On a Wednesday evening in January of 1998, I got a phone call from my mother. She told me that my father had something important he wanted to talk to me about. Announcements like that, followed by a phone relay, are rarely a good sign. I could hear my father clearing his throat in the background. That was a distinctive sound, one that I'd heard a thousand times before, and I knew it meant that he was nervous. His first sentence began with the word "well" and ended with "cancer". As he spoke, I pictured him on the other end of the line, looking the way he did when he was upset, with his mouth slightly open and his bottom lip quivering. The first memory I have of my father on the verge of tears, I was about ten years old, and he was telling my mother the bad news about her nephew who had just been killed in a car wreck. The last time was when I cornered him after my wedding and told him that I loved him. I recall him mumbling something in response, burying his head in the floor, and scuttling off down a hallway. He was never very comfortable with his tears, and preferred to retreat somewhere else when they came. Because I was never very comfortable with his tears either, I was a little relieved that he was telling me about his diagnosis over the phone. The rest of our conversation was brief and solemn, and at the end of it, he asked me if I would call my brother and sister and tell them the news. Of course, I said I would, and I did so immediately. Those conversations were brief too.
My father was 71 years old at the time, and had been enjoying the active life of an avid outdoorsmen. He loved to fish and hunt, using his boat and his bird dogs as often as he could, and when he was at home, he was often out cutting wood, planting gardens, or tending to the apple and peach trees in his orchard. He enjoyed riding around on his tractor, pulling up stumps, brush hogging, and plowing snow. He took long walks down the country roads picking up empty beer cans and fast food wrappers that people had thrown out their car windows. Sometimes, he'd put on his hip boots and wade down the nearby creeks in search of golf balls that had washed down from the golf courses upstream. Just the summer before his diagnosis, he and I dug a giant ditch next to his pond and inserted a drainage pipe to skim the leaves and scum off the surface. I was amazed by the stamina and vigor he still retained, and if it weren't for my pride, and the fact that I was 43 years younger than he, I'm not sure I could have kept up with the tireless pace he set with a shovel and a pick-ax. He had long since retired from the plumbing and construction business, and had sold his last rental property a year before. Even so, his tools and equipment rarely got a chance to collect dust. I'd often come home on the weekends and ask Mom where he was and what he was doing and she'd say he was fixing something outside or "just tinkering around". It was a shock for me to come home that first weekend after learning of his cancer and find him slumped down in his green chair in the living room in the middle of the day. My mother said his doctor had given him such an extensive list of restrictions and limitations that he didn't feel like there was anything left that was safe for him to do.
Occasionally, Mom would turn the television on in front of him. Though she knew it was just an illusion, she thought the flashes of light reflecting off his eyes made him look a little less like an empty shell. Seeing him like that frustrated me. I expected him to put up a fight and protest his fate with the same fortitude and tenacity that he seemed to face everything else with. But when the days continued to roll by, and then the weeks, with him barely moving, I began to wonder if he was staging a die-in right there in his chair. I was living too far away at the time to offer much in the way of frequent, personal encouragement, and my mother, even with her unwavering optimism, wasn't having any luck budging him either. I understood that my father was going through a period of adjustment. I majored in psychology and counseling in college, and my textbooks had outlined it all so simply and succinctly. I have guided other people through their own difficult transitions many times before, but when it came to my own father, I was at a complete and total loss on how to help with it. I quickly learned to loathe the term adjustment. It is such an inadequate and meaningless word, and probably better suited for referring to what a person might do with their belt or toupee, rather than describing what my father was going through. There is a quote I once saw that was knitted in cursive letters and hung in a frame. It said that sometimes things fall apart so they can be put back together again. I thought, and I still think, that there is a lot of truth in that statement. On the other hand, sometimes things just fall apart, and it felt like a very long time to my mother and I, waiting to see on which side of the particular coin my father was going to land.
On a weekend visit at the beginning of that summer, I pulled into my parent's driveway and
was pleasantly surprised to see my father in the backyard hanging a freshly made birdhouse
on the lower branch of a slippery elm. I asked Mom about it and she smiled. She said that he was tinkering around again and had been all week. My father must have had an epiphany. What it was, he didn't say, and I didn't ask. Dad and I remained strangers when it came to those kinds of thoughts and feelings, and I was just happy to see him outside again. The next morning, I found Dad in the kitchen frying up a pound of bacon. The grease was popping so far off a skillet that he had to stand two feet away from the stove. Ever since his quadruple heart bypass in 1985, my father had maintained a rigorously strict diet, and bacon was a definite no-no. Waving my hands through the thick smoke, I cleared a path to his side and asked him just what exactly did he think he was doing. He grumbled that if his cancer was going to kill him before his heart did, then to hell with oatmeal every morning, he was going to eat whatever he damn well wanted. I took that as a good sign. Cranky was much better than indifferent. Even Mom would have agreed to that.
