Two More Fishing Trips
I always thought my brother would die in the woods, felled by a tree, crushed in a rocky ravine, shot by another deer hunter, or that his chain saw would buck in a gnarled maple tree and bounce back, leaving his bloody remains for some hapless wanderer to find. Or less dramatically, a heart attack, since the Irish men in my family tend toward explosive hearts at an early age. But it was cancer that felled him. Inglorious cancer, the renegade warrior of our time. He was out-gunned and out-maneuvered.
My brother, Harry, was diagnosed four months ago with stage four prostate cancer after returning from his annual fishing trip to Chibigamau in northern Quebec near the Cree Indian reservation.
"You're not going to die tomorrow," said his oncologist, his urologist and his primary care doctor. In fact, they all said the same thing. "Eighteen months, probably two years." One doctor said, "You'll have two more Christmases."
"I hate Christmas," said my brother.
"Well then, two more fishing trips," said the doctor.
When three doctors all said the same thing, we believed them. Why not? Even while noting the cancer in his bones, lungs and a brain lesion, they had a certain persuasiveness that was hard to ignore.
Entering the medical world in a crisis is like bush whacking through the jungle, left only with a machete to keep hacking what's in front of you, never able to gain a vision of the horizon, hoping that you are going in the right direction. One sister, Marty, is a nurse and she donned her medical pith helmet and led the charge through the jargon, dragging my brother to doctors, making sure that medical files were sent where they needed to go, scheduling scans, and most importantly interpreting the strange language of medical speak to my brother. She told my brother, "If you want me to stop, you'll have to tell me. Otherwise I'm going to keep going." He never told her to stop.
Another sister, Mary Ellen, took on the world of insurance companies, legal matters, old divorce papers that would come back to haunt us all, and the financial management of his life that was frayed. Lost. He was lost. My gruff, muscle-bound brother was lost. My role as sister number three was less clear. I'm the youngest. And I am not a nurse like Marty, nor do I live three miles from his house like Mary Ellen. I live ninety miles away and I was biding my time for when things got really bad. Like in the future. I'm also a writer and since the day he was diagnosed, I haven't written a thing, not even to an eager editor in New York.
In September, I go to an oncology appointment with my brother, where he receives more encouraging words, despite increasing levels of pain. She writes a script for Oxycontin. "What do you think of a bit of Xanax?" I ask, hopefully. This man hasn't had a calm moment in decades. Why not try it? She writes the script for that too. At some point, oncologists won't deny you a thing. Why should they? She also suggests a course of chemo. Taxotere, the cookie-cutter chemo. "It would be three months of tough going for an additional 18 months," she says. He wants to think about it. He is already taking a testosterone suppressing drug and she says that it may already be shrinking the tumor growth.
In the waiting room, he asks me, "What would you do? I'm not afraid to die, but I don't want to waste away in pain. I'm prepared to kill myself with insulin." He's had type two diabetes for years which he has managed in a cavalier fashion, bartering insulin for tree cutting services to a doctor. He is still going to work everyday at landscaping, tree cutting, and property management.
"I would be thinking the same thing," I said. "But I might try the chemo and if I hated it, I would stop."
I am not a perfect prognosticator, but after decades as a psychologist, I've heard a lot of people talk about suicide. Some jangled every alarm in my system, while I was sure that others knew were talking about something else. They were in profound emotional pain and they wanted it to stop. With Harry, the alarm bells don't go off. Here is a man who has been armed like a Branch Davidian since he was a teenager. Wouldn't he choose a gun? Men select guns as the number one way to commit suicide. But the truth was, suicide is always an option, a last-minute decision or a well-constructed plan, for a man with terminal cancer.
Harry has given away all of his guns, all 30, after his diagnosis. All except for one, his favorite deer rifle. Even knowing that he still has one gun doesn't set off the alarm for me. But I could be wrong. One can always be wrong about suicide.
I hadn't been in his house for twenty-five years. You might think this strange, and it is. He lives in the same town where we grew up, where my sister Mary Ellen now lives in the old family home. My sisters and I knew it was kind of a wreck, from his own reports, but there were things we just accepted about Harry. When we all visited together for the last thirty years, it was at the old family home on George's Hill. And it wasn't like he ever said, "Stop by and say hey someday." There was no invitation hanging in the air. Our adult relationship with him required that we forget the past.
