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.”

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…