If the family took shape in Liverpool, it took root and thrived in an entirely different world. Mom and Dad had taken note of what everyone else in post-war Liverpool was doing—leaving–and when they found the wherewithal they packed up their belongings and did the same, heading for the promise of prosperity in southern California. Inside their bags were the modest things of a young couple leaving home to begin anew; clothes and photos, linen and blankets, knick- knacks and memorabilia of happy moments with the family and friends they may never see again.
It was what they carried in their hearts that mattered most. Here were the belongings of real value–talent and determination, hope and excitement, sadness and regret. Over the Atlantic they came with loneliness and fear, and all the doubts that are a part of turning away from an established life and heading out into the great unknown.
Most of all, Mom and Dad brought the English working class definition of life. It started with the family, and the family home–a practical place, and as a result, Carole, the oldest, Sheila in the middle and I became practical people. It was a place where making things work–learning how to carve something special out of something ordinary–shaped our existence. It wasn’t so much about dreams as it was about providing the day-to-day things people need–like love and honesty, positive examples and stable role models. The house reflected this in its simplicity: not big or ornate, the kind of place in which anyone would feel comfortable. Most of all, the house reflected the family, and the importance which was placed on the family unit. This was something of paramount concern to Mom and Dad. The price they paid to come to California was to raise three children with no grandparents or aunts and uncles, no cousins or nieces and nephews. Just names with no faces, hazy memories from long-ago trips and funny-sounding accents.
“Family,” to my sisters and I, was really nothing more than a five-pound note and flimsy sheets of air mail paper. It made the idea of family more important. To my parents, we were all that we had, so we had to be together and stay together. That ideal underscored everything, from the family house, to the routine Mom and Dad created for us. The daily way we lived never really changed, even through the turbulence of the sixties and seventies. And though the tragedies of teenage years tore at the fabric of the family, we managed to hold together. It was a credit to the routine–the most important parts to our lives stayed in the same simple order: Mom was always there when we came home from school. We’d toss our books into our rooms, and while on some days it was straight outside to play, on others we would be coerced into doing our school work. Once a week we lined up for piano lessons. The dog would lie under the piano bench and listen as the piano instructor, an old family friend, would count off the timing and hope that for once–just once–the same tired old song we took turns hacking away at would be played to perfection. Shortly afterward Dad would come home from work and head out to the garage, building things for the family home, adding life and personality into the floors and walls and ceilings. He would work out there–table saw and hammer mixing with the music on the radio until Mom would come out and yell after him to put something warm on, and to come soon and stop making so much of a racket. Eventually, Dad would come in and sit beside Mom in his comfortably old reclining chair, with the ever-present cup of tea and dipping biscuit. That was it–nothing extravagant or extra-special, just a day in the lives of people who took care of the things that matter.
How simple and yet difficult it is to capture those things that matter. Like playing ball in the street, lying sprawled on top of the bed doing homework, making forts–even piano lessons and chores. When you’re in the moment, it doesn’t seem so important–perhaps that is what makes it so.
As we get older, we forget about the things that really matter.
On the first night in our new home, the only thing that matters is trying coax myself into sleep on the living room floor. But instead of sleep, all I get are back pains and strange, trippy dreams that mix with a sleepless reality, the kind of semi-lucid fantasy that clings to you. Every time I close my eyes I dream about sirens, loud and mournful. I wake up with a jolt every 1/2 hour or so because I think I hear someone trying to get into the house. The sirens, the sounds I hear that I swear are sounds of a trespasser, envelop me and tug on my fears. I lay staring at the ceiling, wondering if it’s real and if I should get up or if I’m only paranoid and imagining all these bad things.
It’s all in my mind. I know it, and try unsuccessfully to get back to sleep. I roll over I can’t help but look enviously at Christina. There she is, sleeping like a babe, and I resent it. Oh, how I resent it. There is nothing more irritating in this world than being married to a person who can sleep through anything. Especially when every time I close my eyes I see ambulances, police cruisers and fire trucks screeching to a halt in the driveway. Or it’s the sight of somebody coming into the house, and the overwhelming fear that I cannot protect my wife because I am lying beside her on the floor, completely defenseless.
