Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Turning Point

I sensed something was different when my mother and I arrived at the hospital today.  The nurses seemed more pensive, their behavior more formal.  My father's lunch tray was by his side, untouched.  We learned he hadn't been awake since the middle of night.  Although his brow was knitted in pain, and he kept trying to remove his hospital gown, we couldn't get him to open his eyes long enough to focus on us.  Per the nurse's recommendation I called the doctor who advised we start in-hospital hospice.  My mother, who still wanted to believe he was going to get better, took an honest look at my father, and without hesitation agreed it was time to manage his pain, not his illness.  I was incredibly proud of her courage, and ability to accept the truth, my father was dying.

At 6pm his antibiotic drip was replaced with morphine.  We held his hand, which was still strong and warm.  "Happy Hospice Dad."  It may seem strange, but I was happy for him.  He had made a choice, which my family unanimously endorsed.  My mother said, "it's the beginning of the end."  Or the beginning of the beginning.  I was incredibly grateful to the hospital staff for the effortless transition.  We didn't have to move him to another floor, facility or home.  The testing, probing and blood work which had left his skin bruised and fragile was over.  We were comforted by one of his favorite techs who was on staff all day.  At 730 pm, when her shift was over, she asked if she could kiss him goodbye.  She started vacation tomorrow, and she knew she wouldn't see him again.  Although a whisper of the man he had been in life, she was still able to see the man he had been before his illness.  She always treated him with respect even when the situations were humiliating.  She listened to his stories, and comforted him when he struggled.  I sobbed when she leaned over to kiss his cheek.  Her goodbye endorsed the finality of our circumstances.

Monday, July 30, 2012


My father has the telltale signs of a cancer patient -- bald head, big sunken eyes, taut cheeks.  It's only been two weeks since I saw him last and the transformation is heartbreaking.  Although the last few days he's been eating, his weight loss is extreme.  My mother has been reassuring on the phone, hopeful that eating is a sign of recovery, but even three thousand miles away I knew the truth.  I roused my father from a deep sleep, he smiled and immediately adorned me with "I love you."  I'm most certain he doesn't know how long I've been gone, but he seems to be aware I live in California. "You're cute," he told me, and reiterated to my mother how good I looked.  He commented on my highlights.  "Natural," I told him.  He strings words together, but complete sentences are out of his realm.  Italian, a language he never spoke, but heard often when my mother's parents were alive, is his vocabulary of choice.

I returned to NJ with a clear mission; to reassess, and guide him.  The morphine, ativan cocktail alleviates some of his pain, but not all.  He winces often and furrows his brow.  When we had a few seconds alone, I took his hand, "Dad, I'm here to help you. I will guide you through this. We can do this together.  You're not alone, you are loved."  I reassured him that everyone, particularly my mother, would be okay.  He does not need to worry, he can let go.  "Do you know what I'm saying to you, do you understand?"  He squeezed my hand, gave me a big gummy smile, and said, "yes."

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Jesus in LA

I've seen friends' photos on facebook of Jesus walking the streets of Los Angeles in a white flowing robe.  The skeptic in me brushed him off as just another costumed guy in Tinseltown, blending in perfectly with the caped super heroes and Marilyn Monroe look a likes.  But from the many pictures Jesus wasn't just a fixture on Hollywood Boulevard in front of Grauman's Theater, he got around.  He liked to eat hot dogs, visit LACMA, and relax at the beach.  How come I've never bumped into Jesus? Is this the work of photoshop or are these Jesus sitings for real? Before jealously had time to set in, I was on a new page, and Jesus was relegated to the recess of my mind. I was stunned when he appeared unexpectedly at an outdoor funk concert last night at California Plaza.  His presence went unnoticed by some, and caused a stir among others.  Jesus walked among us, through the crowd, stopping for hugs and handshakes.  I smiled and chased him with my camera.

Tomorrow I'll be with my father again.  What will he say when I tell him I saw Jesus?  Will he tell me he has seen him too? The last few nights my father has been calling for me.  Yesterday I spoke to him on the phone and reassured him I'd see him soon.  He was joyful, told me he was wonderful.  I know it's hokey but I was comforted by my run in with Jesus last night.  I took it as a sign.  The transition has begun.

