SHRAPNEL IN THE SAN FERNANDO VALLEY
1. Chewing on Bullets
The year I turned forty, I got a birthday card from my parents. On the inside my mom wrote, “This is going to be your year!” She couldn’t have known a cold blast of death and shit storms were headed straight for us, or how I’d become an abominable wreck and make my way back to the shackles of the R.J. Reynolds’s killing campaign, a.k.a. smoking. I hadn’t smoked a cigarette in over ten years. It felt longer, but who’s counting? Well, I was.
A few years before I reached for the smokes again, I’d been estranged from my older brother, Mike. My life was more or less calm. I’d been fed up with his soapbox lectures about how I’d be going to Hell for being a Jew unless I recognized who my savior was. At this particular moment, we were stuck at a hospice facility in Las Vegas with our dying father. My only savior was a pack of Camels, because Mike and I were fighting about every aspect of our dad’s care.
Three weeks we stayed there. My dad hung on while Mike nearly drove me into a nut house. Two weeks into our stay, I frayed. I took off in my car one afternoon, screeching down Las Vegas Boulevard in rush-hour traffic like a lunatic jonesing for a special kind of crack.
The combination of losing my dad while being trapped in a room with my feral family members pushed me to a breaking point. Only my brother could drive me into levels of such nicotine rage. All those years of breathing clean and clear were for nada. Wasted and meaningless.
I turned my steering wheel to the right, pulling three lanes over from the left, and into the lot of a 7-Eleven. I parked and sat there for a moment to make certain I knew what I was doing. I didn’t.
Mike, who’d been ringing the crap out of my cell phone, was about to get an earful of angry little sister. He wanted to know where the hell I’d run off to.
“Fuck this shit!” I exploded through a burst of tears. “I am so ready to go back to L.A.!” Though my windows were closed, I’d managed to frighten a lady just outside my car. I watched her quickly skedaddle into the store.
Mike had experienced my outbursts before, but this one seemed to come from the underworld, like somebody stepped on an IED or something—a blast taking place in my Honda CRV.
I’d been holding it together and keeping my cool, but now I was certifiably losing my mind. He was the older one, yet for most of our lives I’d been the responsible one. Not that it could’ve, or would’ve, ever mattered. He was the goddamned Golden Boy. I bet my mother kissed his shits before they went bye-bye when he was a baby.
Several blocks away from the 7-Eleven stood Alliance Hospice Care, where we’d both been staying with my dad while he lay dying. Once the doctors gave him seventy-two hours to live, Mike went completely into denial. Mike saw hospice as the Play-doh Murder Factory. His plan was to nurse Dad back to health by shoveling gobs of tapioca pudding down his throat.
“Eat, Dad, eat. We gotta get you out of this prison!”
But the place wasn’t bad. It was bright and clean with a big tropical fish tank in the lobby where you could stare at the fish and think about death. The patient rooms circled around a pretty courtyard with nice-ish patio furniture, though some of the upholstery was ripped, faded, and beaten by the Vegas sun. The staff, too, were super friendly and qualified. All of this was paid for by Medicare, by the way. No way could you find anything like it in Los Angeles.
Dad had a private room, palatial and homey, as if we were staying in a little cottage in a Thomas Kinkade painting. There were two extra beds, sort of: a daybed too short for Mike’s boney six-foot frame, and a trundle bed underneath. I slept in the trundle bed like a sweater in a drawer, but I spent most of my time in a chair next to Dad’s bed, working on a hand-sewn doll of myself (or a version of me anyway)—an autobiographical character I often use in my paintings and drawings, a thing I call Moppet. She’s a straggly little ragdoll and looks disheveled and clumsy, as if she’s about ready to collapse like a push puppet.
Moppet usually wears a simple dress, something I’d never do. The dress has a kind of clown collar. “She” is genderless and shaped like a gingerbread cookie with rounded arms and legs, an oval-shaped head and eyes with pupils nearly filled black, like those sad, velvet puppy-dog paintings. She neither smiles nor frowns; her mouth, a straight black line, a lot like me: indifferent. Also like me, she is an awkward child. I suppose she represents my vulnerabilities, my fragility, and what I think of myself, which isn’t much. In fact, she used to wear a dunce cap, but after ten years of therapy it’s been removed.
This particular Moppet had a raised felt heart that took up her entire chest. Like all my Moppets, something about her looked like she’d been run over by a bus.