But now I can't forget the past that I had so consciously packed away. I am hauled back through time by a random comment that he makes in a moment of physical pain. He was obsessing about his son's girlfriend of ten years who lives in the house with him. For over a year he has decided that he hates her and is making her life miserable so that the couple will leave. "Every time she walks through the room, I glare at her," he says with such intensity that I am thrown off balance. I picture this young girl trying to walk with dignity across a room in order to get to the bathroom while a man sends fumes of hate at her. I am dragged by my ankles through the tesseract of a time portal, with speed that flips my stomach.
I am six. My father has thick Irish hair and tonight he lets me comb it with his black comb that he keeps in his pocket. I am certain that he has the most wonderful hair of any father. I draw his side part with studied concentration. I am standing behind him as he sits in the dining room. Dinner is over and the household has settled into a well-fed stupor. My four siblings, all far older than me, are in other parts of the house. Suddenly my brother comes in, drunk and raging, legs spread wide. He sways slightly and challenges my father to a fight.
"Get up here! Fight me!"
My father laughs it off at first, but he is rattled at the preposterous nature of it. Who fights with a bank accountant? I am sitting on his lap, frozen in place.
And here memory offers me splotchy protection. My father is now face down on the speckled linoleum, unconscious, mouth open. My world is shredding. My brother, chest out, gloating as if there is something wonderful about hurting my father, looks around as if expecting congratulations. He hands me the black comb.
"Now you can comb my hair," Harry says.
I want my father to get up and take the comb back. Where is everyone else? My mother? My three sisters? They are all beyond the periscope of my sight.
Marty has a visit scheduled with her daughter in California. She will leave in three days. "Go," I tell her. "All he has to do is get to one doctor's appointment for the hormone suppression shot. He can do that." I am angry with him. When I learn that he is reverting back to his old behavior of running a reign of terror on a young girl, my compassion withers. I read a Facebook post that says, "To guide the soul home is an act of grace." Not me. Not this day.
Do we ever let go of anything? Even when we tell ourselves that we do? Hours of therapy in my 20s (with the unfortunate use of a Styrofoam boffer versus large pillows) spent on gaining some mastery over frozen childhood terror, followed by a PhD in Psychology that offered all the perspective and understanding that I sought about human behavior. He was a colicky baby. Attachment disorder. That explained part of it. But as one of my graduate professors said, "Even with mental illness, we should try to be good to each other."
If you had told me that the past would rush forward and grab me by the throat when my brother was the most vulnerable, I would have said, "I'm over all that and all grown up."
I am seven and Harry is nineteen. We have a small herd of white goats with pink tongues and amber eyes. My brother wants to show me how to shoot his rifle. We kneel behind a bale of hay so that I can prop my elbows on it. The goats are munching on the tall grasses in the meadow. Some stand on their hind legs to strip the tender and delicious leaves of the maple saplings. He kneels behind me and the rifle is pointed in the direction of the goats. "I don't want to shoot the goats," I say, suddenly alarmed at the direction of things. But I can't move, stuck between him and the hay bale. He puts his hand over mine. "Don't shoot the goats!" I tell him. He presses his pointer finger over mine and we pull the trigger. The goats scatter, none are shot and my brother laughs. Later my mother tells him I am too young to shoot his rifle. She doesn't know that he tricked me into thinking that we were shooting the goats. Later, I slide under the fence to be with the goats. I sit next to their fat salt lick. I drag my tongue along the salt-infused brick. A mama goat, her middle heavy with babies, joins me.
I get a phone call from Marty after she returns from California. My two sisters and brother are in the emergency room of St. Mary's hospital in Connecticut. In her absence, Harry began taking Oxy to treat the pain in his spine where tumors and arthritis merged like two tornado super cells. He is hallucinating wildly from the morphine based drug, an unfortunate side effect for some people. He claims to be plagued by three dogs and orange orbs.
"What kind of dogs?" I ask.
My sister checks with Harry. "Whippets."
Nothing could be farther from the brother I know than delicate, thin-snouted whippets. Nothing that I know about the mind and soul make sense of this. But then, the mystery of him is life-long. He is admitted and my sisters return home at 2 AM collapsing into their beds.
