Saturday, November 27, 2010

Why November?

I should probably start by saying that I'm not, particularly, a believer in luck, astrology or other similar things. I don't have a lucky number. I don't base or justify my actions on the alignment of the stars. If I believe in anything, it would be the inherent balance found in "regression to the mean". Beyond that kind of statistical paterning, I don't really believe much in a "grand design", mostly just "random chance".

That said, sometimes, the Universe makes it hard not to think that it's picked good and bad times of year for you. I have yet to detect a consistently good time. However, it's seemed that November is the month that the Universe has most frequently decided to test me with the adversity of death.

It started in the mid 90s. My family, as it had done pretty much every year of my life, to that date, had come together for Thanksgiving at my maternal grandparents' house.

It was like any other Thanksgiving, up to that point. My grandmother had put together another wonderful, if somewhat bland, Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone had a nice, chatty meal together and overindulged in Turkey, stuffings, relishes, casseroles and the like. Afterwards, everyone retired to the living room - the men to watch football and the women to chit-chat. Inevitably, one or the other of us would nod off, struck down by the mass-infusion of tryptophan that suffused the turkey we'd all overindulged in.

As the afternoon rolled on towards evening, my grandfather went to get his usual pre-dinner coffee. He tottered off to the kitchen, poured himself a hot cup, then returned to his over-stuffed Lazy·Boy. He set the coffee down. A short while later, he started making a "snorking" noise. I'd initially assumed that he was nodding off, again, and just snoring. However, it was a bit different a sound than usual. It became quickly apparent that it wasn't the usual. He continued to snork, stiffened, then lolled forward out of his Lazy·Boy and onto the floor. My parents, both trained RNs, rushed to where he'd fallen and started to render CPR. My grandmother watched in horror. I watched in fascination.

My parents screamed to me, "call 911". For the life of me, I couldn't understand the urgency of the request: somewhere, deep down, I knew that he was dead before he'd hit the floor. But, I zombie-walked to the phone out into the kitchen and called EMS. It was a very calm, detached call. I related the requisite information to them so they could send an appropriate response.

Then, I drifted back into the living room. My parents were still rendering CPR, but it was very clearly doing nothing. I noted that my grandfather's abdomen had become oddly swollen. I put on my coat and went out the front door to await the EMS crews.

Eventually, the EMS crews arrived. It was still fairly sunny for as late in the afternoon it was. Still, it was a very crisp, windy, fall day. I directed the EMS crew into the house and towards my grandfather. My parents stepped back to let the paramedics take over duties. My mom went to comfort my grandmother while my father fell into "clinician" mode as he related the events to the paramedics.

As my parents had done before, they rendered CPR. Eventually, they stopped and pronounced my grandfather. They got a gurney from the ambulance and carted him away. Both parents attended to my grandmother. I just sort of stood around in kind of a "fascinating: I wonder what's next" kind of mental state.

Within the space of a few days, we'd seen to his wake and funeral, and then life started to move on. Not once did I shed a tear. In fact, I don't think that I have specifically shed a tear for him, to date. And, it's not that I didn't love him. He and I spent a lot of my youth together. We'd take trips to Baltimore and Philly each year to catch various sporting events. Invariably, his awful sense of direction would get us lost. Even with all the time we'd spent and as good as our relationship was, it just didn't prompt a crying response.

It wasn't until more deaths and other, similarly traumatic events occurred that I noticed lack of affect as a recurrent pattern for me.

Last November 19th, as I was being driven from work to the Metro station by my friend, Alex, I received a phone call from Donna. She was very frantically emotional. She kept asking me if I was sitting down or if I could find a place to sit down. Clearly, something was wrong. However, my affect was squelching. So, all I could really respond was, "please get on with the news." She informed me that my mom was on the other line and that she was calling to say that EMS was in the process of taking my father's body away. Apparently, while she was in the kitchen fixing suffer, he'd suffered a heart attack and had expired quietly as she'd bustled about in the kitchen. 

I can't say that I found the news particularly shocking. For the last several years, my father's appearance had pained me each time I saw my parents at holidays and other get-togethers. Each time I'd see him, my father looked visibly older. Just that August prior, when Donna was hospitalized, my parents had come down to visit: my dad looked awful. He looked so old and tired. So, I can't say that I was surprised or shocked by the call.

