I was lying on the couch, half stoned, half asleep, and half watching a rerun of The Big C. It wasn’t an exceptional program but it had come on after something else, rendering it an acceptable backdrop for a nap. A call came in and Dad was on the line stating that it was time to go see Dave. So soon, I thought.
Shortly after moving to California, Dad joined a yacht club and made fast friends with Dave. They were both into boats, their children had grown, and neither had any immediate interest in remarriage. He showed Dad the park bench across from the clubhouse where he would send blind dates so that he could give them a proper once-over before deciding whether to meet them or not. Once when I was hard up for cash, he paid me three hundred dollars to detail his family’s cars and it seemed like a solid hookup until I got to the ‘96 Yukon.
Dad got to the house twenty minutes later and we headed over to Dave’s. The ride was relatively silent, despite two feeble attempts at conversation. The phone rang again and this time it was a drinking buddy who I dismissed with a generic family excuse.
“You didn’t tell him.”
“You can’t always wear your heart on your sleeve,” was all I could think to say. It was Tuesday night.
Dave’s schnoodle, Max, greeted us at the door with his typical barking tantrum that was only tolerable due to his small stature. He also had thick, groomed, curly white fur that that countered the notion that he was the dog of a single man. Aside from the acute lack of discipline, however, he made for a fine house pet. I had joked with Dave that I once fed Max a Red Bull and used him as a buffer on their Trans Am.
Dave had bought the place in 1984, back when real estate around here was still reasonable, and had been steadily updating it. There are three bedrooms, an avocado tree in the yard, and a large veranda out back where his parents used to park their RV for the winter. The conflicting floral prints of the wallpaper and border are so overpowering that only trained eyes would even notice the custom oak flooring and high-end appliances. Dave’s daughter, Abbie, was in the kitchen talking to Pete, his friend and almost neighbor. They were slouching and carried bankrupted facial expressions.
There’s a small den at the back of the house where Dave was sitting, extended, in his recliner. He never was a very large man but despite being sixty-two, he managed to keep himself in better shape than most men half his age. He was known around the club for his exceptional fore-decking skills and for some time, had been power walking with Pete three mornings a week. But that was then. That Tuesday, he looked like some famished refugee and his movements were borderline robotic: the sort you would expect from an inexpensive carnival prop.
Three months prior, after moving his dad out from back east, Dave made an appointment with his doctor under the complaint of an acute, general fatigue. Several rounds of testing revealed that he was suffering from an inconveniently aggressive form of pancreatic cancer that had thoroughly metastasized itself in most of the vital areas of his abdomen. It took him nearly a month to muster up the gall to tell his friends.
Eight weeks into it, Dave’s kids and ex-wife, Jane, flew out from Michigan and rented a beach house to throw him a party. Abbie called me the week before and asked me to cook the ribs. I had never met her. With a nine-food surfboard lashed to my car, I picked my dad up from the harbor and drove down there. There were no waves.
It was a three-level affair with two kitchens and a guarded gate at the entrance to the neighborhood. The cranky yenta next door erected several makeshift no trespassing signs on our side of her yard in hopes of keeping the gaggle of drunks from disturbing her begonias. I spent most of that day grilling food, mixing drinks and helping with the cleanup. Staying occupied seemed to keep the emotions at bay.
One of Dave’s grandkids had accidentally gotten into the medical grade brownies, sending Jennifer into a mild state of panic. Fortunately, the situation was caught before the kid had more than a few bites down but due to her lack of age and body weight, that’s all it took. The child ran around haphazardly for an hour or so, chasing after anything that took flight: frisbees, balls, empty water bottles, and the like. She then closely followed her mother around for a short time before passing out for the rest of the afternoon.
There was a large television set on the wall of the lower living room that someone had rigged with a slide show chronicling Dave’s past. According to his older son, Jeff, the brunt of the photos were taken the summer that Dave and his ex had loaded their kids and a pound of grass into a on orange Ford van for a five-week road trip around the western United States.
Since then, Dave’s shaggy afro had been reduced to a salt and pepper crew cut while his ratty cutoffs got traded up to a set of occasionally pressed chinos. Other than a hint of excess dermis beginning to gather under his chin, the rest of Dave didn’t seem to have changed a whole lot over the past three decades. He was unusually quiet that day but what do you say at a party like that?
Bobby Sherman recorded some bubblegum tunes during the Johnson years but spent the brunt of his career at the LAPD.
Dad was chatting up a woman who claimed to know Bobby Sherman- the subject of Dave’s corny catch phrase- and was able to get him on the phone. He and Dave and spent the better part of forty-five minutes discussing whatever it is that fans talk about when they get to meet their heroes. It was late in the afternoon and Dave’s vexation had begun to take its toll on his lungs so he retired to the top floor to take a quick nap while attached to the “bitchin” oxygen machine that he had procured through his health insurance. And then a month went by.
Abbie waved us into the kitchen where she and Pete recapped the situation. Ed was refusing to go to the hospital and his younger son, Danny, was on a late-night run to pick up some liquid morphine. Dave hadn’t been able to get anything solid down in the last eighteen hours. He had gone to a birthday party over the weekend but on Sunday night, he took a foul turn and Danny called the rest of the family back to town. Pete was camped out with his girlfriend in the guest room to see things through and a nurse would be coming around every other day to check in.
In 2008, the average hospice patient ran up a $758 bill.
The house was full of familiar strangers. There were a lot of empty bottles around, even before we got there. The nurse had been by earlier that day and established that all things considered, Dave was in fine shape and might even hang on for weeks. People will say anything to butter up bad news. Danny hadn’t gotten back yet so Dad drove me home.
