Peter Shelton

Warm Coastal Waters (3)

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Personal History, Uncategorized by pshelton on November 7, 2017

I’m convinced he was in charge at the end. After the rehab fiasco, he was ready to go.

When it was time to leave the hospital, Dad’s doctor prescribed a week at a nursing home to finish the antibiotics and continue the physical therapy. But it didn’t work out. He had his doubts, even before we left the hospital. A new nurse struggled to get Dad’s socks on preparatory to getting him into the wheelchair. He couldn’t even sit up on his own. I had to stand on the opposite side of the bed and prop him up from behind. “See this man who’s got my back,” he told the beleaguered woman. “He can bounce. He can jump. And run. I’m quite envious of him.”

At the rehab place, instead of slowly regaining strength, he gradually lost it. Supported walks became shorter. The hoped-for goal of getting himself to the bathroom unaided slipped farther out of reach. Staff did not always respond timely to his calls. He soiled himself in bed and was mortified. After a week, the antibiotics course had finished. His internist wanted him to extend his stay: You just need to work at it, Bob; you can regain that mobility, that pre-fall independence, and then go home.

Dad agreed, reluctantly, to another week. He worked at it. He really did. But the results weren’t coming. He wanted to go home. He wanted it to end. The indignities. The complete dependence on others. Wendy thought he was depressed. And he probably was. But who wouldn’t be at that point? He was ready, and he knew it. His doc ordered hospice.

I flew south a second time. Wendy drove down from her home in Truckee. Tom borrowed an electric keyboard, a “full 88,” from a theater where he played on weekend nights, crammed it into his vintage Prius, and reconstructed it in the hall outside Dad’s study. Tom played Joplin. Slow ragtime. He knew Dad loved it. It was exquisite. It was heartbreaking.

One afternoon I took a break and drove to the cliff overlooking the Big Beach. There, surrounding the harbor, was the city Dad built. No, that’s too grand. And not true. He was the city’s first city manager, starting when they adopted their charter in 1955, and helped guide what had been a sandy, isolated, commercial fishing and summer-cottage town to become… What? Dad would be the first to say he didn’t approve of much that characterizes the place today: a city squeezed to the last developable square inch; a crushing, shiny river of Bentleys and Beamers; ugly politics; $20 million homes; a mooring on the bay for your boat, if you can find one, for half a million more. Dad’s hospital window looked out over a piece of the bay and a small sampling of the 10,000 yachts moored there. A youngish hospital orderly (too young, really, to know) caught me gazing out the window and told me, “I grew up in Newport Beach before it was ‘The O.C.’”

Back then, when Dad was fresh out of the war and out of school, growth was an unquestioned good, progress a straight line rising. Back then we drove 20 minutes on surface streets through orange groves to get to the Santa Ana Freeway. Disneyland hadn’t yet opened. Dad’s job was to manage the growth as rationally, as intelligently as possible. Many people think he did just that. In later decades, though, he’d cringe at his own naiveté, his failure, if it was a failure, to perceive the onrushing future.

A brown pelican, endangered when I was a kid but making a comeback, glided right over the rock on which I sat. So close I could hear the air whistling through its feathers.

I have long believed, and I think Dad came to believe, too, that his signature professional achievement was the preservation from development of a stretch of wild beach between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach. He was working at the time for the Irvine Company, developer of the City of Irvine, the Irvine campus of the University of California, and large, terraced chunks of Newport Beach. They had plans to develop this four-mile strip of beachfront, too – one of the last pieces of undeveloped coastline in southern California. I’m not sure whose idea it was initially, but I do know that Dad spent years negotiating with the Coastal Commission, the State of California, Orange County, the surrounding city governments – and succeeded eventually in transferring the land to the state parks system, where it remains wild and open to the public, its honey-colored cliffs and rock-strewn beaches, its tide pools and pelicans protected.

Tom played Joplin. Our mother came, briefly, to pay her respects, driven up from Laguna Beach by somebody… Eliza? Diana? They, Mom and Dad, had remained civil, often friendly, living just a few miles apart, in the years since their divorce. She stood at the foot of Dad’s bed, her expression hard to read. Later, at her house, I asked her what she had been thinking, assuming she’d say something about his spectral appearance, the handsome skull beneath papery skin. But she just said, “It’s complicated.” Of course it was. We left it at that.

