he wasn't coming back, and when I was in the room with him, looking at his still body with its proliferation of tubes, racks of IVs, monitors, bundles of wires ... it wasn't him ... it was a piece of meat, shaped like my father but no more than a parody of the man. The family consulted, and the decision was unanimous. My father would not have wanted to live that way, for if there was one thing he was not it was a coward. Once everyone had said their goodbyes, the tubes were withdrawn.

I was there for his final breath. It sounded like he was snoring.

The wake went much longer than planned. Hundreds of people in a line snaking all the through the funeral home, waiting an hour and a half to give their condolances. The next day, the funeral procession was given a police escort, a cruiser in front and a black truck in back which I first thought was some poor bastard who'd gotten stuck behind us, and later found out was the TRU* team. It was a full military funeral, held in the regimental chapel, presided over by a minister who'd earned his jump wings back in the day and was an old, close friend of my father. A 21 gun salute and every time they played the bagpipes I found out that I wasn't all cried out, after all.

Well, now you know where I've been this past month, and why I haven't felt much like writing. In fact this is the first thing I've written all month ... except for his eulogy.

*TRU = Tactical Response Unit, essentially a SWAT team but, this being Canada, we do everything a bit different here.


Anonymous said...

So sorry to hear of your profound loss, Psychegram. Other than losing a child, losing a parent is a tremendously wrenching.

May your father rest in peace!

su said...

There is nothing I can say beyond my thoughts are with you.
And what a lucky man he was to have had such love from so many.
May your dance with grief be as moving and profound as your dance with joy.

nina said...

I missed you. I thought you'd given up on blogging as some do, to get out there and live real life, which is what you've been doing. So I am glad to see you, in any condition and this condition you are in is very strong. Sending my heartfelt condolences to you.
Love, nina

Anonymous said...

Difficult to know what to say, especially for a guy who rarely has a shortage of words-- but just know that I am thinking about you and yours today--
Thank you for sharing in such a difficult time--From your words, may we gain wisdom and compassion--


Penny said...

sorry for your loss.