Peter Shelton

Warm Coastal Waters (2)

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Personal History, Uncategorized by pshelton on November 6, 2017

It wasn’t his heart.

When, weeks later, Dad lay dying, at home with hospice care, his two nurses Dahlia and Leticia, who took turns keeping him clean and (more or less) comfortable, gave me diametrically opposed advice. One said, your father can hear everything you say; talk to him. The other said, no, he’s not hearing anything now.

I chose to believe the first. Dad hadn’t opened his eyes or responded to questions for the last day and a half, so there was no way to know for sure. He was done eating. And the little bits of water we trickled into his mouth with the popsicle sponge were less and less welcome.

He didn’t need sustenance. He was concentrating. Working hard at breathing. Or at stopping breathing. The animal brain, of course, wouldn’t countenance a voluntary cessation. Thus the resistance. Why it was taking this long. The man, the cerebral, dignified man who had thought long and hard about this, and whose body had finally betrayed him, was marching steadily toward the end. His breathing came in orderly – labored but orderly – patterns, like waves in and out on a beach. Then every once in a while there’d be a big exhale, a lengthy sigh. Pause. And the pattern would recommence.

Sitting there, I was reminded of his time in the Navy in World War II. He’d joined up in 1943 as a college sophomore and enlisted right away in a quickie officers’ candidate school that turned out “90-day wonders.” Three months and you were a Navy ensign. During this training period, Dad had led a precision drill team. I’ve seen pictures. They were a near-perfect machine, a white-capped, white-gloved cube of synchronized movement – marching straight, pirouetting right, stopping on the exact dime – with my fresh-faced dad off slightly to the side calling out the cadence. They won competitions. They were magnificent. Later, he taught his four children how to salute and how to march, tongue ever so slightly in cheek, across the living room rug. “For’ard, harch! One-two… About… Face! At ease!”

Now he was marching again, or so I imagined. Working hard. Working at precision. Getting there. So, maybe he wasn’t hearing me. But I talked anyway. I talked about our boats and our time together on boats. Long ago but still vivid. (A portrait, an actual oil painting of the Good Grief, at anchor on a glassy day, hung on the wall around the corner from Dad’s rented hospital bed.) I reminded him of the time we’d started out for Catalina, the two of us in a pea-soup “marine layer,” on the Mister Robert’s. (The name painted on the hull referred to Dad’s given name, but also steered an alert reader to the 1955 movie starring Henry Fonda and Jimmy Cagney. It’s the story of a small, humorously fractious Navy supply ship on the fringes of the action in the Pacific, and it roughly paralleled Ensign Shelton’s experience.) That foggy day we set our compass course for Long Point, near the center of the 20-mile-long island, just in case. We took turns steering and blowing the foghorn. At one point during the morning an overloaded cabin cruiser veered suddenly out of the mist into shouting range. “You headed to Catalina?” “Yes!” “Us too!” And they roared off, vanished. I don’t think either of us mentioned it, but the encounter brought back the grisly memory of three bodies laid out on the Coast Guard dock. Dad was city manager of Newport Beach at the time. A very hands-on manager who showed up and sometimes got wet or got his hands dirty supporting city employees. And sometimes I happened to be there with him when he got a call. The bodies on the harbormaster dock were the first dead people I had seen. They’d been nibbled on by sharks. Bloodless white meat after days in the water. The autopsy later decreed (kindly, I thought) that all three had drowned first. Their powerboat had sunk somewhere in the Catalina Channel and they had put their life jackets on backwards, which pushed their faces in the water.

At some point mid-crossing the fog lifted, and Dad and I were stunned to see we were aimed, not at the island’s midsection but at its east end. A strong cross current had shoved us left by almost 10 miles. Had we continued to rely solely on the compass heading, we’d have missed the island altogether.

I talked to him about the marching he had taught us kids. I asked him if that’s what he was doing now, marching. He didn’t show any sign of having heard, but kept on with the metronome, open-mouth breathing. One of the last things I did hear him say was, “I’m organizing on deck…”

Every once in a while he would grimace and stiffen as if in pain. We had struggled with morphine dosages. The hospice people had left a set of guidelines but stressed that we could give more if needed. Cloe, who is a doctor, said on the phone from Oregon that as a rule she favored easing pain. She didn’t think we were giving Geegeepa too much. Wendy, on the other hand, remembered conversations with our father in which he stated his desire to be “present” at the moment of death; he very much wanted to experience the passage. (This is a man who wrote his own obituary. He didn’t like the fluffy scripted ones he read in the paper. We all thought his was overly modest, cleaved of much accomplishment and honors bestowed, but it was in character and included, near its end, the sentence: “As for the afterlife, I’m not telling.”)

Most of the time when these grimaces took over Dad’s face, he just needed to pee. He never quite got the catheter thing. That he could just let go and urinate without violating that age-old prohibition against wetting the bed. He’d grimace, eyes tight shut, and I’d peer under the sheet and see that, yes, the prophylactic was still attached and despite his psychic discomfort, the dark urine had begun to flow.

Back when Dad was in the hospital, following his living-room collapse, he’d suffered from what one doc labeled “hospital psychosis” and another referred to as “hospital delirium.” It happens, she said, especially to old people who are ripped from their routines. And it did perhaps explain Dad’s discombobulation. One time soon after I’d arrived, Dad lurched upright as if to get out of bed just as the day nurse, Desiree, walked in.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“Is there a urinal?” Dad indicated he was heading to the bathroom.

