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Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2007 09:40 am

The place to be

As the days grow short, father and daughter lean on each other

Untitled Document “Pops, which shoes should I wear
with this?”
My dad’s eyes dart up from under his glasses, and he gives me, then my feet, a quick glance as I lift up one foot, then the other. “Oh wow, I like that dress.”
“Thanks — which shoes should I wear?”
He looks again. “I don’t know; they both look really good.”
He is sitting at the kitchen table with bills before him. His glasses sit at the edge of his nose. They look like something to be worn by someone far past his 54 years, but there’s no use telling him that. He’ll just proudly tell you that they are from Wal-Mart and cost him less than $10. “OK, but which one goes best with this dress?”
I sway my dress a little, as if this will help him make a decision. “Well, which ones are more comfortable?”
I move across the kitchen’s tile floor, testing their comfort. They both hurt. “I’m not asking you which ones are more comfortable, I’m asking you which shoes look best. When you first look at me, which ones do you like the best?”
“The black ones, I guess.”

My dad and I have always been close. He jokes that when I was little he would have to sneak out of the house because I always wanted to go with him, even if it was to just ride in the car with him to run errands. In recent years that closeness has been heightened by shared tragedy — my mother, my dad’s wife and only love, has been slowly dying as a result of a brain tumor. The malignancy was first diagnosed in 1998. I was 13 years old. It has been an awful nine years, but something fine also has come out of it: At age 22, I believe that I know my dad better than most children will ever know a parent in their entire lifetimes.
I sit down next to him, watching as he strains to get the right angle to see through his low-sitting glasses. I move over to the couch, right behind where he is sitting. I turn on the TV and start surfing the channels. I mute it, because my dad hates it when I surf the stations, and surf in silence. I come across the movie Sleepless in Seattle. Perfect. I know that as soon as I turn the sound on my dad will recognize the movie and hurry to finish his paperwork so he can watch. My dad is a self-proclaimed lover of chick flicks. I suppose he picked up the taste from my mom, sister, and me, but now my dad watches chick flicks even when he’s alone.
Just as I knew he would, he quickly finishes up and moves from the kitchen table to the living-room floor in front of the TV. I have never seen my dad sit on our couch. Really. Maybe it comes from his childhood and growing up in a family of seven people with not enough couch space, but he never sits on our couch. Today he grabs a pillow and lies in his usual spot. The glasses come off and he goes back to looking like the youthful middle-aged man that he is.
The first signs of my mom’s sickness came in the form of extreme headaches. As the headaches grew in strength, she began having spells of lightheadedness and nausea. An MRI revealed the tumor in her right frontal lobe, spreading to the left frontal lobe. The doctors said that they did not foresee my mom making it through the upcoming holidays. It was already September. The eventual surgery was considered a success, but the person it left behind only slightly resembled my mother. My mom’s health has been steadily decreasing since that day. Mom’s memory is all but gone, as is her ability to hold a conversation. Mom rarely speaks above a whisper, and when her voice can be heard it is often gibberish. She lives in the nursing home, only five minutes from our house in Monticello. We know that the end is near, and two months ago, entering my last semester at the University of Illinois, I moved back home to help my dad. I have plans to move out someday. I want to move to New York City and work in magazines. But right now home is where I need to be. My mom has been eating less and less lately, and whether she should be fed through a tube has become the pressing issue of my dad’s life. A few months back he had a feeding tube surgically inserted through my mom’s stomach as a way to increase her protein level for one of her many surgeries. After that particular surgery, doctors suggested that it be left there in case my mom couldn’t eat on her own in the future. My mom now has days when she’ll eat enough to call it a meal, but her appetite is waning. My dad could tell the nurses to use the tube, but there is one very important factor to be considered. In the hundreds of talks my dad and I have had, he has often mentioned that although he and my mom did not know what to expect before her going under the knife, she made one thing clear: She did not want to be kept alive with a feeding tube. Because she is unable to vocalize her opinion now, the decision is left to my father.
Almost every day I get the same phone call from my dad. It usually comes between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m., as he is leaving work. During these less-than-a-minute conversations, I find out whether my dad is going to stop in at the nursing home to feed my mom dinner, which he often does. Then he asks whether I have any ideas for dinner. Every now and then I will have cooked some kind of meal, often a casserole, and will tell him that I have dinner covered. If there are no casseroles or some kind of leftovers, we do a quick search of options. We often settle on grilling burgers, which we always have on hand. If we’re feeling extra-lazy, we resort to eating out — pizza, Mexican, or Chinese. After the meal plan is decided, we go on to figure out our jogging schedule. I’m training for my first marathon, and I usually run in the morning. My dad is trying to “get back into the habit of running,” as he often phrases it after coming in winded from an evening run. On the days when he says he has decided not to run, I usually throw in a couple of words to guilt him into running. And he often throws in a couple words to guilt me into running with him.  Wednesday night, 6:15, my dad calls as usual: “Hey, Claire Bear.”
“Hey, Pops.”
“I’m going to stop in at the nursing home to feed Carol Lee. Do we need to figure out something for dinner?”
“No, I made something. A casserole. It’s new.”
“Sounds great. Have you run?”
“Yeah, I just got back. I’ll wait a while on dinner so you can run, though.”
“You know what? I don’t think I’m going to today — it’s been a long day. Would you want to run with me? I really gotta get back into shape.”
“I already ran.”
“Well, just a short run — you know I’m not going to go too long.”
“OK, fine. I’ll see you when you get here.”
