Saturday, March 31, 2007

Ten Miles Behind Me And Ten Thousand More To Go

On weekdays, someone takes Dara to the bus stop or, if we want to sleep an hour longer, to school. We haven't slept well. When she was here, Daria took charge of getting Dara to high school but after Daria left, I suddenly had to think about teenager transportation again.

Tata: Shit! We have to get up early because I won't be able to get home from the high school.
Dara: That would be embarrassing.
Tata: Wait till your friends see my hair done by a cat!
Dara: Am I too young to have a stroke?

Yesterday, we were up before the alarm. I came downstairs and glared at the coffee pot until Dara told me to put on my shoes. The fields all around were blanketed with thick frost. I started the van and could barely reach the pedals but didn't adjust the seat because everyone who might drive it including Dara is bigger than me. We drove to the end of the steep driveway, where we sat quietly and shivered at a 30 degree angle to the road.

Dara: Put on the parking brake.
Tata: Really? You don't want to go visit the cows across the street?
Dara: Not without a bun and sauteed mushrooms, no.
Tata: I never use that, living where things are relatively flat. How do I - um - turn it off to go home?
Dara: You press it harder and it releases or there's a lever without a handle.
Tata: Rock on.

A minute or two later, the bus appeared. Dara and I air kissed. She got on the bus and I thought, "Hot damn, I'm going back to bed now." But I was wrong, and I couldn't release the parking brake.

Look, I'm not a genius. A couple of weeks ago, we were desperate to feed Dad anything he'd eat. We searched the grocery stores for ideas, for cream soups, for anything he might take one bite of and it was becoming an obsession for me. Our objective was to keep his cognitive function as clear as we could for as long as we could, and I was working on a premise I may or may not have remembered correctly from Good Eats.

Tata: Brains need protein. Maybe later, we can try spoonfuls of cream.
Darla: Brains need glucose. It's widely misunderstood.

I blinked a few times.

Tata: I'm pretty wide...

After that, I had to calm down and rethink my obsession. Friday morning, when I pressed the parking brake pedal as far as it would go repeatedly and nothing happened, I tried pulling on the lever without a handle. Nothing. My hands were useless in the cold and without a good grip. I put the van in reverse to see what would happen and I think the cows across the street laughed at me. I sat for a minute, wishing like mad I knew what to do and wishing my hands worked. Then I thought 'This is Dad's van. There's no way in the world he wouldn't have a tool kit.' I turned off the van and climbed into the back, where I found a bucket of tools wedged between a seat and the wheelwell - and pliers. That's all I needed. Getting home from there was a breeze, though I was wide awake.

On Monday, I might drive to school in my pajamas.

Friday, March 30, 2007

I Never Doubted Your Beauty

Today's Friday. It's Friday? Yes, it's Friday. I have to do more of the thinking now, even though Daria says, "Don't think. It weakens the team."

On Tuesday night, we decided it was time for Darla's parents to make the two-day drive from Canada. Yes, she's Canadian. No, she looks just like a normal person. On Wednesday, Darla called them. They packed the car - their cases were packed weeks ago - and left almost immediately. The same day, Daria's four-year-old Sandro pulled a Houdini on the babysitter and the police were called. It didn't go well from there. I turned a corner in the house and found Daria on a cellphone, turning a lovely shade of ashen I'd never seen before. After a series of frantic phone calls, she spilled the beans.

Daria: Sandro ran away from the babysitter and the police got involved.
Tata: No, Sandro was going for a walk.
Daria: No, he....right.
Tata: Is he under arrest? I always expected to bail him out but this kid's a prodigy.
Daria: Your godson wouldn't tell the police his name.
Tata: That's my boy.

Her husband Tyler came yesterday to pick her up. The plan is for her to come back Sunday or Monday with at least two of her children. I hate this plan but the kids are so small time away from their mother is not something we can ask them to accept stoically.

In the meantime, Daria, Darla and I had formed a rhythmic, dependable tag team verging on a flat-tire roller derby; the idea of Daria's leaving filled me with dread. For two weeks, the corps of minions jumping up when Darla appeared with some frightening pronouncement narrowed until it was just Daria and me with the italic M sewn to our matching t-shirts. Dara is really too young to be shoved into the fray, in my opinion. Yesterday, I had a few hours of near fright until Darla's parents arrived. Then Tyler and Daria left. Dara and I didn't know what to do with ourselves.

In any case, Daria left all her clothes, doubling the size of my wardrobe. I'd brought enough clothing for a few days and I've been here almost a month, I think. When I get home, I'm building a bonfire and burning everything I've worn to threads. You should bring marshmallows.

On her way out, Daria said, "I made meatloaf. All you have to do is cook it." When we decided we should eat, Dara and I stared at the foil-covered loaf pan and cursed Daria. I took out the - don't look, Suzette! - Joy of Cooking because I don't make meatloaf. Gently, Darla's mother Nina came to stand next to me.

Tata: 722...
Nina: I'd think we might cook at 350, maybe?
Tata: ...we could do that...
Nina: For half an hour with the foil on, perhaps?
Tata: That sounds good.
Nina: And a little longer after that?
Tata: You have my full attention. Let's do it.

And we did. Darla's Dad Nigel talks medicine with Darla, which is a great comfort to her. This morning, Dara went to school. I sat with Dad. Darla did some work. Nina and Nigel returned the wheelchair to a hospital and picked up groceries. I am not frightened. We hung on through the white-knuckle ride because there was no other choice. Now we can let go a little.

Grownups have arrived.

The Only Truth I Know Is You

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Tapestries And Wishes Of Man


The new sleep medication has a startling effect on Dad: he tries to get out of bed. At first, he insisted he had appointments and errands but relented when we said we had taken care of things. Now he seems to be dreaming with his eyes open a great deal. Often, he is angry. Our strategy has been to smile, tell him everything's fine and that he can rest now but it doesn't always work.

Sometimes, we can tell that he's still in there and aware. Yesterday, I sat with him for a few hours while Darla napped. Maybe half a dozen times he sat up and put his feet on the floor. The first few times he did it, I was terrified he might fall and really hurt himself, but I got the hang of thwarting his schemes.

Tata: What are you doing?
Dad: I'm sitting up.
Tata: Why are you sitting up?
Dad: Can't I just want to fucking sit up?
Tata: You betcha.
Dad: Go away!
Tata: Can't do that.
Dad: You! Go for a walk! Get out!
Tata: I'll go sit over there.
Dad: Go sit over there!

I sat where he couldn't see me, ready to leap if he shifted his weight. He sat for a moment, then lay down and went back to sleep. Later, he sat up again and insisted he wanted to go do something.

Tata: Just a minute, Daddy! We'll help you up.

I bounded up the stairs and around a corner. Daria came running, so I turned around and sprinted down the steps. When we turned the corner, Dad was fiddling with the bed position controller. With great effort, he sat up and put his feet on the floor.

Dad: Go away!
Daria: Where ya going?
Dad: Over there.
Daria: Nope. You're too weak.
Dad: I'm not that weak.
Daria: Why don't you lie down, Daddy?
Dad: What's with the frigging questions?
Daria: We love you. Get back in bed.

Meanwhile, Daria stood like a roadblock with her arms folded, inches from his knees. He lay back down and fell asleep.

A couple of hours later, the extended family in New Jersey suffered an unnerving setback. Daria assigned me to the daily grocery shopping trip, so Dara and I went to the high end grocery store in Staunton. Dara drove because I'm a licensed driver who has no idea where she is and at least the student driver can swerve judiciously in Daddy's ridiculously and stupidly shaped big van Darla calls "the dustbuster." As we bounced along the harrowing valley roads I realized the last time she and I went to the store it might have been snowing. I hadn't left the house in over a week. In that time, bare trees sprouted buds and some had already flowered. Some of the fields were more green than brown. I said nothing to Dara as I observed life going on in some ways without me and certainly without Dad. In the grocery store, we walked in circles and had difficulty with our list. By the time we left the store, a pounding rain was falling. Neither of us had much to say and only said it limply, and with effort. I felt like I was failing her.


When Dara and I get home from a reasonably terrifying rainy day drive in an oversize vehicle, Dad's ex-girlfriend of many years from many years ago is sitting in the kitchen with Daria and Darla. Daria's made dinner and we eat together before Darla clears her plate and goes back to working in the living room. After a little while, Darla tells us she needs a nap and we note that Darla needs to wake up by 9:30 to medicate Dad. We set up the table so Daria can press t-shirts and transfers. Those of us at the kitchen table are talking and laughing about the Shut Up songs when -


Daria and I hiss at Dara at the same time.

Dara: Crap!

Dara runs off. I whisper to Linda confidentially.

Tata: He doesn't hate her yet.

Linda laughs into her hand. Daria applies pressure to an iron and a shirt. Dara steps out of the living room and closes the sliding door.

Daria: What happened?
Dara: Daddy said to shut up!
Tata: What exactly did he say?
Dara: He said, "I need quiet! Shut up!" I said, "Sorry, Daddy!"

