The Angel in the Elevator

Back in January we Flea Sisters found ourselves swamped.

Dad and Mom were both in the hospital. Mom with a fractured pelvis and Dad with an exacerbation of his pulmonary fibrosis. I was trying to help by coming in from Greensboro.

I warred with the doctors, holding their feet to the fire, insisting that they pay attention, that they use the best and most current standard of care for Dad. Becky dealt with Mom's panic attacks and resistance to a short-term stay in a long-term facility.

We were getting a little nuts. Nuts and scared. Not a good combination.

We couldn't get people to cooperate and respond...Which is how I found myself standing beside my sister one morning, waiting for the elevator and praying.

I didn't tell her I was doing this. Having been raised a minister's kid, I tend to stay away from organized religion...but God and I chat on a fairly regular basis. This was one of those times.

I said, "Please, please help us. This is really bad and we don't know what to do."

It was a pretty pathetic plea.

I didn't even have the energy to pad my request with the usual, "Hey, I know you're busy buts..." or "Did I remember to thank you for that sunset on November 18th? It was nothing short of spectacular!"

None of that...Just Nancy to God: S.O.S!

The elevator door slid open and we stepped inside. We were murmuring to each other, trying to decide how we could get Dad to accept the possibility of Hospice. Two floors down, a newcomer got in.

She was unremarkable at first...dark-haired and plump, shorter than us...Not quite a Weeble- more like a bowling pin. She was wearing a nametag that identified her as Diane from Hospice.

I did not take this as a sign. But I did say, "Hey, I see you're from Hospice. Maybe you could tell us about how to refer someone who doesn't want to admit he needs help..."

She smiled. Her smile lit up the tiny car with energy. Her eyes sparkled, glowed really, as she began to talk.

She was a psychiatric social worker once, just like us, only now she was a nurse. Yes, she worked for Hospice and she knew exactly what we should do...only she couldn't be the one to do it for us. She was leaving to take a new job at an assisted living facility.

We were heartbroken. We wanted her for Dad. While we Fleas may disagree about how angels look in heaven, we had no problem realizing we'd found one in an elevator.

"I'll send you my very best nurse," she assured us. "I've got her handpicked for you guys."

We parted as old friends, hugging each other and promising to be in touch.

The entire ride couldn't have taken more than two minutes.

I did remember to thank God this time. I believe the prayer began "Damn, that was quick!"

When Dad had to move from the independent living apartment to the assisted living facility next door, guess who was the nurse in charge?

There she was, beaming. Diane remembered us, knew our names, knew all about the situation with my parents. But by then, Sharon was dad's personal hospice angel. So we didn't see too much of Diane. She was there, but as more of a reassurance than an active participant.

Until yesterday.

Yesterday I left Dad to take a shower and returned to find him actively dying.

It was that fast.

Becky was at his bedside, reading his favorite psalm to him...Something I had never heard Becky do. Later she told me she didn't know why she'd done it, only that "It seemed right at the time. I had no idea it was his favorite psalm until Mom told me."

My friend, Martha, had returned the day before. "It was the strangest thing," she said later. "It just came over me. I felt like I was going to come out of my skin if I didn't come back down."

When she and I walked in and saw Dad, we both knew. His face had changed. His skin was paler, bluer than it had been an hour before. But it was his breathing that let us know things were changing.

"The aide says he's snoring!" Becky said.

The aide and Becky were both in denial. It was not snoring.

I hooked him up to the pulse oximeter. His heartbeat was 220 per minute. Then 55. Then 150. He was gasping.

I called the hospice nurse but she was unavailable.

"Go down the hall and get Diane, Becky."

Martha looked at me. "Should I go get your mom?"

I looked at Dad- stepped up beside him and kissed his forehead. Diane materialized with a stethoscope around her neck and blood pressure cuff in her hand.

"This is it, isn't it?" I asked. I knew, I just wanted the reassurance of a professional opinion.

She looked at Dad. "Oh, yeah. Your mom needs to come."

She couldn't get a blood pressure reading. She leaned down, kissed Dad's head and said, "Go on. Your girls are fine. It's time."

I climbed up onto the bed beside him, took his hand in mine and spoke into his ear. "It's okay, Dad. I know you really left last night. Let this worn out old shell go. Just let go."

Becky was holding his other hand. We were loving on the Wisest Man in the Universe. We were smiling and congratulating him and saying over and over again, "Thank you, Dad! We love you so much!"

Mom got there, took Becky's place by his side and bent down to kiss him.

I could feel his heart, beating wildly beneath my fingertips. He was gasping for air.
He was working too hard.

I put an Ativan tablet in his cheek and shot a double dose of liquid morphine in to dissolve it.

"Is it time for morphine?" my sister Flea asked. "Isn't it too early?"

I looked up at Diane. She was smiling. "You go, girl!" she said. "You really are Cherry Ames!"

"Becky, it doesn't matter about the time with the morphine," I said.

"It doesn't? Why?"

They don't call Becky the Queen of Denial for nothing. There she was, celebrating Dad's leaving and wondering why weren't worried about giving his morphine too early.

Dad's respirations eased, then slowed, and finally stopped.

I realized I could no longer feel his strong heart beating.

It just stopped. One second beating, the next not.

When I removed Dad's oxygen cannula, Becky said, "Don't! He needs that!"

I looked at Diane, saw her slight nod, and looked back at my sister. "Honey, he's gone. Even if he wasn't, keeping the oxygen going now would be cruel. But look, he really is gone."

"Check him!" Becky told Diane. "I have to know officially. I want him checked."

But she knew. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, even though she was smiling.

"Oh, my sister," she cried. "We done good!"

"Yeah," I said, grinning back at her. "We Fleas, we loved him swell!"

Diane raised up and began to ask, "What time..."

"12:30," I said.

"That was the most peaceful, wonderful death I've ever attended," she said. "You girls are something else!"

But I was thinking- wasn't it somehow strangely appropriate that the angel from the elevator turned out to be the one who guided us through Dad's final minutes?

Becky still says angels look like Christmas card figures. She says they only wear wings for special occasions.

I beg to differ.

The angel I saw wore a stethoscope and a black and white striped shirt.

The World is Spinning

Dad died and the world did not stop spinning. I find this to be both amazing and incomprehensible.

I thought the sky glowed a slightly brighter, more incandescent blue today as I drove back to Greensboro.

But when I got home, Bailey the Dog had poop and hair matted to his butt... Guess Who got to take care of that little problem?

The world is irrevocably changed and yet, still the same.

The Wisest Man in the Universe is everywhere and nowhere-all at once.

It is strange.



At 12:30 p.m. today the Wisest Man in the Universe, my dad, achieved liftoff...It was beautiful and peaceful and in every way just as I'd promised him it would be that day we crossed the Neuse River bridge...

Oh, we loved him swell, we did...and we always will.

Yellow Buses and Pink Cowboy Hats

Once again it is Wednesday and once again I will not be home to oversee to the emotional development and game night ass-whippin' that has resulted in the picture you see below...

I have raised a son who is not afraid to cook supper for his family. In fact, when he asked "Mom, do you have an apron?" I was the one who raised an eyebrow...but only for the briefest nanosecond. I managed to retrieve one from the depths of the kitchen cabinet, at the bottom of the dish towel box where I keep all my important kitchen tools.

Anyway...This is how my eldest son and his beloved looked, blissfully domestic and innocent, before I was forced to set them straight on the level playing field of our kitchen table. Three games of Tribond, completed, game, set, and match, within 15 minutes.

That was three weeks ago and once again I will not be home to take care of my poor, neglected children...the ones who, as illustrated above, would starve to death and die of loneliness were it not for me...

Yeah, right.

But I do miss the hell out of them. The cool part is, they can function fine without me. All I have to do now is hold on to that sage advice a Golden Ghetto mom gave me as oldest boy walked up the steps of the school bus for his first day of kindergarten and didn't look back.

I'm standing there on the corner, blubbering into a ragged tissue because my baby didn't need me anymore, and this transplant from Queens had the tee-total nerve to snicker. "Are you crying 'cause your boy there is leaving for kindergarten?" she asked. Clearly a mental giant, this girl was...

"He didn't even look back at me!" I cried, blowing my nose.

Queenie just shook her head. "You don't get it," she said. "That's a good thing, him not lookin' back. It means you done your job. He's leavin' home knowin' he can take care of himself."

Now why hadn't I thought of that?!

I stuffed the shredded tissue into my pocket. The yellow school bus turned the corner and faded into the early morning mist, taking my baby who was no longer a baby, away from me.

It was our first "real" goodbye and he hadn't even clung to my waist crying...the way I'd imagined he'd do. His brave little face hadn't turned back at the last moment to seek the reassurance he needed to leave home.

And this, indeed, was a very good thing.

Of course now he's a teenager. A senior in high school, preparing for his true launch out into the real world. An almost 18 year-0ld boy, in love for the very first time...And I am away so much these past few months. I look back on that sage advice I received at the school bus stop so many years ago and think of how well he's doing 200 miles away, at home alone so much of the time.

How breezy his deepening voice sounds on the phone. How sweetly he reassures me that he and Ben are fine while I am away from home...Our home...Our wonderful, spacious, home with three bedrooms...Three BEDrooms, one girl friend, three BEDROOMS...ONE very, cute, precious, precocious, she-hussy, who must be leading my boy down the path to self-actualization and possible unwanted pregnancy...Oh, holy shit!

I don't care how that mom from the Golden Ghetto put it all those years ago...There's a hell of a difference between a yellow school bus and the backseat of a '96 Toyota Camry!

Those two testosteronally impaired boys need a keeper!

Is it any wonder that I called upon my two best friends and paragons of virtue for help? Is my friend, Martha, in the pink hat, not the perfect role model? How could I have any worries about my babies with Martha in charge and Marti watching her back? These two, no-nonsense women have a world of experience at their fingertips. They'll make those two boys toe the line. Those boys can't pull a fast one while Martha T. Pink Hat's on duty. No, Siree!

