Written in Bone by Laura Spielvogel

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During the last five months of my father’s life, I’d have flashes of myself drowning, being buried alive or flattened by a steamroller, but mostly, I’d feel the crushing weight of one stone after another being stacked upon my chest. As I crouched by his bedside and confided how much I loved him, my dad’s voice caught, whispering: “We’ve always been so close.” How can I describe the depth of loss that I feel now, three days after his burial? After months of suffocation, I feel hollow. Empty, scooped out.

The Japanese word, genki, means exuberant, energetic, and healthy, and it captures … captured my father perfectly. His enthusiasm was palpable from the way he’d stand and give a wild two-armed wave to signal his table at a restaurant to any latecomer, to his lifelong zeal for learning that spurred him to enroll in a Ph.D. program weeks after retiring as a physician. He greeted each morning when we were growing up with a jaunty whistle, his good humor undisturbed by his two grumpy daughters warily eying the barbecued steak or gnocchi at the breakfast table (always dinner food because my grandpa taught him that breakfast was the most important meal of the day).

My dad didn’t just want to play the flugelhorn, he wanted to perform on Carnegie stage; he didn’t simply tell his grandchildren bedtime stories, he self-published the book, The Awesome Adventures of Alice Marie Von Bugaboo, based on the stories his own mother told him. When he packed lunches for us as kids, he’d stuff so much food in the lunch sack that we wouldn’t be able to roll down the top and the sandwich bread would split under the slathering of peanut butter and jelly. Before the ease of email, he wrote letters every day to “his girls,” so that we always had one, if not two, waiting in our mailboxes. Penned in his illegible but familiar script on yellow legal pads, my father detailed his daily routine for us, listing the foods he cooked, the patients he treated, and the antics of our dogs, promoted to surrogate children in our absence.

My sister and I joked that we had two mothers: a regular mother and a Jewish mother. Guess who was the Jewish mother? He confessed days before he died that someone had once chastised him for pushing us too hard and making us feel like we always had to please him. I reassured him that this observation was only partially correct. Yes, we aimed to please but not from any fear of his disappointment or disapproval but because he set such high standards for himself and believed so deeply in those he loved that we wanted to make him proud.  When my mother died of cancer on Mother’s Day twelve years ago, I consoled myself with that fact that I still had my dad. What’s the consolation now?

As anyone who has lost a loved one to cancer knows, certain images are burned into one’s mind, displacing or at least competing with our fondest memories. I struggle daily to keep these images at bay. My dad’s final decline was rapid, shocking in the face of his optimism throughout the two years of his illness. “I used to be so muscular. A bouncer in a bar, can ya believe it?” he’d boast to the hospice nurses.  Several months before he died, he was walking to the bathroom from the living room chair, leaning heavily on a walker, when he lost his footing. He fell to the floor and despite being within arm’s reach I wasn’t able to catch him. More disturbing was the fact that his muscles had so deteriorated that I couldn’t raise him to his feet. As he lay on the floor, he broke down, frustrated with his dependency. “For God’s sake, I just need to stand up. I can’t believe this.” He lay with one arm crossed over his eyes to hide his tears as I called the fire department. “This is so embarrassing. I hate this. I hate that this is happening to me.” As I held his hand, I tried not to sob, not to add to his humiliation.

I can’t get this image out of my mind. I allow myself to inch close to the edges, tonguing it as one would a sore tooth to see if it still aches. I skittishly shift my mind to a neutral topic, but it’s too late. I’ve pressed upon the bruise of seeing my beloved father reduced to helplessness on the floor. When the firemen finally arrived, after ten excruciating minutes, my dad tried to joke with them, ashamed that four men had been sent to lift him to his feet. My father, who had always cared for others, despised his imposed dependency and now I’m unable to picture him otherwise. I’m burdened by the guilt that I know he’d hate for me to remember him like this, to write about it, but the memory is carved into a pitiful tableau, my father stretched out on the floor, with me clutching his hand and focusing on a needlepoint pillow to outsmart my tears.

Perhaps to transcribe these memories is to release them, but more likely it will fossilize them. Etching them in bone, and thus preventing the haziness of time to romanticize and smooth out the rough edges of the past.  Three days after his funeral, I have to work harder to focus on the man he was, to willfully turn away from the haunting images of the last few months. As one man said at his funeral: “With a man this good, the sadness will not last long.” But I disagree, for the two are irrevocably linked as his goodness became exaggerated by the cruelty of his decline.

