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The Smoking Baby

For two years, I was proud to be a contributor at A Deeper Story. I wrote alongside many amazing authors, writers, and poets, often wondering how on earth I got so lucky. I often felt unworthy. They were the Alice Coopers to my Wayne.

Nish Wiseth, the founder and chief editor, has decided the time has come to move on, so she is closing up shop. I’ve decided to re-post my work from there, with her blessing. These posts often focus on issues of faith, culture, church, and how they intersect through story. I am very fond of these posts and don’t want them disappearing. Folding them into Lifenut is like folding chocolate chips into cookie dough.

This particular post was written nearly a year ago. I had no idea how dramatically different life would look exactly one year later.

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The Smoking Baby
(originally published on July 22, 2014)

My mom had a bizarre, painful accident that required surgery, so I drove 250 miles over the Colorado mountains to help her avoid a rocky recovery. She is famous for dropping everything to help in times of trouble, so it seemed completely natural I would do the same for her. I left my husband and children at home with their blessings to go help their beloved grandma. After spending four days in the hospital, she came home and claimed the big recliner with the best TV watching angle and a table nearby for a pile of books.

My brother and I made a big dinner of linguini and meatballs. After, full of good food and happy to have her home safely, we agreed to watch a DVD made from converted, soundless home movies. They were originally filmed in the early 1970s. “They’re funny!” my mom promised. I was okay with watching them because they heavily featured Baby Me, spanning my first few days to about age three. Apparently, I cried a lot. I wore handmade bonnets and a lot of yellow.

I also smoked Marlboros and drank Budweiser.

I was about six months old in the snippet. My dad was holding me. He had a wild, full crop of thick black hair and mutton chops from his high cheek bones to lower jawline. 70s Elvis would have sneered with jealousy. My daddy smiled and his eyes were bright, his dimples deep. He bounced me around and made me laugh. “Watch this,” my mom said, dryly.

dadandme

The clip of me bouncing in my dad’s arm ended abruptly. After a beat of black, I popped back onto the TV screen with a cigarette dangling from my mouth. It kept falling out but my dad kept replacing it. He must have given up because the clip ended brusquely. Maybe I needed a beer? Boom, little me mouthing the rim of a beer can, tasting, cringing, but tasting again. I glanced at my dad. He shook his head and shrugged. Things were different back then. I rode home from the hospital in my mom’s arms. I traveled in a stroller that looked like a bear trap decorated with jaunty orange daisies stolen from Jan Brady’s closet. Poor Jan. It was 96% metal hinges and angles. 3% was a small vinyl sling to sit inside. 1% were decorative teething beads painted with lead and poorly attached.

The DVD started a new chapter. I was suddenly six months older and celebrating my first birthday with a Raggedy Ann cake. As I stuffed frosting into my mouth, my beaming parents flanked me. I recognized pride. They looked at me, looked at each other, smiled at the camera, back at me, back to each other. Meanwhile, I was absorbed in the cake decorated with a freaky red-curled clown doll, oblivious to their affection.

Oddly, when I watched the parts where I mouthed a cigarette and beer, I could taste the cigarette and beer. When I watched myself eat cake, I could taste the buttercream. When I was knocked down on screen by an Irish Setter puppy into short green grass, I knew how it felt. The gutter water tasted like rain and dirt, my grandmother’s kisses were soft, my grandpa’s hand was big and calloused. I was slipping back to a very distant past and filling in blanks I didn’t know I had as a child. No child does. They feel, taste, and smell their worlds. But it isn’t until later when senses build memories and memories build stories and stories build an autobiography.

There is fire on the tip and a slurring swerve in your step. You are the one who put them in your mouth.

You finally noticed you’re an apple of an eye because you looked up from a cloying maniacal distraction frosted with buttercream.

You click off the soundless, garish past.

