Many Rivers to Cross

I wrote this 3 weeks ago. That is, if writing notes into your phone counts as writing. I was in the bowels of a depressive moment and a phone call to my dad really lifted me up in a way that was quite hard to fathom. I honestly still don’t believe it and I felt at the time (and still do now), that writing about it publicly will jinx it in some way. However, it is apparently some sort of miracle and a significant moment for me, so I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on it in some way.

“I thought I was gone.”

3 weeks go I called my father at the assisted living home and was astonished at how he was talking. He didn’t take long pauses to catch his breath, he didn’t drift in and out of the conversation foggily, and the spark of “him” was all of a sudden back with a vengeance. We talked for over an hour. 1 hour and 8 minutes to be exact. I had just been through more layoffs at my place of employment and this was like a bright, singular ray of light in a sea of dark recession vibes. “I thought I was a goner.” he said. This reminded me of my favorite movie of all time Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. I watched it with him for the first time when I was in high school. In the film Clint gets beat down by an angry Sheriff played by Gene Hackman and then catches the flu and is tended to by whores until he comes back around. Now my dad wasn’t being tended to by whores, he had the kindly staff of St. Elizabeth’s in Wabasha, MN nursing him back to health – my family is forever indebted to these people. On the phone, my dad explained how each day they gave him 4 pills that go into his body to target all the cancer in there, then he gets a little pink pill that goes in and “zaps” everything in sight. This pink pill was the chemo, and it was so bleeping strong that the nurses had to wear a special protective glove to administer it.

St. Elizabeth’s was his last stand. When I saw him 2 months prior he was at death’s door. He looked and smelled like death. He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t eat anything solid, and he never left his apartment. There was a mad scramble to give my sister power of attorney to get affairs in order, he told my sister of his funereal wishes, a new will was signed, we were cleaning out his old house, and we had all pretty much given up hope and accepted the inevitable. But he didn’t. He kept going somehow.

The doctors said there was one last chance, a somewhat new and experimental drug that he could try. My dad was put on a testing trial from one of the drug companies and had this little pink pill tailored to match his specific DNA sequence. This medication costs $60,000 a month, but they are giving it to him gratis in order to measure how it works. Now he is telling me on the phone that he is taking road trips (actually driving a car!) from St. Elizabeth’s to some tiny town across the river in Wisconsin to buy pies. He is telling me that he is eating 3 squares a day with the 95-year-olds in the home (he is a mere 70), and plotting his escape Shawshank Redemption-style. I’ve heard he’s an inspiration to all the old sickies there, dive bombing the grounds before his legs were ready to hold him and busting up his face (requiring stiches not once, but twice).

Now he is telling me he is walking outside a mile day. I am dumbfounded. I check in with my sister, she tells me his “side boob” is completely gone. The “side boob” is what he calls a large growth under his arm. A massive tumor. It has been completely eradicated. The doctors are calling his transformation “incredible.” I ask him what he’s been doing lately, does he miss his TV? He tells me something I’ll never forget: “You know why I didn’t let them bring my TV here Andy?, because I knew I couldn’t get too comfortable. If I got comfortable here I’d never leave.” Holy shit! Just a few days earlier I’d been imagining what I would say at his funeral if someone asked me to do a eulogy.

“We all have it comin’ kid.”

Today my father is not only out of the assisted living, but back in his apartment. He’s cooking his own food, he’s slowly gaining weight, he’s going to weddings and dancing with his girlfriend. I still can’t wrap my head around it. I know the cancer is never going to go away, but the fact that he may be looking at years instead of weeks is nothing short of a miracle. Do I even believe in miracles? Maybe only in the way Jules and Vincent describe it in Pulp Fiction. Maybe I’ve been judging things like the cynical Vincent too long. As Jules said, “I mean it could be that God stopped the bullets, or he changed Coke to Pepsi, or he found my fucking car keys. You don’t judge shit like this based on merit. Now whether or not what we experienced was an “according to Hoyle” miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved.”

My depression, my funk, whatever it was is meaningless. Like the Schofield kid in Unforgiven, I don’t want to touch the money… even if it is for a new pair of spectacles. There’s been so many layoffs at my company I have literally lost track. The point is I am no longer afraid – at least not in the same way. I’ve seen so many of my friends figure it out after they left that it now seems like nothing more than an inconvenience. It all pales in comparison to my dad’s Coke being changed to Pepsi. I once thought a woman could cure me of drinking and wickedness. It doesn’t work that way. You have to cure yourself or the miracle doesn’t happen. Otherwise, you’re just waiting in a Leonard Cohen afterworld so you can sigh eternally.

“It’s a hell of a thing killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”

My spirituality lies dormant like the dead yellow grass I just mowed in my yard. I really don’t like going to church. I think organized religion makes people do stupid things. I had so much church drilled into my head as a youth, I never wanted to go back again. Like Jim Carroll says “I was a Catholic BOY“…absorbing 35mm anti-abortion films right from the pew, passing out from the priest’s incense as an altar boy at a funeral, digging the yearly polka masses, leaving Catholic school every Friday morning and walking to church to learn the stations of the cross. Browbeaten and scorned, yet somehow entranced by the tradition and pageantry. Hell, the last time I felt any kind of ray of light was literally at my Grandfather’s funeral in that very church. As I reached into his casket and touched his stiff, twig-like arm, a hard beam of light came down from the monstrous stained glass windows behind me. The small band of warmth landed right on my hand as I placed it on his chest. Did anyone else see that sh*t?? Maybe that’s why they put the coffins in the back of the church now vs. the front of the church. That had to be it… right? Either way God found my car keys that day, but I didn’t find it significant. Maybe I do now.

Listening to reggae music really works when you’re depressed. When I wrote these iPhone notes a month ago I was listening to “Many Rivers to Cross” over and over again (the Jimmy Cliff version), this led me to Toots and the Maytals and on and on. I listened to Toots so much that my kids began to memorize the words to all the songs (“Time Tough! Time Tough!”). My daughter loves this more than anything, especially the covers of “Louie, Louie” and “Country Roads” – we sing these out loud in the car in the morning at least 2-3 times a week. When I’m alone though, I prefer The Animals cover of “Many Rivers to Cross.” It seems to have a dark streak running through it (not unlike their version of “House of the Rising Sun“). There is something about the organ they use. Maybe it just reminds me of the church organ my mother used to play every Sunday. It’s bellowing, ringing self-important tones marked my cue to daydream for the next hour, and it also announced when it was time to walk out into the light of the real world.

Let this cliched account of a semi-cured man be a reminder that nothing in this life is permanent. As long as there is a tiny bit of breath in your lungs and you can still somewhat put one foot in front of the other, there is opportunity for change and reinvention (whether it be willed or unwilled). My dad was the only one who didn’t give up hope, maybe now he will move to San Francisco and prosper in dry goods.

“Hell I don’t know if it was all that easy back then, and we was young and full of beans.” – Ned Logan to William Munny, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.

2 thoughts on “Many Rivers to Cross

  1. It’s cool what your post says about the future of cancer treatments, and it’s double cool that your dad got to be in on the experiment. I could probably write a comment as long as your post on living and dying parents, but I really only want to mention that this made me wistful for the days when my kids and I sang Ramones songs together because I had the best taste in music and they wanted to be like me.

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