Saturday, August 02, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 9

As early as the first of my father’s five deathbed journals it is clear that he is attended upon by a substantial army of doctors, nurses, and priests who are solicitous of his physical and spiritual well-being. He lists the doctors, with the particular province of each: general, cobalt, urologist, nerves, spine. The priests are faithful too, and appear often in the journals offering their blessings or sharing a prayer. If medical science or prayer could have saved him, he was well served. “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” he wrote in the journal, and it was his intention to help himself as much as he could. There is not much in the journals to suggest private prayer, although he did practice breathing exercises with the accompaniment of Hail Marys, Our Fathers, and Glory Bes, a very Buddhist sort of practice that was suggested by my sister Anne. I like to imagine these prayers ascending to heaven on regular cloudlike puffs of breath. As for the science, he asked for instruments: yardstick, six-inch rule, protractor, thermometer, even a barometer. There, in his bed, on his back, partially paralyzed, he measured and recorded. If he thought he found a correlation between some datum and comfort, the correlation became an obligation, sometimes to the impatience of his caregivers. His head had to be four inches from the top of the bed, exactly. The door to the room had to be opened six inches, no more, no less. The temperature of the room must be maintained with the same quality-controlled precision as he had formerly insisted upon for his ceramic products at the American Lava Corporation. His wife and children indulged his fastidiousness stoically, but Lord knows how the nurses coped. And then there were the hospital orderlies, especially a big, generous man named Otis, who did the heavy lifting, in and out of bed for trips to the radiation lab, on and off the potty. Each motion had to be choreographed according to the patterns that emerged from his numbers.

If all of this sounds as if my father was “the patient from hell,” perhaps I have given the wrong impression. He was inherently cheerful, even in the midst of pain. He almost never grouses in the journals about the quality of his care. He often writes notes to remind himself to apprise his doctors of particularly solicitous nurses. To those of us who spent even a little time with him, it was clear that his quantitative preoccupations were a palliative that may in the end have given him more solace than all the pills and prayers.

The odds, of course, were against him. He was an amateur caught in the gulf between God and science, the two great poles of his life. He was an amateur, and day by day the professionals came to visit, the doctors and the priests, with their firm grip on what is important. He tried to convince them that he had found something in his mass of data that mattered. They humored him, as professionals are inclined to do with amateurs. What my father did not know, or what he chose not to believe, was that the day had passed when an amateur could bend God’s ear or determine the course of science. The God who cured the leper and raised Lazarus from the dead had long departed from this world of pain and glory. And science too was beyond his reach. The game belonged to highly trained specialists who kept amateurs at bay. Still, my father assiduously gathered his data, and soon there emerged what he called “the cycle of energy.”

Page after page of the journals show the characteristic graph, plotting his cycles of medication—a rising slope of well-being, a plateau, a downward slide. At first, each segment of the graph is an hour in duration, but slowly they evolve to forty-five minutes as his condition deteriorates and the rhythm of dying becomes more intense. He thought he had discovered a “unit of energy,” a sort of quantum of wellness, that in their accumulation would lead step by step to recovery. What he was looking for was a way to make his plateau-shaped graphs build one on the other, so that even with the up-and-down rhythm there would be a secular trend upwards, toward recovery.

He tried to convey this information to his doctors, and they humored him, kindly and sympathetically. They knew that the cobalt radiation and chemotherapy were merely stopgap treatments, that the cancer was spreading to every cell of his marrow, that his wasting body was now just a sackful of alien cells with a life of their own, a life that was not his, and that whatever secular trend might be relevant to his life was downward, inevitably, toward extinction. This last battle of my father’s life was to be fought out on the only field that was left to him, the field of sight, taste, touch, smell, and sound. He would collect and record the data of the senses with the zeal of a scientist. What he made of these things would not save him, as the doctors and the priests were well aware, but for ten terrible weeks they gave him a sense of purpose and hope. He never lost faith in the world of the senses, even as it slipped away. He knew there was an order, a pattern, to his personal chaos, and on this point the doctors and priests agreed. It would be in making himself a part of that elusive and ultimately gracious order that he would wage—and win, he believed—his battle with mortality.