Sunday, September 26, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.42: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 42

Robert Gallagher, Wake

After the Wake

For the first weeks after my mother died, my father made it clear that he wanted to die, too, right away. My wife and I came to an agreement to bring our kids to see my father as often as possible. Showing him that he had grandkids was our strategy to discourage his ideas of suicide. However, with three kids who had to be in different places for different activities every evening, it was difficult. By the second week, we knew that not everything could be canceled or postponed. Sometimes other parents and kids were depending on us.

Fortunately, the planning for my mothers wake took over. Wrangling the legal details and the logistics of inviting people gave my father a challenge that he could meet. As he received phone call after phone call, he discovered that my mother had a lot of friends who remembered her, even if they had worked with her fifteen years ago, even if they only knew her from a YMCA water fitness class, or even if they didn't know her family but saw her obituary in the paper and wanted to be there at her remembrance.

“Jenny’s children are coming,” my father told me. We could tell he was looking forward to that. By Jenny's children, he meant my cousins on his side, all of them older than me. “Probably Gary and Sue. Definitely Annie. It sounds like Jim will fly up from Texas.”

“Even Jim?" I couldn't remember the last time we'd seen him.

“Will Mark bring his family?” My mother's youngest brother was someone whose company he enjoyed as well. While my mother had been alive, we had seen Mark often.

“Of course.”

Together with my wife, we made a list of all of the friends and family who would be coming to the wake. At my father's insistence, I rented out a nearby recreation center to host them.

"Because I can't travel far," he said. "Besides, if it's close to the house, it'll be easier for you when you set up."

Left unspoken was the problem posed by the house. At this late point in his collecting or hoarding things, none of us could conceive of an attempt to clean it for guests. It didn't seem realistic.

Our list reached over seventy people. When the day came, some of the visitors cycled in and out of the wake and didn't stay long. Most of them sat at their tables for hours, though, and the most important of those were our friends. Many of them arrived early to lend a hand. We needed their help. Mark's family leaped in, side by side with us. And Kyllian and Adam tackled a couple technical jobs on the spot. They saw the needs and acted. Without them, I would have had to choose to do either one of those jobs to the exclusion of everything else.

The talks around the tables of our rented hall weren't limited to my mother, of course, not for the entire four hours. But my father was pleased that so many people were willing to talk with him about her. People approached him who he hadn't seen in years or who he had never known. He was as alert and energetic as he'd been for weeks.

In the end, though, he was tired. He sat down for the last forty minutes to watch us clean up. With a few grandkids along, he allowed himself to be led out the glass doors and toward his car. I sped up to walk ahead of the crowd. It was a surprise when someone started calling for me. I turned. I saw a few people standing in a circle. One of them was staring at me. Then I looked down and saw my father lying on the asphalt.

He had stepped from the curb and fallen.

That's how we spent another evening in the hospital. This time, we learned that he had broken his collarbone near the right shoulder. He had already been hoping to die after the wake. This only seemed to strengthen his position, emotionally. It was time.

Nevertheless, a month later I dropped by on another of my weekly visits to check on his healing. He looked better than he had in a long while. Although his right arm was still in a cloth sling, he had improved in the use of his left hand. He motioned for me to stroll with him out onto the porch.

"Don't worry, I'm not going to ask you to light the cigar," he said. I had previously refused to help him with that.

On a stool on the porch, he had put a glass ashtray. He'd rested cigars on three of the four ashtray corners, each of them in a different state of decay. With his left hand, he picked one up. It was trailing a wisp of smoke. He puffed. The coal of his stogie glowed. Grey vapors billowed from his lips. He coughed.

"Help me sit down for a minute." He gestured to his green, wrought iron lawn chair.

"How do you get back up when I'm not here?" I asked. My hands found it hard to get a grip on him that avoided his collarbone, right arm, and shoulder. His left arm felt thin. His body seemed brittle. When I let go an inch too early, he fell into his seat with a huff.