A mother can only hope for the best, I suppose!


Unrequited Love and 40th Birthdays

Today is Sharon the Hospice Nurse's birthday. She's turning the big 4-0. Last night she looked at my dad and said, "Oh, I hope he doesn't die on my birthday! That would just be so sad!"

I roll my eyes at him but he's unconscious and misses my nonverbal "Another one bites the dust" look.

Even after giving Dad an enema every three days for the past month, this woman who shares "Fleat-ing" moments of what can only be described as a "shitty" relationship, is absolutely besotted.

Sharon the Hospice Nurse is in love with my Dad.

Like that's a surprise.

Women have always fallen in love with my father.

I realized this for the first time when I was seven. I was walking out of church, following the flow of the congregation toward the Parish hall when I spotted them. My father, still in his vestments, had knelt down to take a little red-headed girl up onto his knee.

He was smiling and talking to her...like she was special...as special as me.

I still remember this home movie in my head. I see the bow in her hair, the red and black holiday dress she wore, the way she smiled and giggled with my Daddy.

"Get off!" I yelled, pushing this interloper off of my father. "He's my daddy!"

I vaguely remember Dad intervening, but the shame I feel still burns at the memory. It was Christmas time and my father was comforting a little girl whose own father had just died.

Fortunately, life has a learning curve and by the time I turned eighteen I had learned to share.

Dad would appear, in his clerical collar, at every biker bar and VFW where my band was playing. He'd stroll right in, past some of the roughest characters in town, and take a seat at the table closest to the stage. And he would be immediately surrounded...by my girlfriends.

Dad would sit there, beaming at me and at them. I'd sing and they'd adore him. At this point in my development, it was actually a good thing to have the coolest father in town.

But my friends weren't the only ones who wanted a place in the warm glow of Dad's unconditional positive regard. His congregation demanded his attention. The ladies of the Thrift Shop fought over him with the ladies of the Altar Guild. Friends, colleagues, and the rest of my family...All wanted to be with Dad...So, is it any wonder that now, as he is dying, he manages to engender the affections of yet another woman?

Of course not.

Sharon the Hospice Nurse told me last week that when a patient dies she feels she has to "keep it together for the family." So she won't let herself cry until she's in her car, driving away.

Last night, when she came to see Dad, I could tell she'd been crying...Only nobody on her caseload had "passed." In fact, she'd been having a lovely evening enjoying dinner with her husband.

I know Sharon thought we wouldn't realize she'd been crying, but my sister and I are psychiatric social workers. We are "trained professionals." We knew she was crying and we knew why. It was the same reason she isn't keeping her promise to "all but move in with you those last few days." It's why she hasn't been around very much and has been cutting her visits short.

Sharon is only human and Dad has worked his magic on her.

He knows about her father's death from lung cancer and how she misses him. He knows how tired she is at the end of the day and sends her home to her family, telling her "I'm fine. Now get out of here!" He's taken the time to listen. He knows where she hurts and where she is most vulnerable, because he genuinely cares. That's just his way.

Dad knows Sharon by heart.

Tonight it's almost 1 a.m. when she finally shows. Becky and I have been sniping about her obvious absence all day long. We think she should be here.

"She knows he's dying," we whisper, careful that Dad doesn't overhear us. We remember her promise to be there for Dad and say, "It doesn't matter. By now, we're probably better at taking care of him than she is. We don't need her!"

Of course, we would never say these things to her face because, while we are our father's daughters, we are not as perfect...So we massage our grievances behind her back and even though we do feel guilty- it's not enough to stop us.

When Sharon comes in, Becky is asleep on the floor. I smile at her and say, "Happy Birthday!" because I really do like her.

I have been studying Dad all night and I think he's slipped into a coma. I've looked up "Terminal Sedation" on the internet because I opened the new bottle of morphine sulfate and read "Signs and Symptoms of Toxic Overdose," on the package insert. I have decided Dad has every single sign. I'm worried I'm killing him. But of course I don't tell her that part. I just say, "He's in a coma, isn't he?"

Sharon looks at Dad and nods. I watch her, thinking she has the saddest eyes in the universe.

I am enough my father's daughter to have "learned" Sharon over the past year. She's was tough nut to crack and at first, I didn't even want to like her. But Friday night, after she'd seen Dad, she stood around in the hallway with Marti, Martha and me- listening as we told jokes and cracked ourselves up. When she couldn't help herself- she joined right in, diagnosing Rosemay the med tech, with "HPD" Hemmorrhoidal Personality Disorder. This after I said Rosemary walked like she had hemorrhoids or a stick up her ass and could always come up with a reason not to help me when I needed something for Dad.

She compared tattoos with Marti and said she'd like to have a trail of butterflies tattooed on her thigh "in memory of my father."

That's when I realized Dad reminds Sharon of her father. The father who died two years ago of lung cancer.

Last night she told us that when she'd come in two nights ago and found us crying, "I had to go. It was too sad. It brought me down and I was afraid I was going to bust out crying, too."

Sharon, Becky and I sat around for a while, talking about life and dying. Somehow this led to the continuing debate I have going with my sister about whether angels look like they do on Christmas cards, as Becky thinks or whether they are more wispy and translucent.

"When my father was dying, his hospice nurse told me to open a window when he died so his spirit could leave the house. Then she had me light a candle," Sharon said. "She said 'When the flame goes out, it means your father's soul has passed through the gates and into Heaven."

I figure Sharon's more the Becky-type angel believer.

Which Becky must pick up on, because she smirks triumphantly and says, "See?" As if Sharon's just proven her theory true.

I ignore Becky and focus my attention on Sharon. "My sister is the same woman who dragged the cook in from the kitchen and now believes Dad will live at least until Tuesday because the Shirley's psychic!"

"I had my palm read one time," Sharon says, looking at Becky. "I was in Boston. This woman told me things she couldn't have known. She said 'You've already had the worst day of your life.'" Sharon's expression is somber and her eyes well up. "She told me exactly how I lost my child. She said she saw me walking in the rain, about to cross the street and I was pregnant and holding my little boy's hand..."

Sharon stops. For a long moment the only sound in the room is my dad's labored breathing and the low hum of the oxygen machine.

"She told me a dark man would come into my life and he would be my husband. She said I would live in a house by a creek."

Sharon looks from my face to my sister's, studying our expressions. I can tell she's deciding whether to take the next step.

"Now I'm married to an African-American man and my house is exactly as she described. And a creek runs right behind our house."

Becky and I beam at her like we're proud parents and she's our potty-training toddler. We try to telegraph our total coolness and acceptance of every facet of Sharon's life - As if it's even our right to judge someone else's lifestyle. Inside I mark my sadness that Sharon has to fear the bigotry of others.

Tonight, when Sharon confirms my suspicion that Dad has fallen into a coma, Becky is elated. "Great! He'll just stay like this until he dies, right?" Becky has gotten up off the air mattress and is now invading Sharon's personal space. She shoves her face right up within inches of Sharon's, her brows furrowed, squinting. "My scooty daddy's never going to wake up again, right?"

I make a mental note: Becky should get glasses, ASAP. If she can't make out the features on Sharon's face from two feet away, she needs help.

Becky's demanding to know when exactly her "Scooty" is going to die. Tonight? Tomorrow? "Hey, Shirley was right," she crows and gives me one of her "Told you so!" smirks. "And Dad didn't die on your birthday!"

I am not sure what I am feeling, but it is not elation. It is at least sadness.

"He's a fighter," Sharon says softly.

"Becky told him he couldn't die yet because I was still writing about him," I said.

"He's so proud of you and that blog," Sharon says. "He said, 'She's doing so well with it and it's serious, too, not just funny.' He was so proud when he told me."

"He said that to you?" I think maybe she's repeating something Becky or I told her but she shakes her head. "No, he told me last week. You weren't here. It was just me and him."

Now I am certain of what I am feeling. I am grieving.

"Did you have a nice birthday dinner with your husband?" I ask, attempting to divert her onto anything but this.

Unmistakable sadness clouds Sharon's expression and she looks away.

"No, we were just heading out when the family of my little guy in Arapaho called. His wife said, 'He's throwing up blood!'" She tries to smile and shrug it off, but can't quite manage an offhanded attitude. "I thought, uh-oh, this can't be good. So, I went to Arapaho instead of out to dinner."

"Oh, no," Becky and I say in unison.

"Was his wife right? Was he really throwing up blood?" I ask.

"Is he all right?" Becky says.

The birthday girl slowly shakes her head. "No," she murmurs. "We lost him."

Not "I lost him," like a nurse losing a patient she expected to save, but "We lost him." As if she lost a family member.

Sharon stands up and walks away from Dad's side but only reaches the foot of the bed before turning to look back at him.

"He's a cutie," she whispers.


The Flea Sisters and Dad- Packin' for Heaven

It has been an amazing day for the Wisest Man in the Universe, my dad.

He's sleeping now. It is 1 a.m.- T-Minus "Whatever" and counting on the launch pad out of this existence. Becky snores softly on the bed beside him. I am in the green recliner wearing the red cherry pajamas my son calls "the happy p.j's." Dad's heartrate is slowing down. His breathing is softer and I'm having trouble finding a pulse in his wrist...But I eventually do.

Somehow I thought losing my dad would be worse than this...

Dad has been waltzing with death for a few months now. I can think of at least six times when we have been summoned to his bedside for the final round...Only to have him rally.

Frankly, I think it's all the attention. See, all of his life, Dad took care of everybody else. His children; his wife; his parishioners...strangers, friends...homeless people...Anyone with a need. When he got sick the tide slowly began to roll our way, much to Dad's great chagrin.

He hates not to be in control. He never let anyone "do" for him...Not if he could do it himself. But Pulmonary Fibrosis has robbed Dad of that option. Over the past eighteen months, I have watched this wretched disease slowly rob my father of his ability to do more than lie in bed and fight to breathe.