I am ten and my father has been dead for a year. Mary Ellen and Marty have left for college. The family is now unrecognizable from one year ago. It is now my mother, my sister Fran with her undiagnosed and misunderstood developmental delay, my brother who has launched fully into binges of alcohol, and me. Our family dog, Major, a boxer who roamed the woods with me, died not long after my father. My mother looks for another dog for me and picks a strong-willed German shepherd puppy. The dog, Duke, is an unrepentant adversary for my brother. He chooses only Harry's clothes to rip from the clothesline, growls when my brother comes near. I teach Duke to play hide and seek and he excels at the game, running full speed with his nose to the ground to find me crouched behind a tree. My brother whispers to me, "I get that dog locked in the entry way with me and I beat him." I cannot get the picture from my mind and it fills my waking and sleeping hours. I want our mother to take control of our leaky boat and protect Duke from my brother.
Three days later we drive to St Mary's and bring Harry home after his three-day stay has drained most of the Oxy from his system along with the whippets and orange orbs. The doctor on call initiates home hospice to try to catch my brother in his unrestrained free-fall. It is Sunday.
Monday morning, a hospice nurse, Nancy, arrives for an initial evaluation. It is the first time that I have spent any time in Harry's house since his sons were children, thirty years ago. It looks like an abandoned hunting camp in northern Maine, ransacked by marauding teenagers. Several generations of tarps flap on the roof, their edges frayed like fringe on a scarf. Black plastic, cerulean blue, and green. None of them fully keep out the elements because the sheetrock on the ceiling is bowed in, thick from moisture. This summer we are in a drought and it is the first good news in this whole situation.
His bed is in the living room, surrounded by piles of his clothing, stacks of anything and everything that may have entered the house floor to ceiling as if a river flooded the house and left debris. The daughter-in-law notices that I am surveying the room and she tells me, "He won't let us touch anything," she says with a shrug. "There was nothing I could do." The front of the refrigerator is rusted in a way I've never imagined possible, over the stove, a long cord with a light bulb hangs perilously close to the burners, a towel is tacked over one window, and the walls are unpainted sheetrock. Outside, chickens roam free along with several attack roosters. If it was just adult me who had to sit and talk with the hospice nurse and my family, I could manage it. Because the situation is dire and all hands are required now. He is suffering and he is going to die. But some portal to the past bursts open again.
I am eleven and I have discovered softball. We play it hard at recess. My favorite position is shortstop, nestled between second and third base, the pitcher at ten o'clock. The ball always comes my way and that is how I like it. I am breaking in a new glove. Harry, 23, tells me that he saw me playing softball. He offers to play catch with me at home. I throw to him; it is a fast throw, he misses and it clips his shins. He is enraged and begins to throw the ball at top speed at my shins, over and over. I can't catch the ball. It feels like a rock hitting my shin bones and I wonder if my bones will break. I throw it gently to him and he slams it back to me, his face contorted in anger. I am afraid to stop. I don't know what happens to my new glove. I stop playing softball at recess.
While Nurse Nancy is talking, I notice stacks of Harry's mail. I pick up one bill. It is a real estate tax bill from 2013. Unpaid. I dig a little farther. Tax bill for 2014, unpaid. $3,078. The next day, I find a letter that says there is a lien on the property. The next day, Mary Ellen finds a notice that the house is going to be sold at auction on December 1st. Then we find bills everywhere. Stacks and stacks of mail, all starting around three years ago. Has he been sick for that long? Is the lesion in his brain cancer or more consistent with Alzheimer's? He's lived in this house for 35 years and while he's not been much of an interior decorator, he's always paid his bills.
The assurance that full hospice care will start in a few days feels like Doctors Without Borders thundering to the rescue. A team will come in a few days and begin pain management and some personal care. My entire expertise is now reduced to shopping for the right cups, plastic containers, picking up prescriptions, and buying men's pajama bottoms at Kmart. Knowing that the official hospice gang is coming in a few days, I drive back to Mass.
At home, I wake up at 2, 3, 4 AM each night from dreams of being in Harry's house, which feels like being in his brain, his unconscious splayed out, where I don't ever want to be. When I wake, I feel trapped in his lesioned brain, his battles with everyone who has ever crossed him. I wait two days and call again to see how the hospice meeting goes. I am counting on hospice. I call Mary Ellen and get the report. The hospice meeting was a disaster. How? What?