The World’s Worst Healing Garden

The bank of elevators on the hospital’s third floor led to a small, pointless waiting area. It greeted people who found themselves stopping at the most dreaded floor in the building. A large sign hung from the ceiling just around a corner. Oncology was to the left. The ICU was to the right. If one resisted going either way, there were three options:

1. Back to the elevators for a trip downstairs, through the lobby, and out the doors. This facilitated fleeing in terror, denial, or possibly the cafeteria.

2. Taking a seat in one of the waiting room chairs to read a magazine or gather courage.

3. Straight forward. There was a glass door leading out to a rooftop Healing Garden.

When I took my first trip to the third floor, I had just driven 250 miles in about three and a half hours and wanted nothing more than to see my dad and mom. Earlier in the day, my mom had taken my dad to the ER thinking he had perhaps suffered a small stroke. He was clearly unwell. The last I heard from her was that they discovered 5 tumors during a CT scan of his brain. Within an hour of hearing that news, I considered my options, talked to my husband and kids, packed my bags, and jumped in the car to be with them. I had no idea there were many other tumors throughout his body.

I was in such a rush when I arrived, I didn’t notice the straight-forward option when I read the sign that took my breath away.

< ------ONCOLOGY INTENSIVE CARE------>

I took a sharp left and found my dad, my mom, and what I came to know as the beginning of the end. After a short visit, I took my mom to get some dinner—but more for a break. The hospital cafeteria was closed for the night. On the way to a restaurant that rhymes with Crapplebee’s, she told me about the multitude of tumors in the rest of his body. We nibbled awkwardly as it grew dark outside. She wanted to go home to water her garden and wait for my brother to arrive. Then, the three of us went back to the hospital to visit and say good night, passing under the big bad sign on our way in and out.

The next morning, we returned to the hospital early. We rode to the third floor, disembarked, and noticed an outdoor space called The Healing Garden for the first time. We should check that out sometime! we agreed during our left turn to dad.

We had our chance when my dad needed assistance with the restroom. We strolled down a hallway, past striding nurses and grim visitors clutching coffee cups, past family waiting rooms, conference rooms, vending machines, and TVs playing for nobody. We stopped in front of the expansive windows separating us from the Healing Garden. I pushed the glass door open into a shaded oasis replete with hundreds of winking pansies and garish petunias housed in rectangular planters. They are separated by thoughtfully placed benches and tables. On the east end there is a balcony with a view of the city. The south edge of the garden is walled in by upper floors of one of the other wings of the hospital, but vines trail up metallic screens for a more lush look. Along this wall stands a small decorative metal wall carved with the entirety of Psalm 23 in fancy scroll.

healinggarden_1

Also, there is a Boeing 737 jet firing up the engines for takeoff. Or maybe it’s Paul Bunyan vacuuming out Babe’s neglected stall? Maybe that intense mechanical whirring roar sound was temporary? We looked at each other and yelled, “Is it loud out here?” Indeed. It was.

The Healing Garden had all the touches of a garden that heals except for one thing. I’m no building systems engineer or designer of ventilation systems, but it seemed as if input/output of the large regional hospital’s heating and cooling system was located in or near the the wonderland of pansies and the valley of the shadow of death.

healinggarden2

We had to talk to each other in shouts. Forget making a phone call. Maybe, we speculated, the noise comes and goes. We just picked a bad time to visit. But as that day and several following days demonstrated, each visit to the Healing Garden featured the roar of throwing 10,000 accordions into the fires of Modor. When it was very hot outside, it was worse.

Bizarrely, we still went out there when my dad needed personal care or we simply needed a break. I enjoyed looking at the stunning variety of pansies and was surprised to see parsley growing there, too. I’d stand at the edge of the balcony to look over the city where I grew up. I’d stare at the mountains to the east and how their familiar presence was like encircling arms. My dad’s job had brought our family to that place when I was a small child.

Whenever someone mentioned a trip to the Healing Garden, we’d laugh about it. When my sister and niece arrived from across the country late into the second day, we took them out there without telling them about the roar. “It’s loud! Is it always this loud?” they asked.

