By Cynthia Kaplan
1. Here’s a piece of advice. While spending the afternoon with your dying father, don’t ask Alexa to play the songs of Judy Collins which, once upon a time, he loved, because the first song out of the gate might be this:
Across the morning sky
All the birds are leaving
Ah, how can they know it’s time for them to go?
Before the winter fire
We’ll still be dreaming
I do not count the time
Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?
2. If you’re wondering how to get a very ill man in his late 80s to the Sloan Kettering emergency room without taking an ambulance, because they don’t accept patients who arrive in ambulances, because dying of cancer is not an emergency, per se, I’ll tell you: bundle him up (it’s early November), secure him upright by tying him to the wheelchair with the arms of a sweater—not the one he’s wearing, he’s not insane—and wheel him through the street. Do this because the Sloan Kettering emergency room is the Lamborghini of emergency rooms. It is the place where they have your father on a gurney within two minutes of arrival and evaluated by a team of doctors within 10 minutes. It is the place where a doctor finally tells us to our faces that he is dying.
3. One summer day, my husband and I were playing tennis with our teenage kids when our friends Paul and Rachel came to meet us. While David and I left the court to greet them, my father, who had been watching the game, walked onto the court without his cane and asked the kids if he could take a swing or two. Paul, hugging me hello, looked over my shoulder and asked, “Is it possible that there is an old man lying on the tennis court?”
4. Once, I said to my mother, “If you die before Dad, I will kill you.”
5. My father’s night table was a wonder of bedside efficiency, while at the same time a textbook example of what an electrician would call a fire hazard. The double outlet behind it somehow managed to power no fewer than eight electrical appliances. They were as follows: a lamp, an iPhone, an iPad, an Apple watch, a laptop computer, a Mophie charger, a smaller lamp for reading after lights out, and a rechargeable battery charger. There is a metaphor, somewhere here, in which my father, who has been at or near death’s door several times in the past six years, not to mention that time back in 2003 when he drove himself to the hospital while having a heart attack, is, himself, rechargeable.
When he returned home from Sloan Kettering for what we knew would be the last time, my brother dutifully laid a powerstrip beneath the hospital bed, plugging it in behind the couch and taping it down with gaffer’s tape to the rug, as though we were all on a film set. In addition, a little folding table was placed next to the bed for thermoses, cups of rechargeable batteries labeled “charged” and “to charge”, and a pulse oximeter, which actually belongs to me because I have a congenital lung thing. My father consulted it twice hourly, and it may have been the most suitable and well enjoyed gift I have ever given him.
6. After my father died, I found four quarter-sized items that looked like blobs of white clay sitting in a box in his desk drawer. Each had a small indent on the top and a disc of waxy paper, the kind that protects a sticky surface, on the bottom. I brought them home, pulled the paper off, and stuck one each onto the side of my night table, David’s night table, and our children’s night tables, just below the surface. I picked our phone cords up off the floor and pressed them into the indents. My father was a genius.
7. On one of the final days of my father’s life, while confined to a hospital bed in the center of my parents’ Upper East Side living room, he set his Apple watch to time the life span of two ordinary, single-use AAA batteries so he could compare them to rechargeable AAA batteries. I said, “Dad, that could take hours.” “That’s okay,” he said.
8. Here is how I found myself, one night in the summer of 2019, alone in the emergency room of New York Presbyterian Hospital with each of my parents unconscious on a gurney. Late that afternoon, my mother, then upright, called and asked me to come over. “Your father doesn’t look right, and I’m going to call an ambulance.”
When the EMS people arrived, my father awoke and, despite the fact that he was very ill, asked them how their night was going so far and thanked them very much for coming. He made them each guess his pulse oxygen level, and he made jokes at his own expense throughout the ambulance ride. This was his way. It was both his nature and a contrivance. The gratitude, the charm, they were genuine, but they also got him whatever he wanted. The hospital he preferred, the nurses he liked. When he asked for more ice water or blankets from the blanket warmer, he got them.
After an hour-long wait in a hallway, we were taken into a curtained bay, and my father, now feverish and incoherent, was hooked up to an IV and a heart monitor. He awoke briefly to insist my mother change his ileostomy bag. He prided himself on the care he took with it, and even in his delirium he knew it should be checked. I stepped outside the curtain and texted my brother an update.
When my mother was through she was done in. It was now around 9 p.m. and I suspected she hadn’t eaten since noon. I offered her the Clif Bar I had in my backpack, but she pulled a granola bar from her purse and said, “For emergencies.” “Me, too,” I said. We ate in silence. Then she looked at me and said, “You know, I’m feeling a little off.” Then her eyes rolled back in her head and she slumped down in the chair.
I yelled toward the nurses station. “My mother has fainted!”
Doctors and nurses rushed over, swooped her onto a gurney, and rolled her next to my father.
When my brother arrived, I held up my phone to take a picture of him sitting on a chair between our supine parents, casually reading the paper. Just as I pointed my phone, my father bolted upright, eyes wide, looking straight ahead at nothing, like an extra in a zombie movie. I texted the picture to my best friend.
9. If I write the essay about my father’s death, it will mean he has died.
10. My brother, my mother, my husband, and I sat outside a curtained area at Sloan Kettering’s emergency room and, while my father was being examined, we discussed our most pressing issue: how to bring an unconscious man to consciousness long enough to find out his iPhone password.
When the doctors left, we hovered over our father, waiting for any sign of consciousness. I was tempted to press my fingertips into his sternum, rubbing back and forth, something I’d seen TV doctors do to rouse patients. I could imagine my father himself suggesting this, as he was an avid observer of his own care. He demanded bloodwork and any other diagnostic information be emailed to him from each of his doctors, so he, a man with no medical training whatsoever, could interpret it.
