June 2008

Living with the gift of tragedy

By Art Goodtimes

HOSPICE FOR DAD … Life is such a complex weave of the comic and the tragic … I remember, years ago, watching Vince Bontempi – a communitytheater actor of some regional note playing Estragon in “Waiting for Godot,” and being dazzled by the play, and the fact of my working-class father pushing all my existential buttons, making me laugh and cry, be bored and be totally engaged, both in his role as a Beckett character and in his role (where I knew him more intimately) as authoritarian parent (his Archie Bunker line, “When you gonna cut your hair?” still reverberating in my hippie ears – and now 50 years later, his hair grown long as mine, looking more the old hippie himself). Layer on layer … So, it’s fitting that I find myself now reversing roles with dad, being his caretaker, providing him hospice attention 24/7 at his home in California, as he moves closer to the final curtain call … He has a brain tumor. But he’s refused treatment – at least the invasive surgical kind that hospital and HMOs would employ if given a release form. His union insurance would cover it. But he’s not willing to go there. Life weighs heavy at 88. Most of his friends are gone. His second wife passed away years ago. He’s ready to go … But his body, inured to hard labor, keeps chugging on, like a tugboat engine, still hearty in spite of years laying hardwood floors — and then a second 20 years of delivering the mail. So, still smoking cigarettes, as he has since he was 13, he is ready to move on to the next world, “whenever the Good Lord takes me,” as he puts it … Hard to know when that will be, but likely sooner than later. So, I feel privileged to have the opportunity to clear my decks, and spend these last weeks, perhaps months, with him … It’s quite the new role for me. Focusing so singularly and privately after years of working broadly in the public eye. In Mountain View on Jessie Lane it’s just me and dad. The routine is simple. I cook, I wash, I shop. I change his bed, arrange his meds, take care of bills and the visiting nurse and social worker … For my commissioner duties, a phone suffices to link me to meetings, where I can participate, even from afar. And the internet allows me to review documents, plan projects, respond to issues. I’m distant, but not out of touch, thanks to the gizmos of the postmodern industrial age … Surprisingly, everyone out here in California has been so nice and helpful. There are all kinds of services available. Great counseling. It was a little tricky getting Vince out of Cedar Crest, the residential nursing and rehab facility (we used to call them “rest homes”) where he went after the hospital. But a counselor from a non-profit community service group explained my options. It took a week or so, but I learned the bureaucratic ropes, and pulled the right strings to get him moved to his own home – something he desperately insisted on, once he got a blood transfusion and some steroids to reduce the swelling in his brain that had made him collapse in the night … But even at Cedar Crest, the lowliest aides were sweet not surly, kind and smiling. I must have dealt with five or six different people, what they told me differed from what dad’s doc told me, in fact I got five or six different versions of what was happening, what would happen, and it ended up being up to dad and me to navigate our way through the chaos of advice and define what we wanted. Once we did, we made it happen fast … And the hospice group that came to help me get dad set up for care in his home has been wonderful, from the intake person to the nurse to the social worker. And they’ve been as solicitous of me, and my mental and physical health, as dad’s. Appropriately so. Dogooders can get themselves into real jams by not paying attention to their own needs, as well as their loved ones’ … So, I’m finding this time out here, away from my kids and my friends and my work and my home, as a gift as well as a burden. A comedy (especially with Vince, who still loves to make jokes and wordplay and teasing insults) as well as a tragedy (as is all life that must end one day) … Waiting for dad to go.



It's funny. We know it's inevitable. We know
it's there behind our shoulder. But it's all air.

Easy to not really believe in it. To think it’s
coming our way some other day. Not today.

But being here I close my eyes. And I see
Dad's uncut hair and beard. His gray

demeanor. See death. Smell it. Feel myself
starting to surrender to its presence. And

helping Dad, I'm feeding it. Cleaning for it.
Shopping & paying bills with its dollars.

This death of ours. This strange old man
who is my father. Who is me. Hello, death.

NEWSPAPERS … One of my dad’s living-alone rituals, before he took sick and had to be hospitalized, was reading the morning paper. And for that he subscribed to the San Francisco Chronicle – a legendary rag that I grew up on. But it’s not the same paper these days, although the font and flag might make you think so. No longer locally and independently owned by the Theriots, the Hearst family bought it and sold off the competing Examiner, which the Hearst had owned for years. And so the yellow journalist bad guys have taken over the paper of Herb Caen, Charles McCabe, and Stanton Delaplane … Sad.

MONTHLY QUOTA … “Danger can be the twin fang of the beautiful.” – John Calderazzo in his dazzling book, “Rising Fire: Volcanoes and Our Inner Lives” (Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut, 2004).

Art Goodtimes is a San Miguel County commissioner.