We almost have to lie down to laugh hard enough.

Daria: "Tell those kids to shut up!"
Linda: I can't believe it!
Daria: There you go, Linda. You come over to say goodbye and he tells you to shut up one last time!
Tata: He never told Linda to shut up, never.
Linda: Not in those words, no.
Daria: See these pants? They're my favorite pants and I haven't been wearing them because they make noise. Like, "Tell those kids to shut up! And those pants - tell them to shut up, too!"
Tata: "Tell those kids and their loud pants to shut up!"
Dara: He knew it was me, I could tell he would have said "Shut the fuck up" if it'd been you.
Daria: Shut Up Time tonight is 8:30, but it has been 10:00. Here's your shirt.
Linda: I didn't think you were making it up but I didn't believe it either. I have to leave. My sides hurt.
Daria: You thought you were coming over to wreck your mascara but you're leaving with a door prize.
Dara: I'm going upstairs to put on my pajamas, so goodnight, and don't forget to shut up!
Linda: Good night and shut up!

We're slaphappy. So sue us.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

All the Seeds of Happiness

For a couple of weeks, I awakened with a twelve-pound cat tangled in my shining tresses. I'd spend half an hour talking to said cat, whose name is Atticus. He'd purr, he'd preen. He'd tell me where he wanted to be scratched and nip if I scratched out of bounds. Then, I'd go downstairs and start household chores for the day. One morning, Darla and I were discussing something serious when Atticus padded softly into the kitchen, took one look at me and sauntered off.

Tata: Darla, am I imagining it or is that cat pretending we're not sleeping together?
Darla: He's acting like he doesn't know you in public!

Apparently, Atticus saw Samantha sitting on my lap and now he's all like "Girlfriend, please!" And I'm all like "But honey, you're the only cat for me!" And Atticus is like "Sugar, I'm not sure you even like cats." I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin'!

This morning, he was sleeping near my head but not on it, but he did tangle my hair a little. While I wonder if Atticus will take me back, the world keeps turning. Dad is asleep most of the time now. His absent relatives are mystified by this.

Cousin So-And-So: When are they putting him to sleep?
Tata: He's not a Shitzu! He gets medication that makes him sleep all the time!
Cousin So-And-So: You didn't take him to the pound?

Daria's struggled with Dad's printer for two days and today got over herself.

Daria: Black and white?
Tata: ...will be the most awesome thing in the universe if you stop fist-fighting ink cartridges.

Yes, I'm sick of cartridges flying past my head in sprays of whichever primary color was at the top of Daria's hit list as Daria cursed the ancestors of both Hewlett and Packard. Fortunately, the picture she was trying to print turned out just as well in black and white on transfer paper, then on XL white t-shirts. We have been calling ourselves "Team LongItalianLastName" and now we have uniforms. Daria showed this to Dad, who has in his wakeful moments become a master of graphic demonstration.

Daria: Dad! Look!
Dad: [Crazy people!]
Daria: Team LongItalianLastName! Everyone gets one!
Dad: [Everyone?]
Daria: Your ex-wife, her new husband, all the kids you acknowledge...
Dad: [Watchit, you!]

From minute to minute, we don't know what to expect so we make no plans. Dara goes to school and I don't know how she does it. Because Dad is a celebrity here and he involved her in his projects, Dara can't walk ten feet without someone expressing condolences. Fortunately, she's got driver's ed this semester and tomorrow they start behind-the-wheel.

Monday, March 26, 2007

With the Birds I'll Share This Lonely View

This morning, Todd kissed us goodbye and drove off to catch a plane back to Los Angeles. For half an hour, Daria and I sat in the kitchen, silent, imagining how Todd felt when he had to leave Dad. I stared out the window, cold with fear. Daria jumped up after awhile, started cleaning and didn't stop for almost an hour while I tried to work but couldn't concentrate. Not long after that, the hospice nurse arrived, and sat down with us in the kitchen while Dad slept in the living room. Darla and the nurse talked at great length and dizzying depth about medication while I tried to pay attention. I tried. I did. But I am small and covered with fur, and I was lucky I didn't start meowing.

The topic of conversation turned to what we should expect in the near future and the nurse spoke slowly, choosing each word deliberately. Dad's better days of mental acuity were nearly over, and by juggling medications, certain truly unpleasant symptoms could be managed by keeping him asleep most of the time. Or he could be clear and uncomfortable. No guarantees could be offered as to what would happen, she said, which we knew but we could also see she was delicately trying to tell us something, and she was quite emotional about it because she had come to care about Darla and Dad. Dad wanted to end his days with his mind intact. The nurse said we might not be able to give him this wish, but we could give him sleep. During this conversation, which seemed to go on for a dozen years, I felt like my guts were ground to a fine powder with a mortar and pestle. I was relieved when she left. She's leaving Wednesday for vacation and it was obvious to me she felt she was abandoning Dad and Darla. You just haven't lived until your situation has nearly reduced a hospice nurse to tears, but while we were sitting there -

Tata: Darla, I have something to say.
Darla: Now? Do you have to say it now?
Tata: Indeed. You know how you placed the cordless here, designating me Phone Monitor?
Darla: Yes.
Tata: That was two hours ago and I've been drinking water, and because I was Phone Monitor, I forgot to go to the bathroom.
Nurse: Well, that's not really a problem. We've got piles of Depends over there. Each one holds three cups of liquid.
Darla: Three whole cups! You may never move again.
Tata: I believe I will move again, right up those stairs to the bathroom. Watch me!
Nurse: You're not taking the phone with you?
Tata: Not on your life!

- we had more to mull over -

Nurse: You're back so fast! Are you sure you stopped to pee?
Tata: Yep, I didn't take the other girls with me because you are them and you stayed here.
Darla: Want a glass of water?
Daria: Hey, why don't I grab all three phones from the middle of the table. If they rang, we'd be startled.
Nurse: And she'd probably pee!

- so we had to laugh. When I'm in a mood like this, I think it's just a matter of time before we're mixing white russians with Dad's coffee-flavored Ensure, but not until dinnertime, and I suspected a nurse might've worried as this happened before lunch. Good thing there's wine. I have a delicate little glass of it right now. It says, "SPRING BREAK CHUG-A-THON CANCUN '99." I'd rather be working the tension off on a stationary bicycle but Darla doesn't have one and I was Phone Monitor again in the afternoon. How seriously do we take this responsibility?

Yesterday, I needed to get out and get some exercise, so I laced up the sneakers and walked laps of the driveway at a vigorous pace. Earlier estimates of the driveway's length placed it at two-thirds of a mile. In fact, Dad said it's "a tad over a third of a mile." Fine by me. I handed the cordless to Todd and looked him in the eye.

Tata: Not it!
Todd: Dang!

Then I hiked to the street, with a fresh breeze and the sunshine, the faint aromas of cowshit warming in the sun, hay and cows. The cows stopped what they were doing as I walked by, they stopped again on my way back, where I found Todd standing at the side door, talking on his cell as I pivoted and headed out for another lap. I went about ten yard before I turned back. He'd forgotten his job, I knew, so I hiked back to the base of the driveway and shouted, "Phone Monitor!" Todd shouted, "Damn it!" and went back inside. I hiked two more laps of the driveway to commune with Nature and wafting poop. It took almost an hour, and I really needed it. Today, my feet have blisters but I don't care, and Todd's gone home to care for his children.

When it's not my turn with the phone tomorrow, I'm going out on the driveway. We had a power outage this afternoon for over an hour, during which I thought my head would explode. I remained calm enough to insist Dara do her homework in fading daylight while I played Solitaire with my naked Vegas showgirl cards Siobhan insisted I bring here because "...your father cannot be so sick he won't think hot chicks on a deck of cards are hilarious." Sometimes, the only thing to do when faced with faced with questions of impenetrable depths is to go good and shallow.

All You're Giving Me Is Talk Talk

Why is the only place to report a problem the one where other people are complaining about theirs? This has been my problem for the last few days.
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What was I doing at the time? Can there be an answer besides, "I'd have to say 'up the butt,' Bob"?


Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Spinning Darkness of Her Hair

Sometimes, one's own feelings don't matter a whit.

Daria: Shut up! That's what's happening!
Todd: Been a long time since you're shutting up!
Daria: What I like about you? You keep on shutting up!
Todd: Under the bridge downtown, you'll be shutting up!

Todd and Daria both miss their little children. Conducting family life is no cakewalk under normal circumstances, let alone with a stressed-out parent hundreds or thousands of miles from home. They spend half the time they're not holding Dad's hand pacing the halls and the driveway, calling in favors for childcare help. Todd's and Daria's respective spouses are tearing their hair out trying to keep things moving. Everyone is emotional and torn and trying to have patience as we watch our father waste away, but after three weeks, patience with us is wearing thin. People want and need Todd and Daria in their homes and jobs, adding guilt to the pain of coping with losing our dad. The suckfest is beyond belief and life moves fast - not where we are, but we can see it distantly.