Pulmonary Fibrosis slowly destroys the lungs, stiffening them into useless lumps of hardened scar tissue. There is absolutely no cure, and as it is a fairly rare disease, not much money to research a possible cure.

Throughout it all, Pulmonary Fibrosis has never been able to steal my father's spirit or sense of humor. As close as he is to death today, as delusional and doped up on morphine as he is, that sense of humor and good natured caring still rise above the threat of death.

We are having a total blast.

My sister and I have been dubbed "The Flea Sisters" by Dad's hospice nurse. "You can scratch 'em, you can swat at 'em, but no matter what you do, you can't get rid of 'em!"

So, with the exception of one hour where I passed out on the floor by his bedside, I stayed awake last night. We're giving him liquid morphine every 2 hours, so it's like having a newborn, only a cagey, wily newborn with a stubborn streak.

My sister and I set an alarm clock to remind us when it's been two hours and time to give Dad his morphine. We are just too pre-menopausal, attention-deficit disordered and plain old tired to remember on our own.

At 5:30 a.m this morning, it went off, startling me out of the coma I'd fallen into on the floor beside Dad and apparently awakening him as well. We scared the shit out of each other.

I'm sure he didn't expect to see a wild woman suddenly spring up from the floor beside his bed and I certainly didn't expect him to be awake. In fact, we'd pretty much assumed after yesterday that Dad was going to remain unconscious until he died.

"I've got to go!" he said, throwing back the covers.

I am sooo not awake for this! But Dad is totally awake and quite intent on getting out of bed and "going."

"There's a line and the person at the end of the line is me."

Becky's up now, panicked.

"Whoa, Dad," I say. "You can't walk, remember? Let me help you."

He looks from one of us to the other and smiles...Like this is just another day in paradise, which I suppose it is, because he says, "Don't worry. It's all right."

The smile he gives us is nothing short of euphoric.

It takes a lot to keep him in the bed but somehow we manage. He falls back asleep and I take a Xanax. The doctor who wrote the script said, "Times like these are what Xanax was made for."

I don't know what in the total hell she was talking about. I don't feel a thing. However, ten minutes later I do decide it would be a good idea to drive my convertible across the huge bridge spanning the Trent and Neuse Rivers and down Broadcreek Road seven miles to my pit of a rented room. I have decided it will be "quieter" there.

Quieter than two sleeping people in a rest home?

My two best friends in the world have come down to New Bern to be with me. They are sleeping in my condo. This means I will have to sleep on an air mattress on the floor. It is like, 7 a.m. on Saturday morning and one of my friends is a cop. A skittish cop with a 9 mm Glock semi-automatic.

I send her a text page that reads, "I'm coming there to sleep for an hour or two. Please do not shoot me. I will knock first."

Maybe the Xanax is working...

Two hours and a second Xanax later, my cell phone rings. "His pulse is 180...Sharon says...so you'd..." is all I can make out of the garbled connection. But it's enough.

The cop comes out of a dead sleep, is dressed and out the door, driving me back into town in two minutes flat.

Big deal. I'd been like waiting over a minute for her!

I can only convince her to run one red light.

I think...Hell, I'd run one red light just to go buy a breakfast bisquit!

When I run into Dad's room, a large, black woman in scrubs is sitting beside the bed. My sister is nowhere and the hospice nurse is gone too. I've missed it. I'm too late. I just know it.

"Is he dead?"

"Lord, no!" the lady exclaims. "Your sister just had to pee."

Dad is awake and smiling at me...enjoying my little freak-out.

He stays awake for the next 15 hours.

He is doing the reaching thing again, only this time, he's not reaching for the filing cabinet like he said he was doing 2 days ago. Nope. He's adamant. He's talking to someone and it is not a inanimate.

All day long, Dad listens to conversations we can't hear. His eyes widen as he tracks something flying across the room above his head. His expression says he can't seem to believe what he's seeing.

Being The Fearless Fleas Sisters we are, we must know....What does Heaven look like?

Who better than Dad to tell us, to settle this "heaven" stuff once and for all? He is the most Christ-like man I know. His life is a how-to manual of kindness and compassion. If God was going to let someone take a peek into the Great Beyond before exchanging the secret handshake and pinky swearing not to reveal to mere mortals any details of an eternal nature, who better than my dad?

At first when we ask, Dad ignores us...But you can only ignore the Fabulous Flea Sisters for so long.

"There is no road between here and there," he says.

Becky is just sure she has a blueprint of the other side...However, I would hasten to add that she was also the one who consulted Shirley, the cook in the Homeplace kitchen, about Dad's blastoff date. Becky brought the woman into Dad's room, where Shirley pronounced Dad "not bad off enough" to "go before I get back here on Tuesday."

When Shirley leaves the room I just shake my head.

"She's a psychic," Becky says, with utter conviction. "But don't tell anyone. It was told to me in strictest confidence."

Which is, I assume, why she's blabbing it to me. But I digress...

Becky is just sure Heaven looks like the books she's read. She's told Dad how wonderful it will be, who will meet him at the gates, what angels look like...And by this I mean even down to "Wings or No Wings." The ones who "stand behind you all the time" don't have wings. But "Special Occasion" angels are larger and come equipped with super deluxe wings.

Sorta like her daughter, the black angel of death...(See yesterday's blog for details.)

Dad's not so sure Becky's right. In fact, he told me and not in the strictest confidence, that he was pretty sure we "went on" in some form, but not a stereotypical angel form.

All day long Becky tries to launch him into her Heaven, while Dad looks into his own. It's a trip.

I play the role of mediator and pseudo-buffer/reservation agent.

I assume Dad knows about our little silent battle over Heaven because he takes my hand and places it in Becky's, patting them with his own. His intent is clear. "All right, already!" I tell him. "We won't fight or argue. We'll be Fleas forever!"

"You got that right!" Becky swears.

When Mom arrives, he has us swear the whole thing over again, including her.
When we call my brother on the cell phone, Dad makes it clear that he's in the pact too, by putting the phone right in the middle of the pile of hands he's built.

I start singing, "We Are Fam-ily!" and Dad rolls his eyes. But nods vigorously when I say, "Family is everything."

Okay, this is not the only song I trot out from my repetoire. Earlier, when Dad said he had to go and I was not really awake, the only song I could come up with was the theme song from the show about that family, the Jeffersons. "We're moving on up! To a de-luxe apartment in the skyyyy!"

And yes, I did sing it to him.

I guess was just a little punch drunk because over the course of the day I also sang the Kellogg's jingle, the Oscar Meyer Bologna jingle, "The Church is One Foundation," "Holy, Holy, Holy," and eventually, "What wondrous Love Is This."

It cleared the room of visitors and Dad made a fake gun, shoot-the-piano-player gesture in my direction.

Freakin' critics!

Dad says, "We're packing the car and we're going to need about three days worth of clothes." Then he looks at his assembled family. "I've got to go. You have to stay here. I'm packing the car."

He pulls our hands with his, out in front of him, and seems to be consulting with someone. "I'll have to check with them to see who goes," he explains. But I know he is only being diplomatic.

Later he says, "I'm going to head out this way, " he points to the corner he's been staring into all day. "You're gonna head out that way." He points to the doorway of the bedroom.

I try to get him to rest, but he is worried about us. "You shouldn't have driven all the way down here for no good reason."

I assure him this is a very good reason! I say, "Just rest Dad. This is hard work and you're tired."

Dad nods. "I know. It requires a lot of inside work."

Becky is still telling him what he is seeing and pushing him for confirmation of this.

He tells us he sees colors "fanning out" across the ground. "I would like to be able to describe it a little bit better. There are many," he gestures out toward the corner, "out there." But he can't or won't be more specific.

"When I am trying to pull my thoughts together, I need to be fairly well divided," he says. "It's a pretty nice place to be."

Then something really important captures his attention. It is directly above his head. "I'm lookin' at the way in and the way out," he tells us. "We've got a lot of things we can decide...like which way to go."

This is around seven in the evening, after he's adopted both my friends, "thanked the sponsors" again, kissed us, hugged us, told us goodbye a bunch of times and tried to make his oxygen cord into the rigging lines from his sailboat.

"It's getting a little dark in here," he says abruptly. "My vision's not right." He peers earnestly into my face. "What does this mean?"

He is asking for the truth and verification of what he already knows.

"It means you probably don't have real long," I say. "You're dying."

Dad nods like I've given him the weather forecast and keeps on watching whatever it is he's seeing.

"When the show's over," he says, "sometimes they provide transportation."

"This is a great ride, Dad," I say. "I'm so glad we're doing this together."

"Yeah," he answers. "It's nice to have company. People are different." He stares out again, cocking his head to one side and cupping his ear with his hand. "We're between the ship and the shore. I'm listening."

"To the horns, right?" Becky asks. She's thinking Angel Gabriel horns and not foghorns.

Dad is coiling up spare oxygen hose, asking for envelopes, picking at the bedsheets and rolling our sleeves up because he thinks he's reefing the jib. "I need to stow this," he says and hands Becky's son a belt. "I need things to be organized. That's the way to do it. I always do it the best way..."

Now he's stretching the truth, teasing us.

He beams, very satisfied with himself. "I think things are going very well!"

We smile and assure him that, yes, things are indeed splendid.

"Good!" he says, as if that settles the matter. "Now, I'll need twelve envelopes."


Conversations From the Other Side...Or, We'll Always Have Paperwork

I have always heard about the close-to-death experiences where people see the loved ones who've passed on, or reach out as if grasping a helping hand into eternity.

I find this thought comforting.

A few months ago, Dad and I were driving across the bridge that spans the Trent and Neuse rivers in New Bern. We were talking about his impending death. I asked him what he thought happened after you died. I figure, he's a minister and as Christ-like as any human being I have ever known, so he should at least have an idea of what's on the other side. I want a preview of coming attractions.

"I don't know," he says.

