Saturday, July 05, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 5

The first pages of that first red notebook from my sister Anne are ruled by my dying father’s pencil into rows and columns, looking for all the world like the cells of a computer spreadsheet application, VisiCalc, for example, usually considered the first spreadsheet, which came along a half-dozen years after my father’s death and revolutionized the keeping and analysis of data. He would have loved to have been there at the dawn of the personal computer age—when the Commodore PET and the Apple II appeared in 1979. He was a slide rule man—he owned several slide rules, linear and circular—and just missed the arrival of the first electronic pocket calculators. I would guess he would have been one of the first to grasp how quickly slide rules would become obsolete, and his death-bed journals, with their spreadsheet-like tabulations of data, suggest he would have been quick to have had a personal computer at work and at home—and at his hospital bedside.

What went into the cells of his “spreadsheets”? Horizontally, the days; vertically, the hours. He carefully entered: the times he received each medication, with notes on pain and sense of well-being. A code for each medication. PK=painkiller. C=cortisone (a steroid hormone). V=Valium. SP=sleeping pill. Then there was the morphine, and the laxative—a veritable pharmacy of pills and shots. He had no control, of course, over his mix of medications, at least not at the beginning; that was determined by his doctors. And initially no control over when he received them. What he wanted to know was their effect. From his spreadsheet he hoped to discover the patterns—the causal relations between pills and pain—that would yield the most beneficial effect: when, what, how often, in what measure. Even in those first weeks it is clear (to a reader of the journals now) that his disease has the advantage. His neat engineering script wavers in and out of legibility; for some parts of his medication cycles it is precise and familiar, at other times barely readable and full of misspellings. As the days pass, he adds more and more information to his tabulations: position of his body on the bed, food, drink, degree of paralysis, stools, urinations, flatulence (his euphemistic term is “degas”). And so the data accumulates, becoming, I would suppose, ever more intractable because of its sheer volume, and hiding the patterns he sought like the proverbial needles in a haystack, those correlations and consonances that would lead (he believed) to ultimate recovery.

Meanwhile, my mother was there at the bedside, spending most nights in the hospital room on a cot. She wasn’t under any illusion of light at the end of the tunnel; she was smart enough to know that the tunnel was a dead end. The last years of their marriage had not always been smooth. There had been a lot of sniping between them, and apparent resentment on my mother’s part. But now she was at his side, participating in his engineer’s illusions, helping him with the flexings, and pushings and pullings, and “log-rolling” of his body, cleaning up the messes that sometimes accompanied his barely controlled bowels. She may not have been exactly Mrs. Congeniality or Clara Barton, but she understood the obligations that come with forty years of marriage and six children. And he too shows nothing but tenderness in his journals, no doubt recognizing the emotional constraints of all those years together, of sharing the same bed, of following with the same attentive concern the lives of their children. “Margaret did a PERFECT job in turning me over by holding knees high and ‘logrolling’ entire body,” he writes, as always emphasizing her solicitation.

If he had had a laptop there by his hospital bed, with spreadsheet software, he would only have had to click a button to run the numbers, to look for the correlations. What he had instead was a red book with blank pages, which he filled from edge to edge with notes and numbers, continuously, day and night. On a typical page one might find entries for 6:40, 7:01, 7:05, 7:08, 7:14, 7:20, and 7:30. These might be as simple as “Mom in washroom. My back is tired. Legs out straight. Flat on back.”, or as quantitative as “Took PK at 7:13. Head 3" from top of bed.” It was all grist for the unceasing mill of his mind. He might have been Galileo taking down distances and times for a ball rolling down an inclined plane. Galileo’s data-keeping was more focused, and from it the Florentine scientist derived laws of motion. My father’s data-keeping was helter-skelter; he knew what he was looking for, but had no idea how to find it. The machinery of his disease was invisible and inaccessible; there was no way he could take the aberrant cells apart to see how they work. And so the journal fattens, line by line, entry by entry, page by page, and somewhere in all that tidy engineer’s hand or drug-induced scribble was hidden (he believed) the sort of miracle that might have taken a more pious seeker to a shrine of the Virgin, Lourdes perhaps. He believed in God, and he believed that God had a plan for his life, as he notes in his journal. But his God was not the sort who goes in for flashy showmanship, the throw-down-your-crutches-and-walk sort of thing. His God was the Great Engineer who had designed the whole shebang and set it going, the clockwork-maker of Isaac Newton, the deity who set the planets moving in exacting courses, for whom fixing a patient’s body would be as everyday a thing as repairing a short in an electric lamp.