"Getting back up is easier," he said. He slumped into a position of comfort. Some recent memory made a flicker of doubt pass through him. "When it's not, I yell for your brother. If he doesn't come, I find a way anyhow."

My expression must have looked doubtful.

"Usually," he qualified.

When I checked the other porch seats, I found that the front one had a stain that smelled like dog urine. The other had enough fur to knit a dog but I opted to sit in the fur. Before I could ask more questions about his health or my brother, my father launched into the topic of Orioles baseball. The team had gotten a new manager, Buck Showalter, and it seemed to have become instantly better with the same lineup of players.

"I remember going to a minor league game with you," he said. "Was it Frederick?"

"Yeah, the Keyote mascot waved at us. We almost caught a foul ball." That last part wasn't quite true although I had shield him from two looping fouls.

"I liked that more than I thought I would," he admitted. "It was up close. I could see. The sounds were clear, too. That helped. But I don't think I'll ever go to a game again, not in person."

Even half an hour before first pitch at the Keys Stadium, he had barely made it down the steps to his seat. Attendants had rushed to help. After the game, we had been forced to let everyone else go ahead of us. My father had barely made it back up even with three stops to sit on benches along his way.

"The Orioles have a couple of those minor leaguers now," he said approvingly. "They're on the roster."

He lured me into talking about sports for half an hour. We recounted the preseason football games so far. His enthusiasm for Baltimore and for the University of Maryland pulled me in. Besides, he deflected my questions about his health whenever I tried to steer the conversation back to it.

After his cigar died out, the fumes faded from the porch. The mosquitoes started to find me. I killed one on my shirt. He nodded and laughed.

"I'm immune," he said. Whether it was the cigar scent or something else about him, he was right. He never seemed to pick up mosquito bites. "For me, it's not a bad time of year to be outside."

"I need to go in."

"You could start smoking," he suggested.

"Ha ha. Do you want help out of the chair?"

"I guess I'd better." He leaned forward as I approached. Lifting him out was easier than getting him into place. A hand to his left shoulder was all it took. He felt like paper. My pull backwards was just a touch too fast. "Ow. Easy, easy."

"Sorry. Are you still okay?"


"What about your other shoulder?"

"The collarbone keeps healing," he told me. He lifted his right arm, still in the sling, to show me. "Funny, isn't it? I didn't want it to heal. Didn't care. But the doctor says it's better. And I can tell, it's better."

He seemed surprised. I was, too. Even though he didn’t seem to have much of a will to live, his body insisted on healing.

"It's the way of things," he said.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.41: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 41

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Goodbye to Ann, Part II

In early May of 2013, my mother got out of a twelve hour surgery to remove scar tissue in her stomach. That scarring came from mis-aimed radiation therapy.

My father tried to visit her but he couldn't make it every single day, so I doubled up on the visits. During lunch, I drove from work to the hospital. Every weekday, I stopped in to talk with my mother. Usually, I added a Sunday trip with my family.

"Well, they tell me I have pneumonia," she said. "It's not good."

The amount of time she spent in surgery may have been critical. Twelve hours is a lot for someone with a pre-existing lung problem.

"Can you tell me if I'm on antibiotics?" she asked.

"Okay. Yes." After I walked around the room and checked her IV drips, I could see that she was on a steroid and an antibiotic. Her resting heart rate was high. She had received an insulin shot and was due for another one soon.

During my first few visits, my support role for her was to gather the information that no one else had conveyed yet. As she grew more lucid, that aspect of the visits faded. At the same time, the nurses started asking me to help my mother eat food. (For days, my mother would only sip Ensure. When I got her to eat ice cream, it was a breakthrough.) The staff also came over to ask about my mother's family. She had gotten mysterious phone calls, probably from her brother Johnny, but he wouldn't leave messages.

"We had to put mittens on her," a nurse told me after a few days. "She keeps having panic attacks and pulling on her cords."

"Why is her white blood cell count so high?"

"She has an infection." My face must have done something because the nurse followed with, "We don't know the source of the infection. We're looking."