Being awake just gives my dreams the added dimension of reality, and I listen suspiciously to the noises of the house, wondering which one I should get up and investigate. Okay. That was definitely not a house noise. If I hear another noise like that one, I’m getting up. Wait. Did I just hear something in the front? Let’s wait and see. Over and over the same scenario runs in my mind, and though there are creaks and groans I am sure are coming from an opening window, I never actually get up and investigate–okay, perhaps once or twice.
As I lay there and stare at the ceiling, jumbled thoughts run through my head–can we handle this? Are we in over our heads? Buying this house is a dream come true–but can we manage the dream? For two young people a house is a lot of responsibility–without the family, I’m not sure we can do it. With the family’s help, we’ll be all right. Funny–thinking about the house makes the noises fade away, and as the sky begins to lighten, I drift into a deep, peaceful sleep.
But only for what feels like a moment. All of a sudden I’m awake again and hearing new noises. The only difference this time is that the sun has made the living room a furnace–and the noises I’m hearing are the sounds of someone knocking on the door. The banging serves as an alarm clock, yet instead of stopping, as I open my eyes and bleary begin to focus, the banging increases, gaining in ferocity and repetition. Bang Bang Bang Bang. This is no dream–someone wants to get into the house. I jump up and shake Christina. “Chris, wake up–I think somebody’s at the door.”
“Shit. Who could it be? What time is it? Shit! it’s already in the afternoon.” I sat up and tried to bring my mind out of the mist of an uneasy sleep as I struggled to the door.
“Brian, did I wake you guys up? We had no way of getting word over here, so I came by,” Mike was one of those kind of people who is something to everybody they meet–good, dependable son-in-law, down-to-earth brother-in-law, solid husband to Carole and father to David. Nuisance to anyone who didn’t get his humor–unapologetic, confident, sure of himself and not afraid to show it.
“You must have been dead to the world. I’ve been banging on your door for 15 minutes. You should have told us the phones weren’t hooked up, we’ve been trying to get hold of you all day.”
“Sorry about that. We didn’t think it was a big deal–I mean, you all know where we are.”
“Yeah, but we didn’t know if you were at the apartment, or here–and we couldn’t really go driving around looking for you.”
“So what’s up? Is Carole okay?”
“Carole’s fine–it’s Dad. Everybody’s down at the emergency.”
“What…why? What happened?
“His temperature never went down, and at around 3 in the morning Mom took him in.”
“You better get over there as quick as you can.”
“What’s the doctor saying?”
“He’s saying Dad has Leukemia.”
I could feel my stomach turn inside out. My mind churned, searching for a reasonable explanation for this sudden and startling turn of events. I could find nothing. No rational, common sense way to approach the news, because the news was of such an ominous and vague nature. That’s the worst–not knowing enough to create a happy-ending in my mind.
Not knowing was enough to drive me crazy.
Sure enough, when we arrived at Martin Luther Hospital everyone was crowded into the dinky, dingy entranceway that passed for the waiting room of the critical care unit. I have, on occasion, seen people like us sitting in a hospital waiting room. I always felt sorry for them; always knew the news they were facing was not good, just by looking into their faces and by the fact the only people who were there longer were the janitors. They looked pinched, wrinkled and anxious, and I never, ever imagined that I would be one of them.
At that moment, I didn’t even know what Leukemia was. Sure, I knew it was a form of cancer, and I knew it was serious, but to know that is to know nothing. All I had was this vague notion about it, this unsettled definition that hid behind total and complete ignorance. My understanding of the disease was about to take a quantum leap. I knew now that Leukemia was a nasty disease and that this quick and silent killer was overwhelming my Dad’s body. And though I would eventually learn much more about it, that was all I really needed to know. That and from now on, every single moment would count in a battle of life against death.
