After most of my vacations, this column has been a travelogue. This one isn’t. My Mainland trip for the last month was mostly about family — especially new granddaughter, Lili, who’s been on the planet for four months; and my dad, Fred, who’s been around for 94 years. Their names sound like a pair of vaudeville headliners, but they didn’t exactly put on a show.
Lilienne Skye Lavo was born March 15, 2010, in Missoula, Mont. Some of you know her mom, Lisa, from dancing ballet with MAPA, or from Haleakala School, St. Anthony and later, the MCC nursing program. Now she’s a nurse in Missoula.
Alfred Chatenever was born May 1, 1916, in Brooklyn, N.Y. How he got from there to Tulsa, Okla., is another story, but he’s lived there ever since, half a century in a sprawling, ranch-style brick house under huge trees with squirrels and rabbits in the yard.
He lived alone, mowed his own yard, drove his red Honda Civic to the store and library and braved Tulsa’s notorious blast-furnace summers without air conditioning. At least right up until the day in June, when the heat, the stubbornness and a long time of not going to the doctor finally caught up with him.
The intensive care ward of St. Francis Hospital was where I found him. My sister, who lives in Tulsa, and my brother, who had flown in from California a few days earlier, filled me in on the medical details. It was a long list. Heart. Lungs. Kidneys. Liver. Pulmonary embolisms in both swollen ankles.
That was for starters. Each day brought a new organ system, or new medical procedure, onto the list. Prostate. Staph infection. Catheter malfunctions — those were biggies. In the ensuing days, morning to night in the surreal light of his hospital room, we learned more about medicine, medical care, medical insurance, and then, extended care options, than we ever wanted to know.
The hardest part was bracing ourselves to acknowledge the 800-pound beast in the room, or meet the gaze of the creepy guy with the ashen skin just outside the door, waiting. We didn’t catch his name. Our culture likes to pretend he doesn’t exist.
Part of that World War II “Greatest Generation,” our dad came from a time when denial wasn’t a bad thing. Just the opposite — it was basic survival gear. He’s had 94 great years, living life on his own terms, with integrity, an agile mind and as much enjoyment of simple pleasures as anyone I know.
Now he was in a mechanical bed in a room full of machines, as genuinely gifted physicians and angelic waves of nurses and aides filled the hours, saving his life. For weeks I watched his sleeping face — mouth sagging open like a baby condor in its nest — wondering who was in there.
Adding to the confusion was the sense of having entered Medicare wonderland. Medicine and machines are the new magic. Doctors take that Hippocratic oath real seriously, to the exclusion of all alternatives. Waiting behind them are a world of new services, most seemingly started in the last decade on the eve of the baby boomers’ arrival, for the care and feeding and treating and housing of the New Old.
Was I crazy, I wondered, for remembering a time when, at age 94, the cause of death was called death?
When Dad hit a plateau, I hopped on a plane for the long-planned next phase of the vacation. I went to see Lili.
Up there in the Rockies, where a river runs through everything under the crystalline big sky, she and her mother and father — along with her grandmother who had arrived several days before me —were spreading the joy around.
When she’s not in her car seat, Lili likes to go through life facing forward in her baby carrier on our chests, arms out, chubby lovely face taking everything in. She has this quizzical expression a lot; she doesn’t cry much, but has already learned how to disarm total strangers with a smile.
Lili is a love magnet. Mother and daughter are endlessly fascinated by one another’s every move. And the new grandpa and tutu got to try on their new roles, and discover that they loved them.
In “As You Like It,” William Shakespeare describes the Seven Ages of Man in those well-worn lines that begin, “All the world’s a stage …”
Chronicling our “exits and entrances,” the Bard notes the way infants and the elderly are similar in so many ways. I got the same message hanging around Lili and Fred.
A phone call from the hospital cut my time with Lili short and sent me back to Tulsa for the last part of the trip. There, to everyone’s amazement, Fred was showing signs of improvement.
Now it’s day-by-day, moment-to-moment, taking my cues long distance from both Lili and Fred about what really matters.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.