The staff doubled up on antibiotics. They sedated my mother, too, and left her unconscious for a day in the hope of speeding up her recovery. It seemed to work. At the end of the week, my mother no longer needed to be intubated. The nurses had figured out my mother's hearing problems, too, and were trying to work around them. My mother was frustrated and sent me off with a directive to get her hearing aids, which my father wasn't able to find on his own. She gave me very specific directions.

On Wednesday of that week, my father talked to Kaiser Permanente. They agreed on a plan to move my mother in about a week's time. She would go from Holy Cross hospital to a rehab facility.

On the same day, Dr. Zhang at Holy Cross came in during my visit.

"If your mother wants to leave for rehab," he said. "She must be able to eat and drink. She's still being fed through a tube. She can't go. Do you understand? We must wait. She must work hard."

"Absolutely." It was obvious she wasn't ready. She couldn't eat and she couldn't brush her teeth.

That's why it was a shock to visit the next day and find that Kaiser had moved my mother to a different bed in the same room and also prepped her for another move.

"Isn't this too early?"

During the window of my visit, I personally got a call from Kaiser Permanente. Jocelyn from Kaiser told me that the next move wasn't within Holy Cross but was in fact a transfer to the Genesis Layhill Center. The insurance company was cutting out the doctor's planned week of hospital recovery and sending my mother to rehab.

That night, while I wasn't there, the company transferred my mother to Genesis Layhill. I got a call the next morning.

"Your mother is doing very badly," said the representative from Genesis Layhill. "Very, very badly."

"What are you doing about it?"

"We have transferred her back to Holy Cross." He sounded angry. "She will be there soon. You should try to meet her."

From that point on, the battle changed from getting healthy to staving off death. Holy Cross hospital put my mother back onto a respirator. Within a day, they moved her into the CCU, the cardiac care unit, because her previous respirator was not enough. My mother needed a pressure respirator to help pump her lungs.

Moving her onto a pressure respirator meant stopping her oral medications. During my visits, my mother took off her respirator mask to talk with me. That seemed a little risky but also like a good sign. Obviously, she could move her upper body well. She said she liked listening to me read her get well cards to her. One came in from her sister Lois that day and a bunch more came from Johnny.

"She seems like she's happier," my brother said. He and my father walked out of the building with more bounce to gaits.

"Yeah, her symptoms are stable."

"She's in less pain," my father added.

We all felt better than when my mother had arrived back at Holy Cross and needed critical care. In a few days, she had recovered from her near-death. On the other hand, her health was still not back to where it had been before the aborted transfer. The physician in charge, Dr. Zang, had a timetable in mind. My mother was no longer on it.

The next day, we skipped seeing her. Other family members visited to keep her company. Then, on Memorial Day, Diane and I drove down to Holy Cross.

When we came in, the staff seemed shocked and dismayed to see us.

"You just missed her," a nurse blurted.

"What do you mean? Has she been moved again?"

This time, the woman hesitated. She searched our faces for understanding.

"She was removed from oxygen. She didn't last long."

It took me a moment to understand. The hospital decision to remove her oxygen seemed so out of place. But they had done it. We arrived at 11:03. But at 11:00, a doctor had pronounced her dead.

We went in to see her. My mother's respirator and monitors had been turned off. The nurse told me how they had turned up the opiates. The drip that had been set up to slow and stop her heart was still in her arm. My mother had felt no pain, they said. Around her, I could see that someone had set up soothing music. The television screen showed a nature scene. Staff had drawn the curtains in the window opposite to leave the room in shade.

We stayed for a while. Our friends Richard and Andrea Price came. They offered to pick up our kids and bring them to my father's house, which seemed like a good idea. Lois, Mark, and Nattipa came, too. They had been planning a visit. We tried to make calls to folks who couldn't get to Holy Cross.

