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the second-to-last chapter
a long ride to the end
by juli mccarthy
2.4.04
general

“All right, Mr. McCarthy… before we start the procedure, we’re going to give you an injection to numb the area. You’ll feel a pinch, but that will only last a second or two.”

“I’ve got a better idea,” he says. “Why don’t you give me a couple shots of gin, and I’ll pinch you? That way we’ll both have fun here today.”

My father-in-law flirts shamelessly with nurses and talks golf with doctors. He introduces me to interns, and tells them to be respectful to me, because “my mother here is getting old.” At 79, his life has become a routine of check-ups and miscellaneous medical procedures. In the last three years he has had a double bypass, a broken ankle, prostate cancer, esophageal cancer and tests too numerous to count. He takes pills – pills to lower cholesterol, pills to prevent blood clots, pills to reduce stomach acid. His teeth are not his own. His left eye has started to wander. His mind has not.

“Middle-aged women are starting to hold doors open for me,” he says. “You’d think I was a feeble old man or something.”

A couple times a year, I drive him into the city to a big teaching hospital. It’s a long drive, and to pass the time he tells me stories of his past. He and his friends used to hop freight cars for fun. (“Wasn’t that awfully dangerous?” I ask. “Sure – it would have been very dangerous indeed if my father had found out,” he replies.) He tells me about how he once drove downtown to do some law research, then took the train home, completely forgetting that he left his car parked in the city. About the call from the wife of a client late one night. The lady asked him to come and take her husband to the looney bin, because he was talking about an elephant in the backyard. When he got there, he discovered to his surprise that there WAS an elephant in the backyard.

He was a tall schoolboy in short pants, a soldier, a WWII radar navigator (one of the first), an accomplished clarinetist in a jazz combo, an attorney with a thriving practice in tax law. He once played golf with Don Knotts, and traded salad recipes with David Niven.

He says, “I was reading the obituaries today, and Chuck Canfield died. You don’t know him, he was before your time, but they said he was 74. That’s pretty old, huh? Patty used to play with his sister.” He blinks, then shakes his head. “I can’t remember her name.”

When we arrive at the hospital, the stories stop and he gets all business-like. “Now, you don’t have to come in with me. This could take awhile, why don’t you go shopping? No, here, let me pay for the parking.”

Inside, he takes a seat in the waiting area and sets his cane beside him. Again he shakes his head. “I don’t know why everyone thinks I need that thing.” He looks around the waiting room. “Now that’s a pretty girl. I suppose if she threw herself at me, I could use the cane to keep her at bay. Are you sure you don’t want to go shopping? This waiting can’t be very much fun for you.”

When they call his name, he reaches for his cane and gets to his feet. Inside, the doctor details the procedure for him and introduces him to the technician who will be performing the procedure. He hands me his coat and his wallet and again tells me I ought to go shopping. I reassure him that I’ll be fine; I’ve got my Palm Pilot and I’ll just play Tetris until he’s ready to leave. He looks closely at the screen on my PDA. “You must have good eyes,” he says, “I can’t even read that thing.”

An hour later, a nurse appears at my side. “He’s resting. You can go in to see him in a few minutes. Everything’s fine.”

When I get to his room, he is dressed and grumbling under his breath. “I don’t know where they put my teeth.” I reach into his coat pocket and hand him his denture case. “Oh. That’s right.” He laughs. “I must be getting old.”

Back in the car, he tells me about a pretty nurse he saw at the hosital. She looked like Angela Lansbury. He says, “She’s old now, Angela Lansbury, she played in that mystery show - she was supposed to be a writer or something, I think – but when she was young, why, you’d want to put her on the cover of a magazine.”

We stop for lunch, because he had to fast for 24 hours before this test. He’s getting to be an expert at fasting, he tells me, but he never will get used to that “cleaning fluid” they make him drink before GI tests. He orders the low-cal plate, a well-done hamburger patty with fruit and cottage cheese on the side. When the check comes, he grabs it.

Just before I drop him at home, he starts an argument.

“Now listen. I am going to give you some money for your gas and oil and for tolls. It was nice of you to drive me down there, but I know you’ve got better things to do. Took up your whole day, driving me around, you shouldn’t have to do that. Don’t argue with me. You just take that, don’t make me beat you up, I can still take you. And you don’t need to mention that to my son, see. That’s money for the wear and tear on your car. If I had taken the train down, I would have had to pay my fare and then get a cab – maybe a bus. You just take that, and remember, I’m bigger than you.”