I have my own problems, which seem small and silly by comparison. My apartment is empty and everything in my refrigerator is turning blue. I'm lonely for a couch I've never seen, for my own bed and the dumb routines of my life. I say things like, "When I go home, I'll..." thereby skipping the significant event between me and sitting on my couch; sometimes, I am still genuinely afraid. I don't think much of my problems or desires at this moment, even my idle wish to wake up in my own home, where I live alone and very quietly. The last three weeks' forced togetherness have been very hard for me, but that's no more important than being tired or needing a haircut. If you can believe it, for once, I'm not the Center of the Damn Universe.

Yesterday, Dara's nail polish had chipped to a point where I was uncomfortable looking at them so I shoved a bottle of nail polish remover at her with a bitchy grin. She narrowed her eyes and said, "Nuh unh." A little while later, we had an unnerving incident in which Dad told Dara he had an important appointment to get ready for and Dara ran outside to cry. Daria ran after her and Todd followed suit. I remained in the kitchen, turning off boiling pots and chopping vegetables because, try as I might, I just cannot be the cuddly mommy type you need when you need a cuddly mommy type. And that's fine: go have your group hug. I'll mix martinis, and later, we'll play strip poker. So when the three of them came back, we finished making dinner, which was fabulous.

After dinner, I pushed the nail polish remover at Dara again and said, "No, really. Give it a whirl."

Dara: No.
Tata: Why?
Dara: I don't know why.
Daria: What?
Todd: What's going on?
Tata: She doesn't want to take off what's left of her polish.
Todd: Why? That looks like crap.
Tata: Nice going, dude.
Daria: Why don't you want to take off your polish?
Dara: I don't know!
Tata: Sweetie, when other people see you looking like this, they think you're not taking care of yourself and they'll worry.
Daria: That's true. Let her take off your polish. It's nothing. It takes no time at all.
Tata: Zip zip zip. Give me your other hand.
Daria: Did you notice? Yesterday, I was talking on the phone and when I hung up, she'd treated my cuticles and put on a layer of hoof lacquer. See?
Tata: Daria wears too much bling. She cannot go around with raggedy nails. Go wash your hands.
Dara: I don't want to!
Tata: Thanks for doing it, then. Put your hands on the table.

I rubbed her hands with lotion.

Tata: Do you know why you want to use base coat?
Dara: No.
Tata: Tinted polish stains your nails, which you know. Use two coats, like I'm doing now.
Dara: Why?
Tata: Your nails are thin. Try eating some gelatin at least once a week, and make sure you get some calcium and Vitamin D. You're under a lot of stress.
Dara: You're very annoying.
Tata: Pfft, take a number! Two coats of your favorite polish, like this. Don't worry about the little extra drops. And replace your polish more often. Do you know why?
Dara: No. Why?
Tata: Because this bottle of polish is screaming, "I'm trying to die! I'd like to join the other polishes in Nail Polish Heaven. Please send me to be with the others of my kind."
Dara: Why do you say that?
Tata: Because the goo in this bottle is thick and heavy. Nail polish should be light and relatively thin.
Dara: What are you talking about?
Tata: Nothing. When you buy a bottle of polish, write the date on the bottom with a Sharpie. If you still have it a year later, send it to Heaven without regret.
Dara: Are they dry?
Tata: Not important! You need two layers of top coat to seal and protect against chipping.
Daria: I get impatient and ding at least just about now.
Tata: If she dings it, I'll fix it but she won't. Hold still!
Dara: I'm holding still!
Tata: Hold stiller!
Dara: Okay!
Daria: Now why were you mad before? This is nothing to be mad about. Why were you mad?
Dara: I don't know! I was just mad!
Tata: Sweetie, when your polish dries, you can rub any extra bits off your skin because you moisturized it well. The first time you dip your hands into soapy water, the polish bits will rub off like magic.
Dara: So in the shower?
Tata: Yup. Baby, your nails look good.
Dara: They do, don't they?
Tata: Dahhhhling, it's okay if you're mad at me, got that?
Daria: ...Especially since you're not really mad at your sister. You're mad that Daddy's dying. Aren't you?
Dara: Yeah. Okay.

I hugged her in an unconvincing manner.

Tata: I love you madly. Don't ever - uh - change.
Dara: Did you actually touch me?
Tata: Probably not.
Todd: What's for dessert?
Tata: I'm sorry I'm not the cuddly type.
Dara: I think you're getting further away from me.
Todd: See this piece of cake? I'm eating it and you can't stop me!
Daria: Don't talk to those crazy people and let me hug you, sweetpea!
Tata: When you need tattoos or an alibi, I'm your gal because we're sisters and someday you may decide what home I live in.
Dara: How do you feel about large mice as involuntary pets?

Sometimes, one's own feelings don't matter a whit. Not even one.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Dreams Unwind And Love Is Hard To Find

Tuesday, Dara peeled vegetables in the kitchen and said, "I was singing and my friends said, 'Uh, what?'"

I've puzzled for days on this very topic. As time passes and Dad's life ebbs, he sleeps more and requires greater patience and care. This means I set up laundry and clean up messes while Daria puts Dad's papers in order and Todd cleans something else to within an inch of its figurative life. Further, each of us has specialty chores. I have been appointed Chief Cat Comforter, but sometimes I change hats and step out to exercise my authorita as Cat Wrangler. Yes, I'm the new sheriff in Cat Town, here to settle disputes and upbraid the disgruntled, bringing peace and harmony to a nervous populous. It's a living.

When Darla makes a request of any kind, Daria and I snap to and make it happen. Yesterday, Daria comparison shopped for funeral arrangements because Darla told us Daddy says undertakers are thieves. Well, okay then. Daria spent an hour on the phone asking, "Who do you think you're messing with?" before settling on services that messed with her least. We are working like dogs to keep this household running, and we burst into tears a lot while we wait for what little time we get to spend with Daddy while he's awake. It's an incredibly stressful situation. About two weeks ago, we also started bursting into song.

Picture this. You're standing in a kitchen with three of your blood relatives. You're preparing dinner, say. Someone is slicing garlic. Someone is reducing heavy cream. Someone is grating parmesan cheese. Someone is stirring the linguine. Suddenly: cheese on the floor inspires what sound like off-key auditions for the Vienna Boys Choir.

Tata: Oooh, I will be telling!
Daria: Shut up!
Todd: You are the one who will be shutting up!
Dara: You are the one who will be getting paper towels!

Nothing is too big or small to warble about - and I mean nothing.

Tata: We're in a restaurant. We'd better stop singing.
Daria: This place has good bread.
Todd: Get your plastic Louis V bag off the table.
Dara: Bite me!


Tata: I feel a banana bread coming on.
Daria: Those bananas look verklempt!
Todd: Does your recipe use walnuts?
Dara: When can I have some of the bread you haven't baked yet?

We chant un-Gregorian in the car, at the grocery store, over the phone, while we're cleaning, all the time, and it doesn't matter who overhears us. What do I care who hears us? But Dara's another story. It was a mighty good thing that when she warbled away from the flock it was at her friends and not at the Vice Principal, because otherwise she might be taking the bus to a special school right now - or a job in summer stock. Two nights ago, Darla ran past us all in the kitchen and said, "That singing thing? It's not annoying yet but we're this close."

In bad four-part harmony, we sang without thinking, "Sorry!"

It Never Ends

Blogger's hosed me intermittently since Wednesday night, so in its honor:

Mark Hollis is a god so no mocking teh Mark Hollis! Blogger can go piss up a rope.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

These Three Days Start Over Again

Darla sticks her head through the doorway.

Darla: He's feeling a little better. He said, "Tell them to shut the hell up."
Tata: Hooray! Let's go upstairs!

I'm sitting on the floor of the upstairs bedroom my sisters sleep in. They're allergic to cats and the rest of the house is full of them, so my sisters are pretty much S.O.L. as far as little things like breathing are concerned. Todd is so allergic to everything, he spends half his time running the wet/dry vac in the garage, which we just call "Todd's office." And it's not like anybody worried until Todd vacuumed up a nest today and everyone spilled out of the garage, shouting, "What do we do with a vacuum cleaner full of wasps?"

Tata: Since you're asking me, I say you lock the garage door and go back in December.

A few days ago, Daria and I sat with Daddy and a funny subject came up.

Daria: The freezer is full of ingredients and not food. We're trying to cook for Darla and keep finding things we can't identify.
Dad: Like what?
Tata: I found something I can't identify, too!

Daria ran to the kitchen. I ran after. Daria returned with something I hadn't seen. I came back with something else.

Daria: What's this, Daddy?
Dad: Gingerbread. Throw that away.
Daria: What do we do with the yucca?
Dad: Whatever you want. Yucca is delicious.
Daria: Huh!
Tata: Daddy, what's this?
Dad: Pork roast. Convection oven, 250 degrees to an internal temperature of ...
Tata: Did...did you say "an internal temperature of 160"?
Tata: I've got a Sharpie and I'm writing directions.

