Living, Dying, and Repeating

So… I was torn as to whether or not I was actually going to post this. I wrote it as a bit of a coping mechanism after my trip back home last weekend. It’s pretty raw, emotionally (and grammatically, I won’t lie), but there’s a lot of stuff in here that needed to be let out.

I hope you will all read it for what it is, and maybe some of it will make sense to you in the context of your own lives.

And so, without any further ado…

I took a trip to Texas this past weekend. It wasn’t unlike a trip I took five years ago next month. Then, my mother was in the hospital in very bad shape. (link to that post) Around four months later, she was gone.

This time, I was visiting my father. A career smoker, he got past lung cancer a couple of years ago—after surviving a bout with his existing heart condition (cardiac ablation, anyone?) a couple years before that—but early this year, as it so often does, the cancer came back.

With a vengeance.

It had spread beyond the lungs, and faced with the prospect of another go-round with Chemo and Radiation at age 78, my father said, “Nope.”

Three to six months.

Three to six months.

That’s what the doctor told him he had left, given his decision and his other, unrelated, health factors.

Three to six months.

Now ask when I found out about it? Go ahead; ask. I’ll wait.

Thank you for asking. I found out less than a month ago, when my brothers (who live in the same shit-hole west Texas town as my dad) told me.

After dad told them… two months after the doctor told him.

The discussion was had as to when I should come down, of course. Sooner rather than later? Was he doing well enough to actually plan said trip, instead of me just hopping on the first available airplane?

My younger brother was the most convincing in his assessment that “well, dad’s okay as far as he tells us,” which is code amongst the three of us for “he doesn’t tell us shit.”

Hence, the uber-short-suspense trip to Texas.

At this point, it would be remiss of me to not thank American Airlines for trying to make me miss their connecting flight in Dallas by departing Salt Lake City 45 minutes late, managing to then arrive only 5 minutes late, but subsequently failing to ensure they had a ground crew notified of their updated, basically-on-time, arrival, so making me wait 10 extra minutes on the plane until they could move the jet-way, thus turning my 65 minute layover into a 45 minute layover, with a change of terminals (which, if you’ve travelled through Dallas-Fort Worth airport, you know is no easy thing).

I did finally arrive at my destination—5 minutes early, of course—and spent the night in my little brother’s spare bedroom, and the next day we picked up our older brother and headed over to see the old man.

Now, my father is not—and has never been—an emotionally exuberant man, but, at the age of 78 and in the face of impending death, he felt compelled to completely stick to this “modus operandi” and not talk about the fact we are all waiting for him to die.

If that sounds callous, realize two things:

First, when I say my father isn’t “emotionally exuberant,” I mean it. Sensible, even-keeled (until his mightily long fuse actually burns out, at which point his temper is a wonder to behold, if you consider fearing for your life a wonder); he never actually seems to get phased about much at all, except maybe someone telling him he’s wrong about something.

A proud man, my father.

Second: it is callous. Incredibly so. I make no bones about it. For all the fact that I love the man (despite everything I’m sure I’ll talk about shortly), he and my mother did impart an overpowering sense of pragmatism into their children. When we were kids, we weren’t rich… we were poor. Very poor. Dad worked two or three jobs at a time, mom worked when she needed to, and her mom moved in with us to watch us kids so mom could work all the time. That was just the way it was.

Like I said: pragmatic.

I think, as the middle child, I handle it better than my brothers, for a multitude of reasons.

First, I left that town (and thus, them) in 1989, and I rarely went back. I mean, I was stationed nearby for my first year in the Air Force, and my wife was stationed elsewhere, so I drove home (3 hours) nearly every weekend to visit—not my parents, mind you, but my younger brother and our mutual friends. After that first year, though, I simply wasn’t in a position to come home that often, and my parents didn’t travel much, so our visits were less than infrequent. We did drive 24 hours from Utah shortly after our daughter was born, so her grandparents could meet her, but other than that, face time with them was basically non-existent till much later in their lives.

My wife and my mother never really got along, for reasons I won’t go into here, as they’re not important to this particular discussion, but suffice it to say, when you don’t feel welcome someplace, why would you want to go there?

My older brother (also military) and his wife were much closer, emotionally, to my mother. Those girls just flat-out got along, and so they visited pretty often, especially since my sister-in-law was a Texas native anyway, and the few trips my parents took often ended at their home, wherever they were stationed. My dad’s job and my brother’s assignment even put them both in Oklahoma for a time, so they saw each other frequently during that period, as well.

When my brother retired from the military 6-7 years ago, they moved back to Texas to help my mom, as she was starting to go downhill, health-wise.

My younger brother, conversely, stayed in that town, went to school, got a job, and eventually became a CPA, rising through the ranks of various local companies until reaching his current position, which has put him in a pretty decent position in life.


The point is, my younger brother has had to deal with my parents (together, now just dad) every single day of his life in that town. He has seen every house, car, trip, argument, health scare, and other situation come and go with them. Every single personality quirk and defect has been there for his viewing. He has, as a result, become somewhat inured to the shenanigans which surrounded them over the years.