I made it back there a bit after noon on Tuesday and Max barked at me. They had just put Dave down for a nap and apparently liquid morphine, administered orally via syringe, works wonders on terminal cancer patients. He had spent the morning out on the veranda, occasionally cracking a joke while relatively cognizant of his surroundings. There would be no visit from the nurse today but the improvement in his demeanor alleviated most of the immediate concerns for his quality of existence.
Cheryl was in the kitchen, waiting to see Dave. She’s a hobbyist realtor who was in the middle of an expensive divorce and had gone out with Dave a few times before he got sick. She’s the sort of woman who sits on her sofa, watching television, with a crew cleaning her condo and someone else detailing her car in the garage, while at the same time complaining that she doesn’t have enough time to get things done. Dave broke it off with her before he told anyone that he was sick.
Eventually, they assumed that Dave was doped up enough to be able to tolerate a visit from a nominal ex-lover and took Cheryl in to see him. The kitchen had a light taupe Corian counter that formed a peninsula on the side closest to the breakfast table. In the spirit of staging décor for open houses, Cheryl had neatly fanned a series of dishtowels on the outermost end of the peninsula where she nestled a notepad with her portrait and professional contact information printed on the bottom next to the logo of the real estate brokerage that she worked for. There was a commotion in the bedroom and she left quickly, in tears.
It was never clear what went on in there but Danny was angry and Jeff took him outside to cool off. The rest of us got on the food situation. Earlier in the day, there had been a minor failure in communication that resulted in no less than three trips to Costco occurring. There were two large flank steaks, six packages of bratwurst, eight rib eye steaks, a half a bushel of corncobs, and a case of burger patties. There were also some grape popsicles for Dave, as that was all he was eating by that point.
Rib eyes grill up nicely with a light soaking in soy but the flanks need to marinade overnight. Twist-top red wines work well as a starting point here, along with some garlic and whatever herbs happen to be around.
The burgers tied us over to suppertime when I grilled the rib eyes and Dad came by with some vodka. During cleanup, I accidently dropped one of Dave’s rocks glasses into the sink. Abbie didn’t think that he would mind.
I had meetings scheduled in San Diego on Thursday afternoon but I stopped by Dave’s in the morning on the way out of town. Max met me at the door but he didn’t bark. Dad was there as well and there were doughnuts and coffee for breakfast.
After Dad left, Dave went out to the den from his bedroom. The insurance company provided a motorized hospital bed and several other gadgets to help with Dave’s decreasing mobility but an office chair- with its swiveling casters- was the preferred medium for moving him from room to room. I held his legs. He could still smile.
Around eleven, someone came by with some tortas for lunch but the guacamole that was over-salted. I had to leave right after we ate and I hugged Abbie on the way out.
In 2004, the median hospice length was 22 days. Seems long.
That night, Dad called from Dave’s, looking for advise on grilling the flanks. He was due on a flight to Pittsburg the next morning and he decided not to cancel since there wasn’t much he could have done if he stayed. The following weekend was Dave’s birthday and if he was still around, there’d be a party and if he wasn’t, there’d be a service. Dad would be around for that.
Ed’s long-time housekeeper had come by with her teenage daughter who had taken a liking to Max. He went home with them that night. The nurse had also been around and said that Dave’s kidneys had started to shut down. Apparently, the kidneys are of the first bodily functions to check out but shouldn’t be of alarm as he could still hang on indefinitely with enough morphine.
Friday morning, Abbie said that the flanks were excellent and that Dave had made it through the night. We were cut short when some guests arrived but she said she would call again in an hour or so. It was almost noon and I still hadn’t heard anything so I decided to head back. I took care of most of my San Diego obligations the afternoon before and cancelled the rest on the way to Dave’s. Traffic was light and as I was exiting the freeway, Abbie called.
Jane was next to Dave in his bedroom when I got there. He was still. His arms were placed neatly on his abdomen and he was carefully tucked into the bed. He could have been napping if it wasn’t for the stillness. Danny was with him when he passed.
After hospice ends, the mortuary comes around in a clean white minivan.
Jane came out on the veranda and began to weep while the men took Dave away. I sat next to her and held her hand. We wept together. Abbie sat on the other side of Jane while the rest of the people started filtering out of the house. The weather was exceptionally clear that day. The crowd assembled into a large circle while Danny passed out tequila shots and Easy Come, Easy Go played in the background. A few of us went behind the tool shed to get stoned.
The day was heavy and bubble gum music did not bode well with the sentiment so we played some Van Morrison. There were quite a few people at there already and there would be quite a few more through the day so I got on to cooking the bratwursts.
The Germans like to par-boil their brats in beer and onions before grilling them.
About a third of the sausages were lost to a grease fire that may or may not have been the result of an inattentive cook. Some of the yacht clubbers there were taking bets as to when a realtor or attorney would call or stop by the house. We decided to save the charred brats and serve them to whatever arbitrators decided to inquire about the estate that day. Just shy of three, Cheryl came by. She did not dine with us and the family would not be selling the house.
The following Saturday, I was out of town for the wedding of an old friend. An armada of no less than forty boats left from the yacht club and formed a large circle in the ocean where Dave’s cremains were cast to the sea. A large party followed where Danny made a speech that was said to have been most touching. Dad now sits on the board at the club and he ordered a memorial plaque that will be fitted to Dave’s bench. We should all be so fortunate as to die at home.