Soon, the kitchen table was filled with answers for Jeopardy category THINGS ONLY DAD COULD IDENTIFY, ALEX and by the time we'd reached the $1000 question, Dad was feeling puckish.

Tata: What's this?
Dad: Vegetable soup.

I turned on my heel.

Dad: ...I think...
Tata: I heard that!

I turned back to squint and he was laughing so I had to tell Daria, "Daddy's done telling us the truth so watch it!" We ventured one further question:

Daria: What the hell is this thing?
Dad: It's a chicken with feet and head on. My grandmother used to braise them and we'd suck the chicken feet like they were the most delicious thing ever. Then she gave me the head and I'd eat the wattle and break open the skull and eat the brain. It was fantastic.
Tata: How long should I thaw this thing? It looks like it sank the Titanic.
Dad: Three days in the fridge.
Daria: And then there's a chicken with the freaking FEET AND HEAD ON!

Regardless, we labeled and thawed. Tonight, I roasted the chicken because Daddy had been very clear this chicken would taste differently than factory-farm chicken, and taste is utterly crucial. Daria happened to be handy when I was preparing the chicken, so she helped me with the seasoning I couldn't touch because I was touching raw chicken. Gradually, the smell of roasting chicken permeated the house, making bearable what else Darla, Daria and I cleaned up and no one needs mention. Dad woke up from a deep sleep and said to Darla, "What smells really good?" At the same time, Todd and I consulted about doneness, tenting and carry over cooking in the next room, which when you think about it is a tremendous accomplishment of kitchen instruction on Dad's part. We let the chicken rest to redistribute the fluids and when it came time to cut the chicken, everyone said, "NOT ME!"

Though we are the kids, I am the oldest woman in the house so I took the biggest, sharpest knife I could find and sliced up the chicken in a less than especially skillful way. Todd watched from across the kitchen, where presumably a knife slip might be more hilarious than immediately injurious - to him. I'd laid out leftover salads, grilled vegetables, melons, slaws and fruit compotes on the kitchen table, along with plates and cutlery. Darla appeared in the kitchen and said something that made my blood run cold.

Darla: Your dad would like to see the chicken before it's cut.
Tata: Aggh! Tell him I've gone into the Witness Protection Program!

...but I sucked it up and went to see Dad alone to disappoint him.

Dad: The chicken smells good. Really good.
Tata: Thank you, Daddy. I just finished slicing it up for dinner.
Dad: Who's eating out there?
Tata: My brother, sisters and Darla. That's all. They're loud, huh?
Dad: That's it? Really?
Tata: I wanted Dara to have a little bit of normal, which is to say dinner where she sits down. It seemed important, considering how utterly crazy life has become. So right now she's sitting with Daria, Todd and Darla. There's salad.
Dad: Thank you.
Tata: Don't worry, Daddy. You said this chicken would taste different.
Dad: How did you prepare it?
Tata: I rubbed it with olive oil, salt, pepper, Italian seasoning and basted with butter. I omitted garlic and anything that might bother you, just in case you wanted to taste it.
Dad: Thank you, I can't.
Tata: Okay, it's not important. You said we should taste the actual chicken, so I didn't want to extravagantly season.
Dad: Logical...
Tata: I roasted it at 325 to an internal temperature of 158, then tented it to rest.
Dad: How did you carve it?
Tata: I cut through the leg, thigh and wing joints, hacked through the neck and sliced the breast meat.
Dad: On or off the bone?
Tata: On. I know the trick but I didn't want to try it in front of the critics a the kitchen table.
Dad: My grandmother braised these chickens. You can cook them in a crockpot. The collagen from the feet will thicken the stew for you. Are you going to try the feet?
Tata: I will. Next time I use this kind of chicken I'll braise it.
Dad: In the kitchen above the rack, there's a clay baking dish. Have you used one of those?
Tata: I haven't.
Dad: I...I'm too weak to explain it.
Tata: Are you sure there's nothing I can get you?
Dad: No, thank you, my kid.
Tata: Would you like to rest now, Daddy?
Dad: Yes.
Tata: Okay, Daddy.

I kissed his cheek, he kissed my hand and I closed the living room door behind me to cut the sound of my siblings' mad chatter. Darla finished eating and crept into the sickroom. Half an hour later, a nurse from the hospice agency arrived at the house and started a saline drip, which cleared some of the medication fog. Daria, Todd, Dara and I sat in the kitchen, singing while Todd played the guitar Dad gave him. Later, things got a little raucous when the ice cream came out, and Darla made her hilarious cameo appearance. We grabbed a bottle of wine and ran upstairs, giggling.

Daria: Daddy told us to shut up!
Tata: Daddy sent us to our room!

And we were happy because Dad was cranky again.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Damned If I'll Get Hung Up On the Time

Last night, we called Todd in Los Angeles because his sisters are three brunettes in a tight situation with unlimited in-network minutes. Todd told us difficult news: he was coming back to Virginia but not until Thursday. Completely bummed, we poured ourselves glasses of wine and embarked on a three-state eating spree. Next thing we knew, we'd slaughtered some defenseless freezer spring rolls and a pint of Vermonty Python. Oh, the carnage of the chocolate cows!

This morning, nobody slept. When Dara got up at 6:10 to get ready for school, I was already awake. Since I'm sleeping on the floor of Dad's office with a red-furred cat named Atticus who rearranges my hair every night, my hair stands up in dramatic curls every morning and this morning was no exception. I came downstairs looking like Carmen Miranda with an extra fruit chapeau. Daria had already taken Dara to the bus stop half a mile away because neither of them had slept, and it turned out Darla hadn't slept much either. Essentially, it sucked to be us when the phone rang at 8 and I sprinted to Darla with a hospice nurse on the cordless. A few minutes later, Daria, Darla and I clutched tea and coffee cups for dear life during this conversation.

Darla: Your father had pressure in his chest last night. I told the hospice people he could tell he wasn't having a heart attack because he's had one and recalls the sensation vividly.
Tata: Right, right, you told us. It felt like an obstruction in his throat, you said.
Darla: They didn't believe me so they called back 10 hours later in a panic.
Tata: That's service!
Darla: He had lesions on his lung so maybe the cancer's pressing now on his bronchia.
Tata: Would he enjoy a tasty glass of refreshing whiskey with his morphine?
Darla: Maybe.
Daria: Oh, Todd told us last night he's coming back on Thursday. He's got a throat thing.
Darla: Good for him. We cannot have a throat thing.

We heard a noise at the side door and froze. Because I'm small but fierce in a Nobody's getting past me to see Dad uninvited-sort of way, I turned the corner in confrontation mode and burst out laughing. I unleashed a laughable tae bo move and ducked back in the kitchen to get out of the way.

Daria: TODD!
Darla: We were just talking about you!
Daria: The words were still hanging in the air: "Todd's coming back on Thursday." What are you doing here?
Todd: I hung up the phone and half an hour later I was on a plane.
Tata: You'd better gargle with warm salt water, dude, nobody needs a throat thing.

And then, an extra set of hands to carry the weight lightened the load. It's not all right, but it's better. Well, alas for the poor chocolate cows.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Tore the Rug In That Downtown Dive

Yesterday, I awakened to find a grilled cheese sandwich next to my head and Dad's wife Darla staring at me.

Darla: Y'awake?
Tata: I yam!
Darla: Ya weren't!
Tata: I ya-wasn't but now I have a cheese sandwich! Good morning!
Darla: Your sister made it. I applauded. Weren't you up early this morning?
Tata: I was! Then I came up here to work and sat on the floor with the laptop. Then I reclined. Then I decided to work with my eyes closed. Then I had a delicious cheese sandwich.
Darla: Your plan comes to fruition.
Tata: And cheese.

The first time I awoke to a ringing phone. My reflexes, sharpened by days of leaping at anything with a ringer, drove me straight up and at the phone in Dad's office before my eyes opened. At the other end was an old friend of Dad's who'd just heard news of Dad's imminent demise, and the nice man was very upset about it. He'd been traveling to a bonsai conference when Dad got sick. They share an interest in manicured miniature trees. Dad's back porch has about a dozen of them. Anyway, even Dad's good friends and acquaintances are still just getting the news, so the teary phone calls can be a bit much. Dad isn't talking on the phone anymore. Darla looks stricken every time it happens. I take messages and let these people calm down, which is exactly what I did yesterday, at 9:01 A.M. So I got up twice yesterday. This morning, Dara went back to school.

If I haven't made this clear to you recently, you should forgive me now and beat the Christmas rush: I am 44 years old. Daria is 16 months younger than me and Todd is two years younger than Daria. Dara is 15. She is Dad's daughter from his marriage to Summer, who is two years older than I am. Dad is now married to Darla, who was born in England, to English people a year after Daria was born in New Brunswick, and who then moved to Canada. It's a family tree resembling kudzu, but it works for us. For instance, at this very moment, Summer's new husband's stepfather is coming up the driveway to jump start Daddy's van. So: good for us.

