This Easter is temporally juxtaposed with dying
None of this is about me so forgive the awkward wording when I state that I have two men in my immediate sphere that may not see Resurrection Sunday from their place on this mortal coil. One is a friend, just a couple of years older than me, and the other is my father in law, who, when I first met him nearly 30 years ago, was the age that the aforementioned friend is now.
In the Late 80’s I worked in the energy business in Dallas. My employer was a Belgian oil company with a midsized American presence. There were refineries, petrochemical plants, and high concentrations of retail gasoline/convenience store outlets in certain U.S. cities. Like Dallas. The company had a quirky bragging right due to the HQ building appearing in the canned video sequence that opened every episode of the TV show Dallas.
It was not my first job. They recruited me from another local petchem company. When I started I naturally gravitated to similar aged engineers to make friends and learn the ropes. Nick and Jason (not real names) were the business development guys. Nick was an accountant and Jason a Chemical Engineer like me. The three of us were comfortable together quickly and became fast friends.
A few years later Jason left the company and moved to Houston to work as a speculator trading petrochems. Nick stayed and moved progressively up the ladder in various commercial jobs at the Dallas based oil company.
I left Dallas a couple of years later, providentially going to Houston as well and replacing Jason at the petrochem trading company. Jason moved on to build his own businesses as well as to take a position as a director in a major commodity chemical producing company. He holds that job still today, and I buy his commodity from his company. He and I have always had business together.
Jason hosts a fishing trip in South Louisiana near Lake Charles each October. He has for 18 years. Because I am a customer I often accept the invite. I did last fall. When I arrived I found Nick was also included and was my roommate for the few days we’d be there. Like summer camp he and I would lay awake a bit and catch up on life. Where are the kids in college? How is your wife? How about the rest of the family that is in Fort Worth? Nick had eventually moved to Houston as well and done very well. In fact he was retired at 56.
Jason had invited him along because he knew many of the others who attend, including me.
It was my good fortune, because a short 10 days later he was rushed to the hospital for emergency brain surgery. It seemed he’s had an aneurism or similar and that the Drs. saved him. A week or so later Nick’s wife revealed the cause of the bleeding. Nick has brain cancer, and after consulting many experts was told there is no treatment to halt or even slow it.
I traveled to Houston to see him a few weeks back. I will pick up the story of my visit with him when I tie Nick’s story to the one that I will tell next.
The Father in Law
Fall 1989, I met my wife in a bar. Yea, I know, that’s why I love saying it. To split hairs, it wasn’t a club, and maybe it wasn’t even a bar. Not that it matters whatsoever, but if it must be classified I would say pub or tavern. One where eight-ball and nine-ball was played on a table that took quarters. Even better if three-ball was occasion ally played and if all of those were played for money.
Both sad and true, I was a promising pool player from a young age. That was a side effect of living in a mobile home behind the bar where my mother worked. Though I didn’t play with intensity, I played seriously. Winning some cash as well as the always important all-night command of the table were the drivers. Dispatching challengers with a buddy who filled the slot of “doubles partner” and not really bothering with anything else in the place.
A girl watched me play for a long time. When her bored friends finally moved to another part of the place she spoke to me first. She became my wife almost 26 years ago. Now her father is dying.
I met him first at a family Thanksgiving meal in 1989. Overt Christians scared me then. I was from Ohio. This was rural Texas. The differences seemed insurmountable. There were to be more than thirty people present. I drove an ’87 Corvette and worried that would reduce my chances of not being judged. I was relieved as little boys that would one day be cousins to my kids chased the car up the gravel drive, excited to see it.
My father in law is in most ways a reliable man. He can be relied on to not show anger, to not worry or fret, to always give thanks to God, to remind others….strangers and intimates, that there is a savior that loves them. He is profoundly cheerful. He is cheerful in a manner that seems it would appeal to children more than others. But because it is joy pouring off him it lifts the spirits of those around him. He seems to have a short attention span, not dwelling much on any topic. He is a man that talks a lot, non-stop, yet paradoxically I’d call him a man of few words. That is because he doesn’t suffer fools and when non-fools disagree he refuses to bog down in debate. It makes him intractable. It makes him reliable.
Except that he could be relied on to suddenly change jobs and uproot the family, or for him to disappear to South Africa for instance where he spent months helping set up dairy farms. He spent many years as a long haul trucker. And he truly fed the poor and widows, taking people into his home for long periods of time, offering jobs that he couldn’t afford in the budget of the dairy equipment business he owned and ran for a while. You get the picture.
This left them penniless and dependent on the small social security benefit he and his wife receive. The kids all contribute to keep them afloat.
He will die in days expressed in single digits. I saw him Thursday morning as I was leaving. He is in a hospital bed in his master bedroom, his hair brittle and white, his lips drooping into his mouth as he sleeps on his back and his cheeks sunken and hollow like the countless men I’ve seen as I walked through hospitals or nursing homes during my life, peering into a dim room to see a man’s head and blankets, the head appearing arched backwards and his mouth agape, him being nameless and seeming to be the same man every time in every facility across all those years.
