Sunday, December 28, 2014


The Invalid, Wolfgang Heimbach

I am  home in DC visiting my parents over Christmas and New Year's, an extended visit of a few weeks. My father's recently had a major operation (the Whipple surgery) because he was high-risk for pancreatic cancer. The recovery is harrowing. He's in pain, it's hard for him to eat, he's lost wait to point of looking like an entirely different person.

Still, it was a good Christmas, with my young nieces and nephew cavorting through the house, and the grown-ups lingering in conversation at the dinner table, and my dad cheering up considerably as the days went by.

Now the rest of the family's departed, leaving me and my parents, and some extra germs. My mom and I have both come down with a nasty bug my niece and sister-in-law were just getting over when they arrived.

Also there are the two dogs: high energy Cleo and aging Kramer, who is quickly coming un-house-broken. Among this group of humans and animals, we all (except for perhaps Cleo) need some kind of special help.

So we're making each other cups of tea, cooking up chicken stock, encouraging each other to take naps, and discussing which nutritional supplements are the most palatable. My father bravely endures an episode of pain while I, still a little flu-ish, load the dogs into the car and take them to the dog park so my mom can get a break from taking Kramer out. None of us wants more pee on the carpet.

When my dad's not in pain, he tidies up the kitchen and takes Kramer on short walks. My mom does the laundry, because my mold allergy is too severe for me to go into the basement laundry room. I do as many dishes as possible, thinking always of the countless dishes my parents did when I lived here, during the endless years (in reality five) I lay in bed with undiagnosed Lyme disease. (I can never do enough dishes to repay them for all they did for me.)

My father seems to almost prefer getting through his periodic bouts of pain on his own, but afterwards he wants to talk about what's happening to him, how he's juggling tiny meals and antibiotics and oxycodone (which he hates taking), not to mention a drainage tube sticking out of his side to help clear a post-surgical infection. So I sit and listen, wishing there were more I could do.

We all help Kramer get up and down the stairs. She wants to go up and down the stairs, far more than we want her to, because she gets confused and stops halfway up or down, unable to take another step and squeaking in senile distress. Someone walking alongside her solves this. We trudge up and down the stairs with her, giving her words of encouragement. And when Kramer has an accident despite all the trips outside, my mom patiently cleans the carpet.

Life is suffering, I can't help thinking. Maybe not all the time, the way Buddha declared, but a large part of it. Samsara slapstick. And when another day of samsara is done we sit down to dinner, transported to another, more glamorous world of suffering, a film noir starring Bogart and Bacall.