The Critical Mass

Ed Spevak, 1929-2011

The execution papers were in my brief case. My father’s living will. It called for this nonsense to be ended.

He’d turned off all of the lights in the house and tried to grope his way upstairs in the darkness. Mom always told him to leave the light on when he came up the stairs at night, then turn it off. After all, there was a switch at the top of the stairs. But my father would never do anything you told him to do. He’d always do the exact opposite. So, leaving himself totally in the dark, as always, he fell down the stairs. It was the night after Christmas. Now he was lying on the floor with two broken vertebrae to go with the winter hat and gloves we’d bought him.

It was always difficult to find the right thing for him.

I’ve been here since Sunday. I see that my parents had recently bought themselves a couple of early Christmas gifts. One was one of those “Amish Heaters” they’d seen advertised on TV. It plugs into the wall and the fake logs glow a cozy orange. An impressionistic fire dances on the back surface. It even gives out a little heat.

About five feet away, sprawling in the corner of the living room, is their new 55-inch high definition TV. When my father got up in the morning, he’d turn it on, sit in his chair and stare at Fox News. Maybe he’d get up and do something, like drive his big riding mower around the lawn in the summer, or take the screens out of the windows in the fall. I’m not sure why he insisted on removing the screens. Decades of habit, I guess. A couple of years ago, one spring, we’d even put them in for him. Of course, we’d done it all wrong. You have to wash the windows first, see.

I don’t know why. He never seemed to look out the windows much. And the curtains were drawn a lot. That corner of the living room, and now that magnificent new TV, was the center of the universe.

“I feel like I should be sitting in a car while I’m watching this thing,” I told my mom.

“Now he’s not even going to get to use it,” she said.

This was well into the fourth week of his hospitalization. The broken vertebrae had evolved into pneumonia, then his heart, lungs kidneys and bowels had been fading. His doctors – he had a half-dozen specialists looking in on him – would shore up one situation, then another emerged. My father was an old, crumbling dam. He hadn’t walked since the night he fell down the stars.

We were checking the Internet for rehab places for when he was ready to leave the hospital.

I wandered around their house, fixing little things. My dad used to take care of stuff like this. Unless you told him, “Dad, you ought to take care of that.” Then he’d ignore it. But mostly, he was a bit of a handyman, until recently. So I tightened up the wobbly kitchen table. In the living room they had a couple of those comfy chairs that swivel and rock back and forth. Except, when you sat in one of them, it would violently try to dump you, like that scene in one of the early James Bond films where a displeased Dr. No pushes a button and one of this henchman sitting at the table gets flipped backward into a tank full of sharks or something. I turned over the chair and found a hole in the suspension where a bolt was missing. I stuck a new one in there and it worked fine.

One morning I got up at six to take out the garbage. Trudging in the snow, in the early morning darkness down the 175-yard long driveway. My mom said I couldn’t just leave it out at the end of the driveway the night before because animals would get into it. I think she was right. A few nights earlier I had been awakened by an astonishing cacophony of bloodcurdling howls. Coyotes. My parents were born and raised in the Cleveland suburb of Bedford, but over the years each move had taken them increasingly further from civilization. Even that winter home in Florida, in the manicured community of gently curving streets lined with houses with salmon-colored tile roofs. The last time I visited, maybe five years ago, the neighborhood seemed empty. People were dying off, or moving into senior-living homes. Their kids didn’t want to live there, and no one was buying anymore. That real estate bubble had burst.

My parents got lucky and sold their place a couple of years ago. Now they were living in a town far to the southwest of Cleveland. Everyone around here lived in relatively new houses, clusters of developments 10 or 15 years old, like circling the wagons, surrounded by acres of land. The people lived like farmers, except few of them were farming. Every spring, my parents allowed some stranger to drive a tractor through the 10 or so acres of their backyard, planting soy beans or corn.

The last few mornings, I’ve been staring at the kitchen table, looking out the back window – the screens are out – looking at the dry, broken corn stalks poking up like bleached bones through a few inches of snow. I’ve been drinking coffee from a mug that reads “60: Official old fart.” I tell myself, “This mug is 21 years old.”

Life with my dad has been a difficult 81 years, even though I’ve only witnessed 53 of them myself. But I’d seen enough. My brother had only recently been speaking to him after 15 or so years. I don’t exactly know why, but I didn’t blame my brother. My dad hadn’t been invited back to our house since the night he flew into a rage at dinner over some inconsequential and now-forgotten slight, stood up and pulled his arm back like he was about to hit me. He didn’t. He was 71 at the time, I suppose even he realized it would have been a ridiculous act. He had never hit me before, anyway. Instead, he stormed upstairs and left without a word the next morning, taking my mother with him. That was more like him.

My mom called a couple of evenings later and put him on the phone. He apologized, haltingly. But sincerely, I thought. It was the only time in my life that he had ever apologized for anything. I remember it well. We were all watching the TV news, images of the Twin Towers falling a few hours earlier.