Saturday, July 28, 2012


I've embraced the intense schedule that has become my summer.  I've struck a balance between long days in a NJ hospital and those spent with writers weaving fiction in Los Angeles.  In between I'm trying to wring out as much life as possible to make up for those too ill to partake in simple activities.  My father is alive, but his days are still spent in bed, dependent on others to change his clothes, urinate and eat.  For selfish reasons I'm grateful he's still with us.  In a few days I will be able to hold his hand and tell him I love him, but it's hard for me to examine his current life and label it as living.  This experience has caused me to scrutinize my own existence through a more discriminating lens.  “Listen--are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”  One of my biggest fears is that I will look back on my life and answer Mary Oliver's question with a yes.  How to engage purposefully without filling up the hours with clutter.  That's the challenge.  I feel my father hovering above me, suspended in limbo between here and what comes after.  His current state a reminder there are no do overs, there's only now.

Urban Living

I embrace Los Angeles' transformation, albeit a slow one, into an urban city, so the opening of Grand Park was the perfect excuse to gather friends for a metro ride downtown.  The centerpiece of the 12 acre public space, which stretches from the Music Center to City Hall, is the re-imagined Arthur J Will Memorial Fountain. Colorful lights illuminate the structure which was originally built in the '60s.  A new edition, the membrane pool, beckons visitors to frolic in the fountains overflow.  I'm already looking forward to my next visit. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Let The Games Begin

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Hospital Antics

Through out the day I get updates from my mother about my father's health.   On Friday I learned he was back in the ER with pneumonia and low blood pressure.  This morning he told my mother and their dear friend J he wanted to get out of there and go home, he didn't like his new surly roommate.  Although my father has been having bouts of delusion, he accurately detected this guy's erratic energy.   My mother was unnerved by the roommate who dragged his IV as he paced, eying my father's half eaten tray of institutionalized food. "I think he's a druggie.  He sweats."  A disagreeable nurse admonished my mother for asking for a room change.  Rattled, she decided to take a coffee break and come up with a new plan.  At the cashier, she discovered all of her money and a Visa card were missing.  Shaken, she alerted J that the other bed was indeed occupied by a criminal.  A call to security lead to a visit from the police who happened to have a warrant for the patient's arrest.  A thorough search found the credit card hidden behind the dry erase board, and $154 lodged up the invalid's ass.  The money was returned in a plastic bag with a recommendation from the officer, "Wear rubber gloves.  Launder each bill".  As they were finally leaving, my father, who was getting comfortable in a new room, said, "The shit really fell on this house today."

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cut it Out

Part of the Cut It Out campaign,  LA based group CYRCLE painted this mural featuring a 20 ft long assault rifle filled with a paisley flower pattern last March on the corner of Madison and Santa Monica.  Given the recent shooting in Aurora, Colorado the message couldn't be more timely.  How many innocent people have to die before we change the laws controlling guns in this country?

Monday, July 23, 2012


Sunday, July 22, 2012


In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.
Robert Frost

Saturday, July 21, 2012


Every year summer seems to get shorter and shorter.  Three months evaporate in a blink of an eye.  I've readjusted my goals, infused them with a dose of reality; have one backyard BBQ, bake one fruit pie, go to one outdoor function.  Given the turn of events these past few weeks, even those objectives started to seem impractical.  Driving back and forth to the hospital, I could easily spot neighborhood gatherings by the congregation of cars on a given street.  Summer was already in full swing, for others.  Coping with my father's illness has evoked considerable emotion and tears, but it hasn't been depressing.  If anything, I've been more present, more connected to the pleasures in life.  So my first weekend back in LA I seized the opportunity to bake a peach pie, grill some chicken and invite friends over.  It felt like summer.

Friday, July 20, 2012

How silently the heart pivots on its hinge.

Jane Hirshfield

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Thankfully, through out my father's health crisis I've been able to sleep.  Most nights I pass out after reading only a few pages of EAST OF EDEN which does not bode well for finishing the novel any time soon.  For the most part I've remained calm and clear, and yet when I stir during the night and adjust my eyes to the inky night, a clot of panic catches in my throat.  I think of my father awaking in a similar darkness, the moments when consciousness takes over and he realizes he's in a hospital bed too ill to get up and pee on his own.  I wonder what it's like to experience this portion of the journey, the end of the opus with no time for edits, just analysis. 

