This Getting Old, These Failing Hearts
By Steve Watkins
I called my brother Wayne a while ago to find out how things had gone at the doctor. This might have been back in the spring. It was early morning for him—he lives on Maui—and he was out in his vegetable garden gathering kale. Chickens and roosters screeched in the background. I was in Virginia on my way to Costco, sitting in lunchtime traffic, waiting for the light to change. We’re getting old, him and me, both of us doing hard time in our 60s, though I don’t usually feel it except in those panicky moments when I’m tired and have chest tightness and wonder if my heart’s about to give out. It’s not as if it hasn’t happened before. I also feel it whenever I climb stairs or hike steep hills, “steep” being a word I define much more loosely these days than I did back when I was an endurance athlete and once ran the Pike’s Peak Marathon.
Wayne, meanwhile, had to have a rail installed on the outside wall of the barn where he and his wife Helen live in an upstairs apartment with a lanai and a view of the Pacific Ocean. The rail is so he can haul himself up on those days when he’s too gassed to make it otherwise. They thought about installing a lift for him several months earlier when he got so fatigued and short of breath that he could barely walk. But then he decided to stop taking all the heart meds they’d put him on—beta blockers and such—and take his chances with chronic a-fib and advanced heart failure, though he did keep in his pacemaker/defibrillator implant. We braced ourselves for the end of him, but instead his energy came back, at least enough for him to return to playing in his band—Uncle Wayne and the Howling Dog Band, a Hawaii institution–and tending to their big market garden on the side of the volcano. Not only that, but his ejection fraction—a measure of heart strength–miraculously improved once he went off the meds–to the point where he was officially no longer in advanced heart failure, just regular heart failure. At least for awhile.
But also–as he told me on the phone while I was still on route to Costco to get oranges and toilet paper and enough brioche rolls and Impossible Burgers to keep my wife Janet fed for a month of lunches–he now had fluid retention in his legs and ankles and feet, which sometimes swelled so much and so painfully that he had a hard time walking unless he was wearing compression socks, or just said fuck it and climbed on the riding lawnmower to get around on the property. Even worse was Wayne’s distended abdomen, also caused by fluid backing up in his heart, which was not only uncomfortable for eating–he’d lost weight on account of not being able to get much down–but was also pressing against his diaphragm. Sometimes when he went to bed, he had to prop himself up on pillows and sleep in a sitting position just so he could breathe through the night.
Our mom was the same way—had the heart problems, had the heart failure, had a pacemaker, had a couple of strokes, had the fluid retention in her abdomen, which is called, as we learned back when she was suffering from it, ascites. When it got too bad, they took her off her blood thinner and went in with a very large and very long needle for a paracentesis—aspiration of a couple of liters of fluid, which helped for awhile. But the swelling always came back. In Mom’s case, the chronic ascites in her abdominal cavity, coupled with the lingering paralysis from her first stroke, left her with a distorted posture that we sometimes made fun of behind her back because it looked so weird, and because we were afraid of looking like that one day ourselves. You never know with these cardiomyopathies. The stroke also left her unable to bend the middle digit on her left hand, so our proper, Christian, pre-school-teacher mom spent the last third of her life giving the finger to the world.
Wayne in particular was worried about that—the distorted posture from ascites, not the other thing. When we were talking during my drive to Costco, he told me he’d pulled up a picture of the columbarium at the Methodist Church in Polk County, Florida where Mom’s and Dad’s ashes are interred, so he could see what year Mom died and figure out how long she’d lived. He wanted to get an idea of how much time he might have left.
We shouldn’t have made fun of Mom, of course. It was an awful thing to do. Our only excuse was that we grew up deflecting dark and uncomfortable things with gallows humor, though I can see in retrospect—and knew at the time–that it was unkind if not altogether mean-spirited, regardless of what we told ourselves, and regardless of whether anybody ever knew we were doing it.
And now it’s our turn. My heart’s been giving out much the same as Wayne’s, just not as fast. He’s a year and a half older, and it’s possible that I’ll be where he is a year and a half from now, and where Mom was when she was our age. It’s the maternal side of Mom’s family, the Tyers, who have the bad hearts, the hearts we inherited: Mom, her brother, our cousins, me and Wayne, maybe our sister Jo. Dad’s people, the Watkins of Isle of Wight County, the ones I know about, anyway, mostly died in the usual ways—from old old age or from alcohol-related dementia.
