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“Do you think there will ever be a Zombie Apocalypse?” I asked quietly. I took a big swallow from my fresh bottle. “You know, some kind of catastrophe that annihilates society and puts survivors back in the middle ages?”
Jim, Sandi and I were heavy into our beers, Sierra Nevada Narwhals—thick, black, potent—and it was getting late, nearly two in the morning. We were sprawled on the sofa-bed in the second bedroom of Dad’s apartment in downtown Pasadena. Sandi was between Jim and me, fading in and out of sleep.
Sandi is my wife, Jim my best friend.
Something was on the TV but I can’t remember what—could have been an infomercial for all the attention anyone was paying it. The volume was down so low it might as well have been muted. All evening, ever since dinner, conversation had been sporadic, soft, subtle, subdued. No one wanted to make normal sounds.
Dad lay in his bedroom thirty-five feet and two walls away, dying of bone cancer. My brother, Ed, and my sister, Leslie—both nurses—were taking care of him, which meant they were keeping him out of pain with regular doses of morphine, administered with a dropper sublingually.
There’s nothing good about any kind of cancer, but bone cancer is especially insidious. When it’s advanced, victims can’t move—even minimally—without suffering extreme pain. Dad probably should have been in the hospital but it was his wish to stay in his apartment and, since my brother and sister could provide professional care, we all thought it was reasonable for him to die at home.
Dad was eighty-four and three-quarters and he was absolutely not going to see eighty-five. He wasn’t even going to see another sunrise. He was sailing away on a velvet sea of poppies, the wind steady astern and swelling, and we were all on the shore watching him fade into the deep distance of death.
At Ed’s insistence, I had flown in to Burbank from Walla Walla, WA, two days earlier. “John, It’s bad,” he had told me on the phone. “He won’t make Thanksgiving. You need to be here now if you want to be with him when he goes.”
I did want to be with him, and Sandi wanted to be with me, so we booked two airline tickets, notified our employers that we would be taking bereavement leave, and we were in Pasadena in less than a week.
I had seen Dad three months earlier. He had had surgery to remove his bladder and prostate, both of which were cancerous. It was a major surgery for an eighty-four year old and he never really recovered afterwards. Having no urinary tract, he had to wear a urostomy bag to collect his urine and he hated it, loathed even looking at it. He wasn’t eating very much before the surgery, and afterwards he basically stopped eating altogether. A few weeks after the surgery he ended up back in the hospital: dehydrated, malnourished, organs failing. They pumped him full of nutrition and resurrected him. They told him how important it was for him to eat and he promised that he would. They sent him home. He ate a bit at first but without enthusiasm—without joy or relish or even hunger. Within a few weeks, he was only consuming five or six hundred calories a day. He was losing weight rapidly. He looked like a concentration camp victim, emaciated, hopeless. Then he started having severe back pain. CAT scans showed systemic bone cancer. It was everywhere.
That was it. He gave up. He stopped taking Tylenol and started taking the opiates, large quantities. Concentrated nectar of the poppy became his only sustenance.
“Hi Dad,” I said as I walked into his bedroom. It was Sunday afternoon. Ed had warned me that I might be shocked. I was. Dad had become a skin-wrapped skeleton. I couldn’t believe he was still alive.
His caretaker, Steve, gently propped Dad up on his pillows so he could better see me. This tiny bit of movement caused agony. Dad moaned and cried and his face transformed into a visage of abject torture, unnervingly evoking Edvard Munch’s The Scream. I willed myself to not cry, not yet. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
Ed and Steve left us alone and we visited, dad and I, for a half hour or so. I did ninety percent of the conversing, mostly banal babbling, noise to fill the void. I sat on the edge of his bed and gently stroked his head. He mumbled something every few minutes, but I had no idea what he was attempting to communicate. He was on so much morphine that he slurred his words like an extreme drunk. I would just nod anytime he mumbled, nod and begin another topic. It felt rude, but I didn’t know what else to do. He was probably trying to tell me something important, something monumental, Perhaps an end-of-life verity, but everything out of his mouth was gibberish. It was awful.
He grew weary and finally fell into a stupor and began to snore and I began to cry, realizing that I would never, ever, have another meaningful conversation with my dad.
Ed and I decided that we had to stay with Dad until the end. I decided to call Leslie, who lives in Northern California, because she needed to be there, too. I told her that she had to come to Pasadena immediately.
I also called Jim, more for me than for Dad, and told him to fly in as soon as possible.
Jim has been my best friend for nearly thirty years—we were college roommates—but he is also one of our family’s oldest and dearest friends. Over the years Dad, Jim and I had been on numerous hunting and fishing trips together. Even though he lives in Utah, we always manage to get together at least once a year.
