IN THE BEGINNING
For those of you who are joining me for this piece, I’m going to tell you something I haven’t told anyone yet. Not in two years. I won’t tell all. No one wants that. But I’ll tell you what happened, I’ll tell you what it did to me, what it made me, and I’ll tell you why I became more or less an atheist who knows hell is for real.
In May 2011 my dad was diagnosed with cancer. By the time he got around to getting it checked out it was only because he suddenly lost the use of the left half of his body. Like…the whole thing: face, arm, leg, foot, etc. It all went numb. So I guess he figured he should find out why. At some point, I don’t know how long after his diagnosis, he called my Aunt who called my Grandma, who both eventually called me. I was working an event in Colorado Springs, surrounded by hundreds of people, when I found out my dad had lung cancer that spread to his brain – hence the loss of feeling in his body. It was surreal, and I’m not sure I really understood what it meant. I just knew it wasn’t good. I wouldn’t find out how not good until about nine months later.
So I organized my team to continue the event without me, I went home, and I bought a plane ticket – despite my dad feeling, and voicing the feeling, that it was unnecessary.
I ended up staying at a place called the Acorn Motel which, in the 80’s and 90’s when I lived on Whidbey Island, was a sad looking sort of rent-by-the-hour kind of place. At least that’s how I remember it. But some time before 2011 it was gutted and remodeled on the inside. The small-town rumor-mill said it was because there was a meth-cooking operation working out of the place and that was the purpose for the management selling and the incoming owners remodeling. I’m sure I could look that up, but I’d prefer to live in blissful ignorance in this instance, because the place is gorgeous on the inside now and one of the only affordable places to stay on the island. And I just recommended it to my mom. 😉
My Aunt arrived first to size up the situation, and I flew in with my Gram a little later. By the time we joined my Aunt, I’m pretty sure she and my dad had just about driven each other crazy, the way siblings will do. I’m sure now that I don’t know all of the reasons why, and as curious and truth-demanding as I am, in this case I’m okay with being in the dark. I like to think it’s because my dad is a lot like me – fiercely independent, stubborn at the most inopportune times, completely uncomfortable being vulnerable, and all but incapable of dealing with emotion or asking for help.
And then there was the issue that all of that was compounded by the fact that he was dying. And he knew it. I can only imagine what that’s like. I always figured it would be best if I didn’t see my death coming, but now I’m absolutely committed to doing everything I
WHAT ARE WE DOING TODAY, DAD?
My dad worked construction – drywall mostly – my whole life. He tells me that when I was a little girl he would ask me if I wanted to go to the babysitter or go with daddy, and of course I always opted to go with daddy. And so started a long tradition of me deferring to him for the day’s entertainment. In 28 years nothing had changed, so I asked him every morning what was the plan for the day. Predictably, the loss of his left side did nothing to deter his independence. He retained the idea that he could do absolutely anything he did before – with some slight adjustments. What used to be jeans, button-up shirts (flannel in my youth, and then inexplicably a collection of Jimmy Buffet-esque types), and lace-up sneakers or boots he opted for sweats and the old school Reeboks with the Velcro straps. He called them his ‘old man shoes,” but little did he know there was an entire song out there about “the Reeboks with the straps” (T-pain/Flo-Rida). Not exactly my dad’s preferred genre, nor do I think he would appreciate Apple Bottom jeans. Or boots with the fur. But in retrospect I think maybe I should have played it for him – it might have made him laugh, and I live to make people laugh. Especially people who need to.
There was a lot of eating, because my dad would be undergoing chemo therapy, so the doctor gave him a license to eat before the treatment started in hopes that he would have enough weight to lose when the time came. I’m pretty sure I get my love of good food from my dad, too, because he took that license and used it every chance he got. But I will say, there’s nothing quite as simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious as watching “The One Armed Man” (as we started calling him…mostly out of earshot) try to eat a whole sandwich one-handed without destroying it in the process. I’m sure it pissed him off, because we have the same awful temper and it probably would have pissed me off, too. But you gotta get your levity where you can, ya know?
And don’t worry – he got back at us.
For example, we undertook three projects while I was in the island: dismantling his old wooden porch stairs (a new one with a ramp was getting put in by the Lions Club so dad could drag his dead leg around and still get into the trailer), cutting the wood scraps into firewood and kindling (the man had the fire burning all the time – I think he liked to watch the flames), and setting up a sort of mini-lean-to for his tomato plants in the back yard.
Did I mention this is a man who doesn’t like to ask for help?