It was the family heart that killed Mom’s mom, a grandmother I never knew. She died climbing onto a D.C. bus in 1951, on her way home from work at the Daughters of the American Revolution. Mom was away at college at the time. When she returned to school after the funeral, she was so disoriented with grief that when they made her jump into a pool during a P.E. class–Mom didn’t know how to swim—she sank to the bottom and nearly drowned.
The family heart also took my Uncle Henry, who in his last days retreated to my cousins’ old empty bedroom upstairs in the house in Arlington where they’d always lived. We held vigil with him there, huddled together in that cramped little room, occasionally whispering until he shushed us with a faint wave of his hand, working too hard at dying for there to be space for anything else.
Cindy, my youngest cousin, was the first of our generation lost to the family heart. She pulled into a parking lot early one morning at a school in northern Virginia where she worked with special needs children, but never made it out of her car. At the memorial service, we talked about how it was a wonder Cindy ever learned to walk. We all adored her so much when she was little that we fought over who got to hold her, passing her around from cousin to cousin to cousin. It’s been hard letting her go.
When I got to Costco that day back in the spring–looking for a space close to the entrance so I wouldn’t have to walk too far–I asked Wayne if he thought they might have to aspirate his ascites the way they did Mom’s. I had to wait for a guy to move his cart from the side of his car where it was blocking a perfectly good parking space. He was off-loading his groceries and oblivious of me sitting there idling, or maybe he just didn’t want to be bothered, but that was okay, because Janet and I had been taking an online Science of Well-Being class on Coursera to help us through the pandemic, and I was supposed to be working on random acts of kindness. So, my random act of kindness that day was not cursing and leaning on the horn, but instead sitting patiently and being Zen and smiling and waving when the guy finally looked up and acknowledged I was there. Later, I took the time to chat with one of the sample ladies who was hidden at the end of the chip aisle giving out little paper cups full of Nacho Cheese Doritos. She seemed lonely. We agreed on the obvious: that Nacho Cheese Doritos (a) have no nutritional value whatsoever, and (b) are delicious. After checking out, I helped a woman lift several heavy bags of fertilizer out of her shopping cart and into the trunk of her car. So three random acts of kindness in one Costco visit. I refrained from lecturing the woman about the harmful environmental impact of lawn fertilizers, which are a major pollutant of the Chesapeake Bay, so maybe four.
Anyway, Wayne said he hoped they wouldn’t have to aspirate, but who knew? For now, his doctor just wanted him to increase the diuretic he was on and see if he could knock out about four pounds of fluid from his abdomen. Why he said pounds instead of liters or some other conventional fluid measure, I didn’t know. “The good news is my liver and kidney functions are still good,” Wayne added. “But the doctor must have mentioned ‘heart failure’ twenty times while I was there.”
“But you are in heart failure,” I said.
“Yeah, but she didn’t have to keep mentioning it.”
These are kind of conversations you have when you get old.
“Sorry,” I said. “But what are you going to do? It’s the family heart, yeah?”
Wayne and I have a safe word for our conversations when either of us, for any reason, want to bail, no questions asked. That safe word is “Polk Life.” Polk County, Florida, is the crappy county in Central Florida where we lived as kids, four of those years in a company-owned phosphate mining town, and where Mom and Dad and our sister Jo returned after the Watkins diaspora that took us through our teens and into our twenties, mostly to North Carolina. Wayne and I haven’t been back since Dad died three years ago and never plan to go there again. Even Jo, who’d lived there for decades, taking care of Mom and Dad as they got older, finally left for good. Whenever you read a newspaper story about Florida Man—or Florida Woman—chances are it’s in Polk County. That’s the world we grew up in, and we’ve been running away from it ever since.
So Wayne said “Polk Life,” and that was the end of it.
Mom’s stroke, the first one, happened when she was in her 50s, a few years after she and Dad escaped Florida for the dubious refuge of South Texas. I wrote about it once, in a short story titled “Desgraciado”—Without Grace. In the story, set in the 1980s and told from the point of view of a thirtysomething son, the mother, alone in her San Antonio townhouse, wakes up in the middle of the night convinced someone has gotten in bed with her. She feels an unfamiliar hand, an arm. She screams. Fights her way out of bed, down the stairs. The assailant claws at her. She struggles to get away. It’s too dark to see. She calls for help. She makes it to the front door, barely able to stand, flings it open, staggers onto the lawn. Her neighbors come running to help. But there’s no assailant. There was no one else in the bed. The hand, the arm—they’re her own. She’s lost all feeling and control of the left side of her body. Her face sags. She can’t form words into coherent sentences.
