It was October, and the rocks were bleeding. It was well past leaf-peeper season in this part of New Hampshire, but on the long drive out to the assisted-living place where my dad now lived, I’d pass this one spot along a granite cliff where the vines cascaded down the face of the rock, and for that one week in the fall, the leaves were blood red. Like the cliff, the land itself was bleeding. Every time I drove past it, I thought, That’s got to be a metaphor for something. I was no longer sure my dad was dying, but he was pretty damn sick, and he was never going to move back to his old apartment again. It seemed like nature might be offering up something fraught with emotion, a beautiful image that a writer could imbue with heartbreaking symbolism, layers of meaning. But I couldn’t come up with anything. It was just fall, and so the leaves were red.
On this day in October, I was taking Dad back to his old apartment, the place where he’d lived for twenty-five years, for his first visit since he’d gone into the hospital over the summer. He wanted me to put his things in storage until he was well enough to get his own place again, and he needed to be there to tell me what to pack, what to throw away, and what to bring to the place where he lived now. He was in an assisted-living facility, which is a fancy name for a little rented efficiency out in the boonies that costs $3,600 a month just because there’s staff there twenty-four hours a day to keep him out of trouble.
I worried about how he’d feel when we got there. I worried he might not be able to get up the stairs. I worried he might get up the stairs and then not be able to get back down, and then what the fuck would I do? I imagined finding a neighbor to help me fireman-carry him back down to the car, and him throwing a steady stream of curses at us for not doing it right.
The old man was supposed to be dead already. After avoiding my brother and me for a few years, he’d suddenly gone into the hospital that June, unable to breathe, swollen up to almost 250 pounds with ascites. Congestive heart failure, they said. Liver disease, they said. COPD, they said, and pulmonary hypertension, and an A-fib. When they gave him blood thinners to keep him from having a heart attack, they found out about the shitting of blood he’d neglected to tell them about because he didn’t trust doctors. He’d been treating the pain in his gut with massive amounts of Aleve and not connecting the pain in his gut to the blood in his shit. So when they gave him the blood thinners, the things inside him that were bleeding burst wide open.
When I took search-and-rescue training years ago, the paramedic who taught the first-aid class told us it all boils down to this: “Air goes in and out, blood goes round and round. Any deviation from that is bad.” My old man was deviating from it in two or three ways, all at the same time.
They took him down to surgery, stuck a scope down his throat, and closed up what they found. He bled more. They took him down to surgery again, looked harder and deeper, closed up what they found. He bled more. They scheduled surgery for the next day, then called me in the middle of the night to say I needed to come now. Blood was coming out of him faster than they could put it in, so they were going to perform emergency open-abdominal surgery.
I remember following him down to the OR in the middle of the night in my Red Sox hoodie and my hipster backpack, with my notebooks and my laptop and my phone chargers and his advanced directives. I didn’t know what I would need in surgery, so I brought everything. If I kept all my weapons with me, I thought, I could fight off anything that comes.
He told me to go, while nurses shoved consent forms in my face and swapped charts with the surgeons. I told him I’d stay until they kicked me out. Somebody said something about hepatic failure and I said, “What hepatic failure? I’ve been asking about his liver all week and all the doctors want to do is talk about his heart.” (Every doctor you talk to in ICU has their own specialty and their own spin on reality.) They looked at each other, then the OR nurse took both of my hands in hers and pulled me aside, into a corner.
I looked down at her, barely five feet tall. All I could see was her surgical scrubs and hat and her enormous round plastic-framed glasses. I thought she looked like Edna Mode from The Incredibles, dressed up in a nurse costume.
“You know your father is a very sick man.”
I have this compulsive rescue-hero streak. I have emergency-response training. I am a problem-solver, a fixer, a get-shit-done kind of guy. And I was almost a foot taller than she was. But I stood there, forty-eight years old in my stupid hoodie and my stupid backpack, feeling like a preschooler being given a talking-to by the day-care teacher.
“You know he is probably going to die.”
I nodded. My throat was tight, but I knew how to not cry. I took a deep breath and I did this thing I do, when I roll these steel shutters down over my face to keep from falling apart.