He came close to selling his boat that summer because he thought he'd soon be too weak and fragile to operate it. One of his fishing pals, who was older than he, and not in the greatest of health either, agreed that maybe it was for the best. Fortunately, around that same time, my dad started seeing a different doctor, who changed his mind about a lot of things. This new doctor was the no nonsense, feisty kind, and much more reasonable about Dad's physical abilities. He told my father that he wasn't going to tell a seventy-one year old man what he could or couldn't do, and that just because a person could break their arm falling off a toilet, that was no reason to avoid taking a crap. My father liked him immediately. They were both the same flavor of ornery. Dad kept the boat, and even though my mother and I would cross our fingers every time those two old codgers took it to the lakes, we were both glad he did.
Dad continued to stay physically active and regularly used the treadmill he kept in the basement. He still enjoyed his walks and my mother and I managed to convince him to get another dog, after his previous walking buddy passed away in July of that year. He was hesitant about it at first, and said that he didn't want to pass on a responsibility like that to my mother after he died. If I remember correctly, the word "phooey" was part of her response to his concerns. So, we bought a Schnauzer and named him Jake. Jake was smart and stubborn, traits he shared with my father, and he quickly became a permanent passenger in Dad's truck. They drove around everywhere together, and Jake expected to be taken along every time Dad reached for his keys, except on Sundays when he and Mom went to church. Sometimes, when Dad didn't feel well enough to go anywhere, he'd roll down the truck windows, put Jake in the front seat, and let him sit there for awhile. He hoped that Jake would think it was kind of like going somewhere, and it did seem to satisfy him in a way. My father had a natural talent for training animals, and every time I came to visit, it seemed like Jake had learned a new trick. That dog was a blessing in fur and worth his weight in medications and treatments many times over.
In the Fall, Dad picked up his guitar and mandolin and recommitted himself to mastering these musical instruments as best he could. Within six months, he went from being a casual plucker to being a real fine picker. He joined an active circle of fellow bluegrass-loving seniors and began to tour the community center, nursing home, legion hall, and city park circuits. The line-ups for these bands often varied due to arthritis, broken bones, hospitalization, or even death, but when everyone was healthy, they were a skilled, energetic, and sometimes just plain rowdy group of foot tappers. I got a kick out of him referring to his "gigs", and the hours he spent practicing and preparing for them gave him something to focus on through the discomfort and pain. It took me awhile though, to get accustomed to my parents new, busy schedule. They were often out till the wee hours of eleven p.m. and I could no longer call them up at 7:30 in the evening and expect them to be slowly preparing for bed. I even got annoyed about it once and left a snippy message on their answering machine, reprimanding them for failing to notify me when they were going to be out so late. My dad remained a voracious reader, going through more books in a year than most college students claim to have read in four years of school. He could deliver an impromptu lesson on many historical subjects, whether it was asked for or not.
Most of the neighborhood knew he was an accomplished handyman, and he would still receive calls from neighbors and friends about home improvement and repair. If he was feeling up to it, he'd lend them a hand, or, at least, supervise the project.
Organized and disciplined, my mother was always there at my father's side, assisting my him in the daily maintenance of his health. In fact, there were many times when her intuition and careful planning made eventual problems less disruptive and easier to manage. My Dad remained the captain of his ship, but I knew it was my mother, as his first mate, who did a great deal of the steering. They certainly had their share of rough seas to steer through too, but they weathered them all with the brave face and a strong will distinctive of those in the greatest generation. Eventually, I learned that if my father could gather up enough strength to strum on his mandolin, then things weren't too bad.
While there was no doubt on what the final outcome was going to be, my father managed to find enrichment and meaning in the time he had left, and he grew in ways that surprised us all, and maybe even himself. There was a wealth of lessons to be learned from watching him. I wish I'd been paying attention.
I started smoking the year my father was diagnosed with cancer. I don't really know why, maybe it was my divorce, maybe I was insecure, maybe I just wanted to, who knows. I never thought I'd be a member of the smoker's club, and it was three years into the habit before I would even admit to it. Making matters worse, I surrendered any and all control over my diet to the fast food industry. I ate take-out twice a day, maybe more. I rarely enjoyed it, and the frequent stomach ache and heartburn I got afterward was a sure sign my body wasn't too pleased with it either. I was working as a counselor at a community college at the time and I had free access to the gym and swimming pool on campus. There were walking trails, and parks, and nature centers nearby, but I took advantage of none of it. I went to work and then I went straight home afterwards. And there, I would sit in my dark, smoky bedroom and watch television, thumb through trivia books, or chat online with anonymous, fellow do-nothings. Much of my life was superficial and perfunctory, and I was either in denial about that or too indifferent to notice or care.