Tonight, Dad's having trouble with pressure in his chest, which he differentiates from a heart attack through experience. Today's big break came when the hospice nurse told Daddy to bust out his oldest scotch as a topical anesthetic for the throat pain and sleeplessness. If I remember right, Dad said, "That's the closest I'll get now to an 18-year-old." My sisters and I are eating freezer spring rolls.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Ain't No Secret About It

My sisters have gone to pick up Dad's and Darla's prescriptions. I'm making crepes for regular and seafood manicotti. It's quiet in the house but outside: rifle fire. Apparently, it's hunting season of some kind and I'm pissed. We've had a tough day, and the sound of hunters trying to kill defenseless creatures just doesn't fucking cut it.

Last night, Daddy took half an Ambien for sleep but he didn't sleep. Before he got sick, he'd had a disastrous Ambien episode, so this is kind of an all-bets-are-off situation. This morning, he was paranoid, confused and felt bad. He told Darla he didn't think it would be long now. Then, Todd, his wife Bette and their children left for Los Angeles, where Todd will work a shift in the bar he manages, then turn around and come back Monday. Dara has to go back to school Monday. Last night, I had the kind of meltdown your family forgives under normal circumstances after years of "I'm sorry - Jeez!" but this morning, nobody said a word because the next thing that happened was Darla cried for her dying husband with every fiber of her being, which put my little tantrum into perspective. I decided to lay off the red wine for a while.

The fear like I'm standing on an electified surface has returned. Daria has it too. Despite all this, and perhaps because of it, we get this:

Darla stepped into the kitchen, snapped her fingers and shouted, "Clean sheets." Daria and I threw whatever we were holding on the floor and ran in opposite directions. I sprinted to the dryer, then to the upstairs linen closet, where I'd put away the last set of sheets we'd stripped off Dad's bed. I pulled out everything we'd taken off his bed, threw it at Daria and sprinted back down the stairs two and three at a time. Daddy was sitting up in bed with his feet on the floor, feeling very weak and uncomfortable from sweating. We stripped this bed and tucked in clean sheets around him, then he stood for a few seconds as we adjusted the mattress and made everything even and crisp. This operation took less than five minutes, total. Daddy lay back down. We covered him with soft blankets and watched to see how he felt. After a minute, he was comfortable again and smiling gently.

Darla: That was amazing!
Tata: We've been calling ourselves your pit crew.
Daria: Not for nothing but the hospice lady said, "I've never seen anything like that! I've never seen a bed changed that fast!"
Darla: At first, I worried about power tools flying and oil everywhere, but it's great!
Tata: Do you think we're ready for NASCAR?
Dad: You missed it! Your sisters rotated my tires.
Dara: That's okay, I've seen it twice before.
Daria: Notice how she says she's seen it, not that she's done it?

Hours later, deer huddle in the woods out back. My sisters and I huddled around the kitchen table and ate a startlingly non-nutritious dinner of small foods one can only eat standing up. Darla and Dad awoke from much-needed naps to the puzzling sound of repeated thumping. Darla, who is Canadian and never even saw a gun until she came here, sticks her head out of the sickroom and asks, "What's that thud-thud-thud-ing?"

Us: Gunfire.
Darla: What?
Us: Gunfire.
Darla: It's gunfire, Dominic.
Daddy: Shit!

So when he ate a little soup, we were very happy.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Come Groovin' Up Slowly

Todd looked into the sink, annoyed.

Todd: Can you find me a set of allen wrenches?
Tata: Maybe. I'll take this side of the house. You take the porch and the basement.

A few days before, we didn't hear Dad calling from the living room, which scared the crap out of everyone. The next morning, we presented him with a hotel desk bell with which he could summon us and maintain his dignity. Apparently, Todd's annoyance and DIY plans psychically communicated to Dad's sickbed because as I put my hands on the wrenches, Dad's bell rang urgently. Todd sprinted to the living room. A minute later, Todd reappeared pushing Dad in a wheelchair to the affected sink. Todd had been ready to take the disposal apart for repairs. With a few impatient gestures, angry directions and a brief instructive lecture, Dad repaired the disposal. Todd stared, breathless. The whole episode did not exceed 8 or 9 minutes. Dad has what apprears to be an almost magical power to fix things, but of course, it's not a magical power. It's a half-dozen decades of working on machinery and equipment and cars and people used to do this themselves but don't so much anymore, so when Dad growls, slaps something and turns it expertly, a thing runs again, whatever it is. The problem for the last week has been that Dad doesn't realize how much he knows, and so when his four capable children had to occasionally step back for a second and figure out how something functioned, Dad became very, very impatient.

Dad: Can't you get the goddamn slide projector working?
Todd: If I push this button, will the tray fit the slot?
Dad: PUSH THE GODDAMN BUTTON! I could drop dead before we see Helsinki!

That night, Daria tugged on the dishwasher door and out rolled a cloud of icky, fishy odor. Inside, she found cloudy standing water and bailed it out, while Dara and I gagged helplessly and heckled. When the last of the water had gone down the drain, Daria and Todd pondered a broken dishwasher, clogged pipes and suddenly, we all knew at the same time.

Us: Freaking disposal!
Tata: This might not've happened if I hadn't poured out that crappy chowder and the bisque.
Tata: Yep.

The next morning, we were all sitting around Dad.

Daria: We have a funny story to tell you.
Dad: [laughs nervously]
Daria: Your dishwasher's not broken, and we're very pleased to it's not broken because we thought it might be.
Dad: Why did you think that?
Daria: Because of the stinky water in the bottom. These two threw me under the bus. Didn't help at all.
Tata: Well, someone had to handle nausea and we couldn't delegate.
Daria: I scooped out every drop of that disgusting mess, then we followed the pipes and - bingo!
Dad: It came from the disposal when we fixed it. I can't tell you how many hours I spent under that sink with a flashlight when we first moved here.
Daria: Exactly! So this is all her fault!
Dad: [laughing in earnest]
Tata: I was cleaning out the fridge and dumping liquids into the sink without watching which sink.
Daria: But did she help clean up her mess? Nooooo.
Tata: I didn't recognize my mess. You can't exactly dust for liquids.
Dad: [howling] Did you hear what your sister just said? "You can't exactly dust for liquids."
Tata: I paraphrased that fair and square.
Dad: Run the disposal once a day, crazy people.
Us: Yes, Dad.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

In A Coat He Borrowed From James Dean

Tata: As you know, my bathroom is full of products and I've been away from them a week and a half.
Dad: Good Lord! You're parching!
Tata: Exactly, so Dara and I went to the giant drugstore in Staunton.
Dad: Did they have what you were looking for?
Tata: Sort of. I've lost a little weight since I got here through a program of stress starvation and inspired sloth, so the pants that fit me when she and I left the house stretched a little during the drive and by the time we got to the drugstore, they were humongous.
Dad: Oops.
Tata: When I got out of the car, I sad, "Dara, our situation is critical. These pants are far too large for my rump and I lack a belt. If they should fall off, it is your job to play Point & Laugh. Further, if you do not snap a picture, Daria and Todd will never forgive you."
Dad: [laughing hysterically]
Tata: But that's not the end of it because I'd decided to dress like a grownup, which is always a mistake, and worn heels even though your driveway is gravel. So I said, "Further, if my heel gets caught in the cuff of these oversized pants, it is incumbent upon you to laugh hysterically when my face hits the floor. Can you do it?"
Dad: [laughing more hysterically]
Tata: So she was ready.
Dara: I had my camera phone in my hand the whole time.
Tata: I found this excellent shade of Dirty Whore Red nail polish I'm not displeased with, and we picked up a whole bunch of other things women need away from home for more than a week.
Dad: Like what? I've known a few women in my time...
Tata: Like tomorrow, your beautiful daughters are gonna Nair their mustaches.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

And I Notice It Turning

Daria is bailing an aromatic mess out of the dishwasher. I can't help because I'll puke. Todd is pouring red wine, as Dara and Todd's wife Bette double team a toddler whose uncharacteristic whining is driving us all to distraction. Daddy's sleeping. The baby's sleeping. Darla is upstairs, sorting out a computer issue. The house is quiet. Tapestry plays softly on the kitchen stereo. About once a day, I try to get out and read the blogosphere, but it's hard for me to follow a story for more than a paragraph or two. My family speaks frankly about lots of things.

Random Sibling: Whatcha doin'?
Tata: Flirting with a handsome man I've never met.
RS: Awesome. Has he noticed your magical powers?
Tata: I give it six weeks before he's humming the theme from Mary Poppins in the shower.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

What It Will Double As

When the hospice case manager arrives, Dad is sitting in a wheelchair. I am still shocked. Yesterday, I turned a corner at a dead run when Daddy called and found him sitting up on the edge of his bed with feet on the floor. I didn't know he could sit up, let alone assume a position so close to standing, so when he said, "I'd like the wheelchair," my mind went blank. Yesterday, he told me confidentially that anything he did with his arms and legs tired him. Today, he stood up, leaned at a carefully calculated angle and sat down in the wheelchair. Dad's nothing if not precise. So when the hospice manager, who knows her stuff but not her local celebrities, arrived and Dad was sitting in a wheelchair at the kitchen table, I watched from a distance until he spoke to me, pointing.