Though I was making this Moppet for my dad, he wouldn’t have wanted it, and he obviously couldn’t keep it unless I threw it into his coffin. He was never interested in my art. Not even a little. The Moppet was more like a memorial to him. He never once asked what I was doing as I sat at the side of his bed. I’m sure he knew I was sewing something. But that’s how it was with both of my parents. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
Mike called the shots most of the time. He’d “consult” with me on his decisions, but my opinions never meant much. Even though I was used to being dismissed by him and the rest of my family, it never stopped me from vocalizing my views. This makes me a few decibels louder than others at times. I don’t even know I’m doing it unless someone points it out. It comes from never being heard, never being seen. Being told I was stupid.
My dad had a type of tachycardia called Wolff-Parkinson-White. It occurs when there’s an extra electrical current in the heart that makes your heartbeat speed up. It causes congenital heart failure when severe. The doctors disconnected his heart pacemaker/defibrillator as part of his DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) wishes. When that happened, I watched Mike’s face get red and tight. Blueberry lines built up around his throat, but Dad signed the papers and said he felt ready to die. Mike wouldn’t accept that. He prayed for him and told him he could get better, not to give up.
We were told by the staff not to force-feed him, yet there was Mike with the pudding and whatnot. They strongly recommended painkillers, but Mike had recently quit using drugs. He was sober now and vigorously anti-drug. And what that meant was he expected everyone else to be sober too. The nurses urged us to start a catheter. Mike didn’t want to do that either. “Too painful,” he said. Dad’s room was also far from the nurse’s station. So, every time he had to pee, and he needed some sort of assistance with the pee bottle, the task was left most appropriately for Mike. I certainly wasn’t up for seeing my father’s schmekel. This is what pushed me to my boiling point. Since Mike was always out in the courtyard smoking a stupid cigar whenever Dad had to pee, I’d be left alone with him having a panic attack. I’d run out into the courtyard and yell, “Dad’s gotta pee! Dad’s gotta pee!” A number of times, it would be too late. Mike wouldn’t come in time and Dad would piss himself. It was so awful.
Then came the last straw. The last time I tried to summon Mike from the courtyard for help, he was too busy to be bothered. He was on the phone with his feet up on a table. He raised his index finger at me when I began to speak. How dare I interrupt his important conversation with Barack Obama. He didn’t even try to get up when I frantically waved for him to come quickly. Dad could’ve been dying right then for all he knew.
When I got back to the room, Dad had peed all over himself and I saw him crying. It broke my fucking heart.
The nurse soon arrived and cleaned him up. I was so outraged with Mike, I grabbed my keys and stormed through the courtyard toward the parking lot, giving Mike a finger of my own.
As I passed him, I kicked a patio chair for good measure, and it made a loud racket. This had absolutely no effect on him, which only escalated my frustration. Now my anger, my pain about everything got to be too much. I wasn’t just snapping; the twig, she broke! It caused all the proverbial plates I was spinning to crash to the floor.
That was when I was en route to 7-Eleven. He called me several times, but I did not answer for a while. I knew I had to light an entire pack of cigarettes into my mouth first. When I finally answered, I yelled into the phone, or maybe I screamed, “Either we put a catheter in him or I’m going home!”
He paused calmly. “So, go home while Dad dies and I’ll fly him home in a body bag.”
I hung up on him. Asshole.
I let out a scream. It looked like I’d have to endure the death of my father and the psychotic annoyance of my Born-again brother no matter what, because, of course, I wasn’t going home.
I sat in my car crying, trying to calm myself, smoking, thinking. The car billowed with smoke like my hair was on fire. I thought how exhausting it was to fight with my brother. It literally made me sleepy. I wondered when, and if, my dad’s life was going to end. We’d been there a lot longer than seventy-two hours by then. Still, his pending death came suddenly.
It all started when Dad fell out of bed and pooped himself. Too weak to get up, EMTs had to take him to the hospital, away from their Las Vegas apartment, which he loved so much. It would be his fourth time back to the hospital that year. The fact that my parents lived in Las Vegas at all was so weird, since my mother used to have a bad gambling problem. When we were kids, they would go to Vegas all the time. Once, we even took a family “vacation” there, the four of us, our little family.
The only thing for kids to do in Vegas in the 1970s was hang out at Circus Circus. Otherwise, parents had no business bringing children to Vegas.
We stayed at the Aladdin, the first big hotel on the Strip. On the first day, they dropped us off at Circus Circus. We played every game there, which took all of two hours. Then we were bored. For the next two days we wandered around, tripping out on all the old people hypnotized in front of slot machines. Their eyes glazed over; two lemons and a Joker reflecting in their chained spectacles.