After five years, my father's medications, which had always negatively effected his appetite, finally caused him to lose interest in eating all together. Ice cubes were all he could tolerate and he began to lose more weight than he could ever possibly hope to put back on. Granted, his medicine had kept him going longer than anyone had expected, but it was starting to work against him now, and he decided he had had enough of it and stopped taking it completely. Within a week his health had declined so sharply that there was no turning back. On a Friday, I left work early, so I could get a head start on the three hour drive to my parent's house. That was a fortunate decision because he died three hours after I arrived. I say it was fortunate not because I think it was, but because I have often been told that I should feel lucky that I was there, and also, perhaps, because I will never have the opposite to compare it to. After all the misery cancer can inflict, I thought some kind of positive balance would be met at the end. I thought that all frustrations and anguish would dissolve into contentment and tranquility. I thought my father deserved a just and noble death. I thought wrong. His spirit didn't hitch a dreamy ride on the wings of a dove and float up and away across a blue horizon. He didn't smile wistfully and gaze up and an invisible choir of angels hovering above his bed. There was no soft, fading sigh, as he went gently off into that good night, and no tinkling of bells or whispered ramblings about white lights, faeries, or Grandma's pecan pie. No, what I saw was my father's broken spirit crawling its way through a long, disturbing gauntlet of mental and physical indignities. His final expressions looked like doubt and fear to me, and I wasn't prepared to handle that as the last impression I had of him. What I wanted was for God to reveal Himself. I wanted cosmic reassurance. I wanted spiritual affirmation. Instead, I felt like my father had been abandoned and left forever alone in a dark nothingness. This was my perception of what happened anyway, and it left me feeling angry, disillusioned, and resentful. I couldn't make any sense of it, or of much of anything after. My father's death was the black hole into which my every expectation and belief seemed to disappear.
The few days that followed were filled with the gloomy business of funeral arrangements. I was calm and stoic, taking charge and not taking charge at the right moments. I learned something new about my father when we went to select his casket. One of the models we considered was a dark, cobalt blue, with seagulls sewn into the liner of the lid. My mother and I liked it. My brother did too, except for the seagulls. Dad hated seagulls, he said. I never knew my father to have a strong dislike for anything, let alone an animal, but my Mom agreed, Dad definitely hated seagulls. My brother suggested that Dad might be okay with it as long as we tucked one of his shotguns in there with him. We got a good chuckle out of that. The liners weren't permanent, and the salesman pulled the seagulls out and asked if we wanted one decorated with the American flag. My father was a WWII veteran. He loved his country and lived the American Dream of a free spirit and self made man. Once we saw the new liner in place, no other alternative needed consideration.
I didn't cry during the visitation or the funeral, or at any time after. Once or twice, I managed a little sob, or a whimper or two, but eventually I gave up on ever having the big weep. On the drive back home to my apartment, I had a lot of time to think about my father's last few months. I didn't really like the way things had progressed, and I was disgusted with myself for not managing the time better. The Sunday afternoon before he died plagued me the most. My mother had asked me to stay with him while she spent the afternoon doing errands. I sat beside his bed and read with him. It reminded me of being a kid, and how I used to come to his room and see him with his reading glasses slid down to the end of his nose, and I'd crawl up in his bed and watch him thumb through one of the many nature magazines he subscribed to. I'd point at the pictures and ask him over and over what this was and what that was and how did that work and when did that happen. When I was old enough to start reading myself, I would read Beetle Bailey paperbacks to him. He'd laugh and I would laugh because he was laughing. All those years later, there I was again, reading to him out of the latest National Geographic, making comments about how interesting this and that was, and how neat it would have been to go exploring in Madagascar or Australia together, like we'd always talked about. My father really was an genuine frontiersmen and trailblazer, and he could have been the subject of many an article found in the kind of magazines he liked to read. Inspired by the writings of Jack London and Robert Service, he left a small, Illinois town in 1959 and headed for Alaska, in search of adventure, enterprise, and his own slice of glory. The stories he told about his time in the Great White North were exciting and he told them with enthusiasm and humility, and I retold them with pride. His exploits could have matched several of those created by his favorite authors, and it must have been satisfying to think that his boyhood idols had over time become his peers. Despite his diminutive frame, it was impossible to ignore the enormity of his presence, and I never felt uncomfortable or resentful under the giant shadow he cast. Though his voice was just a hoarse whisper, he could still communicate, and if I had any final questions for him, that would have been a good time, and the last time, that I could have asked. There were many things left that I wanted to know. I wanted to know where and what he was doing when he heard about Pearl Harbor. I wanted to know what motivated him to leave everything behind and go to Alaska. I wanted to know more about the big earthquake in Anchorage in 1964. I wanted to know how he knew Mom was the right girl for him. I wanted to know what he thought about dying. Probably most of all, I wanted to know what he thought about me. My mother told me later that I should have known that he loved me. Of course, I knew that, but that isn't quite the same as knowing what he really thought about me. I wanted to know who we were to each other, because I didn't feel like I really knew, and I thought maybe I could get a better understanding of myself by asking him. But questions like those would have required us to share the kind of feelings and thoughts that neither of us were comfortable with, and so, I didn't ask him anything. I was just too afraid, and probably mistakenly thought, that he was afraid too. I later rationalized that it would have been selfish of me anyway, to ask him to validate my own life when he was so close to the end of his.