I say, "But what about all the people who see their dead relatives? Do you think that's what heaven is like?" I am really wanting a syllabus for the course.

Dad shrugs. "Could just be a shortage of oxygen to the brain as the body shuts down."

"Oh, yeah?" I say. I am feeling like I need to refute this idea because I can't let my dad die thinking he's heading into a black hole of nothingness. "Well how come so many people in so many different cultures around the world have the same type of experience? They can't all be having the same hallucination."

This stops him. He has to consider this thought. It has merit.

"Well," he finally allows. "I do believe we continue on in some way."

We go on then to have the Big Talk- about his fears of finding himself unable to breathe and panicking; about the hospice nurse not being available when he needs her.

I reach over and rest my hand on his leg. "Dad, I know I told you years ago you couldn't die, that I couldn't handle it...But don't worry. I can do this and I can do it very well. I won't let it get to the point where you are scared. And as for Sharon, I know where she lives! If I have to go haul her ass out of bed, I will!"

Dad smiles but he is also crying. I see the tears in his eyes.

"Oh, honey," he says. "I trust you and Becky. I know you can handle it if Sharon's not there. I trust you."

Now I am crying.

"I won't let you down," I promise.

And so far, we haven't. We are down to the last few hours, maybe the last day. We don't truly know...But he is asleep, just like he wanted to be, and we are right by his side, holding his hand and being our irreverent selves. "The Flea Sisters- We're all over you! You can scratch but you sure can't get rid of us!" we tell him.

Yesterday Dad started reaching out. His lips moved in silent, wordless conversation and we Flea Sisters just knew he was talking to our dead relatives.

He roused one time while Becky was out of the room, waking himself up with his arm outstretched. Now's my moment, I thought. Now I'm gonna know for sure.

"You're reaching out, Dad, aren't you?"

He nods.

"Who're you reaching out to?" I ask. I lean in close because I don't want the answer to be lost because I can't hear him.

He gives me a small, reassuring smile.

"The file cabinet."

A while later my friend, Martha, calls me for the latest update. When she hears he's reaching out, she interrupts me to say, "Oh, honey...You know, he's talking to his loved ones on the other side. He's getting ready to go with them!"

"Well," I hedge, hating to burst her theological bubble..."He is getting things in order."


Yo, Death, That's No Sting-It's a Butterfly!

I am sitting in the parlor of the assisted living facility, talking to my sister-in-law. She is asking some very good questions. Questions I had not even considered. Like: Where will people gather after Dad's funeral? Will that happen at the church? When will we hold the funeral? Immediately? What's the rush? Should we allow time for out of town relatives to gather?

I am very thankful my sister-in-law is so organized because these are things I have not even begun to think about.

And then I look up, out through the front windows of the parlor.

There stands my 19 year-old, Goth-Is-Not-Dead niece, waving and smiling at me.
She is wearing a tight, black shirt with red sequined cherries. She walks through the front door, a bouncing bull's eye, and rounds the corner into the parlor...This is when I notice there are huge, black gossamer fairy wings attached to her back.

My brain simply will not accept the reality of what I'm seeing.

I am sitting in a conservatively furnished, faux living room, and my niece is hopping hop and down in front of me wearing fake fairy wings.

"Aren't they great? They were at Walmart! Can you believe it?"

I stare at her, slack jawed.

"Is Mom in with Grandaddy?" she asks.

I manage to nod but she is already skipping away from me, heading down the hallway toward my father's room.

I am the deer caught in the family headlights. My poor brain can't even think to stop her. And by the time reality catches up with me, it is too late.

The black angel of death is already dancing at the foot of my father's bed.

Later, after I tell my sister in law I can't concentrate on funeral luncheon arrangements because our niece is Evil Tinkerbell, I walk back into Dad's room. There she sits, in the green recliner, wings outspread against the back of the chair...but she's no longer smiling.

Later, I tell my sister all of this. I say, "I was worried she'd scare Dad, you know, cause she looked like the black angel of death."

Becky smiles and shakes her head knowingly. "Oh, no- He loved it! He thought she was a butterfly!"

Family. Can't live with 'em, can't rip their heads off!

The Fruit Is Divine. Would You Care for an Envelope?

"The fruit is divine," my father says to me. "Do you need a small envelope?"

I smile, grip his hand a bit tighter and say, "No, I'm fine."

He frowns, gives me a wry grimace that means he knows he's been out in la-la land, and heads right back out to sea.

The next time he opens his eyes he looks worried, perhaps even a bit frightened.

"The street is still very violent," he says.

I rub his arm. "I know. But there is nothing we can do about it now," I say. "Don't worry, we are safe in here. I'll send Cop Martha to deal with them."

But Dad is gone again. His eyes are open but he is staring into places I can't see.

Sharon the Hospice Nurse came in this morning. "He's having bad dreams," I say. "He's twitching and his limbs jerk. Becky thinks it's too much morphine."

Sharon's eyes catch and hold mine. "No," she says softly. "He's dying."

I nod...like I really and truly knew this...only I didn't.

"Becky is anxious," Sharon says. "She thinks he should be more 'with it.'"

"She wants to keep him here," I murmur. "It's her denial."

Becky is big on denial, she'll tell you that herself.

"What you're seeing is his body's response to the lack of oxygen. It's shutting down. The things he's seeing and dreaming are in part anoxia- his brain not getting enough oxygen-and part morphine. This happens to everyone when they die."

Becky is taking a shower. She comes out of the bathroom in a slip, her hair wrapped in a huge purple towel. She is frowning when Sharon tells her what is going on, unwilling to believe that what she thinks isn't right. With the towel wrapped at such an odd angle, Becky looks like an angry sheik transported into Dad's bedroom from the deserts of a long-ago movie.

"He has to have the morphine every two hours or he will feel breathless," Sharon continues. "Your father told me he didn't want to feel that way, that he wanted to be out of it when it got down to this phase."

I know he did. I was there when he told her.

I look at my sister, the purple sheik of Arabee and say, "He really does not want to feel this. I was there when he said so."

Becky isn't so sure. She wants to debate the issue. For a brief second I see a flash of anger, quickly covered in ice..."Go to the kitchen and get him some ice chips," she tells me.

I tell her Sharon said to use swabs.

"He likes the ice chips."

"He could choke on them now," I insist.

She walks into the bathroom, closing the door behind her. We back to being our little kid, sister- selves again, reduced to this by our pain and fatigue...Each of us thinking we know what is best, each grasping at straws and trying to control what is uncontrollable.

I tap on the bathroom door. "I'm sorry," I tell her. "I didn't mean to say I wouldn't go get ice chips..."

Becky says, "I told Mona the housekeeper I feel like my name should be NASA because I want his launch to be perfect."

Becky wants to be Mission Control...Only you can't be Miss In-Control when your father is dying and your heart is breaking.

Later, as she sits by his bedside, spooning ice chips into Dad's mouth, I walk up to stand beside her. I reach out and slowly rub circles across the tight muscles of her shoulders.

We have started the countdown, my sister and I. T-minus who knows? And counting.


Ignoring the Wisdom of the Universe...And Doing the Right Thing Anyway

Yesterday I was clearly delusional.

For some reason it made sense to me to drive 200 miles from New Bern to Greensboro, despite the fact that my father was rapidly worsening and most probably really dying this time.

He's hardly eating. His breathing is labored and his kidneys are shutting down. And I think I can leave town and go to work for 2 days and he'll still be there when I return?

The little voice inside my gut said, "Idiot!"

When I didn't listen to my instincts, the Universe decided to intervene. Torrential rains. Lightning. Flash flooding. Did I listen then?

Nope. That just made me stop at McDonald's for comfort food. I mean, if you're about to die in Noah's Ark, The Sequel, a Quarter Pounder with Cheese is just what you need to have in your right hand while you hydroplane.

The hospice nurse calls. She's away at a conference and won't be back until tomorrow. She's worried she won't make it back in time, but I think I've got all the time in the world.

"I don't know why I'm doing this," I tell her. "I just feel like I need to tag home base and then turn right back around...Only I should go to work. I've got patients who need me."

"Maybe you just need a break," Sharon says. "You've been on duty so much."

I feel like a coward. I remember my best friend's death. I was 23 and terrified, but I hung in there, sitting by her bedside, listening when her husband and sons couldn't allow her to say goodbye. And then, for no reason I could understand, I'd up and disappear for two days at a time. I would flee to my little house in the country, burrow down under my covers and "forget" that Hazel was dying.

At the very end, I was there. Her husband was in the waiting room crying "I can't go in there! I can't handle it!" One son was standing, stone-faced at the far end of her hospital room while the other whined over the phone, "Are you really sure she's dying this time? I mean, People keep saying she's dying and she doesn't and well, I'm at the Columbia tennis semi-finals and..."

I promised myself I would kill him as soon as his mother was gone.

And then I called Dad.

"I'm scared," I told him. "I've never seen anyone die. I don't know what to do. I don't know what's going to happen. What if I can't do it?"

I told him that one of my friends said helping someone die unafraid and at peace was the greatest gift one friend could give to another. I believed this, but knowing that didn't make my promise any easier to keep.

Dad listened. He didn't try and take the fear away. He didn't make my decision into a moral value of my self-worth as Hazel's friend. He just said, "I know you're scared but you can do this."

I walked back into the room where this woman who was a second mom to me lay in a coma. Her two oldest friends, both nurses, were on either side of her, holding her in their arms. They beckoned me close. "Tell her it's okay to go now," Louise said. "She needs to know it's all right."

But Hazel always was stubborn. She waited, skating on the brink of death, until her spoiled eldest son arrived. Her respirations were down to only a few breaths per minute. Her heart was slowly stopping. She had been in a coma for two days. And yet, less than a minute after Phillip arrived, she opened her eyes, raised up and looked around the room at the assembled group of friends and family.

"I love you," she said. And died.

Twenty-seven years later, I am on the road again, running away from my father's bedside. And even this memory of Hazel is not enough to stop me.