While we were standing outside the house laughing about the truck, the Leukemia was beginning to run around inside my father’s bloodstream. With the exception of a little back pain and a temperature, there were no symptoms. That night and the following day, as we moved, his temperature also moved, never going down and always, imperceptibly, inching upward. When it got to 106 Mom took him into the emergency room.
The worst part of it is that I still can’t seem to get my mind around it. Call it shell shock–all I can keep thinking is that one minute I’m having dinner with my folks, celebrating our new home, and the next thing I know is I’m pacing up and down a hospital waiting room, waiting for nothing but the worst of news. I guess this is how bad things happen to people. It’s not polite or convenient; emergencies always happen at the most inappropriate of times.
How unkind of God to make our family suffer through such a sudden and shocking thing.
Not that we would have ever been prepared for this to happen to him. Anyone else–that was one thing, we were all a little prone to misfortune–but Dad, it was never Dad who ended up being the center of misfortune’s attention. Everywhere and anywhere he had to be, Dad was always Mr. Dependable. He was even there when you didn’t want him to be, and was always willing to jump into a task. Now, we had to be there for him–and no one really knew what to do except stare at the ground and build up enough nerve to act defiant. We all take turns going up and down the elevator, drinking coffee and chain-smoking outside the cafeteria. And though we do the same things, we are all in our own little worlds. Carole is taking turns worrying about Dad, Mike and David, and bitching about the doctors.
Carole lives in a conspiracy theory–someone is responsible, and that someone is gonna pay just as soon as she figures out who it is. She is floundering and fading, not knowing what to do or say or think or feel–and she needs Mike around to tell her how it’s going to be.
Sheila is trying keep Danielle–her infant daughter–from throwing a crying fit, while attempting keep herself from doing the same. At the same time, she’s negotiating the necessary arrangements with her husband John by way of a cellular phone, and consoling Mom seated next to her on the couch. Sheila is grounded in the here and now–she knows she can do nothing for Dad, and she knows she has to find a way to be here–so that’s what she’s doing. She can save the crying and wailing for another time. Aside from Mom, Sheila is perhaps the most English of all of us.
Mom is sitting like a rock, and though she looks pale and shaken, she is still a rock. I think she is trying to hold onto whatever slim hope the reality of it all will allow. Like a magnet, the family revolves around her, trying–always trying–to pick her up and help her cope. We understand that the moment is so much more overwhelming for her, and in our own way, each try to keep our emotions in check and provide a modicum of support for her. We try to make her laugh; we try to make her busy with Danielle. We try to find and relay a hint of hope in the doctor’s words, we try to good-naturedly make fun of the situation we are in. But this is a woman who has sat in this room since three in the morning, wondering what the hell was going on with her husband–there is not one thing we can try that she has not already exhausted.
I am staring out the window wondering what the hell to do, and trying to figure out what I can do. I feel a responsibility to provide some sort of stability, and I have a feeling that I’m not doing a very good job of it. Inside my mind I am playing a guessing game–trying to guess what the doctor is going to say. I keep praying that the doctor is going come out and tell us it was all a terrible misunderstanding–that he only had some sort of virus.
My optimism has the thin feel of an overly-justified lie.
We are waiting for test results to come back before determining which kind of deadly Dad has. I learned that in older people, Leukemia kills 70% of the time. I learned that a stat like that means nothing except to prove that Leukemia is a killer. It’s misleading because Dad had less than a 20% chance of making it through the next two days. Or even the next two heart beats. At any moment it could all end, and very probably would. I learned first to love that extra 10% and then to completely disregard any doctor or specialist who spouted percentages. I learned that nurses know more about what people need to know and how to share it when it comes to terminal diseases than any doctor could ever hope to. In some people, when they reach their mid-sixties, the body begins to produce “blasted” blood cells, which overrun the good ones and break down the immune system. That Leukemia, on its own, is not a killer–it just turns the common cold into a killer.