And I went back to him. He told me where there was money in his apartment. He told me there was a watch he wanted my son to have. He said, “It looks like this is it.” I told him if he needed to leave, if it was time for him to leave, that it was okay. I wanted him to know it was okay for him to die, because I thought I had read somewhere that sometimes people are afraid to die without permission. But I was afraid to say “die.” I’m blunt, I can’t ever keep my mouth shut, but I couldn’t say the word. That word. Die.
Part of me was afraid to tell him it was okay for him to die, because I didn’t want him dying thinking that I wanted him to.
Literally at death’s door—the doors right there that swing wide into the operating room, with death on the other side—I was trying to choose the right words, the right euphemisms and metaphors to get my point across. I kept telling him he could leave if he needed to, and now I’m not sure if he even understood what I was saying.
All he wanted to know was if could he eat after surgery. He said he wanted ginger ale. That’s what I remember, them wheeling him off through the swinging doors, him yelling, “Make sure I get some ginger ale!”
My father was dead.
He was gone.
Ninety minutes later, the stubborn bastard came back.
The first time I went to his apartment, that June, I didn’t know what I would find. I hadn’t been there since I was twelve years old in the mid-1970s, back when it was the place my grandparents lived.
It had been closed up a week. The air was toxic, thick with the lingering smoke of three decades’ worth of four packs a day. Everything was brown and yellow—walls, carpet, furniture, everything. It was like looking through piss-colored glasses. It reminded me of when I gutted out flooded houses after Hurricane Katrina, the way the smoke and dust stung in the throat like mold. I couldn’t imagine somebody breathing this their whole life.
He’d told me several times not to go into the back bedroom, but in his morphine haze he said he needed things from the dresser in there so I had to go.
He didn’t want me to go back there because in his back bedroom was the secret he’d been hiding: that he had been unable to take care of himself for a very long time, and didn’t want anybody to know. An old twin bed, springs sticking up where the mattress was torn, covered with an old blanket, a bloody blanket. He’d been bleeding a long time. The pillow had no pillowcase and was almost black with filth. There were no curtains, just a towel nailed up over a corner of the window to keep the sun off the bed. And the smoke-yellow carpet, the furniture, everything covered in several years’ worth of dust and cobwebs and flakes of skin and psoriasis. Like a house that had been abandoned long ago.
Only this wasn’t a house abandoned long ago. This wasn’t even like those Katrina houses, which had been brutalized by storm surge and then left for months. This was the room he had slept in until a week ago, until the ambulance had taken him away.
In the front bedroom, his mother’s old room, the bed was covered with clutter. Years’ worth of Christmas presents and pictures of his grandkids, opened and looked at and then tossed on the bed to deal with later. The suitcase from his last visit to us in 2009, still not fully unpacked. The duffel bag from the last time he shipped out for an oil tanker cruise. The airline ticket stubs said 2001.
Had he really stopped working that long ago? He always told us he was waiting on a ship, getting ready to get on a ship, just waiting on a physical.
I looked at the tickets again. September 12, 2001. The day after 9/11. He had told me the story of how he flew on that day, the day that all air travel was shut down. “You thought nobody could fly, but the oil companies could get guys on planes,” he said. He was the only passenger on a flight from Boston to Toronto, with tickets through to Kuwait, but he got held up and interrogated by Canadian Mounties. A man flying one-way to Kuwait the day after 9/11 was a suspect, even if he had retired military ID, even if he had merchant seaman papers, even if he was obviously an old man with an East Boston Irish mouth on him. He probably gave them hell.
He climbed the seven steps to the front door, another step into the building, and then he rested. Six more steps up to his apartment door, then he wobbled to the kitchen table and settled into his chair.
It was just how I’d left it in June, minus the trash and the back-room bedding.
He looked around. Picked up a glass from the table, put it back down. Looked at some old mail. Put it back down. I think he thought he would be relieved to be back home again, but he looked at everything like he’d never seen it before, like this was an alien place, like these were not his things.