"You just need a good night's sleep," Sharon tells me.

She obviously doesn't know my snoring, up-at-all-hours dogs.

The Universe is very patient with me and decides to try again. This time in the form of Rose, one of my former nursing home patients who's made it out and now lives with her daughter.

Rose grew up in South Boston. She got married when she was 15 and had a very hard life. Her husband was her sole beacon of hope. When he died, he broke her heart...And pissed her off big time.

Four years later, Rose finally saved up enough money to rent four vans and cart her children and herself back to Boston to bury the man's ashes. "We're a big family, Nance," she explained. "There wasn't one of us under 350 pounds at the time. That's why it took so many vans."

Rose pulled out a photo album and had me turn to the last page. It was a photograph of a card table covered in a paper "Bon Voyage" tablecloth. The table was sitting on a lush, green square of grass. A sheet cake with a picture of an ocean-liner and the words "Have a Great Trip!" sat in the center of the table. A skinny rectangular object flanked the cake's right side while a small bottle stood on its left.

"I told that son of a bitch, if you die and leave me first, I'm gonna pay you back! I'm gonna bury you with the TV remote only I ain't gonna put no batteries in it. And I'm gonna put in a bingo dauber only I ain't gonna put no ink in it! That Russ loved his bingo!"

Rose knows the importance of love. She knows how to be fully present in the important moments of her life. She also loves the buddies she left behind at the nursing home.

She called when I was halfway to Greensboro.

"You're driving home? What the hell for? What's the matter with you! You don't gotta see them people in the nursing home! They know you'll be back and they sure as hell ain't goin' nowhere! Your father needs you, Nancy. Them others, they'll understand, and if they don't, the hell with 'em!"

But I am too tired now to turn around.

I come home, crawl into bed with my four dogs and lie awake most of the night, listening to what sounds like four tiny lawnmowers.

In the morning I am exhausted. I see my morning patients and call my sister every hour...Until she tells me to leave her alone. "He's stable. He's just sleeping."

I eat lunch with Marti who is having her own personal hellish breakdown.

"Why are you here, Nance? What are you waiting for?"

And suddenly it comes to me...The answer.

I just want to hold my boys, even if it's just for a moment. I need to feel them in my arms and feel their arms around me. I need to touch my home base, feel the reality of that love anchoring me to what will remain after my father is gone.

As I drive off I carry their love in my heart like a lucky coin in my pocket. Borrowing the strength I need from a well that has been filled to overflowing by each generation. My father lives in my boys and in me. Losing his physical presence can't take that away.

I needed to come home so I could remember this. I needed to feel this love wrapped around my shoulders.

Only then could I walk back into the room where I sit now...letting my father go.


The Sun Don't Shine On One Dog's Tail Forever!

It's Tuesday- the day I am supposed to return to Greensboro. Per my arrangement with my sister, she will cover the day shift watching over Dad while I work for two days. I'll arrive back in New Bern in time for her to go to work Friday morning. But that is really irrelevant because...

Tuesday is the day before Wednesday.

On Wednesdays I prepare a great feast...As if this can somehow make up for my absence from home. I let the boys and Adam's girlfriend, Amanda, enjoy their repast. I lull them into sated complacency with carbohydrates and dessert. And then, when I am quite sure the young fiends are almost in a stupor...

I whip their asses at any game they put before me.

The evening culminates in a ferocious pinochle game.

Unfortunately for me, pinochle, the game I taught them to play a mere month ago, seems to be the only game they have found that affords them unbridled success.

For three straight weeks in a row they have beaten me...This includes the very first week when we were allegedly "not keeping score."

As if.

Last week Martha and I came close, ramping back from our 800 point deficit to lose by only 200 points. We were so proud.

But we were still losers.

Amanda's confidence grows with every hand. When she is particularly smug in the delivery of a trump card, Martha calls her "Witch!" Last week Amanda achieved "Double Witch!" status.

Adam, on the other hand, tries to maintain a poker face. But when he is pleased with himself, he looks at Amanda and cries "Putas!" At least, that is what I thought he was saying.

I didn't want him to think this little taunt of his was having an effect on us, so I said, "Ah-ha, my little putas! The tide is of victory is turning!"

Amanda bursts out laughing- which is not at all the response I was expecting from the opposition.

"What?" Adam asked.

She smiled her "Double Witch" smile. She had Spanish 2 last year.

"Your mom just called you her little bitch!"

They laugh like lunatics. She has neatly turned the joke back on me.

I am actually amused...but I am also thinking,

Okay, Bruja del Diablo, enjoy your little moment. But just remember:

The sun don't shine on one dog's ass forever.

In other words:

El sol no puede brillar en una cola del perro por siempre!


Springboards and Milestones

My son, Adam, has a hard time with change. He was the kind of toddler you had to tell, “All right, ten minutes ‘til bedtime!” Then, “In five minutes, it’ll be bedtime.” If you didn’t do this, The Monster would emerge and pitch a cyclone of a fit all the way up the stairs to his room.

When he turned five, we had a big celebration. Chucky Cheese with his pre-school buddies, a family party with the grandparents. We did the entire dog and pony show. Later that night, when I went to tuck him in, I said, “Well, Adam, you’re a big boy now!”

His big brown eyes welled up with tears. With a wail torn straight from his heart, he turned on me, furious. “I don’t want to be a big boy! I want to stay little!”

Sigh. Who can blame the kid? I mean, really, don’t we all look back on the golden days of our childhood as the time before life choked us with responsibility and disillusionment?

So, why would I expect things to be any different now that he’s a teenager?

I am driving back to Greensboro from New Bern, approaching Raleigh, when I get the text page. My son has a nasty little habit of text paging me with his intentions instead of calling to ask permission.

I counter this with a saved-to-quick-text “Do it and you’re ass is grounded!” message. You’d think the kid would get it after so many attempts, but like I said, he doesn’t do well with change.

This time the text read, “I’ve decided to go to the prom after all.”

Just that. At 3:30 on the afternoon before the prom.

I mentally thank God for the daily Zits cartoon that is my source for Parenting Your Teenaged Boy education.

I text back, “What about a tux? Corsage? Tickets? Dinner reservations?”

“Marrisa’s brother’s lending me his maybe, and his shoes. We’re going with Marissa and her friends. She’s got a reservation. I’ll get one at the grocery store.”

This response merits a phone call. Good thing, too. Marissa’s brother is away at school. His tux went with him.

“I thought you didn’t want to go to the prom,” I say when I reach him.

“I didn’t but Marissa told me she won’t have anybody to talk to if I don’t take her friend, Amanda and Trey would be all by himself, too. So, I like, kinda had to do it.”

I smile. This Marissa girl is a pro.

“Graham, broke into the principal’s office and got a permission slip. Don’t worry- he forged your signature so I could buy the tickets.”

Well, thank heavens for petty criminals, I think.

“I called around. There’s one place left where I can get a tux but we have to be there by five. Okay?”

I set the land speed record, hit the driveway at 4:40, pull into the men’s shop parking lot at 4:50, and hurl myself, breathless and disheveled, upon the mercy of the shop’s manager. He looks as Adam, mentally tsk-tsking. Gives him the “Son, do you know you are putting your poor mother through hell?” look and whips out a measuring tape.

The store is one of a dying breed, catering to wealthy gentlemen of a certain age. Bright pink shirts top the manikin’s neon, madras shorts. Golfing clothes line the center aisle, while business suits skirt the edges of the tiny room.

His tux will have to be shipped in over night. The guy is down to cumber bun color when I remember some retained bit of trivia. Cumber buns are O.U.T. Only a fool would wear a cumber bun. A real man wears a vest.

“Vest!” I cry. “No cumber bun!”

Adam’s eyebrow lifts. I point soundlessly to a photograph in the catalog. A polished, debonair young man models the look I knew Adam would covet. The eyebrow slowly lowers. I get the nod.

“You won’t find any corsages left at the grocery store and it’s too late to order one from the florist. Every kid in town has already done that. What color is her dress?”

I am spitting this at him in a rapid-fire staccato of information and questioning as we double-step it into the Fresh Market next door to the now-closed men’s shop.

“I don’t know. Just get her white,” he says, clearly clueless.

“Son, your taking her to the prom, not a funeral.”

I buy forty dollars worth of flowers. “I’ll make her corsage,” I tell him.

“Why’d you buy so many?” he asks. “Don’t you just stick one or two roses on it?”

I give him a withering look. Does he not get it? This is one of life’s milestones. My baby’s first prom. Doesn’t he want it to be special? Doesn’t he want perfection?

By noon the next day, I am alone in a kitchen filled with failed corsages. Stemless rosebuds and shredded leaves lie on the floor surrounding my seat at the kitchen table. The dogs are afraid to cross the threshold into the room, even though this is where the treats are kept. They know I am a homicidal maniac.

I have researched corsages on the internet…along with every other morsel of information I can obtain about proms, etiquette and floral arrangement. The “wristlet” is in, replacing the traditional or wrist corsage. It looks like a bracelet of flowers.

I can think of about fifty-thousand places they can cram that sucker, too!

I am so mad I jump up and decide to go to the grocery store at the edge of town and throw myself on the mercy of the floral department. I am a desperate woman.

“We have one left,” the woman says. She hands me a pale pink, three tiny rose, traditional corsage. Ten bucks and I’m headed home, feeling defeated.

My entire family is waiting in the kitchen when I return.

“Mom, I looked in the refrigerator and there are corsages all over it. They’re beautiful! But I like that bracelet-looking thing the best. Why’d you make so many?”

I look at the dogs. They’re looking back at me, telepathing, “We didn’t tell him, honest!”

My friend, Martha, arrives. “Wow! These are beautiful! I thought you only needed one?”

I pull the Harris Teeter corsage out of its brown plastic bag and plop it down next to the others on the counter.

I am surprised to realize the store-bought roses look pale and anemic next to the brilliant pinks of the wrist corsage.