The two hospice women, horrified by the mess that they saw, by the two grown sons who said that they couldn't take time to be with their father... "Just tell me what happened!" I said. "Do you mean our brother is too weird for hospice? Don't they specialize in weird and dying?"
Everything went wrong and there is no hospice in place. I drive back again, the ninety miles feeling longer with each trip. I should have been there to speak social work with hospice, but who knew they'd be so sensitive. My brother is writhing in pain when I come back. Marty is frantically calling doctors, ready to lose her mind with my brother's suffering. After outraged phone calls, a new hospice team is scheduled to return in two more days.
My brother looks up at me from his bed. "I've never felt anything like this. I want to just walk out on the highway and be run over. I can't stand this!" All he has is a lidocaine patch on his back.
"Hang on," I say. "We've got another plan."
It is time for medical marijuana. I call a friend, who calls a friend with a medical marijuana card and he purchases a tincture and a lotion. I rendezvous at a Dunkin Donuts near Hartford for the exchange of a paper bag containing what I dearly hope is some relief. "Just like the old days," says my friend with a reference back to pot-buying days.
Back at Harry's house, my sisters are reading the riot act to his sons about what they must say when the next hospice team appears. I walk through the family meeting, in the house that is giving me nightmares, and climb onto his bed. I am honestly uninterested in trying to change the result of Harry's horrible parenting. "Let's put this on your back," I say and rub as much THC loaded lotion on his low back as possible. There are no psychoactive properties with the lotion, and even with the tincture, he doesn't see any more whippets.
I am 12. The black rotary phone rings late at night and my mother answers it. A man tells her that my brother is out of control drunk and fighting everyone in a bar. There is something about a knife. The man is going to bring him home. The call is a courtesy to warn my mother. She is a widow, almost 50, with 2 daughters at home. She tells us to go upstairs to a small room in the attic and stay there. My sister Fran says everything that I am thinking but unwilling to say. "Is he going to kill us?" She is cringing, holding her wire-haired terrier close to her chest. I scoff at her, striking a tone of bravado. "No, of course not." Both of us can't be afraid. I have to be stronger and stay on the alert in case our mother needs help. And that means not showing that I am fucking terrified of my drunk, angry brother who has a penchant for guns and hunting knives. A heavy mist is falling. From our perch in the attic, we see the lights of a car bump along our long driveway. A car door slams. I look behind the safety of a curtain. A man drags my brother to a spot near the front steps and drops him there on the cold, wet grass. My mother appears outside and drapes a raincoat over him. The next day, we do not speak of this.
We are waiting for the next hospice team (and I am determined that this will go well) when a social worker knocks on the door. "Are you with hospice?" I ask.
"I'm here to help. I'm not with hospice," he says. He is a tiny man, oddly similar to Salvador Dali, funny and kind, and this is what has gotten him into homes for years. He meets Harry, who can now sit upright for only 30 seconds at a stretch, and starts asking questions like "Who is taking care of you? These lovely ladies? What did you have for breakfast?" Then it hits me. The first hospice team has filed a report of elder abuse. Oh my god. By the time he leaves, he asks me to walk out with him. "I don't get to see this very often, this much caring. You can call me anytime." If I ever meet the two hospice women who made the report, I am going to launch the attack roosters right at their dainty heads.
A large male nurse and a male social worker are the next and final hospice team. It has been deemed a house not fit for women. Too rough, too dangerous, too something. I agree. They are the A-Team and with their arrival pain is under control, adult sons are on board. My brother's speech is becoming harder to understand but he says thank you often. I spend one more night at George's Hill and then return to Mass. All is finally well, as well as we can hope for.
I call for an update: disaster again. Harry is wandering, trying to leave the house constantly and no one has slept for two days. Marty is beyond reaching; every bit left to her is trying to calm our brother and catch up with his pain. Mary Ellen has taken up cursing for the first time in her life. She threatens to kill the goddamned rooster that attacked her. "I'm coming back and I will stay all night at his house. Tell them all that they have to go to sleep tonight," I tell her. I drive back.