To a lesser degree, my older brother has, as well. The more regular interactions between them over the years, coupled with his choice of retirement locations, allowed some resignation to the way our parents were has inevitably crept in, dulling certain, normal sensations he might otherwise have felt.

Clearly, my absence didn’t strengthen my relationship with my parents: out of sight, out of mind. But it certainly led me to the same point of view: they are the way they are. Not my problem.

Does that make me a bad son? Maybe. I guess? But truth be told, there’s enough fault here to go around, trust me.

Don’t get me wrong; I cannot over-emphasize the respect I have for my brothers, doing what they’ve done and choosing to be there for our parents.

Do I wish they’d made other choices and lived more of their lives for themselves? Absolutely. But I can only live my own life, not anyone else’s.

I love my little brother more today than I did when we were inseparable children. My relationship with my older brother is better now than then, because we share a common life in the military. Are those relationships perfect? Hell, no. But they’re actual, functioning relationships.

But let’s get back to this weekend.

The first thing dad did was remind us how great the facility he lives in now is; how well they take care of him, etc. He’s got his game days (always competitive, my dad), movies, good food, etc. He’s been there long enough that even I’ve seen the place before, so this was really just a load of expositional delay for actual conversation about why we were there.

He told us his computer was acting up—or not, actually; it wasn’t working—so I spent some time troubleshooting that, only to decide we needed to take it to my little brother’s house to look at more (we took it back the next day, fixed). The four of us talked about politics, and I’ve decided I’m the least conservative of the four of us, probably closer to moderate overall, than anyone else (that will probably shock some of my Facebook friends to no end, lol). We talked football (Steelers and Cowboys, naturally: I hate the ‘Boys). We talked golf (it was on TV). We talked about shit that happened when we still lived in Pennsylvania, thirty-five-plus years ago.

We talked about a ton of shit.

“Cancer” wasn’t on the menu.

Why would it be? I mean, it’s not really important, right?

A few hours later, it was time for his dinner, so we said goodnight and left him to his own devices. I threw him a “love you, pop.”

Without a response.

I should note here, that I had every intention, on this trip, of talking, really talking, with my dad, about all the things that had gone on, been said and unsaid, done and not done, over the last 30 years or so. How I might have disappointed him, but how he had certainly disappointed me. How angry he’d made me. How much I hated having to come back down there to that shit-hole town, not because I wanted to, but because I had to.

I wanted to ask him if I’d ever made him proud, with my military career, having my (albeit minor) writing published, with my wife and my daughter. I wanted to ask him that because he’d never said it. Never even implied it.

I told him I got promoted to Technical Sergeant (E6). His response: “When do you get to go for Master (E7)?”

I brought him a copy of the last anthology I had a story published in, a story I was really happy with, one that I thought said something, and asked him what he thought: “Too many bad words.”

I wanted to ask him these things, to raise my voice, to hear him say he was sorry, something

But I sat in his living room, chatting about nothing, and realized I wasn’t going to ask him any of those things, say any of those things.

Because they didn’t matter.

They mattered to me, of course.

But not him. They wouldn’t. I don’t know if they could matter to him. Ever.

I realized, finally, after 47 years on this planet, that my problem isn’t that I don’t understand my father, it’s that I understand him completely.

This is the way he is. Maybe because of his upbringing, he never thought to let us enjoy the moment, because for his entire life, he never got to. As one of thirteen siblings, he was constantly looking to survive the next moment, then the next, or five or ten or twenty moments down the line…

Never here. Never now. Never happy. At least from my vantage point.

At some point in my life, I learned to enjoy the moment, to see what was happening here and now, but still not lose sight of what is to come. I’ve done this with the help of my (amazingly understanding) wife, and the inspiration of my daughter, who (despite my not being the best father to early on) made me realize that tomorrow always comes at the expense of today, and not vice-versa.

The moments are what are truly important in life.

This past weekend, I spent many hours with my dad, but those were just that: hours. Seconds ticking by in an interminable series of ticks, of tocks, and of the gaps in between. In the end, they’ll be lumped together into one single “moment” during the final reckoning of days. A moment I needed, maybe more than he did.

On my last night there, as we were leaving his place, I said again, “I love you, pop,” because I do, despite all of it. Despite everything he’s ever not said and not done, he’s still my dad.

His response? “Okay.”

“Okay,” as if there are going to be countless more moments ahead, when he knows, better than us, this is as untrue an idea as any ever conceived by man. The moments, his moments, are fleeting, flying faster now than any bird, any plane, any celestial body in the universe.

Flying past; unstoppable, relentless.

Callous? Yes.

That is the example I’ve had set for me.

But I choose—I. Choose.—to aim that callousness backward, to its source, to let it die there, and not plunge forward to my future, my daughter, that she might say, when I reach my own end, “I love you, pop,” and get far more than an “okay” in response.

Or better yet, to have her not have to wonder.

So there you go. That’s it.

Comment if you’d like. Share if you feel you must.

And, please, for the love of the deity of your choice–or just because–hug your children.

The Woodring Men, Pennsylvania 2013
The Woodring Men, Pennsylvania 2013

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