We spent an hour or so sorting. He’d tell me where to look, and I’d pull things out of cabinets. He was more cantankerous than usual. He’d tell me to get out the big pot, I’d pull one out and he’d say, “Not that one, ferchrissakes, the big one. The big one! Look where I’m pointing! Jesus Christ, Raymond, if it was a snake it woulda bit ya.”
I was frustrated. This was all crap. He should throw it all away and buy new stuff from Walmart. Some of it I recognized from when I was a kid, the kitchen things he took when my mom threw him out and he wanted to take half of everything. The old bowl we used to eat popcorn out of on Friday nights when we watched McHale’s Navy and The Brady Bunch. The tea kettle. The big green ashtray that used to sit like a decoration on our living-room coffee table, back in the ’60s when everybody smoked and everybody expected every room to have an ashtray.
He pointed at a shirt hanging on a chair. “I need that, that’s my favorite shirt.” I held it up. It had dried blood on it. “I don’t give a damn, put it in the bag! It’s just blood.”
That was it.
“No fucking way, dad. You are not rolling around a nursing home in a bloody shirt. I’m throwing it out.” And I tossed it in the trash. He glared at me. It’s the same look guys in bars from New Zealand to Newfoundland used to see right before he clocked them in the jaw. “I’ll throw the rest of this shit out too if you don’t lighten up.”
I didn’t know it at the time but this crankiness, this irritable anger at every single thing, was a symptom of oxygen deprivation. I would eventually learn to tell just from the way he answered the phone—a chipper “Yo! What’s up!” or a grouchy mumbled “Hello”—whether he was getting enough oxygen. But that fall, he was an old unreasonable pain in my ass.
I walked him down the steps, and he had to rest on the bottom one. He had to rest again when I got him into the passenger seat of the car. He sat, chest heaving, mouth open, a pained looked on his face.
I carried down some of the boxes we’d packed and put them in the trunk with his wheelchair, took out some trash, and locked up the apartment. When I got back to the car, he still looked pained, but it was a different pain. He looked sad. He looked like he’d given up.
“What a dump,” he said. “I can’t believe I used to live in such a dump.”
I told him he smoked so much back then he probably didn’t have a sense of smell and now that he’d quit, he’d gotten one again. And he’d been living in a clean place, I said, a nonsmoking hospital room that was cleaned for him weekly, so he had something real nice to compare it to.
But he was embarrassed. He shook his head. Wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“I really let myself go to shit once I stopped going to sea.”
On the drive home, he said, “Raymond, I think you’re gonna have to do the rest of this yourself. I don’t think I can go back there again. I don’t have the strength.”
I had taken pictures of his whole apartment, the state of the back bedroom, and every piece of furniture. I figured we could go through the pictures on my computer and he could tell me what he wanted to keep and what he wanted in storage. What was trash and what was for Goodwill. But it took him two days of bed rest before he’d let me visit him again, two days I spent in my hotel working long-distance at my job and fretting, because only a couple of hours in his apartment had knocked him flat for two days, and I didn’t know what that meant.
When he finally gave me enough instructions, it took me most of a weekend to clean the place out, to get it ready for movers who could take some things to storage and haul the rest to the dump. I must have carried two dozen garbage bags of crap to the dumpster. Smoke-destroyed clothes, bedding, towels. The contents of the bathroom, the closets. I saved anything that looked like it might have sentimental value. I packed all the books and photos and other precious things in boxes. Three small boxes. Half his life in that apartment, and other than a couple of pieces of furniture, there were only three small boxes of things that anybody might ever want.
I labeled all the furniture with sticky notes, “STORE” or “JUNK,” booked some movers for December, and then flew back home to Austin to try to keep hold of my job and my teenage son.
It was December, and the rocks were covered in ice. The foliage was gone, but on the granite cliffs that faced north, that got no sun at all in the winter, water seeped down the rocks and hung frozen in long icicles down the cliff face. And then more water seeped over those icicles and froze, making bigger icicles, until some of the plumes of ice were two feet thick and twenty feet tall, like frozen waterfalls—like icefalls, growing out of sight of the sun all winter long. I don’t know if I made that word up, but that’s all you can call them: icefalls.