As the cancer spread, my dad couldn’t eat. Yet, he watched cooking shows all day, an endless loop of Giada and the Barefoot Contessa. He understood the irony of his actions and reasoned that he was satisfying his appetite for food with visual consumption. Nevertheless, it was disturbing.  Us kids had always joked about his matzo ball head, now reduced to planes and angles, his temples divots, and his brown eyes, baleful, ringed with elephant lashes, so lush as to be indecent, mockingly healthy against the backdrop of disease. His neck tendons stood out like cords suspending a hammock of mottled skin between them and his shoulder blades poked like cricket legs through his T-shirt and jacket (the chemo made him perpetually cold). One month before he died, we were watching one of our gals prep pasta and my dad said: “When I get better, I’m taking you to Italy. My treat.” “Sure, Dad. That’d be great.”

I struggled for months about whether to bring my three young children to visit my dying father. He insisted that I wait until he got his strength back and gained some weight. “Let’s wait until I begin to improve,” he said. “I don’t want to scare them.” Despite the unresponsiveness of his tumors to chemotherapy, my father believed until the very end that he’d be cured. It was this optimism that was both so inspiring and so painful, for I knew, we all knew, that he wouldn’t get better. The doctors had never given him any encouragement, but my father would glom onto the single positive word they might say during an appointment and manage to sublimate the rest.

As the end approached, I knew that by catering to my father’s optimism, I’d missed the opportunity to bring my children when he was still healthy enough to get out of bed, chat, and tease. Now, I was faced with the agonizing decision to deny them a final goodbye or to burden them with the indelible images of their cherished grandfather. Although I ultimately decided to take them to his bedside, I fear that I made an irrevocable mistake. I have saddled my innocent children with a portrait of death, replacing their memories of a jolly, energetic grandpa with a skeleton animated only by his love for them.

One day, during a visit from his hospice minister Thomas, my dad announced that he had a good joke about Jesus (no, my dad didn’t request a rabbi as he felt a deep kinship with the Christian Reformed reverend). My sister and I gritted our teeth, hoping he wouldn’t insult this kindly man of the cloth. My dad warmed up by telling Thomas: “If you get offended, I’m going to be really mad. I mean it.” That’s never a good start.  But Thomas was as congenial as you might imagine a hospice minister to be and reassured my dad that he was sure it’d be fine.

“So Jesus is on the cross and Peter’s standing below him. Peter was there, at the crucifixion, right? I don’t want to tell the joke wrong.”

“I’m not sure. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, go on.” Thomas encouraged.

“He motions for Peter to come closer.” My dad was propped up on three pillows and with some effort, waved Thomas closer. Thomas leaned in.

“’A little closer,’ Jesus whispers.” He spoke in a hushed tone. “’Closer still’.”  He hesitated and I wondered if he had forgotten the punch line, as he occasionally did even before the cancer, or if he was simply out of breath.

“Peter, get a ladder. That’s it. Closer. Closer. ” My dad paused for effect. “’I can see your house from up here!’” Sinking back against the pillows, he smiled weakly. Thomas, God bless him, laughed uproariously, even slapping his knee.

Weeks before he died, my dad had become so weak that he needed to be supported as he sat on the edge of the bed.  Unbelievably, we were taking him to see the doctor of the clinical trial he’d been enrolled in for the past several weeks. It seemed inconceivable that we’d be pumping chemotherapy into him in this condition, but my father was adamant, still convinced that the treatment would buy him time until a cure could be found. As he hunched on the edge of the bed, I sat beside him. He rested his head on my shoulder and hugged me with what little strength he had. I don’t know which memory is more painful, his inability to rise after his fall or his gentle, trusting embrace. As he summoned the will to climb into the wheelchair, I too stooped, burdened by the weight of sorrow, love, and loss.  I didn’t want to change places to be the caretaker to his helplessness, to be the parent and him the child.