Now that man is in my father in law’s bedroom and my father in law is elsewhere.
He was here at my home last May to watch my wife, his daughter, as she graduated from college at 49 years old. My sons and I had to help him into the arena for the graduation. He used a walker and move d slowly. But he was OK. Not so much just nine months later. He laughed at a joke I made, and he winked at me as a response to another comment, then just that quick the brilliant blue eyes went opaque again. They are mostly opaque. Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. He is in shut down. A bite of food every other day, water dribbled from a sponge. I had to leave Thursday morning to come back home. I had to say goodbye.
I took his hand in mine, in the posture of a handshake like men do, and I wept as I spoke the things that should be said to the dying according to how they are known to you. I praised him and his family and his faith and made it known that he had inspired me and that him telling me over the years that he was proud of me, that meant so much in the absence of a father of my own to have said it.
I don’t know if his eyes have been watering, I hadn’t seen it, but as I spoke and cried a tear slid from his right eye and sat there on his desiccated cheek. It was there as I walked from the room into the group of others waiting outside the door while I had my time with him.
I Cannot Not Notice
The two situations, Nick’s and FILs, crashed together when my wife told me that her mother had fallen across her father on his death bed and wept, telling him what an amazing husband and father and man he was and that she’d be lost without him.
I recalled my visit to Nick’s hospital room, Forgive this indelicate description but it is an important detail. Nicks cancer has grown outside of the skull from the place where they did the surgery. He has a softball sized mass on one side of his head. His left side is paralyzed but he gripped my right in a firm handshake when I arrived. He is not in pain so no medication. He is 100% lucid and himself.
His wife had disallowed two prior attempts I made to visit. This time I basically told her I was going, and went. She met me in the lobby and yammered about how I needed to turn off my phone and not let Nick see that I had it because he wanted to use a phone or a laptop and she “didn’t want him worrying about stuff he would read or see online”. Odd, but OK then. Phone off, in pocket.
She perched over Nicks other side and talked nonstop. Nick said a couple of things and then closed his eyes. She ushered me out after 30 minutes.
I contacted Jason who stays closer to the situation and he told me that Nick’s wife has been over the top controlling things. Nick wants to go home and die. She told Jason that she didn’t want people in her home. Jason brought Nick a milkshake. She tried to take it away saying sugars promote cancer growth. For the record, if a terminal lung cancer patient wants a cigarette I say smokem if ya gottem. All the more Nick and his shake.
She developed the ban on electronic device s because she feared Nick would fuss with their financial accounts. Keep in mind he is a money handling professional. Jason had asked her why she didn’t just change the passwords and let him have some way to communicate. There may be folks he could have dialog with that cannot come see him. And the accounts could be blocked. She said she just didn’t want him worried about stuff. So, she even asked the staff to keep him off the visitor lounge public use PCs that have internet access.
Jason said that he and some others were forming a group to do a kind of intervention with Nick’s wife where they pressure her to release her iron grip on Nicks last weeks. Because I’d met her many years prior and not really known her in the twenty plus years between, I didn’t know that she was so overbearing. Jason says it was bad, very bad, but that Nick is like most men, lean in and persevere, and he kept his cheerful attitude and his integrity as they raised their family. Now he will die any day.
I’ve described before how my MIL was outwardly unkind to my FIL over the years. She rejected the most basic of affection. If he took her hand she shook him off, if he sat beside her and put his arm across the back of the couch she’d scoot away far enough where it looked awkward and he’d take it down. A hug from him was his arms around her as her arms hung limply and she twisted her face away. As his illness progressed she would berate him for tryi8ng to get attention by shuffling his feet. That was how his Parkinson’s manifested. She was mean to him until maybe six months ago when he suffered a noticeable cognitive decline. He would mumble and point to things only he could see. Sometimes he could have a two sentence exchange with another person then quickly fade out.
She persisted in meanness until she saw that he was unaware of it.
Now she weeps and tells him he is the best ever. I do not think she connects the dots. I do not think her anguish is born of regret for the things I described. I believe she has bent reality for 60 years and that what she sees behind her is not what really happened. He needed to be chided and corrected. He was bigger in his faith because of her faith. That’s a plausible alternate reality for her.
Nick’s wife cannot relinquish control even as Nick’s time runs out. I wonder if he becomes comatose if she will have an epiphany and an emotional outpouring of praise for Nick, apologizing for her controlling nature even unto his death. I doubt it. She has bent reality as well and would see all of her control as the reason for so much good that has occurred in their lives. She raised the family, which includes Nick. She raised Nick too. That’s a plausible alternate reality for her.
My oldest son raised the observation about my FIL. He had noticed the pattern. He has awareness of these things beyond his years. I hope I have not created pure cynicism in him rather than a red pill based way of looking at the context of things.
How sad it makes me to have a red pill view of these lives ending. I want to reprimand myself and put these foolish thoughts away as trivial. That cannot be what is important here. Can it?