08 August 2009

What My Father Said

In December of 2000, my father was in the hospital. He was there for nearly the entire month, accompanied the whole time by his devoted second wife, Amy. I visited nearly every day after work.

Those were to be some of the last weeks of his life.

One afternoon, during this time, my dad said something I will never forget. It was a broken-brained formulation of a short-circuited head, and it was absolutely brilliant.

My dad was living with a couple of kinds of cancer. He had, in fact, been diagnosed with prostate cancer over ten years earlier, so, according to the statistics, he had beat that disease. But, after the bypass surgery he'd managed to avoid for 30 years, with his immune system compromised, things began to pop up. A small mark on his leg, next to the scar where the cardiac surgeons removed the vein, turned out to be melanoma.

What really sent him to the hospital there near the end, though, was a cerebral hemorrhage. He had been driving with Amy one day, when, suddenly as he turned left at an intersection, he complained of being disoriented.

The disorientation continued at home, and eventually he was taken to the hospital.

It took some time to determine the cause of his problem. There were many things going wrong with him at this time. He was actively taking a regimen of chemotherapy for the cancer. And it was a question, should he continue the chemo, now that he was in the hospital for something quite else?

I remember standing by his bed as his oncologist asked this very question. I remember being amazed when Dad confidently and cheerily insisted that the chemo should continue.

At this time, and for weeks, his affect was disarmingly sunny, enthusiastic, attentive, and quite normal. His blue eyes were bright and sharply focused. If anything, he was happier than normal.

He had the TV on in his room most of the times I visited. He loved watching Jeopardy! and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. And we all viewed with disquiet and jokes and growing alarm the election news that grew stranger and more tangled each day.

For this was December of 2000, and the presidential election of over a month before was still up for grabs. The two sides faced off across an unbridgeable constitutional canyon. New nomenclature clogged the airwaves, tutoring us in the differences between hanging, dimpled, and pregnant chads.

Dad had been a lifelong Republican, but the events of recent years had sometimes severely tested his political faith. He had a hard, pragmatic side much stronger than any mere political affiliation and, in the right circumstances, he'd look toward Washington and label the entire crew there a pack of scoundrels.

I visited him every day, if I could, at least for a short time. Amy, bless her heart forever, was essentially living at the hospital, so that eventually the staff offered her a bed of her own to sleep in so she would not have to crash out every night on the room's recliner.

And for a while it was hard to tell that there was anything really wrong with my father. As I said, he seemed bright and chipper, following conversation and his TV game shows with alertness and seemingly normal humor. And his eye seemed just as jaundiced and cynical as ever when the interminable election news wrangled on and on.

I first discovered that things were not as they should be on one visit when Dad wanted to talk about some household business. As long as I was talking to him, as I said, he seemed at ease and attentive. It was when he had to speak to me that he had problems. Big problems. The concepts were there, but he could not find the words. He would stop in mid-sentence. He'd twist his hands in the air in a frustrated search. He'd hold his head, as if the effort hurt him. If Amy or I prompted him with words ("Treasury bills", "file folders", "interest,") his eyes would light up and he would leap on it, his whole being saying "yes, that's it!" But when he tried to formulate these concepts into words himself, it was a big struggle. There was something terribly wrong.

And he knew there was something terribly wrong, and would express it by saying something like "Oh, I am in big trouble now!" He knew his brain was having problems when it came to finding words, and he was understandably scared.

That his ability to turn ideas and pictures in his head into words was badly impaired became more and more obvious now with each visit. It was especially true in the case of more abstract notions. But even concrete nouns, like the Treasury Bills he was desperate to tell us about, were elusive. As soon as Amy or I supplied the word for him, he would say "Yeah!" with a rising inflection that carried a heartbreaking combination of embarassment and bemused anger at himself: "well of course! I know that. Isn't that obvious!"

The more I visited, day after day, the more I saw that my father's brain was deeply affected by what the doctors by this time labeled a cerebral hemorrhage. His problem with words began to seem simple and easily definable compared to other, stranger manifestations.

For instance, I began to think that Dad's brain was often carrying two concepts together at once in a way that the rest of us would find either an effort of will or a scary intrusion. I thought about those times that our brains are slipping into sleep or rising from sleep to full daytime consciousness that psychologists call hypnagogia or threshold consciousness.

We all have experienced--and might even experience nightly--these strange states of mind. For me, they often overlay or blend two types of thought: first, a mechanical operation, like enumerating, or sorting by colors, or making a list, or the like. But at the same time, the colored beads I am sliding along wires, say, are also people's feelings, or worries about tasks left undone, or maybe things I have to do in a certain order before getting out of bed. I often feel frustrated, sliding those beads around, knowing I can never really get them in the right order.

It began to seem, or I began to imagine, that my father's head as he lay there in his hospital bed, was locked in such a state of double-mindedness. Things he said sometimes pointed toward this. He would connect an abstract concept with a concrete one in an alarming shift.

It was during this time when he came out with a statement that still amazes me and fills me with a strange joy.

I had arrived for my daily visit just on the tail end of Dad's meal time. He still had dessert to come, and wanted to see if he could share some with me. Both Amy and he had ordered pieces of pie, and they quickly decided to offer me a piece, instead. I would get Amy's slice.

"Have a piece of apple pie!" said Dad. The pie had not arrived yet. Amy said it was cherry, not apple.

Up in the corner of the room, the TV news was a tangle of move and counter-move in the election crisis. Recounts proposed and challenged, chads flying every which way, lawyers and politicos squaring off.

Dad was gazing at it and shaking his head.

"Those so-n-sos!" he exclaimed.

An orderly arrived with two pieces of cherry pie in styrofoam bowls.

"What. . .chicanery!" Dad continued. Such an interesting word came out of his mouth. It wasn't one I would think of. I looked closely at him.

Dad made a fuss of offering me some "apple pie," handing me one of the bowls as he held the other. He kept looking back up at the TV while fussing with the pie.

"Apple pie!. . .apple pie!" he urged, pushing it at me.

"Chicanery?" I asked, still delighted with the word.

"Yeah!" said my father, gesturing up at the TV with his fork, "Apple pie chicanery!" And laughed.

I laughed too.

I looked at him with wonder, and laughed! He had come out with this amazing statement, this piece of crack-brained poetry, and it delighted me. But had he known what he had said, really?

As if reading my mind, he repeated, "Yeah! Apple Pie Chicanery!"

It was the last, best thing I heard my father say.


  1. That is beautiful, Jim. You are a beautiful writer.

  2. Jill Wilkerson-SmithAugust 20, 2009 at 8:27 PM

    Wonderful story! I loved your father--such a sweet man!