In the story, as in real life, the mom is saved by an experimental serum of clot-busting Malayan Pit Viper venom, and slowly recovers most of her feeling, though never use of that middle finger on her left hand. In the story, as in real life, down the hall from her in the San Antonio hospital, under heavy guard, is a drug lord being treated for AIDS, hepatitis, all kinds of communicable things you can get from needles and sex. The woman’s son names him “Desgraciado”—actually that’s the guards’ name for the prisoner. The son sees Desgraciado every time he passes by the drug lord’s room on the way to see his mother. Desgraciado’s face is pockmarked, scarred, malevolent. He sits in a chair by the window staring at the door, staring at the son, maybe plotting an escape, though it’s clear, clear to the son, at least, or maybe it’s just something he hopes, that the only escape for Desgraciado will be his death.
I flew out to Texas when Mom had the stroke. Left my wife and two young daughters and graduate school and the three jobs I was working back in Florida while I helped take care of her for the first two weeks—and Dad, who was a wreck the whole time I was there, so afraid he might lose her. I always thought she was the stronger one, and it would be better if Dad passed away before she did because she’d be better able to handle the grief. I didn’t know until years later, after Mom died, that the reason they were in Texas in the first place was because Dad had gotten involved with another woman back in Florida, and they’d gone out there to save their marriage. Mom had been working overtime operating two nonprofit child care centers for migrant children; Dad hadn’t known what to do with himself. I wonder now if he might have blamed himself for Mom’s stroke, as if his affair, and them moving to Texas, could have had something to do with it. I hope not. It was just a thing that happened because of her bad heart.
They gave her a pacemaker to control the previously undiagnosed atrial fibrillation that likely threw the clot that caused the stroke, and that seemed to fix things for awhile. Kicked it down the road. She thought she had everything under control, and mostly she did, except for that errant finger. And, the first time she stood up in church for the first hymn, the heartbreaking discovery that she had lost the ability to sing. The stroke had damaged that part of her brain as well. When you’re born that way, like Dad, they just say you’re tone deaf and you laugh about it because what can you do? When you’ve spent hours and hours of your life singing in choirs, and feeling closest to God in that way, and you lose it from a stroke, it’s called amusia, and you’re devastated beyond words, and embarrassed, and–for a very long time, as it was so central to your identity in ways you never knew until it was gone–lost.
I thought about all of this when I had my own stroke a couple of years ago—waking up to the feel of a stranger’s hand, fumbling my way out of bed, struggling for the right words when I called for help, losing, for awhile, my ability to type. My stroke turned out to be mild, the symptoms mostly fleeting, but left me as fearful of it happening again as Mom must have felt after hers.
It was actually a colonoscopy, and not her heart, that ended up killing Mom. Though you could make the case that without the bad heart, she wouldn’t have gone in for the colonoscopy in the first place. But wretched Polk County was determined to do her in, regardless. She and Dad had moved back from Texas by then, and Polk had already tried twice. Once by misreading the decimal point and giving her ten times the prescribed dosage of phenobarbital during an earlier stay in the hospital for what turned out to be the last time they aspirated her ascites. She survived, but it took an extra week in the hospital before she was lucid enough to go home. They forgot to put her back on her blood thinner when she was finally discharged, and two days later she suffered another stroke—twenty years after the first one out in Texas. No amount of Malayan Pit Viper venom could save her this time from the partial loss of speech and the paralysis that took over the right half of her body.
Mom, still suffering from the debilitating effects of the second stroke, was deathly afraid months later when they took her in for the colonoscopy. Like Wayne, she had a chronically low blood count, along with the ascites, and they wanted to find out what was causing it. But she was too frail. They shouldn’t have done it. Later we learned she was also in advanced liver and kidney failure, so she was already dying. Not that anybody knew.