“You’re in a hospital!” Desiree said, grabbing him, mildly put out.

“Oh, that’s a good place to be,” he said, giving in, lying back down as Desiree explained about his catheter, not for the first time.

Desiree was a natural blonde with a lovely curve to her back. Dad never stopped appreciating what he called “female pulchritude.” He actually used those words one time when we were at the beach. He was in his 80s and the two of us were body surfing small waves at the Corona del Mar State Beach. The Big Beach, we called it. It was warm and windless. Clear green water, refracted sunlight off a sand-gold bottom. Bikinis everywhere one looked.

Dad didn’t exactly flirt with Desiree, but he was solicitous to her commands. He remained, I couldn’t help thinking, a handsome man, despite the slightly skeletal look. Our mother, Miriam, a great beauty herself when they met at Pomona College, is a sculptor who often comments on bone structure. Dad had great bone structure. They were married for 27 years, divorced for 42. Other women told her, she delighted in repeating to us kids, that Dad was “the handsomest man in Newport Beach.”

Early in his hospital stay, Dad said to Desiree, “I hired you to work at the Nature Center.” Which hadn’t happened. (In retirement Dad had been instrumental in founding the Environmental Nature Center on Newport’s back bay.) This was during the delirium time. He also talked, with no context, about “the tools.” And once, out of the blue, he called me “Bo.”

The condition manifested in more powerful flights of fancy, too. He had hallucinations, or dreams, or visions, he wasn’t sure which. So vivid, so potent, he thought they might herald a new reality. He said he could see out of his bad eye. In his 70s he’d suffered a detached retina, which ultimately hadn’t been reparable. He was blind in that eye. But he insisted from his bed, to me, to nurses, to anyone who would listen, that he could now see things with that eye.

“If I deliberately put the left eye in service,” he told me, as rational-sounding as always, “then I can see things I normally don’t see.”

For example, he saw his car there in the room. The new Ford hybrid he’d proudly driven up to Bend, to see us, two years before. He “saw” a meal being prepared, with my mother’s help, for a kids’ camp taking place in “open space” next door to the hospital. There was no kids’ camp. There was no open space.

“If I get to believing what the left eye sees… it might become a spare…” His voice trailed off. And then, as if awakening to something, “…it might be a problem.”

Dad had always had a dread of lingering, as his father had, for months, following a stroke. My fear was that Dad was deteriorating neurologically to the point where he, we, none of us could prevent a similar fate. But my fear abated the following day when Dad’s head cleared considerably. He knew where he was and why: his collapse had been the result of sepsis, a blood infection probably related to a wound on his leg that had not healed. His trusted internist (in essence his GP for the last several decades) said, “You’re not dying, Bob.” And put him on a course of strong antibiotics and gentle physical therapy.

Back on more solid ground, we talked baseball. The World Series would be on television that night. Cubs versus Indians. In Cleveland. The seventh, the deciding game. The Cubbies, the snake-bit Cubbies, attempting to come back, on the road, from a 3-1 series deficit. Baseball had been a second pillar, along with the boats, of our father-son relationship. He’d taken me to Dodger games beginning soon after they moved from Brooklyn to L.A. He taught me the game’s wonderful grammar. How a throw across the diamond can be “on a rope.” When to steal and when to bunt. Why third base is the “hot corner.” We went to a World Series game in the fall of 1959. Dodgers versus Chicago White Sox. A hundred thousand people filled the L.A. Coliseum. We parked about a mile away (or so it seemed), on the front-yard grass of an enterprising family in South Central.

Just as memorable, in aggregate, were the games we listened to coming home from Catalina. Sunday afternoon day games. Fair winds whipping up a following sea. The Grief rolling through the troughs, exhaust burbling the aft wake. Me at the wheel, age 12. Vin Scully’s melodic, unhurried, fatherly play-by-play emanating from the transistor radio. At home, with the sports section spread out on the dining room table, I learned how to calculate batting averages and earned-run average. Warm evenings after supper, Dad would grab his old college mitt, black with spit and neatsfoot oil, and we’d play catch until we could no longer see the ball.

I came back to the hospital that night to watch the game with Dad. He fell asleep early on and missed the Cubs’ stunning comeback: 8-7 in 10 innings. An amazing finish. The end of the Loveable Losers’ historic, 107-year title drought. Dad, hands folded on his hospital gown, snored next to me.

 

To be continued…

2 Responses

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  1. Jeff D Mayfield said, on November 7, 2017 at 8:57 pm

    Mr. Shelton – I just finished reading Tracks in the Snow, and have Climb to Conquer in cue. I couldn’t put “Tracks” down. I realize I’ve read your articles throughout the years, but you really brought a lot of memories back to me about many things. I, too, grew up in SoCal (Costa Mesa/Newport) and my first 100 day season was at Mt Reba/Bear Valley (ran the old Tamarack Lodge at 21 years old! what were they thinking – hah?; ’83-’85) and have so many great memories of that place ( I may have to write some down for the kids – but, you make a difficult task seem easy). Anyway, you really put in words what so many of us feel about the soul of skiing and what it brings to us all. Many thanks..
    Jeff Mayfield

    • pshelton said, on November 7, 2017 at 9:54 pm

      Tamarack Lodge! Good on ya, Jeff. Thanks for the kind words.


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