Dad: Bring me that canteloupe.

Of all the characters in this drama, I have known him longest, now that Auntie InExcelsisDeo has gone back to New Jersey to see a physician. I can see he's up to something, but because he's utterly brilliant, I can't see what. I bring him the canteloupe picked by my baby sister on our shopping trip together. I can't pick a melon for Daddy. It's not that Dara can do no wrong, but it's not that I'm doing much right. For example: a few nights ago, Dad, his wife Darla and I were up late and inexplicably alone. For three unexpected hours, I sat at the foot of his bed, thinking and working out problems. I listened to what Dad had successfully eaten, perused the list of foods he'd tried and had some luck with, and out of nowhere said, "Daddy, do you want me to make you some yogurt?" He thought for a minute, knowing I meant from scratch and heavy cream, and nodded. That and cream soups were all he could eat - sometimes. It's been puzzling. Dara and I went shopping for Bookbinder's bisques in the local higher end food store and came up snake eyes until we hit the organics aisle, where we found chowders and cream soups of less than fantastic quality but better than we expected. It was really confusing to be despondent and overjoyed simultaneously, but what else was new?

So we went back to Dad's and Darla's, where I milk-boiled heavy cream, cooled it to 120 degrees and added plain yogurt. Then I set the culture up in a bowl in a dining room of uncertain temperature. Then I fretted for ten hours, when the culture had not become yogurt. Sure, it was tasty, but it was heavy cream. Mortified, I started over, and it didn't work a second time. I had to have a talk with me.

Tata: So, uh, whatcha doin'?
Tata: I've got to make yogurt and Dad's going to be really mad.
Tata: He's always really mad. That's his hobby.
Tata: You're right. I don't know why I didn't think of that.
Tata: Because he's going to be really mad, no matter how good the yogurt.

Dad's upset and frustrated because food's been the second half of his life and now cancer has left a sewage-y taste in his mouth. It's like a joke played on him by bored gods and has nothing to do with me. Even so, as Dad loses weight like crazy, his children are left to play Next Meal Charades. After my brother Todd arrived, he spent one evening watching his female relatives eat bread and olive oil for dinner and took charge. Last night for dinner, we had Todd's California version of chicken and polenta. Tonight, we had Todd's version of pork chops and apple sauce - isn't that swell? And Dad's frustrated by the smells of food he'd like to taste and enjoy, but cancer is a bitch. Yesterday, Todd and I microwaved a couple of cream soups for Dad, and he at some bread. We counted ourselves lucky that he swallowed anything at all, but then, the hospice case manager arrived this morning. Fortunately, I'd already spent a few minutes with him and Darla alone. I came clean.

Tata: So, remember when you asked me to make yogurt? I set the whole thing up, as I do for myself every week, and it didn't take, so I set it up again a second time and - nada. I decided to blame the whole thing on the yogurt until I remembered a funny thing.
Dad: [Waving a hand to hasten the story.]
Tata: About ten years ago, my friend's mother had a heart attack and I made rice pudding. At the time, I could make rice pudding up and down the block, no sweat. Anyway, it turned out so dense and dry I could've flattened Cuban sandwiches under it.
Dad: [Smiling very broadly now.]
Tata: So I learned I can't cook when I'm upset, no matter how often I redo a recipe. Last night, I wasn't upset, and the yogurt turned out beautifully. It's creamy and fantastic, and if you want some, it's ready. I had to do it a third time because I couldn't admit I was outwitted by yogurt.
Darla: "That Ta is a lovely woman but not as smart as yogurt."
Dad: [Deep laughter.]

So when he asks me for the canteloupe, I gather it and a draining cutting board. He points toward a knife rack and a particular knife. I hand him the brown, wooden handle knife with an unusual blade. He notes that we've cleaned his kitchen and placed a restaurant towel under a large cutting board at his right hand. He is pleased but mildly surprised. He talks to me in little words, breaths and gestures as he holds a conversation with the hospice case manager, who may not have noticed my presence. Then an amazing thing happens: in a beautiful gesture with the knife, he slices the canteloupe at a truly strange angle and no juice runs out. I'm baffled but not surprised. I know that he can do anything. She does not. He admonishes me: "Don't scrape out the seeds. Remove them gently."

HCM: Why? What does that mean?
Tata: I don't know but if we're quiet, he'll tell us.
HCM: Give him a piece from the center! That's what I do with a watermelon!
Dad and I: It's round.
HCM: That's the sweetest part!
Tata: Um...

I slice Dad a piece, which he half-way takes apart with a paring knife in clean, precise motions. It's not a mystery to me, but I know that not everyone will understand. I wait quietly in a corner of the room, then say, "I'm going to take a shower now, if that's okay with you."

Dad says without looking, "Don't worry, everything's under control here."

Monday, March 12, 2007

You Look Good To Me

Suddenly, the kitchen fills with smoke. Everyone glances around wildly, shouting, "What the hell...?" My sisters, asthmatics both, run for the back door, on the heels of my cousin Monday, who saw smoke and knew the next thing that'd happen if she didn't make a break for it would be waking up in the emergency room. Todd's children don't make a peep, as Todd and I suddenly realize Auntie InExcelsisDeo is staring at us dolefully from the corner by the microwave. She pulls a restaurant tea towel from the microwave, and shakes it. We observe four burned spots, one of which is just a little bit on fire. Still looking at us, Auntie slaps the flames and points at us. Todd and I burst out laughing.

Us: Did you wet that towel before you miked it?
Auntie: I don't know what you're talking about.

She twirls the towel, wraps it around her neck and sits down solidly.

When everyone stops puking off the back porch and Todd and I have long since turned a charming hypoxia blue, someone says, and no one knows who, "Someday, we're going to tell stories that start, 'Remember when Daddy was dying and...'"

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Back On the Chain Gang

Dad and Darla are overwhelmed by the prayer-filled response of people who are offended by their atheism.

Bow bow bow bow bow.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Run, Run Away, Hey!

Last night, we smelled something odd in Dad's and Darla's house and panic ensued. By "we" I mean that Dad noticed a strange smell and informed Darla that the oil tank might be empty. By "panic" I mean what followed was an absolutely cinematic exercise resembling nothing so much as water ballet. Cue the swimmers!

Oompah pah oompah pah! Oompah pah oompah pah!

My son-in-law Mr. Sasha and Dad's second wife Summer's third husband Clay waltzed through the kitchen. One of my sisters retrieved a flashlight. A kitchen full of women sipped white wine. Daria and Summer paged through the phone book. Where, oh where was the tank, the tank?

Oompah pah oompah pah! Oompah pah oompah pah!

The tank, the tank, the tank has seven inches. The charge, the charge, the charge for emergency delivery. We don't know what to do, and Daddy's asleep!

This morning, I realized that, dazzled by the glare off the tiaras, no one resolved the oil situation. Daria wanted to discuss our options with Daddy before we did anything. I had a sneaking suspicion that if he were healthy, every last one of his assembled relatives would have had Dad's boot print on her ass. So this morning, he and I conferred.

Tata: Clay determined the tank had seven inches of oil. The oil company felt we probably wouldn't need more oil before a scheduled delivery on Tuesday. We don't know your tank, though, or the house's normal oil consumption.
Dad: You didn't take care of this last night?
Tata: Daria wanted to ask you what you wanted to do.

Yes, I completely threw her under the bus.

Dad: When the oil runs out, the house is going to go stone cold. What's going to happen then?
Tata: It won't happen, Dad. We'll take care of it.
Dad: Do me a goddamn favor and go take care of this right now.

At the doorway, I pointed to my sister-in-law Bette and said, "Why don't you go in and say hello? He's in a great mood," which might've been a shitty thing to do if she'd just spent a full day on airplanes with two children under three, but I'm not a nice person and - damn it - nobody'd thrown her under the bus yet today. As she disappeared into the sick chamber, I turned on my heel and sent Mr. Sasha off to find the fast-moving and focused Daria, who stared at me briefly, swished her mane of spiral curly hair and marched off to find the oil company's phone number. I almost felt sorry for whoever told her no, she couldn't have whatever her heart desired - almost, but I'm not a nice person and you should've seen that coming.

It was about this time Dad got to see my brother Todd for the first time since Todd, Bette and the two children under three arrived late last night from Los Angeles. Earlier in the week, I worried Dad wouldn't live this long, but illness has not changed Dad's iron will and sense of badass decorum: there was no real way Dad was going to kick off before he talked with each of his children and saw the seven-month-old grandson who'd carry on the family name. Todd, who had not seen the parade of his sisters, aunt, cousins, and stepmothers burst into tears all day, every day, seemed to keep cool, and when he wasn't upset, gradually Todd's relatives drifted into the living room until the room was full and Dad seemed to be holding an audience. I didn't really notice what was happening at first, because I was sitting at the end of his bed, with my hand on Dad's leg. Daria was sitting on the other side of Dad's legs. Dara was sitting behind us on an adjacent couch. Todd's wife sat holding the baby on Dad's portable commode. Todd stood right behind her. Summer sat on the couch behind me. Miss Sasha sat at Dad's right hand, and Mr. Sasha sat next to Summer, whose new husband stood in the doorway. Auntie InExcelsisDeo sat on a recliner behind Daria. A friend of Daria's named Zippy sat behind Miss Sasha, who said, "Grandpa, please tell us the story of the Crisco and cornflakes."