Welcome to the world’s worst Healing Garden. Laughter. Speculation.

Yet, it delivered.

We gathered outside as a family for the first time in years. We laughed about it every time we walked by or it was mentioned. I developed a tender spot for it because it tried so hard. The hospital tried. The flowers tried. It was a reminder that there is no perfect slice of peace to be found in a place, ever, because we bring our own noise with us. It was so ludicrous, it healed.

The next week, my dad was lying in a bed at the hospice care center after several days at home. His death was near. His room was beautiful, large, gorgeously decorated in the Craftsman style of the early 1900s. There was a balcony overlooking rose gardens and snaking paths. I stepped outside, alone. The only sound I could hear were birds singing and water splashing in a fountain just out of view. It was serene.

But there was a roar and it came from my heart. It eclipsed anything I’ve ever heard.

Clint Eastwood Doesn’t Eat Banana Bread

A few hours after my dad came home from the hospital, he was sitting on a couch with five Clint Eastwood movie DVDs fanned in front of him. My brother listed the titles as it was unclear whether or not my dad could still read. I sat on the newly-delivered and oddly comfortable hospital bed across from them, secretly pulling for “Every Which Way But Loose.”

My mom took a loaf of banana bread out of the oven. Very few food aromas can beat the waft of warm banana bread. I was going to get a still-hot slice and asked my dad if he’d like some, too. He looked away from five Eastwood faces and whispered, “Clint Eastwood doesn’t eat banana bread.”

I’ll take that as a no, dad.

His remaining time was going to be all about his comfort and happiness. If he replied he wanted the entire loaf, I would have presented it to him. One day earlier, a doctor asked if he understood what his cancer diagnosis meant.

“Basically, I’m screwed!”

We took that as a yes. He understood. There was nothing that could be done for five cancerous tumors in his brain, a softball-sized tumor engulfing his liver, a tumor in his adrenal gland, in lymph nodes, and in his lungs. Hospice was called. We were told we could care for him at home. It’s what he wanted and what we wanted as well. The nurses from hospice couldn’t say how long he had, though. Months? Weeks? Days? We’d have to take each moment as it came without thinking too far into a very foggy future. My mom, my sister, my brother, my niece, and I settled in amongst the array of medical equipment and medications committed to being there for him—and each other.

While Clint wouldn’t be caught eating banana bread, he was willing to star in a major motion picture with an orangutan costar. My dad chose the best of the bunch and moved to the hospital bed. He laid on his side with his back to the TV and whispered lines. He anticipated scenes. He slurred, “Zanzibar!” as Charlie Rich sang on screen at the infamous Denver bar. My dad had been there, once upon a time. We marveled at the silly movie and laughed at the worst motorcycle gang in history. Clyde signaled right turn. Mama got her driver’s license. He didn’t watch any of it. He’d seen it before.

I also know for a fact my dad—until that day—devoured my mom’s banana bread every time she baked a loaf. He was a man of action. He hugged, kissed, water skied, sky-dived, caught big fish, caught little fish, been to the top of the Eiffel Tower, swam in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya, put ketchup on everything, chopped wood, made perfect hamburgers, looked great in a tux, favored a “Bear Whiz Beer” t-shirt, loved giving people nicknames, could fix almost anything, hated wind, woke up early, admired bald eagles, tenderly fed birds every winter, fell asleep watching “Star Wars” at the theater in 1977, and so much more. He loved and was loved.

My dad, 1965, the same year Clint made "For a Few Dollars More"

My dad, 1965, the same year Clint made “For a Few Dollars More”

Five days after he came home with hospice care, my dad died. As I sort out the jumble of bewildering impressions and emotions, it’s odd what rises to the surface and what is sinking to oblivion. He witnessed my birth 44 years ago when it was still revolutionary for dads to be in the delivery room. I witnessed his death and it was the most holy, terrible, beautiful moment of my life. As I wrote in his obituary, cancer didn’t win in the end. It died when my dad’s body died. My dad lives. I believe this with my whole heart.