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Readers Write: The Last Great Adventure

I gave birth to my second child and first daughter the same day my father is told he is going to die. Human beings like bookends like this, a chance to find meaning in the absolute devastation of an entire familial ecosystem.

This was not a blog post I ever wanted to write– and if you knew Dad, probably not a blog post he’d ever want written. You know, he was all about that small sphere. All about living simply. It was truly his symphony, right up to the very last moment.

When COVID kicked off- my dad stopped smoking. He’s rolled his own cigarettes for years (because ‘f*** big tobacco’) and his supply all closed down right at the start of the pandemic. A long time believer in universe signs, he decided it was time to quit and picked back up a pipe which he enjoyed every morning on his front porch. He developed a terrible cough a few weeks later, his lungs going through a ‘self cleaning’ he said. The cough persisted for weeks and then was accompanied by paralyzing chest pain. I finally convinced him he needed a doctor and his local doc said he bruised some ribs due to his persistent cough and he was fine. We moved on. 

Dad & his newest grandbaby, his namesake- Sam.

In April/May, he started losing weight at a rapid pace, he chalked it up to getting old and eating like he was ‘in a prison camp.’ I sent him an insta-pot, taught him about protein shakes, set him up a healthy gain meal plan. He liked getting extra Oreos in his diet. We moved on. In late June, he was constantly exhausted. His chest pain was constant and excruciating, he preferred to sleep in his chair most of the day. He would get winded walking to the mailbox. We all feared the worst in COVID, but a test came back negative. He also had a chest x-ray which showed two broken ribs. We assumed this was from the coughing back in the spring. We got some ice packs and a heating pad. We moved on.

In late June, he was constantly exhausted. His chest pain was constant and excruciating, he preferred to sleep in his chair most of the day. He would get winded walking to the mailbox. We all feared the worst in COVID, but a test came back negative. He also had a chest x-ray which showed two broken ribs. We assumed this was from the coughing back in the spring. We got some ice packs and a heating pad. We moved on. 

In July, he sent me a series of videos showing off the secret hideout and his wheezing was painful to hear. He said he had a runny nose, he was running a fever all the time. He couldn’t gain any weight back. He went back to the doctor, there was another COVID test. Again, it was negative. We thought it was pneumonia or pleurisy at this point. How can a previously perfectly healthy 64-year-old man be sick for MONTHS if it wasn’t COVID? We got another x-ray, this one showed a large mass in his right lung. Everything stopped. He was referred to an amazing pulmonologist in College Station- chest scans and blood work and biopsies followed. Each one returned results that were more negative than the next. The official diagnosis came on October 7: squamous cell carcinoma lung cancer. Conversations hovered now around medical bills, medications and ‘the next step.’ It took him weeks to comment on Kamala Harris’ nomination— that’s when I knew he was really sick. I was stationed in Maryland at the time and it became painstakingly obvious very quickly that he needed full-time help. He resisted for months. His only two rules being that ‘there are no pity parties’ and he ‘refuses to be a burden to anyone.’

BFFs- back in the day

It took almost a month after his diagnosis before I made it to Texas, an ex-wife and a newborn in tow. It was startling to see him after so many months. I opened the door to the cabin, Vela Von the Puckerbrush Hound keeping vigilant watch next to his recliner, and he was laying back, 70 pounds lighter, with his eyes closed. His hair was woolly and his spark was gone. That first look at him after so many months away was nearly harder than actually losing him.

But then a really strange thing happened. He got better. As better as a dying man can get, I’d say.

First, the doctors, nurses, and staff at the Baylor, Scott, and White Cancer Center in College Station were phenomenal. Once we knew there was nothing curative that could be done, they offered us pallaitive radiation. A targeted attack on that motherfucker of a lung mass to relieve some pain. The trip was grueling for dad, one hour there and back in the car, scarcely breathing because the pain was so intense. Over ten sessions, it eased. He could move with less pain, sleep with less pain and didn’t curse everytime I drove over the train tracks. He said several times that ‘Whatever that laser doc in BCS charged us, I would have paid him double.’

However, towards the end of his sessions– right after Thanksgiving, he became increasingly confused. He would call me by my mother’s name more often than not, he would forget I had a baby (his namesake, Samantha), he would have wild hallucinations. One morning I went to his cabin to bring him breakfast and he was tearing fuses out of the wall, convinced the electric system was failing and the house was burning down around him. One night I received a call saying he had spilled medication and Vela was eating his pills and dying. Then he just went totally silent, barely even conscious half the time.

We went back to BSW and I was terrified it was a stroke. How much worse could it get? That’ll teach me to ask stupid questions of the universe. The cancer which had already spread to his bones, his liver, his kidney, his esophagus, his lymph nodes– was now in his brain. I cried the whole way home and he asked when we would get to the airport.

