Negotiating Life's End: Part Six
Evil is not initially a grand thing, but begins innocuously with a constriction of empathy and compassion, creating . . . . the “smallest piece of evil.” This is simply the inability to find the other within the self. This smallest piece of evil can expand rapidly, replacing empathy with antipathy, love with hate, trust with suspicion, and confidence with fear. . . . A potential for evil is thus created every time we draw a line that separates self from other inside ourselves. Kenneth Cloke, Conflict Revolution, Mediating Evil, War, Injustice, and Terrorism
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
(photo: Dad on our first rafting adventure in the Grand Canyon, 1990)
I re-connected with the father I'd idolized since childhood in 1984 when I moved from Northern California to Los Angeles. By that time, Dad had taken up professional residence in the law and motion department in the downtown Los Angeles Superior Court. Between my move to Los Angeles and Dad's retirement in the early 1990's, we met for lunch at least once a week, where we slowly replaced our idealized versions of one another with the flesh of blood reality of us in our all fallibility, complexity and texture. After Dad retired, lunch morphed into early-morning hikes in the low lying Santa Monica mountain range that separates the San Fernando Valley from the Los Angeles Basin.
Though I was never welcomed into Dad's second family, we formed a largely collegial adult relationship which eventually came to include extended-family "adventures" planned and underwritten by Dad -- rafting; mountaineering; canoeing; boating; kayaking; and, scuba diving.
This was not the father of my fantasies. He did not show much interest in my life, my loves, my fears, or my difficulties, although he very much enjoyed hearing about my successes. He liked money and status -- for its own sake -- and was pleased when I could deliver stories with big round numbers associated with the names of well-known law firms.
I can most easily communicate the chasm that yawned between us by telling you the following story.
I'm Not Interested in People's Personal Lives
Dad and I, along with my step-siblings, were flying home from a rafting trip on the Salmon River in the early '90s. By that time, I'd begun taking fiction-writing classes through UCLA extension and had once again become a voracious reader of novels and short stories. Dad, whose reading material consisted primarily of World War II chronicles and biographies of great generals, had uncharacteristically failed to pull a book out of his luggage before we boarded the plane. I'd just finished reading my then-writing professor Bernard Cooper's haunting memoir Truth Serum (title story here) which was still in my carry-on.
I handed Bernard's memoir to Dad, saying "try this" before losing myself in whatever book that had captured my attention. As the plane touched down at LAX, Dad handed the memoir back to me even though he'd only read the first couple of chapters.
"Keep it," I said. "You can give it back to me after you've finished it." But dad pressed it on me nevertheless saying, "You know, I'm not really much interested in people's personal lives."
Not only did I finally and instantaneously "get" the two of us, I suddenly realized it was O.K. with me. By that time, I'd come to deeply appreciate the gifts Dad had given me -- in early childhood, genetically and by way of example -- his clamorous appetite for adventure; his soaring ambition; and, his appetite for life at its most dizzying edges. He was not fearless. But he conducted his life as if he were.
I was finally able to find dad within myself. My heart expanded correspondingly.
My father has had a Filipino caretaker -- Jungao -- for several years now. I don't think anyone loves dad more deeply or knows him better. Jungao was a dentist in the Philippines and is now the likely bearer of the greatest number of dad's treasure of tales -- war stories; farm stories; fruit picking stories; childhood tales; chronicles of wine, women, song and other wild confabulations of memory and desire.
Last Thursday, Dad was released to home hospice care. He hasn't been fed or "hydrated" since then. Seven full days.
Jungao hovers attentively when I am present, reassuring me that my father knows I am there and hears what I'm saying. He interprets the meaning of Dad's eye movements and facial expressions. The furrowed brow, the way Dad soundlessly opens and closes his mouth; his occasional startled physical movements; and, what might even be translated into a smile.
I tell my friend Jay at my morning meeting that it feels as if Dad is trying to tell me something but I don't know what it is. He says, "listen with your heart and you'll probably hear it."
Juanita and Jungao have had words about the morphine. Juanita believes Jungao disapproves because of his religion, but she hasn't actually asked him why or what his religion might be. She's merely instructed him to follow her orders. She tells me Junagao insists Dad talks to him when the morphine begins to wear off. She thinks Junagao is lying.
I have surrendered control to Juanita even though the manner in which my father is dying continues to disturb me.
This is what I know. When Dad married Juanita, he'd already experienced some of Parkinson's most debilitating effects. Juanita promised Dad she wouldn't put him into a nursing home. They had years together to talk about when and how he wanted his life to end. She knows more than I could possibly understand. More importantly, when Dad was cogent, he had entrusted Juanita -- not me -- with the obligation, the right and the power to make these end-of-life decisions for him.
This is his choice playing itself out in his life. It is not my place to interfere.
I am sitting by Dad's bedside chattering about my fondest father-daughter memories -- sitting on his lap at five steering his Volkswagen down the sidewalk in front of our house. The day he taught me to ride my first two-wheeler. The ill-fated adventures from which we'd return home drenched, "play clothes" torn, limbs scratched, knees bruised and faces dirty.
Here's the best one: When Dad lived with us, he was a milkman in a white milkman's suit, carrying a wire basket filled with milk, eggs, cream, and butter for delivery to suburban San Diego families. For those of you too young to remember, this is what milkmen looked like.
If my sister and I successfully completed our weekly chores, our parents pasted gold or silver paper stars on our "chore chart." If we had enough of these by week's end, Dad would take us on a "surprise ride." On one particular Saturday when I was six, Dad took us to his dairy; introduced us to the ruminating cows, gave us a ride in his truck and -- BEST OF ALL -- slipped us into milk crates sitting motionless on a circular conveyor belt, flicked the "on" switch and let us ride, ride, ride, ride.
Dad has been gazing into my eyes for one full hour and I have run out of things to say. I have no recollection of Dad ever before making eye contact with me. I sit still, breathing, and we gaze into each others eyes for two more hours.
Finally, when it is time to go, I admit that to him I have been struggling. "I think you want to tell me something," I say, "but I don't know what it is." His mouth opens and closes and his clear blue eyes shine more brightly than before. "Can you tell me what it is?" I ask, leaning my head down to his open mouth. But the only sound is that of his breath. In, out, in, out, in, out.
I remember what Jay said about listening with my heart. Still, I can't hear anything.
Finally, I admit that I am completely at a loss. I don't think. I just begin to speak.
"I can't imagine what else there could possibly be for us to tell one another," I say, "except this:
I love you and I know you love me. I . . . . . love . . . . . YOU . . . . and . . . . I . . . . KNOW . . . YOU . . . . love . . . ME. I love you. And I know you love me.
And then I slip out the door, saying I'll return tomorrow.
Read on here.