The first Sunday after the funeral, I had the entire day to myself before I had to go back to work on Monday. I spent an hour staring at my computer, television, dvds, videogames, and all my other usual avenues for idle escapism, and none of it seemed as appealing to me as it did before. Instead, it represented an enormous waste of time, time that could surely have been spent on a wide array of worthwhile endeavors, and I simply felt like throwing all of it away. It just seemed useless and pointless to me now. I read for awhile, and then, in the afternoon, I decided to go to a viewing tower not far from my apartment. It was only four miles away, but I had never been to it in all the years I'd lived there. On the drive there, I saw prairie larkspur growing wild in thick patches along the side of the highway. It was so vibrant and plentiful that I wondered why I hadn't noticed it before. I parked at the bottom of the tower and started climbing. By the time I got to the top, I was out of breath and nearly fainted. I might have fallen over the railing, had I not quickly sat down on the steps. It took me a few minutes to recover from the lightheadedness, but when I stood up, and looked out from the top of the tower, I saw a charming, active little town spread out in front of me. I could hear the crack of an aluminum bat echoing up from a softball field in the city park. Far to the east, I could just barely make out someone in a blue canoe, slowly paddling down a nearby river. Dairy cows were walking single file across an open pasture towards a barn for the evening milking. The green canopy of the forest seemed to stretch for miles, and I wanted to climb down and go exploring till there was no more daylight left to wander by. I was perched at the top of that viewing tower for several hours, appreciating new things and appreciating new things, until I got so overwhelmed from appreciating new things that I started to cry. I didn't think I would stop until I looked down and saw the top of my truck. I'd never seen the entire top of my truck before either, and I don't know if it was the angle, or just the ridiculousness of looking down at it like that, but my tears dried up and I started to laugh instead.
Over the following months, I became a regular visitor to that viewing tower, as well as the nature centers and parks nearby. I also joined a softball team, bought a mountain bike, and by the end of summer, I had lost fifteen pounds. I graduated high school in 1987 weighing 130 pounds, soaking wet, and I remember actually celebrating when I finally reaching 150 pounds two years later. In winter of 2002, while my father was beginning to waste away, I was reaching my heaviest weight. I used the electric scale at my parent's house, and was shocked to find myself flirting with two hundred pounds. In disbelief, I called my mother into the bathroom to verify what my eyes refused to accept. She didn't consider it much of a mystery, and explained that the reason I'd never weighed that much before was because I'd never been that fat before. This completely eradicated my theory about malfunctioning scale batteries and unusually heavy thread in my pants. I shed a few more pounds by October, despite a brief obsession I developed with a chicken club sandwich at a local drive-thru. My affection for this sandwich bordered on courtship and I had one for lunch every day for a month. I liked it broiled as much as I liked it fried, and I looked forward to going through the drive-thru and being asked which way I wanted it because I knew it was a sublime dilemma, and that either way, I was a winner. Once that temporary vice was conquered, I thought about exploring healthier foods, and I realized I needed to develop my cooking skills. So, I bought several bags of groceries, dusted off a cookbook and started experimenting. I quickly caught the cooking pneumonia and the cupcake and cookie baking flu. The entire procedure, from the selection of the ingredients to the final garnish, was like meditation for me. Quite often, I'd only have a sample of my creations, for I had satiated myself already on the mere love for the process of making it. In the past, the sight or smell of most vegetables, besides peas and corn, caused a gag reflex in me. But with the right recipes, I no longer considered green beans, broccoli, asparagus, and squash a toxic section of the food pyramid. I stayed on a vegetarian diet for an entire two months, and considered it a decent effort on my part. In the end, veggie monogamy wasn't for me, especially not with the aromas permeating the summer air from neighborhood grills. Red meat, I can do without, but I do covet my neighbor's catfish and pork chops. I also started making smoothies in the blender, with bananas, raspberries, apples and kiwi, all the colors of the fruit rainbow. I got my bran and fiber and I drank green tea everyday. I took handfuls of vitamins and supplements, and even went the extra mile to crush the pills to further ensure their absorption. I did this because of a repulsive story I heard once from a man who operated an outdoor potty business. He claimed that during the weekly maintenance of his properties, he ran across an alarming amount of undigested pills. Well, I didn't want to flush my vitamins down the toilet, figuratively or literally. I also became a regular listener of health radio shows, signed up for their newsletters, and was even compelled to call in and chat about the wonders of red wine and garlic a few times.
