Dad’s Denouement, Part 2: The King’s Speech

I took off from Seattle Saturday, knowing this would be a tough week. I typically don’t like the cross-country flight to Atlanta, which combines the length of an international flight with the accommodations of a short range domestic flight. But the reason for the flight was what made it so hard: I was flying to Atlanta to help my parents finish their move.

But I didn’t plan this trip with that purpose in mind.

My dad was diagnosed with cancer in May of last year. The initial prognosis was grim so we instantly started planning to spend as much time with him as possible. Two weeks last summer were filled with planning and preparations, but shortly after that we watched with joy as his treatments seems to show enormous promise. So we planned a two week trip to Orlando and grandpa would go to Disney with the grandkids.

We’re very lucky that trip worked as well as it did because almost immediately after that his health took a turn. We noticed his speech starting to slur while we were in Orlando and a few weeks after that, we discovered that the cancer had spread to his brain and was causing pressure and inflammation that caused him to lose some speech and muscle control.

About a month after our Disney trip, I talked with him over Skype and was stunned at his appearance. He has lost his hair, appeared gaunt and far more frail, and his speech was worse than before.

That is when I booked the flight. It was simple good luck that my parents were able to get a closing date on their house that coincided with my travel plans. But I’ll happily take the luck where I can get it these days.

My parents had already moved out of their house and into my (incredibly generous) brother’s house, which he purchased only a few weeks before. So I drove up to a new house, almost an hour north of Atlanta.

When I got there, I immediately went up to see my dad. He was laying in a reclining chair, thinner, obviously tired, and a bit jaundiced. He saw me and his eyes lit up as I bent down for a hug. It was still the firm hug of my father, though less strong than the last one. I smiled.

He was trying to smile. His speech had continued to deteriorate since I saw him last, although his awareness is still sharp. But communication is a slow process. My mom and I almost instinctively repeat everything he says to make sure we got it right. It is sometimes a long process to get out simple requests and we can see it in his eyes as he struggles to make himself heard. Sometimes I can just answer a question without repeating it back to him. He likes that. It feels normal.

The very best moments, however, are when we laugh. My dad is struggling. He’s tired and in a lot of pain. Basic communication is painful. But he is irrepressibly funny. Every third sentence is a joke, often a dry jab at himself or his sickness. We have to go back to the house to move the wine and scotch and he slowly tells us “if the scotch is open, just pour it all down the drain”. My mom and I laugh. His mouth changes into a shape that I’m beginning to recognize is a smile.

His favorite joke right now is also my favorite because it’s a perfect sick dad joke for my sick dad. Someone will call him or send him an email and he’ll text back “sorry. I can’t talk now”. He chuckles to himself for appropriating that turn of phrase to his current struggle.

We all hope he regains his ability to speak clearly, but the last few months have been very hard on that optimism. Some days it feels better, clearer, I understand more, I try very hard not to repeat things back to him and we almost have a conversation. But I sometimes wonder if that has more to do with me growing accustomed to his new patterns of speech than with his speech getting better. Like how a parent understands the pocked, mangled words of their 2 year old because they have grown accustomed to interpreting it.

I frequently have dreams of my dad now and in my dreams he speaks clearly. I often heave a sigh of relief thinking “whew, it was all temporary and he managed to recover”. We try to stay optimistic and find encouragement when a day is better than the one before it. But it feels like a loss.

Dad was always a man of jokes, of verbal battles and conversation. He was a salesman for decades and always used language to encourage, convince, support. And his wit was razor sharp. Although I shouldn’t say “was”. It still is. The jokes are still there, the wit is still sharp, but it’s in a body that doesn’t want to cooperate.

If you told me this a year ago, I would have been horrified. The idea of having a sharp mind in a failing body always sounded terrifying to me. But it’s actually not as bad as I always thought it would be. He’s still here, it just takes more work, more attention, more concentration to get to his mind. But the act of simply being with him takes on more meaning. He likes having us around. And we like being around. The “thumbs up” symbol is acting as a stand-in for a smile and he still gets to complain about politics by pointing at a news story and making a face at it.

And he does love it when he can make us laugh.