But I react quickly.

“Well,” I say. “You didn’t want her to think your Mom made the corsage, did you?” I pull open the clear plastic, grocery store container, discard the contents and gently place the wristlet inside. “There,” I say, tearing the price tag off. “Now she’ll never know.”

Later, as I am driving him to the house where I have been informed I may meet the other parents and take pictures, I listen as Adam talks to his buddy, Trey.

“What do you mean, you’re lost?” he says. A nervous edge colors his tone. “Well, okay. No, turn around. You went too far. All right, see you in a minute.”

We are turning onto the street where Marissa lives.

“Just pull up across the street,” he says. I know he’s waiting for Trey, shy about walking inside alone.

He’s on the cell again. “Yeah, I’m almost there,” he says. “I’ll see you in a minute.” His voice is soft, gentle. It’s Her.

A few moments later he scowls. “Turn out the headlights, Mom! You want ‘em to think we’re just out here waiting?”

Oh, stupid me! We wouldn’t want to look like that! No, never!

I cut the lights. With the next frown, I cut the engine.

Suddenly, across the street, the front door swings open. I catch a glimpse of a blonde in a bright pink dress just before Adam hisses, “Duck!”

I am scrunched down beneath the steering wheel of my car, hiding from a 17 year-old girl. Has my life really come to this?

But when I look over at Adam, see the acknowledgement of our ridiculous behavior; both of us collapse into helpless giggles. Of course, we do not get back up, but I have been transported back to my own adolescence…when hiding beneath steering wheels and giggling at clueless boys was a main form of entertainment.

Just as quickly, he is gone…my baby, slipping off into the night on the arm of a beautiful blonde.

The world widens its arms to receive them as we, the left-behind parents, watch from the open doorway.

Oscar the Merry Devil

Oscar wears Hawaiian shirts. A happy Alfred Hitchcock who sits in the parlor of the assisted living facility and farts.

He doesn’t remember he’s not at home. He doesn’t know this isn’t his den. And he doesn’t see us when he lets loose.

I’m used to it, but Martha isn’t. She mouths “Should we leave?”

Well, we can’t. Oscar would see us. He might realize we’d heard the long, slow blow-out. It would hurt his feelings. Or scare him to find intruders in the living room.

So we stay quietly seated at the table behind him. Trying not to inhale.

When it’s safe- When we're sure he’s forgotten, we leave, tiptoeing out into the lobby.

Tonight I sit alone in the parlor, talking on my cell phone to a friend back home.

Oscar leaves his room at the end of the hallway, walking toward me with a purposeful shuffle. He's wearing a black shirt. A border of large orange and red flames lick its hem, making Oscar a merry devil.

He is always smiling. He will walk past the table, not seeing me there in the dim, half-lit room. He will turn on the T.V, sit down on the right side of the sofa and stare at the screen for hours.

Oscar is tall and balding. Thin tufts of silver-white hair cover his freckled skin. A chunky, fragile man with the smile of a five-year-old boy in love with his kindergarten teacher.

Tonight he doesn’t go to the sofa. Instead he hones in on my table and only stops when his feet bump the back legs of the chair beside me. He gazes down into my eyes and I fall in love.

“My T.V’s not working,” he says, flashing his toothy grin. “When you finish what you’re doing, will you come fix it?” He has seen my cell phone and knows I’m talking…It’s familiar to him. As familiar as night shift aides mumbling into receivers- ignoring the lights, the bells and the patients who wait like leftovers.

His eyes dance blue

“I’ll be right there,” I say.

“Do you know where my room is?” I am thinking Oscar is someone’s long-ago little boy, anxious to please and wanting so very badly to be loved.

“I do,” I reassure him.

He vanishes back down the lonely, darkened hallway, past my sleeping father’s room.

“I have to go,” I tell the friend on the other end of the line. “I’m an aide tonight.”

“You don’t work there!” she says. "Call one of the attendants!"

But I am already walking after Oscar into the darkness.


Perfect Angels and Unbridled Hooliganism...

Perhaps we know New Bern a little too well...

After years of coming over from Greensboro to visit the grandparents, I would have to say my family knows New Bern inside and out. We've done the touristy tours. We've eaten in all the restaurants. We've browsed Books A Million a thousand times too many.

New Bern lost it's pizzaz for us when The Wisest Man in the Universe got sick. As Adam said over Spring Break..."Granddaddy was New Bern. Now Fairfield Harbor is just a boring place full of old people." No sailing. Tennis just isn't the same. The pool has lost it's sparkle.

We are forced into mindless consumerism...And finally...insanity, as evidenced below.

Because we wouldn't be The Wisest Man in the Universe's family if we didn't find the silver lining on this cloudy day...

We brought the picture back and showed it to him. He smiled and shook his head. Yep, we're his people all right, and there's not a damned thing he can do about it!


Last Rites and Hotrods

The Hotrod Priest was just here. He's the one who looks like he should be a vice president of a very conservative bank but also drives a Mustang GT with Hemi headers.

I say, "Hey, how'd you know we needed you today?" Because Dad is truly not doing well and I am a little glad to see him because I know Dad would be glad to see him. And I'm trying to stick to the Any-Friend-of-Dad's-is-Good-Enough-for-Me freeway.

I say, "I thought you weren't coming til Thursday?"

He smiles one of his half-smiles, showing a lack of conviction and replies, "It is Thursday."

Smart. Ass!

I try to wake Dad but I can't. So Hotrod decides to say a prayer instead. He takes hold of Dad's wrist. I bow my head and the priest begins to pray. The air-conditioner and the fan are making too much noise. I can't hear the words, but the tone is enough.

Why is it always the old familiar that triggers the lump in my throat?

Dad doesn't wake up for this. I mean, he is really zonked. Not comatose, I think, but gorked to the gills.

Hotrod says "I'll come back Friday or Saturday and do the Last Rites."

I say, "I wouldn't wait until Saturday."

He looks at Dad.

We keep the room freezing cold to help Dad breathe. The lights are off and what little light there is seems to tint the entire room a gray-blue. A cyanotic blue.

"Maybe I'll do some of the rites now," the priest says. He pats his pockets and seems to be searching for something.

"I didn't bring my holy oil. Would you happen to have any oil?"

Okay. I am truly alone in this operation. No backup. No one to get that life is getting a little bizarre around here.

I am alone with a guy who doesn't seem to have a sense of humor and another guy who is unconscious. There is screaming inside my head, or maybe it's coming from deep inside my heart, behind the big lump in my throat.

I silently scream, "Jesus, God! Help me! Don't make me lose it now! I can't cry. I can't do this! Not now!"

And She is there. Ask and ye shall receive.

The gift of the eternal smartass. The wit that shields me from every unpleasant emotion.

This Hotrod guy asks me if I have any holy oil on me and he thinks he should get a straight answer?

"No, unless you count the Italian salad dressing," I say, absolutely deadpan.

I'm beginning to think Hotrod's had Botox. Not one twitch of a smile answers me.

"Okay, well, we'll just use some Holy Water then. Could you get me some in a glass or something."

Excuse me?

If I don't have Holy Oil, what are the chances I'm gonna have Holy Water?

"Yeah, right, Father, can you hold the tail a second. I'll just be checkin' my purse, I will."

And no, I do not say this out loud.

Instead I go to the cabinet, open it and look for the heavy rocks glasses Dad likes to drink from. What I find is a stack of small, white foam cups, larger royal blue plastic cups, a Pepto Bismal medicine cup and a mug with a picture of a four-masted schooner on it. The mug's out. It's stuffed with Sweet and Low. Where are the damned tumblers? Foam and plastic just don't seem like the appropriate containers for Holy Water used for the Last Rites for my father.

And then I look down. They are on the drainboard, right where I left them this morning. My relief is palpable...Until I see the half-empty, designer water bottle sitting next to the sink. I have a new dilemma, tap or bottled?

This entire process couldn't have taken over thirty seconds but to me it felt like a slow eternity.

I return with the glass half full of tap water...because I will not give in to bourgeoisie consumerism at a time like this...and find Father Hotrod looking around the room like he's lost something.

The entire scenario is beginning to feel like an episode of "Let's Make a Deal!" Hotrod is a very controlled Monty Hall and I'm the panicked lady he's picked to approach in the studio audience. "I'll give you one thousand dollars for every crystal cherub you have in your purse!"

"Where's your father's prayer book?" the priest asks.

Okay, now maybe it's just me...but don't you think a priest visiting the sick and dying should at least come equipped with a Book of Common Prayer? I mean, come on...The plumber comes with a wrench. Am I asking too much here?

We find the prayer book on the bookcase, beneath a travel-sized plastic pouch of tissues and a bunch of junk mail. Father Hotrod gives me a look like, "You couldn't keep the clutter off the Holy Book now, Lassie?" Which I ignore.

He opens the book, standing at the foot of Dad's bed. I stand beside him, clutching the "Holy" Water, the lump in my throat once again choking me with unshed tears.

The priest prays over the glass of water, saying something like "Bless this water to thy use..." and a few other phrases that all minister's daughters ought to know and then turns to me. "I'll read this with you," he says.

With me? I'm going to read something? Out loud? You've got to be kidding me!

Is it not enough we're standing at the foot of Dad's bed with him unconscious and therefore unable to bail me out by being the appropriate grown-up? Is it not enough that this moment is only a taste of what it is going to be like to be without my best friend and mentor? That this is how every day will feel for the rest of my life? And you want me to read?

I can't possibly, but of course I do. It is what Dad would want and that is what saves me.

It is not at all like "Law and Order," where a priest rushes to the scene, kneels down and makes a hasty sign of the cross on some poor victim's forehead. No. This is a service. It is four pages long.

The priest dips his fingers into the water, murmurs more prayers, then steps forward to make the sign of the cross on Dad's forehead.