Pretty much, the rest of the evening was a blur. It was an awful, rainy day and DC traffic was horrible. Normally, the train ride from my office back to my house takes at least seventy minutes. The drive-time is usually only about half an hour. Wanting to get on with things and head back to PA to be with my mother, I decided, "fuck it, I'll take the cab". Unfortunately, I got the world's worst cabby: no idea of the local roads and no GPS. Worse, he didn't really speak English all that well, so, he misunderstood my directions. After an hour of thrashing through traffic, going all the wrong ways to get around it, I finally yelled at him to pull over and let me out. An hour of thrashing about in traffic and rain and we'd traveled less than two mile's line-of-sight distance. Fortunately, my friend, Mike, lived only a couple miles away. I got ahold of him and he drove me back to my house in Alexandria.

Donna and I hurriedly packed and headed up the road. Somewhere near Frederick, Maryland, the driver's-side rear tire flattened. We pulled into the next service-station and aired up. Also bought a can of fix-a-flat, and headed up the road. We stopped, at intervals, to verify that the tire was staying inflated. It appeared to be (mostly) holding air, and we made the rest of the trip incident-free.

Arrival started a whirlwind of order-sorting. In all of the deaths of friends and relatives, over the years, I'd never been one of the immediate "survivors". I never quite realized just how much bureaucracy was involved in a death. My mom was busy dealing with her grief. Donna saw to her. I buried myself in tackling the bureaucracy.

The next day, we went to the funeral home to meet with the funeral coordinator and to view the body. My father had been very explicit in his funerary wishes. He wanted only to be cremated and he wanted no funeral. With death, he couldn't understand the point of wasting money on a corpse. Thus, we honored his wishes. Having dug through paperwork, the night before, I was able to help my mom furnish the funeral director with the relevant military service and insurance information so that the funeral home could take care of details on their end.

Those details sorted, we went into the next room to view the body. And, really, that's all it was: just a body. There was very much not a spark of life in it. I noticed the odd palor and the mottling about his ears and extremities. It was fascinating.

When my mom was done saying her goodbyes, I asked to be left alone to say my own. It took a while, but, I was actually starting to feel the urge to cry. Unfortunately, it had taken me such a long while to reach that point, that Donna had become worried and come looking for me. The interruption broke me out of my reverie. The tears, that had just started to well, quickly withdrew. At that moment, all I had was rage for the interruption. Since that time, I've not really cried or felt much in the way of emotion, loss ...I just don't quite seem to be able to feel.

This year's Thanksgiving holiday week, the Universe seems to be again conspiring to try to make me feel. Lana had been acting sort of out of sorts. I'd noticed, yesterday, that the lymph nodes in her neck were palpably swollen. This morning, they were more swollen still. I told Donna, "we're going to need to call the vet for an appointment, Monday". I then went out in the yard to clear one of the garden beds of this past year's plants.

As I was finishing up the clearing efforts - taking the uprooted plant stocks out to the rubbish heap - I heard yelping coming from the house. I rushed inside to find out what the noise was. Puckett had apparently bumped Lana the wrong way, eliciting the first yelp. The subsequent yelps were Donna trying to locate the source of Lana's pain. It seemed Lana wasn't going to be able to wait for a Monday appointment.

We called the vet and related the symptoms. They told us to bring her down. Got there, did the checkin and passed Lana off to the triage-nurse. Eventually, the duty-veterinarian called us to back to one of the normal examining rooms. We chatted briefly about options. He suggested we admit her for a few hours so they could run some tests, take some labs and administer some analgesics. I agreed to this and we did the pre-pay before leaving. $1000 lighter in the pockets, I drove home with Donna and awaited the veterinarian's call.

I fell asleep on the couch while I waited. Eventually, around 8pm, the vet called. Initial cytology on the lymph nodes wasn't looking good, but definitive tests wouldn't be back till at least Tuesday. Xrays had shown nothing wrong in the abdomen - where she'd previously appeared to be feeling pain - but had shown that she'd developed spondylosis. That was apparently the cause of the pain. The vet prescribed meds and we went over what the likely coming decisions were going to be.

Donna and I then drove down to pick up Lana. She was dopey from the pain meds, but otherwise in decent spirits. We went over the discharge papers with the desk staff and headed on our way home.

As I sit here typing this, I still don't know what's going to become of our dog. All I know is that another Thanksgiving time of year has come and brought sadness with it. I'm getting tired of it. I just wish I could feel something other than detached resignation.

So, for Thanksgiving, what am I thankful for? That this time of year is soon behind me. My hope is that this seeming pattern is soon behind us.

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