Saturday, July 20, 2013

May the Circle be Unbroken: Hanging with Dad in the Hospital and the Corners of My Mind.

I flew into Houston Monday. This wasn’t a trip I wanted to take.  Each trip the last few years has gotten harder.  Most of my friends in Texas are elsewhere, in Dallas or Austin.  Yet, somehow Dad found himself in Houston, which is really a shell of a city, an isolated geography Dad moved to so Beverly, his wife could be near her family when her Alzheimer’s kicked in.  Of course, they stopped seeing her as soon as she arrived.  For me, it is also bitter sweet.  So many memories of my childhood in Texas are that way. We have not had a house in Dallas near my friends for a quarter of a century.  My parents sold that house after they split up, the divorce an exclamation point to a decade there, leaving only the memories of a house my friends pass by in Dallas, a place I no longer call home.  And I have gradually become distant with that part of my life, a  trips to see Dad and drive around Texas and those who I see on reunions or on their way through NYC.   I still love Texas.  But the places where I could go to be home are gone from here.  Someone else lives there.  My mom moved away.  Dad left, only to return to Houston where he’s gradually showed down.

Dad's memorabilia of a lifetime of travel. 

Driving to the airport, a friend texted saying there was  radio show on Woody Guthrie.  Listening to “So Long Its Been Good to Know You” and his other anthems, it felt good to be going back to the Southwest where so many of the dust bowl ballads were born. 

So Long, Its Been Good To Know Yuh
(Dusty Old Dust)
Words and Music by Woody Guthrie

I've sung this song, but I'll sing it again,
Of the place that I lived on the wild windy plains,
In the month called April, county called Gray,
And here's what all of the people there say:
CHORUS: So long, it's been good to know yuh;
So long, it's been good to know yuh;
So long, it's been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-gettin' my home,
And I got to be driftin' along.
A dust storm hit, an' it hit like thunder;
It dusted us over, an' it covered us under;
Blocked out the traffic an' blocked out the sun,
Straight for home all the people did run,
We talked of the end of the world, and then
We'd sing a song an' then sing it again.
We'd sit for an hour an' not say a word,
And then these words would be heard:
Sweethearts sat in the dark and sparked,
They hugged and kissed in that dusty old dark.
They sighed and cried, hugged and kissed,
Instead of marriage, they talked like this:
Now, the telephone rang, an' it jumped off the wall,
That was the preacher, a-makin' his call.
He said, "Kind friend, this may the end;
An' you got your last chance of salvation of sin!"
The churches was jammed, and the churches was packed,
An' that dusty old dust storm blowed so black.
Preacher could not read a word of his text,
An' he folded his specs, an' he took up collection,
So long, it's been good to know yuh;
So long, it's been good to know yuh;
So long, it's been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-gettin' my home,
And I got to be driftin' along.

The show aired the Carter family playing “When  the World’s on Fire” which Woody Guthrie borrowed as the melody for This Land is Your Land.  Good artists borrow, great artists steal.  And so Woody stole this tune.  The Carter family did not seem to mind.  Their music conjures another world of a seemingly distant past. 

Old pictures of Dad fishing with his brother Kirk, and bottom with their parents looking along. 

Listening to the family sound I recalled listening a similar group sing "Will the Circle be Unbroken" with Dad at a hootenanny in South Georgia years before.  “This is a great old one,” Dad exclaimed, embracing a bit of his roots.  It was nice to be see Dad embrace who he was and where he came from instead of rejecting it and everyone around him.  The old songs felt so comforting. 

I was standing by my window, 
On one cold and cloudy day 
When I saw that hearse come rolling 
For to carry my mother away 

Will the circle be unbroken 
By and by, Lord, by and by 
There's a better home a-waiting 
In the sky, Lord, in the sky 

I said to that undertaker 
Undertaker please drive slow 
For this lady you are carrying 
Lord, I hate to see here go 

Will the circle be unbroken 
By and by, Lord, by and by 
There's a better home a-waiting 
In the sky, Lord, in the sky 

Oh, I followed close behind her 
Tried to hold up and be brave 
But I could not hide my sorrow 
When they laid her in the grave 

Will the circle be unbroken 
By and by, Lord, by and by 
There's a better home a-waiting 
In the sky, Lord, in the sky 

I went back home, my home was lonesome 
Missed my mother, she was gone 
All of my brothers, sisters crying 
What a home so sad and lone 

Will the circle be unbroken 
By and by, Lord, by and by 
There's a better home a-waiting 
In the sky, Lord, in the sky 