The movers came early on the morning of December 14. It took them a little over an hour to get everything out into the truck. I tried to stay out of the way. Tried to stay warm. Wondered if they judged me for having a father who lived in such a place.
When everything was moved out, I went through the place one last time. I always thought the carpet was some kind of yellow pattern, but in the clean spots where the furniture used to sit, it was white as snow.
A couple of nights later, I sat with the old man at his kitchen table in the assisted living. We watched the news about Sandy Hook. We bitched about Republicans. He told me that homophobic joke he’d told a hundred times about John Boehner and Eric Cantor. He made me ziti and sausage with his homemade spaghetti sauce. We watched the birds flitting through the bushes outside his kitchen window. He knew all their names. Finches and sparrows and black-capped chickadees. We saw a male cardinal but not the mate. I never knew he knew so much about birds.
I got him to tell me some more Coast Guard stories. I got him to talk with the recorder running. And then it started getting dark, and it was time for me to go. Snow was starting to fall, and neither of us liked the idea of me driving the backcountry New Hampshire roads in the snow at night.
Cub Scouts were arriving in the lobby to sing Christmas carols, and I said to him, “Dad, why don’t you go listen to the kids sing?”
He waved his hand, scowled. “Whadda I wanna do that for? Be down there with all them old people. I can’t stand being around them, they’re all crazy.” He jabbed the side of his head with his finger. “They got nothin’ up here, y’know? They’re a fuckin’ pain in the ass.”
I got my coat on, my gloves, my scarf. Gave him a hug, told him I’d try to see him tomorrow if the roads weren’t bad, but otherwise I had to go back to Austin and I’d see him in the spring.
I had no idea if he’d live that long. I never knew anymore. I leaned down, hugged his shoulders, kissed the top of his head and said, “Love you, Dad.”
He said, “Okay, whatever,” rolled his wheelchair back to the table, and picked up the TV remote. As I left he said, “Drive safe, now. Those roads are lousy at night in the snow.”
I walked out, through the rec room where the Cub Scouts were singing for all the old people, the ones who always dozed on the couches or said, “Hello!” every time you saw them even if you’d just seen them five minutes ago. All these people who didn’t have their marbles the way my dad did, but had their mobility and so had found a way to live that my dad had not found.
From the parking lot, I could hear the kids inside singing “O Holy Night.” I stood and listened. It felt like I was in a sad scene in some hokey Christmas movie, standing outside in the dark, in the cold and the snow, looking through the brightly lit windows at the Christmas lights and hearing the saddest, most beautiful carol ever.
Down at the end of the building, I could see Dad’s kitchen light on. I could picture him sitting alone, staring at the TV, mouth open, trying to breathe. I didn’t know what went through his head.
The snow was falling harder now, starting to cover the tire tracks from earlier. I thought, I wish I could write something beautiful about this.
A light in the window, the snow on my coat. Dubliners. James Joyce could do something with this.
Maybe I could stop thinking about writing it and just experience it. Maybe I could just remember how it was, instead of how I wanted to write about how it was.
O night divine.
I got in the car, backed up, and steered my way out onto the dark two-lane highway. The snow obscured what was road, what was shoulder, what was forest. I couldn’t see much of anything up ahead.
That was a year ago. This December, I was back in New Hampshire once again to move his things. He had moved again, to a real nursing home. He had prostate cancer, metastasized, all up in his spine and his hips and his femurs. His breathing was worse. He had a catheter, and he was on oxygen all the time. It didn’t make sense for him to be living out in the middle of nowhere without full nursing care just so he could have a kitchen he wasn’t able to use any more.
At dawn, I headed out to the assisted living in the woods to meet the movers. The same guys as last year. I was running on no sleep at all. The night before the move, the night before we were supposed to have a sit-down with the doctor about hospice, he had another congestive heart failure “incident,” and because the DNR and DNI and DNH boxes on his chart were still as yet unchecked, they whisked him off to ER against his will, and then got me out of bed at 3:00 a.m. to go down there. I thought I was going to see him die, but when I got there, he was sitting up in bed with a BIPAP mask on, and an IV, hooked up to monitors and those damn machines again. “What the hell are you doing here?” he said. “You’re supposed to meet the movers.”