I ended a day of meetings with an early evening hike.  I've missed my trail, the spectacular views, grasses blowing in the breeze.  The storm clouds provided a dramatic night scape, and a warmer than usual temperature.  At the lake the sky was smudged in pink, orange and blue.  Absolutely brilliant.  Heaven on earth. Not surprisingly, recent circumstances have made me contemplate my own mortality.  I can get stuck focusing on how much of my life is over, and the improbability of certain experiences due to choices, and age.  Spending weeks amidst the ill has forced me to embrace how much life I still have to live.  I hear Mary Oliver asking, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Monday, July 16, 2012


I did finally get on a plane yesterday.  Bittersweet.  Tearful goodbye at the care facility.  My father was in very good spirits, in much less pain.  His teeth were in which made him more recognizable.  I held his hand, stroked his head, and noticed the crown of gray hair that had shed on his pillowcase during the night.  "I'm going back to Los Angeles tonight."  "Hmmm, change of plans."  "Yes, I need to go home and take care of things."  He didn't give me a hard time, or resist.  He told me he loved me, thanked me, and than asked about the vintage car parked at the curb at the edge of the bed.  "Is it yours?"   I played along.  "Yes, it's a '69 Mercedes."  Hard not to think about the circumstances that will prompt my return.  For now, I'm staying in the moment.

Saturday, July 14, 2012


Near the hospital is a cornfield whose stalks have been rising since I arrived in NJ three weeks ago.  The farm stands won't be overflowing with corn for several more weeks, and as much as I'd like to sink my teeth into a sweet buttery ear, I hope I'm in LA by then.

Friday, July 13, 2012


Was stirred from a very deep dream this morning by my father’s primary physician calling to tell us he'll be released today.  Never quite recovered, and felt extremely lethargic all day.  My father has grown increasingly willful these last few days.  He was adamant about not being transported to the care facility when I told him he was being discharged.  “Maria, I’m not up for the trip.  I don’t want to go.”  I tried to ease his anxiety with a mix from my ipod – Sinatra, Ella, Chet, Etta.  Our intertwined hands moved to the beat, he smiled and was a willing patient when the EMTs wheeled in his gurney.  “I’m scared”, the first time I’ve heard him utter such words.  “Of what?”  “The drugs, what they do to me.  I’m too old.”  And then he crushed my heart, “I’m scared of you going home.”  In 48 hours I’m supposed to be on a flight to LA. I was already much happier with this facility, the nurses were attentive and food is edible.  My father is in much less pain, and is not as loopy as he has been although he is still disoriented.  "You know", he told me, "they took me here in a hearse."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


On NJ's wooded country roads linking suburban developments and strip malls are historic structures, some in disrepair and others well-preserved.  I'm particularly fond of this schoolhouse, on my route to the hospital, which was started in 1735 by a land grant from King George stipulating that it always be used for educational purposes.  The original schoolhouse, a log cabin, was replaced after a fire around 1820 by a wooden structure. In 1862, that building was replaced with the current structure from wood harvested from the trees on the original school lot.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

For Life


Came home from the hospital tonight to find my mother and "Aunt" Rosemary sitting on the couch in their nightgowns, under a blanket, eating chips and watching NCIS.  They met over 50 years ago when Rosemary went to a Sarah Coventry party at my mother’s house.  Each pregnant with their second child, they became fast and furious friends, and have spent more than half of their lives together raising children, and celebrating milestones.  I was four when Rosemary’s family moved to Syracuse, yet I remember the tearful goodbye.  The following day my mother called and offered to help her unpack.  This was the first of many road trips my father gladly made.  Our visits are vivid in my mind, our families forever interlocked.  Two years ago Rosemary’s husband died within 6 weeks of being diagnosed with the same disease my father is battling.  Yesterday in the hospital Rosemary and my father sang a Janet McDonald song and reminisced about a trip they took to China.  My father kissed her hand and said, “I love you”.

Monday, July 9, 2012


 Ever since my father was readmitted into the hospital he's been speaking less and making very strange sounds.  He has dismissed "ow", a universal expression of pain, for hooting like an owl.  He's also partial to "weeee" like a child happily amused in a playground.  The sounds are often loud, and seem to surprise him.  He rolls his eyes and asks, "was that me?"  Yes!  We laugh at these turrets-like outbursts, but it's clear this is his way of coping with extreme discomfort.  Although distress has slipped over his face like a sad clown mask, he's still playful, and very distracted by pretty women and shiny objects.  He stared at my cousin's short skirt and tan legs, winked and proclaimed, "you're sexy".  When he winked at the Eucharist minister who was offering healing prayers, she blushed and lost her place in the scripture.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


It’s becoming more and more difficult for my father to speak, and harder to understand him. “I love you” flows easily, often followed by a kiss on the hand.  His moans and mounting pain are almost unbearable to witness, yet somehow I endure them, hoping that my presence provides some comfort.  I told him it’s okay to let go, and he looked me straight in the eye and said, “where am I going?”  “The biggest and best adventure.  Soon you’ll have all the answers.  You’ll know the meaning of life.  Are you ready?”  “Yep.”  Then he moaned, eyes squeezed tight, “help me, help me, help me.”  “Anything, tell me what I can do to ease your pain.”  He lifted his left index finger and released his thumb like a trigger.  