"Your mother wanted her body donated," my father told me over the phone.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.40: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 40

Robert Gallagher, Wake

The Library

The smell of a lit cigar wafted up the stairs. I followed it down to a grey haze. When I reached the landing, I saw a bright beam shimmering through the cracked-open library door. I swung the door wide. Fumes billowed toward me and I met the full effects of the fog. It felt like I had spent hours in the pool as a child and saw mists and rainbow halos around every light. The cigar smoke wasn't chlorine but it reminded me of my hazy upbringing.

"Oho!" my father said. He sat upright in his chair. "What brings you here?"

He put down his plate. He had been eating plain toast.

"There was an accident on the highway," I replied. I gestured for him to remain seated. He ignored me and made room to rise. "So I turned onto the back roads. I was driving sort of close to here. I thought, why not take Black Rock?"

"Well, that's nice." He finished brushing his pants. He wiped his mouth.

"I can only stay a few minutes."

"Fine. I just woke up, anyway."

One of the luxuries of my father's retired life was that he got to make his own schedule. Now that my mother was gone, he felt no constraints. He slept more or less randomly.

"How have you been?" I asked. It had been a week since I'd called.

"Can't complain." He wobbled to his feet. His right hand shot out and grabbed the back of his chair. "Doesn't matter if I do. No one listens."

"Last time, you said that you fell at the bottom of the stairs." Although I hadn't seen it, the image rose to my mind of him lying on his back on the landing.

"That was weeks ago." He chuckled.

"Well, I was wondering about your feet."

"They feel okay." He shrugged. "Of course, I can't feel them, not really. But I do look at them now and then. They seem fine enough."

He wore special shoes, which were padded sandals with velcro straps. They didn't help much. Maybe they kept his circulation nearly normal, maybe not. None of us in the family knew it, of course, but he was a few months away from another fall. It would be his last.

He would land on his hip and break it.

I would meet my father and brothers that day at the hospital, where we would debate intensely with doctors. One of the surgeons would turn out to be a former student of my father's. That would change the conversation. The hospital would agree to operate. They would let us wait in the hospital, too, for the procedure to finish.

In fact, my father would get through the operation perfectly well. His deterioration came from the opioids they gave him, which slowed his digestion a day later. This was something that had happened to him before. Sepsis had set in, fifteen years earlier, when he had the first occurrence. A surgeon at Shady Grove had removed the section of his intestines that had died. The next day, his vital signs improved and he was ready to walk. At the time, I had thought the intestinal sensitivity was a complication of his diabetes but I was never sure.

After the hip surgery, though, his health plan sent him to rehab. At the rehab center, the staff gave him more opioids. Again, a section of his stomach shut down. And nothing that his family had to say could persuade the medical staff to ease off the morphine. When my father got sepsis, we couldn't persuade the staff to remove the section of intestine. They didn't feel he would survive the surgery. Maybe they were right, too, but not removing the dead section meant they had determined that he would die of the sepsis.

The general staff reaction to his circumstance was to turn up his morphine dosage. They raised his levels of painkillers for two days until he lost consciousness for the final time, still in pain.

So at their ends, both of my parents died due to multiple causes yet the foremost and most literal cause for both of them was painkillers shutting down their bodies. Each time, the hospital staff made the decision. We in the family were not consulted. It's also hard to see how the patients could have been conscious enough for a doctor to talk to them without us.

But in the library, in the November of my visit due to a traffic jam, we were half a year away from all that.

"I usually get up to watch the evening news," he said. He fumbled with the remote control. He was trying to turn down the volume out of politeness. I had been ignoring his show so completely that I didn't notice until he shut it off. "Lately it's been so depressing."

At the time, the new anchors kept showing the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. They also talked about mosquitoes spreading the Zika virus and creeping north. Ryan Lochte had lied about getting mugged at the Olympics and he was still apologizing. Donald Trump had won the election for U.S. President but there was an investigation of the Russian influence in the voting. Police shootings of unarmed citizens were coming out on phone videos. Pokemon Go players kept wandering into traffic and a couple of them got injured trying to catch a Squirtle.

"How can people be so stupid?" he asked.