Jo helped her undress and into a hospital gown. Mom was so thin that it kept falling off her shoulder and leaving her exposed and embarrassed. Dad was somewhere else in the hospital nervously pacing. Mom told Jo how frightened she was. She said she needed Dad there with her, and where was he? When Jo told me about it later, I thought of the old couple in Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Walk About When We Talk About Love.” They’d been in an accident and were seriously injured. Out of surgery and in recovery. Maybe strapped to Stryker frames. Unable to see one another or touch one another, though they were both in the same hospital room. Doctors said they would survive, but they were dying anyway, because of that. Because they couldn’t see or touch one another. Because of insufficient proof of life.
Mom shook with fear, and cried. Jo still can’t talk about this without crying herself. She tried calling Dad, multiple times, but he must not have heard his phone. As deaf as he was, that’s not a surprise. He should never have wandered off. They came for Mom before he got back. They administered a sedative and wheeled her down for the procedure. The sedative helped. Maybe they prayed. She never got to see Dad again, and he never got to see her. Not conscious, anyway. They botched the procedure. Tore her colon. It couldn’t be repaired. There was sepsis. She never came back out from under the anesthesia.
Dad never knew how afraid Mom had been, how she’d begged to see him, desperate to have him with her—to hold her and comfort her and promise her everything would be okay and he’d be right there waiting for her when she woke up and he’d take her home after that and make her soft-boiled eggs and toast with margarine, and he’d always be there for her, no matter what. Jo never told him.
I had an older student years ago in one of the classes I taught at the university. Everybody hated him. He was racist, homophobic, bigoted in every way. Ex-military, and not shy about sharing the various ways he’d killed people during his multiple deployments to Vietnam. He also had early-stage Parkinson’s, and interrupted every class trying to work the wrapper of his peanut butter crackers down into his empty Coke can once he finished them both off. It was a creative nonfiction class, and the story he wanted to write was about his dying wife and how he’d betrayed her by sleeping with her sister when the sister moved in with them to help take care of his wife in her last days, which turned into her last months, so too much time for him, anxious as he was, to be just sitting and waiting with the sister-in-law for the end. So the thing happened between them, and he’d always felt guilty about it, and that’s what he wrote about.
But that wasn’t the point of the story. The point of the story, the thing he really wanted to write about and I guess confess—to me, to the class, to the world, to his dead wife, to God—was that he wasn’t looking at her when she died. He was sitting next to the bed, listening to her death rattle, but at the critical moment, when she shuddered through her last breath, he wasn’t looking. That was the thing. He was glancing down at a magazine. Or out the window. Or at the door. Or down at his feet. Maybe he’d closed his eyes and nodded off.
What haunted him, what made him tear up when we met in my office to go over the draft of his story–this former Green Beret who was proud of all his kills, this angry, bigoted man who was so off-putting that nobody wanted to sit near him at the seminar table, this broken-down guy with his shaky Parkinson’s hands and shaky Parkinson’s voice—was the possibility that she might have been conscious, just for a few seconds, and opened her eyes and looked at him, looked for him, just to make eye contact so she wouldn’t be alone in the end. But he wasn’t there. He missed the moment. The last thing he could have given her. The last thing he could have done for her. Maybe to make up for sleeping with her sister. Maybe to make up for being such a difficult man. The betrayal. All those deployments. All that death. All that anger and hostility.
When Mom died, two days after the procedure, I made sure I was with her. Everyone else had gone home, thinking she had more time. But I somehow knew, and made sure I was there. They had turned off the heart monitor. Shut down the morphine drip. I held her and talked to her and told her how much I loved her, and apologized for all the ways I’d been a shitty son, and over the last hour, just her and me alone together in the hospital room, as her breathing grew shallow, more death rattle than actual breath, I never once looked away.
“You’ve been catastrophizing for 60 years.”
That’s what Wayne said to me not long ago. He’d been updating me on his various health concerns again—the ascites, still, the unexplained blood loss, the constant challenge of salt, the frustration in finding out THC might be bad for your heart, so no solace in that, the having to shit seven times a day, an upcoming colonoscopy which he was going to do over on Oahu because they didn’t have enough staff to keep an anesthesiologist in the room the whole time if he did it on Maui, and he’d just as soon not die from some stupid, avoidable complication of what was supposed to be a benign procedure. Then there was the lingering nerve damage in one of his legs from a car accident 25 years ago that now has him doing the old-man shuffle–with walking sticks. And the continuing weight loss. He was down to 145, he told me, with the distended abdomen and a skeletal upper body.