Saturday, July 7, 2012


It’s foolish to make plans when my days are so unpredictable, but plans I made.  Al flew in from London last night to see her parents at a neighboring adult community.  Twenty years ago, someone had the foresight to market NJ as the new Florida, evident by the dozens of adult communities, hospitals, medical centers, and care facilities.  Most families from the town I grew up in have relocated to this region to retire.  I hoped to see Al today, run a few errands, get some work done and vacuum my parents’ house.  When the doctor from the care facility called at 1030am and said my father had extremely low blood pressure and was unresponsive I abruptly left the house.   To see anyone in such acute pain, especially a parent is heart breaking.  My father was aware of my presence as I held his hand while the medics transferred him to a gurney.  Choking on each breath, made speaking difficult, so he would take my hand to his lips and kiss it. No one deserves to live or die this way, and I question the application of modern medicine.  Yes, the chemo shrunk his tumor, but it also suppressed his immune system resulting in a 103 fever, an extremely low white blood cell count, a urinary track infection and water in his right lung.  I held his hand as he moaned in pain, bed sores festered on his butt from the bone marrow test, and infection raged in his body.  And still, he didn’t complain.  He told me it would be okay and not to cry.  He continually thanked me for my love.  After 5 hours in the ER he was admitted to the critical care unit.  Rubbing his head and stroking his hand I said goodbye and wished him a peaceful, morphine induced rest.  I’m typically not big on pain meds, but I was all for reducing the agitation in his body.  His legs were twitching, and his body ached from another day of probing and prodding, and weeks of lying in bed.  My mother is still in recovery from her surgery last week, and was spared seeing my father in this state.  A blessing I’m sure, but interesting that she is so removed from my father’s decline.  “He’s better and more comfortable now,” she stated when I returned home.  Not sure if she’s in denial or if it’s just too extreme for her to even imagine.  My father said to tell her he loves her, but he hasn’t asked for her.  I often let him know she’s home recovering, or she’d be there by his side, but I can’t imagine her there.  This is a reality, a world I’m not sure she wants to witness, and perhaps it’s best for her not to have these images in her head.  I don’t judge how people handle such situations, but I’m fascinating by the wide range of behavior.  Eight of us clinked our glasses tonight and toasted my father.  “To life”, we declared as the sky darkened and a electrical storm raged.  And to crossing over, I thought, as I pictured my father in his hospital struggling for every breath. 

Friday, July 6, 2012


After cooking dinner for my mother, I visited my father for the second time today.  Approaching his room I heard him choking, he told me he wasn’t doing well.  This is the first time I’ve heard him complain. I stayed a half hour past visiting hours, not wanting to leave until I knew he was as comfortable as possible.  Breathing and talking was compromised from phlegm pooling in the back of his throat.  Coughing weakened him and didn’t clear his passageways. Seeing him struggle was extremely difficult to witness.  I consulted an aid, who examined him, called the doctor and gave him Robitussin and a mask to alleviate his congestion. He kept thanking me, and kissing my hand, aware I was doing everything possible to help him.  “When can I get out of here?” I responded truthfully, “we don’t know yet.  Moments later he told me the “cabin” was cold, and asked where in China we’d be arriving.  May he remain on an adventure in the South Seas.  He always knows my name, knows I live in California and will be getting on a flight soon.  He often asks when I’m leaving, and I told him I pushed my flight back several days.  If only this happened during the years I wasn’t working, I would stay.  So many if onlys.  I’m thankful to be here now, to share this transition with him, and to provide any ease possible.  I wonder if this is what our relationship was always about, his exit. It’s an incredibly powerful experience to share with someone.  “I’ll never be able to repay everyone for this love,” he said to me earlier today.  “You’ve earned it,”I told him, “no need to repay anyone”.  I put myself in his shoes and wonder if I'd be so stoic or if the panic demons would invade my space.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Back Roads

On the back country roads to the hospital, an old weathered church and cemetery caught my attention the first time I passed it.  My parents chuckled, since it always makes them think of me and my love of worn head stones and steeples.  I didn't know I was so predictably consistent, but then again, they are my parents. Today instead of driving by, I stopped with my camera.