Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Henry's Crossing Over

rieved several times in my life.  It's generally been after a loss.  This time, it's different.  This time it feels like I'm mourning in advance.  Maybe it's better this way?

My father-in-law is dying.  I don't mean in the sense that we are all dying from the moment of birth. I don't even mean in the sense of having been diagnosed with a terminal illness.  Though both of these are true.  I mean he is actively in the process of dying.  His organs have started to shut down.  He is no longer lucid.  Essentially, we are waiting for him to breathe his last.

I'm not very close with him.  Then again, I'm not very close with many people period - relatives or otherwise.  But I was always fond of him.  When I met him 16 years ago, I immediately liked him.  I didn't worry about being judged by him.  I was new in my relationship with Alex, and very self-conscious about how I came across to his mom and sister in particular.  Latinas, let's just say, intimidated me.

But when I met Henry, he was this short little Central American Indian man with long, black, wavy hair down half his back. Always smiling.  He had a bit of a goofy demeanor about him.  He moved a bit like a little kid that couldn't sit still.  He always seemed happy and excited.

The first conversation I had with him, he explained to me that in spite of having never formally adopted Alex and his sister, he always thought of them as his own.  He came into the picture before Alex and Marilena reunited with their mother in the United States.  He and Alex's mom had a son together, Ritchie.  They were still seemingly in love and happily married when I met my in-laws.  Sadly, by the time Alex and I got married four years later, his parents had split up.

On one of our visits back to Florida, home base for my in-law clan, Henry insisted on introducing Alex and Marilena to some buddies of his.  I remember staying in the car and waiting - we were en route somewhere, and I generally get traumatized by meeting strangers.  Henry was practically bursting with energy and jumping rather than walking as he corralled his two grown kids into the friends' house.

Over the years, Marilena moved up closer to us, followed by their mom, and finally Ritchie.  It seemed strange that the issue of Henry's homelessness just sort of crept into my consciousness as one of those things that is a sad reality but not really something I could do anything about.  A few years ago, Alex and Marilena split the cost of sending Henry back to their native country of El Salvador, where he got to visit his mom.  He had a falling out with his brother since I met him, and apparently he wasn't close to his sister either.

Last year, Henry finally agreed to leave Florida.  Alex made the road trip to get him, and Henry moved in with Marilena.  I remember seeing him for the first time in many years - and having Maya meet him for the first time ever - at a cousin's baby shower.  He was like I remembered him, for the most part, though clearly much less enthused than before.  Perhaps he was ashamed of having spent a decade living on the streets?  Perhaps he was just nervous about trying to fit back into the family again?

Then Maya turned one, and Henry was there.  In fact, Maya has a cute photo of herself on Alex's lap, with both her grandfathers - my dad and Henry.  Soon after that, Alex's brother got married - this January, actually.  I insisted on getting a photo of Maya with both her paternal grandparents, even though they weren't on speaking terms.  Thankfully, both agreed.  The photo shows Alex holding Maya, and his mom decked out on one side, while Henry - in the usual style I remember, stepped up behind Alex and leaned onto his shoulder in a sort of peak-a-boo pose.

At the wedding reception, Maya and I sat with Henry for a bit and had one of our awkward yet friendly conversations.  I - trying to speak Spanish yet ever self-conscious about it, Henry responding in English to ease my stress.  At one point, he told me that he was very sick.  He put his index finger to his lips and shushed as he asked me not to tell his kids.  I didn't really make much out of it.  After living on the streets for a decade, struggling with alcoholism and isolation from family, and the resulting lack of regular medical care, it was no secret that he needed some medical attention.  Alex had already told me as much.  But it seemed that he was talking about something much more dire. He seemed to have a keen awareness of where he was on his life's journey.

Soon, Henry was working again, his son-in-law bought him a car.  He got a taste of normalcy again, it seemed.  But none of this lasted very long.  A few months ago, on Marilena's birthday no less, Henry was diagnosed with throat cancer.  Apparently, it had been weeks since he was able to comfortably eat anything.

At first, the conversations Alex and I had centered on trying to stay positive.  "Let's not jump to conclusions" we would take turns saying.  Nonetheless, Alex wanted to "prepare for the worst but hope for the best", as he researched funeral arrangements.

It didn't take long - maybe a week, maybe two - to find out that Henry's cancer had spread.  First to his back, then to his brain.  He had his first chemo therapy by then, so we kept thinking that as long as there's treatment, there's hope.  But once the cancer spread to his brain, we had to face the reality of Henry's situation being terminal.