It reminds me of how Dad baptized my babies. I can seehim using his thumb to make a wet cross on each of their tiny foreheads. Like my babies, Dad seems to react a little when the priest touches his forehead. His eyebrows arc and then relax as he sleeps on.

I am okay. I can handle a moment that reminds me of birth. But when the priest makes crosses on my father's palms I feel as if a weight has landed on my shoulders. The Crucifixion. Nails. Blood. Death. I should think of his death as a rebirth but I don't. In this moment I can only think of suffering.

The priest backs up, resumes his litany of blessings and prayers, until at last the service is over. I think about my friend, Wendy, a Quaker. She says they don't pray for things or people, they hold them in the light. Holding Dad in the light seems like such a perfect option.

Father Hotrod is still standing there at the foot of the bed. He looks at me, pushes the prayer book into my hands and says, "Here are some prayers you should read to him throughout the day. I'm sure they are prayers you said with him as children."

I am absolutely certain this man has unconscious and unresolved anger issues.
Mine are totally conscious.

Furthermore, I am pissed that we had to pray out loud to God to forgive Dad's sins before he could get a pass into Heaven. Dad hasn't done anything wrong. Ever...and certainly not in the past year! It was work just to breathe. When would he have time to sin? And don't say "by thought, word and deed," cause I'm not buying it.

I have to get this forty-pound robin out of this room before I truly lose my shit.

"He was very good to Christ Church," Father Hotrod murmurs. Even I know the translation of remark.

He is saying, "Your dad was a hell of a friend to me and I am going to miss him. He really understood me, even if I do come off like a rigid ass. He saw that I was shy and frightened. He had compassion."

I say, "He's been that way all of his life."

I am still hacked off about that confession thing.

Only now I feel my father's teachings leaching through my resistant hide. In this moment, and for every moment after this, I like old Hotrod. He can't help that he's stiff and uncomfortable. He's an introvert driving a crucifixion-colored, souped-up Mustang GT, and all he needs is a bit of kindness.

I have got to get rid of him. Now!

So, I say the only thing I can think of and afterward, I know it offends his propriety.

"My dad is the best example of unconditional love on the planet," I say.

Trump that! I think, knowing he will see me as a sacrilegious and faithless. I am worshipping a false idol.

Whatever. It is enough to get Father Hotrod out the door.

I close it behind him, sink down into the chair and feel like I have been defending my helpless father from invaders. I feel besieged myself...By all the tears that refuse to stay put behind the giant lump in my throat.

I dash to the bathroom and, ever the multi-tasker, pee and cry at the same time. But even over this cascade I can hear my father call out.

I jump up, pull my low-riding jeans high enough to cover the essentials and dash, my rhinestone belt flapping in the breeze beside me. "I'm...here!" I cry, the sound breaking off in mid-phrase. He is sleeping again. He was dreaming.

I walk back to my place in the green recliner beside his bed, sink down into its overstuffed cushions.

Oh, God, I feel so alone.


Minutes later Dad wakes up. He's feeling worlds better, he says. I tell him the priest came and gave him last rights. "But don't worry," I say. "I wrote a blog about it!" Dad rolls his eyes. I tell him the version I gave you, only I left out the parts where I felt bad and alone. He is smiling. "So, how many hits today?" he asks.

Dad thinks I should be a columnist. I don't tell him I doubt this will make any more money than what I make as a novelist or a therapist in a nursing home. Besides, I like writing in my pajamas. It was his idea that led me to www.greensboro101.com. He thought I should find others who were doing what I do.

He also thinks I should write from my heart and not always write the funny stuff.

"I'm not saying be depressing. There's just a hint of sadness behind so much of your humor. It's poignant. Just write like you talk."

So I did a search for bloggers in Greensboro and I "found my people." The hits went up a little. And then the sweet creator of www.hoggsblog.com wrote a nice bit about me. Mr. Hoggard has made Dad very, very happy...Even if he did say Dad was already dead!

Feelings...Nothing More Than...Damned Men!

Men! When will they ever "get in touch with" their damned feelings?!

The Wisest Man in the Universe (you know, Dad) said this day would come.

"Those boys of yours will have a hell of a time finding wives," he said. "They won't be able to find one that measures up to their mother, and that's what they'll be looking for, you know."

I think he was alluding to my compulsion to prove myself on the IronMom circuit...You know, the marathon competition where you bake chocolate chip cookies every day, serve meals made from food products that are not pre-packaged, chauffeur the kids to school and soccer practice, all while serving as mentor, guide and concierge.

Well, the day has arrived. Adam has his first real, true girlfriend...and they are so disgustingly in looooove...They call each other "My Pooh."

Someone, quick, gag me!

I was prepared to hate her. I mean, for pity's sake, she's a blonde...while also managing to be super smart, wicked funny, and undaunted by adults and ferocious snapping schnauzers.

What's not to love?

All right, I'll tell you what's not to love...Amanda got my rock-faced, iron-willed son to express his true emotions! Do you realize I have been trying to do this for lo these seventeen, almost eighteen years and have yet to crack the little bastard?!

When Adam was seven, the dentist said he wanted to pull the rest of Adam's baby teeth. He wanted to allow the adult teeth space to grow in. Well, my boy wasn't having that, not one bit of it! He pitched a little fit and as we drove home in the van told me he was not going to have his teeth pulled.

I glanced at him in the rearview mirror and saw stone. No contorted kid grimace. Stone.

I know the kid is terrified. This dentist wants to give him a cup of juice with knock-out drops in it a la Jonestown. Then, while Adam's sleeping, the guy intends to commit mayhem inside the kid's mouth. There will be blood. There will be pain. There will be ice cream at the end of the rainbow, I announce.

Stone. "I'm not doing it!"

I sigh. It's one of those "teachable moments."

I pull into the driveway, unbuckle my seatbelt and prepare to get to the root of the problem. Adam needs to face his fear. Only then will he feel less overwhelmed and see the logic of the situation.

I walk back to the rear captain's chair and face down my surly child. "Let's talk about this, honey," I say in my best therapist-y tone. "Are you scared?"

"No," he says. "I'm just not doing it, that's all!"

"Well, now, honey, the dentist is trying to make room for your big teeth. If the little baby ones are still stuck in place, the big ones will have to come in around them. They'll be crooked."

No reaction...Just a steely-eyed glare.

I try and I try to get the kid to talk about it, but no. We are trapped in the stuffy van, locked in mortal combat, daring the other to blink first.

And that was my undoing.

Instead of thinking it through. Instead of giving it a little time. Instead of following the tiny voice in my gut that said...Hey, there's something wrong with a dentist who routinely gives little kids cups of Kool-Aid in the waiting room and then waits for them to drop like flies into the waiting attendant's arms...Maybe it's okay to keep your baby teeth. Maybe that's why God invented orthodontics... I just bulldoze on through and finally lose control of the one little shred of dignity I have left.

I find myself towering over my young son, my arms gripping each side of his chair, looking the seven-year-old mountain right in the eyes.

"You have to tell me what you're feeling!" I demand. "I'm a therapist. This is what I do for a living!"

There is one long moment of complete and total silence. My entire parental life flashes before my eyes, culminating with the realization that I have just reached my all-time parenting low.

Our eyes remain locked together but our souls react as one...We both bust out laughing! Gut-holding, tear-shedding, loud, hiccuping gasps of laughter.

I collapse onto the floor beside him, pull him into my arms and hug him tight.

"You know what?" I say. "You're right. If you don't want to have your baby teeth pulled, we won't do it. We already know you're gonna have braces. What's a few more months?"

His little body relaxes against me and I am forgiven.

But Stoneface doesn't crack like this often.

Many's the big battle where we've gone head-to-head, toe-to-toe, forcing me to bully my way into doing what is hard but also right. Many's the time I've seen the anger, hurt or fear building up like a thundercloud only to drift away without expression.

I have learned to ride it out with him. To sit by his side in silence until he is ready...or not. To bear witness to his pain instead of trying to erase it with denial or easy kindnesses.

We have worked out a way to work through the feelings...Even if he doesn't want to express them like I do.

But now SHE is on the scene. There is nothing SHE can't conquer.

My father is mentor, best friend, and true companion to both my boys. He has been a constant safe harbor in their lives. When their parents fail them, Grandaddy will not.

Adam brought Amanda to meet Grandaddy a few weeks ago...And I knew it was to receive his blessing upon this tender, fragile shoot of new love.

Of course, The Wisest Man in the Known Universe is the font of all unconditional love and approval, so the girl had a cakewalk to his okay.

She liked him, likes him, and he likes her.

In the past year, I have watched my boys skate slowly around the edges of their grandfather's impending departure. I have seen them blow off the opportunities he has given them to say goodbye, or to talk about his leaving. I have watched their two little stone faces and it has killed me to know what agony must lie just beneath the surface.

But SHE tapped the keg.

When Adam told her he might need to leave school for New Bern because Grandaddy was probably dying, SHE lost it. She cried and wailed and showed every single piece of her anguish to him...

And in doing so turned the magic key and released his own imprisoned pain.

He came home, slightly after curfew, eyes swollen, nose plugged and collapsed at the foot of my bed amongst the dogs and my friend, Martha who is Vice Mom in my absence.

And he talked about his feelings.

Just a little bit.

When I called minutes later I said, "How you doin'?"


"You don't sound fine," I said.

"It's a cold. I'm catching a cold."

"Asshole," I said...my pet name for him.

"Turd," he said, chuckling- then "Amanda was crying about Grandaddy and when I saw her, I just lost it..."

Thank you, Amanda. Thank you for giving him the gift of expressing what he feels inside and then showing him it's okay to let others know. Thank you for being his first gentle love.

And don't forget, little girl...I can still whip your ass at Tribond, so you're not the Queen yet!


Thanking the Sponsors

Dad had only been sleeping for a short while when he opened his eyes, rose slightly onto one elbow and said, "I think we've reached the end of what we can do."