Life round my father had always been a nougat of crisis wrapped in a layer of tension, but never anything this big. I’d been talking to him by phone since his fall, waiting for the promised move to rehab, but it was increasingly obvious I had to get over there myself. I wasn’t hearing any improvement in his voice.

About 20 minutes after Margaret and I had arrived at my parents’ house o Sunday, about three weeks after his fall, the phone rang. One of my father’s lungs had collapsed and his heart stopped. We raced to the hospital. CPR and a defibrillator brought him back, although they broke a few ribs getting it done. We waited for hours, then they let us into his room for a few moments. Tubes everywhere. Machines pumping away, coldly and efficiently in place of his fading organs. It was moments before he would fade into a drug-induced sleep. The only thing I recognized were his eyes. They looked fierce, and perhaps frightened. We all said a few things. My mom leaned over and kissed him. As we left, I turned to look at him one more time. He couldn’t speak, but he batted his eyelashes furiously. I think he was telling me he knew it was us.

I didn’t know much about this guy, really, even though I’d lived with him for two decades. I’d been told at Bedford High School he was known for his jitterbugging skills. But I don’t think I ever saw him dance. He enlisted in the Navy in 1951 for the Korean War and fought on the Key West front for four years. His job was keeping flight logs for the naval air training missions. I suppose this was because he’d won penmanship awards in school. He did have marvelous skills there. He printed like a draftsman, a sparse, precise, art-deco lettering. In fact, after the Navy he spent his entire working life as a contracting estimator, working for companies bidding for construction jobs. He’d look at a set of blueprints and compute how many ceiling tiles or how many feet of heating duct would be needed on the site.

On the second and third weeks of his hospitalization, when he often had a tube in his mouth, or an oxygen mask, he’d communicate by writing notes to the nurses. Sometimes the drugs got in the way of his thinking. The nurses showed my brother one note where he’d written some odd code. Something like, “162 sq. feet vs. 120 sq. feet.” At that moment, he must have been drifting though some room in his brain that held memories from his estimating days.

I brought my father’s his living will along with me on each visit. But I left it in the brief case. Considering our often-difficult relationship, there was something unseemly about me handing over the order of execution to his doctors.

But who would? While at their home I called a few relatives, navigating the dysfunctional family tree. Not everyone actually spoke to each other. I had known this for years, but the disease was a little more widespread than I’d thought.

One day while sitting next to my father’s hospital bed, I noticed a clipboard and a pencil on a table next to him. This must have been what he was using to communicate. I flipped through the blank pieces of paper until I found one with writing that someone had moved to the back of the clipboard. The printing was shaky, but I still recognized my father’s writing. Three sentences, one an incomplete thought, another asking for something to drink. The third:  “When can I go home?”

He didn’t. On Tuesday night, I told my brother about the living will. We all decided, if he wasn’t better on Wednesday, I’d show it to his doctors and discuss the options.

Wednesday came. I knew this was the day. There was no improvement. When he came off of sedation, he didn’t awaken, as most people did. I told the doctors about my dad’s living will – no life support, no life-protracting nutrition – and said it was the family’s decision to honor it. At 12:30 p.m., they disconnected him from the equipment. My dad slept through the procedure. An hour later, I suggested to Margaret that she take my mom home; she’d been through enough, didn’t want anymore. I sat next to my father, afraid to leave the room.

For the first couple of hours, I thought he looked better than ever. Had we made a mistake? The nurses came in a few more times and moved him. I could see how bad he was. Withered away. Once when they were moving him, he awoke. I stood just behind two nurses, talking to him. He looked right past them and straight at me. I think he knew I was there, but his eyes were clouded, a strange gray color. Then the morphine did its work.

A chaplain stuck his head in the door and caught me crying just a little. I said I’d forgiven my dad. I didn’t say for what. I’m not even sure for what. The chaplain said it looked like something important was happening here.

I sat next to my dad for 8½ hours, most of the time just watching him breathe. I didn’t think it was possible to sit like that for so long and do nothing. His signs were steady, and by 9 p.m. I decided to leave.

At midnight, the nurse called from the hospital. His signs were fading. I sat in the dark for a few moments and decided against waking my mom. I wasn’t going to go, I was going to go, I wasn’t going to go…. Twenty minutes later, the phone rang again. He was gone.

I’ve made the phone calls. My father was simply going away.

My mom’s handled it well. She’s been referring to him in the present tense most of the time, but she’s got it. Last night we were watching an old Peter Sellers comedy on the 55-inch TV when, out of nowhere, she said, “I wonder how long it takes to burn a body?”

Her husband is being cremated. She decided to delay a funeral and a memorial service until later. Maybe it won’t happen at all. That was my father’s choice as well. I made the phone calls, my brother and I are making a card to send out. But for the most part, it’s almost as if my dad just simply vanished.