I was beginning to feel empowered and I awaited cold and flu season with an almost masochistic anticipation. The first time I found myself running a temperature, I took the natural approach and fought it off with a bag of oranges, extra green tea, some rest, and a burning need to reaffirm my new healthier lifestyle.
I felt like I was on the right path, but I still cheated once in awhile. For instance, on the days I ate well, getting all my fruits and veggies, I thought it wouldn't matter if I had a burger or a piece of pie too. Consequently, I was eating twice as much as I needed to. Midnight sweet cravings and discipline were also two things I couldn't get to co-exist. I would wake up in the middle of the night and tear into anything that was filled with sugar. It was almost like sleep-eating, and many mornings I would wake up and find the crumpled wrappers of snack cakes and empty cookie containers, and wouldn't remember getting into any of it. It was some kind of Oreo amnesia, I guess. I rarely missed a day of exercise though. However, my routine had flat lined and I wasn't challenging myself to move on to more difficult things.
I knew I had to work harder, because I had some lofty, vanity goals. One of these goals was to see my abs again, and I had convinced myself that it might be possible to uncover at least two cans of that old six pack before it was permanently covered by a keg. I needed to graduate on to a more vigorous level of exercise and I just wasn't doing it. And probably, worst of all, I still snuck in a couple cigarettes a day. I excused my bad behavior by thinking that at least it wasn't as much as I used to smoke. I was hamstringing myself with these habits, and it was time to get more serious. So, over the next few months, I increased my scrutiny of calories, learned which fats to make friends with, and attempted to understand the complexities of carbohydrates. I kept sugar at a distance and only bought what I needed to cook with, hoping that even I wouldn't get out of bed late at night and sleep-drive to the corner store for a candy bar. Besides, my nearest source of temptation, a gas station on the corner, closed at eleven anyway. And I quit smoking cold turkey, mostly because every time I lit up, I felt like I was desecrating my father's grave with my own stupidity. That alone, was motivation enough to stop, but the added benefit of being able to really taste my own cooking didn't hurt either. I pushed myself past my exercise plateau and found that it was easier than I thought it would be. The first time I went beyond my previous jogging limits, I was so satisfied with myself that I went and visited an old friend. That chicken club sandwich hadn't changed a bit. Unfortunately, there was something else that hadn't changed. I was still angry, disillusioned, and resentful. Despite all the alterations to my lifestyle, I still felt horrible, worse than I ever did before. Apparently, all the fresh fruit and green tea in the world wasn't going get rid of whatever was eating me up inside. There is another old saying I read once that says something about how things tend to get worse before they get better. How much worse, it didn't say, but I would eventually have the opportunity to learn that all by myself.
By spring of 2004, my daily walks had disintegrated into neurotic hysteria. I was convinced that a freakish disaster awaited me around every turn. I imagined my injury or death from a falling tree or a psychopathic jogger coming up from behind to bash my head in with a rock. Every swarm of gnats I walked through seemed intent on infiltrating my throat and suffocating me. Even the sound of squirrels, rustling in the leaves, made me jittery. On my creative days, I even fantasized that these innocuous creatures might be poisonous. The more active I was, the more I thought about the many different ways I could be killed by a random accident or mysterious disease, and how horribly unfair that would be now that I was trying to appreciate my new life. Sure, these were irrational thoughts, but there are, after all, true stories of people being struck down by fate right at the moment of their rebirth. Like the man who wins a million dollars in the lottery and drives off a bridge on the way home. Or, the woman who decides to keep her baby and then is kicked in the stomach by a wild horse. It happens all the time, and I was sure it was going to happen to me too. My walks were ruined by these nutty thoughts, and most of the time they ended up in desperate sprints back to the safety of my truck. I wouldn't feel any better there either, because I was terrified of driving and I often had to give myself a pep talk before I could even start the engine. While driving the roads and highways, I would cringe at passing cars, fearing the metal in our vehicles might suddenly become magnetized and pull us both into the center lane. In an attempt to avoid unnecessary trips, I limited my travel to just work and back, and since I was growing more and more afraid of exercising outdoors, I tried to find ways to exercise inside instead. One of my worse ideas was to try roller blading around the small space of my unfinished basement. This ill-conceived endeavor lasted only as long as my first fall, which, ironically, occurred while I was trying to put my safety pads on. As I was wrestling with a wrist pad, my feet got away from me, and I slammed my elbow onto the cement floor. Within a few days, my entire arm turned such hideous shades of black and blue, that I worried about a blood clot developing and traveling to my heard and lodging there. I saw my doctor about it as soon as I could and he said I was fine. Clumsy, but fine. That mishap halted any further extreme sports in my basement, and it was just as well, because I had recently read an article in one of my health newsletters about respiratory problems developing from exposure to fiberglass insulation, and I was growing suspicious of my every sniffle. In search of a safer place to exercise, I found a paved, out of the way trail on which to ride my mountain bike. I thought it was far enough away from perceived hazards, but I felt just as vulnerable there as anywhere else, especially after an angry sweat bee got stuck in my ear and caused me to swat myself off my bike and down a ravine.