I had been doing nursing home paperwork. Reams of paper were littered at my feet in scattered, messy piles. I had been swearing under my breath about miscodes and missed faxes. But the tone of his voice, the frightened child-like look on his face stopped all that.

When these episodes happen and the world is abruptly upside down, I plaster a set, everything-is-copasetic half-smile onto my face. My brain goes into hyperdrive, whirring through the emergency To-Do list.

Is the oxygen line kinked? No. Okay, take a slow, shallow breath.

Does he need Ativan? No. We did that an hour ago.

Morphine? I gave him a shot twenty minutes ago. .75ml.

It's not working.

Check the line again...check the indicator on the oxygen machine...It's at the appropriate 7 lpm. Air blasts out of the cannula against my finger.

I angle the fan to blow cool air on him, as instructed by his hospice nurse, Sharon. In case of emergency, do these things..."It probably won't help," she'd said. "It's more psychological than anything. So he won't panic."

I've done everything. Worked my way through The List. All I have left is my calm, We're-good-Big-Mon attitude.

"Would you like me to..."

"Call Sharon," he says.

She is right in the building. She is walking through the hallway and I am pathetic in my relief to hear her say this.

She arrives, hooking up the pulse oximeter, listening to the tiny shard of lung he has left, feeling the pulses in his extremities.

I look at his feet. They are not blue, not like she said they'd begin to be when his body shut down. They are waxen and pale.

Her face has not changed but I can read her. She is worried.

She gives him another hefty dose of morphine. "This is going to gork you a little," she says. "But I figure better to gork you than to have you feeling distressed."

I am sitting at the foot of his bed, watching. A lump has risen in my throat and it is all that keeps my sanity and grief from blowing my head off. I cannot speak, I think. But somehow when I need to, I still manage.

"He said he thought we'd done all we could do for his breathlessness," I say softly.

Sharon looks to him for confirmation.

His eyes are wide. He is trying to appear calm and casual about this, but I see he is scared. He is protecting me.

"Aw, Sharon," he says. "You've done such a good job, you really have, but I think it's time. I'm ready to go."

She nods, just like we've all been trained to do in care-taker school but her cheeks redden. Her eyes brighten suspiciously. She is fighting it.

"Well, nine times out of ten, when my patients say 'This is it,' it usually is," she tells him calmly. "You've been up and down before though...but this time it seems like a slower decline. I think maybe you're right. I think this is it."

She is writing something in her notes and I know what it is, confirmed later when her back is turned and I read her notes, "Pt. states he is ready to go."

I look at the pulse oximeter. Heart rate is down from 90 to 80. O2 sats are up to 98. She looks too. "Feeling better?" she asks. "Your sats were in the 70s when I came in but they're back up now."

Dad nods, but he's not having any of it. "Now, I want you to remember something we talked about," he says to her. My father is giving the nurse instructions! Is this not just like him? To control his very death by monitoring his caregivers?

"I don't want the actual process of my death to be traumatizing to Elise, Nancy or Becky."

Sharon appears to miss his meaning, asks instead, "What do you want me to do, smack 'em? I might get away with slapping Becky, but this one," she says nodding in my direction. "I've seen her get mad. She might hurt me!"

I smile. "True that," I say.

"You know," he says, a bulldog clinging to the bone. "They've got to work and this is taking up so much time and..."

My voice returns, bringing the wit I hold like a shield every time I am scared.

"So, what're you saying, Dad? You're gonna be the martyr and die to make our lives easier? So, like, you'll leave me with the big guilt trip? I caused my father's death because he was inconvenient.." I let the word inconvenient break up into stretchy syllables...in-connn-veee-nee-ent, just like Dana Carvey doing The Church Lady on Saturday Night Live. "Can you say, Satan?" I think.

He smiles, looks at Sharon. "Or else I might die just to get away from this one!"

He says, "It's been a good ride but it's time."

And then he lays back against the pillows, like, okay, he's cued the cameras and "Action!"

Sharon squats down beside the bed, pats his arm and smiles gently.

"Well, you know, if you had brain cancer I'd say, yeah, okay, you're going today. But you've got a lung disease and they're different. It's gonna take a little while. It's not going to be today."

Oh he is pissed then!

His furry, white eyebrows arch. "What do you mean? I said I'm ready to go!"

She tells him he will probably stabilize on morphine very 4 hours instead of every six. That later it will go to three hours apart, then two. "And then you'll be in this drifty, dreamy kind of place. You'll wake up every now and then and see our ugly faces and think what am I still doing here? And then you'll just go to sleep and not wake up."

She says this like we're going to our first day of middle school, or to McDonalds, or to the bank to open our first account. She says this as if it were normal. Which in reality, it is.

But he is still ticked off about it. "Well," he huffs. "I guess I'm not in charge of that either, huh?!"

She lets it go. She says, "Besides, next week, I'll be down to only five patients. I'll have all the time in the world to hang around here. You won't be able to get rid of me."

I say, "Dad, even if there were some cataclysmic event and Sharon wasn't here and you were in distress, I am trained. I can handle this. You will not traumatize me...even if you seize up and foam at the mouth!"

But I am his girl, so he isn't buying this either.

"She can do it, you know," Sharon adds. "Look, she's got the fan going."

Dad scowls at the fan, realizing it has never before been turned on. "Is that what that was for?" he asks, looking from her face to mine.

We nod.

Minutes later he is stable enough for Sharon to leave. I know, down the hall, another patient is dying. I overheard her talking. Dad lays back, his eyes closed but not sleeping.

I think I need to call Becky. I need to call the priest. If Dad wants to die today, he might do it just to show Sharon up.

But I don't get a chance to call the priest. He's standing in the doorway, like a God-ordered pizza...which totally freaks me out.

He is tall, quite distinguished with his silver-shot hair. At first I thought he had a stick up his ass, but in the same breath I realized a fellow introvert. He is shy, trying to come off as quasi-regal, imposing, anything but shy.

I am so freaked that he has come that I say, "I was just going to call you!" I usher him in, spin around and mouth "it's not a good day," and say louder, "I've got to make a call. I'll be right back."

I make a mad dash for the parking lot, praying I will make it before I lose my shit and cry like a scared baby. I sink down beside the car and call my sister, leave her a voice mail, then text everyone else because I need the lump in my throat. I can't lose it now.

God makes me feel guilty...or I allow Her to...I know the priest will do communion. I know Dad will want me there, especially if he intends for it to be the last one.

So I drag-ass back inside. The receptionist is standing in the foyer, eyes wide behind her red-framed glasses. "A priest was looking for you!" she says...like the guy is God incarnate.

I nod. "Yeah, I figured. I was trying to get my act together before I had to face him," I say.

She giggles and nods. "Yeah, I know what that's like," she says.

I smile to myself. Well, well, well...does she have secrets or what?

They are in the middle of the prayer of Confession when I return. I pick up, staring at the leaflet, hearing the words come out with rote precision..."We have sinned against thee by thought, word and deed."

Well, I think, that's certainly true for me, I think. But what has Dad ever done to deserve this, to apologize for?

We do the deed. The thin wafer sticks like toilet paper to my dry tongue. The wine is only enough to make the wretched thing slide down my throat.

And then, God develops a sense of humor.

The priest goes to rinse out the chalice, trips over the trash basket, and before he can stop himself says, "Oh, I kicked the bucket!"

I adore this.

Dad is doing the same "Thank you for all you've done" routine he did with Sharon and me. The priest says, "I'll see you Thursday." He says it like three times, despite Dad's non-verbal "Yeah, but I might not be here" look. Finally Dad gives up and just nods. "See you Thursday," he says.

Kind of like..."Over my dead body!"

A few moments later I am in the parking lot...in time to see the priest drive away in a souped up, maroon Mustang GT. "BlaaaaVoom!" The exhaust manifold throbs as he cuts out on to the street, roaring up the road like a teenaged hot-rodder.

I walk back in, pause at the foot of the bed and say, "I suppose you know about the maroon Mustang GT, with, I think dual Hemi headers?"

Dad nods.

"Well, I say, I guess he has to blow it out somehow!"

Dad nods. He's got a little, been-there-done-that-t-shirt smile working the corners of his lips. "And he's got a lot to blow, too!" my father says.

The afternoon wears on. Dad's feeling better and better. I say, "Listen, I can understand if you're tired and you want to go on. I can respect that, Dad. But don't die because you think we're burdened. Don't you get it yet? We've waited all our lives to give back. We are the same children who used to fight for the opportunity to ride up to the hospital with you while you visited the sick, just to have the twenty minutes on either side of the two hour wait. You are giving me the greatest gift in the world by letting me be here with you. But if you want to go because you don't want to be here anymore, don't worry. I'll be fine."

I am squatting down beside him and he is rubbing circles across my back. "I know you will," he says. He tells me how great my boys are. I tell him it's because he's been in their lives. I tell him every single time I can off-hand remember him saying something momentous...like "You can't grow up to be like your mother, you have half my DNA."

It is tender and sweet.

I say, "How are you feeling? I want to talk about how you are."

He tries to tell me about how he's breathing much better but I cut him off. "No, Dad. How are you feel-ing, inside, emotionally. Are you scared?"

The eyebrows go up, he looks into my face. "Well, no. Not scared. A little apprehensive maybe. Because I've never...well, you know."

And then he says, "But it's been a great life. It's been so full. What a ride!"

I tell him about this sign I saw in a catalog that says something about not showing up at Heaven's gates with a well-preserved body. Instead showing up battered, worn out, out of gas, coasting on empty and totally used up.

We agree this is the way to show up.

I stay. I watch over him until late that night before I am able to move from my spot in the chair by his side.

I leave. I drive out across the bridge studying the brilliant full moon, half-hidden by clouds. The waters of the Trent sparkle and shimmer as the moon lights up a path to the Milky Way.

I think about my father and his full life.

At some point I realize the lump in my throat is gone. The feelings sealed safely away.

And only when I replay the day here on cyber-paper do the tears begin to fall.