I assured him that on Facebook, in pictures of him and his band, none of that was noticeable, but otherwise I tried not to interrupt. Last time we’d spoken, I’d teased him a little too much, so I was determined to do better this time. Be more sympathetic. Ask questions. Be a good listener.
When he finished, I thought about calling Polk Life, it was all so dismal and depressing, but since he’d shared such a detailed litany of his anxieties, I figured the polite thing to do was share mine, too. And I had plenty, enough to keep the conversation going well into the afternoon. At one point I told him, for no particular reason—or for all kinds of reasons: the stroke I had two years ago, the arterial blockage that could have taken me out a year later—that some days I felt as though I could fall over and expire at any second. For some reason, falling over was part of the death equation that had gotten fixed in my mind. The helplessness of it. The utter loss of control. You don’t know how or where you’ll land. What you’ll look like, lying there, dead or nearly dead. Incapacitated. As if somehow your life is encapsulated in that final image of you. The way we hang on to people’s last words, as if they mean something more than the life that had been lived up to that moment. Or maybe it’s the mystery left behind. If you die peacefully in your sleep, the way they must coach attendants at nursing homes to describe the dead patients they find, all is as it should be. No mystery there. But what must have been going through his mind if he was walking his dog and then suddenly dropped dead there on the sidewalk? What could Goethe possibly have been thinking when he whispered “More light,” just before he died?
But whatever. I said one of my biggest fears was Janet or our daughters finding me like that. Then I told him I’d recently bombed a memory test at the neurologist, and felt as though I was transposing syllables more lately, and having a harder time retrieving the right words, and my typing seemed to have gotten worse. And, oh yeah, when they did blood tests the other day in advance of my appointment with my gastroenterologist, they found my kidney and liver numbers were “mildly elevated,” unlike Wayne’s perfect scores from a few weeks before. Even with the usual frantic internet searching, I wasn’t sure what to make of that since they didn’t give me the actual numbers. But I was worried all the same. About everything.
Which was when he said that about me catastrophizing for the past 60 years. I told him he was selling me short, because I was sure I’d been catastrophizing for at least the past 65 years, since I was two and became aware enough of the world around me, and inside me, to start fretting.
People are always saying you should live each day as if it’s your last, but I can’t see it. If I’m living each day as if it’s my last, I’m curled up in a ball of anxiety, buried under the covers, quaking with fear. It’s too much like the children’s prayer they taught us to say every night before bed: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” No wonder I forced myself to stay awake as long as I possibly could back then—curled up in a ball of anxiety, buried under the covers, quaking with fear. Maybe if I never fell asleep, maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t expire….
I much preferred the Three Little Ant stories Mom used to tell us when she tucked me and Wayne into bed when we were kids. Jo, our sister, would be there, too, but she was too young to know what was going on. I discovered later that the Three Little Ants borrowed heavily from the works of Beatrix Potter. But no matter. Every story ended the same way, with the Three Little Ants back home safe in their nest with their Mom giving them a bath and then feeding them bread and kumquat jelly before putting them to bed. I don’t know why it was always kumquat jelly. We had a few kumquat trees around and I’d tried one or two, the way you occasionally suck the nectar out of honeysuckle or eat clover, just because they’re there and just because somebody says they’re edible. But we’d never actually had kumquat jelly.
But the Three Little Ants always did. And they never had to say their prayers and never worried about dying in their sleep.
“You know that Simon and Garfunkel song ‘Old Friends,’” I asked Wayne recently, apropos of nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. Wayne and I have long shared an image of our aging selves sitting together on a park bench like the old friends in the song, possibly laughing, possibly just shaking our knowing heads at the absurdity of it all, the great cosmic joke that is life in the end.
“Yeah,” he said, possibly annoyed. “What about it?” He’d had to fire the bass player from his band and was bummed out about it, but pissed off, too. In Heavy Metal bands the drummers have a nasty habit of spontaneously combusting. In Americana/Roots/Children’s Music bands, it’s the bass players who don’t seem to work out. Wayne had been processing.
“Well what’s with the ‘high shoes,’” I said. “I’ve been wondering about that.”
“What ‘high shoes?” he asked.
“It’s in the song,” I said. “The part where it goes ‘Old friends /Sat on their park bench like bookends/A newspaper blown through the grass/Falls on the round toes/Of the high shoes/Of the old friends.”
“So what’s with the ‘high shoes’? Is that a thing? Since when do old men wear high shoes? Are they supposed to be some kind of orthopedic lace-ups?”