My nights weren't faring any better. I had regular insomnia and I paced around the house for hours. I wore the bottoms out of a dozen pairs of socks trying to tire myself out, but it never worked. My mind wouldn't stop racing, and when I finally did get to sleep, I would be propelled out of it every forty-five minutes or so by what I thought was the presence of people in the room. Shadows on the wall took human form, and the whirling blades of the ceiling fan seemed to stir up all the voices in the room and combine them into one disturbing hum. I couldn't tell the difference between being awake and having a nightmare anymore. My father became a frequent visitor in my dreams, and always appeared with the same expression on his face, the one he had in the photograph my mother picked out for his obituary. The picture was taken while he was playing his mandolin and Mom thought he looked healthy and content in it. I had an entirely different interpretation of it. To me, he looked unsure and afraid, reminding me of the night he died. I hated that picture, and having the image appear in my dreams made me even more terrified of falling asleep than I already was. Simply put, my bedroom became a haunted place that I wanted to avoid.
Later on in August, while driving back from an overnight trip, I started having difficulty swallowing. I was eating a cheeseburger at the time and I assumed it was probably karma messing with me for cheating on my diet. But it became a regular problem, continuing on in varying degrees of annoyance, until I was consumed with investigating the source of the irritant by using a mirror and a flashlight to look down my throat a dozen times a day. I never confirmed anything except that the uvula sure is a weird looking thing. I felt like I was trapped in a snowball of anxiety, rolling ever faster down a steep hill, and picking up every worry and concern that would stick to me.
The last weeks of November grew worse and worse, and by Thanksgiving, I was ready to pop like a timer in a turkey. I was playing dominoes after dinner at my mother's house, and the sight of my father's empty chair got under my skin so far that I wanted to explode. I imagined myself knocking all the dominoes off the table with a sweep of my hand and then throwing the table out a window. I was boiling, and I had to excuse myself from the table. I went over to a couch and laid down. I was so exhausted from trying to hold it together that my body immediately shut off and I fell asleep for an hour. The next day I decided to go to an emergency room and have someone look at me. Look at what, I wasn't' sure. All I knew was that it felt like an emergency and I thought someone professional should be around to witness it. I packed a small suitcase, and left some cryptic phone messages and emails, letting people know that I might be unavailable for a while, but that I would be okay. I was planning for a long stay, for the inevitable, for the worse. I checked in that afternoon and told the admitting nurse that my heart hurt. She asked if I could be more specific and I said my heart felt heavy. That didn't help her much either, although as far as metaphors go, I thought both descriptions were pretty damn good, if I don't say so myself. They did the standard tests and found nothing. I was told that I had had a panic attack. I had waited for four hours in the emergency room, convinced that I was dying, and I left with some antacids and a recommendation from the charge nurse to lighten up. I didn't follow her advice, however, and continued to be highly anxious and overly sensitive for the rest of the weekend. Everywhere I went, the noises and odors were so unbearable that they made my teeth hurt. I tried going to a movie but I couldn't make it past the opening credits. The theater was impossibly small, the people impossibly close, and I felt like a foam, packing peanut with personal space issues in the middle of a moving party. Someone sitting behind me was mangling a piece of gum, and I thought I detected the faint smell of pee drifting up from the front rows. I had to get the hell out of there. A week later, the social phobias had subsided enough for me to resume my growing obsession with my health. I made appointments for all kinds of tests and continued to meet with doctors and specialists, and when nothing was found, I'd go back to researching other possibilities, develop new symptoms, and make another appointment. I was convinced that the heartburn was a heart attack, that the problem in my throat was cancer, that the stitch in my side was a leaky liver, and that every other ache and pain was another sign of impending personal doom. If I had overheard a conversation about menstrual cramps, I might have developed similar symptoms by nightfall.