We sang the songs of childhood 
Hymns of faith that made us strong 
Ones that Mother Maybelle taught us 
Hear the angels sing along 

Will the circle be unbroken 
By and by, Lord, by and by 
There's a better home a-waiting 
In the sky, Lord, in the sky 

Will the circle be unbroken 
By and by, Lord, by and by 
There's a better home a-waiting 
In the sky, Lord, in the sky

Called Dad in the airport, hoping, maybe possibly that I was going to be able to hang out with him at his home and not the hospital.  He sounded in a daze, like he was still in the hospital.  My heart sank.  Arriving in Texas, I always love looking at the big Texas skies and driving.  Sitting waiting for my ride, I thought about the other times when he picked me up to go to Mexico, San Antonio, Galveston, Austin, New Orleans, Dallas, Bastrop, where his grandmother went to school, or wherever else the road might take us.  But not this time. This time, we’d be going to the hospital.  And those trips with him seemed like a thing of the past.   He was not leaving the hospital this time. 

Linda drove us to the hospital.  Walking up to his room, apprehension gripped.  Dad was laying bed, tubes all over his emaciated form.  Looking at me with his bad left eye, he barely recognized me.  After a period of disorientation, we talked about life, health, and what he was going to do. His lungs had lost fifteen percent of their capacity.  His heart needing a pacemaker, blind in the left eye and kidneys off and on and off functioning.  Did he feel like he could take the dialysis, we asked him. 

“You are not mentioning the human cost, the pain,” he explained.  This was more pain than wanted to endure.  Said by a man who had gone through a lot of pain, we all heard these words.  Was he going to stay on dialysis?  Or go without?  Was he going to live with pain or shuffle off this mortal coil?   Dad was not able to get up or do much without aid.  After dinner, he asked for a nap.  And we left.
I have never seen him barely recognize me.  Linda and I went for dinner and talked about final things.  

When I woke the next day, I walked around the house,  looked at the trees in the back without Dad around.

Trees in the house in back. 

Dad was not here.  Only memories of Dad being here.  Letters from his father from decades prior imploring Dad to fulfill his obligation to military service, but acknowledging Dad could and should do whatever he wanted.  Pictures of Dad at the beach, running off to San Francisco to be a Beat poet and be his own person, someone different than his father and the violence his father could not shake of the war.

Dad's bookshelf of memories, beat poetry, journals, and antiques.

Looking at his books and old pictures, those struggles felt so alive.

My phone started ringing.  And a few friends from high school called, worried about Dad. Reconnecting with the old circle at this moment when we were thinking of the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning – that felt right. Jogging in the sun, it felt good to breath and talk and be alive.

By lunchtime, I was back at the hospital and he talked with me for ten mins before he needed to sleep again. He’d wake for fifteen minutes then sleep then wake and chat.

We talked about the Trayvon Martin Verdict.  And the ways its hard not to think of Rodney King or Amadou Diallo or the other nights like that, the Sunday before I left, when these sorts of things happen.

“The Criminal justice system is a sham, its falling apart,” Dad retorted. “Reminds me of the guy who was reaching for his wallet and they shot him…”
“Amadou Diallo.”

We looked at some pictures of the family trip to Puerto Rico. One of the doctors walked in and informed everyone that  his kidneys were coming back.  He wasn't that sure if Dad would need to go further with dialysis. So we talked, excited for a second.  And Dad took another nap. 

“This naps feels wonderful,” he confessed, laying his head down, with a smile, enjoying a
big nap…
Half hour later, I came back from a walk and he was waking from a nap.  Asked me for a beer.   We laughed.  Maybe not, my body is in a miraculous recovery, he marveled.  It’s a miracle.

            In between, we hung out, talked, he sat up, napped, sat down.
            Coming back from a walk, he was sitting with the nurse, who was helping him out.
            “What do you want to do?” she asked wondering where he wanted help sitting.
            “Where do you want to sit?  You are the boss.”
            “I want to sleep with you.” He chimed in.   Maybe he was coming back. 

They both laughed.  We all laughed.  We’d been talking about his paper, “THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE CARTOUCHE IN SHAFTESBURY'S CHARACTERISTICKS” from English Language Notes March 1976.  I had found it that morning.  

