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take what you want – leave what you need

— 2008 —

The Big Empty

Processing… Parsing….

I’ve got to debride this wound else it won’t heal right.

Miss dad?

I’m noticing the space he once occupied within my mind, attention, frustration, worry,… heart.

I don’t “MISS” dad.

“Miss” is something airplanes occasionally do and a fun prefix to words like “Thang” “Manners” “Bossy Boots”, etc.

NO… this is way emptier…. just below your ribcage – it’s cold – like you’re famished and nauseated all at once.

I’m getting this stuff out now… I don’t want to carry this bit of things across into the new year.

…couldn’t communicate through most of this… but that’s how I process… If I can’t show you or tell you – I can’t feel it for myself… emotional pathology? maybe…

either way – I need to take you with me…

I’m sorry….. and so very grateful.


We had dad over for Sunday Brunch a week after his DX.

We’d spend the meal poking sharp sticks into eachother’s ideologies.

The Siteman Cancer Center during the wee-early hours when we were doing morning radiation treatments.

Really nicely designed building.

Best place to poop = 14th Floor
low traffic / high-hygene – sparsely populated.
You can still smell the wallpaper glue.

Porta-Cath… Before you begin treatments – they install a mainline directly into the artery in your neck. That line connects to a button about the size of a a dollar’s worth of quarters just beneath the skin by your collar bone.

I’d start referring to this as Dad’s heart-plug and occasionally threatening to pull it if he didn’t behave.

On the morning of the first Chemotherapy – we went to breakfast at the Panera across the street.

I don’t remember where the conversation was but I remember the change in dad’s tone… a tone with me I’d never heard before… it wasn’t “parental” – but the sincerity and intensity silenced us both for minutes afterward.

He said: “Enjoy your body.”

he paused and winced a little at me

“Man… Enjoy your body.”

What you need to know isn’t very helpful.

I tear-stained half the fucking books in the Siteman support center and couldn’t find the answers to my questions…..

how long do we have?
how will this end?

You’re at an amusement park and you’re going to ride their biggest baddest roller-coaster.

Wouldn’t you rather be able to see the ride while you’re waiting in the cue?

I certainly would….

“Not” being able to see the ride is more terrifying… It’s the reason why I distinctly remember the “wait” to ride Disney’s Space Mountain as a child was WAY more exciting than the ride itself.

Cyto-Toxin… That’s a neat way of saying “poison”.

Modern Oncological medicine at times seems only a few clicks evolved from treating pneumonia with leeches or curing witchcraft with buoyancy tests in a cold lake.

A popular ingredient in Chemotherapy drugs is platinum.

Expensive stuff I bet – but I never saw a line item on it.

I can tell you that the anti-nausia pills they give you on treatment day run about $400 a piece.

Treatments are administered in “Pods” – a big room which can accommodate about 6 patients at once.

Curtain runs suggest private spaces – but they were rarely used.

At any given time we’d be sitting there and staring across the room at other folks hooked up to the same I.V. bags with the metal foil tips.

“Tex” – dad called him “Tex”… Another cancer patient and smoking enthusiast.

Yeah… Two stage-4 patients out in the smoking pavilion.

you-n-me = haunting commentary.

dad-n-tex = brand loyalty.

You come and go to a place enough and you start seeing familiar faces.

I’ll never forget this guy.

30’s… Facial hair… About the same wana-be-Pacific-Northwestern fashion sense.

More than our Keens matched.

He also pushed a late 50-something ahead of him in a chair.

He also wore a tormented furrow on his brow.

They were obviously behind us a few months… As the weeks would pass I’d see the father’s skin start to leather with the radiation…. I could read the exhaustion on the son’s shoulders as he’d push his dad along… always getting worse…. never better.

It was like looking through a time-warp.

We’d just look at each-other… no emotion… Deadpan apathy…

Adjacent aggressive chemo and max-dosage radiation had slowed the cancer to a crawl.

The docs had bought us some time but at a high price.

Infection and chronic-dehydration kept us regulars at the hospital throughout the Summer.

Throw in Type-2 diabetes and neuropathy and – well – there wasn’t a week where we had to be at one doctor or the other…..

Things started looking up a little… We sent the hospital bed away and bought dad a new sofa.

I’d get dad out of the house a few times – usually to go to the store.

He never let up on the smoking… Or eating like crap.

Sometimes I thought he was playing “Death-Wish” – other times I just deduced he was just terribly stubborn.

Stubborn or something….

if he was going to loose hair – it’d be from the platinum.

I’d be loosing mine from pulling it out in frustration at times.

Mom’s backing me up full-time… Cooking for him… Taking him to some appointments… running interference for me.

I’d announced at the beginning of 2007 that I expected my folks would wind up back together again before the decade was out.

I didn’t specify how before manifesting.

After 9 months I realized I’d never regularly observed a series of buildings over this long a period.

A skyline can change its entire personality between January and June.

About the time I noticed the buildings changing – I saw Dad changing again too.

I swear I could sense it when the cancer started back up.

His arms got thinner – his flame got a little dimmer.

New pain…

Day after thanksgiving at 4am the lifeline emergency monitoring service I set up at his house called me.

