21 December 2008

At 2145 hours on the 21st of December 1985, my father died.

Well-intentioned comfort is offered: "Time Heals" "It's a blessing, he is no longer suffering"

Bah, humbug!

My Pop wanted to live no matter the difficulty; in the 23 years since he died I've missed him more with each passing day.

Mind, he was no plaster saint-he had some serious faults and failures in his life. He did, though, unflinchingly face my brother and me before he died and took complete responsibility for those of his failures that profoundly impacted Harry and me.

Of course there was a need for all of us to find forgiveness towards Pop, and I have come to believe that I am the one of all the children who was most able to find that forgiveness, I who was the most profoundly impacted.

My father perpetuated the lie that his second wife was my birth mother-a hideous lie that caused me to long for death rather than go on as her child. We called her Alice Capone and the day I discovered the truth was the happiest of my life. My father called her Dirty Dort and he had many reasons for giving her that nickname. She was truly the awful wicked stepmother and why he kept up the lie until he died is beyond me. But at least he told the truth with his dying breath-frankly a drama I could have done without, but oh well, at least the truth came out.

Harry and I got to the hospital at the same time that afternoon, each having thought the other had the day shift. Instead the Guatemalan man Pop had hired years before as his valet had faithfully stayed with Pop until one of us arrived. He told us he'd not called us because he knew how tired we were from the constant vigil at Pop's bedside since our adopted cousin had taken Pop to hospital Thanksgiving night.

Typical of the old man, after we'd cleared off Thanksgiving night he'd sent his valet home, and had then promptly gone into respiratory distress bad enough to force the understanding another hated hospital stay loomed. He waited until close to midnight then rang our adopted cousin instead of us because he didn't want us to be the ones who checked him in. The prednisone and theophylan were causing some mental confusion and he'd told us in a moment of lucidity just before his death that he hadn't wanted to take the chance that his confusion would cause him to blame us as the bad guys who'd dumped him in hospital-how John felt about that one I'll never know because we stopped talking after the funeral and never made it up before he was killed on 9/11.

Pop's doctor stopped us in the hallway to give us good news. He would come off the heart & lung support in the morning, and if all went well we would be able to take him home Christmas Eve!

Jubilant, we went into the CICU room Pop was in, and then totally ignored the last actual words our father communicated to us-"Turn back on the air!"

Intubated and tied down to prevent another tube pulling incident, he asked for paper and pen. A burly nurse held his arm down at the elbow, and Pop scratched out his last words.

The burly nurse gently reminded Pop he was confused (which Pop did not take well) and the air was still on. Furious, my feisty little father shooed us off to have dinner, and while we were gone, he died.

The fury and lucidity in his eyes were complete, I'd not seen my Pop that fully 'here' for nearly a month. I knew something was terribly wrong; he knew I knew and tried to support my momentary assertiveness against my idiot brother and his supremely idiotic wife but with the nurse supporting them, they won, and we allowed ourselves to be shooed out.

I've often wondered if Pop checked out mostly because he couldn't stand the thought of spending the warm months at my brother's in company of the total pinhead wife.

We left the hospital and made our way to the church on Olivera Street, the closest one to the hospital. We gave thanks and then went to dinner at one of the nicest Mexican restaurants on the street. Reservations are required, but the maitre'd took one look at us and made a gracious concession.

We were seated at a lovely table, and tried to enjoy the mariachi music, and then the flamenco dancing. Unfortunately during the premier act our father died.

The three of us were in a jubilant mood until 2145 when we all looked up for the air conditioning vent to see if we were under it as we'd all been suddenly struck with a cold chill.

We looked at each other and I looked at my watch "9:45 pm" I said. Nothing more was said, but we all knew our father had died. We grimly tried to force down our meal, just arrived, and the attentions of the staff who for some reason were paying us particular attention.

I sensed their awareness something was wrong, and I knew they thought they had somehow disappointed us. I finally stepped away from the table and went to the maitre'd, telling him our father had just died in hospital. The flamenco dancers immediately stopped their performance, the mariachi began to play mournful music, and the staff put a sort of barrier around our table by positioning serving carts between us and the other diners as we tried to finish our meal and depart without creating a further stir.

We paid the bill, and then stopped at every cantina between the restaurant and hospital. The return journey took us until 0300; at every one of the cantinas the barkeep asked what was wrong, and I quietly informed him/her the horrid news, at which point the raucous crowd
would quiet, making their way one at a time to our table to express condolences.

My brother became more drunk, at one point causing me to wonder if I could get John out to help me control him because eventually we were going to have to go back to the hospital and claim Pop's body. At the last cantina before the hospital the barkeep sensed trouble as we came through the door and met us so close to it that I felt a breeze on my back as the door closed.

"Que es eso?" he demanded to know, trying to make it clear Anglos were not welcome in that particular little sliver of alcoholic amnesia by blocking us access to a booth a bare arm reach from the bar stools with his body and belligerent tone (not to mention the Spanish).

I elbowed my way from the back and quietly replied in my flawless Castellian accent that our father had just died in the hospital across the street. He then refused our money and the wake thrown that night in that little cantina for El Pistolas, my Pop, was everything my father could have wanted from his long and warm years of acceptance amongst the Mexican Americans of Southern California.

Finally we arrived back, and my brother was now less drunk somehow, although I could tell he was near breaking down, and I thought it best we attract less attention by not signalling we somehow knew before the doctor had a chance to inform us.

So, when we walked through the back door of the ICU unit and the nurses all turned to us with horror in their eyes, I shooed my brother and his wife right back out, telling her firmly "Get him outta here, I'll take care of this!"

The head nurse cried as she told me how hard they'd tried to bring him back-45 minutes of trying, but he'd flatlined at 2145 and never came back.

They gave me his things, called down to the morgue to bring out the body for the family to view, and sent one of the nurses to escort us to the viewing room.

It's different when one dies surrounded by loving family in a quality hospital-the family views the body lying on a warming table, covered to the chest with fresh linen and a lovely blanket different than those wretched hospital waffle weave blankets. The staff is quiet as they bring the family into the room, comfortable and well-appointed with soft chairs and couches, piped in classical music suitably constrained.

The staff expertly assess the survivors-will they need to sedate, or can they leave the family for one last bit of privacy with the loved one before the business of transporting the body to the funeral home? Then they leave if they can and the good-byes begin.

They apologized that the body wasn't warm, after an hour of trying to find us they'd gone according to instructions and had already begun the freezing. We waved them off, they left, and we stood there stunned at the sight of Pop, dead.

He looked dead, it was so clear to me at least that Pop was gone. His skin was grey under the tan, and when I laid my hand on his shoulder to steady my self as I bent down to kiss him good-bye, his shoulder was stiff and ice cold.

"We're orphans now" I thought, and we left the hospital without our Pop. I thought of my children snug in their beds down in Orange County, did they know Grandpa was gone? I thought especially of my little boy, who needed my Pop and had just lost him.

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