The desk was littered with a myriad of no longer sticky, sticky notes, scribbled up scraps of paper and several pocket sized composition notebooks in varying conditions of tatter. A pearl white coffee mug splotched with dribs of coffee sat on a cork coaster, which sat on a scrawled over desk calendar still showing October of last year.
I worked away on the upcoming festival with an open excel grid of the schedule, two press releases, and an open email to volunteers all fighting for room on the computer screen. My hands clickity-clacked across the keyboard. The cell phone rang.
It was early on a Sunday morning and my phone never rang on the weekend unless one of the girls was in need. I knew that was not the case as the oldest was at work and the youngest was in her room, fifteen feet away. She kept a teenager's sleep schedule. I kept a feed and clothe a teenager work schedule.
The display read Unknown Caller and the area code was unfamiliar. I never answer unknown calls.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello, it’s Jo Ann.” Jo Ann is my dad’s second wife of some forty plus years. They married shortly (my mom said too shortly) after my parent’s divorce when I was thirteen. Junior high, seventh grade, 1973, platform shoes, the Cisco Kid was a friend of mine and Nixon had one foot out the door.
“They took your father to the hospital last night,” Jo Ann continued in her deep south, West Virginia accent. As a Texan, that drawl was as unfamiliar and unsettling to me as the rapid cadence of a New Jersey car salesman. I never put my finger on why.
“They said he prob’ly wouldn’t be coming home. I can’t believe I just said that out loud.” The former, Jo Ann said to me, the latter she said more to herself.
“Well, shit.” I thought.
“Oh, dear,” I said.
“You really must come up as soon as you can.”
Besides being cold to me the few times we had ever shared air, the thing I liked least about Jo Ann, when I was a teenager, was how she ordered me, and everyone really, as if she were Joseph Smith and each word out of her mouth rose directly from Urim and Thummim and was to be followed or carried out unconditionally.
I usually took her words with the same skepticism as I took Smith and his translation.
“Let me see what I can do,” I stumbled. “The festival is just over a month away. I’m swamped.” This was clearly a totally unacceptable reply when you are asked to go to your dad’s death bed. I knew this.
“You simply must.”
I was unprepared for this conversation and had one goal only. Hang up and end it. Deal with the consequences later.
“Let me see what I can do, Jo Ann. I will call you back shortly.” There was, I think, more to the conversation but blessed little and I was soon sitting at my desk.
After a beat or two the girlfriend walked in from the kitchen. The house we live in is small; two bedrooms, one bath, a kitchen, and a somewhat large living area. My desk is in one corner of the living area just sitting out in the open. She did not have to eavesdrop to hear every word of the phone call. Acoustically speaking, there was simply no way to avoid overhearing.
“When do you want to go?”
“I don’t know that I am going.”
“You have to go.”
“Hell I do.”
She sighed heavily; this was usually a reliable sign I was about to lose an argument.
“You aren’t going for you. You’re going for him,” she said. “You have the opportunity to send the man off in peace.”
I’m pretty sure I slumped in my chair. I’m very sure I’m o’fer in arguments with this woman. It is hard to work up a mad about it, however, as I lose because I am seemingly always in the wrong. The girlfriend picks her battles carefully.
She walked over, kissed the back of my neck tenderly, squeezed my shoulder and walked to the bathroom. I was left to sit and stew.
My dad had called a few months back with the news that he had been diagnosed with a terminal cancer. I don’t remember what type, kind, or stage of cancer. It did not matter. Terminal was the keyword. He had been given six to eight months. I had planned to go visit in April after the festival was over and I had more slack in my schedule. It was an obligation trip. My dad and I had never been close. We were, as they say, estranged.
adjective (of a person) no longer close or affectionate to someone; alienated.
"Harriet felt more estranged from her daughter than ever."
I suppose, by that definition, my dad and I were not estranged, as I don’t ever recall a time when we were close or affectionate.
I clicked around on a few travel sites looking for a flight, rental car, and a hotel near the hospital. It didn’t take long to realize all the sites seemed to offer the same deals. I clicked around, looking at all the offers in detail, just the same. Stalling really, not wanting to put things in the online shopping cart and check out. I was in no rush to make this trip concrete.