During the trip, Mom disappeared one night. No one knew where she went. We found her playing cards at the Sands Hotel on the other end of the Strip. She’d been there for two days straight. Apparently, she’d lost a large sum of money and Dad couldn’t stop her. All the tables were roped off with fuzzy red snakes between gold poles, as if it were an electric fence or something. Dad had to wait until an empty seat became available and buy his way into the game. Then it took him five hours to convince her to leave.
It wasn’t like that anymore, though. By the time they were in their seventies, they were living in Sin City—peacefully, I might add, except for the heart condition and the wayward pooping.
Once at the hospital, his horrible health insurance wouldn’t cover a long stay and they sent him to a rehab center. That’s when the doctors mentioned hospice.
Hospice. Not a word you want to hear when it comes to someone you care about. His time was up. And this time, for real. Yet, for the most part—not to sound like an asshole—we weren’t particularly alarmed. Dad was an utter hypochondriac. He always went into the hospital. He’d warmed us up to the idea of him dying as far back as his early fifties; he often told us, “I’m a very sick man. I don’t have much time left.” That sort of talk went on for the next three decades. He also made us believe he was a lot older than he was by rounding up his age like you do on your taxes. By the time he was fifty-five, he was saying he was sixty. And all through his seventies, he’d say, “I’m going to be eighty years old,” like that was his next birthday. I swear, we thought he was eighty for at least seven years! What’s sad is it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say he just didn’t know how to count the numbers that fell between the decades. He didn’t even have a seventh-grade education. Now eighty-four (or probably eighty-three) and a week into his rehab stay, he became loopy. Us kids may have been assholes, but we still kept tabs on him by phone. Early one evening when I was on the phone with him, he told me he’d just come out of heart surgery. “I’m a brand-new man. Those doctors are angels from Heaven. They fixed me. Isn’t that something?”
He said he had a heart transplant and he couldn’t wait to get back to playing his xylophone in the church band. But no such operation occurred. He didn’t play the xylophone. When I tried to tell him it was most likely a dream, he started to whimper and cry. He hung up on me. What the hell? He’d never hung up on me before, and he certainly never whimpered. He was a WWII vet. This behavior was so out of character that my brother and I took the first of many trips from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. I’d be trapped in Mike’s car for the next five hours—all the hard-earned healthy boundaries I’d put in play flying out of the windows of his fancy Porsche.
I hadn’t been talking to Mike for a while. Even though he’d been sober for seven years prior, he sadly fell into an eighteen-month relapse six months before our first trip to Vegas. Once this seemingly never-ending binge was over, he came back as a steroidal evangelical Christian with laser focus on Jesus and I avoided him at all costs. In fact, I preferred dealing with him when he was still doing drugs.
I suppose in the eyes of an evangelical Christian, I might come across like some sort of Jewish heathen. I have tattoos and dreadlocks. I dress like a boy, and since I’m an artist and a washed-up musician, I’m probably not right in the head either. My mom was Jewish (therefore so are her children), but Dad was a Christian, and even though he knew what he was getting into marrying my mom, it didn’t stop him from trying to get her to go to church with him. To my amazement, she finally started going with him when she became really old, after they moved to Vegas. As far as I knew, she’d always been adamant about never going. When I asked her how she was able to do it, she said she’d just “ignore the Jesus parts.”
You might be wondering where my mom was throughout all of the hospice drama. Why wasn’t she sitting by her husband’s bedside. Well, she was very busy at home—eating Doritos and watching TV My parents had been together for forty-five years, but they didn’t exactly like each other. They just kind of existed together like disconnected companions. Mom came to visit Dad in the hospice maybe four times in the three weeks he was there, and even nagged us about why we didn’t stay with her—jealous that Dad got all the attention. That was Mom.
The truth was, she didn’t want to visit Dad because—and I’m serious—God forbid she leave her little white dog by himself.
Oh my God, that fucking dog! My parents had a white Bichon Frise named CJ (my dad’s initials). They treated that dog about a thousand times better than they did us kids. That’s saying something, because Mike was treated pretty damned good. They fed that dog like he was King George III. Dad cooked him hamburger meat and bacon every day in a frying pan and gave him whole pieces of American cheese—as treats. I’m not kidding. That poor dog was so fat with cheese-clogged arteries, it was a miracle he could walk. And they took him out nearly twenty times a day. He peed all over their house all the same. They’d just deny it was happening. They were always interested in what that dog had on his mind, too. My parents never even asked if we had homework, much less whether we showed up to school, yet Dad obsessed on CJ’s thoughts.