Dad’s wife, Barbara, never completely comfortable around Sheltons, disappeared or padded purposefully around the house that would soon be hers alone. It was in part to spare her the burden of caregiving that Dad was so determined to go. I don’t know this for certain, but I believe it’s true.

As Dad marched on, I sat next to the bed, hand on his shoulder, and talked. Talked about letting go. I reminded Dad of a recurring dream he used to tell me about. A skiing dream in which he had to push through typical dream obstacles to get to the actual skiing part, but then, when he did get there, the skiing was exquisite, like nothing he’d ever done but as he imagined it could be. He was floating down the mountain, and it was effortless.

I told him about a dream I have had more than once. I’m underwater, way down below the surface, I’m holding my breath and I’m not at all sure I’ll make it back up. I’m swimming, breaststroking, my lungs about to burst, I have to exhale, and then… slowly at first, but with increasing awareness and pleasure, I realize I don’t have to breathe. I’m fine. Not exactly like a fish with gills, but something like that. I’m getting plenty of what I need: oxygen? air? neither one? In the peculiar logic of the dream, it doesn’t matter. I’m ecstatic. This was something I’d always known, or should have known, but discovered only now. And I’m freer than I’ve ever been. At ease.

Wendy touched my arm. I had drifted off in the lounge chair with a blanket over me. Tom slept on a day bed nearby. “He’s gone,” she said. It was 4:00 a.m. She’d been sitting with Dad the last couple of hours. His breathing got slower, she said. And then it stopped.

We decided to motor northwest along Catalina’s lee shore, out beyond Avalon’s last moorings, past the Casino, the 1930s-era Art Deco ballroom, past the towering cruise ship, past the faux Amalfi Coast condos terraced into the cliff, my tension dissipating with each nautical mile. Past the dive boats at anchor that were the last sign of civilization.

We wouldn’t get as far as White’s Landing, where Wendy, Tom and I (and sister Polly, who died 10 years ago) had slept many a summer night rocking gently in the Good Grief’s bunks. Days spent in and out of the water, mostly in. Dad, lithe and tan, salt crystalizing on his forearms, rowing us back from the beach in the dinghy. White’s was the cove we knew best. But it was too far on this day.

This spot, though, was far enough. It was perfect. We killed the engines and drifted in silence, our two boats linked by arms and hands, my starboard alongside Tom’s port. There was still no wind. The water lapping against the hulls was the deep blue of Concord grapes, but clear, clear down deep, like looking into a sapphire. Ellen and I passed out the tins. We’d already talked with the little ones about what we were going to do, how special this was, and that they were to be reverent, although we didn’t use that word. And they were. Splendidly so, in spite of their excitement. In spite of, or perhaps because of the (for them) entirely new sea on which we bobbed. The warm coastal waters off Catalina Island.

I don’t know who first sprinkled from his tin of ashes. In time, each of us leaned over the side and reached down close to the water before letting Geegeepa go. When I sprinkled my few spoonsful I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. The finer, lighter bits formed a cumulus cloud billowing just below the surface. (I don’t know why I thought they might float.) The heavier pieces drifted purposefully downward in a sparkling column that flashed and glowed in the sunlight. The deeper they went the darker the blue background, but they never stopped catching light and throwing it back, like individual flakes of gold.

Eventually there were 12 clouds and descending star columns – each angling slowly away as the boats drifted closer to shore.

Ellen has written a lovely, rhyming book called “A Cat Named Clyde,” in which Clyde dies and is transformed, over time, from his backyard grave into a cloud, and rain, a grain of sand, and eventually a pearl “… that was worn by a woman who liked to twirl…” Ellen had read “Clyde” to Alex and Lily, at home in Bend. Maybe that’s where Lily’s comment came from, for, just when it was time to pull the starter cords on the outboards and head back, a young sea lion poked its sleek, whiskered head above the surface and regarded us for a long moment. And Lily said, “Maybe that’s Geegeepa come to say goodbye.”

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2 Responses

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  1. talkinggourds said, on November 7, 2017 at 11:41 pm

    reading your new book from lito — it’s luminous

    • pshelton said, on November 8, 2017 at 12:03 am

      Coming from a poet of light . . . thank you, Art.


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