Dad. Dad. Jack. Pop, wake up. Dad. We stood on either side of him and took turns throwing pennies down the well, hoping to hear one go kerplunk. His eyelids fluttered.
Steve held up the phone. “Dad, what’s the password?” Dad moved his mouth a bit but no sound came out. He closed his eyes and then opened them again. “Dad, can you tell us the password for your phone?”
He held up his right hand, typing the air. Steve put the phone in his left hand and helped him hold it. He punched the code. 189585. “189585, is it 189585, Dad?” I asked. “What is that?” “Grandpa’s birthday.” His father’s birthday, year first, then month, then day. Even if we’d guessed the date, we would never have guessed the sequence. Genius.
11. When someone in your home is in hospice care and you think the patient is in need of medical assistance, you call the hospice hotline. You do not touch the box of drugs in the fridge, the one they gave you at the start of hospice care, because you were told not to touch it without a nurse’s express instructions. I imagine my mother in navy slacks and an old beige cashmere turtleneck, standing in a blast of cold air, eyeing the box with consternation. Why don’t they tell her the thing they don’t tell her until it is too late, that when the end is near she should just throw everything in the box at her husband to make his suffering stop. Because, what is she going to do? Kill him?
12. It is late November, and Marc Maron’s cat, LaFonda, is unwell. I know this because I have been listening to his twice-weekly podcast as I walk through Central Park to my parents’ apartment. LaFonda is old and, like my father, she is not taking her infirmity well. She is weak and listless and has all but stopped eating. The vet says you never know, she could have a year. He doesn’t suggest heroic measures, so Marc gives her fluids and meds and tries to soothe her. He is told that LaFonda will let him know when it is time.
A week after my father dies, LaFonda tells Marc. She has some crazy energy, flying around, howling and agitated, trying first, as Marc reports in his typically trenchant way, to climb onto the toilet before finally shitting in the shower. He and his girlfriend take her to the vet, comforting her and each other. They know they will leave without her. Marc tells LaFonda it’s OK, and she dies in his arms.
If you were to ask me to describe the end of my father’s life, I would tell you to listen to Marc Maron’s account of his last days with La Fonda. They were just the same, except for the shitting in the shower.
13. At 6:30 a.m., my mother woke me with a phone call. I got dressed in the dark and took a taxi across town.
13a. On the last morning of my father’s life, he was awake and wrestling with the air. His covers were thrown aside. He was clutching at the bars of the hospital bed, pulling himself up, trying with all his might to stay alive. He asked for help from his father, who hovered near the bookshelves.
My mother had called the hospice hotline about an hour earlier, and they’d instructed her to give him a dose of Ativan. He continued to rage, so we called again and were told the nurse would come. When she finally did, she gave him more Ativan and an antipsychotic and then another dose of Ativan. As she packed up her bag and prepared to leave, she said, “His heart sounds strong, so it could be a few days. Or it could be five minutes. Who knows?”
13b. No one tells you that when a person stops breathing and you think it’s over, 30 seconds later they might take another breath. If I could crystalize in one image my father’s gargantuan life force, his unequivocal desire to not die, his uncanny ability to come back from the edge, from the edge of the edge, from a heart attack, from a stroke, from cancer, from sepsis, to go from wheelchair to walker to cane over and over, it would be this second breath.
13c. The summer before my father died, my parents bought cemetery plots in a lovely cemetery in Connecticut, near where we’d lived when I was growing up. Go ahead and be shocked that a couple of old Jews didn’t have their place of rest lined up until the very last second, but my father could not envision his death, not ever, not even as he died. With his last words he begged my mother to call for an ambulance.
13d. Five minutes after the departure of the hospice nurse, my father took his last breaths. I called out, “Mom, he stopped breathing!” They say that the hearing is the last thing to go, and now I am haunted by the idea that my father heard me announce his death and was frightened.
13e. My father stopped breathing while I stood stroking his head, telling him everything would be alright. He would be alright. I said to my mother, “I think that’s it, Mom,” and she said to me, “Are you sure? What if he’s not dead?” And I said, “Go get a mirror, like in the movies,” and she did, and she came back and put it under his nose and there was nothing, no steam. We started to laugh. Then she said, “What if we killed him with all those drugs?” We laughed some more.
14. Who knows where the time goes?
15. When I was a little girl, we had a small motor boat called The Sparerib. My parents had a leather and wool satchel with matching thermoses, and my mother would pack it with sandwiches, ice water, and a single can of Tab for her, and we would motor out onto the Long Island Sound for the day. We would drop our anchor and jump in and swim around. Then my brother and I would eat our lunch on the prow, letting our suits dry on us in the sun. On the way home, we would take turns standing in the circle of our father’s arms helping him steer the boat.
I can see my parents now, in my mind’s eye. My mother sits on a square canvas boat cushion in the stern in her checked Bermuda shorts and white button-down shirt, her dark hair tied back with a scarf, like Jackie Kennedy. My father, with his sideburns and his Ray-Bans, is wearing khaki shorts and his cream-colored knit shirt with a navy binding at the edges of the neck and sleeves. He stands smiling, gazing out over the windshield, one hand on the wheel, the other on my brother’s shoulder. The late afternoon sun is in our faces as we head into the harbor.
Cynthia Kaplan C’85 is the author of two books of essays, some films, and a bit of TV. You can find her at www.cynthiakaplan.com. Her father was Jack B. Kaplan W’53.