Despite their special kind of neglect, I loved my parents. I love my brother, too. I just can’t stand him. I could see the residual effects of his recent drug use, even six months after he’d quit. He was still agitated and fragile. Because of his switched view on drugs, he fought me viciously over letting Dad have any morphine and was scared the staff might give it to him anyway. He was so paranoid, he suspected the hospice pastor was sneaking into the room and administering painkillers when we weren’t there.
While Dad was still at the rehab facility, Mike brought a bunch of drama there, too. My dad’s bible went missing—the one he took with him everywhere. When Mike learned of it, his head practically blew off his neck like a capsule on a rocket. He rounded up the entire staff and demanded they find it immediately, barking orders all over the place. The staff administrator came over and asked him to chill out and lower the volume. Mike called her a “psycho” and accused employees of stealing Dad’s bible. The police came and escorted him out of the building. So, Mike called the police from his car in the parking lot and tried to convince the next policeman to arrest the officer that manhandled him. Good thinking—calling the cops on a cop. When the other officer arrived, Mike was told to leave the entire premises, which included the parking lot.
Inside the rehab, the doctor and a nurse explained to me that my dad was dying. That’s when I started listening as if from a remote location, as if I were learning sad news about someone else’s dad. I went back to the parking lot and explained it all to Mike, taking special care not to rock the boat any worse, you know, because he wasn’t handling the day very well. I’d always felt like a mediator in my family, mostly in easing my mother’s anxieties—about practically everything. She was usually the one with the exposed nerves.
Convinced the hospice was going to try to kill Dad, Mike didn’t seem to grasp what was taking place or why he couldn’t control any of it. In fact, the only reason Mike signed papers to transfer Dad to the hospice was because he wasn’t allowed back into the rehab building. We even had to do the transfer paperwork with the social worker at a nearby Starbucks. Plus, we needed a new place with a new administrative staff to drive crazy, right?
During Dad’s transfer, we decided to go back to my parents’ condo and bring Mom up to speed. Talk about denial, my mom takes the bejeweled crown. It’s been an incredible challenge believing anyone could be in that kind of disbelief. She often convinced me I was out of my mind or that I made things up, all while keeping a straight face, saying, “That never happened.” Granted, she was always on a heavy cocktail of medications and was usually out of it, but a lot of her refusal of reality had to do with her odd relationship with my brother. She believed anything Mike told her. His word was God and he all but promised her Dad would be coming home in a few days. I felt like I was the only one with a scrap of brain matter left. Or maybe she was just hopeful he’d be coming home soon to make her a sandwich.
Once the three of us got back to the hospice and saw Dad in his bed, it hit me hard. Here is where it will end, I thought. How much of it will end? And will it end forever? I did not know. Mike and Mom still weren’t getting it though, even as I began breaking down. I sobbed like a baby in Dad’s lap while he slept. Mike acted bewildered. My mom watched from a chair with a blank, thousand-mile stare. She even asked me “Why are you crying?” She seriously had no idea. Then, not even twenty minutes later she asked if we could drive her back home. She was already missing CJ. Sure we can, Mom. Anything for your dog.
During the second week at Alliance Hospice Care, just before I started smoking again, Dad actually seemed to get better. Maybe it was the pudding therapy, but whatever the case, his heart began to get stronger. His infarction went up to 25 percent, leaving the doctors scratching their heads, perhaps instead of their balls. Mike and I pushed him around the hospice center in a wheelchair and he was smiling, in good spirits, and joking around. We felt safe enough to run back to Los Angeles for a day to take care of some business. I wanted to fetch my car and I still had a solo exhibition to ship to the east coast. Mike needed to bid on a big job as well. We planned a twenty-four-hour run; we’d come right back to my father’s bedside in a flash. We thought it could be done.
But being an infamous worrywart, once we were halfway to Los Angeles, I started to freak out that we did the wrong thing. I kept thinking he was going to die while we were gone. Particularly, I was rattled by eerie pamphlets that were conspicuously placed in the patient rooms. They were titled, When Death Is Near. This ephemera was put there to inform loved ones what to expect in the days, hours, and minutes before the final demise, and Dad was exhibiting many of the signs that were mentioned as the days were progressing (loss of appetite, going in and out of lucid states, etc.). But specifically listed in these morbid little brochures was how the dying will often “perk up” before they pass. It’s called a “wave of energy.” They do it to say good-bye! Suddenly, this was all I could think about. I wondered if that’s what we’d witnessed just before we left. These thoughts infested my mind like little bedbugs. Burning-hot anxiety rose up from within me and wouldn’t leave. I thought about the years I’d been avoiding my family—with good reason, yes—but regrets crept in now. And once we were in L.A., I couldn’t get back to Las Vegas fast enough.