My dad is getting weaker, frailer and bonier.
The doctors tell us that not much more can be done to help the 93-year-old other than to give him painkillers, sedatives and sleeping pills. This may ease the pain in his cancer-ridden body that over the past weeks has been resigned to his bed in our house.
The doctors have started him on a codeine mix, a precursor to morphine. They hope this will help him sleep at night so he doesn’t toss in bed because each movement exacts pain, screams of agony and calls for help from my wife and me.
We’ve not slept much lately, making frequent trips to his room to help him get comfortable, give him glasses of water and juice, and to soothe his thoughts.
The codeine appears to be helping. He fell into a sort of slumber tonight and we relaxed for the first time in weeks.
But then he began to murmur and then talk frantically in his sleep. “What do I do? I can’t get out of here! How do I get out of here? This is horrible. This is horrible. How do I get out?”
I went in with my wife and his eyes slowly opened and he looked up at us wearily and said, “I was lost and I couldn’t find my way out.”
I wanted to ask him where he was lost, but I didn’t. He looked worried but now content to see us. So we comforted him and told him that everything is all right and that we are here with him and he doesn’t need to worry anymore.
Is he slipping away? If so, how fast or how slow? We don’t know, and the doctors can’t tell us.
He doesn’t know either, not really. He tells us that he wants to get out of bed, get dressed and walk again. He wants to sit out on the patio in the fresh air.
And he wants to watch a good movie.
He’s asked the occupational therapist for a good movie, but he told us that he doubts that she will bring his choice or even have heard of it.
“I know what she wants to give me, and I don’t want it,” he tells us at the side of his bed.
“What?” I ask.
“Entertainment! That’s what they want to give me. They want to entertain me. But I don’t want to be entertained. I hate entertainment.”
“So what do you want to see?” I ask.
“The Exterminating Angel,” he tells us. “It’s by Luis Buñuel. It is set in Mexico City. It is a wonderful film. It is about a dinner party and how the guests get trapped in the house and they can’t get out.”
I try not to think of the similitude, so I just nod and tell him that the film sounds wonderful.
He smiles at his memories of the movie and of his years of living single in Mexico City after leaving his native Argentina and before finally settling in New York and then Los Angeles, where his three youngest children were born, where I was born.
He has lived a full life and has many memories, more than can ever be written here. I smile at my memories of him raising us children, taking us jade hunting in Big Sur, for Christmas in Colorado, hiking in Rae Lakes and skiing at Mammoth Mountain. The baseball matches on the weekends, the soccer games. The park in Crestwood Hills. The pool at Rustic Canyon. The 10-Ks and the track events. And the many times at Will Rogers State Beach and The Jetty where we learned to boogie board and then surf, what would spark in me an interest to travel. And that is what happened as my brothers and sisters also chose their own courses in life.
My father wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes. He grumbled at some of our friends, turned his nose up and opened the doors and windows noisily when our mother cooked us bacon or pancakes, and he made his opinions known no matter how rude.
But he was there as best he could in the beginning, in the middle and throughout. He was there when I learned how to ride a bike and then fell into a cactus patch. He picked me up and helped me get back on the bike. He was there when I ran out of money in Budapest. He was there when my daughter died at birth. He was there when I told him of my ambitions to study literature and write. He listened to me tell him about my dreams as we walked around a pond at St. Andrews Abbey in the high deserts of Valyermo, and he said that my idea sounded wonderful. I welled up inside because “wonderful” was by far his favorite word. And it still is as he looks at me with a smile on his face as he remembers how “The Exterminating Angel” was so very wonderful.
He has battled cancer for seven years, a fight against melanoma that has nearly taken his life a handful of times, landing him in the ER and recovery homes. Then last November he heard the final call for hospice and decided instead to travel to his birthplace of Argentina one last time.
He fights on as best he can, eating well and exercising. Until only a few months ago he was walking the sandy lanes of our pine tree paradise in Pinamar and then down the uneven sidewalks in Buenos Aires to the park, where he did leg exercises and chi gung to help keep his mind and body strong.
In the four walls of his bedroom, he has passed the time reading books and following the political scandals of Argentina. And the crime sagas and the weekly investigations of Jorge Lanata into government corruption. He has watched tennis and one of his favorite players, Juan Martin del Potro. And he has watched the daytime arrive most days, at last smiling again after yet another sleepless night.
Now the television is off and the books are back on the shelves, his laptop is left unopened and the newspapers unread.
He is losing much of his enthusiasm expect for when we come into the room and when his children phone from afar.
But he can’t talk for long before he is too tired, and he excuses himself and lays his head back. Then he says he wants to get out of bed. But he can’t. He wants to recover. But he can’t seem to. So he lays his head back down again.
Only one other thing seems to bring him any brightness: his grandchildren.
His ears perk up and his mouth rises into a smile and his face brightens when he hears their voices and their laughter and when they come into the room and say, “Hello Granddad.” Or when they tell him stories about a fire they saw or that they’re learning how to ice skate. Or when they walk in and say, “Here, Granddad. Here are some cookies.”
He says thanks and smiles as broadly as he can.
If I were to learn anything about life from my father, it would be what my mother told me only a few days ago: “He lived for you children.”
It is a good way to live.