By winter, my list of complaints continued to expand, and some of them were quite real. For instance, the residual pain in my elbow from the roller blading incident caused me to drop a barbell on my foot. I mourned the loss of a toenail ten days later. If I rode my mountain bike too long, my left wrist would begin to swell and ache. I presumed it was because I was gripping the handlebars too tightly. I consulted my doctor about it and he told me to stop gripping the handlebars too tightly. I also learned that it is, in fact, possible to overload on bran and fiber. Luckily, my mother still had some of my father's old enema kits. Enough said there. In December, I was getting bloated and having heartburn from all the citrus fruit and legumes I was eating, so, I had an upper gastro exam done. It didn't detect any damage or bad stomach flora, but it did find a tiny calcium deposit and the doctor said that it would probably grow larger, causing me no real harm other than the possibly horrendous pain associated with passing it, and though that probably wouldn't be anything to worry about for several years, wasn't it great that I was able to let it plague my thoughts sooner rather than later. Of course, despite what the doctor said, I remained suspicious that there might be some dried prunes stuck in my esophagus, but I didn't want to embarrass him by pointing out what I thought he had overlooked. I think he was pretty close to throwing me out of his office anyway. I had an endoscopy done during that time too, and though it did not reveal the tumor in my throat that I suspected, it did discover a hiatal hernia. The specialist that examined me said he couldn't tell if it was new or something I'd had for twenty years, which made it particularly difficult to decide how I should go about panicking about it. One night while doing sit-ups against the retaining wall in my basement, a small chip of cement from the foundation fell into my eye and scratched my cornea badly enough that I had to wear a patch for two days. And outbreaks of psoriasis on my scalp, likely caused by the stress, were so frequent and severe that had I ever found myself lost out in the woods, I could have made my way back by following my own trail of dandruff.
I went through most of my savings on tests and appointments and medications that I probably didn't need. But I couldn't convince myself that they weren't warranted. It wasn't a matter of if I was dying, it was when, and I had already picked out an epitaph inscription. It would have read "I knew this would happen."
During a doctor's visit, my primary physician mentioned depression. Despite my education and experience, I flinched at the sound of it as if he'd just vomited on my shirt. The connection between depression and me just didn't register. To be honest, I was a little perturbed that he even brought it up. Here's a guy who has so much hair growing out of his ears that it looks like he's wearing enormous caterpillars on his head, and he has the nerve to suggest that I'm missing something. I wasn't having any of it, and completely poo-pooed his presumption. But not long after, another doctor asked if I thought I might be bi-polar. I didn't react well to that either. There is a noise people make when they are choking on their own incredulity, and it's full of wet letters like P, S, F, and T. I spit it out with such force that he had to clean his glasses. I humored him anyway, and accepted his prescription for medication without punching him in the neck. I tried the pills for a couple of weeks but stopped taking them when the side effects I got from them threatened to take my mind off the symptoms I was already nurturing. I thought it was practical to impose a limit on how many things I should juggle obsessing about at the same time.
Eventually, I reached a level of such excessive self-awareness that a broken knuckle hair could hardly escape my notice and subsequent panicked inspection. I couldn't concentrate on anything except the distressing state of my imagined decay, and had I learned something drastic and awful from a doctor, it might actually have eased my mind. A bizarre, but fitting, image began to repeat itself in my dreams. I was standing in front of a mirror, staring at a merry-go-round that was strapped to the top of my head. The kiddie carts in the shape of horses, swans and teacups were on fire and spinning around my head and I couldn't close my eyes or make it stop. Being bi-polar is not unlike an out of control carnival ride. Thoughts and emotions are on a pendulum of extremes, swinging back and forth between rational and irrational, rising to the highest highs and falling to the lowest lows. The fluctuations can occur over the course of a day or even in the space of a minute. A flow chart of these mood variations might look as jagged as a piranha's teeth. Depression is a common companion to the bi-polar, and given how tiring it is to continually manage intense emotions, it's not surprising that some people actually look forward to staying bottomed out for a while with a good case of the blues.
I, however, didn't have much patience for my problems, nor any confidence in my ability to improve them. I knew of several techniques and conditioning methods that I would normally have suggested the use of to someone else, but it felt gimmicky and insincere when I thought
about applying it to myself. I was cynical about everything, even about my own chosen profession, and I began to wonder if all the time and money I wasted on my education was really worth it if I didn't have any faith or respect in it anymore. Nothing was working. Nothing was going my way. Only a year or so year earlier, I was fearless and confident. Now, loud noises made my heart leap out of my chest. My father had left me many examples of how to prevail over life's adversities, but how was I supposed to overcome those which I had imposed upon myself? As they often are, those are the kind of obstacles and challenged that are the most difficult to confront, no matter how far ahead one sees them coming.