“[D]oughtful of heavy philosophical material in meeting the philosophical needs of the age,” explained Dad in his paper. “On the more positive side, … close use of reason combined with humor was possibly the only method for countering the Hobbes’ pernicious but disturbingly plausible theories,” (p.182).  His point was we needed to embrace an abiding love of laughter, not a stern scowl or warfare. So laughter is a way to stave off war and violence.  Looking at his old essay I was starting to see some of the foundations for my love of the philosophical underpinnings of play.  “Whats at stake in this essay is the primacy between two large world views of man: the peaceful harmonious one of Shaftesbury or the warlike one of Hobbes.  In this struggle Shaftesbury, for all of his geniality and good humor, is entirely and eminently serious,” (p.184). In this struggle Dad has always been eminently serious, even if today he is a little tired. 

“I’m so tired.,” he explained rolling over for another nap. 

We eventually left the hospital and went back home.  I looked at old letters and photos.  Correspondence with his Dad, letters from prep school and college.

Over the years and trips back to Texas, mostly we just drove. 

Some days he lamented what became of his life on our long road trips.  And in recent years he was filled with a sense of grace, of appreciation for Linda and her family coming into his life.

The next morning it rained.  I sat thinking, walking looking at photos and his books.  Tourist posters from the 1960’s, “Afghanistan Passport to Peace” hand on the walls.  Those days of romping around Afghanistan in the late 1960's with Mom and Fred, they were some of his happiest days. Looking at pictures, I think about Dad’s adventures away from Georgia to Harvard, San Francisco, back to the army, and Harvard and Princeton, and eventually back to the South where he would spend final four decades of his life, in between trips here and there, sojourns to Chicago and Los Angeles and Santa Fe.  

Photo of Dad at Fort Benning Georgia and a painting he found in Santa Fe.

Looking at his bookshelf, I wonder if we’ll ever talk about those books again.  Yesterday in the hospital, unlike the previous trip, I could barely elicit a response about literature.  But he loved listening to Tchaikovsky.  So we just listened. We listened to Tchaikovsky. His best friend Fred loved this.  “And I loved Fred,” he confessed. 

And I put on Beethoven.  "Are you still rebel rousing?"  he asked me, perking up.
"Sure am Dad."
"Whats gonna be your legacy?"
"I don't know, same as you - kids, some activism, a life hopefully well lived."
"What about you?"
"Well, of the cannon, the best answer is from Beethoven," he answered.
"And what was that?"
"This," he explained gesturing to the music.

Over the afternoon, we listened to Leabelly and Louis Armstrong.  

And he went back to nap.  Looking at him, it felt like he was fading away into another world.
but slowly in and out, here today...sortov.  Looking at him napping, its an odd
but seemingly natural to see him neither here or there... but painfully in between, yet here where he was napping. 

Day Three

Dad took a nap again when I arrived for day three.  After a couple of hours, I went downstairs for a  walk, calling few friends.

“I sat with my Dad and he was just staring at the wall. It made me crazy,” a friend, who'd recently lost her dad, commiserated 

When I came back, Dad was awake.  Would you like to see some pictures from our trip to Ireland?  I asked.

He nodded.

Looking at the pictures, we started talking about Irish music. 

Can you put on an Irish song for me?

Sure, I noted, putting on the Pogues, Fairy Tale of New York.

And he started smiling.  Play it again, he asked when it was done.

And we talked about our trips, the kids, old girlfriends, wives, life’s hits and misses, and legacies.  I told him about my feeble attempts at using non-violent communication methods with the kids, laughing.

“Well, you didn’t have very good models growing up,” he mused.

Leaving, I thanked Dad for always being there and being my rock.  He didn't say much.  So I asked what CD he’d like to listen to, flipping through the disks.

“How about Monk?”  he responded.  So I put on Monk’s Moods starting with Round Midnight. We have always lived Monk and Jazz.  Sitting there listening to the distinct beginning, the room filled with music.

“We could be in a jazz club right now”

“Just like Sweet Basil,” Dad chimed in, recalling a trip to New York we both took a quarter century prior.  I was in awe of the buildings, towering above us.  That night we went to the old Jazz club on Seventh Ave, where we drank coffee and Dad smoked.

Images of Sweet Basil and cigarettes - two of Dad's favorite things.

Still a smoker at the time, I was itching for a cigarette, I confessed to Dad. I’ll never forget your gesture with your hand, holding the pack, offering me the pack of Gauloises as we listened to the tunes, Dad an expert on Jazz club posing, looking cool with a cigarette in his mouth.  I took one and he didn’t judge me.  I’ll never forget that Dad.

“And how did we only get out of there for sixty bucks?” he confessed.  Funny what the mind remembers. 

We hugged and I said goodbye, with Round Midnight playing.  Dad closed his eyes and went back into the jazz club, still here, but also somewhere else, in between here and there.

No comments:

Post a Comment