It was a forty-five-minute drive out to the woods, on country roads, in winter. I kept punching myself in the thigh to stay awake, digging my middle knuckle in hard. I punched myself in the head with the side of my fist. All the coffee and breakfast hadn’t done anything but make me sleepy.
Then I saw the icefall.
I used to think the icefalls happened because the cliffs faced north and were forever denied sunlight. But that wasn’t right. Because if you happened to drive past them at exactly the right moment, right after sunrise, the sun would hit the ice for a few minutes and make it shine like gold. Like giant glittering Christmas ornaments cascading down the rocks.
I wanted to stop and take a picture, but I had so much to do.
I kept going, toward his exit, digging my knuckles in harder, trying to stay awake.
This time it took the movers only twenty minutes to empty the apartment. Three or four boxes, a microwave, a recliner, and a bedroom set we’d bought him last year, nice and new and not full of smoke. It all went into storage.
I slept the rest of the day, and the next day we met with the hospice people. He was getting Ativan to chill him out so he wasn’t so panicked over his breathing anymore. They said they could give him morphine if his breathing got bad.
I zipped up the street to his favorite seafood shack, a little dive over near Robert Frost’s farm, got a two-way combo of haddock and clams for us to share, and brought it back to his room. I spent the afternoon listening to his Coast Guard stories. I found some Wi-Fi and brought up YouTube on my laptop, and we watched an old Disney video from the 1950s, a nature documentary about the icebreaker he used to work on, about its missions to the Arctic. We talked about some family stuff, about grudges, and letting things go, and ending well. And then I had to catch my flight.
He put out his arms for a hug.
I don’t think he had put out his arms for a hug since I was a little kid. But I hugged him, and I said “I love you,” and he said, “I love you too,” which he never says, and then he told me to be careful on those roads in case they ice up.
I left and started to cry. I ran down the hall to the front door so nobody would talk to me, and then I thought he might see me crying in the parking lot from his bedroom window. So I rolled down my steel shutters and turned it off, but when I looked to wave up at his window, he wasn’t even watching.
I wrote most of this essay late at night the first weekend of December, a few days after I saw him. I was in an apartment in Brooklyn, with my feet up on the radiator, looking out the back window at all the other people living their lives in their own back windows. I thought I had maybe a pretty good first draft, if I could just figure out how to end it, and if I could come to terms with whether I was violating his privacy, his dignity, by publishing it while he was still alive.
Two days later, hospice called and told me to come back up. I talked to him a little on the phone, listening to him struggle to breathe while I watched the snow pile up on the Brooklyn fire escapes. I told him I’d be there by midnight.
He died before I ever boarded the plane.
When I moved his things out of the hospice room where he died, it took up only half the trunk of my rental car.
Yesterday, I sorted through it all and donated most of it to Goodwill, and what remains is enough to fit, along with his ashes and veteran’s flag, in a carry-on bag for my flight home.
It’s snowing again. We’re supposed to get a foot of it tonight up here in New Hampshire. Death in the winter in the snow in New Hampshire really is something that Robert Frost could work with. Or maybe Joyce again. I don’t know. Maybe I’m still too shitty a poet, or maybe it’s too soon to be able to make something beautiful, something artful, out of grief.
For eighteen months, my life revolved around taking care of him and wondering if he was dying. Now I don’t know what to do. I just sit in this almost-empty extended-stay hotel and watch the snowflakes swirling around the lights in the parking lot.
His journey is over. (Okay, maybe that’s trite, but the guy spent his life at sea, so he’s earned one crappy Tennyson-esque “crost the bar” cliché.) And I don’t know where mine goes next. I’m inside, where it’s warm, and I’m writing, for now. But I think, in a minute, while it’s still pure and clean and white outside, before the machines come to mess it all up, I’m going to go out and walk in the snow, just walk and walk and see how far I can go.
First, second, and last images courtesy of Ray Shea.