In the dimness of the basement lights and cigar smoke we talked about the Russia problems. Those, we thought, were the least stupid. I had a computer security perspective. I had seen plenty of Russian cyberattacks. My father had his past NSA experience. He still thought in terms of the Soviet era. That was starting to seem more and more relevant to us both.

"I had a joke book," he said. "Did you take it?"

"No." My head rose as I recalled some of the home-grown Soviet gags. I had read them over and over. He had found a good collection in a Russian specialty shop back in 1972. "You still have it here somewhere."

The Soviet Union started to crack down on drinking while on the job. An official assigned to handle it entered one of the industrial plants where the problem was said to occur. He asked a worker,

"Could you do your job if you drank a cup of vodka?"

"It would be a little difficult, but I suppose I could."

"Could you do your job if you drank two cups of vodka?"

"I probably could, yes."

"Could you do your job if you had three cups of vodka?"

"Well, I'm here, aren't I?"

We wondered where the jokes had gone as we walked around his library. Instead of his Russian books, I kept finding his math, computer, and philosophy texts.

"It's been a long time since you tried to quote Aristotle to me," I observed as I thumbed through the pages of Rhetoric and Poetics.

"Ah, I don't even like him."


"Socrates was better. And Plato, because he wrote about Socrates. But Diogenes was the best," he said. "Looking for an honest man. The older I get, the more I sympathize with that. Virtue is revealed in actions, not in theories. That's what he claimed."

"Didn't he disrupt Plato's lectures?"

"He teased Plato. Mercilessly. And he mocked Alexander the Great. To his face!" His chuckle ended in a sigh. "I couldn't live in a barrel, though."

"Oh, here's Dylan Thomas. 'Rage, rage against the dying of the light.'"

"I don't want to talk about that," he told me.


We walked among the books of the library, tapping our fingers on the titles or pulling them out for a look. We saw Does it Matter? by Alan Watts and The Way of Zen, also by Watts, followed by a stack of Golden Age of Radio magazines. My father still had his copy of The Science of Logic by Hegel. He owned The Republic by Plato. A row of 1950s-era philosophy books rested underneath a shelf of 1970s high school math texts in faded blue and grey.

My father put his hand on a trade paperback of Man and His Symbols by Karl Jung. He pushed aside a stack of TV Guide weeklies to read the full title. On the other side of the room, between cigar boxes, I found the Collected Confucius and a pair of science fiction books that I thought I'd thrown out.

"Oh, Twilight Zone," my father said next as he picked up a videotape. "I forgot where I put these."

"Did you bring them down to watch them?"

He shrugged. "I'm not sure."

He set the tape down on his pile.

"What are we looking for?" he asked.

"Russian jokes."

At the diagonal corner of the room, my father picked up a faded, green-backed Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas but he put it back down. On my side, I found a heap of Science News Magazine issues pressed between textbooks. Next, bound in hardback leather, lurked The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant. We had never talked much about it. I gather he didn't think much of Kant. Beside it sat The Wisdom of Kierkegaard. After that came a shelf of Gunsmoke tapes in VHS format, still unopened.

"It's a small book with a white cover and blue lettering," I remembered. There had been a matryoshka doll on the cover, I thought, inked in blue and red.

"What is?" My father was holding a box of cassette tapes and reading the label. "Burns and Allen. I forgot about these."

He couldn't forget the comedy routines, so I knew he meant only that he had forgotten to transfer that particular run of tapes onto CDs or re-record them into some other format.

"What did George Burns say near the end?" he wondered to himself. "It was something like, 'I'm very pleased to be here. Let's face it, at my age I'm very pleased to be anywhere.'"

"Hah, Burns and Diogenes."

"That's right. 'I was brought up to respect my elders, so now I don't have to respect anybody.' That's Diogenes."

"That's Burns, isn't it?"

"You know what I mean." He waved the red and silver cardboard box. "What are we looking for?"

I checked the clock next to his chair. We had been browsing through his books for twenty minutes. I hesitated as I recalled how our search had started.