I stalled, searching for an excuse not to go. I couldn’t argue paucity, the girlfriend would loan me the money. I couldn’t argue I was too busy, too much of a cat’s in the cradle thing. There seemed no way around it. I was going to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I found a cheap hotel within walking distance of the hospital, reserved a compact car, and booked a late flight into Baltimore for Monday. At least I could arrive in the middle of the night to stave off the onslaught of seeing my dad on his deathbed and dealing with people I didn’t know and had not cared to get to know for forty years.
The girlfriend called from the kitchen, “There’s a big snowstorm blanketing the east coast tomorrow night,” she said. “”You should fly in tomorrow morning or afternoon. Give yourself plenty of time to drive down from Baltimore before the roads get bad.”
“Well, shit,” I thought. It probably would have been a good idea to check the weather on the east coast before booking a trip from Texas in February.
The weather report was ominous. I realize Texas will shut down schools, close government offices, except for essential personnel, and barricade roads just because some Bubba spills a ten pound bag of Reddy Ice in the parking lot of a 7/11.
Repeating here, the weather report was ominous. East coast meteorologists were using the word ‘blizzard’ and measuring predicted snowfall in feet not inches.
Still, I refused to change my itinerary. The snow was predicted to start between 9 pm and midnight, Monday. My flight was predicted to touch down in Baltimore at 9:50 pm.
I love the girlfriend because she recognizes male stupidity and stubbornness when she sees it, doesn’t fight it, and loves me anyway.
My flight touched down at the Baltimore/Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport a few minutes after 10 pm. I was feeling pretty smug as the tarmac was dry. Not a blizzard in sight out the starboard portal on the window of the plane.
In the fourth grade when the family was stationed in Vallejo, California, my dad made me memorize certain nautical terms and naval signal flags. I came home from school one day to find a large poster of signal flags pinned to my wall. In my house mom was in the ‘galley’ making dinner, one went to the ‘head’ to defecate and Christmas vacation from school was ‘leave.’ Simultaneously, my mom was dressing me in paisley shirts, bellbottom jeans and I had a collection of neck scarves that would have rivaled what you would find in a gypsy vardo. This was 1968 and 69. We lived a few scant miles north of the epicenter of all things hippy. In military housing.
I was a conflicted child.
By the time I reached the rental car kiosk, snowflakes as big as the half dollar flapjacks at Ol’ South Pancake House were wafting to the ground. When I approached the rental kiosk there was one clerk waiting on one customer. The terminal was empty. It had been a long flight so I stepped out the door into the cold and smoked a quick cigarette. When I reentered there was a line eight or nine people deep. Smoking is bad for your health. Addiction is an awful thing. Both complicate and harm your life in ways unimaginable to the unaddicted.
It was 11:30 by the time I was waited on. No one had gotten in line behind me. The clerk looked at my paperwork and glanced outside at the accumulating snowfall.
“Will you be driving the car much while you’re in Baltimore?
“I’m not going to be in Baltimore,” I replied. “I’m driving to the south end of the Eastern Shore.” It was really none of his business how much driving I was going to be doing or where I was headed but I just really wanted to say ‘south end of the Eastern Shore.’
“Oh,” he said. In Texas he would have looked at me sideways and uttered a ‘bless your heart.’
He stared at me and I stared back.
“That’s no regular snowfall,” he said, looking out the window at the now solid wall of snow dropping to the ground. “That is a blizzard.” I felt like he really wanted to pat me on the head like I was a toddler.
“I am aware.”
“Where did you fly in from?”
“Texas,” I said.
“Oh.” There was that tone again. “I can upgrade you to a Jeep Liberty for just an extra $5 a day.”
I didn’t really want to spend the extra money on the upgrade. We both turned and looked out the window. Visibility couldn’t have been more than fifteen feet.
Less than ten minutes later I was on the shuttle to the garage, the keys to the Liberty in my jean’s right front pocket.
The first four hours of the drive were fine. The Liberty handled well and while I was driving fifteen to twenty miles an hour under the speed limit, it was more of a visibility issue than road handling problem. I picked up an all sports talk station broadcasting from Baltimore but it turned to static about three hours in. After that, I briefly picked up an NPR music station but that lasted only slightly longer than momentary. At one point I left the radio on scan for twenty, maybe thirty minutes. The cadence between mid-song, static, mid-song, static and mid-commentary, static was oddly appealing and served the purpose of keeping me alert. The road condition became more treacherous and I eased down to thirty, thirty-five miles per hour. I began to feel like I was in a snow globe being shaken by a three year old at the peak of a sugar high.
