Tuesday, December 17, 2013

LIMB FROM LIMB: A CHRISTMAS STORY, PART 2

DAD WITH ALLEN JR. AND JEANNE,
c. 1952
COTD. FROM PART 1...

The next morning, the doctor called to say Dad had very slightly improved. Giddy with relief, Ross, Tim and I got up early and headed off for the hospital. In the car, we turned the heat on high: it was twenty below and Ross had on a windbreaker that would have been appropriate for Maui. We passed the Post Road Cemetery, its stones decorated with miniature pine wreaths or brown, frost-stiffened bouquets. A few years ago, my father had bought four plots here--two for him and my mother, and a couple of extra so as to spare at least two of us from being laid to rest in Potter's Field.

Coming into town, the anesthetic detritus of Christmas--the styrofoam snowman in the window of Dunkin' Donuts, "Season's Greetings" spelled out on the Rite-Aid marquee--seemed coarse and out-of-place, like a stripper at a funeral. As we pulled into the parking lot of the hospital, I could hardly speak: I'd never seen my father in a hospital before. What if I didn't recognize him? I wondered with mounting panic. What if he had yellow skin and sunken eyes? What if I fainted?

We filed in past a silver aluminum tree, buzzed the ICU desk and then we were crowding into his room and there he was, lying in bed with the blanket pulled up to his chin. A forest of tubes sprouted from the direction of one wrist, concealed beneath the bedclothes, and his face was gaunt. Still, he looked happy in a dazed sort of way, drinking us in with his faded hazel eyes.

"What the hell have you got that on for?" he greeted us weakly, zeroing in on Ross's windbreaker. "Take my down jacket from the hall closet, you'll freeze to death, for God's sake."

My stomach stopped churning for the first time in three days. He was still alive. He was still worrying. He was still ours.

"How're you feeling, Al?" Tim asked.

"A little tired," he admitted--A little tired! He was practically dead--"but Jeez, isn't this a treat. Can't remember the last time I got so much attention."

"So what's wrong, anyway?" I asked, leaning over to kiss him. "Have you talked to the doctor?"

"Who knows?" he replied, dismissing the whole bothersome subject with a wave of his frail hand. "Kidneys are fouled up or something,"

This might have been exasperating, except for the fact that after a minute or two I realized he had very little idea of what was going on. Programmed to keep up his end of the conversation at any cost, he kept repeating the same questions about yesterday's flight and the wind chill factor. While one or the other of us corroborated that yup, it had been a 747, or agreed that no two ways about it, we were definitely in the middle of a cold snap, I studied his mouth and eyes and banged-up bricklayer's hands, as if the exercise of sheer concentration might keep him alive indefinitely.

Every so often his old self glimmered through the fog. "Ran into Pearl Tibbetts at Demoulas' last week, must be twenty, twenty-five years since I saw her," he announced at one point. "Boy, is she fat. Looks like someone stuck an air hose in her rear end and pumped her up like a balloon." We all guffawed like a bunch of third-graders, while Dad giggled slyly: an air hose stuck up someone's "rear end" is the type of image calculated to send my entire arrested-development family into uncontrollable laughter. Beneath the white cotton blanket, his own body looked like the body of a puppet, a tangle of sticks and string.

"Time to check for blood clots," the nurse announced cheerfully, wheeling in a refrigerator-sized machine elaborate with gauges and tubes.

"We'll just wait in the hall till you're done," Ross said, as we hastily gathered up our coats.

"Oh, hang around, for Crimey's sake," Dad said graciously. "How often do we get to visit, anyway?"

Ross and I exchanged incredulous glances, unsure of the protocol for this novel situation. I snooped through the bedside table, checked out the bulletin board and trial-flushed the toilet, trying to look nonchalant. The whole time, though, my peripheral vision was glued to the nurse, who was slathering green gel on my father's right leg and running what looked like the end of a computer cable up and down his calf.

"It's showing up on that camera monitor," she said, gesturing to a grainy image in black and white by the bed. "Go on, take a look."

I glanced doubtfully at Dad. "Go ahead," he motioned casually, as if it were no big deal, as if we had all been hanging around in hospital rooms for years checking out the inside of each other's bodies on TV screens. I approached gingerly. The monitor displayed a mass of undulating waves, the spongy tissue a flow of molten lava, the veins dark pulsating holes.

"Wow," I reported. "There's stuff moving around in there I bet you never even knew you had."
It was mesmerizing but, out of the corner of my eye, I was straining, nervous but excited, to get a look at the real leg, exposed at last after all those swaddled years.
My heart turned over at the sight of it, bent at the knee and veined with pale blue, laid out on the white sheet like a cut of baby lamb. There was something holy about it, that flesh enfleshed again in my brothers and sisters and me. For the first time I understood those reliquaries in Italian churches: tiny glass caskets housing fragments of saints: a fingernail paring, an eyelash, a swatch of bloody shirt.

"Chrissake," Geordie marvelled that night at dinner, "when I helped him to the bathroom this morning, his nightie hiked up and I got a glimpse of his thigh. Coupla more inches and I could have seen his privates."

We all agreed that would have been going too far: a shock, like seeing the face of God, that none of us could survive.