When dismantling the porch stairs, I was not – I repeat NOT – allowed to wield the crow bar. I could hold the stairs, and I could occasionally swing the hammer, but there would be no crowbarring. That was dad’s job. (Is there an emoticon for eye-rolling/sighing? Because I feel as though that’s appropriate here.) Exasperation isn’t an adequate word, but I’m his little girl and would therefore do anything for him. So I held the stairs and let the One Armed Man do the heavy lifting. Eventually we got it ripped apart, and I was allowed to make kindling out of the small pieces.
But there were still some long 2X4’s, other large pieces, and random scraps laying around the yard that we then had to cut down to size for firewood.
With a circular saw.
My job? Hold the wood.
I fed it into the machine while my dad sat on an overturned 5-gallon drywall bucket while working the handle of the saw (which of course wasn’t mounted to anything – just sitting on the ground – because that’s how he rolls), dead arm dangling precariously near the saw blade, buzzing through each piece as I fed it through. You might be wondering where my Aunt and Gram were during all of this. They, knowing as I knew that resistance was futile, retired to the living room to wait and listen for the blood curdling scream that followed my dad’s left arm getting caught in the saw blade. Mind you, it would have been my blood curdling scream because of course my dad’s left arm was completely lifeless, and he likely wouldn’t have noticed until he started getting light-headed.
Thankfully, he eventually let me tuck his arm behind his back and we finished the job with all critical appendages intact.
And thus ended the most stressful 30 minutes of my life.
IT GETS BETTER.
After that, putting together a make-shift “green house” for his tomato plants was child’s play. Still devastating and hysterical, but much less blood pressure-raising. This project only involved moving around yet more 5-gallon buckets (always a favorite tool of any drywall man), a railroad tie or two, and stapling a roll of plastic from the wall of the trailer to the railroad ties opposite. This is why I say devastating and hysterical: Imagine Quazimoto or Igor – minus the use of the entire left side of their bodies – moving buckets full of dirt and plants from one area to another over grass, weeds, and uneven ground, all the while their left arm swinging wildly and left leg acting as nothing more than an unstable kickstand every other step while a helpless young woman (that would be me) looks on, well…helplessly. Even now the memory makes me laugh, cry, feel sick , smile, and bang my head against my keyboard. It’s just one of those moments that were so…HIM.
We did projects, we went on picnics, we cruised around the island (gorgeous in the summer, suicide capital of the nation the other 9 months of the year), watched TV/movies, fed his birds (parakeets inside, chickadees outside), loved on his weird little cat black cat (Boo), ate a lunch at the bar, and conducted a few doctors visits.
I didn’t remember it until just this second, but the first time we went to the hospital – I think we were hearing about his treatment plan or something; be reminded I was still being treated like a child and not like the capable adult woman I am, so I wasn’t involved in this very secret squirrel meetings – we were driving away when dad started seizing. It wasn’t the first time, and I’m sure it wasn’t his last, but it was the one I saw, and it brought home the gravity of the situation in a very real way. Even more alarming was that no one did anything. I know there was nothing the medical staff could do, but when an entire building of doctors and nurses won’t lift a finger to help it’s kind of like going to war without weapons knowing you’ll fail the mission.
All the while, my dad was on a host of medications which eventually had steroids added to it to help shrink the tumor in his brain. And Xanax. You know, because how else do you function knowing you’re living on borrowed time?
The morning we left, just my Gram and me, my dad woke up around 3:00 AM in a pretty bad state. By the time we were ready to leave I felt like the biggest failure of a human being that ever walked the earth. I said goodbye, hoping it wouldn’t be the last time, held back the tears, and walked away. Because that’s how we Cawthra’s roll – head high, back straight, emotions repressed. I drove away in the dark, away from the house of horrors, away from the island I love, the people on it who mean so much to me, and away from dad. I don’t think I’ll ever fully forgive myself for not doing what I wanted to do: turn the car around and see it through. Sure, there’s plenty of excuses not to – work, home, family, bills, obligations – but I’ll never get that time back. I’ll never get to say I was there for him when he needed me.
That was May.
By the dead of summer, my dad’s brain tumor had shrunk. He had the full use of his body again. His meds seemed to be helping him, and he was preparing for his chemo treatments. My Aunt was able to go home, having left a few friends in place to call us if things got bad. Things were really looking up, and I felt again the rising of my hero, my dad, the man in the flannel shirts that took the place of the red cape he should really be wearing. We used to joke that “hell didn’t want him, and hell was afraid he’d take over.” Looked like it was true. And I thought, “Holy shit – the son of bitch is gonna beat this thing! There’s actually a chance. He really is the toughest man on earth.”
And then he died.
See? I told you’d there’d be a Part 2.