I knew I would need help to get through the next few days, and I knew that Jim would be able provide a solid foundation to support me.
I also knew that Jim wanted to see Dad one more time before the end. He had told me as much several times since Dad had gotten sick.
It turns out that Jim was able to fly out the next day, Monday. Ed and I picked him up at Burbank and brought him back to Dad’s apartment. (Sandi had left earlier in the day to visit her mother in Costa Mesa, saying she would be back in the morning.)
Jim spent some time with Dad, talking and joking and carrying on as if we had just come in off the river after a day of fly-fishing. Dad, of course, couldn’t communicate but Jim didn’t let that hinder their reunion. He talked about Utah and Wyoming and fly-fishing and duck hunting and whiskey and Dad smiled and nodded his head and, periodically, mumbled.
When the stupor returned and the snoring recommenced, Jim, Ed and I left Dad with Steve and we went out to get food and beer. In fact, we got drunk—obliterated. At some point, we may have quaffed whiskey; I don’t recall. We laughed and we cried and we said many witty and many profound things, none of which I can remember. It was Monday night and I happily got blackout drunk with my brother and my best friend.
Tuesday everything was worse. Dad mostly slept. When roused he couldn’t communicate at all. We didn’t rouse him much.
Leslie had driven down from Chico the night before and had slept at her mother-in-law’s house. She was with us now. Sandi was back, too. Because the small apartment was crowded, Steve took the day off. Ed and Leslie and I took turns caring for Dad, which meant we kept him on his medication schedule.
Basically, sadly, we were all waiting for Dad to die. There was nothing else we could do. He was beyond medicine and, apparently, beneath the notice of God.
I continued to check on Dad every hour or so. Except for his shallow breathing, he looked like he was already dead. His eyes stayed open even when he was snoring; they were black as night, seeming to have no whites at all. The time—his time—was getting very close.
Tuesday passed in a blur. Ed, Jim and I began drinking again in the afternoon and continued throughout the evening and night. We didn’t drink as much as the night before, but we drank steadily. Leslie and Sandi were more temperate, but they, too, were drinking. Everyone was numbing his/her pain with alcohol.
“Probably,” Jim said, answering my question. “Shit’s gonna come crashing down eventually. I don’t think people are smart enough to stop fucking everything up in time to prevent a meltdown.”
“There are so many things that can go wrong,” I said. “War, plague, drought, famine, natural disaster, global warming, solar flares, asteroids. It’s scary when you really think about it.”
“That’s why I don’t think about it. I drink whiskey instead.”
“Do you prepare at all?” I asked. “You know, food, water, weapons, fuel?”
“Not really. I have my fishing gear, my guns and my dogs. That’s probably all I need.” He finished his beer, belched and opened another.
“What do you think people will do if the lights go out, if there are shortages of food and essential shit?”
“They’ll go berserk. It will be ugly. Lots of people will die.” He said this stoically, like he was reading a eulogy. “What about you?” he asked me.
“I have a small food store, a few guns, lots of ammo and several cords of wood,” I said.
“And water,” Sandi offered, rousing herself to join the discussion. “We have a well.”
“And water,” I agreed. “Our well is deep and the water is great. Next to air, water is the next most important thing. As soon as I can afford it, I’m buying a hand pump and having it installed, just in case the power ever goes out.”
“Water will be like currency,” Jim said after some thought. “You’ll be able to buy stuff you need from other people with water. Food, clothes, weapons, ammo….”
“Chicks!” we both said together, laughing.
“You’ll have a harem!” he said, continuing the fantasy.
“I’ll have a harem!” I sniggered.
“What about me?” Sandi asked. “Where do I fit into this ridiculous fantasy?”
After a pause, Jim deadpanned, “Who do you think is going to pump the water?” for which he received a bony elbow to his ribcage.
All three of us laughed. It felt really good. A bit of time passed and I started to doze off.
At 2:30 Ed, blurry-eyed, walked into the room. He didn’t say anything. He went to his travel bag and pulled out his stethoscope.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“His breathing is very shallow. I think he’s passing. I’m going to listen to his pulse.”
I followed Ed into Dad’s bedroom. A single candle Leslie had lit flickered with a burnt orange illumination. She was lying on the bed next to Dad, awake; her puffy eyes indicated that she had been weeping, but her sorrow was quiet now.
“He just stopped breathing,” she said solemnly.
Ed pulled back the covers, lifted Dad’s shirt and placed the stethoscope. He listened for fifteen to twenty seconds. “He’s gone,” he whispered. “Dad’s gone.”
I felt an unnerving assortment of feelings—sorrow, regret, relief, guilt, fatigue—and I suddenly felt that, for me, the Zombie Apocalypse couldn’t come too soon.
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