the failure of organs and emotions

I spoke too soon about my grandmother’s nose. While I was surprised it hadn’t been completely taken off as I was led to believe by my mom, her cancer has gotten worse. After the initial surgery to cut out the Merkel cancer, it returned and she had to have a second operation to go in and take out more. They took the tip of her nose. They already have another surgery scheduled. They are going to remove her nose completely. And her dementia is worsening. She doesn’t even know what’s going on. She thinks she’s getting a brand new nose. She’ll be lucky to get a prosthetic one.

My uncle, her primary caretaker, is also suffering from a touch of dementia as well. So, he can’t take care of her. Enter my mother, who has to do it all.

While my mother was gone to be with my grandmother for her second surgery earlier this month, my dad had a birthday. I gave him a card and he set me down and we had a conversation. Like, an actual conversation. Well, what could be equated to an actual conversation. He mostly talked to me and my responses mostly went ignored as he continued with his monologue. He was the one who told me the doctors were going to take off my grandmother’s nose. I was at work during her second surgery when Mom called Dad and told him and then he told me.

He also told me that he was getting a promotion at his job. Sounds like good news. But he doesn’t want to take it. He doesn’t want all the extra responsibility. In fact, he was planning on retiring in the next year or so. But due to insurance, he wants to keep his job. He’s worried about my mom’s job. Her hours have been cut at work the past couple of weeks. This isn’t an abnormal occurrence but it still worries them. I guess he’s worried about retiring and then Mom might lose her job and then they’ll be in trouble.

My hours have been cut at work as well. In half. Again, this isn’t abnormal. And they always get cut after Christmas. It’s a slow time. But things have been going downhill since the middle of last year. My hours have steadily decreased and I’m starting to wonder if this isn’t so temporary after all. So, I’m not really contributing to the family and I think everyone is aware of that. Since they don’t think I’m going to step up, my dad is, taking on a position he doesn’t want and picturing himself working about five years more than he had originally planned, just to help keep up afloat.

I asked him why he would take it if he didn’t want to and he repeated that he did it because of my mom. He’ll be making more money and having more responsibility but he is doing it to support her, both financially and I suppose as a gesture of love. My chest felt like ice cubes dipped in hot chocolate. I know my dad loves my mom and my sister and me. He just doesn’t say it. But he shows it, in those kind of ways, ways a man raised to be hard shows his love. It’s with money. It’s with hard work. It’s with doing the kind of things you don’t want to do in order for your family to be more comfortable. And that was great. And that was the hot chocolate feeling. But I didn’t want him to be unhappy with his new position. That’s where the ice cubes come into play. And I told him this. He shook his head in a dismissive manner. “I’ll just have to learn to like it,” he said.

He works with my uncle and so he’s seen the progression of his mental deterioration as well. He told me it’s getting worse. They often have to work out of town and he told me my uncle’s balance is so bad that he is constantly falling out of the work vehicles and often falls out of the small hotel showers. The past few times I saw my uncle, I did notice he was covered in small scratches.

As my dad spoke, I looked at his face. Really looked at it. It occurred to me that I didn’t even really know what this man looked like. We are not close. At all. We don’t talk. He doesn’t express affection, only a bad attitude most of the time. We’ve never, in my thirty years, sat down and talked like we were doing. I looked at his long face, the deep lines that ran from his nose to his two-toned goatee, smokey grey into snow white, his brown teeth (from smoking), his dark irises encased in yellow eyes, his messy salt-and-pepper hair, his tanned face, the beginnings of sagging along his jaw.

You ever look at something or someone for so long that the world past your focus fuzzes out? It’s like the tilt shift feature on a photo editing program. As the white walls became blurry past his features, I wondered if I would have been able to pick him up out of a line up of grizzled men, hard-working “good ol’ boys” who smoked and cussed and fished outside without sunscreen and cracked open beer cans with gnarled, arthritic fingers. He was one among many small-town residents, generic and unrefined without being repulsive. But he was my father. I searched his face, each line, to find something of myself.

I couldn’t.

“I’m telling you all this ’cause I don’t want you to think I’m an asshole,” he said. I searched the room with my eyes. What did that mean? I never knew my father to be a beacon of kindness. He is vulgar and ignorantly racist and I would never call him a nice guy. He is blunt and opinionated and his opinions are often offensive. But I never took his offensive nature to be intentional. I never feel like he intends to stir up trouble or make people mad. But he just doesn’t care if he does.