We didn't know how much time he had.  It could be six months, maybe more, maybe less.  I remember asking Alex to remind me when Henry's birthday was.  When he said it was April, my thoughts rushed around trying to figure out if he might live to his next birthday or not.  Part of me hoped so, yet part of me was doubtful.

Marilena took on full responsibility for caring for him.  He of course quit working and driving. The first time we visited after his diagnosis, when we came in and he approached the door to greet us, I was struck with how much he had changed.  He had lost a lot of weight, and it showed very drastically in his face.  He wasn't oblivious to it either.  Seeing Maya's resistance in greeting him, he noted that it must be because he's so skinny in the face, that she doesn't recognize him.

I knew Alex would be back and forth between our state and where his dad was living, taking his turn escorting him to doctor visits.  But I didn't anticipate many more visits for myself and Maya.  I saw that visit as a goodbye visit, although we would actually see him several more times.

I managed to get a photo of Henry with just his two granddaughters.  There was a kickboxing bag on the patio, so I hid behind it and held Maya sitting on top.  Then her cousin and Henry stood next to it.  He wore a hat hiding a big bump on the top of his head.  It wasn't clear to me if this was a visible sign of the brain cancer, or something else entirely.

Shortly before we left, I reheated Maya's mac-n-cheese to feed her on the way back.  Henry followed me into the kitchen, asking what I was making.  Having forgotten that he hasn't eaten over a month by this time, I just brushed it off as nothing much.  But he persisted, looking around my shoulder to see for himself.  I told him macaroni, and then realized what Alex later told me - that he was living vicariously through us by his interest in what we ate.

I knew that every time I asked Alex where he learned to be so kind, so laid-back, so flexible, so generous, he would always say "my dad".  Now that it became increasingly clear that Henry's time on earth was limited, I thought this was something he should know.  I was terrified of broaching the subject myself.  It was already an emotional topic, the circumstances of it were dire, and I wanted to relay the information in Spanish.  As Henry walked me and Maya out that day, when we were getting ready to go home, I got a burst of courage and I started.

I stopped once or twice to collect myself, as Henry patiently waited for me to get to my point.  He may have teared up a little, but it was clear that he had made peace with the fact that his time was coming to an end.  He smiled, pointing and looking up to heaven, referencing God, and said that he's ready.  I said that I didn't know if Alex had every shared this with him or not, but that I wanted to make sure he knew what a role model he had been for him.  His facial expression when I said this told me that I had done the right thing in braving through.

I quickly commented on his earring, which I hadn't noticed before.  He had just gotten his long hair cut, in anticipation of going bald from chemo, and gave it to his son Ritchie.  So I also tried to show Maya his short hair, trying to point out how Abuelo may look different than she remembers him but he's still the same Abuelo.

I suggested that on his next visit to see his dad, Alex would tell Henry himself what I had told him.  He did, and he later texted me that his dad just lit up upon hearing it.  I'm sure hearing it from his own son was much more meaningful than hearing it second-hand from his daughter-in-law.  Now he had heard it twice, so I was confident that he knew he had made a positive impact on the world.  Not that he doubted that.  I don't know, I don't think so.  After all, he seemed at peace.  But when I put myself in his shoes, I thought that this was exactly the kind of reassurance I would have liked and needed to hear.

The next time we visited, Henry not only looked weaker but seemed to be weaker.  Henry only got up to go use the restroom.  To do so, he needed to turn off and unhook his feeding tube.  Alex helped him so that it would stop leaking. He spent most of the time of our visit on the sofa, watching Univision.  He and his ex-wife (my mother-in-law) had recently made some sort of peace.  He agreed to let her care for him, which was a big step.  Earlier, he only consented to speaking to her on the phone.  He must have not wanted her to see him in his frail condition.  Yet here they were, in the same room, exchanging normal friendly conversation.  She looked at the show he was watching and asked if he preferred it to the other Spanish-language channel, Telemundo.  He said yes, that there were only telenovelas (soap operas) on the other channel.  Perhaps something got lost in translation, as the show he was watching on Univision seemed like a telenovela to me!

Maya didn't want to give her Abuelo a hug or a kiss, not even a high-five.  It broke my heart, though I understood that she wasn't trying to be rude.  She was genuinely shy of the strange-looking guy who didn't resemble the Abuelo she had met the year before.  She wasn't even two years old yet, after all.  It was a lot to ask her to be extra nice to her Abuelo.  She did go get some ice for him when I tried to convince her to show some sort of interest in him because he was sad.  She took that to mean that he had a boo-boo.  She led me to the fridge, had me open the freezer and take out the ice stick, and she brought it ever so tentatively and pointed it in the direction of Henry.  I suppose I should count that as a success.