That visit to the doctor was horrible. Not only because my father fell two times, once getting into the car and once when we tried to get him out, but more so because that was the day that he learned of his mortality. My father asked the doctor to administer the chemo and to take a CAT scan to measure the spread of the disease. The oncologist, although never one to admit defeat, eyed my emaciated father propped up in the wheelchair, momentarily able to muster enough energy to discuss treatment options, powered by optimism and hopefulness. He asked my father if he wanted to know how much time he had left, if that would help him make some decisions about how he wanted to proceed.

During the two years that my father had been sick, he’d never asked how much time he had. As a physician himself, he understood the fallibility of predictions. For some reason though, that day, he answered yes, he wanted to know. I asked: “Dad, are you sure?” When he insisted, the doctor said: “Without treatment, you have two to four weeks left to live.” My father looked stunned, but then gathered himself and said: “Doc, I’ll make you a bet I beat those odds. I’ll see you here in four weeks and a day. Make me a bet. C’mon.” In the uncomfortable silence that followed, I whispered: “Dad, he doesn’t want to bet you.” My father then asked for chemotherapy. The doctor said: “Why don’t we wait a week? Give you a chance to recuperate from the last bout and then we’ll take a CAT scan next week to see if the chemo is working.” There was no way my father, who could barely keep down a third of an Ensure shake a day, would be able to drink the contrast required for the scan to be effective, but we agreed that we’d wait a week and return.

After that visit, my father continued to vow that he’d beat the cancer, that the oncologist was cruel, even unethical to pin a specific time to his demise, but his words felt forced, as it became obvious that even he had begun to harbor doubts. It was a terrible thing to witness, my genki father stripped of hope. He died thirteen days later, two days after Father’s Day and one day shy of the doctor’s prediction.

The very next day, my husband phoned to tell me that we had been awarded a prestigious Federal grant. I hadn’t cried yet about my father’s death, shocked and numb, but when I heard this news, we both sobbed uncontrollably. “Why today? It’s one day too late. I can’t tell him.” The timing convinced us that my father had had a hand in ensuring our future, but with that call came the realization that I’d never be able to tell him another thing, ever. This celebration was just the first of many events, big or small, joyful or trying, that I wouldn’t be able to share.

Once he got sick, I used to store up small triumphs, wrapped in cheerful paper, to distract him during our three-minute daily phone calls when he was too sick to say anything other than “I love you”. Nuggets like “Drew got second place in the 5K”, “Sean wrote a report about poisonous frogs”, or “Elena’s dance recital is scheduled for the spring” made him smile and, when he still had hope for recovery, didn’t yet make him sad about what he’d be missing.  Events became concretized once I could tell my dad. Friends assure me that he still knows, but it’s not the same. “Continue to speak to me after I’m gone,” my dad urged the day before he passed. But it’s not the same. It’ll never be the same again.

Laura Spielvogel photoLaura Spielvogel received her Ph.D. from Yale University and is a professor in West Michigan.  She has published an ethnography, entitled Working Out in Japan:  Shaping the Female Body in Tokyo Fitness Clubs (2003), before turning to a genre with the potential to attract an audience larger than four.  Her creative work has appeared in Freerange Nonfiction, Kugelmass, and Anthropology and Humanism.


  2 comments for “Written in Bone by Laura Spielvogel

  1. Sorry it has taken me so long to respond. Yes, I know cancer. And my father fell just like yours. My mother was alone with him at the time. He was still at home, in his bedroom, though we later moved his bed to the living room where there was a big window he could look out. When my father fell, my mother could not get him up herself, and called me. I was fifteen minutes away. When I got there, I saw mother had covered him with a blanket so he would not be cold. She had given him a pillow to prop up his head. He was skin and bone, like your dad. I picked him up easily and put him back to bed, and we gave him supper on a bed tray. It is hard to watch them go, but we can be proud of the brave way they faced the end. Genki. Yes. Your dad had not lost it. It was just a little deeper inside. You were right to take your children. They needed to see, to understand when they are more able and older, how brave your father was being, so they can be brave too when they need to be brave. I am sorry for your loss. Three days after his funeral you wrote this? Straight from the heart. This is wonderful, raw, honest. I can assure you that time does heal, even though you never forget. We really don’t want to forget. We need to remember, so that we value every precious day all the more. We need to keep in mind what is truly important, and not get caught up in the petty details. I am glad that I got to know your father throught the words of your memoir. Thank you. Yes, written in bone, and in blood, with love.

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