When the king died the castle cried and in his absence chaos loomed. The dining table isn’t the same. Something is missing. The call came two weeks ago. My Dad, suffering from the flu, could not breathe. He called 911, the ambulance came, and they took him to the hospital. In addition to the flu he had congestive heart failure. He pulled through and went home after a couple of days.
My Dad is 86. He is still with us. We lost my Mom last summer. He’s had heart disease for at least a decade, probably longer. Stents were put in a few years ago. The doctors are doing all the right things. My Dad is doing the right things, taking his meds, eating right, and exercising as best he can. The one thing he can’t change, we can’t change is his age. He’s in the gravy years, where another day living is a blessing. All this is pretty much something you can phone in about someone of his age.
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This too is predictable: the iterations of, “oh crap, we are going to lose him” followed by, “not yet.”it was five years like that with my Mom. She’d get really sick, the doctors did the needful, and she’d be released and a little closer to the shores of the Styx. When she passed she was home, in the rented hospital bed that was her place in the house, with my Dad discovering that she’d gone home.
Some of us just go. We are alive, in the rhythm of those around us and then we are not. Those we leave behind grieve their loss and the universal circle of life lives on. Others, like my Mom, take baby steps toward the shores of the Styx before running away from it only to be dragged closer by the inevitable injuries of old age.
Then last Thursday afternoon my sister called. My Dad was back in the emergency room after waking up Thursday morning with more trouble breathing. This scared us. We feared the worst. I planned to visit last weekend. This news prompted me to move up my plans. I started my drive North on Friday afternoon.
This is Serious
My Dad’s own self-image is of invincibility. He can’t die. He won’t die. This inconvenience too will pass. To face his own mortality, to have Thanatos enjoying a bottle of his beer seated in the kitchen while reviewing river cruise packages for the Styx, this isn’t him. My Dad will not stop for death. The river cruise brochures are creepy. When Thanatos left my Dad threw the brochures away.
Our pastor spoke of the crucifixion this Sunday. Thanatos is an enemy of the church. It is not natural. Christ died to defeat death. All who have died for the last two millennia will one day be resurrected when he returns. We are still waiting. People are still dying. The Hindu infinite circle of life and death still turns inexorably. My Dad is not wrong for believing that death is wrong. Thanatos should not be so near.
I am a poor, lay follower of the Way of Jesus of Nazareth. I mean no disrespect to the many who have far more hours of study invested in the orthodoxy I follow. But . . . I don’t find death to be the enemy my church says it is. None of us lives forever. Yes, the priesthood promises us, one day Christ will return and we will all be resurrected. In the meantime there is life to live and death to mourn.
For my Dad, it’s an offense that he could be four score and six years old and frail. God-kings don’t die. If you live on Mt. Olympus you live forever. He lives in South Jersey far from Mt. Olympus. He will not live forever. It scared him to be so close to death. It’s disconcerting that Thanatos is so tangible and the wind and water of the priests so ephemeral.
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It’s been a draining weekend. The hotel I picked is a no-tell motel. The soundscape was music, laughter, arguing, and horizontal bop. I didn’t sleep well. I visited him twice, spoke to my Dad briefly and watched him sleep. My gut feeling is that he wasn’t in much of a mood to fight the heart condition and flu. The docs planned to release him this week. I’m not sure he was good with that. Our patriarch felt like crap.
His house is filled with nearly sixty years of accumulated stuff while living a first world life. The hardest decisions will be the thousands of small choices over seeming inconsequential things like his dinner forks. Every fork tells a story for one of us. We all can pick a fork and talk about the meals we ate with it over the last half-century. The value, the bickering, won’t come from the monetary value. It will come from the stories, the emotional value of a simple stainless steel fork. A simple fork that holds the memory of an ailing king.
An Unusual King
My Dad is an unusual king. He comes from landed gentry in the reign of Edward VI. He is at least the second first-born son I know of. he is an heir to the title of patriarch for our line of Rolf/Janes and Webb. His narrative is not one of ease and privilege. Over four score and six years he has gone from gas station attendant to an elder in the Presbyterian Church of USA’s national assembly. He fought for the success he has.
He is a self-made man from a broken family. His father was an addict, his mother suffered from epilepsy, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia. They were poor. Money was always a challenge. To graduate from UC Berkeley’s Engineering School he had to work full-time and study. His salary paid the bills for his mother and siblings. He had to be the man of the house far too soon.
Many never rise above his circumstances. Many wallow in the aches of their childhood and bumble through life arriving at the county morgue another sad John Doe leaving a trail of broken marriages and regrets. It is fashionable lately to declaim that history is destiny, that we are born this way and thus, must accept our misery as an inescapable fate. The solution is to coddle the poor sot so he can be forever a basement-dwelling creep with an avatar that preys on young women.
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My Dad was not one of those many. He was a king, firstborn in his bloodline, and able to triumph over the bad hand dealt to him by his circumstances. He graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Electrical Engineering, was offered a job with RCA in Camden, NJ, and took it. Some of his work designing and building power supplies for mainframes is a small reason why I can watch Netflix on my phone. The move to New Jersey began a new narrative of success living the American Dream. He met my Mom. They married, bought the house he still lives in, became pregnant with me, and settled in for the long run as one of the good people. There are four of us, myself and my three sisters.
I’m not looking forward to the first hour after the funeral when we all realize the task before us. A lifetime of stories has to be hauled out of the house we grew up in. The house that has always been ours, our castle, has to be made empty so a new family can fill it with memories of their own. It’s going to suck.
One More Supper
We cooked dinner last weekend in the kitchen that has hosted many meals. The old rhythms remained. A few of us filled the living room, illuminating our faces by the light of our screens. Others busied themselves in the kitchen. We had to feed a vegetarian, a picky child, a dairy-free dieter, some that liked capers, and some that didn’t. One of us made big noises about a portobello and Proscuitto pasta. Cookbooks came out, conversations had, grocery lists written, stores mapped, and then heads turned to me. Would I shop for this?
Between 11 am and 4 pm the mushroom and ham pasta became a roasted sweet pepper and ground beef in marinara pasta. For the vegetarian we did a roasted sweet pepper, yellow onion, and tomato saute dressed with red gravy. We used some of the red gravy sauteed with a bit of hamburger for the child. After reserving a portion of the sweet pepper saute the remainder we combined it with the hamburger and red gravy. We put a jar of capers on the table. We had four variations of the pasta sauce on offer. The pasta was pappardelle. The salad was Caesar. It was a good meal. My Dad wasn’t there and that made it odd. We wanted him there, not in a hospital bed a half-hour from us.
The day will come. The castle will cry. A lifetime of stories encapsulated in ten thousand items accumulated over four score and six years. We will begin, wetting our choices with tears. It will be done. A king dead, a castle crying, his kin doing the needful.