The Awful Stuff

The oncologist at Sloan-Kettering is being cautiously optimistic about my father's condition. Of course, every single conversation with her includes a kindly worded disclaimer that "stage IV metastatic cancer is not curable, but it is treatable."

What was reassuring is that this very, very kind, genuinely concerned woman spent a whopping three (count 'em, three) hours with dad and I during his last visit. My brother, who was conferenced via telephone, kept asking ridiculous questions and acting pessimistic. He's three thousand miles away and will not fly out until September.

Dad has applied to a new nursing home. The one he's in seems not to care whether he lives or dies. The oncologist's recommendations, orders and prescriptions took three days to get any notice from them whatsoever, despite my daily visits. Each visit is spent 75% with dad, and 25% with the nurses, making sure things move along. I asked one particularly air-headed R.N. about what they were going to do regarding a referral to an ear, nose and throat doctor. I just said "ENT doctor." She said, "what's that?" I said "ear, nose and throat doctor." She attempted to repeat my words, saying "Eye, Ear, Nose..." Where in God's Green Earth did this woman receive her certification as an R.N.?!

The new nursing home expects to have a room open within a week or so. Their rating according to some sort of accreditation board for nursing homes is top-notch. (The one dad's in now isn't even on their radar screen.) I'll feel a lot better when he gets there. He said he will, too.


Mother, who's in a very, very expensive "Senior Independent Living" facility, is now living in surroundings that can be conservatively called de luxe. Her every whim is catered to. She's playing the "Princess and the Pea" role really well there. The staff, despite her shortcomings, are really delightful with her. They're polite enough with me, but I can't get out of my head that their eyes say to me "what did we do to you to make you visit upon us a woman who can only be described as Joan Crawford, Nancy Reagan, and The Wicked Witch of the West wrapped up all in one."

Now, one of the reasons my father is in such poor health is that he'd continued to attend to my mother's every need, although he was enduring a very, very painful protocol of multi-drug chemotherapy on an outpatient basis. It landed him in the hospital, 75 pounds lighter, in three months, malnourished and dehydrated. After much counseling, he's come to the conclusion that my brother and I have agreed upon for a year now; she doesn't give a shit about anyone but herself. Of course, my mother dismissed the idea of having help in the house (at my expense), because nobody could care for her as could her beloved, devoted husband.

I explain to folks who're astounded that my mother's not by his side morning, noon and night that they're "estranged," and have been, on and off, for years. Dad's had a habit of coming to live with me when her outrageous behavior just gets too much to tolerate.

Perhaps it was some inkling of her duty as a wife to go visit him the other day. Despite the fact that my car addresses every conceivable creature comfort, she wasn't happy. Her left ear was cold. This despite individual climate controls for the driver and passenger. She'd forgotten her beloved hooded sweatshirt. So she asked my father for one of his blankets. Imagine, asking a cold, emaciated cancer patient for one of his blankets. I was in no way going to impose upon the nursing facility for one of their blankets, no way. She announced that she was "very disappointed" that I didn't care that she was chilly.

The Funny Stuff

I made a "pit stop" in dad's bathroom before leaving. In a cabinet was a neat stack of adult diapers, the kind that have sticky tabs to hold them together. Upon opening one, I found it to be fluffy, comfortable, and most of all, warm. I handed it to her. My father, stifling laughter, said, "Betty, I assure you that that will keep your head warm. They keep my behind quite warm; and comfortable to boot." Mom wore it on the top of her head all the way home from the nursing home (an hour's ride).

When I related this to my wife, she immediately related the story to anyone who'd listen. You can probably imagine the trouble my hard-working, selflessly compassionate wife has with my mother. Suffice it to say that she's polite but very uninterested in interacting with mom. The "diaper-on-her-head" story about mom was the most hilarious thing that my usually serious and reserved spouse had heard in a long, long time.

I've instructed mother that she must wear a diaper on her head upon entering my restaurant sometime within the next week, or she'll ruin everything. The staff's been very careful to be extra pleasant around me, and for that I'm extremely grateful. I want them to witness what they think was just my wife's relating to them a product of my fertile imagination.

A link to a photo of my mother wearing a Depends on her head will be posted here on E2, as soon as I take the photo and upload it to the "media only" section of my website (accessible by URL only).

Now the next thing I need to do is get a photo of my brother wearing a diaper on his head.

Being Green

I bought their car, now that neither one drives. It's a Honda Civic Hybrid. A far cry from the gas-guzzling smog machine I'm used to. The sight of me driving this thing around has caused raised eyebrows among my friends. My staff thinks it's hysterical - and I enjoy the fact that they find humor in my new-found automotive humility. The fact that the gasoline engine cuts out at a full stop was quite unsettling at first, but I've gotten used to the thing suddenly going silent at red lights, stop signs, and the like.