What was happening inside Dad’s body was a cold turned into a Godzilla virus and his body had no way to defend itself. The little chill he caught the night we brought the truck over had triggered a raging disease, and as far as the doctors could tell that was a sign that the Leukemia was at an advanced stage. The temperature was not an early warning sign, but then again, there really aren’t early warning signs. The specialist cited symptoms like fatigue, easy bruising and a tendency toward illness, back pain and the like. All things fairly common in an over-active man in his mid-sixties, all things we should have seen. That first day, we all learned too damn much about Leukemia.
I am now one of those people other folks stare at–and avoid at all costs. When I get too tired to keep my eyes open, I sleep on a sofa in a tiny room not designed for sleep, or even comfortable sitting. Located right outside the loud speaker of the emergency waiting room, it’s right in the middle of one of the busiest spots in the hospital. There’s a stack of old magazines thrown on a coffee table that dominates the room; the snow from a color television with a broken channel knob demands attention from the corner. Two old and uncomfortable chairs sit at opposite ends of a rock-hard couch with wooden arm rests. Sleeping here is an automatic prescription for a stiff neck and a tattoo of the couch fabric’s design on your face.
All things considered, it’s not too bad. Every 1/2 hour or so I emerge from the waiting room looking very pinched and wrinkled, but still there and still hoping. The family has decided to set up an impromptu vigil, and we are taking turns watching. Not that it does any good–what could we do except stand around if there was an emergency? Several of the nurses are a bit bemused by the fact that someone day and night is here from our family. I can tell they admire the dedication–but they also think we’re fools. What they don’t understand is that to not be here would be unthinkable. The family–even if it was to just stand around–would always be there.
For being so close to death, the CCU has an abundance of the noises and commotion of life. And the noises of life are terribly irritating in the emergency room. More than anything, you want peace and quiet because of some myth that dictates a person can only heal if they are surrounded by the tranquility of silence. Lately I’ve been wondering if what keeps people alive is noise-after all, noise is life, growing, sustaining, getting louder as it gets stronger. When you die, it’s plenty quiet enough–maybe more noise means more life. I think strange thoughts as I sit in my cramped little waiting room waiting to go into the room and sit in darkness next to his bed. Dark, musing thoughts that visit as the hours go by. Sometimes, Dad speaks to me–at least I think he does–more often, he doesn’t, just clenches my hand and remains in his own little fuzzy world.
“Come on, Dad, you can pull out of this. Wake up and tell me it’s all over.”
But there is no answer–there is never any answer. It is all very poetic–a father and son, both living in separate worlds shrouded in haze, connected to a terrible reality. For Dad, reality is nothingness–he doesn’t know the why or how he got to be in the hospital, and no one can break through to tell him what’s going on. I know somewhere in that head he’s going crazy trying to figure it out because he looks mad–evil mad. For me, reality in the CCU is an ashtray full of butts and the coffee jitters. It’s being on edge and feeling numb, all at the same time. It’s dirty hair and bloodshot eyes, rumpled clothes and conversations on a pay phone.
For both father and son, reality in the CCU is being here and not knowing why.
In the dark, I watch with one eye for a glimpse of recognition from my father, the other on the red glow of the LCD light that tells me if he is alive. I, myself, live and die by the light of that machine. The rosary beads that have worked a groove into my left hand are an afterthought, as are the prayers I mumble. I try to make each prayer a powerful message, to think about each word as it races across my brain–I even repeat prayers to make sure it happens. But after an hour or two, I say it more out of mechanical routine than deep meditation. I thought I had forgotten my rosary–but years growing up a Catholic come back when you need it most, and I found that I can slip into the prayers without much thought. At first, I was praying for him, but now it seems that I am, more and more, praying for myself and the family.
And he must never see me pray. If he sees, he’ll know the truth about what’s happening, and then maybe he’ll panic and fade away. It’s better to put up the strong front so he can also be strong.
Even if what we need is help in a really big way.