Over the course of the next few days, there were more sightings: a forearm, a shoulder, a foot. We reported back in detail, each of us avid with curiosity. The physical aspect was fascinating enough, but what really thrilled us was that he was letting us see him. It was as if his suffering had burned away a lifelong layer of modesty and fear, exposing a more vulnerable, fully human father than we had ever imagined.

After three days they moved him from intensive care, but he wasn't out of the woods yet. They had him on massive amounts of Lasix, a diuretic, but his kidneys were functioning at only ten percent of their capacity and he still wasn't "voiding." This would have been bad enough by itself but, coupled with congestive heart failure, it was especially serious.

Luckily, there was a solution, at least to the kidney problem: dialysis. This was a concept to which I had never devoted a moment's thought other than that it was some vague procedure undergone by other people's relatives. Now it seemed a beautiful word, like wisteria or lullaby. Dialysis. Three times a week, the doctors informed us, he would have all the blood pumped out of his body, detoxified and pumped back in. Each session would take four hours. None of us knew how my father felt about what would, under even the most optimistic scenario, be a major physical, psychological and lifestyle change: as usual, he kept all that hidden away to spare us from worry.

"Beats the alternative," he shrugged, then turned to Skip and asked him how his wife was doing.

He had his first treatment in the hospital, two big plastic tubes coming out of his neck, one pushing the bad blood out, the other pulling the good blood back in, attached to a giant humming machine with an artificial kidney that filtered out all the toxins. He was hooked up like that for two and a half hours. He would have preferred to be alone, but the dialysis people said someone should be there with him. Meredith and I relieved Joe for the final forty-five minutes.

"They just wanted us to come sit with you," she told him. "You don't have to actually talk." Still, he valiantly kept up his usual running patter about the weather, the Celtics, the cost of gasoline. Outside the window, clouds scudded across a lowering sky and black branches were lofted with snow. "Crimey's sake, they better let me out of here pretty soon," Dad winked feebly, "I've got chores to do at home." One ghostly arm supported his head--a bruise bloomed near the wrist--and a pallid foot drooped over the lower end of the bed.

"Only twenty more minutes to go," the nurse said.

He had three days' worth of stubble on his face and he looked exhausted, the tubes hanging out of his neck, pumping blood. For a moment, he fell uncharacteristically silent and stared into space. He must be wishing the hell they'd unhook him, I thought. He must be dying to get back to his room and go to sleep. He looked up at Meredith with bleary eyes.

"You need some money to get that transmission fixed?" he asked.

*****


The black dress I'd packed was superfluous now, but beneath the sense of reprieve flowed the aching thought: how much longer can he last?

When Tim and I went in to say goodbye Wednesday morning, Dad was sitting up in bed in his johnny and a cotton kimono that made him look like a Japanese monk. He took a sip of coffee and his hand trembled, but only slightly. The occupational therapist, a felt Santa pinned to her lapel, came in to check his balance. She made him bend down and pick up a magazine off the floor, then held it in the air just above his reach and had him grab for it.

"I'm still a little shaky," he apologized, but they told him he was doing fine. They were going to release him that afternoon.

"That's great, Dad," I said, wiping away a crumb from the corner of his mouth, "you'll be home in time for New Year's." Now that it was time to go, I was filled with big adrenaline-fueled jolts of emotion so overwhelming I was afraid I'd do something weird, like drop to the ground and kiss his feet or cry so hard I hyperventilated.

What if we never see each other again? I thought wildly, and I knew he was thinking the same thing, because when I sat down on the edge of the bed to say goodbye, he started crying, too. His hair smelled of Vitalis, the way it had for forty years, and his thin shoulders looked as delicately virginal as a young girl's. He would never yield up his secrets, never let on how he truly felt, but I finally saw it didn't matter. For one incandescent moment, I was so grateful for the whole heartbreaking miracle of existence that all I could say was "Thank you." "Thank you," I kept saying, his bony frame trembling in my arms, and I was thinking of the strange, grace-filled way that out of all the parents in the universe we get our parents, and our parents, out of all possible children, get us.

From the doorway, where Ross and Skip were waiting, I turned and waved one last time. He was perched on the side of the bed, his hand raised in farewell, his smile luminous, his shins--waxy, hairless, the translucent white of those glow-in-the-dark icicles we used to hang on the tree each December—[wrong word] triumphantly exposed.

By the time we got back to California, it was time to take down the tree, wrap the crèche in newspaper, throw out the cards. In one way it seemed as if Christmas had passed my family by that year: it was only afterwards I grasped in a whole new way that Christmas never ends. Those disembodied limbs floated back to L.A. alongside our 747, hovered in my mind's eye, assimilated themselves into something deeper than even my bones and blood.

They are hidden away again now, shrouded in the mystery of love made perpetually incarnate in eyes that will one day go blind, hands that will falter, hearts that will stop. They are in that place within my deepest core where it is Christmas all the time.

THE KING FAMILY (MINUS ALLEN AND JEANNE),
c. 1964

THE LAST RUN, JUNE, 1990
MERRY CHRISTMAS, DAD AND MOM!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for putting this up.

    There are eight of us children in my family, too.

    ReplyDelete

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