My dad finally gets home at 7:45. I stick the casserole in the oven as I hear the garage door open. I set the timer for half an hour. My dad sorts through the mail and then changes into his running clothes. I stand in the kitchen in my running clothes to let him see that I’m ready. We head out for our run. “So she’s not eating again today,” my dad says. I know that he is thinking about whether he wants to keep the feeding tube. We go through the same pros and cons we’ve discussed a million times. In his voice I hear that he knows what he is going to do. I agree with him, but I don’t say that. I just listen.
On Saturday morning, I wake up to a man with a plan. My dad is on a mission to find frames and pictures to put on the walls of my mom’s nursing-home room. As he digs through a pile of frames, I start looking for pictures. I find high-school senior pictures for each of us kids, and my dad matches each one with a frame. I go through the bag full of family pictures. I find one that takes me back to my childhood. The picture was taken in front of a cornfield out at my uncle’s house. My parents are sitting with the three kids strewn across their laps. We are laughing and teasing one another while my mom tries to maintain us. Without the fact of my dad’s age and size, you’d think that he was one of the kids for as much as he is tickling, laughing, pinching, and leading the horseplay. Then I find a picture of my mom and dad at a college dance. My mom is tall, thin, and dark. Her light-brown hair matches her tanned skin. She doesn’t wear much makeup. She never needed to. I laugh out loud at my dad’s premature baldness. “And she still married you!” I remind him. He smiles, knowing that it’s true. My dad and I head over to the nursing home, hoping to feed my mom some lunch and get the pictures arranged on her wall. I sit on the bed next to my mom as she lies facing away from me while my dad goes to work setting up the pictures. My mom hasn’t been moved from her bed to her wheelchair, but I can tell that she is awake enough that she can hear me, and I hope that means we will be able to have something resembling a conversation. To get her initial interest, I begin by asking her questions. Sometimes I know that she won’t have answers for me, but after years of experimenting I’ve learned that asking her questions is the best way to pique her interest. “Mom, I got a really fun    e-mail today.”
Her eyes are open, but she doesn’t look in my direction. “It’s from your nephew.”
Her eyes begin to move a bit, as if she’s trying to focus on something — a sign that she’s trying to listen. “It’s from your nephew in Baghdad. He sent this e-mail all the way from Baghdad, so it’s got to be exciting.”
My dad chimes in, “Isn’t that exciting, Carol Lee?”
Her eyes have now gained focus. She still stares toward the wall, but with a purpose, with attention. She’s now part of our conversation. “What nephew do you have that is in Iraq?” I ask, and her eyes dart in all directions while her mind seems to digest the question. “What nephew do you have who’s overseas working with the Army?”
She continues to stare toward the wall, but her eyes settle on a single spot. “John Patrick,” she says, barely above a whisper.
“Yeah, Mom, John Patrick sent me an e-mail today. Do you want to hear it?”
“Yes, very badly.”
Her voice is more audible and her words are enthusiastic, but there is no enthusiasm in her tone. Her enthusiastic words come in response to my tone of voice. The more excitedly you say something, the more likely she is to respond with excitement. You could tell her that the end of the world is here and get an excited response if you said it with excitement. As I read the letter, Mom occasionally gasps and nods in response. Each time, I look to my dad and we share the excitement of her attentiveness. After finishing the e-mail, my dad asks, “So what do you think about that, Carol Lee?”
“We should be very proud of him,” she says at a barely audible volume. “I think so, too,” I tell her.
The next Saturday morning, I wake up and hear voices coming from right below my bedroom window. It’s my grandpa and my Uncle Pat, my dad’s dad and older brother. The three of them get together for coffee nearly every Saturday morning. My grandpa and uncle farm just outside of town, so they are permanently cursed with the inability to sleep in, as most farmers are. The three sit out on our front porch, glad that the nice weather still allows them to do so. Of course the weather is discussed on each of these mornings — how much rain we got, what my uncle’s Doppler radar screen revealed this morning, how much warmer or colder it is than this time last year. As I bumble out onto the front porch, one of them says, in a louder voice than I can enjoy at 8 o’clock in the morning, “Good morning, Claire Bear.” I don’t know which one of them the greeting came from, because they all call me Claire Bear. “Good morning,” I groan and grab a seat on the porch swing next to my grandpa. A few questions are directed my way. They ask about weekend plans and ask questions to get updates on anything new among the Feeney cousins. There are 16 of us cousins on my dad’s side, and we often joke that I am the social coordinator for the lot. After a quick update, I’m left to sit and listen. As always, the conversation eventually turns to my mom. They discuss the fate of the feeding tube and the decision that lies on the horizon. My dad runs again through the pros and cons. His voice makes him sound as if he is undecided. I know better. I know that he has made up his mind but is not quite ready to admit it to anyone or to himself. After our guests leave, my dad and I find our spots at the kitchen table. “How did you sleep last night?” I ask. This is a relative question. My dad hasn’t slept well for nine years. “Just fine, thanks.”
We go on to talk about our plans for the day. I’m meeting up with friends for dinner, and he is planning on mowing the lawn. “Do you want to watch a movie later tonight?” he asks. “Yeah, sounds good.”
“Do you know of anything out I would like?”
I rack my brain for a couple seconds, thinking of the new chick flicks on video. “Yeah, I’m sure I’ll find something.”
“Let’s get something fun. I don’t feel like something heavy.”
He says this as if it’s not already assumed that we’ll be watching a romantic comedy. “All right, yeah, I think I know of a couple.”
He pauses for a long second before adding, “I’m going to have them take the feeding tube out, Claire Bear.”
“Yeah, Pops, I know.”
We sit silently at the kitchen table for a few comfortable minutes. Then I head for the shower and my dad heads for the lawnmower. That night, we watch The Wedding Date. I sit in my usual spot, on the couch, and my dad assumes his, with his pillow, on the floor. The movie is funny enough to make us laugh out loud at times and predictable enough that we don’t need to think. It’s perfect.

Claire Feeny is completing her journalism degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She spent this past semester living with her father in Monticello.
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