“How should I know?” Wayne said. “You’re the one with all the answers.”
Which is true. All our lives, Wayne thought I was the smart one. Everybody did. You get pigeon-holed early, I guess. Wayne was the one everybody liked, though he also styled himself as a lone wolf. That’s what he told me when he got to high school, anyway, when I nervously asked him what it was like up there. He just shrugged, kept chewing on his metaphorical toothpick, and said, “I don’t hang out with a lot of people. I’m kind of what you call a Lone Wolf.”
I wanted to be a Lone Wolf, too, but knew I’d never be able to pull it off. It just wasn’t in me. I was the smart one, and that was about it. Also the mouthy one. The one Wayne was always having to get in fights to defend when I popped off to some bigger guy and the guy slapped me around until Wayne stepped in and said, “Why don’t you pick on somebody your own size.”
Since I was the smart one, Wayne was always asking me things, assuming I had the answers. Sometimes I did. I read a lot of books and had a mind for trivia. But I also made a lot of things up, or I misremembered things I’d only ever partially understood in the first place but said them anyway as if they were accurate and true, which they usually weren’t. Not that Wayne knew it at the time. Or maybe he did. Maybe he was just humoring me even then, knowing how desperately I needed to be noticed, recognized, appreciated. I was so anxious about my inability to write capital Qs and capital Zs in cursive—could only do it in fifth grade because they had cards with all the cursive letters lining the top of the blackboard—that I got Wayne to sneak me into the sixth grade classroom at Riverside Elementary so I could see for myself that they had them there, too. Back then we called it “Real Writing.” Nobody had ever heard of cursive. I still don’t know how to write capital Qs and capital Zs in cursive, but at least over time I’ve been able to stop worrying about it.
I make up fewer things these days now that I have friends who love nothing more than for me to say stupid made-up or misremembered or half-remembered shit so they can dive into their iPhones for a quick internet search and expose me for the fraud I am. But in our family, it doesn’t matter. I’ll always be the smart one. And the mouthy one. And Wayne will always be the one who’s easier to love.
I wish I had some good answers for him now. About his heart. About anything. I’d even make something up if I thought he’d believe me, and if I didn’t know there’s always going to be somebody somewhere waiting to jump on the internet and prove me a liar.
Wayne once told me that he thought this would all be happening to him, to us, much later in life—this getting old, these failing hearts. He can’t seem to get his head around it. And I know exactly what he means. You’re young forever and then suddenly you’re not. Now sometimes you catch yourself standing there naked just out of the shower, looking in the mirror, taking inventory of everything that’s falling apart. You’re losing your hair. You have a hard time hearing past the ambient noise of a crowd. You’ve got sun spots and pre-cancers. Tufts of hair growing out of your ears. A pacemaker for your bum heart, and those meds you’re on to help control the rhythm. Statins for cholesterol. Blood thinners to ward off another stroke. Difficulty retrieving the right words sometimes when you’re tired and sometimes when you’re not. Your typing is sometimes scrambled. They’ve chopped off a foot and a half of your colon thanks to the chronic diverticulitis that plagued you for years, and why didn’t you have them do it sooner? You’ve got all those scars from all those surgeries from the accident that nearly killed you when you were 22. You can’t run any more, though just the other day, while walking the dog, you were coming down a hill and started jogging and made it a whole block which you counted as a major work-out victory, and you tell yourself that if only everywhere you went was downhill, you’d be a distance runner again. It’s ridiculous and you know it, but you still go there. You can’t help but go there. As if you can possibly be whole again, be the guy you once were, when the cold, hard truth is it’s no longer a matter of exercising more, taking the proper meds, having an ablation, getting a pacemaker, putting in a stent to get back to your old set point.
“Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life,” The New Yorker’s Roger Angell wrote, after he turned 90, and he’s not far wrong.
This getting old–we all know it’s coming every day we’re alive, and yet nobody can see a goddamn thing until it runs them over, backs up, and runs them over again.
For the past month and a half, Wayne’s been going into town every two weeks for the paracentesis he’d been hoping to avoid. The ascites has gotten worse. They aspirate close to three liters each time and it’s a temporary relief. But it always comes back. He has limited blood circulating, and limited oxygen in that blood. And he’s losing protein, since the fluid that leaks from the backflow from his heart contains mostly protein that would otherwise be feeding his tissues. He’s gotten weaker. His dry weight is 135. A rough bout of Covid that laid him low over the summer didn’t help things either. He got it when he went to Honolulu for that colonoscopy. The six years he’s been banking on—the time left between how old he is now and how old Mom was when she died—may be optimistic.
