We thought the hiccups would kill him. I’m thinking of it now because I have the hiccups, bad ones, the kind that, if they get worse, will bring up the acid in my stomach from all the coffee I’ve had this morning. They started the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and didn’t end for nearly 7 days, not until Hospice got everything under control in the care center. He wanted to be at home for the whole thing – home death, like home birth – with visiting hospice nurses keeping everything under control, the pain in particular. But he didn’t anticipate the hiccups or the additional pain they would cause, the vomiting, his eventual inability to keep his pills down and so, the nurse’s inability to control the pain.
My Dad died June 1, 2008, a little over a month before his 64th birthday, of a massive heart attack after being taken off all of his heart meds while he was in hospice, a total stay of less than 48 hours. He was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer in early April, which would have killed him if not for the family history of men dropping dead of a massive heart attack, a much faster way to go, with a different kind of pain. He lived longer than any of his predecessors – my grandfather died at 59, great-grandfather at 55, and so on, each generation living a few years longer. Dad might have died when he was 35; he had four heart attacks in one day, waking in the middle of the night with a big one that couldn’t be ignored like the ones before it. He said later, when I interviewed him for a school science report, that it felt like an elephant sitting on his chest. Since my brother was away at boy scout camp, they only had me to wake up and drop off at my Aunt and Uncle’s house. I had no idea what was going on – I was 7. True to form though, my father drove from our house to my Aunt & Uncle’s, and then to the doctor’s, and then, if I have this right, the half-hour or so to Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital in Hanover, NH (now Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center).
I joked with him that since he had lived longer than his predecessors, he was the one to discover that the family carries a gene for pancreatic cancer – wouldn’t that be a kicker. Of course, we didn’t know that for sure, but it sounds a lot better than blaming it on the Agent Orange he was exposed to in Vietnam (he got sores on his arms for years afterwards, my brother and mother and stepmother all tell me that I should remember seeing those sores, but I don’t) or his lifestyle. After his heart attacks, he had to quit smoking, which was very difficult – he had an addictive personality, as did my grandmother, who was an alcoholic and smoker, and as do I. After he got home from the hospital after his heart attacks, I remember him sneaking out to his truck, a yellow Chevy Luv, to smoke cigars. Finally, to compensate for quitting, or to substitute the nicotine delivery system, he started chewing tobacco. The risk that comes to mind, that was drilled into me in high school, is oral cancers. But in the 25 or so years that he chewed tobacco, he never once spit while chewing. All of those nasty juices made a bee-line to his stomach and the rest of his digestive tract, including the pancreas.
Looking from the outside in, it seems like a pretty cavalier attitude to have toward your life if you’ve beat death before. He escaped death at least 3 times before he kind of threw up his hands, said “fuck it,” and did what he wanted: he made it through Vietnam, he recovered from the bout with malaria during which last rites were said over him, he survived the heart attacks.
What’s even funnier in a dark way (which is sometimes the most laugh-worthy because it is much better than crying) is that after all of that, in 2000 (or 2001?), a little over 20 years after the heart attacks, he had quadruple bypass surgery. I should have gone to FL to be with him through that, but we hadn’t reconciled enough, I hadn’t forgiven him enough to be there. During the long recovery, we talked on the phone. He told me how one night he woke up and it felt like the bed was moving, like one of the cats was on the bed. But when he looked for the cat to boot it off the bed, there wasn’t one there; the movement was from his heart beating. We laughed and laughed about that and I was so happy for him – he felt great. And then a year or two later, maybe not even that, he started smoking again.
All that time he hadn’t been smoking, he missed it. He hadn’t wanted to quit to begin with and now, even after watching my grandmother die a very painful death (she was an alcholic smoker with emphysema and throat cancer), he still started again.
While I’m not advocating smoking (quit now while you’re still alive!) or any other self-destructive behavior, “Fuck it” is another way of saying “Live!” As Auntie Mame, played by Rosalind Russel in the 1958 film, would say: “Live! Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!”
So I say, have that extra slice of cake (and actually, my pants have made me well aware that I’ve been a little too indulgent with the cake lately). Have a good soak in the tub that your children use more than you do. Take those five minutes to yourself when you just need silence and to breath. Rock out to a great song in the car – sing at the top of your lungs. Do something that makes you feel good because you can, because you’re alive.1
- Yeah, I said it. I know it sounds hokey – I groaned in my heard as I was writing. But sometimes the hokey is true, sometimes the hokey stuff helps, and if it doesn’t help, we can all stand around making puns about it and laugh and *that* will help. ↑