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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

simple black dress

Well, this has been quite an adventure.

Flights from Eugene to Daytona Beach were uneventful enough, though the air was bumpy across the middle of the country, so that it was like riding on a jackhammer. Some of the passengers opened their trays and slept, with their heads gently bumping, hunched in their narrow seats like so many restrained cattle.

My mom and her friend, Paradisa, picked me up at the airport with hugs and laughter, and we set off into the wilds of North Central Florida.

I was fascinated with the large farms along Route 100 northeast of Bunnell, but I got weepy from time to time, and hid this beneath my sunglasses, although Paradisa could tell what was happening and gave me sympathy glances in the rear-view, while alternately offering reassurances to my mom about the impending surgery and spooking her by passing much of the traffic as though it were standing still. She's a skilled driver, though, and I felt we were in good hands.

During the trip of about fifty miles, I noticed that my mom, who had tried mightily to do my name and pronouns on her visit two years ago, has given up on that entirely, which, while it is very hard for me to hear, has to be lived with -- she has not really recovered much from her stroke and has to be taken as she is.

But with Paradisa it's just the opposite: all Risa, she, her, and hers. This lady is a serious adherent of the Church of God, maybe not always the place I would look for allies, but in her case I know that the street in front of the mansion that is being built for her is paved with gold.

Pulling up to the house was -- just -- really -- scary for me. One the one hand, since I had mowed or painted everything in sight, the scene shouted out to me: HOME. On the other, somewhere in the vicinity was a man who had declared that I was never to speak to him again. Paradisa dropped us off, but took me aside for a moment. "If it gets tough here, I've got a room for you at my place, O.K.?"

She's not one to be refused. "Yes'm, thankee ma'am" was the only answer possible.

I did not see him, although I got to meet the Beagle, Dolly, of whom I had heard so much in recent years. She doesn't seem as fat and pampered as I had pictured, but I found her a bit preoccupied and distant (I hear Beagles are like that). And then my mom showed me to my room. I spotted the latest item right away: a CD player, which neither of them knows how to use. And on top of the player, a box of Mozart CDs.

I picked up the box and raised an eyebrow.

"Your daddy says he wants no contact," my mom said, pointing to the Mozart, "but he brought this down here yesterday."

This seemed -- kind of -- well, better than just reassuring.

There was no sign of him for most of the afternoon. We learned later he had slipped round to the front porch from the back door when we came in the front, and sat in the shade much of the afternoon, talking to a fifth of vodka. "Well, he had a lot on his plate just then," added our informant. "He has talked about how his son died and all, and you he doesn't know."

Later, I heard my dad in the living room consulting with my mom on protocols for the next day. I noticed two things: he used "Risa" and "she." Amazing. Just -- amazing.


The next day, the plan that unfolded (with very little input from me) went as follows: I would drive my mom to the hospital, and my dad would come later with Paradisa. This way he wouldn't need to be the same car with me, apparently.

For this occasion I wore a simple black dress with cultured pearls, and I think it was the first time he's ever really seen me.

Hospital staff were relaxed with me even though my mom blithely outed me to each staffer that came to insert an IV or take blood. And Paradisa and I had clearly taken to each other. I found that my dad was able to respond to my overtures in this setting -- no, I couldn't get him coffee --, no, thanks, no candy -- but because he didn't want them just now, was the implication, rather than that I was not to offer.

He actually surprised my mom. But what was working was that I'm so clearly successful in my stealth: justanother57yearoldwomanish -- he had visualized a drag queen, which had horrified him no end. So her outing me troubled him, because he could see that it's another kind of closet, and he's really into closets. So he would correct her.

Which put him kind of into my camp.

Fortunately all eyes were on my mom anyway. It was her movie; I was just a subplot. The idea was, they would do a colonectomy for dangerous polyps. But they were having trouble with her blood pressure. The morning wore on into the afternoon with no sign of the orderlies and their gurney. There were two chairs and three tired old people in rotation around the bed. This gave me lots of opportunities to make sure Paradisa and my dad had somewhere to sit, and I could be kept busy running errands.

Ultimately the young (and very handsome) surgeon came and conferred with us all.

"Ma'am, if we were to do this right now, I'm afraid we would give you another stroke." She will need to have her high blood pressure and her current pacemaker reassessed. They set a new date, and we dressed up our erstwhile patient and walked her back out to the parking lot.

Amid the general relief, it was decided we would all go out for pizza. We did that, and the old man sat across from me. They brought him a larger coffee than he wanted, and he offered to split it with me! My mom and Paradisa looked across the table at each other and smiled conspiratorially.

The next day, I went shopping for a few things: flowers, cards, and a cheap DVD player. I set up the player in the living room and showed my dad how to use it, with the movie "Gettysburg," which I had bought for him, as the sample.

He took an interest.

It was now time for me to return to Oregon.

Paradisa and my mom were waiting at the car. My dad looked up at me from his chair, his chin on his walking stick, his watery right eye drooping at the corner.

"I'm not long for this world. I've signed up at the University for the medical students to use me for science; they can cut me up whichever way they want."

For a moment I couldn't think of a response. I knew about this, but only from my mom; he seemed to be volunteering something mostly as a way of reaching out. I knew that if I tried to say something sentimental, or changed the subject, I'd lose some ground with him, and this was the goodbye moment. How to get it right? Humor would be my best card to play, as it has so often been through the years.

"Well," I offered, "You always wanted to go to the university!"

He didn't exactly laugh, but his eyes lit up.

I patted his shoulder and went out to the waiting car.


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