At 65 miles per hour, it whines pitifully. At 80, it is obviously breaking a sweat. But it just goes and goes -- and gets over 40 miles per gallon, to boot!

Every time I get behind the wheel, I delight in the fact that I'm sitting in the seat where dad sat until he could no more. And I'm continuing his commitment to make the world a better place to live in.

Six months ago, I swore to my wife that I'd buy the Cadillac Escalade I've wanted for a long, long time. Nowadays, thoughts of an Explorer Hybrid have actually crossed my mind. Thanks, Dad.

I woke up from nice dreams to both pain and bad memories. I may never know what brought either of them on.

You're not a superhero, you know. You're just human.

The reminder never stops, and it needs to. I know I couldn't save any one of them from the world, or from people. We're all at the mercy of the people we share a planet with, and I know that. But I try to help, I do. I guess I just don't want to be remembered as the man who could never really help anyone when the chips were down.

It's okay to have shortcomings. It's okay to be imperfect.

But if it's so okay, why is it so goddamned hard to swallow? Why does it dig its claws into my throat and drag its way down? Why can't I do better in life? Where is this barrier coming from?

They all thought they were doing the right thing, the best they could do given their circumstances.

I suppose that's true, but that doesn't excuse them. I refuse to think it's wrong to take the time to call things as they are, and I refuse to think it's wrong to want to stop evil.

I don't know where to draw the line between excusing someone for their actions because they wanted to help or thought they were doing the right thing, and hating someone because they ruined a precious and innocent life.

Where did all this sadness come from? Why does, all of the sudden, the world seem so cruel?

I just want to skip town with you, baby. Hit the road and let it sweep us away to wherever we may go. I want adventure and novelty. I want fun and creativity. I want escape. I dream of flight and itch for the ocean. Take my hand, let's blow this joint.

Like a troupe of sincere amateur actors performing a low-budget homage to MI:III, we dropped my step-children at their mother's house. We performed a seat-switch two miles outside Alajuela (the city, not the province), me taking the most obscure seat in the middle back, with the step-daughter on my right and the step-son and the nephew on my left. Brother-in-law and Sister-in-law took the front seats.

The step-daughter expected me to cry again, and I would have, but she put her hand on my arm. That little gesture spoke the whole phrase book. "I'll miss you" Yo te faltare, "Don't cry" No llora , "Don't forget me" No me olvida . Then the scene that took place knocked the tears right out of my eyes.

We stopped five houses down from the house in the urbanisacion, behind a gold VW Jetta. While the children and my brother-in-law strategized over delicate posessions, umbrellas and invisibility, my sister-in-law turned to me and I think she said, "The mother doesn't like us and she doesn't know you married their Papi." She spoke so fast. Whether it was anger, impatience, or urgency that charged her sentence, or a combination of the three, I wouldn't know. When the children poked their heads back into the car to say good bye, I only had enough breath to tell each one "Te quiero mucho" with un abrazo y un beso.

My brother-in-law drove to the top of the street to turn. I waved, and the children knocking on the door turned awkwardly. I think my sister-in-law then said, "She won't let them in until we're gone." I blinked several times. It's a look the children find hysterical, especially when I've just been asked something fairly simple and have to take five minutes to puzzle out the question and then attack the answer. Then I started to laugh. A crazy laugh.

The current pop-psychology trend apparently hasn't been translated into Spanish, the trend that uses words like co-parenting and atmosphere of courtesy and involves concepts such as putting the needs of the children first and creating a family in which children do not have to choose sides. The feelings here burn hot and angry; the mother nurses her sense of wrongedness and the family cherishes a righteous indignation. The children maintain a blinking silence.

So when shall we tell the mother of my step-children that they have a step-mother? Each day that she isn't told becomes another day closer to my Fiftieth Wedding Anniversary. Shall we tell her then? Each day brings the children closer to legal adulthood, when they make their own decisions and the mother has no power. Shall we tell her then? Each day, tragically, brings the inevitability of a death in the family closer, closer. Shall we wait and at the cementario, tell her then?

I feel a special pity for the mother of my step-children. Here I sit, with all the time and luxury in the world to muse over the shortcomings of the arrangement, to mock her if I choose, and judge her life and choices, and revel in my virtue that I choose only to dislike the things that hurt the children. She doesn't know I exist and so she doesn't have that pleasure. Wouldn't she love to speak slightingly of my extra weight? She might find some shrewishness in me to cackle over. She might find my childless situation as sneer-worthy as I find other situations. I wouldn't know what she might find, and I would never know. She could shred me to my face and if I chose not to make the effort, I wouldn't understand. I don't speak enough Spanish.

Hard to draw a conclusion when there is no resolution. The comfort I draw is that despite the deceit and obfuscation, these are two good kids. My step-son has a good heart, and my step-daughter is a wonderful girl. At ten and twelve, they show more class than the rest of us put together.

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