This is the story of the morning Todd was born, and it is our favorite. Miss Sasha held a digital recorder. Todd set up a video recorder. If I'm especially lucky, I'll be able to post this video so you can see it, but until that time, here's what you must visualize: Dad tells us the story and it is somehow different from what I've ever heard because it is always different each time from what I've ever heard. We let the differences go and no one argues. The story is hilarious: on April 1, 1966, Todd was born at Stupid O'Clock in the morning and Dad came home from St. Peter's Hospital. When he woke up in the morning and sat up, he knew something was wrong when he put his feet down on his bedroom floor and felt a CRUNCH. I was three years and two months old. Daria was less than two. We'd decided to make Daddy breakfast and poured out every spice, powder and goo in the kitchen. I was the intrepid planner and climber, and no cabinet was left unopened and emptied. As two little Italian girls, Daria and I had long, dark hair, which stood up in cornflake-filled mohawks. Neighbors heard the screaming and rescued us. There was concerted cleaning and scouring and Grandma - the hairdresser - washed our hair with Spic-N-Span. Aren't you glad you stayed tuned to this channel?

This was all very funny, but somehow we got on the subject of baby brothers as science projects and Daria told a story Dad had never heard before about Daria and I replacing Todd's Halloween Chiklets with FeenAMints. As Daria told this story, a man I'd never seen before dragged a giant hose across Dad's lawn and disappeared behind Dad's forest of bonsai trees. And just as Daria remembered weighing FeenA Mints as Chiklets vs. trying to pass off chocolate stamped ExLax as Hershey's, the man dragged the hose back to a truck I couldn't see. So the heating problem was solved, and as Dad's father used to say: "Everybody out of the pool!"

Friday, March 09, 2007

My Fear Around Me Like A Blanket

Atticus is the new cat in the house. He stays mostly in Dad's office when he is not eating or wandering around outside. Earlier today, Atticus decided the power cord on my laptop looked especially delicious and I realized suddenly: the people of the four resident cats are busy with the drama of life and death; these cats are bored, lonely and confused by the presence of an allergic family. Even people who sneeze can twirl string, and if the cats are happier, Darla will be happier, and if Darla is happier, Dad will be happier. So we're going to play with these cats if it costs us a whole county's ration of Zyrtec.

I bet you're wondering how I came to be here.

On Monday, I got home from work and spent an hour arguing with a trucking company about the sofa I ordered. The trucking company said it was good news/bad news regarding my sofa. The good news was my couch was coming on Wednesday. Believe it or not, the bad news was they'd bring the sofa to the foyer of my building but not the additional 25 feet to my living room. I told them they should be ashamed of themselves. There were many phone calls back and forth and someplace, during a moment I wasn't cursing someone's ancestors, Daria called and told me Dad had been sent home from the hospital to die and we were going to Virginia, all of us. I burst into tears and told her I should go with someone who'd gone before, since I didn't know my way around Staunton and Swoope, Virginia. After a flurry of phone calls, it was decided I'd leave Monday night with Auntie InExcelsisDeo and my cousin Sandy. We'd drive down to Sandy's sister Monday's house and leave the next morning for the Shenandoah Valley. Once that was decided, there were a lot more calls to make. My dentist and orthodontist would notice my absence, for instance. The family store would look a little empty without me. And my job. I think they'd notice if I didn't turn up Tuesday morning to do my daily half hour of scathing pre-coffee stand up comedy. What about the damn couch?

Siobhan promised to take care of the whole sofa delivery thing for me. Monday afternoon, she sat on my filthy living room couch and issued directives while I walked around in circles, sobbing and bumping into things. This is called "packing".

Siobhan: You're laying out your clothes, right?
Tata: Waaaaaaaaaaah!
Siobhan: Bras. Take some bras.
Tata: Waaaaaaaaaah! Check!
Siobhan: Socks?
Tata: Waaaaaaaaaaaaah! Yup.
Siobhan: Sweaters? Sweat shirts? T-shirts?
Tata: Sniff! Sniff! Got 'em.
Siobhan: Pants to sleep in. Pants to look like a normal person in. Pants for the feed store.
Tata: Waaaaaaaaaaaah! If you say so.
Siobhan: Products? Because even though they have drug stores out there, you like to smell like you.
Tata: It reassures me. I don't have to keep checking my underwear labels to see who I am.
Siobhan: That may prove important. Especially since I know you didn't pack any.

Siobhan drove me down to Auntie's house, where Sandy poured me three fingers of gin because my job in the car was to sit in the back seat and NOT throw up. We drove like Jehu to Monday's house in Somewherethehell, Maryland. Sandy poured me some more gin because my job was to go to sleep, in which effort I was briefly successful. When I woke up at 3:30, I was freezing in a strange bedroom filled with wedding pictures. It gave me the heebie jeebies. We set out for the valley by 9:30: four of us in a Honda hybrid with indefinite travel plans and wide-eyes terror. The night before, a block away from Monday's house, Sandy saw an upended vehicle next to the car and said, "Mom, is that real?" Auntie said, "That's real. Those people are going to help them and we are leaving." Tuesday morning, as we drove to Virginia, I was so frightened I could barely speak in between episodes where I couldn't shut up. But reality is seldom what I think it is, and when we arrived at Dad's and Darla's house, we found Dad looking and sounding - and we were deeply shocked - like Dad: witty, charming, abrasive, foul-mouthed. How could he be so sick that all bets were off? A few hours later, Daria and Tyler arrived, then Miss and Mr. Sasha. We each spent a little time alone with him until he was tired and needed sleep. My sister Dara is fifteen, and kind of numb. Her mother took Dara out of school temporarily, but it's hard to know how to help Dara. I'm not sure I know how to help myself.

Wednesday, Siobhan told me my brother-in-law Dan was sitting in my apartment, with his two small children, waiting for that sofa. It was snowing in New Jersey. By that time, I couldn't have cared less if Dan had given that sofa a Raritan River Viking funeral. Thursday, Sharkey, Dom and Siobhan dragged the old sofa to the dumpster. The new sofa, described by Dan as "bordello red" and by Sharkey and Dom as "fire, walk with me red" waits for me in my empty apartment. I don't know when I'll see it, but I'm grateful it's there.

My brother will arrive here at Dad's and Darla's soon. We've taken to buying huge bottles of wine and leaving them outside in the shade because otherwise there'd be no room in the fridge for more than a few eggs. The other night, we made a toast, all of us, including Dad: to us, to life, to love!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Move the Slow Hand

I'm sitting on the floor of Dad's office with a fuzzy orange cat named Atticus. We are surrounded by cookbooks. If I haven't mentioned it, food and food writing are Dad's thing. Friends Dad made on food and wine lists are calling and writing, and Darla's reading letters and blog comments to him. The two of them are deeply touched by what people are saying. Dad, who has always enjoyed the idea that he is loved and reviled equally, is surprised by the outpouring of affection. I keep asking if that's Stage One of his Eeeeeeeevil Plan.

No one knows how long we'll be here. Today, Dad's second wife's mother sent us rotisserie chickens and cole slaw. Time has slowed down to a crawl. It took me almost half an hour this morning to put milk and coffee into a cup. Seeing Kelly Ripa on a TV in the Staunton, Virginia Howard Johnson's was oddly comforting.

The house is filled with bottles of wine Dad's had for ages. They're like a travelogue of his life I can't read except to say I can see that the journey was far from ordinary. We are making lists now of the things we want, and my heart is in my throat. The posterboards he brought back from living in Europe have always signalled for me We are at Dad's house and I love them. Other than those posters, I can't say what thing will remind me of some important moment until I see it, and this house is full of things to see.

Dad is sleeping. In some corner of the house, documents were drawn up and signed. My two sisters drove off to find and pay the garbage haulers to haul off yesterday's frozen condiments. Miss Sasha, the only one of us intent on making a career in food service, is looking through the cookbooks for treasures. Atticus naps at my feet, but he is not convinced that all is well. We have shared a glass of water.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Not Real, This Is Not Really Happening

The best idea I've had all week involved less thinking.

Tata: Darla, can I get you a glass of wine?

I have to guess for a minute: it's Wednesday? It's Wednesday. Dad relocated from the couch to a rented hospital bed in the living room, which is good because he's more comfortable. His liver is failing and it's terminal. I have no idea how long something like that takes to kill a person but he looks pretty damn good. I said so.

Tata: Dad, you look pretty damn good.
Dad: Don't believe it.