It was during this visit that Alex started to formulate a plan to show Henry the ocean one more time. He had loved the ocean, and Alex saw an opportunity to bring the family together again, the way they were before their parents split up, before the kids each went their separate ways.

In spite of sensing the urgency of the situation, it still took two weeks for the weekend trip to take place.  Henry was getting his second chemo treatment the morning before his daughter drove him to meet the rest of us at Virginia Beach.  It had been delayed because of various problems in the interim - an infection and the need to replace his feeding tube, a fall that resulted in stitches on his eyebrow, a fever that had to be controlled before he'd be cleared for chemo.

Alex, Maya, and I were the first to arrive Friday evening.  Alex booked four rooms on the beach, with ocean-views.  Thank God he did.  Henry was very frail and weak post-chemo and due to the meds he was on to control his nausea.  He no longer walked on his own; his daughter rented a wheelchair from the Walgreens across the street.

It was no surprise that Alex's brother had another falling-out with his bride. The point of this weekend trip seemed to have been completely lost on her.  She wanted Ritchie to go to work instead of coming on the trip.  I remember saying to Alex, "doesn't she understand the gravity of the situation?  The point of this trip?"  I was very upset, assuming that Ritchie would do what his wife wanted instead of being there for his dad, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Marilena picked him up straight from work and he came as he was.  He watched his dad both nights and during the days as well, giving Marilena a little break.  Considering that he was facing losing his dad and possibly his marriage all at once, he held up pretty well.

Friday evening was the last time I exchanged a greeting with Henry. We had adjoining rooms, so when he and his two other kids were sitting on the balcony with him, I came out with Maya and we waved and said "hola Abuelo".  He looked at us and I'm pretty sure I saw a faint smile across his face. During Maya's two hour nap, Henry was taken for a nice walk with the family.  Alex texted me a photo of them on the boardwalk.  But later when we brought him a strawberry slurpie to the room, he was asleep, and his ex-wife was caring for him.  She had brought her boyfriend, who was relaxing on the other bed, watching TV.  I was struck by the strangeness of the situation.  I don't know if I was projecting my apprehensions onto Henry, or if he actually felt the way I imagined he did, having his ex-wife there with her boyfriend.  Maybe it's a cultural thing.

At any rate, Maya and I sat down for a quick second upon Abuela's insistence.  I was worried that Maya had sucked all the flavor from the slurpie on our way back to the hotel.  She wouldn't let up until we let her hold it, and in the elevator we noticed the ice was more pink than the original red.  I looked over at Henry, sleeping with his knit hat on, under the covers, mouth slightly ajar and the spaces between his teeth reminiscent of tiny caverns.  He looked familiar in an eerie way. He didn't look like himself.  He looked like what I imagine everyone looks like when approaching death.  He had aged tremendously in the past few months.  No one would guess he was only 55.

I left the room keenly aware that something had changed on this weekend.  I wasn't sure how much it was discernible to the rest of the family, but I knew that Henry was dying.  I thought about the timing of this trip, and how it came not a moment too soon.  I thought about how this was probably his last week on earth.

That evening, after Alex, Maya, and I went to mass, the family - minus Henry and Ritchie - went out to eat.  It was my birthday.  I got gifts, I was sang to, I got dessert. What a strange juxtaposition, I thought.  On one hand, I was sad that Henry wasn't with us.  On the other hand, I was relieved he didn't have to be tempted by all the food he couldn't eat.  He hadn't been able to eat not because of some dietary restrictions.  He physically couldn't eat.  Food would inadvertently go down his esophagus and into his lungs instead of his stomach.  The cancer was blocking the correct tube - hence the need for his feeding tube.

The next morning, we took family photos.  I'm pretty sure everyone knew this was the last time we would be taking a family photo of everyone together like this.  All three siblings, both parents.  I tried again to convince Maya to say hello to Abuelo.  Give him a kiss.  Give him a hug.  Give him a high five.  Sit on his lap on the wheelchair.  Nothing.  She recoiled and buried her face into my shoulder. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't have even tried to push her past her comfort level.  Since birth, Alex and I agreed that we would respect her boundaries regarding whom she wanted to greet and how.  At least while she was a baby.  But these weren't normal circumstances, and I couldn't help but feel badly on account of Henry.  It must have felt like a rejection for his little granddaughter not to want to sit on his lap.