"Sneaky Russians," I said. I was looking at the table next to his chair, where had had his plate with two pieces of toast. Next to it sat his can of diet coke. On the other side of the chair, beyond a stack of magazines, he kept his dark green, glass ashtray. He had set his cigar into it. The ember had died out and turned to ash. "But I should let you get back to your breakfast and news, I guess."

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.39: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 39

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Goodbye to Ann, Part I

"Meet us at the hospital," my father said.

Those were my instructions when I called to let him know I was bringing their grandkids over. He informed me that, no, he would not be at home. The pain my mother had been feeling for the past weeks had gotten worse. My brother and father had taken her to the doctor. The doctor, seeing her in pain for the third or fourth time, had sent her for a consultation.

"We had to come home for an hour because I forgot my medicine. But we're headed back. You should visit us. Your mom would like it."

Forty minutes later with my wife and kids in the car, I arrived at the healthcare center. We walked in to find my father and brother sitting in the waiting room on padded vinyl chairs. I hadn't seen the place for a decade. The slightly-faded salmon walls seemed odd. I guessed they had been re-painted. The partly antiseptic smell in the hallways felt familiar, though. I glanced around. My mother was nowhere to be seen.

"They keep saying they'll send her out," my father complained, "but they keep sending her for more tests instead."

For this visit, we had planned in advance. We had coloring books, novels, homework, and games for the kids. In between the sessions of childcare, the adults could talk. The only topic we cared about was how long mom had been in pain. My father said it had been at least a year. He suspected more.

"Because Ann never says anything," he sighed. "Now that she's saying something, I'm afraid it's really, really serious."

After only another forty minutes, a doctor came out. He wore his dark, straight hair parted to the side. His hands came out of the pockets of his white, lab coat as he strode forward to greet us.

"Who is next of kin?" he asked. "Are you all related?"

We took a moment for introductions. It didn't take much longer than that for the doctor to notice our impatience. He paused for effect. We all fell silent. He got to the point.

"We don't see a relapse of the cancer," he admitted. His tone grew darker. "But the CT scans of her abdomen look odd."

"The radiation." Three of us had the thought at once. The doctor gaped the adults around him. He hadn't expected that his view would be so widely anticipated. He recovered a moment later and nodded sagely.

"We want to do a very small surgery to look at what's causing the pain." Unconsciously or not, he made a small incising motion with his right hand. "Do you know what a laparoscopy is?"

We groaned. It wasn't good news. But as we exchanged glances, we realized it wasn't the worst, either. That would have been cancer. A laparoscopy was the next logical step. The main risk to my mother during it would come from her lungs. Her previous doctor had said he didn't want to send her into any procedure that required anesthesia. Her breathing rasped from the fungal infection she'd gotten in her portable classroom years ago. A short surgery, though, might not carry too much risk for her.

"I suppose that you do know." The doctor seemed wary of us. "It's the least invasive way that we can look around. It's possible that there is some scar tissue left over from her last surgery. That was what, four years ago?"


"And it may be binding parts of her organs together. That would cause her discomfort." He sounded like he was developing a slight drawl. His understatement sounded confident.

"You know about her lungs?" my father asked.

"Tell me about her lungs," the doctor said.

After more talk about her medical history and her diagnostic tests, the medical team at her health center put her on their schedule for surgery in two weeks. Soon, they realized that her pain meds weren't enough to let her move. Since she was bed-ridden, they bumped up her priority. To six days. It caught the family by surprise. Everyone agreed it was probably good, though, especially my mother.

For once, the procedure was so routine that I didn't bother to take off work for it. My mother went into the operating room at noon. At one in the afternoon, I called to check on her.

"She's not out yet," my father said. "I don't know what's going on."

What was going on was that the laparoscopy had found so much damage, so close to the incision, that the surgeons decided to operate. They had to remove the scar tissue. I kept calling the health center to get updates. By the third call, a nurse had told my father what was going on and that the procedure would take a few hours.

"I didn't bring enough medicine to stay here all day," he replied.

"You might as well go home and have dinner," the nurse told him.