I am 13 and my mother is called more often at night to pick him up at police stations, bars. He is a constant toxic bloom in our house, either drunk at night, or angry during the day. I declare guerrilla war on him. He sets traps for foxes in our steep woods. He kills the foxes and sells the pelts. I set off the traps with sticks. He puts out a different sort of trap to catch raccoons that he sells to coon hunters to train their dogs. I set off those traps as well. When he catches me, he flies into a rage but dumps the majority of it on my mother. She tells him to set his traps somewhere else. I find a newly molted snake skin, translucent and nearly intact. I place it on the floor outside his bedroom. If he wants a war, I will give it to him.
I send Marty back to George's Hill after she gives me directions about the medication. She is wispy, losing too much weight. Harry is fretting with his feet, moving as if he is going somewhere in his bed. I send everyone to bed by ten. Both sons have gut-busting jobs. One is a mason and the other is an asphalt paver. When they come home they drink heavily. They all gratefully go to bed and within minutes they are both snoring, and along with my brother's raspy breathing, I am in a cave of rumbling bears.
I give my brother morphine every two hours, Haldol earlier in the night when he was agitated, one hit of Ativan and he is wearing a Fentanal patch. What do you say to that, cancer?
He has lost weight, nearly forty pounds, but he is not like the cancer patients I saw as Mass General when my friend Jeanne was there. They were all taking chemo and they looked like melted wax, grey and sad, all dressed in sweat pants. Harry's beefy muscles, his thick fingers, bulging forearms, all of that is gone, but what is left is tight and strangely graceful. I pat his arm, place my palm on his forehead. By midnight his breathing changes to the tortured breathing called a death rattle, which is too easy a name for such a heart-breaking sound. I settle into his house and wait for dawn when Marty will return.
I am twenty-two. Harry is thirty-four and married for several years. He returns one night, suddenly moving back in after a fight with his wife who has just had a hysterectomy. I tell him, "You have to go back to her, she needs you." He stops speaking to me for ten years. Like an ancient Irish chieftain, banishing me from his kingdom.
I put my hands on his feet, palm to sole to warm them, to Reiki them. The house cools and I cover him with his favorite comforter. I put a tiny watery sponge on the inside of his lips.
My sister Fran surprises us all with her early death. She is the eldest, and at age 60, dies from a heart attack. From that moment on, Harry returns and we never speak of the past again. He implores my mother with flowers, plants, fixes anything that she hints at, trims trees, brings her photos of his fishing trips to Canada, attends family dinners. He stopped drinking five years prior. He wants forgiveness. He wants back in.
His respirations are slowing, his body is more rigid, his eyes partly opened and fixed. This is happening faster than any of us can imagine.
He is my biggest book fan. He comes to all the readings that I do in Southbury and drags a friend along each time.
Each of his sons wakes once during the night. "How is he?" they ask as they stumble to the bathroom. "Much quieter," I say. "You can go back to bed." I give Harry more morphine. There is still a reflex to swallow. "Thank you," I whisper to him.
It is five years ago and I am visiting my most favorite relative, Marguerite. She is everyone's favorite and Harry is seated at the kitchen table when I arrive. He brings them the daily newspaper, stacks their wood, shovels their snow, delivers flowers and makes Marguerite laugh. We drink coffee and talk about the snow that is heavily falling. Marguerite says something about us when we are children. My brother says, "You were spoiled." I've heard him say this before and I wonder now exactly what he means. In what universe was I spoiled?
"What do you mean?" I ask, bending the rules about the past.
"You got everything," he says, setting his coffee cup into the saucer.
"But what did I get?"
"You got all the love."
Is it that simple, all that time, he was chasing love?
The snow is deep, and it will soon be dark. For the only time in my life, I have a car that is useless in the snow; a Mazda, good only for Arizona. I need to drive to George's Hill, ten miles away.
"I'm not sure I can make it down the hill," I tell him as we walk down the steps to the deck.
"Just follow me. Drive in my tracks," he says.
He takes a route I've never gone before, little back roads, angling back toward home. He goes a little faster than I can manage, but I stay in his tracks, I see the taillights of his black truck and my brother is guiding me home.
It is 5 AM and his breathing is even softer, slower. It was never less that I wanted from him, but more. In two hours he is gone.
I am five. Harry is teaching me to ice skate on our pond. I have on my plaid coat with the fur collar and wool mittens. He is bent over holding my hands, skating backwards, and I am looking up at him, afraid that I will fall. He lets go with one hand and then the other.
"You're skating! Now catch me," he laughs, skating away faster and faster. Gone.