But with him telling me he didn’t want to come across as an asshole, I wondered where his intention to correct my opinion of him came from. Had he been more aware of his actions than I’d given him credit for? Did he notice the side-eyes and sneers I thought I had to so casually concealed? Even if he had, even if he had suspected I did not approve of his unsolicited advice, I assumed he wouldn’t care what I thought. But maybe he made an exception for his children.

Although I’d known my sister wanted to move closer to home, Dad told me they were going to move not even a few miles away. And he said he suspected it was because she was preparing to help take care of my grandmother.

The whole time my dad talked, I felt smaller and smaller. It felt like everyone was rearranging their live to help out everyone else’s and here I was, working a shit job with shitty hours and complaining about how hard I had it. I was reduced to a decorative pillow on the couch. I was useless. Probably more of a burden.

Not that my dad made me feel that way directly but from absorbing the things he said, I felt like I hadn’t contributed enough to the family. I know I’m the baby, the youngest, the least mature and developed as the rest of them but I am still a grown man. I guess they don’t see me as one. I guess I don’t even really feel like one.

My dad also went into a spiel about some other things. And that was when I questioned the validity of some of his statements. He had been drinking and I wondered if his willingness to open up to me might have been sponsored by Bud Light©. The only time he ever talked to me was when he was buzzed. But even then he was boisterous and obnoxious. But as we sat across from each other, he seemed level-headed, calm, with a clear head. But that didn’t mean his speech wasn’t muddled by the malt.

Finally, his craving for a cigarette prompted him to end the conversation. He got up to go smoke and said, “I think this is the first time, at your age, we’ve had a conversation. I appreciate you listening.”

I wanted to tell him it was the first time, at any age, we’d had a conversation. I’m serious. We’ve never engaged in anything other than chitchat. It was uncomfortable. I was half-worried he was going to reveal some long-hidden secrets that would devastate my already fragile opinion of my family. Good thing he never went in that direction and it took a little while after he left for me to calm down. I was already on the verge of tears during the entire conversation and as he stepped out of the door, I stepped into my room and let the tears fall.

My grandmother is steadily declining and I don’t know what’s going to happen to her face or the brain inside it. It’s not just her physical appearance. The cancer could spread to any part of her body. And the longer they wait between surgeries, the more likely the already aggressive cancer is to spread to vital organs. And she’s too old to be put to sleep so many times for surgery. Mom told me her first surgery took five hours. I was blown away. I don’t know how long the second surgery took but I don’t have a good feeling about her being put under too many more times.

And my mom has already said she doesn’t want my uncle involved because he will just make things more difficult to handle. My sister is rearranging herself to be closer to my mom to help her out with my grandmother. But I don’t know how she’s going to find a job because it’s nearly impossible to find stable work here. And my dad is going to make more money but he’s also going to be gone out of town for weeks at a time, driving long hours and staying in motels, working 12-14 hour days, responsible for wrangling a group of people to work when, as he says, “you just can’t find people to do good work anymore.” I worry about the toll it’s going to take on his body. He’s not the in the best shape, either, with his addiction to smoking and the arthritis that has gripped his body.

And then there’s me with reduced hours at my job but a steady stream of student loan bills that do not yield to a family on the verge of collapse. My book did not sell the way I wished it would to help provide some financial relief and I have no other skills or talents to help supplement my income. I know I should just go get a steady, 40-hour-a-week job but I’ve been down that road so many times. I took jobs I didn’t want to take in order to make money, to help out, to take responsibility for my misguided actions when I was younger. And I hated it. And I already hate myself and hate my life and there are days when I want nothing more than to just die. I don’t know if I can deal with hating my job. Everywhere I turn, every decision I make, I find myself unhappy. But I can’t tell my family because, after what my dad told me, they are all unhappy, too.

I wonder if my whole part in this situation is just to shut up and be sad, to take it, to not let anyone know so as not to be more of a curse than I already am. It doesn’t seem as noble as working my fingers to a bone like my father or relocated my life to be closer to my dissolving family like my sister. But we often don’t realize internal struggles can be just as difficult as external ones. Sometimes it’s the things inside that are the most destructive. I’ll carry the burden of myself because everyone else has enough of a load on their shoulders.

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