I feel like I’ve been out of touch for months. My father fell last August and broke his pelvis. Because he was so medically fragile, he stayed in the hospital for nine weeks while the bone healed without surgery. He was released in October, while I was sending the Death’s Garden Revisited books out to the Kickstarter backers. As soon as I finished that project, I jumped on a plane.
I came back to San Francisco the week before Thanksgiving in order to move into a new (century-old) house. My new home is near the ocean, walking distance to the Sutro Bath ruins and close to the Legion of Honor Museum, which is built atop the unexhumed remains of San Francisco’s old public cemeteries. I love to listen to the foghorns at night. On a good foggy night, I can hear three of them.
I went back to Michigan for most of December, but my dad refused to go into hospice and my mom refused to believe he was dying. None of his doctors — and there were many of them, in addition to all the trips to the ER — would tell my folks straight out that heart disease, kidney failure, and diabetes were finally taking their toll. Dad decided to stop taking his insulin because he didn’t like getting a shot every morning. I offered to stay through the holidays, but my folks sent me back to San Francisco to spend Christmas with my kid.
After two weeks, I had to go back to Michigan a third time. Dad kept falling. Mom couldn’t manage his meds. The home health doctor I’d set up in December stopped coming for no apparent reason. The first few days I was back, Dad seemed fine: he came to the table to eat, was actually hungry, and was clear and conversational. Then he may have had a stroke, although no one knew for sure. We kept him home while I begged the home nurse to come visit. That nurse took one look at him and called for an ambulance to take Dad back to the hospital. It was a huge relief.
The following day, the cardiology nurse caught me in the hallway to ask if I knew what “failure to thrive” meant. I’d heard it applied to newborns before, but never to adults. The next night, the hospital called to ask for permission to install a catheter for dialysis: one treatment that Dad had absolutely not wanted. It was up to me to explain to my mom what it meant if we chose not to allow the procedure.
Even without the catheter, Dad improved the next morning. The hospital discharged him to a nursing home. Hospice was finally engaged and he started feeling much better, once he got the care he’d been needing. I came back to San Francisco to start on the book I’d contracted for in December.
Two weeks later, the hospice nurse called to say I should make plans to come back to Michigan. The next morning, she called again to tell me to come home right away. I got on the first flight I could. As the plane was landing, the nursing home called. I knew what that meant: I’d missed seeing him one last time.
My dad and I weren’t close. When I was a kid, he worked two full-time jobs — accounting for Buick and farming — not because he needed to, but because he loved the land and the animals more than spending time with his kids. He never forgave me for moving away from Michigan. He was infuriated when I came to see him in the hospital after his first catastrophic heart attack in 1992. I thought that keeping his name when I married or giving his grandchild that name might placate him, but it didn’t really matter. The last conversation we had, before I left in February, was when I told him that I loved him. His answer? Only “Yes.” It had been his last opportunity to tell me what I wanted to hear and he chose not to.
Grief is so complicated and strange.
At this point, I am working hard to meet my deadline on this new book project. I’m updating 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die, correcting the text and adding some new cemeteries. I am loving the work and can’t wait to share it.