Dad had collapsed from an unexplained blood sugar crash.

The paramedics asked about his yellow color…. I hadn’t noticed… Everything in the house as a nicotine patina.

I opened up the rarely touched drapes and let the sun fall on his face.

He was going jaundice.

The oncologist squeezed us in later that day and instructed him to be admitted immediately.

It’s about this time that Dad’s stubbornness dissolved… For the first time in this ordeal I would see him cry.

Nobody said anything – yet it seemed like we all knew this wasn’t good.

He was scheduled for an endoscopic stent placement immediately.

I don’t get a lot of sleep from here on out…

I try to keep ahold of dad whenever I can.

Can’t I give him just a little of mine…. Take it – really – I got plenty – just take some of mine dad…


We ambush doctors in the hall… The younger the doctor – the more they’d dance around actually saying “Anything”.

We find the senior floor doc who tells us the stent was working but wasn’t going to do much got the cancer which was now in dad’s stomach.

We’re released a couple of days later with shoulder shrugs and the number for home hospice.

My aunt and uncle arrive in town a couple of days before dad’s lucidity spells start to get fewer and fewer.

Home Hospice would start on Friday.

They delivered a bed, a toilet chair, a binder of “Grief and You” Power-Point slides and a bottle of Maraschino Morphine syrup in a dropper bottle.

Our final night… we gathered in the living room… Aunt… Uncle… Mom… friend Bill… My Kevin and Chad… and visitors in and out.

I suggested we put on his favorite movies – so we did… Started with Young Frankenstein… Then onto Blazing Saddles…. then finally The Holy Grail.

We kept it positive – telling stories… remembering… Laughing at the jokes in the movies.

Dad’s waking spells were uncomfortable – but the syrup seemed to work.

1 unit every hour.

Once an hour I’d place the dropper under his tongue….

“Come on dad – Cherry Coke time!”

I’d kiss his forehead and tell him I loved him.

two moments of lucidity were noteworthy:

– ONE –

One when I was alone with him – we could make eye contact but he couldn’t speak clearly.

“Dad – you know I love you”

(“yes” – he rattled)

“I know you’re proud of me”

(“yes” – he rattled again and his eyes got wide)

“I’m gonna be o.k. – I’ll watch after mom too.”

( “yes” )

– TWO –

Chad came into the room wearing Dad’s WWII German Helmet.

He really liked Chad in it (it does look strangely good on him) – and if it’s possible for a straight man to have a “crush” on a guy – I’d swear Dad had a crush on Chad.

He smiled and said “What a Kraut.”

This would be the last time Dad would smile or speak.

His departure was punctuated with one final waking spell and a bit of a struggle and gasp.

Everyone was around…. His brother at his side… Sister holding his legs… Mom at his shoulders….

and me… holding his head.

I looked him right in the eyes.

I said “I love you …. and Thank you”

a tear welled up in his left eye and head went heavy in my hands.

goodbye pop.


The sheer surreality of funeral arrangement is enough to keep you distracted.

What would follow would be the best damn branded funeral Saint Louis has ever seen.

Overnights on hospice I had re-interpreted our family crest while at the bedside… Took that and married it with the Jerry Tovo portraits I’d commissioned just after Dad’s diagnosis.

I slammed together a bunch of photos in Iphoto and had a slideshow going on his mondo flat-screen in one side of the parlor.

Creepily – Dad had given Chad a playlist he wanted assembled as his “requiem” a couple of years prior to all of this. (He’s a master at finding obscure music)… He found em all – Donovan tunes… Jefferson Airplane… Steppenwolf… We burned the playlist onto CD and played it behind the slideshow.

The other side had a blown up poster version of the memorial cards put together in lieu of the traditional Catholic Mortality Trading Cards.

We put him in a black turtleneck and his favorite WWII german officer’s coat… so excited he could fit into it after chemo.

This combined with the morticians odd make-up color sense and eyebrow brush use – Dad kinda looked Chinese in an Emperor Ming sorta way.

This didn’t bother me… Ghost wasn’t in the machine anymore.

Flowers were largely done by one of the best floral designer in Saint Louis – Dean at Botanicals. Tell you what – the pink mafia really does take care of it’s own. The wall of drop-dead arrangements were amazing.

The inner panel of the coffin was replaced with an inserted black PVC panel with the updated family crest.

All through this Kevin went into super-virgo mode and coordinated everything, including my sanity.

Funeral was catholic… As dad would say: by tradition – (not by dogma).

At the cemetery the guys and I ran up to the car and pulled out the four huge boxes of hats from dad’s collection. (Remember – he collected all sortsa weird stuff – hats included).

I pulled out one of his favorites – an authentic viking repro with the big horns on either side… put it on – and asked for everyone who wanted – to grab a hat and put it on.

The gravesite service was attended by about 25 people all wearing various and very silly hats.

The funeral director announced the end of the services and added :

“This has been the most interesting service I’ve ever managed… I wish I would have known Mr. Corbett – because you all are surely the kind of people I like.”

This coming from a death coordinator….

… regarding the man with the Halloween birthday….

….. to the son in the viking helmet – and his two gay lovers – the lumberjack in the Nazi helmet and the evil scientist in the black derby.