But once again, Andy was full of surprises. Never one to be counted out, and surely never down for the count.

Dad- Lord of the Hideout

Nearly a week after we started hospice care at home, I went to the cabin to bring him breakfast and was greeted by the sounds of Fox News and the sight of him, showered, dressed, sitting up and with a laptop in his lap. The way he always looked. It was so startling I laughed at him. It was like being in the twilight zone. Welcome, folks, to the rally.

There’s a super disconcerting and straight up unsettling thing that happens to a human soul when it dies. And no one can quite explain it. The best science can come is saying it’s a little like the ‘nesting instinct.’ That surge of energy a pregnant woman gets before giving birth. The ‘rally’ or ‘terminal lucidity’ is a lot like that. The dying get a crazy surge of energy, they’re back to their old selves, they want to finish projects, they want to get closure with everything. It is the human way of saying goodbye after a natural dying process. When the body is tired of fighting the fight, it tells the mind to say goodbye.

And so we found ourselves, the week before Christmas. At the time I wrote ‘Today was such a good day. He told every single story of things I’ve heard a thousand times. He talked about things after he was gone. We talked peach tree varieties, we talked headstones. It was a mix of heartbreaking and beautiful. But at the end of the day, my heart could rest because I had hashed things out with my dad. Just like every other day for the past 14 years.’ He was gaining weight now at a rapid pace, it was amazing. He was flirting with his magnificent hospice nurse, Jacinda. He was plagued by insomnia and constant projects. When he asked Jacinda to get him something to help him sleep and she promised she could do that he replied, ‘Well if you can get me some sleep, I’ll make you the queen of Falls County.’ I walked around with a constant lump in my throat.

Cait, Dad & THE Ex-Wife

His parents came up from Baytown during this time, my husband and Hank the Tank arrived from Maryland. My brother came in from Mississippi, and my mother– THE ex-wife–was still there. She had arrived with me on November 7 and simply refused to leave. We spent hours and days conducting ‘fellowship’ as Dad called it.  Being together and eating together. It seems simple but he called it his biggest regret. ‘We should have done this more’ he said nearly daily. We still had projects. Whether it was developing a routine or having our morning coffee together or smoking 30 lbs of meat or writing out his will- everyday we took a bite. Because how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. At the time, I was hoping the elephant was his survival and recovery. Even though I knew in my heart of hearts he was never going to get better. But now looking back, I know the elephant was him dying. I was there to help him die. 

Drinkin’ whiskey & raisin’ hell, no doubt

Acceptance is a funny thing. There’s relief mixed in with the grief, hanging in the air like smoke. It felt good to talk about the good memories and to say again all the things you’ve already said a million times. I love you. I’m sorry. Thank you. How do you encapsulate an entire life with words? How do you thank a man who made you into everything you are?

I’m pretty good with words- but even I was at a loss. Dad, against all odds and all predictions, hung tough the entire time. Dad was a consummate procrastinator even in death. I’ll laugh about it someday, how he did EVERYTHING on his terms. Right up to the end. The rally, which for most lasts anywhere from 3-7 days, went on for nearly 3 whole weeks.
The morning of January 4th I went to his cabin for breakfast, just as I had done for the past two months. Most of our visitors were gone now, my mom being the last to leave the previous Friday. My husband, Hank the Tank, Samantha, Dad’s brother, Dad, and I had all had cheeseburgers the night before. It had been my grandma’s, his mom’s birthday, and he texted her that night to say it was a good day and tell her he loved her. He was on his laptop most of the night, ordering things on Amazon.

I opened the door that morning and Vela raced out of the house whimpering. Dad was gone. Peacefully. I know I’ll be thankful for the peace of his passing one day, but it still just hurts.

He had a fantastic community around this blog and I want you all to know how much he appreciated your friendship over the years. This blog kept him honest and reading back over his entries the past several days, I can hear his voice and I’m immensely thankful to have it. I like to picture Dad in heaven with Danny Taylor and Fat Guy Scott, having a big dog romp with Tuco.

As for us left here earthside, we are inside out empty without him. I’ll miss you everyday, Pops.

End Note: As I sit here nearly 90 days after losing Dad, I still can’t fathom that I can’t pick up my phone and just call the old ornery motherfucker. Before writing this, I poured me a healthy glass of Blantons and I cued up a fellow curmudgeon on the YouTube, Mr. Billy Joe Shaver. We saw him once, at Hot Summer Nights in Sherman, TX. It was a great show. We lost Billy Joe in 2020 so it’s only fitting that I close out with this song. Yessir, you’ll both live forever.

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Christmas 2017

BFF Cait – Christmas 1992

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Christmas 12/24/2017

50 years ago! Raquel Welch performs at Bob Hope’s Christmas Show – Da Nang, South Vietnam, 1967

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