The final thirty miles took over an hour and a half. I crawled along at maybe ten miles an hour. Barely idle speed. When the sun came up it was almost a total white out. Oddly enough the landscape reminded me somewhat of West Texas; all one color, white instead of brown, capped by a crystal blue sky.
I noted my motel as I crawled past on the highway and headed straight to the hospital. I killed the engine of the Liberty a few minutes past 7 am. I opened the door, stepped stiffly out, and found myself standing on over four inches of packed snow and ice.
I had flown halfway across the country and driven over seven hours in a blizzard to perform a task I felt, at best, less than half-hearted to carry out. I walked through the revolving doors of the North Shore Memorial Hospital in Nassaawadox, Virginia feeling beat all to hell. My right ankle ached from working the gas pedal and my fingers cramped from death gripping the wheel.
I went in search of a big ass cup of coffee and my dying dad. In that order.
Day one was pretty much a waste. I was punch drunk exhausted and dad was wandering between realities in a morphine haze. Jo Ann and her youngest son were surprisingly respectful and deferential. I was given the seat next to dad’s bedside. I thought that should have been Jo Ann’s place but she insisted. She usually sat in whatever chair was farthest from the bed. I don’t think she chose to sit so far away out of coldness but rather it was her way of coping. She didn’t want to face the reality of her husband’s death. She coped with it emotionally by removing herself physically. It was her way. Nothing wrong with that. People cope the best they can.
I was included in medical consultations with the doctor and nurses. I was deferred to on decisions. This was uncomfortable as I really had no idea what was medically happening to my dad. We were not close. He had called a few times and told me in vague terms what was happening. I understood it was terminal. As to specifics, I had no clue.
In laymen’s terms, what I understood was dad was eaten up internally with tumors. His organs were fighting a losing battle for space and resources with these rampant growths. Nothing could be done except make him as comfortable as possible. The initial diagnosis had given him eight to ten months but inertia was on cancer’s side.
I had watched and guided my mother to her death less than a year prior. In her case, I was present every step of the way. This was, in a way, familiar territory. Dealing with doctors and nurses who talked around the subject of death was how the game was played. Medical personnel hardly ever mention the inevitability of death. They often simply will not say that your loved one is near the end. It is, for them, simply another phase of treatment. Jo Ann was, I think, happy to relinquish the task of dealing with these final stages to me. I had no real idea why. Maybe it was her southern code that dense, serious matters should be handled by the menfolk because womenfolk were just too delicate. Even still, her youngest son was present and he was raised from five by my dad, so really he should have stepped up. Maybe Jo Ann thought her youngest couldn’t handle the weight of the situation. As my mamaw used to say, ‘he ain’t got much north of his ears.’
In any case, I was thrust front and center in this death spiral.
With my mother I felt it was my job, my place, to be the vanguard. Here I felt like an interloper. Like I was walking down a hospital corridor and a random family pulled me in and told me to care for their father and husband as he lay dying.
To complicate matters, dad was in a fairly incoherent state for most of the day. Hard to tell if his dementia was brought on by the heavy pain medication or was simply his present mental state. People from his church visited at regular intervals.
There were rarely less than seven or eight people in the room counting myself, Jo Ann, her youngest son, and his wife. The people came and stood by dad’s bedside. He mainly slept. They held his hand, looked concerned and always, always wanted to pray. Hand holding prayers. Faces lifted prayers. Heads bowed prayers. All the prayers were for a speedy and full recovery. Miracle prayers. I thought what dad truly needed from God was to be taken swiftly, mercifully, and painlessly. A practical prayer.
What I mostly prayed for was not to fall asleep as by this time I was pushing thirty-six hours of tense consciousness with only hospital food and vending machine snacks to burn for energy.
What the hell. I had flown halfway across the country and driven through a blizzard to do something, I guess. The sound of the girlfriend’s voice kept echoing through my head, “You have the opportunity to send the man off in peace.” I hung in until I could hang in no more.
I returned to the motel about nine in the evening. I was the last to leave. I considered having the heart to heart talk with dad but half the time he could only muster a mumble and the other half he was in another place, in another decade, talking to colleagues from days well gone. I called the girlfriend to touch base and passed out.