By Spring of 2005, I had had enough. Life seemed like a game that wasn't going to get any easier to play. In a strange and morbid way, my nihilistic thoughts benefited me, and I found a peculiar sense of relief and peace of mind while hanging from the end of my fraying rope. My walks improved. I didn't fret about the possibility of an errant driver skidding off the highway, down the embankment, and running me over. In fact, sometimes, I'd turn my back to the busy roads along my walking routes, close my eyes, and raise my arms high in the air, almost as if I was daring them to come get me. Occasionally, I would see the humor in it all, knowing how I'd come full circle, from fearing everything, to not giving a damn anymore, and wondering if, or when, I'd start the cycle over again. But no matter how badly I felt before, during, or after my walks, I still took them, and it would be there that I would find some of my greatest resources for strength and resolve. I loved the smell of dogwood after a rain, or the scent of soap and talcum powder that lingered behind the air of passing walkers. These odors were like smelling salts, smacking me back to my senses. I loved to watch barn swallows chasing blue jays away. Sometimes they'd chase me away too, and I envied their courage. I could gaze off a bridge for hours, watching a school of minnows swirling around near the surface, and it was more entrancing to me than anything I might find plastered on a television screen. Nature is one of the best friends a person can make, and getting reacquainted with it was the wisest choice I ever made.
On a particularly beautiful, sunny summer day, I was moseying down a gravel road between two fields of tall, slender prairie grass. On the edge of the path, a small patch of goldenrod was growing, and I spotted a butterfly in the midst of it, lighting on one petal, and then another, busy with the chores of its simple, little life. I stood there watching for about half an hour, as it meticulously investigated every bloom, and while I did, I wasn't thinking about all the things left unsaid between me and my father. I wasn't craning my neck, trying to locate a lump in my throat. I wasn't angry about God not showing up when I wanted him to. I wasn't overwhelmed by doubt and fear, or condemning myself over my failures and mistakes. I wasn't preoccupied with a huge list of questions about meaning and my place in the world, and the disappointing thought that I might not ever understand any of it. In that moment, I got an answer, and it was flittering around on a flower right in front of me. For me, that was an epiphany. Epiphany isn't a word used much anymore, especially not in describing the appearance or manifestation of a divine being. My epiphany wasn't a talking, burning bush or bolt of lightning, but I figure God knows there's a difference between soothing someone's soul and unnecessarily freaking them out. I appreciated His restraint. By no means was I magically healed by that one experience. I didn't wake up the next morning to the sound of golden trumpets and make a joyous proclamation from a balcony. There were no flowers calling out my name and the streets weren't paved with puppies. No, on the contrary, it was merely the beginning of me feeling a little less miserable than I did the day before. The change was small, no bigger at first than making the decision not to deny myself the opportunity to admire more butterflies.
Now, three years after my father's death, I am still navigating through my period of, dare I say, adjustment. I feel like I've had all the wires in my head pulled out and reinserted, and
not necessarily back into the same places they were before. The perspective I have on my life is different, as if I'm staring down at it from a different angle now, not unlike how a different view of the roof of my truck led me to discover what I had never focused on before. Certainly, it's been an unpleasant and unforgiving process, and still is, and if I could have walked another path to get to where I am now, I would surely have taken it. Maybe I could have avoided some of the new eccentricities, as I prefer to call them, that I've acquired along the way. And maybe I wouldn't have distanced myself so far from the people, places, and things that existed comfortably in my life before. But maybe this is exactly where I am supposed to be, just like how that butterfly was exactly where it was supposed to be. I know that I might not ever be confident about my health, and if something ever does materialize, I just hope that it's still a long time away yet. But I can't deny that my change in diet has helped though, because I haven't had a cold in three years, and I used to have them quite regularly. I don't fear death quite as much as I used to either, and sometimes I don't even wear my helmet when I go bike riding anymore. I can't really point to that as definitive proof that I'm becoming a carefree risk-taker. It might simply be that I'm forgetful, or that the chin strap causes a rash, or that I don't like the way it makes me look like a pink pterodactyl. Nonetheless, a distinct demarcation line has grown between how I viewed my life before my father died and how I view it after. I have found meaning and purpose where there was none before, and I wouldn't trade that for anything, except maybe to have my father around to share it with me. It would be nice to be able to tell him that I finally get it. Still, I often wonder if the lingering disharmony I feel is similar to what my father felt before he settled his affairs and set out for Alaska on his biggest journey. I'd like to think that dissonance is the seed of inspiration and achievement, and that, perhaps, my own adventures will soon be crawling out from the ashes of my past despair. I'm counting on it a little, actually. But I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, for I know there is simply no reliable way to tell when things have finished falling apart. All I can do, in this very important meantime, is stay focused and not let myself get distracted by poisonous squirrels.