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The Joy Menu #37: Fly
"I lifted off with the incredibly odd thought that by the time I landed my father could be all better or dead."
The strangest gift (or curse?) of brain cancer seemed to be that other than spending a lot more time looking inward, wondering, perhaps experiencing existential pain, dread — what it felt like, I don’t know: perhaps it was just quiet mindfulness — my father was, otherwise, normal.
He had no headaches, experienced no pain. Until the trippiness of radiation and the nauseas of chemotherapy began, he was otherwise unaffected, physically, by the cancer in his brain.
The brain is, after all, an incredibly resourceful and adaptive organ; my father knew this from years of reading Oliver Sacks, and though I eyed those books on the shelf in my room (years before, I’d moved them onto my own bookshelf, as a gesture to myself that I’d like to read them next, though next, it seemed, could be close to never), my hesitancy to read them took on added urgency and complexity now that it was my father’s brain itself involved.
I wanted to look at the fire, or stand near it, but not both.
What I remember of those days: sunshine. Consistent and bright and familiar.
My father: sitting out in the yard like a puppy napping on the bench, his face toward the sun, sunglasses on his eyes, face cast upward into the swaying trees he planted twenty years before.
Walking the Loop together in the sun, choosing the outer side when the angle was right, and the inner side when the angle shifted. Crossing if need be — to stay in the warmth. Southern California’s perpetual 70 degrees meaning that it could be cool in the shade, but was always delicious when the shade parted, especially if a sea breeze managed to crawl away from the coast and find us in Irvine, which it seemed to do a lot that spring.
Like a gift before our departure. A reminder that the simplest, most sensual and purest gift a place could offer was itself.
The first moment that my father’s illness had presented itself was still a frightening reminder to us all of the flimsiness of reality and the unreliability of health. Like a thin, unseen membrane protecting a healthy cell from the viral incapacities of infection, a microscopic prick had occurred that afternoon in January and, despite the subsequent surgery and return to normalcy, everything was changed.
Like with most crises, there was a before and an after. And the before felt innocent, and quant, and ideal, while the after was more realistic, heavy, and true — if also quite shitty in its disappointing contours.
“It’s amazing to think how fragile life is, how fragile consciousness is, how little it takes for everything we feel is normal to go awry,” my father would often say, pouring tea in his seat at the head of the dining room table, or from his seat in his Eames chair next to his pile of books.
And he didn't mean the structures of civil society or the moral balance between working hard and hardly working: he meant the actual fibers inside his mind that lent credence to the “reality” we all experience.
He meant: one day he couldn’t see half of my mother’s face and didn’t know how to speak.
Such was the literalness of his experience of fragility, or normal-gone-awry. All I could do when he said this to me was nod, hold his hand, agree dumbly, mutely, perfunctorily.
But it’s not as if we live in ignorance of the fragility of life. We all are aware of it, consciousness of it, every day, though we might not let it seep into every thought or action or desire. Otherwise, we wouldn’t strap in our seatbelts and flatten our hair with helmets when we ride our bikes, or worry when we wake up groggy and with a tickle at the back of our throats.
For my father, though, he’d crossed, for a moment, to the other side, and now even though he was back — temporarily, perhaps, but consistently — the curtain had been lifted and he knew where he was headed. It wasn’t unlike the experience some people have when they take acid and the trip goes on too long, or when they’re slipped something they didn’t mean to take and the effects push them past their comfort zone.
It wasn’t a cute experience, but it was a profound one. And here he was, now, to tell us about it.
I had been in the bath when my mother called. I took baths often then — a habit I’d picked up during my own drawn-out, unexplained illness years before. It was the one place where I could seek solace and literally shut the door on my complex (and ultimately destructive) marriage. I would pour a deep, steaming tub full of heavy heat, lay open a book or a streaming device, and climb in. Door closed, head in a haze of steam and sweat, I’d laze about for thirty minutes or even an hour before I emerged, pruned and overheated, to lie on the bed under the fan to decompress and try not to faint (I never did, though I often felt close).
In a life which did not often involve sex, or tenderness, or intimacy, bath time became my self-care, my release. But that bath time, right as I’d tucked into the hot envelope of water, I saw my mother’s name pop up on my phone and I ignored it.
When she called again, I ignored it again. When she texted, I paid attention. Then I read the message and got out of the bath.
To say my mother is prone to panic would be to ignore the 42 years she was married to my father and the extent to which he held that panic at bay, shielded her from the most unstable aspects of herself, and — in the simplest and most meaningful terms — protected her. Her text messages, sent to me and my siblings, and sent after she had finally gotten my sister and her husband on the phone (luckily their marriage was more functional and neither were in the bath), made little sense except to telegraph her fear, confusion, and distress: my father had been on the phone in the kitchen and, in the middle of an otherwise mundane conversation with a family friend, had begun to speak gibberish. Then, hanging up the phone quickly (as if aware that he’d lost track of language), he’d said to her, as she came into the kitchen from the living room, curious after hearing his conversation end abruptly: “half your face is gone.” Then he’d giggled.
This last detail, along with the odd observation, had tipped my mom off that something was wrong. Rather than directly call 9-1-1, she called us. As we know, I didn’t answer. My sister did. My brother-in-law, suspecting a stroke, called 9-1-1 from Ohio.
By the time I was dried and dressing, had told my wife, and had spoken to my sister, my mother and father were in the ambulance on the way to the nearest Stroke Certified hospital — the same one where, twenty years before, I’d driven with my father one morning when I’d run out of oxygen, memories I held as vivid as any in my entire life: standing next to my father’s bed to wake him and tell him I couldn’t breath, the view of the purple sky from the front seat of the car, the seatbelt hugging my chest where the tightness was, the concentration needed to breath in, out, in, out, the song of wheezing I followed with the ear of a concert pianist, making each wheeze a lyric to a song I’d just invented, the comfort at seeing my father’s fast reactions at the check-in desk, the yelling of the man behind the curtain next to us, begging for an epidural to soothe his back, puking on the x-ray technician taking a scan of my chest, the comfort of the nebulizer machine, the chalky medicated air, and the long, heavy nap on the couch when — 6 hours later? 8? 12? — we were able to come back home. My mother’s worried face. My siblings waking up for the day and tiptoeing around me while I slept. The softness of the couch. The soft back of our 12-pound dog cuddled nearby.
By the time I arrived at the airport, I’d purchased a flight (one way) and texted my cousin to fetch me at baggage claim, and then I lifted off into the air with the incredibly odd thought that by the time I landed my father could be all better or dead.
It’s only a 40-minutes between Las Vegas McCarran Airport and Orange County’s once-called John Wayne Airport, and for those 40-minutes I had none of what we’ve come to expect in our day and age: no connectedness, no telephone, no way to find out what was going on, or to distract myself from what was going on in my nervous mind.
I just flew.
More next week.
For now, as always,
Onward toward creative joy,