As he lay dying


Last night I was reading Larry McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin At The Dairy Queen and I ran across this passage of McMurtry writing about recovery from quadruple bypass surgery:

Longevity is bound to be a chancy thing, a matter of gains and losses, but surely personality and spirit are factors in longevity too.

At first this passage struck me as false, as I began to think about my dad. He was only 73 and had plenty of personality and spirit, and yet, he died, savagely and brutally beaten by leukemia. A disease he had no control over.

But, at the same time, perhaps it was his vitality that kept himk alive for a month after entering the hospital with the deadliest form of leukemia, and even had him rally briefly.

I remember when he was hooked up to the respirator in ICU. The nurses and doctors would never say whether or not he could hear us while he was under. But, confined to his bed, the breathing tube inserted in his mouth, the pulse of the machine regulating every breath, he seemed to go through reveries, talking in this deep medicated sleep he was in, mouthing some kind of dream-memory or trying to tell us something. (Recovered briefly, he wouldn’t recall even being in ICU.)

Once, while he was still in ICU, my aunt leaned over the railing of his bed and asked him, "Bobo (his childhood nickname) do you want to live?"

And my father seemed to nod yes.

Had he really heard my aunt’s question? Was his spirit vital enough to keep him alive? It seems so. I can’t be for sure, anymore than the doctors or nurses there could be sure.

Even though Dad’s physical body was ceasing to function (he would live only about a week and a half more out of ICU, and then back in again) it seemed clear he wanted to retain his self, his personality, his spirit; he didn’t want to cease to exist completely.

McMurtry reports that for a long period after he had his bypass surgery he had a sense of being not altogether his self. Something was missing. Whatever it was seemed to manifest itself physically in an inability to read, except in a most superficial way.

The problem, I eventually realized, was that reading is a form of looking outward, beyond the self, and that, for a long time, I couldn’t do–the protest from inside was too powerful.

Always, my dad needed, it seemed, to connect. He liked to read, but wasn’t an avid reader. But, he was a talker–he had to talk, and would talk to anybody, whether they really wanted to talk or not. Sometimes his desire to connect with someone was immense; he could talk for hours. He was a marathon talker.

I’m not a talker, I’m a reader. I connect with others largely through reading and writing. I can be a marathon reader and writer. That’s the power of connection.

I think my father’s hope when he talked must’ve been that he connected in some way that was significant or meaningful to the person or people he was talking to. I think this is one reason why I write. If I reach out to just one person, give her or him something to think about or imagine, to relish, then I’ve done what I set out to do–I’ve extended myself to another. And perhaps there, too, is where longevity lies–in the magic connection between talker and listener, reader and writer.

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