Helen and I have been emailing some behind Wayne’s back—about his heart and about our shared obsession with the New York Times’ Spelling Bee. (“Bee creators seem to favor mathematical terms, chemistry, and international foods, but don’t know a damn thing about rural or agrarian life,” she complained, accurately, just the other day.) I’ve been reaching out to their daughter Jubilee, too. They live next door to one another on a sprawling compound on the side of Haleakala with various other outbuildings filled with various renters and relatives—Jubilee’s in-laws–plus fields and pens and cages for horses and sheep and chickens and hogs, all of it surrounded by avocado trees, lychee and jackfruit orchards, a bonsai nursery, a dense wall of banana trees, a half-acre vegetable garden where Wayne grows his kale and a dozen other greens and vegetables with an intricate watering system keeping everything alive now going on the third year of the island drought. From Jubilee’s back porch, or from Wayne and Helen’s second-story lanai and their small apartment above the barn, you can see the sweep of land all the way down to the harbor where Jubilee’s husband Ben works, and beyond, to the West Maui mountains dotted with windmills to the north and often shrouded in fog, and the towns hugging the coast on both sides of the island.
Medically-speaking, Maui is the Polk County of the Hawaiian Islands, so they’d like to have what Helen and Jubilee diplomatically refer to as an “informed prognosis,” which is why they’re currently on their way to the mainland and the Cleveland Clinic—for a weeklong series of tests to better prepare them for whatever lies ahead, or, to put it another way, to find out how long Wayne actually has to live, assuming they’ll tell him if he asks. But maybe they’ll be like me when I was a kid, just make up some shit and let him think it’s true. Either way, I hope my own heart holds up so I can make the trip out to see him again, so we can lace up our high shoes and find us a park bench somewhere. Old friends. Couple of dorks.
I’m not ready to call “Polk Life” just yet, and neither, I suspect, is Wayne, but in the end I doubt you ever are.
Steve Watkins, editor and co-founder of Pie & Chai, is the author of 14 books, a retired professor emeritus of American literature, a recovering yoga teacher, and the father of four remarkable daughters. He is also a tree steward with the urban reforestation organization Tree Fredericksburg and founder of Rappahannock Area Beaver Believers, a wildlife advocacy group, which you’re welcome to join on Facebook. His author website is stevewatkinsbooks.com.
(A passage that didn’t survive the editing process because somebody seemed to think it was too digressive.)
Dad heard us making fun of him once—not for his posture, but for wearing a dead man’s jacket. It was not long after Mom died, so he should have gotten a free pass, but that’s not how we operated. He’d been given a trunk full of clothes that belonged to his sister Pat’s husband, who had also recently died and who we never liked. Bill was Aunt Pat’s third husband, if you counted her second marriage, which she’d had annulled right after the honeymoon. He, Bill, husband #3, kept an AR-15 in the closet where they lived in Richmond’s West End for what he was convinced was the coming race war.
That time we made fun of Dad, Wayne and I had taken him hiking in Westmoreland State Park, an hour east of where I live in Virginia. It was cold, the wind whipping up off the Potomac, and Dad was wearing one of Bill’s jackets, which we found strange and macabre. We’d grown up lower-middle class, but Dad had plenty of money by then and didn’t need anybody’s hand-me-downs, much less a dead brother-in-law’s. But he was also a child of the Depression and didn’t believe you should waste anything, especially not a perfectly good Members-Only jacket, even though Dad had never been a Members-Only kind of guy.
Wayne and I, bored from having to hike so slow so Dad could keep up—this was fifteen years ago when we thought we’d never age like him–started joking about “Dead Man’s Jacket” the way they said “Dead Man Walking” in that movie when the prison guards escorted the condemned men to the gas chamber. Dad had always been hard of hearing—stone cold deaf in one ear–and as he got older, into his 80s, only followed what anybody said about half the time. He’d stopped asking people to repeat themselves, and instead just talked over them, or nodded as if he understood, doing what a hearing-impaired friend of mine calls the “Deaf-Duh.”