Technically, in Maya's defense, she did do her little "dinosaurio growl" that she started doing that week as a way to break the ice.  She didn't feel too shy to say "dinosaurio" and put up her hands like a little T-rex while growling and laughing at perfect strangers.  Generally, the adults responded in kind, and everyone got a good laugh out of it.  But this time, she said it so softly, that only I heard her, by virtue of holding her up and having just suggested it to her and therefore watching to see if she'd comply.  It didn't seem that Abuelo heard her.  Or maybe he did but not having the benefit of the context, didn't get what she was doing.  She wouldn't do it a second time.

We all left the hotel in our separate cars at roughly the same time, with the intention of stopping on the way home to have lunch together.  So it didn't even cross my mind to say goodbye to anyone.  In the car, Alex told me that his dad had said he's waiting for Maya to come around and give him a hug.  I didn't know if this meant he had hope of being around until she did, or if he had just said that for Alex's benefit.  To be honest, the very first thing that came to mind was an image of Maya wrapping her little arms around an urn with Henry's ashes in it.  After all, once on the other side, Henry won't be bothered by her toddler slights.  He won't remember any of the suffering or sadness from his earthly life.  He'll be in the presence of his Maker, and no joy or peace that we know could compare to that. But for now, I worried about how he felt.

A few hours into our journey, my mother-in-law notified us that they'd wait until they were home to eat, in order to have Salvadoran food.  It was completely out of the way for us, as we had an additional hour and a half traffic-free and on the highway once we passed their exit.  And so no goodbye joint lunch took place.

Alex was planning on taking his dad to a doctor's appointment on Tuesday, but Monday he got a frantic call from his sister.  Somehow, it came to her awareness that the doctor's office "tried to contact" Henry with the results of his pre-chemo bloodwork.  His calcium levels were very high, and he was urged to go to the emergency room.  This was apparently a voice mail left on Henry's cell phone Friday.  At first, I joined in the grumbling about how idiotic it was for them to leave a message with such urgent information and not bother looking in his chart to see that they were supposed to be contacting Marilena directly.  But then it occurred to me - had they done that, this beach trip wouldn't have happened. Not this past weekend, and not ever.

As it turns out, excess calcium in the bloodstream is related to one's bodily organs beginning to shut down.  And upon Monday's examination, that is precisely what started to happen.  Marilena was overwhelmed with grief and shock and exhaustion from trying to care for her dad while also working and parenting her daughter.  Henry started to separate himself from reality.  He stripped down to his birthday suit at home, and again later at the hospital, that time also pulling out his IV.  When Alex arrived there close to midnight, he confirmed that Henry was no longer lucid.

Over the weekend, Henry was already showing confusion as to where they were going and the like.  I had assumed it was the brain tumor affecting his memory.  And maybe it was.  But just two days later, he was simply not Henry anymore.

As it stands now, Henry is expected to be moved to a hospice tomorrow, to spend his last days there. His doctor doesn't expect him to live past Friday.  And while I normally try to take doctors' life expectancy guesses as that - guesses, under the dire circumstances, I don't doubt it.  And considering Henry's poor quality of life right now, I don't think it's a bad thing either.

Essentially, Henry's mind has already checked out.  He's been ready to cross over for a while, and he was at peace about it.  Really, these last few days of waiting for Henry's body to completely shut down are a strange transition period for his family, time for us to slowly come to terms with the immediate inevitability of Henry's death.

Last night, before Alex left to go be with his family, I texted a bunch of people requesting prayers.  I was vague except with the few people who responded asking for specifics.  Within an hour or so, over a dozen people had confirmed that they were praying.  Some didn't know what they were praying for, a few did.  It gave me a strange sense of spiritual awareness as I envisioned their prayers being lifted up, united with each other, traveling to surround Henry, Alex, and his siblings and mom.

I don't know how intercessory prayer works, but I do know that it is helping me - a mere bystander really, as the non-native Spanish speaking distant daughter-in-law - to make MY peace with the coming death of my father-in-law.  What I also hope it will do is turn Henry's death into something positive in terms of Alex's family.  I hope it will bring them closer together again.  But I also hope it will bring each of them closer to God.  Perhaps once Henry crosses over, he can start working on that himself :)

(Go here for Part Two of Henry's Crossing Over:

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