Entries and Exits
[part 1] [part 2] [part 3] [part 4] [part 5]
I can hear in Kathy's voice how seriously ill she is. I'd been one of her few friends who had not read her the riot act about her refusal of conventional Western medicine (past the initial surgery) when she'd first been diagnosed with breast cancer. Instead, we continued on with the long conversations we were already having about cosmologies and the politics of social and psychological ills. But now, I'm fearing collusion. There is a certain time and place when the regenerative power of denial can expand the odds. But this was not it. Here was my friend, a brilliant analytical thinker and writer trying to literally convince me that her inability to breathe was because a lover had poisoned her with polluted water. Although I managed to resist her interpretation, what disconcerted me most was that my desire to engage in a folie-a-deux was as powerful as hers.
Of course, when I found my father, the next day, lying on the floor trying to call out for help but unable to because there wasn't enough oxygen in his lungs, my immediate thought was that I had killed him. First, I had brought home to both my parents a strain of flu (dubbed "Hong Kong") which was killing people all over the country. Then, two days before he died, he saw a doctor. Although in his early seventies, sick with the flu and having had a history of heart failure, my father was deemed a fit candidate for an experimental treatment to thwart the eventuality that he would go blind from his ongoing battle with diabetes. To that end, the doctor apparently shot him up with a radioisotope and then sent him home with the suggestion that he might think about checking into the hospital if he didn't start to feel better from the flu.
Louie told me about this but not his wife. When I said that this doctor sounded like a quack and that he should go back to the hospital, he insisted that everything was all right: after all, this was a famous clinic, hospital to astronauts being prepared for orbit. What greater proof of competence did I need? But my father looked scared and I told him so. And his reply was that what I saw was his fear was of going blind like his brothers. I asked again if his apprehension wasn't really about his inability to speak English that well and did he want me to talk to the doctor for him? His angry response was to say that my questions had embarrassed him. And with that pronouncement, my final act in the Oedipal drama I had going with my parents became holding my dying father's hand as we rode together in an ambulance. (I had been sent ahead to accompany him so that my mother, who was performing Medea, could dress for the occasion and be brought over by neighbors.) As the attending paramedic left us to go up front to help the lost driver find his way back to the hospital, my father grabbed my hand, removed the oxygen mask from his mouth and made me promise him he wouldn't die. I promised. And, for a moment, I believed that I could still, at that late point, actually influence fate.
Three weeks after getting out of the hospital, I'm finally well enough to travel alone to go see Kathy. (She hasn't wanted me to come down with anyone else.) It's Thanksgiving weekend and I'm riding a train to San Diego filled with revelers. For the last month I've been reading Paul Theroux's account of journeying the South Pacific, it's the only thing I can concentrate on. Somewhere around Fiji, I drop the book and look out at the sun setting on the ocean. I become totally anxiety-ridden. Before I'd left Los Angeles, Matias had told me that, earlier in the day, Kathy had stopped breathing. He details a picture of himself, the Antins and an old friend of Kathy's all crying and saying good-bye with a love so great that she had eventually revived.
I'm angry with myself for having gotten sick. I go through every aspect of my life where I think I've fucked up. I'm losing it. I want to start screaming at people on the train, I want to yell at the engineer to go faster. I lose all sense of my own intuition. Finally, the only alternative to cracking up is to trust myself and Kathy and know that she's still alive, that she won't leave without saying good-bye. With that thought, I'm able to relax and settle into the seat. After awhile, I wonder when and why did Amtrak decide to have all their chairs face backwards? Suddenly, I'm reminded of a dream I once had next to a lover with whom things were nearing an end. In the dream I'm facing all time past. Centuries are defined by archways and, in between stands everyone who has ever lived. As I look out onto the crowds, I realize that the future, like now, has always actually existed behind me.
Ten days after my father dies, my mother is diagnosed with metastasized breast cancer. I am not surprised. A year and a half earlier, she had found a lump in her breast. At first, she had kept the discovery to herself for months, her self-imposed silence a result of the medical horrors she had suffered during her many years of being ill with tuberculosis. One story she often told was of a series of treatments, lasting months, in which long hypodermic needles were inserted directly through the wall of her chest into her lungs. As a consequence of these and other experiences, once she was cured she decided never to see a medical doctor again relying, instead, on her own intuition and subscribing to what were then considered crackpot notions of the body as a holistic organism.
Ultimately, though, my mother becomes scared enough to tell someone so Stella decides to inform me instead of her husband. I tell my father and together we plead with her to see a doctor. She refuses. A few more months pass and my father has an urgent desire to take us across the Atlantic to show us the home he had left sixty years earlier. When we return, my mother has difficulty walking. Because of this, she relents and goes with Louie to see a doctor at a high-tech clinic for astronauts. She ends up seeing three of them, each with a more dreadful suggestion of a surgical procedure to replace the decaying bone in her leg than the last. None of them thinks the lump is important.
Finally, my mother's favorite brother (in town with the rest of my relatives for my father's funeral) takes Stella to see another physician. Patrick (who's anglicized name was inspired by my non-English-speaking grandmother's fondness for her Irish neighbors) is much younger and thus better assimilated than his older sisters. He wears his American drag with a butch swagger and I hate that Stella finds this so sexy. The doctor who he takes his sister to is a competent one able to tell at first glance that what my mother needs is an oncologist not an orthopedic surgeon. A surgery is scheduled to take place in two days. But before the operation, all my mothers' siblings decide to fly back to their homes in the Midwest away from this isolated desert city. Prior to leaving, they make a point of repeatedly telling me how lucky my mother is that I'm so mature for my age.