He hands me a one hundred dollar bill.

I used to argue with him about the money, but then he’d call his son, my husband, and demand to be taken to the electronics store. “She was talking about this thing, it’s a Pilot something. It’s like a little computer. She could put her phone book on there, and it has a calendar. It would fit in her purse. You take me to that Best Buy place and we’ll get it for her.”

I just thank him for the cash now. “Nonsense,” he says gruffly. “I really do appreciate you giving up your day for this. All these tests… I’m going to be 80 soon. I wonder if it’s worth it.”

In his driveway, he gets out of the car, then leans back in to grin at me. “You know, those nurses have no sense of humor. I think gin would have been a lot more fun than that injection.”


ABOUT JULI MCCARTHY

A whole gallon of attitude, poured into a pint container.

more about juli mccarthy

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COMMENTS

tracey kelley
2.4.04 @ 2:39p

Ahhhhhhh! Crying today was not an option!

Oh, we are at that age, aren't we? When they tell us stories and act stubborn and the light still flickers, even if the body can't hold it steady. And they don't want to say how much they need us, because that would make it all too real.

I read this, and I miss my father-in-law so, so much. He was so like this.

Welcome back, kiddo.

juli mccarthy
2.6.04 @ 10:03a

He is still sharp as a tack - get him talking about politics and you'll find yourself in a heated debate with a very well-informed guy. I've been trying to keep track of all his stories - he makes you feel like a slacker, with all he accomplished in his life.

dan gonzalez
2.12.04 @ 12:19p

What a great picture you painted, I feel like I know him after reading it.

My dad is 71 and beginning his final stretch run as well so this hits very close to home.

Their generation as a whole seems to have been over-achievers. I wonder if all younger generations feel like that or if it's anomalous.

Do you think our kids will feel that way? Lately I've been counting on them to do better then we seem to be. :-/

juli mccarthy
2.12.04 @ 8:21p

Whoa, look, discussion! Yea!

I think you're right, Dan - let's face it, we've had it pretty easy in our lifetimes. Yes, we've had wars, disease, poverty and all kinds of tragic stuff that we've lived through, but I really think the world was smaller back then, you know? It seems that things now only affect those who are directly touched - back then, when the world was at war, EVERYONE was involved. When there was a disease, EVERYONE was at risk.

And I think our kids will have it even easier than we have, to be honest.

roger striffler
2.16.04 @ 4:26p

While they have a lot of different things to deal with - stress, peer pressure, drugs - I think by and large they have it much easier. At the very least, they take a lot of things for granted on a day to day basis, and that changes the way they see the world. A lot of young people seem to think the world owes them something, and I just can't fathom that.

juli mccarthy
3.29.05 @ 12:15a

big bump: Another trip to the ER today. He's still kicking, but the fight is going out of him, you can see it. He's still pretty sharp, but now I see him getting scared. After they admitted him tonight, he said, "I don't know what I'd do without you."

I don't know what I'm gonna do without him, either. But it's getting harder to deny that eventuality.

dan gonzalez
4.3.05 @ 10:00p

I don't know what I'm gonna do without him, either. But it's getting harder to deny that eventuality.

You will remember these times and all the others. You will remember him and he will always be in your heart. And you will pass that on to Cat, and she will pass it on to those that she loves.

A lot of young people seem to think the world owes them something, and I just can't fathom that.

To yank back to the old discussion, Rog hits the nail on the head. Even though I think I've had it WAY easy, I had to work some crappy jobs, and fail at a bunch of stuff, and all that. But I always kept pushing and I always believed it was on me to get something better. Some youngsters I meet now, though, just seem to be so disillusioned, just plodding through shitty jobs, and pushing it off on the system. I want to smack them and say "You could be great! You will be great! But YOU gotta do it, no one and nobody's system is gonna magically do it for you!"

karl kiessling
7.24.05 @ 1:09a

Juli,

Cherish these moments, create the dialoge,
encourage the life review,
be open and learn.

I love how you take care of "Everone." I personally took care of my parents alone to the end. Maybe if we get some time I'll tell you about my experices with that---we'll need a lot of coffee.

Children are so quick to throw away parents as they age. Oh I don't have time to care for you Mom and Dad, sorry. It is ok though these nice strangers will be your surrogate family and when they are done either being abusive or neglectful I'll just stop comming around so you can die in "peace." I saw much of this, too much and it is just plain wrong. Our society has lost the ever so necessary value of filial piety.

Fill your heart and mind with the souls of those you love and they will live forever.

Karl



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