The next day was clear, sunny and well digger cold. The roads were still covered with ice but the Liberty dug in and traversed the distance to the hospital cleanly. The parade of church people continued and I was constantly praised and lauded for traveling in and braving the blizzard to see my dad. I felt like a fraud and wondered what the hell I was doing there. The roads were too bad to venture farther than my motel and there were no diners, drive-ins or dives near by. More hospital and vending machine food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The good news was dad was clear and lucid all day. He still slept a lot but when conscious he was present in the moment. We talked the way we always talked; about everything and nothing.
I went home around ten in the evening. Again, I was the last to leave. I reached down deep to start the heart to heart while he was cognizant and present in conversation. I simply could not do it. Feeling like a chicken shit I simply left, went to the motel, called the girlfriend and both girls to touch base and slept fitfully.
Day three, my last full day, broke clear and warm. The temperature climbed above freezing by late morning. I broke away early afternoon, determined to explore the town and find a decent place to eat. I found a little Italian place and had a good calzone. Across the street was a bakery and I loaded up with still warm muffins and a half dozen raisin oatmeal cookies to take back to my room. This was the last day to have the heart to heart. To clear the air with my dad. To send him off in peace. It was looking more and more like I just did not have this in me. I had a late morning flight from Baltimore the next day and would have to leave Nassaawadox before 6 am. I was determined to at least attempt the task. I returned to the hospital.
More chitchat with church people. More consultations with doctors. More heaping’s of undeserved praise. Jo Ann and her son left around 6:30. We hugged, said we would do better about keeping in touch.
This was it. I was going to make amends with dad.
We spent the next hour talking about road conditions and how long it would take me to drive back to Baltimore.
I never felt a mental connection with my dad. When I was a kid it seemed my mom and mamaw could always tell what I was thinking. Mostly they seemed to always know when I had misbehaved, sometimes they knew what I was thinking before I even had a chance to misbehave. But this time dad seemed to sense the moment.
I was sitting on the edge of my seat. Fumbling with my worry ring. Trying to find the words.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t a better father.”
I looked up, half stunned. “You weren’t a bad father,” I said. And it was true. He hadn’t been a bad dad in the traditional sense. He was never abusive, mentally or physically. He was an absent father. That was his sin.
“I never hated you, dad. Now, in my teenage years I was mad at you quite a bit, but I never hated you.”
The man was in constant pain. How much, I don’t know but it was clear from the first day that the pain was ever present. When he smiled or laughed it was visible just behind his eyes. The eyes are different on people laughing or smiling through pain. Dad looked me straight in the eyes and smiled. The smile was total and complete. The pain was gone. I didn’t know my dad, but I knew those eyes. They were my eyes.
He laid his head back on his pillow and that was it. Mission accomplished. I had said what he wanted to hear. The pressure in my chest began to drain like dirty dishwater down the sink.
I sat next to the bed for ten more minutes. We chatted more about my return trip the next morning. When I left I kissed him on the forehead, told him I loved him and said I would stop by briefly in the morning on my way back to Baltimore.
One more genuine, pain free smile.
I got back to the motel and sat on the bed eating a cookie. I fell asleep. The last time I glanced at the bedside clock radio it was 11:46 pm.
My cell phone rang at 12:36 am. I answered. It was a doctor at the hospital. He asked me to identify myself. I did. He paused briefly and told me dad had died about twenty minutes ago. I asked if he had called Jo Ann. He said he was about to but my name and number were first on the call list.
I asked if there was anything I needed to do. He said no. We hung up.
I lay back down on the bed and was asleep in moments.
I awoke the next morning without the alarm. Gathered my belongings and loaded the Liberty. I was on the road fifteen minutes ahead of schedule.
The roads were mostly free of ice by now. I made solid, steady time. The sun rose and it was a bright, clear day. It was good to see the countryside where my dad had wound up living the majority of his life. I collect personal and place names like some men collect baseball cards. I drove through and by towns named Accomac, Little Hell, Modest Town, Metompkin, Temperanceville and Assawoman.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is a massive structure connecting Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore to the urban Western Shore. The shore to shore span is 4.33 miles. The bridge has a reputation as being one of the scariest bridges in the world. Fearful drivers can actually pull over and a Maryland Department of Transportation employee will drive your vehicle over the span. I imagined what that job would be like, driving other people’s vehicles back and forth across the bridge with them, I supposed, crouched down in the back seat, hands covering tightly clenched eyes.
As I drove across this massive bridge I looked down 186 feet to the bay below. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of huge broken blocks of ice jostling against each other, tossed about by the whitecaps of the icy bay water. I wondered just how large they were. From this vantage, perspective was impossible.
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