He's always been a good actor. Most of my family is here at Dad's and Darla's house. We are kind of climbing all over one another and anxious to help. This morning, Auntie InExcelsisDeo, who is taking this very hard, needed to get out of the house for a bit so she and I walked to the end of the driveway. It's about a mile and a half. We returned to find my sister Daria and her husband Tyler directing the assembled cousins, siblings and spouses in a hive-like effort to clean up Dad's half-finished oils and vinegars for the spring market season.

Tata: What are you doing?
Daria: Dad said, "Lazy people! Get off your saggy butts and go clean frozen shit out of the garage!"
Tata: Good thing freakish upper body strength is apparently genetic.

We dragged milk crates and boxes out of the garage and into the driveway, which is an absolutely great idea because the house is in the Shenandoah Valley. The backyard, if you can call it a backyard, is a cow path. A little while ago I was talking on the phone to a friend and made eye contact with a passing cow, which seldom happens in New Brunswick - I mean it, almost never. Last night, on our way up the lengthy driveway, nine, ten, maybe a dozen deer crossed our path, staring at us. They were not afraid. Darla said the deer live here because Dad doesn't shoot them, so it's personal. Up here, in this section of the valley near Staunton, Virginia, wildlife is right outside the door, munching on something. Fortunately, we've left it frost-damaged condiments.

Tonight, we sat with Dad in the living room, all of us: his wife, his second wife, three of this daughters, his sister, his two nieces, his son-in-law, his granddaughter, his grandson-in-law. My brother and his family will arrive Friday morning. Tonight, I sat on the end of his bed, with my hand on his leg. My baby sister Dara, all of fifteen, sat on the other side, touching his other leg. My other sister Daria was holding his hand. Daria directed the conversation for about an hour, and it was so funny we were all crying from laughter, even Dad. This is what he has always liked best about the family: we are a riot, an utter riot. In an unguarded moment, we were all telling on each other, which I had never imagined happening, not even with a special prosecutor.

Tata: We've all got GOODYEAR stamped on our asses from being thrown under the bus.

We agreed that one of our finest moments as a group was Miss Sasha's bridal shower, which Dad catered, and it really was. Dad could hardly breathe, he was laughing so hard. We all held our collective breath for a second, though he was smiling broadly.

Dad: Spaghettios!
Tata: What?

Everyone remembered at once. Dad and Daria are catering professionals. They'd built a banquet table of considerable Italian charm and elegance. Rustic touches lay everywhere, like artisan loaves of bread and decorative grasses. Because Dad is a prankster of the first order: a bain marie tray of Spaghettios.

Everyone: Spaghtettios!

A few minutes later, Darla closed the doors to the living room to let Dad sleep. Everyone's in the kitchen, laughing and crying. I don't have to see it to know. I know. And my heart aches.

Monday, March 05, 2007

It'll turn Your Head Around

I'm leaving tonight and I don't know when I'll be back.

This Is Not A Love Song

Dance first. Think later. It's the natural order.
- Samuel Beckett.

For me, the answers have always been in the body. My solution to emotional distress has always been lifting weights or dancing or calisthenics or cycling or athletic sex. When I am acting like myself, if I am miserable and in motion, I'm working through it. One of the lessons of depression was that my body, which had turned on me before, could betray me completely in the form of bad brain chemistry. Subsequently, I discovered I could also fatten up alarmingly. When I look at myself now and think I should lose 25 pounds, I feel betrayed, but wonder by whom?

The human body is a leaky vessel.
- Ta

This morning, Mom emailed the family an NPR journal by Larry Sievers called My Cancer, pointing in particular to paragraphs 2-4. I was unfamiliar with Mr. Sievers or the journal. Let's see:

I've been a journalist virtually my entire adult life. I've also been a baker, a short-order cook, a chicken delivery boy. I've taught. I dabbled in the human rights world briefly. I tried and failed to write a book. All that seems dwarfed by the cancer.

You'll hear cancer patients say it over and over again: "I am not my disease." But this beast has a way of forcing everything else into the background, if not out of your life completely.

Now I find myself about to embark on another part of this strange journey. I have been undergoing a relatively new procedure called Radio Frequency Ablation. They stick a needle into your lung, your liver, wherever the tumor is. The needle actually pierces the tumor. Then they burn it out from the inside. Kill it. Something that people undergoing chemo can only dream of. I've seen the scans, seen the black holes where my tumors were.

At first, I thought we were talking about Mom's identity as a cancer survivor. This interested me because it would never occur to me now to identify myself by my disease or malady since my seeking treatment for depression was an abject failure. So I wondered if Mom, who wears a Live Strong bracelet, was referring to Mr. Sievers' thoughts two paragraphs later:

And when that's done, when the last tumor has been turned into ash, what am I then? Will I be somebody who used to have cancer? I think most cancer patients don't ever think it's really gone. It's just hiding, waiting to jump out and scare us when we least expect it. Will I be able to resume my old life? To rebuild my battered body into what it was before? I don't know. But I know this disease has changed me dramatically in so many ways. I am a different person. Hopefully a better person. You cannot go through an ordeal like this and not be profoundly affected.

If I'm cancer free, does that mean I'm not part of cancer world, the community in which I have found so much comfort and strength? I don't know the answers to any of these questions. I just know that once again I will be a stranger in a strange land. But I will still be someone whose life was changed in every way by the monster we call cancer.

But Mom wasn't thinking of herself. Maybe the experimental treatment might help Dad, she thought, which is remarkable. At times, Mom and Dad have had the most acrimonious divorce I've ever seen. Then again, Dad's heart attack caused Mom a lot of sorrow. Who knows what the failure of another's body may mean to us?

I spent hours yesterday afternoon dancing, which is to say stepping inside music to get out of my brain. After the hysterectomy years ago, I woke up to find my doctor sleeping in a chair at the foot of my bed. My surgery had not gone as planned, and he was worried. I wanted to go home, so I sat up in bed without using my hands. He said should have been impossible - except I just didn't believe my body was weak, so it wasn't. And though I am in pain nearly all the time to some degree, as arthritic people may be, I cannot see myself as anything but temporarily inconvenienced. Pain is not important. Dancing is everything, is life.

What am I to do, then, with the frailties of other bodies in the quiet of time?

Saturday, March 03, 2007

I'll Take A Little Or I'll Take A Lot

I made the mistake of waking up happy this morning. The sun was shining, NBC-TV promised 55 degrees, and I felt pretty good, so I was completely pissed that I had nothing to complain about. Damn it. I expect a certain level of flavorful misery, and if things are looking up, I'm waiting for pigeon poop. Perplexed, I left the apartment at noon, walked to town, to the library, where I retrieved something I'd left at work yesterday, then I walked to the health food store. By then, my hair was floating above my head like a fuzzy bronze cloud and my eyes were so irritated by something in the air I was trying to walk up Route 27 with my eyes closed. Fortunately, I spent my childhood pretending I was Helen Keller, so even that was nothing to complain about, but I arrived at the health food store determined to discuss homeopathic medicines for wanting to kill your sister and found the Chinese medicine practitioners missing. Only a teenage boy was evident, and he wastes his youth pretending not to follow me through the store. I like him. He's very sweet. But I'm not having a conversation with him like -

Tata: Do you have a homeopathic remedy for when my sister is a complete bitch?
Boy: Only if she's imaginary, and we'd need third party confirmation of that, ma'am.

- so I walked across the street in the glorious sunlight to the Extortion Mart and couldn't find baking pans. At last, something to complain about, and not even finding foil pans stopped me. I'll be baking every week. I might need pans - and no one should forget it!

Two and a half hours after I left the house, I arrived home and checked messages. Daria and I had talked on the phone twice before noon, but she's nothing if not thorough.

Daria: Darla updated the blog, they're getting ready to leave the hospital and Fifi needs a nap. Peace out, dog.

Though I was desperate to talk with Dad again, I took my cue from the toddler and lay down for a nap. Dad and Darla would need some time to settle in, I thought. Some time passed -

...feelings! nothing more than feelings! trying to forget my...

- and after the musical interlude, I called Dad's house.

Tata: I'm relieved that you're home from the hospital.
Dad: So you are crazed with worry?
Tata: I'm keeping my cards close to my vest. Speaking of my vest, there's a man resisting my otherworldly appeal. If you will.
Dad: Is he exceptionally stupid?
Tata: Thanks, Daddy! I'll call you tomorrow.

I've got no complaints at all.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Friday Music Blogging: Gut Check Edition

If I would, could you?

Sometime, I'll tell you a long, strange story. You're shocked - shocked! - I have yet another.


Fly the Finger, Yeah

We're having an office cleaning day! I'm wearing sweats because I anticipate climbing on top of and under things. The comfy clothes proved less comfy than usual when I got to work this morning completely soaked because cotton jersey absorbs water like you wouldn't believe, especially when you crouch down and make yourself a nice, round target. This morning, another of my tires was flat, though I can't remember if that makes Flat No.5 or 6. I'm having a pretty good day so I'm telling you: you haven't lived until you've inflated a tire in a forty degree driving rain.