But somehow, in the middle of the woods on a winding trail in Virginia’s Northern Neck, with the wind blowing and birds chirping and squirrels rustling through dead leaves and our boots crunching on the gravel trail—Dad heard. He turned abruptly and snapped at us. “You boys knock it off!” It was clear we’d hurt his feelings.
We felt awful. Wayne blamed me, and I blamed him, though it probably was my fault. I’m usually the one to instigate these things. We spent the rest of the day trying to make it up to him.
Later, I wondered if maybe it wasn’t so terrible, us making fun of Dad for the Dead Man’s Jacket, because for that one frozen moment he got to reassert his authority as the paterfamilias, something he hadn’t done—hadn’t had the opportunity to do–in years. We’d lost Mom, and there was no getting her back, but in that instant, maybe he was no longer the grieving widower, crippled by loneliness, facing the prospect of his own mortality, staring into the abyss. He was our old dad again, the one from when we were kids, the Scout leader, the Mines Planning engineer, the disciplinarian, the guy Mom was talking about when she said “Just you wait until your father gets home,” the man who wasn’t about to take any guff off anybody and certainly not from the likes of us.
The dad who made us repaint the long white fence next to our driveway every year even when it didn’t need it—including the section that ran through a thick stand of bamboo, and god forbid we should ever get paint on any of the towering shoots. And no matter how many times we tried, we could never Tom Sawyer our friends into helping, except David Bailey, who would have gladly done all our chores for us if he could only move in and get away from his own home. His older brother Ricky had lived with us for a few months, after he went after their drunk stepdad with a baseball bat to stop him from beating up their mom. Dad had him paint the barn as payment for room and board, and to teach him personal responsibility, though Ricky ended up getting into more trouble and being shipped off to reform school anyway.
But yeah. That dad. The dad who for weeks leading up to Christmas one year when we were 10 and 11 kept holding his hand higher than his head and saying he’d gotten us a present “Yay big,” which drove us crazy with anticipation. It turned out to be a push broom so we could keep the carport and driveway clean the way he liked it (and, OK, for making sure we had smooth concrete for riding on the homemade skateboards he made for us in secret that year from our old roller skates, the first kids in our little town to have them—skateboards, that is, not roller skates–and so for once in our short, un-athletic lives we were the objects of great small-town envy).
The dad who got mad at us for not doing our chores properly one Saturday, and as punishment made us pick all the sand spurs out of the back yard, hundreds of them, which took us all afternoon in the blazing Florida sun and was impossible with work gloves on because the sand spurs stuck to the fabric so we had to use our bare fingers, and that night Mom ran out of Merthiolate and Band-Aids patching us up (and probably left us with mercury poisoning besides).
The dad who got incensed when Wayne announced he was bored watching a John Wayne movie that came on television one night. And he didn’t stop there. Wayne said he hated all of John Wayne’s movies and didn’t think they’d made any good movies since “Old Yeller.” So Dad, who loved few things as much as watching an old John Wayne movie on a Sunday night after church while eating cold consommé from a can, made Wayne stand in front of the TV and apologize five times to “Mr. Wayne” whenever he came back on screen.
I don’t think Dad ever wore Bill’s jacket again. But he couldn’t bring himself to throw it away, either, and it sat in his closet for several years back in Central Florida. Ironically, Wayne ended up with it. Might have been a cold snap in Florida during one of his visits from Hawaii, and Wayne borrowed the Dead Man Jacket to keep warm. For all I know, on those chilly mornings and nights living at elevation on the side of the volcano on Maui, he still sometimes wears it even now.
Years later, when we were cleaning out Mom and Dad’s house, Wayne found a creepy John Wayne doll that had belonged to Dad, and for reasons having to do with complicated and clearly unresolved father-son issues that Wayne has tried to explain to me but that I’ve still never fully understood—he decided to keep that, too, though after hanging onto it for years, stashed away in a closet, he’s contemplating selling it on eBay. Or better still, he says—and here’s where the story comes full circle, back to the family heart—he wants me to see if I can sell it to one of the cardiologists at the practice that’s been keeping me alive for the past twelve years. The guy collects John Wayne memorabilia and has decorated the restroom in the testing suite from floor to ceiling with signed posters, movie stills, and even bumper stickers. A two-foot tall John Wayne doll–cowboy hat, vest, gun belt, boots, spurs, rifle and all—would fit right in. Maybe standing guard on the back of the toilet. The Duke abides.