Saturday, December 15, 2007

All the King's Horses

While John lingered, Trudy and I sent each other instant messages about what to do once he died. My father was always very vocal about his wish to be cremated and to have his ashes scattered. Because of this, my mother had purchased only one burial crypt at an exclusive – and pricey - local cemetery that houses many celebrities, including Trudy’s hero, Marilyn Monroe. Trudy also insisted upon interring my grandmother there, and later, her frumpy eldest sister June. (I once asked my dad if Aunt June was a lesbian, but John laughed and said no, she was just sensible.) Aunt Ruth bought a crypt there too. Before she did, Karla suggesting swapping June out to a cheaper cemetery and letting Ruth have her spot because, “June wouldn’t have appreciated that place anyway.”

Although Trudy agreed to have John cremated, she still wished to have a viewing. I was against it. Not because I was afraid; I am used to open casket funerals. That’s how my family, on both sides, has always done it. But John had been so sick for so long, he no longer looked the way most people remembered him. He looked skinny and frail and…dead. Trudy tried to sell me on the idea. “He looks terrific. Really. Everyone is amazed at how good he looks. The last time you saw him he probably didn't have his teeth in and needed a shave. That bloat will go away when he passes. All of the fluid leaves your body. And don't forget, that machine is forcing air into his body. I really need to see him at peace and in a suit. And looking handsome.”

Before signing off, Trudy brought up placing an obituary in the L.A. and San Francisco newspapers. I told her I would write one. “You’d better start writing, so we can confirm all the facts. I really have to run. I'm going to See's to get the nurses some candy, so goodbye!”

John remained in the same stable, unconscious state until five days after his birthday, when Trudy called to tell me that he was bleeding internally. She said she had discontinued his life support, and that the doctors expected him to die within hours. Trudy waited at the hospital with her friend Sunny, who had driven into town from Malibu to escape a wildfire threatening to engulf her home.

Sunny and Trudy first met at the beauty shop they have both patronized weekly for decades. During the past couple of years, they have become very close. Sunny’s husband is a stroke victim, and Mom thought he would make a good pal for John as his Alzheimer’s began to progress. What else the two men have in common remains a mystery, since Sunny’s husband can’t really speak, and John has trouble remembering New People. I had never met Sunny, but I’d heard what a loyal friend she is, and that, by-the-way-and-not-that-it-matters, she is very wealthy.

Last Christmas Season, Trudy and Sunny went into business together as personal shoppers. Their advertisement in Beverly Hills 213 Magazine promised, “Whether it is a corporate gift basket, a jewel from Tiffany’s, or a shopping list from Costco, we are available to assist you from start to finish. We will do the shopping and wrap and deliver as specified!!” They got very few bites. The customers they did attract were too much of a bother for Trudy to accommodate, so she would IM me, asking if any of my, “out of work actor friends,” wanted to make a quick buck driving around town picking up some orders. I don’t know where Trudy got the idea I have any, “out of work actor friends.”

After a sleepless night clutching the phone, I learned that by morning John was stable, due to the dialysis Trudy had ordered, once again. Karla consulted her family doctor. He explained that dialysis was a life support measure preventing John’s organs from shutting down. He predicted that with dialysis, a feeding tube, the biPAP machine, and the medication he was receiving for his blood pressure, John could hang on for weeks. He continued that renal failure was not a painful way to die, and was certainly preferable to the unknown host of infections that would eventually befall him. Karla called Mom to relate what her doctor had said, but Trudy was aloof and quickly ended the conversation.

The following day, Karla called Kindred again to check on John’s condition. I was regretting my decision not to go back to see him, and needed constant reassurance that he was still unconscious, not lying there in a fever, calling my name. Dad’s nurse, Jennifer, told Karla that John was stable, but unresponsive. Karla asked if he was puffy. Jennifer answered that he was, but the dialysis scheduled for later that day would help. Karla expressed her confusion and learned that contrary to what Trudy had told us, there was never an order to take our father off of life support. In fact, according to his chart, John was to have dialysis three times a week. Against all our wishes, Trudy was keeping him barely alive.

Having refused to return to the hospital, I chose instead simply to lie curled in the fetal position on my living room floor in a sea of balled up tissues, clutching a pillow and a bottle of whatever, waiting for the ax to fall. Karla may have sensed that I was at the end of my rope when she insisted we get out of town for a while.

Two days later, I was on a plane bound for Karla's house in West Virginia with her and my concerned brother-in-law, Jeff, who offered me Xanax at regular intervals throughout the flight. As soon as we landed, we all had emails from Trudy telling us John was off of life support and on a morphine drip. He would be dead in somewhere between two hours and two days.

The next morning, one of John’s doctors called me because Trudy wasn’t answering her phone. He said that John was bleeding from his mouth, which was making it difficult for him to breathe. The order not to resuscitate was vague, so he needed permission to clear his airway with a tube. I asked him if this tube would delay the end. The doctor refused to predict how long John would survive and told me it could be days, or even weeks. I couldn’t stand the thought of my father choking to death, but I couldn’t bear the thought of him lying there half alive for much longer either. I hung up and called for Karla in hysterics. She got the doctor back on the phone. He explained that the tube would not breathe for John, it would only make his breathing more comfortable. Karla OK’d the procedure and asked the doctor to kick up John’s morphine dose.

After that, we got dressed and drove to a drugstore where we bought Jeff cough drops from a woman with no front teeth, and then I went for a run. I have no recollection of how I spent the rest of the day. At about 10pm, the phone rang. My sister answered, looked up at me and said, “He’s gone.”

A few minutes later Karla called Leo to give him the news. He and Susan were in San Francisco for a convention. They were both smashed, having just returned from the Buena Vista, where they toasted John with Irish Coffees. The first thing out of Leo's mouth was, "How is Mary?" Next, Karla called her son back in L.A. to tell him his grandfather had died. Right away he asked, "How is Mary?"

And then, Karla called Trudy. It was a brief conversation. After she hung up, with some prodding, Karla reluctantly revealed that Trudy’s only comment to her had been, “How could Mary leave town when her father was so sick.”

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