Thursday, November 16, 2006

The world is a lesser place.

Well, I'm getting a whole spitload of tools, some nice wood, and a lump in my throat. My Dad passed away last Wednesday after 12 years fighting cancer. As immensely strong as he was - he ran the Chicago Marathon in 1984 - the beast is patient and implacable, and found his liver almost three years ago. I'm sure all too many of you know that once cancer takes hold there, the war is ultimately lost.

His end was startlingly abrupt. I visited my parents (they live some 8 hours away) on November 1, a few days after hearing that the last medical treatment (a clinical trial aimed at expanding the use of an anti-angiogenesis drug that shows great promise) was not going to help, as the side effects were just too much. He enrolled in the local hospice program within a day or so after that decision.

On November 1, I was pleased to help my Dad get to the weekly Wednesday night pizza dinner with all their runner friends. He was easily tired, but could get around with a cane, and was happy to see a lot of long-time friends outside of home. The next day, I went with both my parents to an appointment with his oncologist; Dr. Veeder was really surprised at how well my Dad seemed to be doing, and didn't see a need to see him again for another month.

My Mom and I had to help him with a lot of things, but he was stubborn and determined to do as much as possible for himself. We kept telling him to save his waning energy for the things he wanted to do, and to let us do the things he had to do, like moving from one chair to another. He made it into his little workshop on Saturday, and did a bit of his favorite activity out there - puttering around. A little electric heater kept away the November chill.

Sunday was another banner day; my Mom, still an active runner, went to the regular Sunday morning running group. My wife and son had joined us the evening before, and with them, we took my Dad over to the house where these long-time friends were finishing their run, so he could eat the post-exercise goodies and share their companionship. Many of these folks have known my parents for nearly 30 years, and have spent literally thousands of miles together, on foot or on a bike. They are family, more so even than the blood relatives.

Monday, November 6, I had to get back to work, so we packed up our car. I knew my Dad was declining; I'd seen change every day, as he slept more, and had to spend more and more time gathering himself to make the smallest move. Worse, though relative to other cancer victims he was in little pain, the morphine he took was starting to affect his mental processes. My Dad was valedictorian of his high-school class, got straight A's at Harvard, and spent 29 years as an educator; it was painful to hear him explain something and realize that I couldn't follow him. But he was still so strong; he hauled himself up out of the wheelchair we'd finally convinced him to use so he could hug me before we drove away.

At work I told everyone how encouraged I was, that I'd have more time with my Dad. I was afraid of that time - I watched my maternal grandfather wither away from cancer two years ago, and thinking of my Dad going through that was terrifying - but it would have been more time. The emails I got from my Mom were uniformly bad on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Wednesday afternoon she said to call. I did from the relative safety of my car in the parking lot at work. He was in a hospital bed at home, and the hospice nurse, so experienced with death, said it would likely be only seven to ten days. So I gathered myself, and made mental plans to clear stuff out at work and head back to be with them.

Wednesday, I worked outside, blowing late oak leaves into piles, letting the roar of the blower drown out my brain's overactivity. Darkness and my son's bedtime brought me inside. I read him a story, and got myself ready to shower and head to bed.

In retrospect it seem appropriate that the phone rang while I was, y'know, reading a tool catalog (Duluth Trading Company) on the can, butt naked. There are woodworking magazines and catalogs in every bathroom at my parent's house. I suppose it sort of softened the impact, the shock, to hear that horrible news in what ultimately is sort of a comical setting. He'd obviously saved all his last energy to see me, my wife, and his grandson; even the hospice nurse was so shocked that, when she heard, she could only say "you're KIDDING!" before recovering her professionalism. He'd shown basically none of the signs of imminent death, but when it happened, my Mom was at his side, and dear friends at the other.

We are ultimately spared the agony of seeing my Dad failing so badly. My grandfather was in terrible pain before he finally entered hospice; he fell several times, and once my aunt, helping him back up, actually cracked one of his ribs. He had been strong and vigorous, a golfer who shot his age into his 80s, but ended up curled up in a hospital bed so doped up that my last visit with him was basically just listening to him mutter. I don't know how I could have handled experiencing my Dad in that same state. My Mom feels the same way; they were high-school sweethearts, and would have been married 40 years in 2007.

The memorial service was nice, but unremarkable. My Mom and I thought it was too heavy on scripture, but they preferred to spend Sunday mornings running with their friends to sitting in church, so it's not surprising that the minister didn't really know him. The reception - "Celebration of Life" - was nearly perfect, though. After 29 years working with the same people, they KNEW him, and could simultaneously praise and roast him in a way that he would have loved. His field, recent Middle Eastern political history, is incredibly complex, and he was almost unique in that he wasn't partisan in his approach. In his personal library, I find subjects from Zionism to Wahhibism, from colonialism to the current news. Many of his books are in Arabic, which he could read and speak, though not as much recently.

For all his intellectual and scholarly power, though, he ultimately made his reputation as a helper of others. I think the most powerful praise came from a younger women, who said, emphasizing with a fist gently pounded on the podium, that my Dad was the first man she'd ever met who truly believed that women were the equals of men. He spent several years in the advising center, working with at-risk students, helping them to find their own abilities rather than telling them what they'd already heard.

I don't mean to ramble, but it's hard not to (and not only because I've got so much academia in my genes, or cheap wine in my blood, for that matter). My Dad was extraordinary, and I learned a lot about just how much so in the last few days. I've been hugged by so many people, people I'd never met who had tears streaming down their faces, people who credit him with their careers, people who he helped realize that it's actually possible to do something you love with your life.

The world is diminished.