After William F. Buckley and his wife had died within the same year, their son, the humorist Christopher Buckley, had a hard time dealing with the loss, and he wrote, "One realization does dawn upon the death of the second parent, namely that you've now moved into the green room to the River Styx. You're next. Another thing about parental mortality: No matter how much you've prepared for the moment, when it comes, it comes at you hot, hard and unrehearsed."
Being a child of divorce with parents who'd remarried, I have two sets of parents. Over the last two years, my mother, Sidney, and stepfather, Phil, have become as fragile as toothpick sculptures. Both have lost weight and move slowly as if walking through water. Two nights ago, 1500 miles away in Minnesota, my stepfather was whisked to the hospital with breathing problems.
This morning, doctors will punch into one of his lungs to drain away fluid. If they don't do this, he will die soon. However, he's only 112 pounds, down from his trim muscular weight of 175 in his middle years and the 128 pounds from a few months ago. Lately, he just hasn't felt like eating much.
I learned about this and his hospital visit via email read on my Palm Pre phone late at night--news from a new medium. My sister-in-law Kim wrote, "Phil is in the hospital, intensive care. He has fluid in his lungs and when his heart was racing, they moved him from a regular unit to intensive care. We told him that his family loved him; he loves us. He looked right at me despite a breathing mask and thanked me for making Stuart happy in our marriage. Then he said several times that "this is what it's all about."
I paused. As I writer, I'm always searching for what life is about. Here was my stepfather telling me. "I'm listening," I said to myself.
I can't say he knew this when I was growing up. From his and my mother's rare parties, I learned that his friends thought Phil eloquent and witty. I never saw this side, especially as he was yelling at us on some outdoor project such as hauling logs, planting trees, mowing the acres of lawn, raking the gravel driveway. I'd often felt a part of a chain gang. We called home "Phil's Work Camp."
He only went with us on one family vacation--to Jamaica. Otherwise it was my mother driving my three brothers and I somewhere, such as to the Black Hills of South Dakota or a long road trip through Canada to Maine.
I had little to do with him in college or in my twenties, but in my thirties, I connected with him when he was divorcing my mother. His despair seemed so naked and honest, and when he remarried to an incredibly wonderful woman, Della, he still remained my stepfather--or something closer, my second father. He's been out to visit and stay with us several times. He's so damn eloquent and witty.
In fact, as he's sailed into infirmity, he's done so with panache. Each setback, such as his hearing going out, his memory leaving him, his second wife dying suddenly from a heart attack, and his arthritis growing worse, has always seemed like more lead weights strapped around his neck; yet he continues on with dignity. "With my memory going, I can't remember if I'm supposed to be sad about something or not" he said with a laugh once.
I took him to Palm Springs two years ago, which he loved, and I vaguely remembered him coming here when he was younger. I brought that up. "No," he said looking around the wide boulevard of Frank Sinatra Drive. "I don't remember being here. It's a beautiful place, though." I asked my mother later about this and learned Palm Springs is where they'd gone on their honeymoon. "It ain't easy getting old," Phil's said more than a few times.
My sister-in-law continued in her note, "Phil was, despite the breathing mask, leads, monitors, and more, very lucid. His pale blue eyes were direct and sincere, and we leaned in to hear his words from inside the clear mask.... He really reached out tonight--beyond himself to give us a message. He knows that we love him and that we have never given up on him."
I'm now trying to figure out what I wish for him. It's this: not to die in the hospital today. I hope the procedure lets him breathe easier and that he overcomes the pneumonia and that he then gets physical therapy to get his muscle tone and weight back. I wish that he would stop smoking and be able to enjoy the next few years continuing to live independently.
And when it's time to go, I hope I and all who adore him sit by his side at his home. Isn't that the way to go? To be lucid and get to experience that last hurrah with people you love.
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